Culture, the Victorious

The following essay is a brief piece on culture by the Russian painter and philosopher Nicholas Roerich, posthumously published in a collection of his essays titled ‘The Invincible’. Roerich is chiefly remembered as the creator of the Roerich Pact, which is dedicated to the preservation of cultural sites and artifacts across the world. Although not formally connected with the original Traditionalist movement, he spent the majority of life in exile from his homeland and studied the cultures of Asia, very much in the same essence of Traditionalist figures such as Schuon and Guenon. As with many individuals expressing doubts on the current state of modernity today, Roerich identified this troubling loss of cultural expression around the world back in the 1930’s and offered a return to tradition against what he saw as a civilization of unsocial customs. Having spent the last few days looking over papers and books from Roerich, I consider it inadmissible that such a luminous figure concerned with cultural preservation is so overlooked today, one who garnered the respect of statesmen and has over five thousand paintings to his name.

And so you like my definition of culture and civilization. One should note with justice that in India and China such a definition of the concepts of culture and civilization was understood quite readily and welcomed as something entirely natural.

But it was not thus everywhere. Sometimes it was proposed that I exclude altogether the word culture, because civilization fully expressed both concepts, as it were. I had to take down from the bookshelves various dictionaries in order to prove, at least formally, the difference between these two words. Of course my opponents did not convince me, and I am not certain that I convinced them. Maybe because of certain prejudices they still consider civilization as something tangible and culture as something abstract, ephemeral. Maybe, in spite of all proofs, some still think that the presence of a starched collar or a stylish dress is a guarantee not only of a sound civilization but also of culture. So often purely external, conventional signs are light-mindedly taken for an unquestionable achievement.

But in culture there is no place for light-mindedness. Culture is verily conscious cognition, spiritual refinement and convincingness, whereas the conventional forms of civilization depend entirely upon the passing fashion. Culture, when it arises and is affirmed, becomes indestructible. There may be various degrees and methods of its manifestation, but in its essence it is invincible, and it lives primarily in the human heart. The mind from which haphazard phrases spring up can be satisfied with mechanical civilization, whereas an enlightened consciousness can breathe only through culture. It seems, as was said long ago, that culture is that refuge in which the human spirit finds ways for religion and for everything uplifting and beautiful.

Culture is a guarantee of the impossibility of retreat. If you hear somewhere about some kinds of festivals and holidays dedicated to culture, and later learn that on the very next day something anti-cultural took place there, then do not attach much importance to these festivals. They consisted only of vain talk and falsehoods. They only defiled the luminous concept of culture. At present official days of culture are frequently observed on which people swear to each other that they will not permit any more acultural manifestations. Devotion to everything cultural is solemnly avowed, and everything coarse, negative, corrupt is denied. How good it would be if all these oaths were sincere and immutable! But shortly afterward look at the pages of the very same newspapers and you will be shocked to see that the usage of expressions and strivings not only is not purified but became somewhat more false and abominable. Does it not mean that many of those who but recently proclaimed publicly their participation in culture did not even understand the true meaning of this lofty concept? After all, taking an oath to culture imposes an obligation. One should not utter big words in vain or with evil intent. Advisedly did the apostle remind the Ephesians: “Neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks.” “Let all bitterness, and wrath, and anger, and clamour, and evil speaking, be put away from you, with all malice:” And he also warned: “Redeeming the time, because the days are evil.”

How ugly it is to utter obscenity near the concept of culture. There cannot be any vindication for this. No matter how one may try to forget the very word culture and limit it with the concept of civilization, nevertheless, even upon the lowest steps of civilized society, all coarseness is definitely excluded. Someone sorrowfully remarks about the existence of civilized savages. Of course, different forms of savagery are possible. On the one hand, one can see that at times people who were compelled to remain in the most complete solitude not only did not lose but, on the contrary, uplifted their own humanness. On the other hand, quite often, even among the so-called civilized forms of life, people have fallen into unsocial customs, info an animal-like state. Let us not cite examples, although there are plenty of them.

All this only proves the extent of the frailty of the signs of civilization, and how necessary it is to be reminded of the principles of culture. And not for pseudo-days of culture, but for the establishment of its foundations in daily life. One should not delay any longer the establishment of real days of culture. Otherwise the pseudo-festivals may become sufficient for some people. The repetition alone of the word culture does not mean that the basis of this concept is being applied.

There exist many anecdotes about the ridiculous application of various scientific terms. It is also unfitting to profane that great concept which should improve and illuminate the twilight of contemporary existence. If the lights of the cinema signs are glaring, if newspaper reports are blaring the appraisal of the blows of a prize fight, this does not mean that the days of culture are nearer.

Young people often have every right to ask their elders about the extent to which culture enters into their free time. This is not to be regarded as some impermissible rebellion of youth. This will be simply a question about a beautiful yell-ordered structure of life. Often it merely shows a young blind striving keenly beyond the limitations of conventional civilization. Children often have an insatiable desire to learn that about which they usually receive such meager formal answers from their elders. And at times there may be added ergo bibamus — let us have a drink. And thus is Underscored a complete bankruptcy of thinking.

Life, in all its new aspects, is outgrowing the concept of conventional civilization. The problems of life, growing daily, insistently propel people toward higher decisions, in the making of which it is impossible to shift the blame in conventional outworn ways. Either all the newly found possibilities are to be blended into a beautiful, truly cultural decision, or the survivals of civilization will drag the weak-willed into a savage state. And then no pseudo-festivals of culture will inspire, nor will they hold back falsehood and destruction.

But, even if in the minority, even if persecuted as in the days of old, let a few gather; and in true festivals of culture, without sophistry, without pompous twaddle, they will firmly swear to each other to follow only the paths of culture, the paths of spiritual perfectment. It should be thus in all the various countries, in all corners of the world where the human heart is beating.


December 27, 1934

The Threat of Monoculture

There can be no doubt that the peoples of Earth are more interconnected now than they ever were before,  Today, the culture of the so-called developed world is governed by ideas of opposition to ethnopluralism and support of materialist cosmopolitanism. It’s believed to be more honorable to call oneself a “citizen of the world” than a staunch defender of any one tribe or group, because by definition, drawing a line of preference to those within one’s group would imply that some faraway other is excluded. Today, a centuries-old trend of assimilation within the interest of economic progress is reaching its apex and is set to become one of the primary sociological concerns in the near future. As we see in the jungles of Brazil and the streets of Europe alike, native populations are quickly becoming foreigners in their own lands as their environments change before their eyes. We often hear that the West must absorb more immigrants to support an aging population at home, or that indigenous tribes ought to relocate from their ancestral lands in order to feed some other land’s addiction to natural resources. Now, there are serious doubts as to the long-term effects of an unrestrained and constantly-burgeoning global economy of material wealth, one driven by the globalist principle of free movement of human capital. As a result, the world is quickly becoming one and the same, while individual cultures and ethnicities are either bred out of existence or forcibly assimilated to the mass. Yet we see that this renewed focus on tradition is paving the way for events such as the recent rise in popularity of identitarian parties in Europe or the avowed dedication to traditional values and customs by world leaders, as is seen in the rhetoric of Vladimir Putin of Russia or India’s Nahrendra Mohdi.

The most striking question presented by these events is the question of the inherent importance of tradition. Why does this matter and why should it have any role in global affairs or even in the lives of everyday people? In a purely materialistic world as ours (both in the economic and philosophical sense), the goals and needs of a society seem to accomplish the exact opposite of their stated goals. The abundance of resources for easier living creates worsening conditions in the place those resources were produced; as it becomes easier to travel the world and see other lands, those lands are becoming more and more identical to the rest of the world; mass immigration to create more jobs, give an area “diversity”, and expand the economy does the opposite after several generations when those immigrants have assimilated and the favorable economic impact of their immigration has been absorbed or even reversed; the constant drive for individuals to present themselves as wholly different from the crowd creates one large demographic of people ready to be sold something in order to validate their individuality—I could go on. To compare the amount of languages and ethnicities across the world in the 18th century versus today shows that this process of economic globalization has not only proved detrimental for the West, but for all other civilizations as well, and this trend will continue, with an estimated ninety percent of languages spoken today will become extinct by century’s end. In practical reality, the only possible and logical end to this is the consolidation of humanity into a single homogenous group with no differentiating characteristics between regions or even individuals. Surely this is opposite of the stated goals of today’s liberal culture. Tradition, as a general definition by both the political and religious branches of the Traditionalist school of thought, is a belief that goes beyond mere individuality or human form. The present rationalist economic mode of thinking has attempted to do away with this practice, regarding it as no longer relevant in society (and an impediment to doing business). In a sense, the general tradition of a people is significant of a separate mode of thought, of a separate existence and it’s an axiomatic truth that the whole of the world’s intellectual and cultural achievement did not stem from a single way of thinking. As such, anything which threatens the inherent intellectual multiplicity of the world should be regarded as a threat, or more accurately, a disease.

However, there isn’t a single source from which the imposition of a global standard would arise from. Most prominently today, it is the ethnopluralistic monoculture emanating from the West that threatens individual culture but this threat also comes from religious zealotry with its own monocultural ambitions, namely Islamic fundamentalism. Yet the constant push to eliminate tribal and nomadic lifestyles from the Earth is something largely ignored by the world. Liberal societies often present us with images of all the world’s peoples in their cultural dress, standing together on the globe holding hands. But as was said, this wishful idealism has accomplished the exact opposite. A sadly unnoticed byproduct of this historical direction is the negative impact resulting from the demand for the peoples of the world to adhere to a single global standard. In simple terms, this equates to the gradual dwindling of the world’s cultural multiplicity over the last five centuries or so. Certain ways of life deemed unconducive to economic activity are assimilated to a larger whole or removed completely. This crisis has finally reached its apogee in our century, when no longer small tribes and ethnicities are at risk, but entire cultures. Anthropologist Scott Atran describes this trend as the “homogenization of the human experience”. Throughout history, we see the birth of cultures as well as their death, and it remains an indisputable truth that any culture comes with its own expiration date. However, the crisis we see today is the death of distinct ethnicities on a mass scale without anything tangible replacing them. As economic globalization and standardized living continues to expand, this leaves little room for the traditional lifestyles that came before these forces. And as we see with the unfortunately futile efforts of Brazilian indigenous tribes fighting to preserve their way of life against foreign entities, there is little stopping this trend.

Indeed, one of the important considerations of our time is the preservation of regional cultures and, naturally, human biodiversity. Having visited Russian Old Believer communities in Alaska and adobe farming villages in Mexico, I bore witness to the effects of modernity on these communities firsthand. The old generations remained, while the younger members leave in increasing numbers to metropolitan areas, thirsting for all the comforts of city life. Similar stories may be said for the Sami tribes in Scandinavia and the steppe nomads of Mongolia, and countless others. A void appears, and formerly independent men are quickly learning to forget how to provide for themselves. In the cities, the assurance that our basic needs are provided for by someone else, that there is an institution somewhere to fight your battles for you, that the need for self-sufficiency is outdated has meant that the modern individual can concern himself with the most trivial and self-serving tasks without regard for progeny or neighbor. Today’s generation in particular is often said to be the weakest thus far, consisting of entitlement, and foregoing the qualification that should come with it. It’s become entirely acceptable in civilized countries to sit inside one’s home without leaving and indulge in one self-destructive pleasure or another. The Japanese have termed this ‘hikikomori’, and many lament the hesitance to establish meaningful social connections as the root cause for the country’s falling birthrate. Is it any wonder, with such a atomization becoming commonplace across the world, that traditions are dying?

To say that traditional societies existed on the basis of interconnected individuals with important roles (literally, a tribe) needs no generalizations, it is their very cornerstone. Just as the relationship between two individuals will create inside jokes and shared values, traditional societies do so with traditions, although at a much deeper level. The contemporary presentation of the world’s economic history illustrates a gradual expansion of general wealth and increasing utility of resources from Europe (or rather, the West) onwards to the rest of the world. These definitive centuries have ensured that the process of economic globalization is, today, nigh inescapable and a sufficient opposing ideology has yet to fully form. The influence of this historical process means that worthy political considerations are now made strictly in the context of economic favorability to specific interests (i.e. profit-thinking). As some foolishly assume, this has yet to conclude and, in fact, continues to spread. But to participate in the global economic game necessitates a certain degree of conformity, this is seen when countries are coerced into giving up their own specific currency in exchange for the opportunity to participate in an economic zone or in superficial matters such as the post-imperial Japanese discarding their traditional dress in exchange for western-made suits and ties in the interest of conducting business with other people, also wearing suits and ties. Consider as well, how many small-town industries have been destroyed by the forcible expansion of ‘free trade’ notions, foisted on the general population by a select few for the benefit of the few.

However, there is recourse. The ambitions of politicians to recreate the people they are supposed to serve to become more “international” or “globally-minded”, thus alienating them from their own native lands means that pushback is almost certain. We see this in the headlines decrying the rise of nationalism in Europe or warning of the inherent danger of preserving one’s identity. The media derides these nascent folk-oriented movements as “fascism” or some other canard; but in fact, this coming change is much more dangerous than mere corporatism, it necessitates a worldwide change in how the international economy ought to be considered. In other countries, the situation is even slightly worse, as almost no mention is made of the accelerating erosion of traditional societies outside of the West, their predicament trivialized as in Europe.

But now the most important questions must be posed — does the entire world need to be globalized? Is it a requirement that there is a coffee shop and shopping center in every corner of the world? Does everyone need to waste away sitting in chairs and staring at one screen or another their entire lives? Is it more important to know someone famous on the other side of the world than one’s own neighbor? The promise of seemingly well-meaning entities to “develop” the rest of the earth outside the first world carries with it a pernicious sense of self-serving morality, none too different from the attempts to westernize the native populations of America with European suits and english lessons. What use is there to exist when everyone else is living exactly the same as you? Accepting Globalism is to become replaceable, and those in Europe who are losing their ancestral trades to cheap imports or livelihoods to immigrants working for pennies understand this very well. The shift to a fully global economy, one that has happened only within the last several decades, owes much to this situation. As Professor William I. Robinson writes in regards to Central American economies, “[g]lobalization has increasingly eroded these national boundaries and made it structurally impossible for individual nations to sustain independent, or even autonomous, economies, polities, and social structures. A key feature of the current epoch is the supersession of the nation-state as the organizing principle of capitalism.” So how does one reconcile the inevitable interconnection of people with the preservation of specific regional cultures? This will not come with a favorable election, or even a violent uprising, this necessitates a mental restructuring on what it means to live in the modern world. What I mean by this is that regional identity ought to be asserted, and not merely in superficial ways, but in direct benefit to one’s own people, whether it be family, tribe, city, nation, and so forth as well how individuals can return to a more true and conscionable way of life. Our interconnected global economy has shown that should one facet fail, the rest of the body goes down with it.

Some people of anti-consumerist mind understand now the detrimental effects of this global economy on how people live and exist on this earth, they’re aware of the environmental harm it does as well as the often unfavorable economic conditions it provides to one nation for the benefit of another, but as it stands, hardly one of them will link this trend to the decline of distinct cultures and seek their preservation throughout the coming centuries. Understandably so, as many people, particularly in North America, have lived generations without any connection whatsoever to their original heritage. As such, the people of the modern world have no identity left but brand loyalty and perhaps the slew of vapid identity politics that dominates the public discourse today, but even then we see how quickly tiresome these identities become. The reversal of the global liberal order will not mean peace in itself; it does not imply that disputes between peoples will ease, or that cultures will suddenly thrive and become the realms of supermen, but it does mean that differences are saved and that some sort of breadth of viewpoint will remain among man. Likewise, nothing guarantees that the culture of one nation or ethnicity will look the same as it will in a hundred years, but this is essentially the point, that there is room to develop and progress individually. If diversity is as truly valued as some claim to believe, then the notion of a manufactured “brotherhood of man” ought to be discredited.