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Sainte-Beuve, I believe it is, is quoted as having once declared that everything has been asserted and also denied. Probably this could even be said, with no great appearance of being extravagant, about a limited period like, let us say, the last hundred years. We often hear the present time spoken of as an age of skepticism; but the truth is that it, like most other ages since civilization has been a wide-spread fact, is a vast heterogeneity, or conglomerate of all kinds of beliefs and unbeliefs. Doubtless, indeed, as we surpass in numbers the people of any other age, so also we surpass all other ages in the crazy variety of our affirmations and denials regarding human concerns in this world and in other worlds. As there are all sorts of people in the world, so there are all sorts of outlooks upon life and human destiny. There are, for example, at what most cultivated persons to-day would regard as one end of the scale of human intelligence, believers in the latest religion to be invented out of hand by some ego-maniac or other variety of mental unfortunate, and, at the other, believers in Darwin revised and brought up to date. Nevertheless, it is perhaps true that if we consider the organs of respectable opinion only, there is discernible an average tone and attitude to things in general, which gives some basis in fact for that tremendous phrase, "spirit of the age," to rest upon.
Thirty years ago, for example, in the days of Matthew Arnold, the educated world was a good deal interested in discussions appertaining to culture-what it was, for example, how it could
be secured, who ought to try to get it, and what, in general, its claims to consideration were in the fierce rivalry of things important for the world's attention. Apparently we no longer talk very much or very seriously about culture now. Doubtless Chautauqua lecturers, or some of them, still consider it a good thing for everybody to get a bit of at odd moments. The word culture is still used, also, around colleges and universities as a kind of vague shibboleth in that noisy but not very dreadful warfare which at such institutions is at all times waging between the advocates of the sciences and the advocates of the humanities. But our wise men talk rather less about culture now than wise men used to. The officially great of the earth, and the ex-officially great, never think, now, of the necessity of putting in an occasional word for culture as they go up and down the land, sermonizing upon the importance of honesty, energy, courage, and other old, respectable, and well-understood virtues. And for the magazine writers of to-day, the very last thing in the world that they would think of writing about is culture. Possibly there are a few popular lecturers still alive who have a discourse upon this subject in their list. But we know very well what most of us would do if such a lecturer came to town, preceded by the announcement that his theme was to be culture: we should stay at home, unless he were a very famous man indeed, and we felt reasonably confident that before he got very far in his lecture he would wander a long way from his topic, and never return to it; just as we should do if it were announced that the lecturer's topic would be Life, or Honesty, or Goodness, or any other subject at once vague and worn.
It is certainly true that culture, the word and the thing, was once a good deal talked about and written about, was a wellworn theme when our generation dropped it, or all but dropped it, turning it over, as it did, to those guileless classes to which allusion has been made: Chautauqua and other popular lecturers, and college teachers; classes notoriously deficient in the ability to discriminate between living ideas and dead ones-if one may say that without disrespect to the political gentlemen who more and more abound on the Chautauqua platform, and who do not, of course, fall under this condemnation. Doubtless the world
is very little the better for all the discussions of culture in which it has in the past indulged; though heaven forbid that any such test as the degree to which the discussion of it has demonstrably contributed to the real happiness and well-being of the world, should ever be applied to any of the topics which, in our consciously virtuous moments, we poor mortals worry and madden ourselves over, in the belief that when thus engaged we are acting a wiser and more creditable part than when more lightly engaged; than when talking about our neighbors, for example. No one, finally, will be disposed to deny that culture is a topic of surpassing vagueness—a vagueness so admirable that he must be a fool indeed who cannot discuss it with the appearance of considerable wisdom, provided only he do it with a sufficient degree of solemnity and a sufficient appearance of confidence in his own brazen platitudes. What, after all, though, is so harmless for purposes of discussion as a platitude? The elaboration of a platitude arouses no antagonism, wounds no sensibilities, and at the very worst brings the care-charmer sleep to some, or to all, who find themselves upon the scene where the platitudes are ringing forth. Let us therefore for a little while yield ourselves up, each in his own way,-some to sigh, it may be, and some to sleep,-let us yield ourselves for a little while to the influence of such amiable platitudes as our vague and venerable subject will enable us to conjure up for a few moments out of the great abyss of platitudes.
What is culture? The fact that no satisfactory definition of it has ever been given, has led some people more than half to question whether there is any such thing. Probably no one, however, who is likely so much as to glance at an article about culture, needs to be told that to deny the reality of a thing because the word which does its poor best to name that thing is not definable in clear-cut terms, and in a manner universally satisfactory, is to show one's self very unfamiliar indeed with the limitations of the dictionary. Many of the most vital terms in language are not thus definable-perhaps it would be safe to say most such terms are not; terms which fall from our lips every hour, terms which, however vague, have behind them facts so sternly real that we could not ignore them for a day without be
ing kicked out of decent society, or perhaps even getting ourselves abolished altogether as pestiferous and unlimited nuisances. One may say, indeed, that the world leads a hand-to-mouth existence in its dealing with these terms; it is never quite sure that in a little while it may not have to require of them very different service from that which it has been getting from them. Hence, completely and permanently to clarify our understanding of these terms is impossible. If by any chance there comes to be a fairly general agreement about the meaning of one of them to-day, by to-morrow the sweep of thought or of events may have brought into high light some phases of the matter which the term attempts to identify, will have obscured or completely darkened other phases, and lo! the process of clarification is all undone. For some of us are always lagging behind the sweep of events, and shall therefore to-morrow be using the old term in to-day's sense, instead of in to-morrow's; doing, it may be, deadly mischief thereby. And as laggers do not all lag alike, consider how utterly the work of clarification is likely to be undone by day after to-morrow, or even later in the week yet, when I, perhaps, have fallen behind three or four days, my next-door neighbor two days, and even you yourself one day; while, to make the confusion utterly hopeless, Smith, with the everlasting obtrusiveness of his race, has thrust himself where, for your comfort and mine, he has no business to be, namely, two or three days ahead of the sweep of thought and events; from which vantage point he yells back at us peaceable and slower-going citizens absurd drivel about being in advance of his time, the gloriousness of martyrdom for the sake of truth and progress, and other like boastful and insulting remarks.
It is hardly necessary to give any example of this fluidity of terms. Any good dictionary is crammed with such examples. No dictionary, indeed, can ever tell the thousandth part of the story, since even modern dictionaries have a limited capacity, and since—a far more important reason-oblivion speedily passes over the greater part of the story which the dictionary maker would have to tell, if he wanted to give a complete account of any word in the popular vocabulary; any word, that is to say, that has been much used by all sorts of persons, or nearly
all; therefore, any thoroughly vital word. Who of us that has dipped even a little into Plato, followed even cursorily the movement of subsequent ethical teaching and speculation, and read with the least degree of thoughtfulness the history of the events as the result of which democracy and socialism have come into the world-who but knows that, in a certain sense, the whole history of the civilized world since Plato has represented an attempt to agree upon and realize in the domain of fact a clear and universally satisfactory definition of the word Justice? Ah, if I could but have justice! man has said passionately, if not from the beginning, at least from very early times in the history of his life on this earth; and it is hardly too much to say that, in the long history of man, as often as that cry has been uttered, whether in public or in private, it has meant a different thing, when it has meant anything at all beyond a vague discontent. That is to say, if every time that cry has escaped human lips, a world had been created exactly to meet its demands, it is hardly possible to believe that the same world would ever have been called for twice. No; the attempt at universal agreement upon the concept of justice, to say nothing of its realization in the actual world of human relationships, is an attempt which, while it will probably always continue to be made, can in the nature of things never be successful; and that not merely because the material to be worked upon is obdurate, but far more for the reasons already elaborated. We may compare the concept of Justice to the plan of a house, the realization of that concept to the finished building. Our plan and our building, however, both stand in hard case, if we can for the moment overlook the mild approach to a bull in speaking of our house as standing at all while it is still but a-planning. For every human being on earth insists on having a hand in our plan; and not only that, but every one of the multitudinous architects is forever changing his mind regarding the location or the desirability of a hall here or a window there, about the proper size and general shape of the house, even about the nature of the material out of which it is to be built. Everyone, therefore, is perpetually rubbing out not only the lines which he himself has made, but also those made by his fellow architects. Is it any wonder