Nearly a decade ago, I had the privilege of attending a lecture by Pope Benedict, “The Roots of European Culture.” He developed his theme through a discussion of medieval monasticism. The elite of the Parisian intelligentsia was in attendance, and their bewilderment was obvious. What was the pope driving at? What was the upshot of this meditation on monkish life in the Middle Ages, a walk of life not at all like our own, and one which belongs to a historical era that has been, for many, happily left far behind? I must confess that I was a little perplexed, as well, though perhaps for different reasons. For Pope Benedict brought forward a paradox. European culture undoubtedly owes a great deal to Christianity, but Christianity does not require European culture, as a culture, to be built with Christian materials. This does not reflect a weakness or defect in Christianity. It is a consequence of Christianity’s genius.
To understand this paradox, we need to make an initial distinction. Culture can be defined in two ways. The first provides answers to the basic questions of mankind: Whom shall I marry? What shall I eat, and how shall I cook my meals? How shall I behave within my social and natural surroundings? Whom shall I worship? In each case, a culture distinguishes a right and a wrong way to act. Thou shalt marry a person belonging to this group and not the other. Thou shalt eat this food and not that disgusting filth. Thou shalt worship this god of our fathers and not foreign idols, and so forth.
“Culture” in this sense is hardly common usage. Only anthropologists talk this way. By and large, we use the word “culture” in a more restricted sense to refer to art, religion, philosophy, and science. Let us call this “high culture,” the elevated elements of life, activities and artifacts that go beyond the nitty-gritty. Aristotle makes this point when he discusses philosophical pursuits. He observes that such endeavors arise only after basic needs have been met by various mundane arts. The philosopher can search for final causes after someone has taken good care to make sure the pantry is stocked. Put simply, “high culture” requires a leisure class or, one might say more precisely, a superfluous class of people that is not engaged in the necessary work of maintaining the material basis for society. Aristotle gives as an example the priests in Egypt. They had nothing very much to do, apart, of course, from the ritual deeds that were their job.
What the Greek philosopher reports from Athens was taught in Jerusalem, as well. The second part of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (44:9–20) contains a satire. This passage lampoons idolatry, poking fun at the stupidity of people who adore dumb and powerless statues of wood and stone. The theme is a standard one in Jewish, Christian, and Muslim literature. It is also found in so-called “pagan” authors, such as the Latin poet Horace, though his satire evokes an indulgent smile rather than iconoclasm.
Isaiah’s lampoon reaches its high point in an account of the production of an idol carved from wood. After carefully cultivating just the right trees and harvesting the wood, the idol sculptor delays his task. He takes some of the wood to make a fire to cook his meal and warm himself. The prophet puts an exclamation of satisfaction into the mouth of the idol-monger: “Oh! I warm myself and I look at the flame” (44:16b). The sentence is at first sight redundant, and could very well be overlooked. Yet it expresses two important ideas: The first one is reflexivity, or knowing what one does. The second is the aesthetic moment. Fire is a way for us to roast meat and boil vegetables, as well as warm our bodies. But it also has a beauty of its own. The man carving the idol does more than use the fire; he enjoys it. And so it is with us. We can spend long hours daydreaming while contemplating the burning logs of an open fire.
But there is more. A very important word is uttered by the Isaiahan author. In verse 17, we find out that, after the cooking and warming and enjoying of the flames are done, the idol is made out of what is left of the wood (she’eriso). The image is carved from what is “left over.” In this we learn that culture is basically “superfluous.” This word is more often than not taken with a derogatory shade of meaning. Yet its etymology teaches us something important: Culture is, literally, overflowing. This is the first sense in which I claim that culture is a by-product.
We take interest in things that are not useful, cherishing them for their own sake. We can turn our backs to the fire in order to draw close and better feel its warmth—and yet we prefer to gaze at the flames. The property that commands our attention in these circumstances we call “beauty.” In beauty, two meanings of “interest” clash against each other. Interest can designate what pays off, like interest from a loan. But we know that what is interesting can exist beyond, or even in the teeth of, what is useful for us. This is, by the way, the classical definition of the beautiful by Kant. It evokes from us a disinterested interest, and the greater the beauty, the greater the disinterest and the interest.
Another way to put it is to say that beauty is lovable. But the love of beauty is of a special kind: It does not aim at getting its object, but keeps the distance necessary to contemplate what is beautiful. One cannot relish the beauty of a statue by embracing it. This is nicely captured by the word “amateur,” from amare, to love, but with the suggestion of a degree of detachment. The amateur relishes his avocation, but recognizes that to draw the activity too close would make it into a job, and thus spoil its pleasure.
The impulse toward beauty enjoys without using, and this seems fundamental to the human condition. Recently, paleontologists have reported the discovery of some strange artifacts in prehistoric tombs: primitive axes or knives, or simply spheres made of flint, chert, or basalt. These objects were very carefully wrought. They cost many hours of labor in a time when survival was difficult. But they were not used for a practical purpose. The cutting edges of axes and knives show no traces of use. There is no wear and tear on the surfaces of the perfect spheres. They may have had a cultic purpose, as gifts of sorts to the deceased, perhaps. But this is anybody’s guess. Whatever the exact purpose, these prehistoric objects give evidence of an aesthetic sense. From the very beginning, men made and cherished superfluous things.
What about Christian culture? In what sense is our culture superfluous? The question deserves to be asked all the more because Christian culture is often described as blending Greek and Jewish elements. Hailing from both Athens and Jerusalem, a Christian culture would not seem to be “Christian” at all, but instead an amalgam, a by-product of the meeting of Athens and Jerusalem.
In his lecture to the Parisian intelligentsia on the Christian roots of European culture, Pope Benedict made an arresting observation: The medieval monks who played such a central role in the formation of Europe did not intend to create a culture. Their goal was not even to preserve an earlier one. In fact, the last thing on their minds was “culture” of any sort. Nevertheless, they splendidly achieved what they didn’t intend. The medieval monks succeeded in preserving classical Latin literature, a not inconsiderable legacy, and one that was to be extraordinarily influential for the future of European culture. This happened, moreover, in troubled times, when the very survival of ancient culture in the Latin West was at stake.
The threads of transmission were thin and delicate. They might easily have been broken. Boethius died in 524, five years before the closure of the philosophical (Platonic) School of Athens by the emperor Justinian. Boethius was a patrician of old stock, making him one of the very few Romans of his generation who maintained a good knowledge of Greek. Aware of the ebb of knowledge of Greek in the West, he endeavored to translate Plato and Aristotle, and to comment upon both. He could not complete this great project, for, accused of a secret correspondence with the emperors of Constantinople, who were already planning to conquer the western part of the empire, he was thrown into jail. There he wrote his masterpiece, The Consolation of Philosophy, and was put to death.
One generation later, in 555, another Roman nobleman, Cassiodorus, attempted something very much along the same lines, though by building an institution rather than writing a masterpiece. On his family estates in Calabria, the remotest tip of the Italian Peninsula, he founded the monastery of Vivarium. (The exact location is still unknown to archaeologists.) This monastery maintained a large library, along with a scriptorium in which manuscripts were not only kept and read, but copied and thus preserved for posterity.
Cassiodorus’s model was taken up by Western monasticism, and eventually a network of Benedictine abbeys spread all over Western Europe. They are the reason why Latin literature was preserved and could go on to play a central role in European political, literary, and philosophical reflection and practice. In a word, monks were not content to sing vespers in the Temple of Jupiter amid the ruins of the Capitol, awaiting the arrival of Edward Gibbon. They were powerful and efficient instruments for the preservation of ancient culture, helping it over the gap that had opened between the ancient world and what was to become the so-called Middle Ages.
The monks in their monasteries did not throw a buoy to, or build a raft for, ancient Christian literary castaways only. Most of those they took on board were pagan. Some, to be sure, could be baptized postmortem. Virgil could be read as a prophet of sorts because of the long-held misinterpretation of his Fourth Eclogue, and Seneca was believed to have had a correspondence with St. Paul. But why did the monks keep the classical historians, or the bawdy Catullus, or the lewd Ovid, let alone Lucretius, the Epicurean atheist?
The answer is to be found in what I call the Pauline revolution that drove a wedge between culture and religion. This was unheard of. Greek paideia was a package deal. It included what we would call highbrow literacy: a tradition of interpreting the epics by Homer. It also included sport at the palaestra and, of course, sacrifices to the civic gods. As a literary genre, tragedy arose as part of the feasts devoted to the god Dionysus. The pagan philosophers even organized themselves as cult-guilds. We still call the buildings in which we keep what we consider to be precious “museums,” which means temples of the Muses. Roman education stressed military prowess and evolved into a cult of the emperor, who embodied the legitimacy of Roman rule over the Mediterranean. Cult was fused to culture.
Judaism also maintained a unity of culture and religion. Jewish scholars extracted from the Torah a whole system of rules, a halakhah, a “way of life.” As in the later development of Islamic Shari’a, the halakhah was meant to provide ready answers to questions about what is to be done in any situation. It provides the basis for a sacred culture.
Thus, Christianity arose from and encountered a world of pagans and Jews who, though they obviously differed in countless matters of belief, shared the assumption that one must live in a full-fledged system of culture that is embedded in a religion.
Thus the Pauline revolution. Paul severed culture from religion, setting aside both Greek paideia and the Jewish halakhah. Under his care, the Torah underwent a severe slimming cure. Of the 613 commandments, Paul kept only the Decalogue in its literal sense and interpreted the others largely as allegories and spiritual anticipations of Christ. As a consequence, faced with questions about how to live a good and full life, the Christian believer was left with very general moral principles. He had to look elsewhere for precise guidelines. This “elsewhere” turned out to be the Roman polity, together with the law that regulated it, along with the various sects of Greek philosophy. What is important about these sources is that, for the Christian, they were shorn of their religious underpinnings. For those who lived under Christ’s lordship, pagan culture became what we today speak of as “culture,” something to be admired, even cherished, but inessential, which is to say superfluous. Thus pagan material entered into the Christian framework without losing its specificity. This is quite remarkable. As historians we know that all civilizations retain earlier layers and foreign influences. But they are usually reshaped, reinterpreted, and disguised to appear indigenous. The Pauline revolution allowed Christianity to adopt what it found useful and inspiring in a much more straightforward way. Pagan culture was not digested, but included.
When Christianity burst onto the scene in the ancient world, it adopted what happened to be available in Greco-Roman civilization. But the same Christian framework could very well be filled with other content. Later on in Christian history, Germanic and Slavic mores, Celtic legends, and other materials were included. Arabic and Persian lore and science entered the melting pot. The Jesuit missionaries didn’t object to Chinese mores in the seventeenth century, but their attempt to formulate a Chinese Christianity, as is well known, regrettably failed. In the future, this failure might prove to have been only provisional.
We meet again the paradox: Christian culture is not made of Christian elements. This is not a sign of failure. Christianity never claimed to produce a full-fledged culture. Huge chunks of human experience are left outside of the pale of revealed truth, entrusted to human intelligence. This distinguishes Christianity from other religions.
One should never underestimate the importance of food. And so it is fitting that Judaism outlines a Talmudic cuisine, one based on the rules of kashruth. Yet, though there are Christian cooks, there is no Christian cuisine. Health is another matter of wide concern. There is in Islam a so-called “prophetic medicine” based on the pieces of advice given by Muhammad in some cases and summarized in collections of hadith attributed to the prophet. By contrast, there are Christian physicians, but there is no Christian medicine. Islam stipulates an Islamic dress code: the Islamic veil for grown-up females, the commandment to let one’s beard grow and trim one’s mustachio for males. There are Christian tailors and hairdressers, but there is no Christian fashion.
In a nutshell, across an astonishingly wide range of human activities, there is no such thing as a specifically Christian behavior, no desire on the part of Christians to live their concrete, everyday lives in a detailed fashion that sets them apart from other people. This interesting indifference in matters that almost always preoccupy religiously saturated civilizations was pointed out in a remarkable early document of Christian apologetic literature, the Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus, which was in all likelihood written at the end of the second century. The anonymous writer observes that Christians don’t distinguish themselves from other people by a special abode, a special language, special attire, or a special diet. We can add that, viewed historically, Christians have not sought to distinguish themselves by claiming ownership over specific cultural achievements. That is something a Frenchman does, but as a Frenchman, or an Italian does as an Italian, and so forth—not as a Christian.
More important and perhaps more provocative, there are no Christian morals. There is a common morality, what C. S. Lewis called the Tao or the “great platitudes.” And there is a Christian understanding of this universal (but often ignored) code of conduct. The Ten Commandments provide a particularly successful summary of this common morality. They are hardly more than a reminder of the natural law that we would not have forgotten were it not for original sin. This is at least the doctrine of Thomas Aquinas, and it remained a widely held view for centuries.
If we are not building a “Christian culture,” why are we, as people of faith, writing, painting, composing, and otherwise occupying ourselves with cultural matters? Let us go back to the monks. They never imagined their task to be “cultural.” Pope Benedict reminds us of what is well known, but not always understood in its depth: Monks worked and prayed. Their work was grounded in a positive view of labor. This stemmed from a vision of the world as created by a good God, hence as basically good and a fitting arena for human endeavor.
What we imagine to be a post-Christian culture in the West carries this forward, after a fashion, so let me turn to the other monastic task, which is prayer. This concerns more than making petitions. Prayer is praise, especially in the Psalms, and praise stems from joy. To quote C. S. Lewis again: “Fully to enjoy is to glorify.” Here again we find an overflowing, which is very much in keeping with the overflowing—the superfluousness—of human creative action.
Praise is an engine of culture. In ancient literary theory, a genre of poetry was called “epainetic,” from the Greek epainos, which means “praise.” The leading figure in this genre was Pindar. Some literary scholars in antiquity went so far as to characterize poetry as essentially “panegyric,” laudatory, even if it doesn’t celebrate anybody or anything in particular. Perhaps we could venture a step further and claim that praise is the nourishing source of all art and of culture. You can hardly paint something, whether a landscape or portrait, without implicitly affirming that it is good, that there should be this landscape or this person there for you to paint. You can scarcely write a story without the basic assumption that it is interesting, even if you’ll have to tell many unpleasant things.
With this in mind, we can undertake an examination of conscience on behalf of our present civilization. We must ask ourselves: Are we still able to praise? Are we still conscious of possessing something to be thankful for? Do we still have access to somebody to whom we can express our thanks? What becomes of culture without the praiseworthy? Can the worthy (the domain of so-called “values”) still be worthwhile without a metaphysical ground?
I do not find myself optimistic about our present situation. The German literary scholar Hugo Friedrich made the following observation:
For the life-culture of the ancient world, as well as for the ages that followed it till the eighteenth century, the top psychological value was joy. It was the value which showed that the wise man or the believer, the knight, the courtier, the learned man of the social elite was about to attain perfection. Sadness, whenever it was not a fleeting state of mind, was considered as a negative value, and for the theologians it was a sin.
The modern era, or at least some of its aspects, turned this back to front. Joy and serenity were increasingly frowned upon as commonplace, not to say ridiculously bourgeois. The wellsprings of praise have been replaced by melancholy and angst, if one is inclined toward romanticism, or by a hard-won authenticity, if one prefers existentialism. The old sin of acedia—the “noonday devil” who assaults the monk when the heat in his cell becomes unbearable, so that he would dream of forsaking his vocation—is now prized as a virtue. Intellectual honesty, which is almost always portrayed as cold, analytical, and objective, compliments itself for facing the ugliness of reality. This mentality has displaced the love of truth and become, for Nietzsche, “our last virtue.” And when we cannot endure Zarathustra’s cold heights, we puff up our feeble selves.The Cult of the Ego was the title of a work by the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century French writer Maurice Barrès. It has won many followers over the last century, and the ego is worshipped under several names: personal development, self-fulfillment, wellness, self-expression, and so forth.
Pope Benedict points out that creativity in itself gets us nowhere. We often hear that the main aim of culture is “expressing oneself.” If this is the case, we are relieved of the responsibility of asking whether there really is something inside of us that deserves being drawn out and shown to an audience. Anything goes. An Italian, Piero Manzoni (1933–1963) had the pluck to flaunt self-expression in a remarkable way. In May 1961, he defecated into ninety tin cans, sealed them (thank goodness!), and sold them under the title “Artist’s Shit.” Perhaps Manzoni wished to expose the absurdity of the idea of the artist’s self-expression. If so, we should take his lesson to heart. Human “creativity” is not enough. If we are to have a living culture, then something like an implicit faith in God’s creation is required.
In his Paris lecture, Pope Benedict gave special emphasis to song and music in monastic liturgy. There is a passage in the published version that he omitted when he was speaking to the audience. Perhaps he felt it was a side issue, and to some degree it is. The passage concerns the treatise De Cantu (“On Singing”), which is commonly ascribed to St. Bernard. This medieval discussion of music theory associates singing out of tune with a fall into the “place of dissimilitude,” the Platonic-Augustinian regio dissimilitudinis that involves a loss of the divine resemblance with which Adam was created. On the occasion of this digression, Benedict pens a rather weird sentence: “The culture of singing is also a culture of being.” At first glance, the formulation is puzzling and sounds like a tautology. How could a culture of anything be something other than a culture of being? What would a culture of nothingness look like? In this context, another formulation, this one by Pope Benedict’s friend and predecessor on the papal throne, St. John Paul the Second, comes to mind, namely his well-known phrase “culture of death.” Again, one is puzzled. Insofar as it survives, isn’t every culture a culture of life?
In the German-speaking world, however, there is a tradition of treating the “culture of being” as an achievement, not a given, and thus as something capable of being lost. Some have pitted the “culture of being” against other possible forms of culture: a culture of having, a culture of knowing, a culture of making. These juxtapositions reflect differing criticisms of the modern age. But they have a common concern: What it means to be human has been eclipsed by one or another legitimate but subordinate dimension of the human condition. The part is consuming the whole, as it were. Authentic existence is being threatened by an imperialistic inauthenticity.
All of this makes a certain sense. Yet I wish to take “being” in a more conventional, metaphysical sense, and capitalize it. Being is thus a matter of ontology, the question of what makes things what they are. This allows us to reflect on what Pope Benedict wished to convey in his odd formulation. What does reflection on Being teach us about the nature of singing? Or, to put it the other way around, what does singing teach us about Being? And if we take singing as an instance of culture, we can ask further: What sort of thing must Being be, or, better, how must Being be for it to have something to do with culture? Is Being the aim and object of a culture? Or, rather, is Being culture’s origin and ground, its nourishing soil?
These are large questions, so we do best to end by returning to the simple practice of plainsong. This sort of singing epitomizes the vocation of song, which is to celebrate and praise. Now, obviously, we can sing, hence praise, only what is good. We enter into praise, which is the condition of culture, if and only if there is something praiseworthy. In the last analysis, there can be culture if and only if we are convinced that, in the teeth of evil, that which is is intrinsically good. To give priority to the praiseworthy is an ontological choice. This choice is presupposed by any culture-grounding activity.
These days one hears talk of “rebuilding a Christian culture.” The sentiment is, perhaps, noble. But the formulation misunderstands both Christianity and culture. Our job, as Christians, is not to produce cultural goods, any more than it was the purpose for which men built monasteries centuries ago. Our task consists in making culture possible in the first place. Culture is a by-product of praise, and what’s needed today are words of praise—songs of praise.
Rémi Brague is professor emeritus at the Sorbonne and Romano Guardini Chair at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich.