The quest to find a unifying principle for the new forms of republicanism that sprouted in the wake of the French and American revolutions preoccupied the nineteenth century. One proposal was for democracies to look to culture as an organizing center for a common life, because culture concerned at its root the cultivation of self and society as twin projects that could not be severed. Any government by the people must concern itself with the formation of the people.

This idea lies behind Matthew Arnold’s assertion that the origin of culture resided in a love of perfection. Culture is not so much about possessing something as it is about becoming something, a harmonious expansion of human capacities that moves toward human flourishing. This is why for Arnold the love of perfection endemic to humanity is simultaneously a call to a social life without which the pursuit of such perfection becomes impossible. It is in the dances, the rituals, and the artistry of common human life that humans find a connection to the natural harmonies of creation and explore its beauties and terrors.

Given Arnold’s way of relating culture to perfection one can immediately see religion’s contribution since religion too concerns itself with the pursuit of perfection. T. S. Eliot sought to reformulate Arnold’s understanding of the relationship of religion and culture by suggesting that the culture of a people is an incarnation of its religion. Even though Christopher Dawson dissented from the close identification of culture and religion, he agreed with Eliot’s desire to preserve the transmission of culture through its primary elements: family, region, and religion. Each of these elements reinforce subsidiarity and become the basis for viewing culture as an organic relation among the various orders of society. The purpose of government was to maintain this organic relationship by securing the goods necessary for its growth.

What both Eliot and Dawson resisted was culture as a planned and thus mechanized reality. This is ultimately what Dawson saw as the essence of what he called the “bourgeois mentality” to which he opposed the man or woman of desire. He thought that the advocates of a planned society as well as those of the liberal ideal of an individual culture tended to sacrifice family, region, and religion as stabilizing forces that ensure human flourishing. Dawson called this “the impersonal tyranny of a mechanized order.” For Dawson, the mechanization of society and the creation of a technopoly through the “expert” will inevitably destroy spiritual freedom in the name of equality of relation.

Eliot and Dawson provide an insight into how disenchantment attempts to redirect the fundamental human love of perfection by disavowing the creative ecstasy so central to the deepest human impulses. At the popular level, disenchantment is resisted by the various spiritualities. The turn toward spirituality and even a semblance of organized religion by some atheists like Alain de Botton is an implicit recognition of the deeply spiritual nature of humanity and the need for a corporate life within which to pursue this spiritual side. 

And here we find the essence of disenchantment and its connection to mechanization. Disenchantment does not refer to a removal of the fundamental human impulse toward perfection, including the spiritual perfection of the human person. Indeed, the forces of disenchantment cannot remove something so basic to human existence. Rather disenchantment is the result of an effort to organize the pursuit of perfection along technocratic lines, which invariably destroys particularity in favor of homogeneity. This kind of rationalization crushes local life from which creative ecstasy bubbles up in a myriad different forms through a dynamic relationship in, with, and through family, region, and religion. Jürgen Habermas sought to critique scientism as one force behind this turn. For Habermas, scientism refers to a belief that science no longer constitutes “one form of possible knowledge, but rather must identify knowledge with science.” Culture needs an enchanted world without which the various forms of knowledge become lost and, just as importantly, the nature of knowing ceases to be a revelatory encounter with the other.

Part of me wonders if the evolution in the “doctrine” of the separation of church and state at the judicial level stems from a new view of religion as hindering the pursuit of perfection rather than facilitating it. Of course, at the same time the modern nation state continues to recognize that when one removes mediating institutions like religious organizations something must take their place. Absent the internal regulations of character formed and sustained through connections to family, region, and religion, one must assert the privilege of the state as the creator and arbiter of culture and the formation of the citizenry. This may be why public education has become the battleground of the culture wars and also the basic impulse behind home schooling.

We might end with a note on Alexis de Tocqueville’s distinction between equality and freedom, which one also finds in Arnold, Eliot, and Dawson. Modern democracies must not aim for an equality of social relations, but the conditions within which human freedom may be cultivated in ways commensurate with the perfection of the human person and thus human society. To do so is to recognize the need for culture to shape people as it bubbles up through its three elements of family, region, and religion. Governments that seek to build a society of complete social equality will invariably attempt to create culture and thereby actually destroy it through rationalization. Some may be mystified at decisions to stay at home in order to fulfill one’s parental obligations or to return to rural communities with their stabilized rhythms or to enter monasteries in part because they do not see the connection between these activities, human freedom, and human cultivation. They do not understand that these expressions of family, region, and religion actually promote freedom by unleashing the creative ecstasy necessary to the formation of self and society. From these roots culture springs forth and only an enchanted world inhabited by great lovers who passionately pursue perfection can sustain it.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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