Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Culture and Politics

In an essay reprinted in a wonderful collection, published in the Coleccion Austral and entitled Mi Religion y Otros Ensayos Breves, Miguel de Unamuno, the remarkable Spanish philospher of the turn of the twentieth century, offers a thought-provoking meditation on the relative value of politics and culture entitled, appropriately enough, "Politica y cultura." The essay argues that the region of Catalonia in the Spain of Unamuno's day was doomed to remain backward, undeveloped, and left behind by the march of progress because the inhabitants of the region devoted all their passion to politics and the fight for power and left little for culture, broadly defined. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that when a society is overly proccupied with politics, its culture stagnates, much to the detriment of its inhabitants.

To be sure he is right: in the end, culture--if we can define it as being, roughly, the expression of a society's relationship to the spiritual and eternal--is far more important than politics, which at best is but one aspect of culture. Nevertheless, much though TMH reveres Unamuno, we must take issue with him here, since we think that he overstates the case. Yes, politics is usually ephemeral, and, yes, it ought to be rooted more firmly, more thoughtfully, in culture. To be sure, a cultured discussion of politics is going to be one more amenable to compromise and to the promotion of civility, if not unity, which often is very desirable. And yet, when one is faced, as one frequently is in politics, with forces that, consciously or not, might destroy the order one is defending, then one may need to leave the museum, take up the mace, and fight in defense of that political system that provides the freedom that makes culture possible.

For it is a fact that throughout history, the highest and most noteworthy cultures, those have spoken with the most reverberate voices, are those which possessed political freedom, however imperfect those freedoms may appear today. The legacy of Athenian culture, for example, far suprasses that of the authoritarian city-state of Sparta; the culture of Republican Rome is far more valuable to subsequent history than the culture of the Empire after it was firmly entrenched. (That the Golden Age Latin writers wrote under the very early Empire is beside the point: Vergil, Horace, and Livy were all educated as free men, and if they wrote under Augustus, they may well have believed that Augustus was not an absolute ruler and that the Empire of their day shared power with the ancient Republican institution of the Senate. So argued Theodore Mommsen, perhaps the greatest modern historian of Rome.) To move to much more recent times, it is the modernism of Western Europe in the twentieth century that proved so vital: though many still read Joyce, who now reads any Soviet authors? Who, for anything other than historical reasons, watches the operas of Madame Mao?

But to ensure the freedom that sparks such creativity, man must always be willing to enter the political trenches. If the twentieth century has shown us anything, it is that freedom is not guranteed--it can be preserved only with care and with vigorous defense against those who think that liberty is a zero-sum game in the sense that they believe that they must take your freedom or mine in order to enjoy their own. If Alain Finkielkraut is correct that "Barbarism," to use Clive James' translation, "is not the prehistory of humanity but the faithful shadow that accompanies its every step," then one must always work vigorously--and in a democracy, that means politically--to ensure that society will successfully overcome the temptation to barbarism. Unfortunately, that means that sometimes we must dirty our hands and not just with the dust of fine old books.

And this is not to say anything that the Renaissance didn't know. In some ways, as Anthony Grafton and others have argued, the Holy Grail of the feverish cultural accomplishments of the Renaissance was the search for the perfect polity. The great scholars of the Renaissance studied Cicero and Demosthenes, Livy and Thucydides, in large part to learn from them about what made the best regime in which a man could realize his full spiritual potential, could be most free. This is the spirit of the deeply cultured Edmund Burke, the great English Parliamentarian of the late eighteenth century, who thought that important as culture was, the political life was necessary as well in order to ensure the peace and stability necessary for culture to flourish. And it is certainly the perspective of, say, the Federalist Papers, which everywhere look with a cultured eye to Roman history for lessons that shaped their view of how best to build our new Republican government. In the nation that they so carefully constructed culture has indeed flourished, but it has done so because, not in spite of, the Founders' strenuous efforts in peace and war.

Unamuno was no stranger to the great combative virtues of a passionate devotion to the truth and a clear assertion of what he thought was right. And while he is correct that man's spirit is more important than his wealth or status, wealth and status are doubtless the least worthy of political goals. The greatest goal of politics is to provide a polity that will ensure the greatest freedom for all--a freedom which will produce a truly great culture.

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