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Category Archives: On Culture

How can the Individual, how can our culture, integrate Christianity and antiquity, China and India, the primitive and the modern, the prophet and the atomic physicist, into one humanity? Yet that is just what the individual and our culture must do. Though wars rage and peoples exterminate one another in our atavistic world, the reality living within us tends, whether we know it or not, whether we wish to admit it or not, toward a universal humanism.

– Erich Neumann (Art and Time; essay)


…In general usage the word culture is not apt to create misunderstanding. One knows more or less what is meant by it. To give an accurate description of its meaning, however, is a different thing altogether. What is culture, what does it consist of? An exhaustive definition is practically impossible. All we can do is to enumerate a few essential conditions and requirements without which there can be no such thing as culture.

Culture requires in the first place a certain balance of material and spiritual values. This permits the emergence of a social condition which is appreciated by those living in it as affording more and higher values than the mere gratification of want and the desire for power. These values lie in the domain of the spiritual, the intellectual, the moral, and the aesthetic. These several domains themselves must again be in balance and harmony to render the concept of culture applicable. By stressing equilibrium and not absolute level one is enabled to include early or low or crude forms of society in a cultural evaluation, and to avoid the danger of over-estimating the highly refined civilizations and of one-sided appreciation of one of the several factors of culture, be it religion, art, law, political organisation or any other. This equilibrium may be viewed as a harmonious and energetic functioning of the several cultural activities within the whole. The result of such co-ordination of the cultural activities manifests itself in order, structural strength, and rhythm of the particular society. It is clear that the historical evaluation of different cultures, no more than the appreciation of present environment, can free itself from the preconceived standards of the judging subject. In this connection it must be noted that the general qualification of a culture as a “high” or “low” culture appears ultimately to be determined by its spiritual and ethical rather than its intellectual and aesthetic value content. A culture which does not boast technical achievements or great sculptural art may still be a high culture, but not if it lacks charity.

The second fundamental feature of culture is that all culture has an element of striving. It is directed towards an aim and this aim is always an ideal, not the ideal of an individual, but an ideal for society. The nature of this ideal varies greatly. It may be purely spiritual: celestial bliss, nearness to God, liberation from earthly ties; or: knowledge, rational or mystical, knowledge of nature, knowledge of self and the mind, knowledge of the divine. It may be a social ideal: honour, respect, power, greatness, but always honour, respect, power and greatness for the community. Again, it may be economic or hygienic: prosperity or health. For the bearers of culture the ideal always means betterment or weal, weal here or elsewhere, now or later.

Whether the aim is in heaven or on earth, wisdom or wealth, the essential condition of its pursuit and attainment is always security and order. Culture could not be a striving if it did not first of all fulfil the imperative task of maintaining security and order. From the requirement of order springs all that is authority, from that of security all that is law. At the bottom of scores of different systems of law and government there are always the social groupings whose striving for betterment gives rise to culture.

More concrete and more positive than the first mentioned fundamentals of culture, balance and striving, is the third, chronologically its first and most typical feature. Culture means control over nature. Culture exists the moment man discovers that the hand armed with the flint is capable of things which without it would have been beyond his reach. He has bent a part of nature to his will. He controls nature, his enemy and his benefactor. He has acquired instruments, means; he has become homo faber. He uses these means to gratify a want, to construct an implement, to protect himself and his kin, to destroy animal or foe. Henceforward he changes the course of nature, for the results of his handling the tool would not have occurred without it.

If this control over nature were the only prerequisite of culture there would be little reason to deny ants, bees, birds or beavers the claim to its possession. They all turn parts of nature to their use by altering them. Whether or not these activities include a striving for betterment is a question for animal psychology to answer. But even if they did, the attribution of culture to the animal world would still meet with the spontaneous reaction that this is abusing the term. The spirit cannot be eliminated quite as easily as some would think.

In fact, to say that culture is control over nature in the sense of building, shooting and roasting is to tell only half the story. The rich word “nature” includes human nature as well and that also must be controlled. Already in the earliest and simplest phases of society man becomes conscious that he owes something. The animal’s care and defence of his young are not sufficient to warrant the conclusion that there too this consciousness exists. It is only in the human consciousness that the function of caring and providing takes on the aspect of Duty. The recognition of this duty is only in a relatively small degree attributable to natural circumstances such as motherhood and protection of the family unit. At an early stage of social organisation the obligation expands into conventions, rules of conduct and cults, in the form of taboos. In wide circles the popularisation of the word taboo has led to an undervaluation of the ethical element of the so-called primitive cultures, not to say anything of that body of sociological thought which with truly modern simplicity disposes of everything called morality, law, or piety, as just so many taboos.

The consciousness of owing something contains an ethical element as soon as there is no absolute material necessity to honour what is felt as an obligation to a fellow-man, an institution or a spiritual power. Ethnologists like Malinowski have shown that the view that in primitive civilizations obedience to the social code is mechanically determined and inescapable, is untenable. Whenever in a community the rules of social conduct are generally observed, therefore, it is through the operation of a genuine ethical impulse. The requirement of control over nature in the form of domination of human nature itself is then fulfilled.

The more the specific feelings of being under obligation range themselves under a supreme principle of human dependence the clearer and the more fertile will be the realisation of the concept, indispensable to all true culture, of service; from the service of God down to the simple social relationship as between employer and employee. The uprooting and discrediting of the service-concept has been the most destructive function of the shallow rationalism of the eighteenth century.

Were we now to sum up what we have set out above as the essential features and general requirements of culture, the contents of this concept might perhaps be formulated in the following statement, which cannot lay any claim to the quality of exact definition, however. Culture, as a condition of society, is present when the control over nature in the material, the moral, and spiritual field maintains a state which is higher and better than would follow from the given natural conditions, and whose characteristics are a harmonious balance of material and spiritual values and a more or less homogeneous ideal in whose pursuit the community’s various activities converge…

– Johan Huizinga (In the Shadow of Tomorrow, p.40-46)

If we offend against “history” by removing documents and representations from their cultural context, we hope to compensate by correlating our archetypal investigation with a “psychohistory,” that is to say, with the stages in the development of the human psyche. Taking the development of consciousness as the decisive phenomena of human history, we arrive at an arrangement of the phenomena that does not, to be sure, coincide with the usual sequence of historical events, but makes possible the psychological orientation we require.

The old interpretation of history as a straight line, leading from prehistory through antiquity and the Middle Ages to modern times, is no longer accepted. It has given way to a historical consciousness that looks upon the various coexistent and successive cultures as individualities and not as links in a continuous chain. This view makes it possible to do justice to the individual character of each culture, but it is also a symptom of the decline of the ordering principle that had hitherto enabled European, Christian mankind to regard itself as the culmination and climax of human development. Once the idea of a universal mankind, embracing all the multiplicity of cultures, religions, and historical epochs, came within the scope of men’s minds, the naive Western view of history for which the Near East was quite secondary, while Asia, America, and Africa merited scarcely any attention, became untenable.

With the discovery of the collective unconscious as the common psychic foundation of mankind and with the insight that the relation of consciousness to the unconscious determines the character of a cultural phase or of a culture, modern man has gained a new point of orientation. The development of consciousness, from almost total containment in the unconscious in primitive man to the Western form of consciousness, has been glimpsed as the central factor in human history as a whole. For this orientation, the various cultures are merely phases in this basic trend of psychic life: the development of consciousness, which, without being the conscious goal of the individual cultures or of human culture as a whole, can be shown to be operative in every culture and age.

The tendency toward the light, which C. G. Jung once called human heliotropism, has in the long run proved stronger than all the forces of darkness that have striven to extinguish consciousness. In the broad view, epochs seemingly characterized by a regression of consciousness may almost always be recognized as transitional stages necessary to further development.

For the psychological study of human history, the primordial era refers then to the time when the unconscious was predominant and consciousness was weak. The modern era signifies a time of developed consciousness and of a productive bond between consciousness and unconscious. In other words, the normative development of the individual from containment in the unconscious to the development of consciousness presents an analogy to the collective development of mankind. In the system of coordinates representing psychohistorical development, later periods may therefore, as we said, represent an early state of consciousness and early epochs a mature level. Thus, for example, the relatively late monuments of the monolithic culture of England and France are psychologically much “earlier” than the Egyptian monuments that preceded them by thousands of years. And in an epoch of modern history, regressive collective tendencies may appear, which threaten to annul the arduously acquired development of the individual and the individual consciousness, and to bring back an earlier stage of human history.

Erich Neumann (The Great Mother, p. 89-91)

The great archetypal activities of human society are all permeated with play from the start. Take language, for instance that first and supreme instrument which man shapes in order to communicate, to teach, to command. Language allows him to distinguish, to establish, to state things; in short, to name them and by naming them to raise them into the domain of the spirit.
In the making of speech and language the spirit is continually “sparking” between matter and mind, as it were, playing with this wondrous nominative faculty. Behind every abstract expression there lie the boldest of metaphors, and every metaphor is a play upon words. Thus in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.

Or take myth. This, too, is a transformation or an “imagination” of the outer world, only here the process is more elaborate and ornate than is the case with individual words. In myth, primitive man seeks to account for the world of phenomena by grounding it in the Divine. In all the wild imaginings of mythology a fanciful spirit is playing on the border-line between jest and earnest. Or finally, let us take ritual. Primitive society performs its sacred rites, its sacrifices, consecrations and mysteries, all of which serve to guarantee the well-being of the world, in a spirit of pure play truly understood.
Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin : law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play.

– Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens, man-the-player, p. 4-5)

These rules in their turn are a very important factor in the
play-concept. All play has its rules. They determine what “holds”
in the temporary world circumscribed by play. The rules of a
game are absolutely binding and allow no doubt. Paul Valery
once in passing gave expression to a very cogent thought when he
said : ” No scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are
concerned, for the principle underlying them is an unshakable
truth. . .” Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the
whole play-world collapses. The game is over. The umpire’s
whistle breaks the spell and sets “real” life going again.

The player who trespasses against the rules or ignores them is a
“spoil-sport” . The spoil-sport is not the same as the false player,
the cheat; for the latter pretends to be playing the game and, on
the face of it, still acknowledges the magic circle. It is curious
to note how much more lenient society is to the cheat than to the
spoil-sport. This is because the spoil-sport shatters the play-world
itself. By withdrawing from the game he reveals the relativity
and fragility of the play-world in which he had temporarily shut
himself with others. He robs play of its illusion-a pregnant word
which means literally “in-play” (from inlusio, illudere or inludere) .
Therefore he must be cast out, for he threatens the existence of the
play-community. The figure of the spoil-sport is most apparent
in boys’ games. The little community does not enquire whether
the spoil-sport is guilty of defection because he dares not enter
into the game or because he is not allowed to. Rather, it does
not recognize “not being allowed” and calls it “not daring”. For
it, the problem of obedience and conscience is no more than fear
of punishment. The spoil-sport breaks the magic world, therefore
he is a coward and must be ejected. In the world of high seriousness,
too, the cheat and the hypocrite have always had an easier
time of it than the spoil-sports, here called apostates, heretics,
innovators, prophets, conscientious objectors, etc. It sometimes
happens, however, that the spoil-sports in their turn make a new
community with rules of its own. The outlaw, the revolutionary,
the cabbalist or member of a secret society, indeed heretics of all
kinds are of a highly associative if not sociable disposition, and a
certain element of play is prominent in all their doings.

– Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens ‘Man the Player’, p. 11-12)

And now we come to the real distinguishing feature which essentially separates barbarism from culture; the only reason it cannot serve us as a guiding rod or for the determination of the beginning is that the documentary evidence is inadequate. It is the question: Where does mere living in the present, such as the savage does, cease, and where does life in the past and the present, i.e. differentiating comparison, begin? When does the mere present, devoid of history, end?

Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, p. 5)

We have spoken of the age-old impulse to abandon culture, to flee from the present day and its misery. In times such as these the impulse comes over us now and then more powerfully than ever. What will be the refuge? There are still a number of roads open. Though the past no longer proffers us the lively dream of a peaceful perfection that may perhaps return in the future, ancient beauty and wisdom still grants sweet forgetfulness to the person who seeks it. Does the future have more to offer? We can observe this raging world from an absurd distance and say that it will take three thousand years for all the madness of the present conflict, the stupidity and the terror, the fate of states and nations, the very cultural values that now seem the highest stake to have become just as unimportant to humanity as the wars of Assyria are today. This is no consolation; that, too, is mere forgetfulness. And such resignation can also be achieved from a briefer distance: we can view all this through the eyes of those who have fallen. That is still the shortest road to liberation. The person who wants to abandon today, with its heavy burden of history, has to abandon life. But the person who wants to carry that burden and still climb upward finds a fourth open: that of the simple act — it makes no difference whether in the trenches or in any other serious work. Giving of oneself is the end and the beginning of every philosophy of life. Liberation is to be found not in the abandonment of culture, but in the abandonment of one’s own ego.

– Johan Huizinga (Men and Ideas, p. 96)

…Their life is made up of leisure and the activities that are considered aristocratic, like military service, individual heroism, famous love affairs. Despite the often very dissolute living, social intercourse in the eighteenth century is more refined, more generous, and intellectually livelier than it has ever been since. People still have time to read, i.e. for lively intellectual intercourse. They have not yet surrendered to business.

Talent, no matter where it may come from, easily finds patronage, positions, and a wealth of occupations. Here all arrogance ceases, because people really want to have enjoyment.

Scholarship is partly in the hands of secure corporations, partly in those of independent dilettantes.

At length, to be sure, this nobility, because of all its noble leisure and abstract generosity, comes upon liberal principles and begins to take the real institutions of the state lightly. This lends it one last, exceedingly noble resplendence. Meanwhile, to be sure, other strata, together with their ‘public opinion’, have started to take control of matters.

It was for this aristocratic class, in the main, and not as yet for publishers and a mass public, that artists wrote, created literature, composed, painted, and so on. Also, the whole incipient opposition in the state and the innovations and all intellectual matters are essentially in their hands.

Our view must become accustomed to this nature of the intellectual life in those times.


– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, p.184)

Our intellect, however, no matter how independent of the past it may behave in science and technology, is ever renewed and consecrated by the consciousness of its connection with the mind of the remotest times and civilization. Indeed, it gets to know itself and value its lofty nature only through comparison with that which it, the eternally unchanging, has been in all times.

– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History)

At our universities, the historians like to dump the Ancient History course in the lap of philologists, and vice versa. Here and there it is treated like a poor old relation whom it would be a disgrace to let go to ruin entirely. But with the public at large antiquity is completely out of fashion, and the ‘culture’ which is supported by this public even feels hatred for it. Various faults of antiquity serve as a pretext. The real reason is conceit about modern communication and transport and the inventions of our century; then, too, there is the inability to distinguish technical and material greatness from the intellectual and moral kinds; and finally, the prevalent views about refinement of manners, philanthropy, and the like.

But what makes it generally impossible for the present-day average ‘educated’ man to find anything appealing in the ancient world is the total egoism of today’s private person who wants to exist as an individual and asks of the community only the greatest possible security for himself and his property, for which he pays his taxes amid sighs, and who also likes to attach himself to the community in a specific sense as an ‘official’.

On the other hand, the peoples of the ancient Orient, who lived tribally, impress us as races of which each individual is only a type, with the King has the highest type.

And even where the individual develops, especially since the Greeks, we still deal for a long time and essentially with types, e.g. The heroes, the lawgivers. They are, to be sure, depicted as great individuals, and this is borne out by feeling and tradition; but at the same time they are all the more fully types and condensations of the characteristic and the general. And last, the complete individual in antiquity is, above all, πολιτης [part of the state] to a degree of which we now, in the present mode of connection between the individual and the state, have no idea. Whenever one breaks with the πὁλεις (polis) or when it is lost, it is a tragedy every time.

Finally, today’s ‘educated’ men are firmly resolved to make a bargain, with whatever power, for their existence at any given time. There is an enormous veneration of life and property. There is a mass abdication, and not just on the part of the rulers! And there are numerous bargaining positions and concessions against the worst — and all this with great touchiness in matters of recognition and so-called honour.

With the ancients, on the contrary, it was all or nothing, with no fear of disaster. The fall of states, cities, and Kings was considered glorious. That is something utterly alien to us.

– Jacob Burckhardt (Reflections on History, #4.)