Politics and the Ideals of Culture


By Tudor B. Munteanu

Tudor B. Munteanu is an independent scholar of philosophy who works in the computer industry.


In short, I say that as a city we are the school of Hellas, while I doubt if the world can produce a man who, where he has only himself to depend upon, is equal to so many emergencies, and graced by so happy a versatility, as the Athenian.Pericles’ Funeral Oration, in Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War [II.41.1]


The essence and development of culture has been a major concern of modern thinkers, for culture is the spiritual dimension of any civilization. Historical epochs such as the Renaissance and the Enlightenment are remembered in cultural terms. In our century, two world wars, many civil conflicts and major upheavals or “revolutions” left visible scars on the soul of modern man, and these tragic events have raised several concerns about the growing discrepancy between human actions and values. Trying to cope with such disparity can be a powerful impetus to reflect on the underlying historical and cultural issues.

Culture does not disappear with the civilization that made it possible, allowing us to hope that we might be able to understand ourselves through the universal concepts reflected in other cultures. Kant, in his Critical philosophy, resolved to answer fundamental questions related to the nature and bounds of human knowledge [1], and many other currents of philosophy sought to continue this formidable task in different ways. Among them, phenomenology and hermeneutics tried to focus on the character and meaning of cultural knowledge, through the methodical contemplation and interpretation of its manifestations and origins.

Any elucidation of culture brings the perennial issues of being and becoming into the social realm — the sphere of common experience and the field of practical reason. Many contemporary thinkers have encouraged the growth of cultural studies, but embraced pseudo-critical theories under the banner of “postmodernism.” More rigorous philosophers who are not associated with this trend have been tempted to reduce culture to some of its components, by dissolving essential distinctions and ignoring obvious meanings which, ironically, were transmitted to us via the cultural medium.

A few social theorists and philosophers continued the tradition of continental thought after they came to the United States, and their work has been celebrated here and abroad. These scholars knew that the dialogue among thinkers persists through history as it continues across continents, so they sought to find an understanding of culture through the eyes of the ancient Athenians and Romans.

The words “culture” and “politics” came from Latin and Greek, respectively. In German there are two words for culture, Bildung (“education, culture, civilization”) and Kultur. The Greek word Paideia (“education, learning, culture”), seems to embrace both connotations. It would be useful to debate how Greeks and Romans emphasized individual education and culture in general, or to examine their view of the relationship between individuals, society and the state, and to inquire what would be the relevance of their Zeitgeist today.

In, “The Crisis in Culture,” an essay from Between Past and Future, Hannah Arendt refers to the contemporary concern about the relationship between society and culture, and to the strange situation of the modern individual characterized by loneliness, excitability and lack of judgment, which is traced back to a break in the thread of Western tradition. She questions whether it is still possible to rediscover the past without continuing standards of interpretation, in an increasingly secularized world of utilitarian culture.

Arendt points out that culture is most visibly manifest in art, because “art works are cultural objects par excellence”, without any purpose beyond themselves. She makes a distinction between the Roman and the Greek culture as the passive process of cultivating and preserving the mind, on one hand, and the active mode of intercourse with the things in the world, on the other. To reach the final point of her interpretation, Hannah Arendt analyzes a most famous quote from Pericles’ Funeral Oration:

philokaloumen te gar met’ euteleias kai philosophoumen aneu malakias

Her translation is: “We love beauty within the limits of political judgment, and we philosophize without the barbarian vice of effeminacy.” Pericles’ assertion becomes a wonderful process of discovery:

Could it be that philosophy in the Greek sense — which begins with ‘wonder’, with thaumazein, and ends (at least in Plato and Aristotle) in the speechless beholding of some unveiled truth — is more likely to lead into inactivity than love of beauty? Could it be, on the other hand, that love of beauty remains barbarous unless it is accompanied by euteleia, by the faculty to take aim in judgment, discernment, and discrimination, in brief, by that curious and ill-defined capacity we commonly call taste? And finally, could it be that this right love of beauty, the proper kind of intercourse with beautiful things — the cultura animi which makes man fit to take care of the things of the world and which Cicero, in contradistinction with the Greeks, ascribed to philosophy — has something to do with politics? Could it be that taste belongs among the political faculties? [Between Past and Future, page 214-215)

The answer to Arendt’s last question should be “no.” Euteleia means strictness, economy, thriftiness; in the context of Pericles’ Oration it is lack of extravagance [2]. It has been translated as: “we cultivate refinement without extravagance and knowledge without effeminacy” [Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, tr. Richard Crawley]. A more literal translation would be: “we love beauty with parsimony and love wisdom without effeminacy,” where euteleia can be translated as “parsimony” (parsimonia < Lat. parcere, to spare), which is simplicity in harmony with Being, a form of care. Crates personified it, calling Euteleiakleinês ekgone Sôphrosunês” (Theb. 12) “the famous [one] born of Sôphrosunê” (Moderation).

Pericles’ statement is a powerful characterization of the classical way of life, a synthesis between liberality and conservation. Only the forceful breaking of this frame of mind into its complementary components, and the implacable separation of their mutually opposed substitutes, political liberalism and conservatism, has generated the situation that we see in today’s imbalanced attitudes toward the arts and philosophy. For instance, conservatives often seem to endorse rigid thinking and hinder the development of the arts, while liberals encourage the loose development of artistic expression and tend to sanction any preposterous theory as philosophy.

Arendt’s confusion of culture with politics is a consequence of her view of judgment, “the faculty of taste,” which she erroneously draws from Kant. She considers reflective judgment a “specifically political activity” because it is given by the ability to “think in the place of everybody else,” to be part of that erweiterte Denkungsart that Kant speaks about. However, in Kant’s Critique of Judgment this is grounded in the ideal teleological aspect of reason, which in its universality makes possible the organized forms of human life we find everywhere: education, politics, society, religion, or the arts. It is obvious that culture encompasses all of these and more. Kant provides us with the modern theoretical basis for a link between Bildung and Kultur.

Another author who does not seem to perceive clearly Pericles’ forma mentis is Leo Strauss. In his essay on “Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War”, published in a study titled The City and Man, he writes:

Pericles was by far superior to his successors by his ability to guide Athens safely in peace and through the war; Athens reached her greatest power under his rule (II 65.5-13). Yet Thucydides does not say of Periclean Athens as he says of Sparta that it succeeded in combining prosperity with moderation and still less that Athens succeeded in this thanks to Pericles. He does not even mention moderation (sophrosyne) in his eulogy of Pericles. Nor does his Pericles ever in any of his three speeches mention moderation….” [The City and Man, page 152]

It is noteworthy that both Arendt, a favorite of liberals, and Strauss, an honored figure among conservatives misread Pericles’ character and how it represented Athenian culture. Pericles recognized and lived the universal values that were visible in the Athenian ethos regardless of the political regime. This is what enabled Pericles to boldly say that Athens was “the school of Hellas” and praise the versatile character of the Athenian citizen in favorable or unfavorable circumstances, like peace or war.

The problem of moderation is important. How can there be proper measure in “love of beauty”? How are we to evaluate the content of this ideal in its existential realization? Nicolai Hartmann, an exponent of “Critical Realism,” elaborates on this topic in the second volume — Moral Values — of his Ethics, drawing from Aristotle’s exploration of values as virtues under the form of the Doctrine of the Golden Mean, which, as Hartmann noticed, is still not understood properly [3]. The mesotês (middle way) is not mediocrity, but virtue as a value-synthesis of dual inclinations.

The science of economics provides us with a noticeable example: the word “economy” comes from oikonomia (also thrift, like euteleia, but generally a normative term for an arrangement) which becomes an educated refinement of methods toward a virtuous moderation between spending and saving, offer and demand, objectively balanced in trade through prices, the functional measure of market value. Here, an operative teleological, rational principle would be “laissez-faire.”

The classical mindset is not merely opportunistic (i.e. conservation in giving and liberality in receiving), but consistently harmonious. A distinctive Greek virtue was generosity (eleutheriotês, liberality [4]), which overcomes scarcity and extravagance through the synthesis of austerity and endowment. Similarly, in the presence of beauty, the aesthetic giveness of Being, thaumazein (wonderment, admiration [5]) would overcome apathy and lust in the synthesis of reticence and passion. These virtues characterize the culture of classicism, which allows for the development of any human activity that leads to fulfillment.

Facilitating the realization of intrinsic purpose, euteleia aims for the good (as the etymology of the word suggests [6]). Euteleia and its archê (principle), Sôphrosunê, personify the rule of endurance, subtlety and harmony, which are the basic characteristics of value in general, and individual virtue in particular. Among these characteristics, subtlety comes from purity and endurance from fullness, the superactual aspects of Good — while harmony governs the value-synthesis. The two exemplars of virtue, parsimony and moderation, stand for care and knowledge combined with will, respectively, and the awareness of the value-synthesis comes from practical reason through thinking. Beyond these faculties we find love, life and wisdom, which are irreducible.

This does not mean that subtlety is a sufficient criterion of value, or that we have full cognition of the good, then judge something as valuable. Subtlety is a sign of value, and a corresponding refinement is appropriate for cultivating it. Value, an aspect of Being, is given in experience by an essential affinity we have with the world and with the spiritual order; on a deep level this knowledge is spontaneous for every human being. Purposeful care is the activity (energeia) which fulfills the potential (dunamis) of a value. Its archê, love, is the intentional, creative movement to transcend this established potential by way of free will, in the dialectic of essence and existence, whose moments are successive values. Only through this activity we can reflect on the good: only love is the awareness of purity and fullness. There is no duty or purpose beyond love. Wisdom is the perfect realization of harmony, and love of wisdom is a superior way of life: an active participation in the realm of values, manifested in virtues. Beyond virtue, love (agapê) unites purity and fullness in perfection, taking up all value-moments into eternity, in the harmony of freedom and necessity which is absolute life, the life-unity of Being and Wisdom through Love, in total awareness.

The relation between ethics and aesthetics can be found through the fundamental connection between being and becoming, in the concreteness of personal existence. In Either/Or, Kierkegaard emphasizes the continuity between aesthetics and ethics, which is given in self-possession [7]. Like Socrates, he was acutely conscious of the need for self-examination, to bring the ontological order of values into expression as a preparation for the religious “stage” of a life that aims for completeness.

A more general characterization of culture is now in order. This concept has been analyzed by Leonard Nelson his System of Ethics and by Max Scheler, in The Forms of Knowledge and Culture. Nelson sees culture in its relationship to life as an autonomous activity, whose faculty is reason. The ideal of culture is the rule of the balanced faculty of the will toward self-determination. [8]. After Nelson, the rational criterion of ideals is a virtuous disposition that defines the ethical task of man, and the ideal of culture is the ideal of humanity.

We find here the same insights into the existential relationship between being and becoming that the Greek philosophers were aware of, and that Kierkegaard understood very well, and again, the connection between Bildung and Kultur, which are two instances of an “organizing whole,” to use Kant’s terms. Consequently, Nelson deduces three ideals: love of truth, love of justice and love of beauty from the requirements of the faculty of practical reason which has both aesthetic and ethical “interests.” The material (non-formal) content of these ideals is reflected in non-compulsive, non-sensual love as concern for the existence of what is objectively valuable.

Scheler fully developed the theory of value and personalism in Formalism in Ethics and Non-Formal Ethics of Values [9]. He sees culture as a category of being, the “form” of each individual’s existence, which orders his activities. The cultural being of the person corresponds to a “microuniverse” of individual life, which is a world whose essential constitution, but not incidental existence, can be comprehended. Every individual contains an ordered structure of all the essential ideas and values, in a contingent existence which can never be fully known:

The essences of all things intersect in man and find solidarity in man. Thomas Aquinas says: “Homo est quodammodo omnia” (in some way man is all things).” “To strive for culture” means to try, with loving fervor, to participate ontologically and take part in all aspects of nature and history which are essential to the world, and not just fortuitous existence and circumstance…. The world has evolved realiter until it found expression in man, and man should evolve idealiter until he becomes a world! [10]

This is a beautiful formulation of the ideal of culture. In the same essay, Scheler describes philosophy as “love of essence” which is the root of all “objective” attitudes, and this brings us to Pericles’ characterization of the activity of philosophy (love of wisdom). The life of Socrates is an example of this brave, consistent and considerate practice, taken to its ultimate conclusion. The Socratic Method can be seen as a mode of the activity described by Pericles. Socrates’ respect for reality and his courageous, rigorous manner of philosophizing led him to such wonderful synthetic judgments as “to do is worse than to suffer injustice” [11], which stands today as a fundamental principle of justice.

It can be asserted that the classical culture of the ancient Greeks is a superior accomplishment, as Nietzsche writes in a superb passage from Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks [12]. The elegant expression of reason makes possible the unity of culture in history, through which we hear the conversation among the citizens and statesmen of Schopenhauer’s “republic of creative minds.”

Source: http://www.friesian.com/muntean2.htm accessed 8/3/2010 at 10.20pm

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