What do we mean by “culture”?
Culture and the nature of things
Literary critic Terry Eagleton notes in The Idea of Culture that the word “culture” is one of the two or three most complex words in the English language. He points out that one of the word’s earliest meanings was “husbandry,” the tending of natural growth. Today, we tend to assume that culture is almost the opposite of nature. Culture is what we make or do — whether opera or hip-hop, Shakespeare or Spider-Man — but it has no essential connection with anything natural.
Within modern societies, nature is now assumed to be meaningless raw material, not a guide to ordering our lives. We are the sovereign makers of meaning, and culture is the repository of our creativity, the expression of our unbounded freedom. The older vision guiding what we now think of as “culture” — sustained within and encouraged by the church for centuries — involved the assumption that human beings live well when they live in accordance with the order established in nature.
Cultural forms and institutions were assumed to be authoritative guides to the meaning and requirements of that order. Just as agriculture cultivated the land, the shared experience of good practices, true beliefs, and beautiful artifacts served as an ecosystem that cultivated us. This older view recognized that we required cultivation in order to be in synch with reality. In the modern view, by contrast, we shape the indifferent components of nature in order to satisfy our untutored desires.
Modern societies find this idea of cultivation — and the view of ordered creation and of authority that it involves — to be an offense against the modern ideal of freedom. Nonetheless, even though leaders of public institutions disdain to take responsibility for the formation of our souls, we are still cultivated by our culture. And, living within a culture that rejects the idea of an order of the good, true, and beautiful, one constantly encounters practices, beliefs, and artifacts that tend to malform us and our neighbors.
Because unhealthy cultures are often dehumanizing, distorting or denying basic attributes of our humanity, our duty to love our neighbors is a calling to promote good habits of social husbandry. As the parable of the Good Samaritan demonstrates, loving one’s neighbor is not just a matter of sentiments, but requires the institutional promotion of well-being.