A Positive and Inclusive Definition of the Concept of Culture

The tendency of the human mind to analyze and categorize comes into play when we look at the question of what constitutes culture for the developed minds of humanity.  This becomes a debate of “either/or” when it should be a more inclusive formulation of “both/and”, which however, has not been the historical pattern of humanity when confronted with complex issues.  Sri Aurobindo illustrates the need for an inclusive view while examining two specific cultures, the ancient Hebrew, and the ancient Hellenic, to illustrate their widely different approaches to the concept we define as “culture”.

“The opposition which puts on one side the pursuit of ideas and knowledge and beauty and calls that culture and on the other the pursuit of character and conduct and exalts that as the moral life must start evidently from an imperfect view of human possibility and perfection.  Yet that opposition has not only existed, but is a naturally strong tendency of the human mind and therefore must answer some real and important divergence in the very composite elements of our being.  It is the opposition which Arnold drew between Hebraism and Hellenism.  The trend of the Jewish nation which gave us the severe ethical religion of the Old Testament, — crude, conventional and barbarous enough in the Mosaic law, but rising to undeniable heights of moral exaltation when to the Law were added the Prophets, and finally exceeding itself and blossoming into a fine flower of spirituality in Judaic Christianity, — was dominated by the preoccupation of a terrestrial and ethical righteousness and the promised rewards of right worship and right doing, but innocent of science and philosophy, careless of knowledge, indifferent to beauty.  The Hellenic mind was less exclusively but still largely dominated by a love of the play of reason for its own sake, but even more powerfully for a high sense of beauty, a clear aesthetic sensibility and a worship of the beautiful in every activity, in every creation, in thought, in art, in life, in religion.  So strong was this sense that not only manners, but ethics were seen by it to a very remarkable extend in the light of its master idea of beauty; the good was to its instinct largely the becoming and the beautiful.  In philosophy itself it succeeded in arriving at the conception of the Divine as Beauty, a truth which the metaphysician very readily misses and impoverishes his thought by missing it.  But still, striking as is this great historical contrast and powerful as were its results on European culture, we have to go beyond its outward manifestation if we would understand in its source this psychological opposition.”

Sri Aurobindo, The Human Cycle: The Psychology of Social Development, Chapter 10, Aesthetic and Ethical Culture, pp. 94-95