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JOHN CAMPBELL SHAIRP
THE LITERARY THEORY OF CULTURE
[Address by John Campbell Shairp, poet, critic, and essayist, Principal of the United College, St. Andrew's (born in Houstoun, West Lothian, July 30, 1819; died at Ormsary in Argyll, September 18, 1885), delivered as one of a series of addresses on Culture and Religion, before the University of St. Andrew's.]
A true poet and brilliant critic of the present time, admired by all for his fine and cultivated genius, and to me endeared by never-fading memories of early companionship, has identified his name with a very different view of culture from that which I brought before you the last time I addressed you. If Professor Huxley's is the exclusively scientific view of culture, Mr. Arnold's may be called the literary or aesthetic one. In discussing the former theory, I attempted to examine it in the light of facts, and to avoid applying to it any words which its author might disown. For mere appeal to popular prejudice should have no place in discussions about truth, and he who has recourse to that weapon in so far weakens the cause he advocates. If, however, I was constrained to call attention to some not unimportant facts of human nature which that theory fails to account for, this should be regarded not as appeal to unreasoning prejudice, but as a statement of omitted facts.
But whatever might be said of Professor Huxley's view, as leaving out of sight the spiritual capacities and needs of man, the same objection cannot equally be urged against Mr. Arnold's theory of culture. He fully recognizes religion as an element, and a very important one, in his theory; only we may see cause to differ from him in the place which he assigns to it. Though I believe Mr. Arnold's theory to be defective when taken as a total philosophy of life, yet so large-minded and generous are the views it exhibits, so high and refined are the motives it urges for self-improvement, that I believe no one can seriously and candidly consider what he says without deriving good from it. As a recent writer has truly said, "The author of this theory deserves much praise for having brought the subject before men's minds, and forced a little unwilling examination on the 'self-complacent but very uncultured British public'"
Many who now hear me may have probably read in Mr. Arnold's several works all his pleadings for culture. To these the recapitulation of his views which I shall give may be somewhat tedious, but I hope those who know his writings will bear with me while I briefly go over his views for the sake of those of my hearers who may be less acquainted with them.
In Mr. Arnold's view, the aim of culture is not merely to render an intelligent being more intelligent, to improve our capacities to the uttermost, but, in words which he borrows from Bishop Wilson, "to make reason and the kingdom of God prevail." It is impelled not merely by the scientific desire to see things as they are, but rather by the moral endeavor to know more and more the universal order, which seems intended in the world, that we may conform to it ourselves, and make others conform to it; in short, that we may help to make the will of God prevail in us and around us. In this, he says, is seen the moral, social, beneficent nature of culture, that while it seeks the best knowledge, the highest science that is to be had, it seeks them in order to make them tell on human life and character.
The aim of culture, therefore, is the perfection of our human nature on all its sides, in all its capacities. First, it tries to determine in what this perfection consists, and in order to solve this question, it consults the manifold human experience that has expressed itself in such diverse ways, throughout science, poetry, philosophy, history, as well as through religion. And the conclusion which culture reaches is, Mr. Arnold holds, in harmony with the voice of religion. For it places human perfection in an internal
condition of soul, in the growth and predominance of our humanity proper, as distinguished from our animality.
Again, it does not rest content with any condition of soul, however excellent, but presses ever onward to an ampler growth, to a gradual harmonious expansion of those gifts of thought and feeling which make the peculiar dignity, wealth, and happiness of human nature. Not a having and resting, but a growing and becoming, is the true character of perfection as culture conceives it. Again, in virtue of that bond of brotherhood which binds all men to each other, whether they will it or not, this perfection cannot be an isolated individual perfection. Unless the obligation it lays on each man to consider others as well as himself is recognized, the perfection attained must be a stunted, ignoble one, far short of true perfection.
In all these three considerations the aim of culture, Mr. Arnold thinks, coincides with the aim of religion.
First, in that it places perfection not in any external good, but in an internal condition of soul—" The kingdom of God is within you."
Secondly, in that it sets before men a condition not of having and resting, but of growing and becoming as the true aim—" Forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before."
Thirdly, in that it holds that a man's perfection cannot be self-contained, but must embrace the good of others equally with his own, and as the very condition of his own —" Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others."
These three notes belong alike to the perfection which culture aims at and to that which religion enjoins.
But there is a fourth note of perfection as conceived by culture, in which, as Mr. Arnold thinks, it transcends the aim of religion. "As an harmonious expansion of all the powers which make the beauty and worth of human nature," Mr. Arnold holds that it "goes beyond religion, as religion is generally conceived among us." For religion, Mr. Arnold thinks, aims at the cultivation of some, and these, no doubt, the highest powers of the soul, at the expense, even at the sacrifice, of other powers, which it regards as lower. So it falls short of that many-sided, even-balanced, all-embracing totality of development which is the aim of the highest culture.
Mark well this point, for, though I cannot stop to discuss it now, I must return to it after I have set before you Mr. Arnold's view in its further bearings.
After insisting, then, that culture is the study of perfection, harmonious, all-embracing, consisting in becoming something rather than in having something, in an inward condition of soul rather than in any outward circumstances, Mr. Arnold goes on to show how hard a battle culture has to fight in this country, with how many of our strongest tendencies, our most deep-rooted characteristics, it comes into direct, even violent collision. The prominence culture gives to the soul, the inward and spiritual condition, as transcending all outward goods put together, comes into conflict with our worship of a mechanical and material civilization. The social aspirations it calls forth for the general elevation of the human family conflict with our intense individualism, our "every man for himself." The totality of its aim, the harmonious expansion of all human capacities, contradicts our inveterate one-sidedness, our absorption each in his own one pursuit. It conflicts, above all, with the tendency so strong in us to worship the means and to forget the ends of life.
Everywhere, as he looks around him, Mr. Arnold sees this great British people chasing the means of living with unparalleled energy, and forgetting the inward things of our being, which alone give these means their value. We are, in fact, idol-worshippers without knowing it. We worship freedom, the right to do every man as he chooses, careless whether the thing we choose to do be good or not. We worship railroads, steam, coal, as if these made a nation's greatness, forgetting that
". . . by the soul Only the nations shall be great and free."
We worship wealth, as men have done in all ages, in spite of the voices of all the wise, only, perhaps, never before in the world's history with such unanimity, such strength and consistency of devotion, as at this hour, in this land. I must quote the words in which he makes culture address the mammon-worshippers—those who have either gotten wealth, or, being hot in the pursuit of it, regard wealth and welfare as synonymous:—
"Consider," he makes culture say, "these people, their way of life, their habits, their manners, the very tones of their voice; look at them attentively, observe the literature they read (if they read any), the things that give them pleasure, the words which come forth from their mouths, the thoughts which make the furniture of their minds; would any amount of wealth be worth having with the condition that one was to become like these people by having it? Thus," he says, " culture begets a dissatisfaction which is of the highest possible value in stemming the common tide of men's thoughts in a wealthy and industrious community, and which saves the future, as one may hope, from being wholly materialized and vulgarized, if it cannot save the present." Against all this absorbing faith in machinery, whatever form it takes, whether faith in wealth or in liberty, used or abused, or in coals and railroads, or in bodily health and vigor, or in population, Mr. Arnold lifts up an earnest protest.
It is an old lesson, but one which each age forgets and needs to be taught anew, men forgetting the inward and spiritual goods, and setting their hope on the outward and material ones. Against this all the wise of the earth have, each one in his day, cried aloud—the philosophers, moralists, and satirists of Greece and Rome, Plato, Epictetus, Seneca, and Juvenal, not less than Hebrew prophets and Christian apostles, up to that divine voice which said, "What shall it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul?"
This same old lesson Mr. Arnold repeats, but in modern language, and turns against the shapes of idol-worship, which he sees everywhere around him. In contrast, then, to all the grosser interests that absorb us, he pleads for a mental and spiritual perfection, which has two sides, or prominent notes—beauty and intelligence—or, borrowing words which Swift first used, and which, since Mr. Arnold reproduced them, have become proverbial, "Sweetness and Light "—" An inward and spiritual activity having for its characters increased sweetness, increased light, increased life, increased sympathy."