Published January 27, 2017
Among the abundant luxuries available in our cities today, none is more richly pleasing to the addict or more cheaply obtained than culture. Take London. In the National Gallery you can stand – without paying a penny – before some of the most beautiful works of art ever created. In the Albert Hall, for a few pounds and a bit of queuing, you can listen during the season of Promenade concerts to the greatest orchestras from all over the world. At Covent Garden and the English National Opera you can attend, for a fraction of the real cost, the most extravagant productions of the operatic masterpieces, emerging with your senses so saturated that the champagne supper afterwards tastes of nothing.
A matter of taste
But what exactly is culture? Those for whom culture has been a long-term emotional investment feel they know what true culture is, and know that it is a thing of supreme value. But when we try to define it we end up like the poet Matthew Arnold who, in a celebrated essay, Culture and Anarchy, published in 1865, wrote of culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said’. To which the obvious response is: in what respect and in comparison with what? And what’s wrong with second best?
We cannot lay down a law for popular taste or forbid people to enjoy what appeals to them – not unless we can find some serious moral argument that would justify censorship. But there are certain general principles that everyone can assent to. For example, we all recognise the difference between means and ends. We know that we choose the means to our ends, but also that we choose our ends. We are active guardians of our own lives, aiming not just to hit the target that we have chosen, but also to choose the right target. How do we learn to do that? The answer is culture – both the culture of everyday life and the ‘high’ culture, as it is sometimes called, in which life becomes fully conscious of itself as an object of judgment. The arts form the core of high culture: it is why we teach them, and why we encourage people to take an interest in them. They are doors into the examined life and, as Socrates famously said, ‘the unexamined life is not a life for a human being’.
Not your everyday…
By everyday culture I mean the customs, interests and ways of behaving that we spontaneously share – manners, meal-times, ways of dressing; popular songs and TV soaps; festivals and holidays. These form the web of society, the many threads of which we hardly notice in peace-time, though they pull together in war, which is why so many of those who experienced the last war look back on it with nostalgia, as a time of togetherness and trust.
High culture is not like that: it is an elaborate artefact. It depends upon leisure – both the leisure of those who produce it and the leisure of those who enjoy it. Great artists, writers and composers are people with an urge to create. And they make sacrifices in order to do so. But, in every period of history, benefactors have stepped in to make those sacrifices possible. The Florence of Botticelli, Lippi and Donatello was made possible by the patronage of the Medici dukes; our musical tradition has depended at every moment on aristocratic and ecclesiastical commissions. Monarchs not only take an interest in poets and painters but also employ them or offer them pensions, as King George III offered a pension to Dr Johnson. To think that a high culture could really exist without patronage of that kind is to ignore the hard work and dedication required by any serious work of art. Of course, there are artists and writers who subsidise themselves – as Wallace Stevens subsidised writing poetry through his work as director of an insurance company or Matthew Arnold, for that matter, through his work as inspector of schools. But they are the exceptions.
Seeing through Shakespeare
Still, what does high culture do for us? We can see the point of scientific and medical advances, since they offer knowledge that will benefit us all, even if we do not understand it. But how does the person with no ear benefit from an expensive symphony orchestra, or a person with no feeling for verse benefit from an obscure poetry festival that survives from an Arts Council grant? Why is it good that such things exist, even for those who are not interested in them?
Scientific and technical knowledge may confer collective mastery over the means to our ends. But it will not bring us any nearer to the ends themselves. It will not tell us which goals to pursue or which things to value. Shakespeare portrays, in the character of King Lear, the slow crumbling of a vain old man as he discovers the difference between real and fake devotion. Shakespeare does not merely awaken our sympathy. He shows how the fault and its remedy lie deep within ourselves. He is helping us to know our own emotions, and to distinguish the ones that raise us up from those that drag us down.
Similar things can be said about all great works of art, and those who are moved by them have a beauty and completion in their lives that is hard to obtain in any other way. Art makes us conscious of what we are and what we can hope to be, and it does so through moments of revelation in which all our being is aroused. Surely, we are tempted to think, it is better that the world contains people who are in that way alert to their condition. Certainly Shakespeare thought so:
The man that hath no music in himself,
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems, and spoils.
The motions of his spirit are dull as night,
And his affections dark as Erebus.
Let no such man be trusted.
(from The Merchant of Venice)
I grew up in a household without music. It was only by chance that we acquired a piano and a wind-up gramophone. I might have gone through life without ever discovering this art form that cast an enchantment over my days that has been equalled by little else. Aged 14, quite by accident, I discovered the soul of Mozart. It was soon obvious to me that Mozart’s music contained a kind of knowledge that could never be obtained from a psychology textbook or even from a prayer book or sacred text. I made this knowledge my own – even though I could not tell you what it is, but only play it to you on the piano. But this knowledge guides me through life. Were the ability to respond to Mozart to be forgotten, I know that the world would be a much poorer place. We would have lost one avenue to the ‘knowledge of ends’. Those that have this knowledge will do whatever they can to perpetuate it. They will teach it to their children; they will put pressure on schools and universities to do the same. They will do this not for their own good but for the common good, knowing that something necessary to human life is at stake.
What is that necessary thing? We can take a lesson here from the Jewish idea of the Sabbath. The book of Genesis tells us that, on the seventh day of creation, God rested, observed the result of his labours, and saw that it was good. This, the Jews say, we should all do – put aside a day in the week when we rest from our labours and stop being merely busy about our purposes, but learn to reflect on them and judge between them. If we do not do this then our life remains one of means without meaning, endless technological mastery, but without a goal beyond the technique.
High culture is the Sabbath of busy people, the moment of sitting down and listening, seeing, thinking, so that meaning can dawn. As long as places and times exist where this can be done there is hope in the world. Wordsworth wrote that ‘getting and spending, we lay waste our powers’. But when we stand back from the mill of consumption and look on the turbulent waters with the eye of an artist, we are rested in our hearts and our powers are restored. People who do this are the friends of order in a world of entropy, for they see, in the depths of the swirling pool, the still point where meaning lies. They cannot describe what they see, and that is why the highest forms of art exist – not to describe the meaning, but to reveal it, as the loveliness of the world was revealed on that first imagined Sabbath.
So culture – which at first sight may seem to be a luxury – turns out, after all, to be an all-time necessity.
Roger Scruton is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.