Book Review: Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture

Notes Towards The Definition Of Culture, by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot is well known as a poet, and somewhat well known as a playwright, but his work on philosophy is not sufficiently well-known, and this book is a solid example of the sort of work that should be far better recognized.  When we think of culture, there are a variety of ways we can think of it as, including the artifacts that are part of a civilization, bacteria growing in a petri dish, music and art, or religion.  The author demonstrates how all of these various matters can be viewed as interconnected, so that manners, art, and religion are all connected to each other as being essential elements of the survival of a culture.  If the author does not get too much into the arguments over culture that exist, in the sense that he maintains a reasonable attitude, he does point out the relationship between culture on various levels and scopes that makes this a very enjoyable work overall.  If you happen to like culture, and hate what is done to it, there is a lot here that one can enjoy as the proper definition and understanding of culture does help us preserve it simply by being ourselves and doing things that end up becoming aspects of culture.

This book is a short one at around 100 pages.  Really, this is an essay more than a book, but it is a long enough essay that it can be marketed as a book, as it has been.  The author begins with an introduction into how it was that the project came to be.  After that the author looks at three senses of culture and the relationship between culture and civilization (1).  This leads to a discussion of the relationship of classes and elites, and an insightful look at the difference between castes and classes (2).  After that there is a discussion of unity and diversity as it relates to the regions in which culture appears (3), as well as a discussion of unity and diversity as it relates to sects and cults, with a look at heathen religion as well as Christianity (4).  After that the author discusses the relationship between culture and politics (5) as well as providing some notes on the relationship between education and culture (6), as well as a conclusion.  After this comes an appendix (i) that looks at the unity of European culture, which gives the author the opportunity to praise those creative and cultural aspects of other nations that he most respects.

One of the most striking aspects of what the author says is that one does not improve the culture directly, but only indirectly, in the same manner that one finds happiness only indirectly, not by seeking it, for seeking it is the fastest way to make oneself miserable and seeking to uplift culture is the fastest way to harm it.  How is it that we help out with culture?  Simply by being ourselves and doing what human beings do.  And that ought to be enough, but that is usually not what people mean.  The author also points out, quite sensibly, that it is so difficult to be cultured in all aspects of the term that it is really only meaningful for human beings to look at culture in the larger picture of communities and societies, since well-mannered individuals are not often artistic, and intellectuals are not always religiously devout, but having a well-functioning culture requires all of those elements.  The fact that they are difficult to maintain in an age that is actively hostile to good manners and faith demonstrates that it is easier to recognize that culture is endangered than it is to do something about it.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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