The consolations of philosophy, prophecy, poetry and performance

Four Cultures of the West
August 19, 2005

The four cultures of the West to which the title of this book refers are the prophetic, the philosophical or academic, the literary, and the culture of art or performance. John O'Malley is not so much concerned with the content of these cultures as with their style. So he defines culture as a configuration, the elements within which are "symbols, values, temperaments, patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving, and patterns of discourse". These cultures are not, of course, mutually exclusive for they flow into and coalesce with one another in various ways.

The starting point of the book is the question of the great 2nd-century theologian Tertullian: what has Jerusalem got to do with Athens? For the prophetic culture, to which he belonged, stands apart from the consensus and offers a critique of it. This is, inevitably, a minority position. As Tertullian put it: "As if one were not in greater danger of going astray with the many, since truth is loved in company with the few." O'Malley traces this culture through Pope Gregory VII to abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison. The characteristic note of this culture is declaratory, urging immediate action without compromise. As Garrison said on the question of slavery, he would not speak or write on the subject "With moderation. No! No! Tell the man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm, tell him moderately to rescue his wife from the hands of a ravisher... I will not equivocate - I will not excuse - I will not retreat a single inch - and I will be HEARD."

The 2nd century also contained, in contrast to Tertullian, a group of Christian intellectuals who sought to relate the faith they had received from Jerusalem to the Greek philosophical world. These "apologists" prized philosophy and thought that Christianity could relate to it in a rational way. This culture adopted Plato and Aristotle, the quintessential figures being not only Aquinas in the 13th century but Boethius in the 6th. Its style is always one of questioning and clarification, seeking truth wheresoever it leads. Its characteristic institution is the university, for this culture operates best of all with groups of like-minded scholars, not in solitary detachment. It seems, however, that even in earlier centuries meetings were time-consuming. In 1523, members of the theological faculty in Paris met 101 times.

The third culture is that of poetry, literature more generally and rhetoric. Here, Greek and Roman writers, especially Virgil, were embraced by Christianity. This culture had a fine flowering in the Renaissance, which was, O'Malley says, "not a turn to humanity to the exclusion of divinity as the 19th century often interprets it, but a turn to humanity that would lead to its ultimate goal, God". Plutarch and Erasmus are the characteristic figures here, with Erasmus writing that he would rather let the work of theologians such as Scotus perish than a single work of literature. This is an approach that, according to O'Malley, characterised the Second Vatican Council, with its emphasis on dialogue with other religious cultures.

The fourth culture discussed, that of art and performance, cannot be translated into any of the others without loss. As Martha Graham replied when asked the meaning of a piece she had choreographed, "If I could define it, we would not have had to dance it." This culture first took shape in liturgy and architecture, the great churches of Constantine and Justinian and their associated works of art; in an illiterate world, it was the visual that impressed, educated and took viewers into the heavenly realm. All this was challenged by the iconoclasts in the 8th and 9th centuries and then, later, at the Reformation. But neither in the East nor in the West did iconoclasm prevail. In the 11th and 12th centuries, there was a great surge of church building, both cathedrals and monasteries, with their statuary that still moves us today. Although Durer, who never renounced his Catholic faith, found some consolation in the teaching of Martin Luther, he had no problem about taking over non-Christian aesthetic values: "Just as Greek and Roman authors attributed the most beautiful human shape to their false God, Apollo, so will we use the same proportion for Christ our Lord, who was the most beautiful man in the universe." It was this tradition that triumphed in such an exuberant way after the Council of Trent in the period we term Baroque, not least in the buildings put up by the Jesuits. Interestingly, although the visual arts were attacked in the churches of the Reformation, music flourished, particularly in Lutheran churches. Luther was eager to turn the Mass into an even more impressive musical event than he found it. He instructed that in every Mass the words be sung, including the epistle and the gospel of the day. Indeed, as has been said, Bach is almost a second founder of the Lutheran tradition.

O'Malley is aware that the four cultures he discusses are not the only ones that flow into where we are now. There is, as he mentions, a business culture, and, more important, there are two other cultures to which he might have given greater prominence.

One is scientific culture. Although he discusses the origins of modern science at the time of the Renaissance, it would have been good to have this traced through to our own period as a separate culture. For it is characterised not simply by analysis and a desire for clarity in the pursuit of truth but by the experimental method.

This gap highlights a crucial divide in our society between those caught up in the arts and those involved in the details of science. There is some extremely good writing on science, together with a fair amount of popularisation of science - but as a whole it does not convey a sense of excitement or glamour. It may be that we can say only that the gap has been closed when there are as many people queuing for a new science exhibition as there are, say, for one on the paintings of Monet.

The second gap in O'Malley's book concerns the culture of how we can best live together. This is more than a subdivision of the prophetic or literary cultures. It includes political theory, education for citizenship and ethics, for a start. At a time when so many people are indifferent to or cynical about politics in the West, something of this culture's human and spiritual importance needs to be revived. O'Malley has given us a readable book with very wide learning in four cultures. Is it now beyond the grasp of any single person, without neglecting the four cultures discussed by O'Malley, also to include these two others?

This book will be of interest to and accessible to anyone interested in the cultural life of the West. At a time when the Christian origins of our culture, which in reality are so fundamental, are ignored, it offers a very valuable reminder and corrective.

Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford.

Four Cultures of the West

Author - John W. O'Malley
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Pages - 261
Price - £16.95
ISBN - 0 674 01498 7

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