By Basil Gala, Ph.D.
In Search of Meaning
All cultures are valuable and worthy of study, Margaret Mead would say. All cultures are equal, interesting, and must be preserved for posterity; each contains unique elements which may prove essential to human survival and growth; that’s the truth indeed. Yet, some cultures flourish at times in human history above the norm. We had the splendor that was Greece, and the might that was Rome. Barbarian tribes nearly destroyed all that and Jewish theology put the finishing touches to the advent of the dark ages. Renaissance finally dawned in Italy, giving us da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Galileo. Then the new flowering of culture spread to the barbarian lands of Holland, Spain, France, England, Germany, Russia, and smaller nations in Europe. The proud nations of Europe later discovered other cultures of great importance that had flourished in the past: in Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, India, Middle America, Peru, Indochina, and other lands. What was the common thread that gave rise to such extraordinary growths in art, science, technology, politics, and religion? How was this thread cut, leading to decay, apathy, ignorance, and the death of the creative mind? The thread was the reach of leading noble citizens for creativity, for excellence, and for the divine; the thread was cut when barbarians, from home or abroad, brought down those citizens.
The word in Sanskrit for noble is aryan, a word debased by Nazi ideologues. In Hinduism arya is a title of honor and respect, meaning noble or spiritual. In Greek the word “arete” was used to describe what was best in anything, indicating superlative ability and nobility, from which derived aristos (best) and aristocracy. Aryan is also related to Iran (Persia) and Zoroastrianism, a germinal religion of ancient times which gave rise to the belief in the immortality of the spirit. Being noble is to seek the best things in life. Excellence is the passion to achieve great works, in fierce competition with equally talented antagonists. The divine, the ultimate nobility, is that state of being which is full of peace, contentment, creativity, power, wisdom, great knowledge, compassion, and joy–the attributes of God.
In the past, people believed attributes of nobility were passed on to offspring through breeding, or blood. Nobles bequeathed their wealth, titles, and powerful positions to their first sons, who were sometimes idiots; the smart second or third sons went to America to build wealth for themselves. Today, genetics provides some explanations for the transfer of hereditary traits. Certainly some physical characteristics are inherited: for example, the color of eyes, hair, and skin, even stature of body and size of brain. Spiritual qualities may be a different matter. King David gave birth to Solomon; but Marcus Aurelius to Commodus. Moreover, many great men and women have come from humble backgrounds, from commoners or even serfs. Yet, with the rise of democracies throughout the world, perhaps we have swung too far in neglecting birth and breeding. We should honor and support nobility no matter what the source of it. The British are wise to confer knighthoods to people, such as Ben Kingsley, actor, son of an East Indian, who tap their source of nobility and contribute to society something of value and importance.
In 1919 Munich, the Thule Society discovered the source of nobility in Atlantis, which sank they claimed in the Northern Atlantic Ocean a million years ago; The Thule attributed much virtue to the blond, blue-eyed Nordic strain of humans. The Society sponsored Deutsche Arbeirpartei, which became the Nazi party under Adolph Hitler. Teutonic people were the master race, and every other type of human was inferior. That would leave out the ancient Greeks, and the modern European Jews, who have contributed greatly to civilization. Jesus, the Jewish carpenter, was not light skinned and blond; neither was Einstein. In every field of civilized life, European Jews excelled, yet Hitler decided they had to be exterminated. I am not a Nordic type, and most likely, you are not either. Even Southern Germans are not very blond. Blond men may be superior, but popular opinion holds that blond women are dumb. Disregarding eugenics, gentlemen prefer blonds, so blonds have more fun; that’s why so many silly women become blonds, and with contact lenses, blue-eyed too.
Blond or dark, certain strains of humanity build civilization better than others. We should encourage them to continue doing this and discourage those people who tend to destroy culture. The best way to discourage barbarians from destroying the fruits of culture is to civilize them. Ancient Romans in the West were successful to some extent doing that with the French, Western Germans, and the Anglo-Saxons; they failed in Eastern Germany (and Scotland, where Hadrian built a wall to stop them); eventually, the barbarian armies sacked Rome and took over the Holy Roman Empire. Many centuries later, in the East, the Byzantines made progress with the Arabs, but were overwhelmed by the Turks. Barbarians usually win the conflict in the end, because barbarians live in tough circumstances, become strong and aggressive, and have higher birthrates. Civilizations degenerate from ease and weakness; then barbarians destroy them. Barbarians are always charging at the gates of the city with high culture.
The French call it “haute culture,” when talking about clothing fashions. I refer to culture that noble people create, which has little to do with clothing, wooden masks for ceremonies, the igloo, or the boomerang—good things as these may be. High culture is when noble people strive to reach God, the ideal of perfection. I realize you may dispute the distinction between high culture and low. What is fine music, great painting, good science, useful technology, powerful religion or politics, all are subject to taste and fashion. But for now let us accept the opinions of teachers or critics. They instruct us to admire the achievements of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and before them the ancient Egyptians and Babylonians who invented writing and other arts. We can see in National Geographic about archaeological discoveries in Middle and South America and admire the remains of the Mayan and Inca civilizations. In the East, we can tour in person or by travelogue Cambodia’s Angkor Vat, India’s magnificent temples, Japan’s Kyoto treasures, and China’s Ming artworks. What brought about such achievements?
Nobility is essential for great achievements, but not sufficient; wealth is also necessary. You can hardly be noble without money. You cannot indulge in the arts and sciences, when you are struggling each day for bare survival. Civilizations don’t emerge in villages and farms. A good river is almost always there for a city to grow big and prosperous. A coastline with a natural harbor helps too. The Egyptian civilization was the gift of the Nile, and Babylon the gift of two rivers, Tigris and Euphrates. It seems that each great city is next to a river flowing by to supply water for irrigation, drinking and sewage disposal. Rome, Tiber. Paris, Seine. London, Thames. Vienna, Danube. Palestine, Jordan. Ancient Athens had Cephissus, small but competent. The plains of Attica were fertile, growing olives, grapes, wheat, and vegetables, which formed the early wealth of the city. The harbor of Piraeus was close and the road to it was walled in. The Athenians ventured out to the Aegean and beyond to trade with their olive oil, wine and other products. Later Athenians acquired slaves, set up factories, and exported manufactured products. Athenian navy allowed people to travel to Egypt and other centers of civilization, which were already ancient in their time. During the Persian wars the Athenians led the Greeks in victorious battles and later formed the Delian League of city states, collecting taxes and tributes for the common defense against Persians. The Persians caused no further trouble, so Pericles, elected city leader for over thirty years, used the money to create splendid cultural monuments on the Acropolis and elsewhere for the enjoyment of the people and to impress visitors. The age of Pericles is known as the Golden Age of Greece.
Pericles was a democratic leader, descended from aristocratic families, especially on his mother’s side. He was accused by enemies of being a populist, because he gave the vote to poor people and provided free theater seats for them with city money. But the plays he sponsored were tragedies by Aeschylos, Sophocles, and Euripides, with some comic relief from Aristophanes.
The sculptor Pericles favored was Phidias. Phidias was also a great painter and architect, seeking perfection in everything he created. Once he was asked why he bothered to make the backs of statues in front of walls as carefully as the fronts, since people could not see the backs. Phidias answered that the Gods could see the backs. Like da Vinci and Michelangelo in the Italian Renaissance, he was probably gay.
Being gay may give some men and women a special sensitivity that allows them to excel in the arts. Not being burdened by a family to support, gay persons may fully dedicate their lives to their art.
With the efforts of gays or straights, culture branches out, growing like a tree to any size, sprouting in all directions to infinity, eventually becoming the Deity. There can never be an end to artistic or scientific innovation. Limits occur only in the minds of spiritless people, who give up too soon. The popular arts always persist in their charming but pointless existence. Folk songs and dances go on. The handicrafts continue and philosophy becomes a collection of old sayings. When the leading people, the born aristocrats, stop striving, when they turn to pleasures and futilities, neglecting self discipline and hard work, abandoning total dedication to their chosen fields, these people decline and their society quickly follows into decay. Then tyrants, dictators, autocrats of the state take over, boxing in minds, depressing and oppressing those who would freely create new ideas. In the tree of culture whole branches dry out, dying. Perhaps most of the tree of culture withers as in the Dark Ages. But the roots seem to persist and the tree sprouts again on some other land, in some other age, when freedom of expression is again allowed.
In America, in 1776, freedom and democracy came to life again after many centuries of autocratic rule in the Old World, and with these blessings came the flowering of culture in the thirteen colonies, such as we have not seen since. Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, businessman, author, inventor, and scientist, one of the founders of electrical science. Thomas Jefferson, besides being a plantation owner and statesman, was an architect, a writer of renown with his Declaration of Independence. John Adams was an attorney and statesman with a major intellect. The bona fide genius was the elitist Alexander Hamilton, one of the framers of the U.S. Constitution, who perished in a duel with his political enemy Aaron Burr before he became 50. Hamilton contributed to the formation of a strong federal government and chief executive in the form of a president. James Madison, a political theorist, was one of the framers of the Constitution and its chief author, designing checks and balances in the distribution of federal power. George Washington was no genius but a man of immense character, an able general, and the first president; he declined to become a king as he was urged by his admirers. The U. S. was fortunate indeed to have such people who founded a republic with a reasonably good balance between freedom and discipline. Culture has flourished in America at least in science and technology.
The fine arts instead have not done as well. Artists require patronage from people of noble vision, who support contemporary work, not the classics only. The classics, traditional works, are fine to admire up to a point. I suggest that half of the support money should go to honor the classics, and the other half to support the work of living artists. Most wealthy collectors in America pay millions for the paintings and sculptures of artists long dead on the advice of their experts, and do very little to patronize living artists of merit. Our orchestras play old symphonies and operas and very little of contemporary works.
Don’t we have contemporary artists of great merit? We probably do, but these people prefer to go into business to make some real money. They are unwilling to work for fifty cents an hour like Michelangelo when he was creating the Sistine chapel’s decorations for Pope Julius II. Perhaps we don’t have patrons willing to pay even that much for art they cannot resell for profit. Anyway, egalitarian societies such as ours are not likely to give rise to fine culture. Populist or socialist societies do even worse. What came out of the Nazi socialists or the communists? They produced nothing worthwhile except for better weapons. Good artists made a run out of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union whenever they could. Creative people and oppressive governments don’t go well together. Yet, too much freedom leads to degradation and triviality, the art of urinals. Creativity depends on a sound tradition to build on, but enough freedom to reach out to new spaces for the tree of culture. Massive, centralized, governments do not advance civilization very much.
In ancient Greece, Renaissance Italy, and eighteenth century Germany, people had a great flowering of culture in a political environment of city states, with noble rulers patronizing creative talent in competition to outshine with each other with great monuments for their own glory and that of their city. Prime examples of such rulers were Pericles, Lorenzo the Magnificent in Florence, who patronized da Vinci, Hungarian Prince Esterhazy, who supported Joseph Haydn to produce 106 magnificent symphonies, Mozart’s Prince-Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg and Emperor Joseph II in Vienna. Mozart created great operas in Vienna, such as The Marriage of Figaro, The Magic Flute, and Don Giovanni, until he fell into hard times during the Austro-Turkish War of 1787, when prosperity dropped and aristocrats were giving less money to the arts.
In hard financial times or when aristocracies fall, we see a decline in cultural growth. But a too strong, centralized government is a worse calamity for culture. In America we would do better making counties the centers of our political power and wealth, in the form of city states. Elected officials in the county, well known to the local people, may elect state governors, and governors elect the president; the same process can apply to other branches of government, the judicial and legislative, with only the most basic and necessary functions relinquished to state and federal entities. You can be sure local leaders will not give up too much power to the central governments as popular voting does in our current system. Prominent citizens may thus perform the roles of democratic princes, like Pericles or Lorenzo, each county governed by a city of modest size, certainly less than a million people. Massive urban centers, like New York or Chicago may support the arts, but not for their creation as much. Most of the money goes to popular entertainments for the masses with little artistic merit..
Artistic merit prevailed in Paris during the eighteenth century; Paris was the center of the world in culture, and it was a large city; but the artistic center of it where intellects thrived was very small. Learning and creativity were nourished at the Sorbonne. The same could be said for London in the seventeenth century with Oxford and Cambridge, which produced modern science, Shakespearean theater, and other fine arts with money from exploration, the raiding of Spanish galleons by privateers, manufacturing and trade. The Dutch in Amsterdam, rich from trade, followed a similar route with the English, producing Rembrandt (patronized by Prince Frederik Hendrik), Huygens (mathematician and scientist), and Spinoza, one of greatest philosophers of all time. This was the Golden Age for the Dutch and the English.
If we want a Golden Age for planet Earth, not more isolated flowerings of culture that quickly wither, knowing where the roots of culture are, let us remember the lessons of History and apply them to our private and social lives. An individual grows and bears fruit with a firm purpose in life, working hard to achieve it, never weakening, never giving up. The civilized person needs to be not only smarter and better trained than the barbarian, but also stronger, producing and raising children to be the same. A society, a world society today, constituted by such noble persons of birth or aspiration will prevail over the barbarians that abound everywhere in great numbers, and such universal noble persons will lead humanity to a shining future, here on Earth and elsewhere in the Universe, where astronauts may travel to build the city of God.