An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture
What Is Culture?
What is culture? How is it transmitted? What does it do to those who receive it? What is the significance of our social emotions?
Culture reveals who we are as a nation. Our beliefs, behaviors, values, traditions, customs, ceremonies, rituals, and taboos show what matters to us. Culture binds us together as a people.
The essence of culture is religion, language, history, art, and community. The purpose of a university, traditionally, is to preserve the cultural inheritance of a nation and transmit it to the next generation.
The Ties That Bind
To be judged is what makes us fully human, the objects of ethical vision. If judgment is destiny from which no one may escape since God sees all, it lifts us from mere nature; we are more than just another organism. We are free moral agents, answerable for the lives we lead.
We create the life we lead through our choices. Unlike animals that live for the moment, we are souls extended through time.
The core of a common culture is religion. Individuals become a community through worship, which involves offerings, rituals, and ceremonies that connect living persons with the ancestors and God. Devotion softens the horror of death, and death becomes a transition within the community. Heresy and sacrilege are always and everywhere, dangerous as a threat to the community.
The sexual revolution has disenchanted and de-consecrated human sexuality by removing it from the realm of the sacred.
No anthropologist or multiculturalist would seek to destroy the sacred rites and stories of any tribe—unless it is those of Western Civilization. Religion is at the center of virtually all cultures. A shared culture serves to close the chasm between emotion and action. They teach people what to do in those situations where we face each other soul to soul—where motives are love, grief, or anger.
The universal religions are those in which God does not reside in idols or temples but in texts. It is times rather than places that attract the most magnificent aura of sanctity—hours of worship and holy days. Serious liturgies remain unchanged amid change—as does God.
Fellowship “binds people together, makes communities strong and durable, brings advantages to those who are joined by and fortifies them in their endeavors. Of the greatest importance in our lives, therefore, are the festive occasions, when we join with other people,” Sir Roger Scruton says.
The need for a canon of literature, sacred or cultural, comes from the fact that if any text will do, then no text will do. If we teach our young that no text is sacred, then they will not believe that the secret to life could come from any book.
Marxist theory teaches that religion, tradition, and authority form a web of illusion that uses culture to make the artificial seem natural. In this view, all that matters is power.
The Cosmic Drama
The human world is a world of significances, and no human significance can be fully grasped by science. To understand human life, we must comprehend values, meanings, reasons, custom, and culture not by science but by human sympathy.
In America, many have lost the vision that makes human life the center of a cosmic drama. They seek the leisure of a life that flees from judgment. "Rational activity involves both ends and means. In a technological age, we acquire an increasing grasp of the means to our goals, and a decreasing grasp of the reasons why we should pursue them,” writes Roger Scruton.
Consuming things is not an end. When we lose religion, we long deep inside for something that is not consumable—not wanted as a means to get something else but as an ends itself.
Animals are interested in satisfying their needs, appetites, and desires. Human beings have higher interests—beauty, love, morality, duty, and meaning. This means we transcend nature.
Modern literature, art, and music feature the alienation of the isolated individual longing for a home and community.
Regarding art, Scruton writes, “Although artists borrow procedures, forms, and repertoires, they can make no impact by merely copying what has already been done. What makes art so supremely interesting: We, the audience, open ourselves up to what another person is, says, and feels. It need not be new, but it must be his.”
Imagination vs. Fantasy
Imagination and fantasy are not the same things. While both are outside our reality, imagination is in a world of its own while fantasy intrudes into your world and pollutes it.
Fantasy involves the display of that which you can't have, perhaps forbidden desires. Hollywood and pornography specialize in fantasy, not only but chiefly of a sexual kind.
What fantasy seeks is realism, the nearest thing to the thing itself. Fantasy leaves nothing to the imagination; it is degrading, offering only vulgarity and the destruction of what is sacred. The point of fantasy, after all, is to replace the “real, resistant, objective world with a pliant substitute.”
In pornography, the focus is on sexual organs and sexual acts, which is dehumanizing. It is an enormous downgrade from making love to a real woman to instead making an animal out of the object of your lust.
In real life, people are messy. They are also unique and irreplaceable, for whom we sacrifice if we love them. They can resist our desires. They are embodied souls.
In life, sex, and death, we confront the ultimate mystery.
It is easy to confuse sentimental feelings for the real thing. Scruton explains, "For the sentimentalist, it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important. Real love focuses on the other: It is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain. The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on his self. Secretly sentimentalists welcome the sorrow that prompts their tears. It is another excuse for the noble gesture."
As the Christian faith fades in America, religion breaks out in new forms, including ideology. Socialism, Communism, Fascism, and Progressivism provide a “visceral collective feeling, as people lose themselves in a cause that will swamp the psyche and drown the grief of solitude.”
Scruton declares, "Popular Culture is preeminently a culture of youth, in the world after faith" has declined. It is “indifferent to traditional boundaries, traditional loyalties. Youth culture is a global force: One world, one music, is the slogan adopted by MTV. The words and sounds lyricize the transgressive conduct of which fathers and mothers used to disapprove, in the days when disapproval was permitted.”
We end up with "a culture of near-total inarticulateness, with repetition as the principal device. Rhythm is generated by percussive sounds, which often have little or no relation to anything else that is happening. Techno music is the voice of the machine, triumphing over the human utterance.”
Rock music had brought us “a reversal of the old order or performance. Instead of the performer being the means to present the music, the music has become the means to present the performer. They must be young, sexually attractive, and with the plaintive voice of youthful desire.”
All human beings are social animals. Youth culture focuses not on activities but spectacles. They idolize singers, bands, celebrities, and sports teams, "not as active participants, but as passive respondents in a virtual community of fans."
Scruton continues, “Adolescents are encouraged to define their own social order, their own history, their own loyalties, and their own sense of who they are. This is the logical outcome of the ‘child-centered’ approach to education recommended by John Dewey and enthusiastically adopted by a generation of teachers. The fan is trying to rescue himself from the predicament in which adults have placed him – the predicament of having to invent his own identity.
“Youth culture is an attempt to make the best of it – to make oneself at home in a world that is not, in any real sense, a home, since it has ceased to dedicate itself, as a home must dedicate itself, to the task of reproduction. Home, after all, is the place where parents are.
“This culture aims to present youth as the goal and fulfillment of human life, rather than a transitional phase which must be cast off as an impediment once mature commitment calls. It promotes experiences that can be obtained without undertaking the burdens of responsibility, work, child-rearing, and marriage. Hence sex, and especially sex divorced from any long-term commitment, becomes of paramount importance; so do experiences which involve no cost in terms of education, moral discipline, hardship or love – the paradigm being drug-taking.”
Culture Shaped By Evil
Sinister spiritual forces are at work in popular culture today. It is visible as hatred for all that is holy.
A person who lives beyond judgment is a person without shame, who lives in the moment, who can neither love nor be loved. He lives without meaning or joy but only pleasure. Without the recognition of the reality of sin and the possibility of damnation, we are set adrift on a boundless sea of evil. We try to obscure despair with sex, the haze of drugs, and the stupor of alcohol. We wish to avoid the truth of our condition.
The truth of our mortality is not merely a scientific fact but a pervasive experience.
When people lose the Christian Faith, they will attempt to fill that void with fake morality, fake feelings, and fake values.
Scruton says, “Bourgeois society contains features which are or ought to be the envy of the world: the rule of law, which stands sovereign over the actions of the state; rights and freedoms which are defended by the state against all comers, including itself; the right of private property; the monogamous marriage and property-owning family, by which the material and cultural capital of one generation can be passed without trouble to the next; a system of universal education; the prosperity and security provided by science and the market, the two inevitable by-products of individual freedom.”
This is the object of fierce hatred by the Left. “They are led by hatred of the present to blind faith in the benefits that will come from destroying it. “
In addition, he writes, “Bourgeois society is not the outcome of design; still less the product of a 'dominant' class or the instrument of class oppression. It arose by an 'invisible hand' from the gift of human freedom: a freedom exerted simultaneously in the economic, the social, and the religious spheres.”
At the heart of traditional values is self-sacrifice, monogamous marriage, stable families, good manners, public and private charity. Conservatism is a philosophy of love; loving the good, the valuable, and the wisdom that our ancestors bequeathed to us; protecting these treasures against destruction. The Left is about destroying what men and women cherish, destroying innocence.
What is left is what Scruton calls the Real Presence of Nothing. There is no Truth. There is no Creator. There is no Meaning. There is only Power. Not power as a means to pursue virtue, beauty, love, and truth—power as ends.
"It is the world of the Devil," says Scruton. "His work cannot be understood or defined, except in terms of the common culture which he aims to destroy." Namely, the heritage and worldview of Western Civilization.
A Generation Without Guardrails
“Many young people enter the world without any real commitment from their parents. They have no religious beliefs, but only blind superstitions; no adult role models; no gratification is forbidden or postponed for long enough to offer a vision of the higher life – the life of sacrifice, in which the sacred has a place. Without it, they remain savage, incapable of receiving or passing on the inherited capital of moral knowledge,” asserts Scruton.
Television provides a full quota of distractions and relieves a child of having to speak, act, or make himself interesting to others, extinguishing the ability to communicate. Sexual release is readily available; courtship a waste of time and impediment to pleasure; marriage shunned as an unacceptable cost and a condition of servitude. We "are witnessing the collapse of the moral order and a loss of piety among the young."
The new style politician bargains for votes by promising goods that do not belong to him. Without faith, dreamers become dangerous—exalted nihilists common among progressives and other socialists. We witness the senseless venom of modern revolutionaries. They seek high status not by creating something good but by tearing down the foundations of a society built by others. The French Revolution, the Soviet Revolution, and the Nazi Revolution come from similar spirits: the desire for absolute control over the world and its goods. An exclusive club of pseudo-intellectuals with a new form of membership requirement: standing in judgment of society.
To Marxists, power implies oppression and therefore, should be overthrown in the name of liberation. The chief targets? The sacred things of civilization. Feminists, gay activists, Marxists, and other deconstructionists are on a mission to destroy that which is holy—to defile God. They abhor the family most of all—that institution of social reproduction, which involves a voluntary surrender to loyalties that bind you for life. They bind you most of all when you try to discard them. Satan works through men to bring about a world devoid of the sacred and in which the effort of social reproduction is no longer made.
Atheists, Communists, Nazis, and Deconstructionists share common ideas: there is no authority except human constructs; there is no Creator; there is no Truth; there is no meaning to anything; nothing means anything. There is no legitimacy, authority, objectivity, or even reality. All is reduced to power—rich over poor, male over female, black over white, Anglo over Latino, straight over gay, et al.
This envisions a society where there is only power—no love, no law, no friendship, no marriage, no family, no truth, no honor, no duty, no responsibility, no obligations, no nobility.
Orwell’s Ministry of Truth teaches us about totalitarian societies and the spiritual meaning of the concepts that bring them into being. That is the world of Satan. The Devil desires to destroy America's culture and heritage because America was the most Christian place on earth.
The community of Satan includes those who say all cultures are equal; all values are equal, including the feminists and the gay crowd. We should live as if what we do matters eternally. We should acknowledge the greatness of creation, the mystery of time, and the existence of the sacred. Living thus, we peer serenely into the eternal.
This article is a review or summary of the book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture by the British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton.