When Was Culture Invented?

Daniel E. Ritchie

Summer 2022

Imagine that a time machine has set you down in England in the late 14th century, and you bump into Geoffrey Chaucer just as an apple falls from a tree. Before you can exclaim "Sir Isaac Newton!" Chaucer explains what you've seen. "The ground and the apple partake of the element of earth," he says, "which means the apple has a 'kindly enclyning' for its natural element below. Hanging in the tree, in the higher element of air, had been unnatural for the apple all along." You're dumbfounded at Chaucer's explanation. What about gravity? But try as you might, you cannot drive into his mind the fact that the mass of the earth exerts a force upon the apple. You return to the 21st century shaking your head: If narrow-minded people like Chaucer helped forge our culture, it's no wonder things are as mad as they are today.

This fantasy is harmless and obviously flawed, but it illustrates a contemporary assumption that is not so obviously yet equally flawed — and much more harmful. We encounter it daily in our media and in our educational institutions. It is the assumption that the people and institutions of the past may be fairly evaluated against our contemporary concept of "culture." This is not merely an anachronistic, political mistake; the problems are upstream from politics — and deeper, too.

The truth is that "culture," as a conceptual framework for understanding other times and societies, simply didn't exist in any general sense until the 20th century. Failing to perceive this has four damaging consequences. First, it distorts our encounter with the past with the false assumption that "culture" has always been — or should have been — part of everyone's mental furniture. Second, it diminishes the potential for sharing, and perhaps assimilating, cultural elements across racial and ethnic lines. Third, it keeps us from noticing the reemergence of a bundle of assumptions we might group under the term "civilization" — the very concept that "culture" largely supplanted. Finally, it disconnects the civilizational ideal of progress from the practices of actual cultures — particularly those cultures whose highest values are loyalty and sanctity, to use the terms of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt.

In the name of progressive values, cosmopolitans and global citizens reimpose the very categories that "culture" had sought to displace. Consciously or not, they favor advanced, egalitarian societies over more primitive or traditional ones. Consequently the current cosmopolitan vision has many of the same drawbacks as the old ideal of "civilization": It lacks self-criticism, and it appears exclusive, unrealistic, and judgmental. An awareness of these dangers can help us see why we need both civilization and culture — and why they must often be at odds with each other.


My students often can't get past Alexis de Tocqueville's designation of the Native Americans as "savages." His term for the African ancestors of American slaves — "barbarians" — doesn't help, either. At every Thanksgiving, we're told that American settlers from the Puritans through Laura Ingalls Wilder disrespected the cultures of Native peoples. And how about Shakespeare's Caliban, whose name is thought to be based on the term "Carib," and whom the play describes as a savage and deformed slave? Surely those who use The Tempest to criticize the colonialist exploitation of West Indian cultures have a point.

Our reactions to these modes of expressions make some sense. But how does your reaction change when you learn that the notion of culture as such hadn't been invented at the time of the events or expressions you're critiquing? I don't mean there were no systems "of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes toward life," to quote Clifford Geertz's famous definition of the term; I mean that virtually no one conceived culture in Geertz's way until the late 1800s — and for the most part, not until much later.

The change began slowly. Eighteenth-century philologists played a leading role through their study of non-European languages, as James Turner explains in Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities. Around 1770, shortly before he became governor-general of India, Warren Hastings argued for establishing a professorship in Persian at Oxford on grounds that show a remarkable cultural sensitivity:

It is not unreasonable to suppose that the powers of the mind are distributed in equal perfection to the whole race of mankind, however differently cultivated....[A] powerful argument may be drawn of the advantages which might be derived to every branch of knowledge, from an acquaintance with the manners, customs, and practice of the most remote nations.

The most notable of these early scholars was William Jones, a pioneer of "Orientalism" whose research uncovered the shared origin for Sanskrit, Persian, Greek, Latin, English, and dozens of other languages. In 1786, Jones praised the Sanskrit language in a speech to the Asiatick Society (in Calcutta) as "more perfect than the Greek, more copious [rich in vocabulary] than the Latin," and proposed a "common source" for all three.

Most of us would likely regard this conclusion as a step toward the modern — or even the "civilized" — understanding of culture. But instead the critique of Jones and other Orientalists by literature professor Edward Said serves as the ultimate example of how progressive assumptions distort the past and reduce our access to diverse cultures.

Said's extraordinarily influential 1978 book Orientalism uses Jones to illustrate his description of Orientalism as "a Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority over the Orient." Yet it's hard to see how Jones's goal was to "rope off [and] domesticate the Orient" (in Said's words) when his key achievement was to embrace its languages as belonging to the same family as those of Europe. Nor can I detect racism or domination in Hastings (Jones's superior), who believed that every people on earth — decidedly including brown-skinned people — had something to contribute to every branch of knowledge. In a masterful critique of the thesis Said pioneered, Michael Curtis attributes its appeal to an "unwarrantable self-abasement," Michel Foucault's concept of dominating the "other," and essentialist readings of both the West and the East. He buries Said in the decent obscurity of a footnote.

At the risk of being called an optimist, I have some hope that these ideological distortions may give way to a more authentic understanding of the past. At a memorable conference on 18th-century studies a few years ago, I recall that a couple of younger scholars began their papers by saying something like this: "I know that the theory of Orientalism predicts thus and so, but instead I have found...." — at which point the speaker would convey new knowledge in defiance of Said's theory. And beneath the ruins of that theory, we might just recover the real roots of "culture."

When you ask sociologists about the concept of culture, they often point to Edward Tylor's famous, long-lived definition from the opening sentence of his 1871 work Primitive Culture: "Culture or Civilization...is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society." This definition is revealing: Even as Tylor's work inaugurates a new understanding of "culture," he uses the term as nearly synonymous with "civilization." And at the time, in fact, nearly every European and American thinker had "civilization" in mind when discussing — and often ignoring — what we now call "culture."

From the late Enlightenment up through Tylor's work and beyond, scholars generally assumed a three- to five-stage model of universal history, progressing from savagery to barbarism on up to civilization itself. "Civilization" thus spread the promise of global progress, often — but not always — sweetened with the odor of European superiority. As early as the 1790s, German philosopher Johann Gottfried von Herder discerned that the flowers of Western society had festered — that the "very thought of a superior European culture is a blatant insult to the majesty of Nature." But his critique, along with its implied preference for an understanding of diverse cultures, had little purchase in the English-speaking world until much later.

Not until the 20th century did many sociologists seriously try to rid "culture" of the inegalitarian elements of "civilization." But they did so at the cost of creating the problem of cultural relativism, which teaches that all social modes of constructing knowledge and meaning have a claim to equal validity, if not to truth.

Yet another famous definition of culture illustrates — and perhaps finesses — the relativism problem: According to Alfred Kroeber and Clyde Kluckhohn's 1952 book, Culture, the term refers to the "patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievements of human groups, including their embodiments in artifacts." Culture thus understood rids itself of the "savagery-barbarism-civilization" continuum, but who's to say what patterns and achievements constitute positive cultural achievements as opposed to merely "distinctive" ones? To take this down to the popular level, think of Star Trek's many invocations of the "Prime Directive": the principle of non-interference in the natural development of interstellar societies. The inner tensions of that principle made for some memorable plots by revealing the fourth problem I've mentioned — the conflict between moral progress and the imperative to respect the practices of actual cultures. But resolving that conflict was beyond even Spock and Kirk.


The English term "culture" gestated for many decades in the womb of the term "civilization." In that dark place, its Victorian development paralleled the contemporary evolutionary belief that ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny: The savagery-to-barbarism-to-civilization continuum tracked along with that of salamander-to-chick-to-man.

Much earlier, and absent the pretensions and blindness of science, Samuel Johnson's 1755 Dictionary had noted that "savagery" and "barbarism" were seen as precursors to civilized humanity. He illustrates "savage," for instance, with a 1692 quotation that itemizes the savage's lack of metals, agriculture, houses, revealed religion, and the arts and sciences. Johnson resisted defining "civilization" altogether, specifically rejecting the word in 1772 for the fourth edition of his Dictionary. The closest he came was "civility," which means "freedom from barbarity." For Johnson, there are no stages.

It took that pinnacle of modernity, the Encyclopædia Britannica in its 11th edition in 1911, to produce an elaborate classification of the three stages of savagery, barbarism, and civilization, along with three discrete sub-stages for each. Though Tylor's work of 40 years prior is mentioned in its bibliography, its significance is hardly appreciated. Other key figures in sociology and anthropology — such as Émile Durkheim, Ferdinand Tönnies, and Max Weber — go unmentioned.

As late as 1893, when the relevant volume of Oxford's New English Dictionary appeared, the most modern definition of culture was "the intellectual side of civilization." This definition reveals the immense influence of Matthew Arnold, whose Culture and Anarchy had offered a compelling account of culture as the cosmopolitan ideal of "sweetness and light" toward which all true religion, art, science, philosophy, and morality point. Only in 1933 did the supplement to the Dictionary (now rechristened the Oxford English Dictionary, or OED) illustrate culture with reference to Tylor's 1871 work. Still, its definition of the term — the "civilization of a people (especially at a certain stage of its development in history)" — was rather odd. The OED conveyed no sense of culture as a complex of patterns or symbols that carry social meaning; stages and development still ruled.

But all was not sweetness and light in the developing concept of "civilization." The cosmopolitanism imagined by Arnold's successors, including Henry Smith Williams (the American author of the Britannica article), is often filled with omissions and claims that betray its limitations — its cultural limitations, we would say today. The most ominous of these is the increased association of civilizational progress with the advancement of "the race," along with the practice of eugenics.

Britannica's "Civilization" takes up seven confident pages that detail the characteristics of savagery, barbarism, and civilization itself. Savagery inaugurates the civilizing process when language emerges. It progresses with the inventions of fire and the bow and arrow. Barbarism arises with pottery and advances with the domestication of animals and ironworking. Civilization proper is marked by writing and reaches its high point through four inventions, three of which Williams attributes to the Far East: the printing press, gunpowder, the mariner's compass, and paper. Absent is any consideration of a people's stories or symbols. Marriage, perhaps the most basic of human institutions, is ignored. Also passed over in silence are a society's divisions of time into a calendar whose rhythms and festivals provide cultural formation. Most striking of all, Durkheim's 1912 insight that religion largely forms a group's social reality — and indeed, the human mind itself — seems a century away rather than just a single year into the future. Instead, what links all this civilizational progress, according to Williams, is "increased average working efficiency," for "the economic interpretation is the most searching interpretation of history at its every stage."

Coming just three years before the Great War, the Britannica article voices robust hope in the secular progress that advanced civilizations have made: The greatest modern improvements have arisen from "new scientific knowledge"; their essence is the "understand[ing] that the word ‘supernatural' involves a contradiction of terms and has in fact no meaning." The civilized cosmopolite is thereby freed "from the last ghost of superstition": religion. As we move to the "broad view" of cosmopolitanism from the "insularity" of nationalism, allegiance to country will also decline.

To be sure, the article nowhere advances the claim that people of color are inferior or primitive. Nor does it associate race with color. It condemns the 19th-century debate over whether "the Australian settlers [were permitted to] shoot the natives as food for their dogs" by observing that "[t]o-day the thesis that all mankind are one brotherhood needs no defense." Still, it identifies our biggest civilizational problem as "race suicide" — a concept that would soon be put to racist uses. (Think of the rants of Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby about a dozen years later.)

It's hardly a ringing defense of Smith to note that the "paupers, defectives and criminals" who are hindering civilization may have white skin as well as brown. Moreover, his solution to this hindrance, unspoken but clearly indicated, is eugenics. "We may well believe," he writes, "that the cosmopolite of the future, aided by science, will find rational means to remedy this strange illogicality." The Britannica article concludes with an ominous call for an "organic betterment of the race through wise application of the laws of heredity."


Even if it's unfair to assume that earlier thinkers should have our understanding of culture, it's hard to blame anyone for decrying the uses to which they often put terms like "savagery," "barbarism," and even "civilization." But these words have since become triggers, and that is a problem. Seeing or hearing them produces such powerful emotional responses that many people simply dismiss the source altogether. Without attempting to understand it, they ostracize it, calling attention to their own righteousness in the process.

This response diminishes the culture we share in America and the West more generally, regardless of our race or ethnicity. It is creating a climate in which older texts are ransacked for indicators of racism or sexism. Thus Flannery O'Connor has been defenestrated by a poorly researched article in the New Yorker for having confessed that she harbored racist thoughts — never mind that she satirizes the hypocrisy of a character with such thoughts in her story "Revelation." C. S. Lewis receives the same treatment for the last of his Chronicles of Narnia, where the antagonists (the Calormenes) resemble Muslim Arabs — never mind that one of the most sympathetic characters is a Calormene whose religious sincerity leads him to salvation. Similarly condemned is Mary Rowlandson for her captivity narrative of 1682, which details the killing of a third of her Puritan neighbors by Native Americans in "King Philip's War" — never mind that her deepest concern is whether her own Puritan society has lost its faith. The issues these authors raise — righteousness versus hypocrisy, salvation outside of one's own religious tradition, and the spiritual integrity of our society — are of abiding concern to us. The refusal to read authors who treat these issues honestly impoverishes our culture.

It also diminishes many older texts by people of color who have lived in the West since the Enlightenment. The categories of savagery, barbarism, and civilization were part of their self-understanding, too. Indeed, these categories were central to their claim that they shared with white people the elements of a common civilization and were fully capable of contributing to it.

To see this truth at work, one need only listen to Olaudah Equiano's Interesting Narrative — which was immediately popular upon publication in 1789 and is often taught today — as it recounts a slave's journey from his capture in Africa through his servitude in the Caribbean and onto his purchase of emancipation. Early in the book, Equiano uses the same categories as Johnson to controvert the theory that barbarous peoples are fit only for slavery:

Let the polished and haughty European recollect, that his ancestors were once, like the Africans, uncivilized, and even barbarous. Did Nature make them inferior to their sons? and should they too have been made slaves? Every rational mind answers, No.

Leaping ahead to 1900, we find the same sentiment beneath the autobiographical essays of the young Dakota writer Zitkala-Ša. In the Atlantic Monthly, she derides America's mere "semblance of civilization" and condemns the "worse than barbarian rudeness" that met her at an oratorical contest. Yet for all the righteous judgment in these early works, she ultimately campaigned for full American citizenship for Native Americans in later years. And in another essay, she offers Native folktales as part of all Americans' identity — that of "the blue-eyed little patriot" as well as "the black-haired aborigine." The content of these legends, she says, "strongly suggests our near kinship with the rest of humanity." Likewise, Equiano's dominating theme — his emancipation from slavery — isn't complete until he reaches English shores and produces a book that establishes his British identity. For both him and Zitkala-Ša, the goal is civilizational progress rooted in a particular Western country. And despite their fraught relationships with Britain and America, they do not desire a culture circumscribed by their race, ethnicity, or society of origin.

W.E.B. Du Bois and Ralph Ellison sound similar notes. In his great chapter on the "Training of Black Men" in The Souls of Black Folk, published in 1903, Du Bois uses "civilization" and "culture" almost interchangeably. He asserts, for instance, that "the present social separation and acute race-sensitiveness must eventually yield to the influences of culture, as the South grows civilized." And this task, he asserts, "will demand broad-minded, upright men, both white and black, and in its final accomplishment American civilization will triumph." In contrast to the barbaric and backward social setting from which America must emerge, Du Bois famously ends the chapter by invoking key figures of Western culture:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color-line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls....I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension....Is this the life you grudge us, O knightly America?

Ellison's brilliant 1986 collection of essays, Going to the Territory, has a different feel but a similar aim: raising our common civilization to a higher level. And he, too, offers a theory of development from less to more civilized. He describes the novel as the "creation of total civilizations" (referring specifically to "Paris" and "England"), and he fully acknowledges that "it was the existence of human slavery and colonial exploitation which made possible many of the brighter achievements of modern civilization." But if any writer represents the opposite of cancel culture, it is Ellison. He insists that it was "through this process of cultural appropriation (and misappropriation) that Englishmen, Europeans, Africans, and Asians became Americans." Even the Pilgrims, he observes, "began by appropriating the agricultural, military, and meteorological lore of the Indians."

Ellison's account also registers African Americans' appropriation of the English language and "the biblical legends of the ancient Hebrews." By the same token, we might suggest that the Plains Indians "became Americans" by appropriating the Spaniards' horses and the traders' beads for their distinctive modes of hunting, war, and textile ornamentation. This exchange of folklore, theology, language, and dance calls forth some of Ellison's most energetic prose. "[O]ne of the most precious of American freedoms," he writes, "is our freedom to broaden our personal culture by absorbing the cultures of others." "[W]hatever else the true American is," he claims, "he is also somehow black."

Ellison brings this home with a tour de force on the mixture of cultures that created American music:

[W]e are, by definition and by the processes of democratic cultural integration, the inheritors, creators, and creations of a culture of cultures....If we put the blues, bluegrass music, English folk songs, et cetera, together with Afro-American rhythms and gospel shouts, we have — God help us — first rock and now "funk," that most odoriferous of musical(?) styles.

There is a profound difference between treating the past as a syllabus of errors and seeing it as a heritage in which we live, move, and have our being. Neither Du Bois nor Ellison imply that we simply accept or imitate the past — how could they? But they acknowledge it — all of it — as their past. It is the material out of which their own contributions to a shared American culture must be made.


Many progressive critics of Western civilization take aim at its arrogant self-confidence. They like to quote T. B. Macaulay's "Minute on [Indian] Education," published in 1835, where he claims that "a single shelf of a good European library [is] worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia." That's damning enough, though fixating on such statements overlooks the rich vein of self-criticism within Western culture itself. Think of the hero of Aldous Huxley's Brave New World — "the savage" who rejects civilization and reinvents ritual sacrifice as a means of reclaiming his humanity. Or recall Jonathan Swift's Lemuel Gulliver, who calmly points out that "those countries, which I have described, do not appear to have any desire of being conquered, and enslaved, murdered or driven out, by colonies." Sudhir Chella Rajan — an Indian scholar — has pointed out that Macaulay was entering a dispute about which languages should be taught to lead India "towards a more cosmopolitan outlook." In recommending English over Sanskrit and Arabic, Macaulay was drawing on the example of England: Where would we be, he wrote, if English schools had taught nothing but "Anglo-Saxon, and romances in Norman-French" rather than Greek and Latin?

The critics rightly observe that the three-stage theory of civilization often blinded Macaulay and others to the profound and beautiful ways in which pre-modern or non-Western cultures have made meaning. And yet the progressive analysis shares many structural elements with the very object of its censure. Often the critics promote versions of diversity and equality that (they believe) are universal in scope — or "cosmopolitan," to recall the words of Macaulay's Indian defender. Their critiques often claim that our own heritage lacks desirable values that are richly illustrated in other cultures — the high place of Ojibwe women, for instance, or the extended-family solidarity in African societies, or the imaginative openness of the Celts, or the environmental sensitivity of the peoples of the rain forest. These values, predictably, are part of the progressive vision for the future — for everyone's future.

All of this ends up looking like cosmopolitanism — or the "culture of the world," to quote UNESCO's 1954 Hague Convention — which is structurally akin to "civilization." In other words, the concept of civilization that critics disparage as inherently racist or ethnocentric has been adapted with little structural change to their preferred vision of our collective destiny. Like the advocates of civilization, they are animated less by an actual culture than by an image of a future community — the solution to our tormented "need for universal union," as Ivan Karamazov puts it in Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Grand Inquisitor." Their global citizen, like the author of the 1911 Britannica article, downplays the way true cultural diversity acknowledges the divisions among societies. Instead, like enlightened members of a global republic of letters, they assume that our reason enables us to pick and choose from a menu of mores.

"'Take their ways if you need them,'" the Ojibwe grandmother in Louise Erdrich's Birchbark House counsels her granddaughter, "'but don't forget your own. You are Anishinabe....[Y]ou sweat-bath yourself clean everyday, even jump in the freezing lake, a thing that the chimookomanug [white people] do not do. My girl, don't become like them.'" Erdrich's book gratifies the cosmopolitan assumptions of her likely readers while simultaneously inviting them inside a very particular, indigenous culture. It's a wonderful book, but it contains an unacknowledged tension: Without the arrogant tone of Macaulay, it conveys the progressive assumption — embedded in the term "progressive" itself — that the reader should reject a benighted civilization and select the elements that will construct a higher, global civilization. It doesn't matter if you call members of that benighted civilization "savage" or "chimookomanug": You don't want to be like them.

I see this tension most clearly in my students' response to Muslim novelists. In Monica Ali's brilliant 2003 book Brick Lane, a Bangladeshi immigrant to London named Nazneen undergoes a social and sexual awakening in her new home. My students are quick to endorse Nazneen's critique of life in the council flats: its individualism, its corrosive effect on family ties, its residents' boorishness, materialism, and racism. And Ali compellingly presents this through Nazneen's perspective as "a girl from the village." Yet Nazneen ultimately comes to embrace the freedoms that modern London gives her and her daughters, and she refuses to return to Bangladesh with her husband. This is compelling, too.

One student reconciled the tension by explaining that Nazneen's insistence on a woman's agency is a matter of human rights, while her critique of London life was rooted in her cultural upbringing. Halfway through this explanation, however, she began laughing at her own argument. Is it really possible, she wondered, to appeal to human rights in eliminating the strands of inequality from Nazneen's upbringing without disturbing the other patterns that make up the complex whole of her culture? To broaden the question, in endorsing Nazneen's individual agency, aren't we acknowledging that there exists a cosmopolitan civilizational ideal that is superior to Bangladeshi culture?

The best writers on cosmopolitanism are aware of this tension, though I doubt they have unraveled its intricacies. For instance, the cosmopolitanism endorsed by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his book of that name is a "partial" one: It embraces a partiality to one's kin and place of origin while acknowledging one's duties to the rest of humanity. He writes lovingly of his father, a Ghanaian patriot, who "never saw a conflict between local partialities and a universal morality." This same partiality underlies Appiah's preferred metaphor of truth as a broken mirror: Each culture, he tells us, has part of the truth, but only the "counter-cosmopolitans" (e.g., religious fundamentalists, whether Christian or Muslim, and Marxists) believe they have the whole. Still, though we have only a shard, it is nevertheless a shard of the truth, and it is our job to search for more of the truth through "conversation" — the crucial cosmopolitan activity for Appiah. This means that he rejects cultural relativism: The relativist simply accepts all cultural expressions and sees no need to discuss them.

While there is much to admire in Appiah's book, it enacts the same contradictions that caused my student to laugh at her own intellectual sleight of hand. In defending Nok sculptures as a global heritage and not primarily the heritage of modern Nigerians, Appiah quotes approvingly from the UNESCO Convention's language on "the culture of the world." Nigeria properly exercises trusteeship over them, he explains, but "the Nok sculptures belong in the deepest sense to all of us....[For it's not] peoples who experience and value art; it's men and women."

But is "the culture of the world" really a culture? The phrase sounds more like a description of Appiah's own cosmopolitanism, which he describes as an ethical concept founded on pluralism, the acknowledgement of fallibilism, and the commitment to conversation. In short, it sounds like a new version of "civilization" — the mirror of truth restored, to return to Appiah's metaphor. It is at once universal and superior to all cultures.

The problem is that the cosmopolitan ethos, as found in able writers like Appiah, Martha Nussbaum, and V. S. Naipaul, is that of the museum, the media, and the university. Unlike the Nok, who (pace Appiah) no doubt created and valued their sculptures as a people, cosmopolitans value art as individual men and women. For the cosmopolitan, art — along with education — stands in for religion, and both are valued for their conceptual power abstracted from the web of religious practices, calendrical rhythms, myths, symbols, customs, holidays, and laws that make up a culture. In visiting the cosmopolis for the first time, a soul whose identity is shaped by an actual culture is likely to discover himself as a "young barbarian just come to the capital of the world," as Czeslaw Milosz puts it. Reflecting on his earlier years at the Sorbonne in "Bypassing Rue Descartes," Milosz writes:

We were many, from Jassy and Koloshvar, Wilno and Bucharest, Saigon and Marrakesh,
Ashamed to remember the customs of our homes,
About which nobody here should ever be told....
Soon enough, many from Jassy and Koloshvar, or Saigon or Marrakesh
Would be killed because they wanted to abolish the customs of their homes.
Soon enough, their peers were seizing power
In order to kill in the name of the universal, beautiful ideas....
As to my heavy sins, I remember one most vividly:
How, one day, walking on a forest path along a stream,
I pushed a rock down onto a water snake coiled in the grass.
And what I have met with in life was the just punishment
Which reaches, sooner or later, the breaker of a taboo.

It is the civilized breaker of taboos, not their barbarian upholder, who is capable of the cruelties perpetrated by the intellectuals in Milosz's poem. Edmund Burke had seen this danger in the French Revolution when he embraced "the generosity and dignity of thinking of the fourteenth century" and informed his enlightened French correspondent that he and his fellow Englishmen had not yet "subtilized ourselves into savages."

Cosmopolitanism, in short, has the same structural problems as "civilization": It is elitist, incapable of sustaining a real culture, and unable to perceive its shortcomings and propensity to violence. Even so powerful an advocate of cosmopolitanism as Nussbaum has come to see the "dark side of Stoic thought," which provides the underpinning for many theories of global citizenship. She had earlier celebrated cosmopolitanism as morally preferable to local attachments for its "allegiance to...the moral community made up by the humanity of all human beings." But in a moving 2008 essay, she acknowledged the price of devaluing "particular attachments" to actual nations. Admittedly that's not the same as our attachments to a culture, but it overlaps culture in many respects. Ultimately, Nussbaum was convinced that uncompromising cosmopolitanism makes human life "empty of meaning for most of us."

Think about that paradox for a moment: Buying into cosmopolitanism, which many progressives consider the most powerful, reasonable outcome of the moral life, renders life meaningless. In her reconsideration, Nussbaum conceded that national sentiment "is also a way of making the mind bigger, calling it...toward a set of values connected to a decent common life." To achieve this decency, every nation requires powerful symbols, historical narratives, and appealing rhetoric. But she gets to "ought" — the moral basis for such cultural goods — only in relation to their service to universal humanity. "Human beings ought to cultivate patriotic sentiment," she argues, "as a basis for global concern."

This doesn't exactly damn patriotism with faint praise, but it repeats another systemic failure of "civilization": It fails to locate social values within particular cultures. Robert Frost had it right: "[B]efore we're international/We're national and act as nationals." And even before that, we're local and neighborly, with our own lines of separation as well as our own modes of community. In "Mending Wall," Frost saw himself in both the neighbor — the "old-stone savage" who declares "[g]ood fences make good neighbors" — and in the narrator, who wants "to know/What I was walling in or walling out."


In promoting Black Power, H. Rap Brown rejected Martin Luther King, Jr.'s non-violence as a kind of alien force in America. It wasn't part of our culture, he claimed. It is violence, he memorably asserted in 1967, that is "as American as cherry pie." Brown had a point. But didn't King also nurture a strand of the American tradition that extends from Quakers such as John Woolman down to Dorothy Day? Isn't it present in the spiritual whose singer vows to "lay down my sword and shield, down by the riverside"? In fact, by weaving Mahatma Gandhi into the American tapestry, didn't King achieve an advance — a civilizational advance — over the tradition invoked by Brown?

We need both "culture" and "civilization": Culture is where we and our neighbors live, where we find and make meaning, while civilization gives us the promise of progress, both material and moral. And yet attempts to sequester the two in completely distinct categories will always fail. The 1989 edition of the OED illustrates their continued, confusing interdependence: It nods to the current sociological understanding of "culture" as a "whole complex of learned behaviour" that includes tradition, customs, and artistic achievements, but it ultimately throws up its hands in a parenthetical aside. "In many contexts, esp. in Sociology," the parenthetical reads, "it is not possible to separate this sense from sense 5a" — its 1893 definition of culture as "the intellectual side of civilization."

Sociologists have unquestionably advanced our appreciation of earlier and non-Western societies by inventing culture. Few today will use "savage" or "barbaric" to describe an entire culture, except perhaps in criticizing our own culture's shortcomings. But when we work for any form of improvement, whether in a progressive or conservative direction, it's because we regard something in our culture as wanting, backward, or even barbaric, compared to our vision of a better civilization.

Knowing about the history of "culture" and "civilization" won't just increase our empathy for earlier writers; it can also help us appreciate the ongoing, essential tension between the two. It can remind us of the limits of each. It can tamp down the antagonisms between assimilating new cultural practices and preserving identity, and between cultural appropriation and respect. It can restore hope in a shared American or Western culture across racial and ethnic lines. And it can inspire even larger civilizational efforts born of our religious or philosophical commitments.

It may be important to know about gravity as a force, but who feels compelled to understand epicycles, phlogiston, and the ether? "Culture," however, is different. It is a force that engages us every day. Our human connections make us want to understand Ojibwe customs with our mind, Muslim devotional practices with our heart, and the worldview that guided Chaucer's pilgrims with our soul. It's who we are.

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday precisely because it faces these antagonisms and deals with them through song, worship, and food. We may never find a conceptual formula to satisfy everyone regarding the Pilgrims' attitudes toward the Native Americans, but who can argue with turkey, prayers of gratitude to the Creator, and a song like "Now Thank We All Our God"? That hymn, written by a German and translated by an Englishwoman, implores God to "keep us in his grace,/And guide us when perplexed." And that, too, is as American as cherry (or pumpkin) pie.

Daniel E. Ritchie founded the Humanities Program at Bethel University.


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