Infomotions, Inc.What Is Your Culture to Me? / Warner, Charles Dudley, 1829-1900

Author: Warner, Charles Dudley, 1829-1900
Title: What Is Your Culture to Me?
Publisher: Project Gutenberg
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Title: What is Your Culture to Me

Author: Charles Dudley Warner

Release Date: December 6, 2004 [EBook #3119]

Language: English

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Produced by David Widger


By Charles Dudley Warner

   Delivered before the Alumni of Hamilton College, Clinton, N. Y.,
   Wednesday, June 26, 1872

Twenty-one years ago in this house I heard a voice calling me to ascend
the platform, and there to stand and deliver. The voice was the voice of
President North; the language was an excellent imitation of that used by
Cicero and Julius Caesar. I remember the flattering invitation--it is the
classic tag that clings to the graduate long after he has forgotten the
gender of the nouns that end in 'um--orator proximus', the grateful voice
said, 'ascendat, videlicet,' and so forth. To be proclaimed an orator,
and an ascending orator, in such a sonorous tongue, in the face of a
world waiting for orators, stirred one's blood like the herald's trumpet
when the lists are thrown open. Alas! for most of us, who crowded so
eagerly into the arena, it was the last appearance as orators on any

The facility of the world for swallowing up orators, and company after
company of educated young men, has been remarked. But it is almost
incredible to me now that the class of 1851, with its classic sympathies
and its many revolutionary ideas, disappeared in the flood of the world
so soon and so silently, causing scarcely a ripple in the smoothly
flowing stream. I suppose the phenomenon has been repeated for twenty
years. Do the young gentlemen at Hamilton, I wonder, still carry on their
ordinary conversation in the Latin tongue, and their familiar vacation
correspondence in the language of Aristophanes? I hope so. I hope they
are more proficient in such exercises than the young gentlemen of twenty
years ago were, for I have still great faith in a culture that is so far
from any sordid aspirations as to approach the ideal; although the young
graduate is not long in learning that there is an indifference in the
public mind with regard to the first aorist that amounts nearly to
apathy, and that millions of his fellow-creatures will probably live and
die without the consolations of the second aorist. It is a melancholy
fact that, after a thousand years of missionary effort, the vast majority
of civilized men do not know that gerunds are found only in the singular

I confess that this failure of the annual graduating class to make its
expected impression on the world has its pathetic side. Youth is
credulous--as it always ought to be--and full of hope--else the world
were dead already--and the graduate steps out into life with an ingenuous
self-confidence in his resources. It is to him an event, this
turning-point in the career of what he feels to be an important and
immortal being. His entrance is public and with some dignity of display.
For a day the world stops to see it; the newspapers spread abroad a
report of it, and the modest scholar feels that the eyes of mankind are
fixed on him in expectation and desire. Though modest, he is not
insensible to the responsibility of his position. He has only packed away
in his mind the wisdom of the ages, and he does not intend to be stingy
about communicating it to the world which is awaiting his graduation.
Fresh from the communion with great thoughts in great literatures, he is
in haste to give mankind the benefit of them, and lead it on into new
enthusiasm and new conquests.

The world, however, is not very much excited. The birth of a child is in
itself marvelous, but it is so common. Over and over again, for hundreds
of years, these young gentlemen have been coming forward with their
specimens of learning, tied up in neat little parcels, all ready to
administer, and warranted to be of the purest materials. The world is not
unkind, it is not even indifferent, but it must be confessed that it does
not act any longer as if it expected to be enlightened. It is generally
so busy that it does not even ask the young gentlemen what they can do,
but leaves them standing with their little parcels, wondering when the
person will pass by who requires one of them, and when there will happen
a little opening in the procession into which they can fall. They
expected that way would be made for them with shouts of welcome, but they
find themselves before long struggling to get even a standing-place in
the crowd--it is only kings, and the nobility, and those fortunates who
dwell in the tropics, where bread grows on trees and clothing is
unnecessary, who have reserved seats in this world.

To the majority of men I fancy that literature is very much the same that
history is; and history is presented as a museum of antiquities and
curiosities, classified, arranged, and labeled. One may walk through it
as he does through the Hotel de Cluny; he feels that he ought to be
interested in it, but it is very tiresome. Learning is regarded in like
manner as an accumulation of literature, gathered into great storehouses
called libraries--the thought of which excites great respect in most
minds, but is ineffably tedious. Year after year and age after age it
accumulates--this evidence and monument of intellectual activity--piling
itself up in vast collections, which it needs a lifetime even to
catalogue, and through which the uncultured walk as the idle do through
the British Museum, with no very strong indignation against Omar who
burned the library at Alexandria.

To the popular mind this vast accumulation of learning in libraries, or
in brains that do not visibly apply it, is much the same thing. The
business of the scholar appears to be this sort of accumulation; and the
young student, who comes to the world with a little portion of this
treasure dug out of some classic tomb or mediaeval museum, is received
with little more enthusiasm than is the miraculous handkerchief of St.
Veronica by the crowd of Protestants to whom it is exhibited on Holy Week
in St. Peter's. The historian must make his museum live again; the
scholar must vivify his learning with a present purpose.

It is unnecessary for me to say that all this is only from the
unsympathetic and worldly side. I should think myself a criminal if I
said anything to chill the enthusiasm of the young scholar, or to dash
with any skepticism his longing and his hope. He has chosen the highest.
His beautiful faith and his aspiration are the light of life. Without his
fresh enthusiasm and his gallant devotion to learning, to art, to
culture, the world would be dreary enough. Through him comes the
ever-springing inspiration in affairs. Baffled at every turn and driven
defeated from a hundred fields, he carries victory in himself. He belongs
to a great and immortal army. Let him not be discouraged at his apparent
little influence, even though every sally of every young life may seem
like a forlorn hope. No man can see the whole of the battle. It must
needs be that regiment after regiment, trained, accomplished, gay, and
high with hope, shall be sent into the field, marching on, into the
smoke, into the fire, and be swept away. The battle swallows them, one
after the other, and the foe is yet unyielding, and the ever-remorseless
trumpet calls for more and more. But not in vain, for some day, and every
day, along the line, there is a cry, "They fly! they fly!" and the whole
army advances, and the flag is planted on an ancient fortress where it
never waved before. And, even if you never see this, better than
inglorious camp-following is it to go in with the wasting regiment; to
carry the colors up the slope of the enemy's works, though the next
moment you fall and find a grave at the foot of the glacis.

What are the relations of culture to common life, of the scholar to the
day-laborer? What is the value of this vast accumulation of higher
learning, what is its point of contact with the mass of humanity, that
toils and eats and sleeps and reproduces itself and dies, generation
after generation, in an unvarying round, on an unvarying level? We have
had discussed lately the relation of culture to religion. Mr. Froude,
with a singular, reactionary ingenuity, has sought to prove that the
progress of the century, so-called, with all its material alleviations,
has done little in regard to a happy life, to the pleasure of existence,
for the average individual Englishman. Into neither of these inquiries do
I purpose to enter; but we may not unprofitably turn our attention to a
subject closely connected with both of them.

It has not escaped your attention that there are indications everywhere
of what may be called a ground-swell. There is not simply an inquiry as
to the value of classic culture, a certain jealousy of the schools where
it is obtained, a rough popular contempt for the graces of learning, a
failure to see any connection between the first aorist and the rolling of
steel rails, but there is arising an angry protest against the conditions
of a life which make one free of the serene heights of thought and give
him range of all intellectual countries, and keep another at the spade
and the loom, year after year, that he may earn food for the day and
lodging for the night. In our day the demand here hinted at has taken
more definite form and determinate aim, and goes on, visible to all men,
to unsettle society and change social and political relations. The great
movement of labor, extravagant and preposterous as are some of its
demands, demagogic as are most of its leaders, fantastic as are many of
its theories, is nevertheless real, and gigantic, and full of a certain
primeval force, and with a certain justice in it that never sleeps in
human affairs, but moves on, blindly often and destructively often, a
movement cruel at once and credulous, deceived and betrayed, and
revenging itself on friends and foes alike. Its strength is in the fact
that it is natural and human; it might have been predicted from a mere
knowledge of human nature, which is always restless in any relations it
is possible to establish, which is always like the sea, seeking a level,
and never so discontented as when anything like a level is approximated.

What is the relation of the scholar to the present phase of this
movement? What is the relation of culture to it? By scholar I mean the
man who has had the advantages of such an institution as this. By culture
I mean that fine product of opportunity and scholarship which is to mere
knowledge what manners are to the gentleman. The world has a growing
belief in the profit of knowledge, of information, but it has a suspicion
of culture. There is a lingering notion in matters religious that
something is lost by refinement--at least, that there is danger that the
plain, blunt, essential truths will be lost in aesthetic graces. The
laborer is getting to consent that his son shall go to school, and learn
how to build an undershot wheel or to assay metals; but why plant in his
mind those principles of taste which will make him as sensitive to beauty
as to pain, why open to him those realms of imagination with the
illimitable horizons, the contours and colors of which can but fill him
with indefinite longing?

It is not necessary for me in this presence to dwell upon the value of
culture. I wish rather to have you notice the gulf that exists between
what the majority want to know and that fine fruit of knowledge
concerning which there is so widespread an infidelity. Will culture aid a
minister in a "protracted meeting"? Will the ability to read Chaucer
assist a shop-keeper? Will the politician add to the "sweetness and
light" of his lovely career if he can read the "Battle of the Frogs and
the Mice" in the original? What has the farmer to do with the "Rose
Garden of Saadi"?

I suppose it is not altogether the fault of the majority that the true
relation of culture to common life is so misunderstood. The scholar is
largely responsible for it; he is largely responsible for the isolation
of his position, and the want of sympathy it begets. No man can influence
his fellows with any power who retires into his own selfishness, and
gives himself to a self-culture which has no further object. What is he
that he should absorb the sweets of the universe, that he should hold all
the claims of humanity second to the perfecting of himself? This effort
to save his own soul was common to Goethe and Francis of Assisi; under
different manifestations it was the same regard for self. And where it is
an intellectual and not a spiritual greediness, I suppose it is what an
old writer calls "laying up treasures in hell."

It is not an unreasonable demand of the majority that the few who have
the advantages of the training of college and university should exhibit
the breadth and sweetness of a generous culture, and should shed
everywhere that light which ennobles common things, and without which
life is like one of the old landscapes in which the artist forgot to put
sunlight. One of the reasons why the college-bred man does not meet this
reasonable expectation is that his training, too often, has not been
thorough and conscientious, it has not been of himself; he has acquired,
but he is not educated. Another is that, if he is educated, he is not
impressed with the intimacy of his relation to that which is below him as
well as that which is above him, and his culture is out of sympathy with
the great mass that needs it, and must have it, or it will remain a blind
force in the world, the lever of demagogues who preach social anarchy and
misname it progress. There is no culture so high, no taste so fastidious,
no grace of learning so delicate, no refinement of art so exquisite, that
it cannot at this hour find full play for itself in the broadest fields
of humanity; since it is all needed to soften the attritions of common
life, and guide to nobler aspirations the strong materialistic influences
of our restless society.

One reason, as I said, for the gulf between the majority and the select
few to be educated is, that the college does not seldom disappoint the
reasonable expectation concerning it. The graduate of the carpenter's
shop knows how to use his tools--or used to in days before superficial
training in trades became the rule. Does the college graduate know how to
use his tools? Or has he to set about fitting himself for some
employment, and gaining that culture, that training of himself, that
utilization of his information which will make him necessary in the
world? There has been a great deal of discussion whether a boy should be
trained in the classics or mathematics or sciences or modern languages. I
feel like saying "yes" to all the various propositions. For Heaven's sake
train him in something, so that he can handle himself, and have free and
confident use of his powers. There isn't a more helpless creature in the
universe than a scholar with a vast amount of information over which he
has no control. He is like a man with a load of hay so badly put upon his
cart that it all slides off before he can get to market. The influence of
a man on the world is generally proportioned to his ability to do
something. When Abraham Lincoln was running for the Legislature the first
time, on the platform of the improvement of the navigation of the
Sangamon River, he went to secure the votes of thirty men who were
cradling a wheat field. They asked no questions about internal
improvements, but only seemed curious whether Abraham had muscle enough
to represent them in the Legislature. The obliging man took up a cradle
and led the gang round the field. The whole thirty voted for him.

What is scholarship? The learned Hindu can repeat I do not know how many
thousands of lines from the Vedas, and perhaps backwards as well as
forwards. I heard of an excellent old lady who had counted how many times
the letter A occurs in the Holy Scriptures. The Chinese students who
aspire to honors spend years in verbally memorizing the classics
--Confucius and Mencius--and receive degrees and public advancement upon
ability to transcribe from memory without the error of a point, or
misplacement of a single tea-chest character, the whole of some books of
morals. You do not wonder that China is today more like an herbarium than
anything else. Learning is a kind of fetish, and it has no influence
whatever upon the great inert mass of Chinese humanity.

I suppose it is possible for a young gentleman to be able to read--just
think of it, after ten years of grammar and lexicon, not to know Greek
literature and have flexible command of all its richness and beauty, but
to read it!--it is possible, I suppose, for the graduate of college to be
able to read all the Greek authors, and yet to have gone, in regard to
his own culture, very little deeper than a surface reading of them; to
know very little of that perfect architecture and what it expressed; nor
of that marvelous sculpture and the conditions of its immortal beauty;
nor of that artistic development which made the Acropolis to bud and
bloom under the blue sky like the final flower of a perfect nature; nor
of that philosophy, that politics, that society, nor of the life of that
polished, crafty, joyous race, the springs of it and the far-reaching,
still unexpended effects of it.

Yet as surely as that nothing perishes, that the Providence of God is not
a patchwork of uncontinued efforts, but a plan and a progress, as surely
as the Pilgrim embarkation at Delfshaven has a relation to the battle of
Gettysburg, and to the civil rights bill giving the colored man
permission to ride in a public conveyance and to be buried in a public
cemetery, so surely has the Parthenon some connection with your new State
capitol at Albany, and the daily life of the vine-dresser of the
Peloponnesus some lesson for the American day-laborer. The scholar is
said to be the torch-bearer, transmitting the increasing light from
generation to generation, so that the feet of all, the humblest and the
loveliest, may walk in the radiance and not stumble. But he very often
carries a dark lantern.

Not what is the use of Greek, of any culture in art or literature, but
what is the good to me of your knowing Greek, is the latest question of
the ditch-digger to the scholar--what better off am I for your learning?
And the question, in view of the interdependence of all members of
society, is one that cannot be put away as idle. One reason why the
scholar does not make the world of the past, the world of books, real to
his fellows and serviceable to them, is that it is not real to himself,
but a mere unsubstantial place of intellectual idleness, where he dallies
some years before he begins his task in life. And another reason is that,
while it may be real to him, while he is actually cultured and trained,
he fails to see or to feel that his culture is not a thing apart, and
that all the world has a right to share its blessed influence. Failing to
see this, he is isolated, and, wanting his sympathy, the untutored world
mocks at his super-fineness and takes its own rough way to rougher ends.
Greek art was for the people, Greek poetry was for the people; Raphael
painted his immortal frescoes where throngs could be lifted in thought
and feeling by them; Michael Angelo hung the dome over St. Peter's so
that the far-off peasant on the Campagna could see it, and the maiden
kneeling by the shrine in the Alban hills. Do we often stop to think what
influence, direct or other, the scholar, the man of high culture, has
today upon the great mass of our people? Why do they ask, what is the use
of your learning and your art?

The artist, in the retirement of his studio, finishes a charming,
suggestive, historical picture. The rich man buys it and hangs it in his
library, where the privileged few can see it. I do not deny that the
average rich man needs all the refining influence the picture can exert
on him, and that the picture is doing missionary work in his house; but
it is nevertheless an example of an educating influence withdrawn and
appropriated to narrow uses. But the engraver comes, and, by his
mediating art, transfers it to a thousand sheets, and scatters its sweet
influence far abroad. All the world, in its toil, its hunger, its
sordidness, pauses a moment to look on it--that gray seacoast, the
receding Mayflower, the two young Pilgrims in the foreground regarding
it, with tender thoughts of the far home--all the world looks on it
perhaps for a moment thoughtfully, perhaps tearfully, and is touched with
the sentiment of it, is kindled into a glow of nobleness by the sight of
that faith and love and resolute devotion which have tinged our early
history with the faint light of romance. So art is no longer the
enjoyment of the few, but the help and solace of the many.

The scholar who is cultured by books, reflection, travel, by a refined
society, consorts with his kind, and more and more removes himself from
the sympathies of common life. I know how almost inevitable this is, how
almost impossible it is to resist the segregation of classes according to
the affinities of taste. But by what mediation shall the culture that is
now the possession of the few be made to leaven the world and to elevate
and sweeten ordinary life? By books? Yes. By the newspaper? Yes. By the
diffusion of works of art? Yes. But when all is done that can be done by
such letters-missive from one class to another, there remains the need of
more personal contact, of a human sympathy, diffused and living. The
world has had enough of charities. It wants respect and consideration. We
desire no longer to be legislated for, it says; we want to be legislated
with. Why do you never come to see me but you bring me something? asks
the sensitive and poor seamstress. Do you always give some charity to
your friends? I want companionship, and not cold pieces; I want to be
treated like a human being who has nerves and feelings, and tears too,
and as much interest in the sunset, and in the birth of Christ, perhaps
as you. And the mass of uncared-for ignorance and brutality, finding a
voice at length, bitterly repels the condescensions of charity; you have
your culture, your libraries, your fine houses, your church, your
religion, and your God, too; let us alone, we want none of them. In the
bear-pit at Berne, the occupants, who are the wards of the city, have had
meat thrown to them daily for I know not how long, but they are not tamed
by this charity, and would probably eat up any careless person who fell
into their clutches, without apology.

Do not impute to me quixotic notions with regard to the duties of men and
women of culture, or think that I undervalue the difficulties in the way,
the fastidiousness on the one side, or the jealousies on the other. It is
by no means easy to an active participant to define the drift of his own
age; but I seem to see plainly that unless the culture of the age finds
means to diffuse itself, working downward and reconciling antagonisms by
a commonness of thought and feeling and aim in life, society must more
and more separate itself into jarring classes, with mutual
misunderstandings and hatred and war. To suggest remedies is much more
difficult than to see evils; but the comprehension of dangers is the
first step towards mastering them. The problem of our own time--the
reconciliation of the interests of classes--is as yet very ill defined.
This great movement of labor, for instance, does not know definitely what
it wants, and those who are spectators do not know what their relations
are to it. The first thing to be done is for them to try to understand
each other. One class sees that the other has lighter or at least
different labor, opportunities of travel, a more liberal supply of the
luxuries of life, a higher enjoyment and a keener relish of the
beautiful, the immaterial. Looking only at external conditions, it
concludes that all it needs to come into this better place is wealth, and
so it organizes war upon the rich, and it makes demands of freedom from
toil and of compensation which it is in no man's power to give it, and
which would not, if granted over and over again, lift it into that
condition it desires. It is a tale in the Gulistan, that a king placed
his son with a preceptor, and said, "This is your son; educate him in the
same manner as your own." The preceptor took pains with him for a year,
but without success, whilst his own sons were completed in learning and
accomplishments. The king reproved the preceptor, and said, "You have
broken your promise, and not acted faithfully."

He replied, "O king, the education was the same, but the capacities are
different. Although silver and gold are produced from a stone, yet these
metals are not to be found in every stone. The star Canopus shines all
over the world, but the scented leather comes only from Yemen." "'Tis an
absolute, and, as it were, a divine perfection," says Montaigne, "for a
man to know how loyally to enjoy his being. We seek other conditions, by
reason we do not understand the use of our own; and go out of ourselves,
because we know not how there to reside."

But nevertheless it becomes a necessity for us to understand the wishes
of those who demand a change of condition, and it is necessary that they
should understand the compensations as well as the limitations of every
condition. The dervish congratulated himself that although the only
monument of his grave would be a brick, he should at the last day arrive
at and enter the gate of Paradise before the king had got from under the
heavy stones of his costly tomb. Nothing will bring us into this
desirable mutual understanding except sympathy and personal contact. Laws
will not do it; institutions of charity and relief will not do it.

We must believe, for one thing, that the graces of culture will not be
thrown away if exercised among the humblest and the least cultured; it is
found out that flowers are often more welcome in the squalid
tenement-houses of Boston than loaves of bread. It is difficult to say
exactly how culture can extend its influence into places uncongenial and
to people indifferent to it, but I will try and illustrate what I mean by
an example or two.

Criminals in this country, when the law took hold of them, used to be
turned over to the care of men who often had more sympathy with the crime
than with the criminal, or at least to those who were almost as coarse in
feeling and as brutal in speech as their charges. There have been some
changes of late years in the care of criminals, but does public opinion
yet everywhere demand that jailers and prison-keepers and executioners of
the penal law should be men of refinement, of high character, of any
degree of culture? I do not know any class more needing the best direct
personal influence of the best civilization than the criminal. The
problem of its proper treatment and reformation is one of the most
pressing, and it needs practically the aid of our best men and women. I
should have great hope of any prison establishment at the head of which
was a gentleman of fine education, the purest tastes, the most elevated
morality and lively sympathy with men as such, provided he had also will
and the power of command. I do not know what might not be done for the
viciously inclined and the transgressors, if they could come under the
influence of refined men and women. And yet you know that a boy or a girl
may be arrested for crime, and pass from officer to keeper, and jailer to
warden, and spend years in a career of vice and imprisonment, and never
once see any man or woman, officially, who has tastes, or sympathies, or
aspirations much above that vulgar level whence the criminals came.
Anybody who is honest and vigilant is considered good enough to take
charge of prison birds.

The age is merciful and abounds in charities-houses of refuge for poor
women, societies for the conservation of the exposed and the reclamation
of the lost. It is willing to pay liberally for their support, and to
hire ministers and distributors of its benefactions. But it is beginning
to see that it cannot hire the distribution of love, nor buy brotherly
feeling. The most encouraging thing I have seen lately is an experiment
in one of our cities. In the thick of the town the ladies of the city
have furnished and opened a reading-room, sewing-room, conversation-room,
or what not, where young girls, who work for a living and have no
opportunity for any culture, at home or elsewhere, may spend their
evenings. They meet there always some of the ladies I have spoken of,
whose unostentatious duty and pleasure it is to pass the evening with
them, in reading or music or the use of the needle, and the exchange of
the courtesies of life in conversation. Whatever grace and kindness and
refinement of manner they carry there, I do not suppose are wasted. These
are some of the ways in which culture can serve men. And I take it that
one of the chief evidences of our progress in this century is the
recognition of the truth that there is no selfishness so supreme--not
even that in the possession of wealth--as that which retires into itself
with all the accomplishments of liberal learning and rare opportunities,
and looks upon the intellectual poverty of the world without a wish to
relieve it. "As often as I have been among men," says Seneca, "I have
returned less a man." And Thomas a Kempis declared that "the greatest
saints avoided the company of men as much as they could, and chose to
live to God in secret." The Christian philosophy was no improvement upon
the pagan in this respect, and was exactly at variance with the teaching
and practice of Jesus of Nazareth.

The American scholar cannot afford to live for himself, nor merely for
scholarship and the delights of learning. He must make himself more felt
in the material life of this country. I am aware that it is said that the
culture of the age is itself materialistic, and that its refinements are
sensual; that there is little to choose between the coarse excesses of
poverty and the polished and more decorous animality of the more
fortunate. Without entering directly upon the consideration of this
much-talked-of tendency, I should like to notice the influence upon our
present and probable future of the bounty, fertility, and extraordinary
opportunities of this still new land.

The American grows and develops himself with few restraints. Foreigners
used to describe him as a lean, hungry, nervous animal, gaunt,
inquisitive, inventive, restless, and certain to shrivel into physical
inferiority in his dry and highly oxygenated atmosphere. This
apprehension is not well founded. It is quieted by his achievements the
continent over, his virile enterprises, his endurance in war and in the
most difficult explorations, his resistance of the influence of great
cities towards effeminacy and loss of physical vigor. If ever man took
large and eager hold of earthly things and appropriated them to his own
use, it is the American. We are gross eaters, we are great drinkers. We
shall excel the English when we have as long practice as they. I am
filled with a kind of dismay when I see the great stock-yards of Chicago
and Cincinnati, through which flow the vast herds and droves of the
prairies, marching straight down the throats of Eastern people. Thousands
are always sowing and reaping and brewing and distilling, to slake the
immortal thirst of the country. We take, indeed, strong hold of the
earth; we absorb its fatness. When Leicester entertained Elizabeth at
Kenilworth, the clock in the great tower was set perpetually at twelve,
the hour of feasting. It is always dinner-time in America. I do not know
how much land it takes to raise an average citizen, but I should say a
quarter section. He spreads himself abroad, he riots in abundance; above
all things he must have profusion, and he wants things that are solid and
strong. On the Sorrentine promontory, and on the island of Capri, the
hardy husbandman and fisherman draws his subsistence from the sea and
from a scant patch of ground. One may feast on a fish and a handful of
olives. The dinner of the laborer is a dish of polenta, a few figs, some
cheese, a glass of thin wine. His wants are few and easily supplied. He
is not overfed, his diet is not stimulating; I should say that he would
pay little to the physician, that familiar of other countries whose
family office is to counteract the effects of over-eating. He is
temperate, frugal, content, and apparently draws not more of his life
from the earth or the sea than from the genial sky. He would never build
a Pacific Railway, nor write a hundred volumes of commentary on the
Scriptures; but he is an example of how little a man actually needs of
the gross products of the earth.

I suppose that life was never fuller in certain ways than it is here in
America. If a civilization is judged by its wants, we are certainly
highly civilized. We cannot get land enough, nor clothes enough, nor
houses enough, nor food enough. A Bedouin tribe would fare sumptuously on
what one American family consumes and wastes. The revenue required for
the wardrobe of one woman of fashion would suffice to convert the
inhabitants of I know not how many square miles in Africa. It absorbs the
income of a province to bring up a baby. We riot in prodigality, we vie
with each other in material accumulation and expense. Our thoughts are
mainly on how to increase the products of the world; and get them into
our own possession.

I think this gross material tendency is strong in America, and more
likely to get the mastery over the spiritual and the intellectual here
than elsewhere, because of our exhaustless resources. Let us not mistake
the nature of a real civilization, nor suppose we have it because we can
convert crude iron into the most delicate mechanism, or transport
ourselves sixty miles an hour, or even if we shall refine our carnal
tastes so as to be satisfied at dinner with the tongues of ortolans and
the breasts of singing-birds.

Plato banished the musicians from his feasts because he would not have
the charms of conversation interfered with. By comparison, music was to
him a sensuous enjoyment. In any society the ideal must be the banishment
of the more sensuous; the refinement of it will only repeat the continued
experiment of history--the end of a civilization in a polished
materialism, and its speedy fall from that into grossness.

I am sure that the scholar, trained to "plain living and high thinking,"
knows that the prosperous life consists in the culture of the man, and
not in the refinement and accumulation of the material. The word culture
is often used to signify that dainty intellectualism which is merely a
sensuous pampering of the mind, as distinguishable from the healthy
training of the mind as is the education of the body in athletic
exercises from the petting of it by luxurious baths and unguents. Culture
is the blossom of knowledge, but it is a fruit blossom, the ornament of
the age but the seed of the future. The so-called culture, a mere
fastidiousness of taste, is a barren flower.

You would expect spurious culture to stand aloof from common life, as it
does, to extend its charities at the end of a pole, to make of religion a
mere 'cultus,' to construct for its heaven a sort of Paris, where all the
inhabitants dress becomingly, and where there are no Communists. Culture,
like fine manners, is not always the result of wealth or position. When
monseigneur the archbishop makes his rare tour through the Swiss
mountains, the simple peasants do not crowd upon him with boorish
impudence, but strew his stony path with flowers, and receive him with
joyous but modest sincerity. When the Russian prince made his landing in
America the determined staring of a bevy of accomplished American women
nearly swept the young man off the deck of the vessel. One cannot but
respect that tremulous sensitiveness which caused the maiden lady to
shrink from staring at the moon when she heard there was a man in it.

The materialistic drift of this age--that is, its devotion to material
development--is frequently deplored. I suppose it is like all other ages
in that respect, but there appears to be a more determined demand for
change of condition than ever before, and a deeper movement for
equalization. Here in America this is, in great part, a movement for
merely physical or material equalization. The idea seems to be well-nigh
universal that the millennium is to come by a great deal less work and a
great deal more pay. It seems to me that the millennium is to come by an
infusion into all society of a truer culture, which is neither of poverty
nor of wealth, but is the beautiful fruit of the development of the
higher part of man's nature.

And the thought I wish to leave with you, as scholars and men who can
command the best culture, is that it is all needed to shape and control
the strong growth of material development here, to guide the blind
instincts of the mass of men who are struggling for a freer place and a
breath of fresh air; that you cannot stand aloof in a class isolation;
that your power is in a personal sympathy with the humanity which is
ignorant but discontented; and that the question which the man with the
spade asks about the use of your culture to him is a menace.

End of the Project Gutenberg EBook of What is Your Culture to Me
by Charles Dudley Warner


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