The Democratization of Culture and the Long-Term Impacts of This Change

Throughout most of history, civilisation has been bifurcated between those who possessed strong intellectual capacity, whether expressed in the logical action of the Reason, the intelligent will, or through the development of art, music and culture with the refinement that comes from a true mental culture, and those who had very little opportunity to exercise and develop their intellectual capacities, who carried out the tasks of society, but did not participate in the higher life of the intellect or any cultural efflorescence.  With the advent of the printing press, the publishing of books in the common languages, the movement towards universal education and the development of society to require a certain amount of training of the intellect, we have seen a broadening of the influence of the mental capacity, although for the most part, it has not resulted in a deepening or heightening of these powers, but in a shallow and wide veneer of intellect covering over the still dominant physical and vital impulses that have ruled human society.

Sri Aurobindo describes the situation:  “The first results of this momentous change have been inspiriting to our desire of movement, but a little disconcerting to the thinker and to the lover of a high and fine culture; for if it has to some extent democratised culture or the semblance of culture, it does not seem at first sight to have elevated or strengthened it by this large accession of the half-redeemed from below.  Nor does the world seem to be guided any more directly by the reason and intelligent will of her best minds than before.  Commercialism is still the heart of modern civilisation; a sensational activism is still its driving force.  Modern education has not in the mass redeemed the sensational man; it has only made necessary to him things to which he was not formerly accustomed, mental activity and occupations, intellectual and even aesthetic sensations, emotions of idealism.  He still lives in the vital substratum, but he wants it stimulated from above.  …  It is still the activism and sensationalism of the crude mental being, but much more open and free.  And the cultured, the intelligentsia find that they can get a hearing from him such as they never had from the pure Philistine, provided they can first stimulate or amuse him; their ideas have now a chance of getting executed such as they never had before.  The result has been to cheapen thought and art and literature, to make talent and even genius run in the grooves of popular success, to put the writer and thinker and scientist very much in a position like that of the cultured Greek slave in a Roman household where he has to work for, please, amuse and instruct his master while keeping a careful eye on his tastes and preferences and repeating trickily the manner and the points that have caught his fancy.  The higher mental life, in a word, has been democratised, sensationalised, activised with both good and bad results.  Through it all the eye of faith can see perhaps that a yet crude but an enormous change has begun.  Thought and Knowledge, if not yet Beauty, can get a hearing and even produce rapidly some large, vague, yet in the end effective will for their results, the mass of culture and of men who think and strive seriously to appreciate an to know has enormously increased behind all this surface veil of sensationalism, and even the sensational man has begun to undergo a process of transformation.  Especially, new methods of education, new principles of society are beginning to come into the range of practical possibility which will create perhaps one day that as yet unknown phenomenon, a race of men — not only a class — who have to some extent found and developed their mental selves, a cultured humanity.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 9, Civilisation and Culture, pp. 90-91

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