Breadth of Life

[Note: This is taken from Hamilton Wright Mabie's Books and Culture.]

cultured gentleman 

One of the prime characteristics of the man of culture is freedom from provincialism, complete deliverance from rigidity of temper, narrowness of interest, uncertainty of taste, and general unripeness. The villager, or pagan in the old sense, is always a provincial; his horizon is narrow, his outlook upon the world restricted, his knowledge of life limited. He may know a few things thoroughly; he cannot know them in true relation to one another or to the larger order of which they are part. He may know a few persons intimately; he cannot know the representative persons of his time or of his race. The essence of provincialism is the substitution of a part for the whole; the acceptance of the local experience, knowledge, and standards as possessing the authority of the universal experience, knowledge, and standards. The local experience is entirely true in its own sphere; it becomes misleading when it is accepted as the experience of all time and all men. It is this mistake which breeds that narrowness and uncertainty of taste and opinion from which culture furnishes the only escape. A small community, isolated from other communities by the accidents of position, often comes to believe that its way of doing things is the way of the world; a small body of religious people, devoutly attentive to their own observances, often reach the conclusion that these observances are the practice of that catholic church which includes the pious-minded of all creeds and rituals; a group of radical reformers, by passionate advocacy of a single reform, come to believe that there have been no reformers before them, and that none will be needed after them; a band of fresh and audacious young practitioners of any of the arts, by dint of insistence upon a certain manner, rapidly generate the conviction that art has no other manner.

Society is full of provincialism in art, politics, religion, and economics; and the essence of this provincialism is always the same,—the substitution of a part for the whole. Larger knowledge of the world and of history would make it perfectly clear that there has always been not only a wide latitude, but great variation, in ritual and worship; that the political story of all the progressive nations has been one long agitation for reforms, and that no reform can ever be final; that reform must succeed reform until the end of time,—reforms being in their nature neither more nor less than those readjustments to new conditions which are involved in all social development. A wider survey of experience would make it clear that art has many manners, and that no manner is supreme and none final.

A long experience gives a man poise, balance, and steadiness; he has seen many things come and go, and he is neither paralyzed by depression when society goes wrong, nor irrationally elated when it goes right. He is perfectly aware that his party is only a means to an end, and not a piece of indestructible and infallible machinery; that the creed he accepts has passed through many changes of interpretation, and will pass through more; that the social order for which he contends, if secured, will be only another stage in the unbroken development of the organized life of men in the world. And culture is, at bottom, only an enlarged and clarified experience,—an experience so comprehensive that it puts its possessor in touch with all times and men, and gives him the opportunity of comparing his own knowledge of things, his faith and his practice, with the knowledge, faith, and practice of all the generations. This opportunity brings, to one who knows how to use it, deliverance from the ignorance or half-knowledge of provincialism, from the crudity of its half-trained tastes, and from the blind passion of its rash and groundless faith in its own infallibility.

Provincialism is the soil in which philistinism grows most rapidly and widely. For as the essence of provincialism is the substitution of a part for the whole, so the essence of philistinism is the conviction that what one possesses is the best of its kind, that the kind is the highest, and that one has all he needs of it. A true philistine is not only convinced that he holds the only true and consistent position, but he is also entirely satisfied with himself. He is infallible and he is sufficient unto himself. In politics he is a blind partisan, in theology an arrogant dogmatist, in art an ignorant propagandist. What he accepts, believes, or has, is not only the best of its kind, but nothing better can ever supersede it.

To this spirit the spirit of culture is antipodal; between the two there is inextinguishable antagonism. They can never compromise or agree upon a truce, any more than day and night can consent to dwell together. To destroy philistinism root and branch, to eradicate the ignorance which makes it possible for a man to believe that he possesses all things in their final forms, to empty a man of the stupidity and vulgarity of self-satisfaction, and to invigorate the immortal dissatisfaction of the soul with its present attainments, are the ends which culture is always seeking to accomplish. The keen lance of Matthew Arnold, flashing now in one part of the field and now in another, pierced many of the fallacies of provincialism and philistinism, and mortally wounded more than one Goliath of ignorance and conceit; but the work must be done anew in every generation and in every individual. All men are conceived in the sin of ignorance and born in the iniquity of half-knowledge; and every man needs to be saved by wider knowledge and clearer vision. It is a matter of comparative indifference where one is born; it is a matter of supreme importance how one educates one's self. There is as genuine a provincialism in Paris as in the remotest frontier town; it is better dressed and better mannered, but it is not less narrow and vulgar. There is as much vulgarity in the arrogance of a czar as in that of an African chief; as much absurdity in the self-satisfaction of the man who believes that the habit and speech of the boulevard are the ultimate habit and speech of the race, as in that of the man who accepts the manners of the mining camp as the finalities of human intercourse. Culture is not an accident of birth, although surroundings retard or advance it; it is always a matter of individual education.

This education finds no richer material than that which is contained in literature; for the characteristic of literature, as of all the arts, is its universality of interest, its elevation of taste, its disclosure of ideas, its constant appeal to the highest in the reader by its revelation of the highest in the writer. Many of the noblest works of literature are intensely local in color, atmosphere, material, and allusion; but in every case that which is of universal interest is touched, evoked, and expressed. The artist makes the figure he paints stand out with the greatest distinctness by the accuracy of the details introduced and by the skill with which they are handled; but the very definiteness of the figure gives force and clearness to the revelation of the universal trait or characteristic which is made through it. Père Goriot has the ineffaceable stamp of Paris upon him, but he is for that very reason the more completely disclosed as a typical individuality. Literature abounds in illustrations of this true and artistic adjustment of the local to the universal, this disclosure of the common humanity in which all men share through the highly elaborated individuality; and this characteristic indicates one of the deepest sources of its educational power. So searching is this power that it is safe to say that no one can know thoroughly the great books of the world and remain a provincial or a philistine; the very air of these works is fatal to narrow views, to low standards, and to self-satisfaction.



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