Those for whom culture has been a long-term emotional investment feel they know what true culture is, and know that it is a thing of supreme value. But when we try to define it we end up like the poet Matthew Arnold who, in a celebrated essay, Culture and Anarchy, published in 1865, wrote of culture as “the best that has been thought and said.” To which the obvious response is: in what respect and in comparison with what? And what’s wrong with second best?
We cannot lay down a law for popular taste or forbid people to enjoy what appeals to them – not unless we can find some serious moral argument that would justify censorship. But there are certain general principles that everyone can assent to. For example, we all recognise the difference between means and ends. We know that we choose the means to our ends, but also that we choose our ends. We are active guardians of our own lives, aiming not just to hit the target that we have chosen, but also to choose the right target. How do we learn to do that? The answer is culture – both the culture of everyday life and the “high” culture, as it is sometimes called, in which life becomes fully conscious of itself as an object of judgment. The arts form the core of high culture: it is why we teach them, and why we encourage people to take an interest in them. They are doors into the examined life and, as Socrates famously said, “the unexamined life is not a life for a human being.”