Sunday, June 16, 2013

Book Review: Four Cultures of the West by John W. O'Malley

When I first heard about this book I thought it sounded interesting. The basic premise is that there are four separate and distinct cultures that cooperate and compete with each other in Western Civilization. He likens these four cultures to four streams (like the Gulf Stream or a jet stream) that are embedded in our larger culture. They twist and wind their way through our history and shape the way we view and interact with the world. I admit that I approached the book with a slightly critical attitude, intending to give it a thorough consideration. So when reading the book I had a perpetual thought of, "Is this right, or is he just trying to squeeze history into his own private interpretation?"

Because I had this attitude for much of the book when I finally got to the Epilogue I had a rather interesting realization. I realized that he was right, and because of how he had written the book, and how he approached the subject matter he could not be proven wrong, because any attempt to prove him wrong would by its very nature prove him right. I will explain this a little more after I give a summary of the four cultures that he is talking about.

The four cultures are: 1. The Prophetic 2. The Academic 3. The Rhetorical 4. The Artistic.

These are not the names that he necessarily assigns to them, though in the case of cultures one and two he does refer to them frequently as "the prophetic" and "the academic". The other two cultures are never given succinct names. I did take exception to his use of the term "prophetic" for culture one. A better term I think would be "The Proclamatory" but that term doesn't have the same zing to it as "The Prophetic" though I think "proclamatory" is closer to what he intends to encapsulate culture one. But there is no need to get hung up on definitions since he does spend several hundred pages explaining the four cultures. I will now give a brief breakdown of how he describes the four cultures.

1. The Prophetic: (The culture of proclamation and reform.) This culture deals with right and wrong, not with proof and argument. That is key to understanding this culture. The reason why he calls it prophetic is due to the nature of the prophecies in the Old Testament where the prophets proclaimed the wrongs and the sins of the people and told them to repent. There was no argument or persuasion. There was simple statement of impending judgement. The modern archetype of this culture can be found in Martin Luther. It should be noted that O'Malley does not place any one person in a single culture and stresses that someone as complex as Martin Luther cannot be subsumed under a single culture. But the most distinct elements of Martin Luther's work can be thought of as typical of culture one.

2. The Academic: (The culture of proof, logic, argument, professions (legal, technical etc.) and academia.) This culture deals with proof through argument and the proliferation of technical definitions and fields of study. It is the driving force behind both modern science and law. Since the end of World War II this culture has become the dominate culture in Western Civilization. It dominates in our schools, our jobs, our economy and our politics. This culture contains the idea that right and wrong can be argued and proven through presentation of evidence. It is the dry boring culture of academia where it is more important to be technically precise than it is to be interesting.

3. The Rhetorical: (The culture of poetry, persuasion, and the common good.) If culture two is the culture of proof and argument, then culture three is the culture of persuasion and cooperation. In culture three the members do not strive so much to prove a point, as in culture two, or to declare someone in the wrong, as in culture one, but to persuade all involved to come to a consensus. This is properly the culture of the consummate politician, well versed, well spoken, well mannered, well bred and well read. Those who partake of culture three are more interested in packing an overabundance of meaning into a poetic statement than giving a technical definition. If culture two tries to fine tune the meaning of terms then culture three prefers to proliferate meanings in a single term. The ideal education of culture three is the "Classical" education where the students learn to read the classics of Greek and Latin literature (and later the classics of more modern literature). The education of culture three involves rhetoric, grammar and a grounding in literature and philosophy. Up until the beginning of the 20th century to have an education meant to have a classical education in the style of culture three.

4. The Artistic: (The culture of art, museums, pageantry and show.) This culture is inherently non-verbal, but still very important. It is the culture of music, dance, sculpture, art, pageantry and processions. If there is a set pageantry that requires the motion of those involved to be a certain way then that is a demonstration of this culture. Major examples of this culture can be found in the show and pageantry that can be found in major weddings, coronation ceremonies, parades and catholic mass. The mere fact that art museums exist demonstrate the existence and distinct nature of culture four. Up until a few hundred years ago the concept of having a designated building to hold art, where people went to view art, was unheard of. Art was usually found in churches, in schools, in the houses of rich people or in public places. The concept of collecting, preserving and displaying art in its own "artistic" space is a result of the growth of culture four. The fact that you do not find the concept of an art museum unusual indicates that you at least accept the existence of culture four, even if you were not aware of the existence of culture four.

These four cultures do not work in a vacuum and neither does O'Malley imply that they are the only elements of our society, but rather they are like the Gulf Stream, a major movement embedded in the larger ocean of our society. There are other currents and cross currents but these four cultures constitute a major part of our society. They sometimes work together and sometimes against each other. At times they move without interaction and at other times they are in direct competition.

If culture one strives to make people holy, culture two strives to make well tuned professionals, culture three strives to make well rounded individuals who can work well with others, and culture four strives to make people emotive and expressive.

When I finally got to the Epilogue I was still a little unconvinced, not because O'Malley did not make his case properly, but because the subject matter is very complex and I was still keeping a skeptical attitude. But when I read his Epilogue I had a sudden epiphany. O'Malley was right, and could not be proven wrong. The reason for this is because, as he begins his Epilogue,
"The genre in which I have tried to write this book is the epideictic genre of culture three. The genre has as it purpose the heightening of appreciation. With that end in view I have held up for you the accomplishments of my four cultures." (p. 235)
It was at this point that I realized that he was never trying to "prove" anything, because that was a symptom of culture two, which he was astutely avoiding when writing his book. And furthermore if anyone took it upon themselves to prove him wrong then by the very attempt they would prove him right, because by so doing they are exhibiting the characteristics of culture two. If someone proclaims him wrong with no argument then they are exhibiting the characteristics of culture one. Thus any attempt to prove him wrong automatically proves him right. And this is because he was not proving anything other than making a simple statement and observation for us to see no different than saying that the Mississippi River flows south, and the Gulf Stream flows northeast. So the entire time I was taking a skeptical attitude but by so doing I was proving him right.

So why should you care about this? This all seems rather academic you may say, but if we understand these different cultures then we can begin to understand the society we live in. I will give a couple examples of how these different cultures manifest themselves in a very real way in our society today.

A few months ago the governor of the state where I live went onto a live radio show to talk about his plan for the state. One of the things he mentioned was the inefficiencies in the education system in the state. Specifically he said that there were some majors or fields of studies that were basically worthless since they would not help anyone get a job and pay off their student debt. Specifically he took issue with certain liberal arts (emphasis on the liberal) and suggested that if people wanted to study those things then they should do so at a private university, not at a public university, where those types of things are a waste of time. The backlash was rather harsh from some segments, most without argument (culture one on display) and motivated by political considerations. There were some people who wrote letters to the editor of various newspapers who insisted quite strenuously that the purpose of a liberal arts education was not so that they could get a job, but rather so that they could be a more well rounded and "educated" individual. They were not looking for job training in their degree but rather to gain an "education", something that cannot be quantified by a paycheck.

What we had here was a clash of cultures. The governor, taking the position from culture two, insisted that education had its purpose in training individuals to do a specific task so that they could get a job and achieve that which is most valuable to culture two, the quantification of human life, in this case in the quantification of a large(r) paycheck. But this clashed with culture three which holds that education is not for specific training but to enlarge a person so that they have a greater more well rounded understanding, even if none of it is quantifiably practical. Thus there were two cultures divided by a common language and they fundamentally failed to communicate. Ultimately both sides concluded that the other daft and had taken all leave of reason because obviously they have no idea what the word "education" means.

So where else do we see these four cultures? Here is a list of a few possibilities:

  • Street protests (culture one)
  • Art museums (culture four)
  • Promotion of Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) research and education (culture two)
  • Home schooling parents who want to give their children a "good" and "classical" education (one and three respectively)
  • Anti-GMO, anti-government, anti-global warming, pro-GMO, pro-government, pro-global warming fights, disputes, internet comments and Facebook posts (culture one)
  • Expressing dismay that children don't read good literature, and read trash like Twilight (mixture of one and three)
  • People saying that whenever there is a political dispute we just "need to sit down and talk about it rationally and 'have a dialogue'" (culture three)
  • The people who think the people from the previous list item are crazy and willing to compromise with the devil (culture one)
The thing to remember is that each of the four cultures have a different set of values and things that they consider to be "the good" (though "the good" is more indicative of culture three). Because each culture measures value differently there are disagreements over the things that our society should place emphasis on and what should be encouraged and what should not. It should be emphasized that not all aspects of our society fall into these four cultures, just as not all parts of the ocean are in a current, but they are major players in our society and determine how many of our current political and social conflicts and triumphs work and come about. As a final note I should point out that while these cultures may determine the form and function of disputes and cooperative efforts alike in our society, they do not determine the content. These cultures are about form not content.

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