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The Ideal of Culture

Culture is inseparably linked with reality; indeed, it may be considered as evidence of a perception of what is real, a recognition of true values, a deference to what is substantial in life, in character, in art and literature. As it is concerned with what is real, so it implies the cultivation of that alone which is permanent, of that which is spiritual. It is no turning of the sod, no mere raking of the intellectual surface, no scattering of a handful of flower seeds among the pigweed and the burdock; but it is a timber-felling, uprooting, stump-pulling movement. It is a crushing of the strata, an upheaval and an overturning, a flowing of the sea over what was dry land, a birth of mountain chains along the old sea margin and the subsequent appearance of a new beauty and an ever-increasing refinement. The birth of culture is an Appalachian revolution, but its growth is as gentle as the passing of a day in June. The history of evolution is not half written, for the evolution of form is but the introduction. It is the unfolding of the spiritual, the real, the cultured man from the germs which lie within the animal or natural man that shall form the vital chapters of the history.

The truest evidence of culture is this—that however we belie ourselves it addresses still the Soul, and regards us in the light of our possibilities: and this is the innuendo by which it makes itself known, that it can do this while deferring always to those social precedents which refinement has established. To see men as they appear to be shows a lack of understanding; but to hold them up to their divine prerogatives is the essence of true nobleness.

But culture will have no pretense, no disguises. Divested of all externals, our money, our Latin and Greek, our accomplishments, taken from our customary surroundings, far from the pale of our circles and institutions, no longer relying upon the prestige of names and ancestry—what then is there to show? Culture takes our measure and takes it in kindness, but will not be deceived into mistaking a "forked radish" for a man. Away with semblance. Culture will have none of it. We need display no diploma, no degree, if we can show no fruit thereof. Useless that in college we studied metaphysics if now we know not our own minds, that we were proficient in psychology if we know not whether we are soul or body; to no purpose that we read philosophy if now we are discontent, or Theism if we have not trust in God; mathematics, and have demonstrated no plan of life; astronomy, and can see nothing beyond the nose. In vain our economics if we profess only politics; our history if we have learned only chronology; our rhetoric if we have nothing to say and can utter no truth. Farming would teach us to plant live seed if we would harvest a crop.

There is no school for culture save life only. It is evolved, not acquired; it is not an accretion but an expansion; it is a token of growth, but of a growth which is endogenous. Nor is it derived from association with noble persons, for we but reflect their own. To cultivate the mind without the heart is to turn an arid soil that shall produce only sage-brush. A truly cultivated mind has learned first the virtue of the heart, for love is the basis of a true culture. Love is the most real thing in the universe, for God is Love; and therefore it is the substance and ideal of the cultured mind, and whatever we shall say of one may be placed to the credit of the other.

Love is cosmic, not personal; it is metaphysical, not emotional. It is the substance as well as the aroma of life. It is for the home and the club, the street arid the counting-house. It is the only practical basis for all phases of social life. It is not a sentiment of youth, but is for all men and women, all nations, all created things. Love is the best business policy and the best national policy—this which lacks all policy and is content to be itself. It is the only diplomacy that does not fail. It can no more be detached from life than can gravitation be disassociated from matter; there is no occasion which it does not fit; there is no time and no place from which it may properly be excluded.

That which differentiates me from my neighbor is not real but seeming, and shall endure only so long as my imperfect sight endures; it shall disappear to my awakened vision, and I shall love him literally as myself, for he is myself; the self-same spirit is in him that is in me, that is in all men; and what is not spirit is neither he nor I. Do I aid him, I further my own advancement; whatsoever I give to another I add to my own character. It is in the nature of love that we shall have only in proportion as we give. He only who gave the universe may fully possess it. We must impart our knowledge before we can profit by it; we must give our money before we can enjoy it. The secret eats into the heart; money burns in the pocket. Out with it! Uncover! Discover! Make manifest what is concealed. It is the genius of the West to proclaim, as it is of the Orient to conceal. The East has brooded much, has thought deeply, is silent and decadent. The West has thought lightly, has all to learn, but it proclaims joyfully and would impart, publish and make known; and while vulgarity disseminates that which is unreal, and wallows in the license of the press, culture proclaims its modicum of truth. Bread cast upon the waters returns the sweeter; and to return love for hate is to pay the highest deference to the Soul. To be loved we must love; to be blessed we must bless.

When shall we learn that God is synonymous with Good, and with Love; and whatsoever is not done in the name of God—that is to say, in the name of the Supreme Good—whatsoever is not consistent with Love, shall fail? If there is one God, then are we children of one Father; if there is one Mind, one Soul, one Heart, then do we share its intelligence and its love. There is a divine order in apparent chaos; there is a perfect unity in seeming diversity. We shall choose between eternal truth and national error, between divine order and human disorder. That which is true for the individual is none the less so for the nation which is but a larger, more comprehensive individual, and love is the cornerstone of a national culture. It is political shortsightedness that sees one code of ethics for the individual and another for the nation; it is worldly fatuity that admits a golden rule in daily life but ignores it in national conduct. There is a wisdom which makes foolish our statesmanship; there is a noble procedure of love which scorns our diplomacy. Love is the genius of true diplomacy and good government. In the encouragement of labor, capital reaps a large benefit; in a love of humanity royalty needs tremble no longer; in a just consideration for each other nations cease to fear, cease the paltry, ignoble game where the cards are marked, the dice loaded, and the players sit uneasy in their chairs—suspicious and distrustful.

Love would have us disband our armies and dismantle our guns. The burden of fear weighs heavy upon the world, and only love shall lift it. In the days of unrefined savagery man dreamed that he was separate from the Source of Life, separate from his brother; and all the years he has lived in that dream, haunted by this mania of separateness—striving to advance his separate interests. And forsaking the rule of love he is overcome by fear and seeks protection from all he has alienated from himself; for inexorable is the law of love—the law of laws, which is never broken but which breaks the transgressor, which grinds him to powder. Europe turns uneasy in her dream; demands a tax on the salt and the cabbage of the poor; exacts of the peasant the best years of his manhood; of the women, toil and weariness; of the well-born, that they sacrifice better aims for a sword—and idleness. So much does a lack of national culture impose; such is the price of military pretense. But who shall protect us from ourselves if love has gone out of the heart? The combined armaments of the world cannot offer safety to one shivering, fearful human creature, nor subdue the rebellion in one little mind. There is but one armor that will serve—the beautiful armor of love, mighty and invulnerable.

The love of the beautiful is ever a redeeming trait in the character of a people, and wherever it obtains in an eminent degree it sheds a luster upon that time and place and confers a distinction upon that race. Precisely for this reason does the genius of Japan exact always a certain deference from the esthetic world; for this same reverence for beauty is there somewhat national and pervades the mass of the people. It is revealed in the innate courtesy of common men; in the universal love of nature—where the blossoming of the cherry, the lotus and the chrysanthemum are events of almost national importance; where every mountain vista and every fair scene is cherished, is an heirloom of every son of Japan. We see its genial influence where barelegged, straw-shod coolies can evince an appreciation for the exquisite charm of Satsuma, of cloisonné and gold lacquer; where such men can look admiringly at a rare bronze of Mutsuhito, or at a kakemono, or stand in rapt delight as the mellow tones of the great bell strike upon the ear—a volume of heavenly sound floating out upon the air from the temple among the cryptomerias. But such is only a little focusing of what is cosmic, a little evidence of what is not Japanese but universal, for it lies within the soul; of what is most truly and transcendently human and hence divine.

As love is the ideal of culture, so it is the ground of true morality. To be virtuous for love of virtue; to be upright for love of honor, benevolent for love of humanity, and equitable for love of justice—in short, to be good for love of God, such is morality; and the moral sense is but the right development of the idea of love—for anything contrary to virtue is inimical to love; anything less than honor, equity and purity, is derogatory to love. Love is the radiant point for all virtues, and to live in accordance with it is to obey all moral laws. But to be benevolent for fear of criticism, to be virtuous for fear of consequences, honest for fear of the magistrate, or respectable for fear of society, is not morality but cowardice. The kingdom of heaven is not revealed through fear of hell, for fear is a hell in itself. Who fears any hell is on the road thither. There is more hope for a sturdy knave than for him who walks straight for fear of punishment.

What passes for immorality is largely fear. It is not love of drink that makes the most drunkards, for Bacchus soon disgusts his votaries; but it is fear of life, fear of sorrow, fear of what is uncongenial and hard to bear, of weakness, or of ennui. Fear of poverty breeds rogues and misers. He who loves life as he finds it, who loves to battle with it in his strength; he who is engrossed in his love for his fellow men—in his love for the idea, would never obscure it with alcohol, nor seek to hide his head beneath the sands of an opium dream. Immorality is not alone a tendency of the vicious and luxurious, it is found wherever love is not. There is the immorality of riches, of ostentation and display, for love of truth enjoins simplicity. There is the immorality of pretense, for love of what is real forbids it. The inner wealth reveals itself; a mere outward sign should be concealed. It were better to part with our riches if we are unhappy, for they but proclaim an inner poverty; better to save our money if we lack taste, for to spend it is to advertise our vulgarity. To love truth because of the truth is the essence of refinement; and to be true to one's self is to be moral.

How persistently does the obdurate mind oppose barriers to the free course of generous impulse; with what perseverance does it stand in its own light and recoil from the personalities which enshroud the human soul—bring objection upon objection, repulsion, shrinking, coldness! All this in its blindness, because it perceives not the Ineffable One looking through every pair of eyes, beating in every heart. Foolish are we who think thus to protect ourselves; we but erect barriers of mist to oppose the infinite array of love, and presently the beautiful star of human sympathy shall pierce the murky clouds with its serene ray and we shall be confused and ashamed in the presence of that which we but now denied. Then shall we arise and witness the glory of that star of love, nevermore to lose sight of it, for it illumines the way and is the reason and hope and happiness of life, and whenever its divine light falls full upon a human face it is transfigured.

If you would read character, be kind, for love is the stone which reveals the gold in human nature. Love is wise and looks behind the mask; behind the cold exterior it sees the yearning for expression and recognition; beyond the barrier of cynicism it detects the sensitive, affectionate nature, thinking thus to shield itself. It looks through austerity and sees gentleness; looks past all the array of proud and forbidding aspects with which we confront the world and sees the sterling qualities which we would thus conceal. So easy is it to address ourselves to the defects in other men, to note the faults where it were better to have scanned the virtues; so difficult to deal with them divinely. But love is indeed slow to judge; it looks beneath the scowl, beneath the mask of bitterness, of scorn and arrogance, and beholds always the gentle, unawakened soul. With its beautiful child-like gaze it pierces the shell of irascibility and of churlishness and selfishness, and whispers, "Come forth, O my Brother!" It reads between the lines; reads the latent good, the possibilities of the poorest, meanest man; it scans the book that every man carries in his face and form and learns how the youthful aspirations were smothered; how the longings of a heart were crushed; the yearnings stifled. Love always transcends the personality and sees in its objectionable traits but the tough shell which encloses the sweet kernel, as the leathery rind of the mangosteen serves to protect the most delicate of fruits—for as fragile plants sometimes hide from the glare of the sun, so do oftentimes rare and beautiful natures seek to screen themselves from the world.

All the world loves the great-hearted man whose love is as deep as humanity and as broad as creation. To him—the sublime soul—come loving influences from all points—from the distant stars pouring into him, up from the earth rushing to him, emanating from the grasses and the sedges, from leaves and flowers, out from the throats of birds floating to him—flowing and surging into his being. His love is all inclusive, from the lowest to the highest, from the meanest to the noblest; for the drunkard and the fallen; for the vicious and the insane; for the hopeless and despairing—for all, but one thought of kindness, beholding within every wretched body the germs of something higher, the seeds of something nobler. God uses such a man and through him are prayers answered. He is at the earnest call of mankind; wherever he is attracted it is to minister to some soul that seeks the light, some mind that is full to overflowing with vain longing and dissatisfaction. He hears the cry for help of those who have come to stand alone and know not yet which way to turn. He hears all these voices calling—voices of the night; hears them on the city streets; hears them in the wind and waves; hears them in the silence. Wherever men and women work, wherever men and women wait; wherever lives seem poor and barren; where they are joyless and uneventful; where the crisis seems too great; when the strain would seem to break—there he heeds them and obeys. He goes to whisper courage, goes to give his strong right hand, goes to take a light into the darkness.

To be cultured is to possess a plummet which shall sound all institutions and the minds of men, for while there is nothing so shortsighted as shrewdness—which is a very mole—there is nothing more farseeing than love; it is to have a hazel wand that will unfailingly indicate the hidden reality. And the exercise of culture is the passing this wand over science and arts, over customs and fashions, over books and conversations; and wherever it points, there shall we dig. The wand passes over the new book of many editions—passes over the things of a day and gives no sign, but on the classic ground of truth it fairly leaps in the hand.

Culture is the token of a true self-sufficiency, for only that which is real shall suffice. How shall it be attained through that which today is and tomorrow is not? Shall we draw a circle in the sand and stand within it a few hours until the tide rises? We awake from our classical slumbers, and lo! new constellations have filled the heavens, and men prate of new gods, and the old altars are forsaken. But love is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and whatever things are not built upon it are circles in the sand, and as continually fall away.

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Stanton Davis Kirkham

  • Born on December 7th, 1868 in Nice, Alpes-Maritimes, France and died on January 6th, 1944 in New York City.
  • Graduated from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
  • Quoted in As a Man Thinketh by James Allen

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