The universals in culture, which is part of the academic field known as the humanities, cannot be defined in a simple statement. The universals are the cumulative artistic and intellectual achievements of humanity.
They are a body of work created by those who have been singled out for special praise, extraordinary achievers of whom all human beings can be proud. But they are also the universal artistic and intellectual experiences of those who appreciate, and also participate in, the global experience.
The universals in culture are the study of great achievements in art and philosophy and the critical process by which they can best be understood and communicated to others so that they will never be forgotten.
The universals in culture, if understood, could also be a technique for living, accessible to every human being who wants to do more with life. They are a way of life filled with joyous moments of thought and esthetic pleasure.
When one understands the universals in a culture or cultures he or she will be addicted. Song and story, music and dance, and words and ideas, once embraced, become an essential part of life.
This article is intended to reaffirm the value of the humanities as they are represented in the universals of culture. As we are embarking into the new millennium we have to redefine the term human, and we must expand it far beyond anything known to our ancestors. We have a golden chance to enjoy the many dazzling facets of human genius as represented in the universals of culture.
In understanding the universals in culture we must understand the classification of culture. In other words we have to comprehend the classifications of ourselves, who we are as humans beings. The best person that has done this is the German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who applied the term Apollonian to describe order, logic, clarity, moderation, and control in society and in the human personality, and the term Dionysian to describe rebelliousness and reform in society, and spontaneity, passion, and excess within the human personality. Apollo was the god of the sun, hence of light and truth; Dionysus was the god of the earth, of spring and renewal, hence everything that was natural and beyond rational analysis.
As we analyze the universals in culture, we have to examine technology and humanity. Although the urge to create machinery is probably as old as the urge to create art, technology and humanity have not always been good friends. Instead of being viewed as servants of humanity, aimed at making life easier, machines were often seen as monsters that might take over the world. The global debate is superfluous by now, however, because technology is here to stay, and the issue becomes one of deciding how much technology we truly need and how best to keep technology from running our lives altogether.
The Industrial Revolution of the late 18th and early 19th centuries cleared the way for modern technology, but many writers, and philosophers were wary.
The novels of Charles Dickens (1812-1870) denounced the factory system, the exploitation of the poor, and the cruelties of child labor, which were seen as byproducts of technology.
The German philosopher Karl Marx (1818-1883) responded negatively to the new industrial age, viewing it as an opportunity for the further separation of the haves and have-nots.
To practice the art of being human requires free choice among significant options, and choice exists even in our heavily technological age. Today, opposition may be found in preference for crafts as opposed to factory made goods. There are many who refuse to own cars, but ride bikes or walk instead, many who even ban televisions from their homes. Yet protest does not imply total abstinence. Some people, such as the Amish, seem to get along without electricity, phones, radios, or television, but for the majority, a life devoid of all technology is unthinkable.
We can scarcely overestimate the importance of love to most of us. Even the successive marriages of those disappointed by previous love are evidence that people keep looking for it. From early adolescence on, many seem to believe that, without love, life has been totally wasted or at least has been lacking in an important ingredient. The theme of many poems, novels, plays, operas, and works of visual art is love, as a source of both pleasure and pain. However it is defined in real life or in art, love is not just a matter of romance and marriage. It includes family relationships, friendship on many levels, and even a variety of games. It has been said that love and hate are opposite sides of the same coin, that one cannot hate when the object is not or has not been loved. Perhaps no other area of human experience is subject to so many interpretations and so much misunderstanding, or has been such intense source of anxiety, as has the concept of love.
Body and Soul
Despite the sentiments in poems and songs that love is timeless, despite the frequent use of the words eternity and forevermore, one is better off facing the probability that, if it is to have any meaning as a major force in human life, love has to be considered in relation to specific contexts. We cannot assume that everyone everywhere has been moved by an identical experience or entered into a relationship with identical expectations, no matter how similar the vocabulary. The context of love includes both historical time and geography.
The people in a certain remote area in Africa have no word that translates as “love,” though parents probably show what we would consider affection for the young by teaching them how to survive in a hostile environment. In that harsh world, there seems to be little need for close family bonds and certainly none for romance between adults. In the ancient world of Greece and Rome the word love appears in poetry, philosophy, and mythology, but a citizen of that world, alighting from a time machine, would probably not understand if he overheard us saying “Love is blind” or “Love is the answer.” Assuredly the time-traveler, having caught the latter sentence, would respond: “What is the question?”
Despite the many definitions and practice, the Western world has been influenced for centuries, up to the present, by a huge distinction that was made by the Greeks between eros, or love as physical lust, and agape, or love as a spiritual or intellectual relationship. Plato has given us a famous analysis of love, which includes both kinds of experiences.
Before any discussion of the four-letter word myth is possible, we must first think about other four-letter words: real and true. Contrary to popular usage, myth is not the opposite of those words. Myth is neither unreal nor false; rather, it is a necessary part of human existence, extending back in time, according to mythologist Joseph Campbell, to the Neandertal period (CE 250000-50000 BC).
Mythology developed not because a few people got together to make up stories. It had a deeper purpose than entertainment. Mythology is made up of stories told to each other to explain death and natural disasters, to justify burial and other sacred rituals, to create a sense of identity for a people, and to provide their heroes and their enemies. Myth can include folklore, fairy tales, fantasy, magic, and the supernatural as active forces in human life. It offers spells and curses as ways of accounting for the evils that beset us, but it also gives hope in the form of magic potions, rings, and secret words that the future will be better. The most enduring of all myths, in many versions in many cultures, tells of the eventual arrival of a wonderful someone who will take care of all our problems.
Mythology can provide the underpinning for beliefs about racial superiority and inferiority, and thus renders those beliefs difficult to question. It promises that hard work will bring success. To those who would like to rid the world of myth with the antiseptic broom of science, the mythologists would counter with questions about the myth of science as something that can answer all questions.
Thus, when we talk about mythology, we are dealing not with stories that represent erroneous views of life, but with an entire discipline within the humanities, a discipline that has had a profound an influence on human development as has religion, philosophy, or any of the arts. The myth making process reveals much about how humanity has coped and is still coping with the puzzle of being alive.
Nor is a myth confined to ancient history. Even in our enlightened age, people are nervous, frightened, and in need of heroes. Heroes come from the collective mythology of the human race. So do villains and mysterious strangers who come from out of the fog, and solve our problems before disappearing once more.
There are primarily three categories of myth. The first is myths of childhood, sometimes named fairy tales; these stories, found in many cultures, have similar ingredients, such as witches, demons, elves, and strange, often terrifying landscapes.
A second category of myths is myths as explanation. Many of these arose in what are sometimes called prescientific times, centuries before there was anything like urban civilization. They seem to have fanciful explanations of natural events that had to be understood: storms, volcanic eruptions, eclipses, thunder, lightning, and other natural phenomena against which our ancestors must often have felt helpless. Imagine living at a time when nobody knew why the sun rose and set or what the stars were. Imagine, also, the genius of our ancestors who were not content with ignorance, and so imagined explanations for these phenomena.
The third category, archetypal myths, is regarded as the most important by many scholars who study myths to try to discern what motivated them and what they have in common. These are found the world over. All cultures have invented, told, and passed along stories in which certain characters (such as heroic leaders) and certain recurrent themes (such as magic numbers) have influenced the way people understand their existence.
An archetype is a model by which other characters, events, or ideas resembling it can be identified. The hero is an outstanding example, a person who stands out from the crowd because of very special characteristics. The hero is a universal mythological archetype, indicating to us that people have always needed and continue to need a belief in the amazing powers of a rare few born to lead, whose insights and courage enable them to take on challenges and obstacles that would defeat ordinary mortals.
The psychologist-philosopher Carl Jung (1875— 1961) maintained that all persons are born with an instinctive knowledge of certain archetypes, the models by which we comprehend our experience and cope with the enormous and often baffling task of being human.
Death, Attitudes, and Life Affirmation
Just as we might study the humanities in terms of Apollo and Dionysus, asking whether a given work appeals mainly to the intellect or to the emotions, so might we devote considerable study to the question of whether an artist or philosopher is life affirming or life denying.
Refusing to acknowledge mortality may bring temporary comfort, but as we grow older, the fear of death, if it has been suppressed throughout our lives, can begin to undermine the happiness we might otherwise enjoy. Conversely, the subject of death has motivated some of the most glorious works of visual art, music, drama, and literature. For example, after the death of Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles, John Lennon is reported to have commented, “Well, he got through it.” Nothing was said about the fact that Epstein was in what we would normally consider the prime of life. His passing was not called untimely by those who knew him well. The diaries of Herman Melville, author of many novels including Moby Dick, confide in the reader about the artist’s troubled soul, seldom at home in the world, apparently unaware of his own towering genius, a state of mind he shared with a fellow genius, Vincent van Gogh. Yet Epstein’s apparent negativity, Melville’s struggles with his inner demons, van Gogh’s despair over lack of recognition combined with a constant questioning of the merit of his work, not to mention renowned writer Ernest Hemingway’s depression over what he regarded as a waning of his creative powers, all these artists’ difficulties only served to ignite the fires within them. Melville wrote one of his masterpieces, Billy Budd, just before his death; Hemingway penned The Old Man and the Sea while he was battling the shadows; van Gogh never stopped painting until despair totally overcame him; and Epstein was able to put his personal troubles aside as he mapped out a brilliant future for his charges.
That the work of many tortured beings lives on and inspires us with joy is often more than enough to affirm the goodness and the wonder of life. Of course, the secret is that greatness sometimes is achieved through agonizing pain and self-doubt. And sometimes the genius behind the greatness never transcends the pain, though we are the beneficiaries.
So looking at the larger perspective of universals in our culture, we can say that the humanities offer us reasons to cheer and reasons to weep. The humanities awaken us to the realities of both pain and triumph. In so doing, they assist us in taking an unflinching look at our own lives, in which we find both life-affirming and life-denying elements.
In life affirmation, the issue is the profound realization that the potential for a productive, exciting life belongs to each of us. We control our attitudes, as Zeno the Stoic would be quick to remind us.
An ancient symbol of life affirmation is that of the phoenix, a mythological bird of rare and exotic plumage and supernatural powers. The Greek historian Herodotus reported, however, that the phoenix actually existed and was known to have Egyptians every 500 years. The Roman belief was that each era bears witness to the birth of one phoenix, that it lives for a very long time, and that at the moment of death, it generates a worm that becomes the phoenix for the next age.
Yet another version of the legend is that the phoenix is a bird from India that lives for 500 years and then flies to a secret temple, where it is burned to ashes upon the altar, only to rise from the ashes 3 days later, young and resplendent.
In folklore, poetry, and song, in fiction, drama, and epic, the phoenix has endured through time as a symbol of rebirth, new growth, regeneration, and redemption. Religions have counterpart symbols: gods who die or descend into the underworld, there to remain for a time and then to rise, reborn and renewed.
Death itself, biological death, the single stroke that happens only once to each of us, will come as it may. One will find in the universals in all cultures sources of life-affirming models, such as the myth of the phoenix, models we have the power and the right to use as we reinvent ourselves and continue to be born anew.
Perhaps the best way to end this discussion is by quoting Joseph Campbell, the mythologist and philosopher, who cried out to us, “Live!”
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