Wealth and Culture

by Paul Elmer More

If the influence of wealth on national culture is to be treated in a manner that will give it any distinct meaning, the word culture must be taken in its narrower sense as something included within the general social life, but not coextensive with it. Culture is a definite problem of the imagination and touches on the other faculties of a man only as the imagination reacts upon the formation of character. Yet culture is not the mere cultivation of beauty, for many of the great products of culture are not beautiful. It is more than this. It is the power of creating a realm in which we live apart from and alongside of our actual life. It is thus an enlargement, a doubling so to speak, of human existence; but it is not necessarily beautiful. A man who reads Zola doubles his existence by adding his experiences, but he scarcely renders his life more beautiful.

Now this superadded world of the imagination, the ability to dwell in which we call culture, must possess the power of illusion; it must for the time while we are under its spell impose itself upon us as a transcript of reality, and the recollection of its spell must even abide with us as an actual experience; otherwise it can have no serious interest in our life. But it must also, by some magical faculty of persuasion, lift us into a realm that is larger and freer than the reality in which we live, must seemingly unshackle us from the ever-tightening bounds and limitations that more and more as the years pass teach us how little our life may expand as we wished it to expand. Without this faculty of expansion the imagination is merely an instrument of sensuous indulgence that becomes an utter weariness in the end. The power of illusion and the faculty of expansion must thus exist side by side; but unfortunately they tend to counteract each other. The illusion of reality is in danger of being lost as the imagination transcends more daringly the limits of actual experience, and the converse holds equally true.

The question of first importance is then to determine what field of the imagination will enable this power of illusion and this faculty of expansion to exist together and mutually reinforce each other. And the answer is near at hand. The artist in his work must carry out the ideal of the people among whom he lives and for whom he works. In this way the pictures he creates in the realm of the imagination will possess the easy power of illusion in as much as they present what we are already disposed to accept as flowing directly from real life; and his labor in creating an ideal is lessened in as much as it is already in large part formed for him.

This is perhaps a truism, and yet a few illustrations may not fall amiss. To go back to the ancient literature of India, if I may judge from my own experience, the work which lingers in memory as the truest and most effective creation of the Hindu imagination, is the episode of Savitri (it has been translated, but spoiled in the translation, by Sir Edwin Arnold) in the epic Mahabharata. And the reason of this is plain. The story portrays with all the beauty of imaginative vision that wonderful forest-life, with its austerities of renunciation sweetened by human pathos and by sympathy with nature, which was the fairest ideal of the Hindu people--portrays it not as it actually existed, but as the faith of the people would have wished it to exist. And it need not be said that such an ideal picture reacted on reality, and did much to purify and render more beautiful the actual forest-life. So in Greece Pindar in his Hymns of Victory heightened and carried out the national ideal of perfect self-dependence and complete self-development, with its half concealed exultation of Vae victis! and its everhaunting dread of a retributive Nemesis waiting to cast down those whose pride soared too high. And we may see the young men of Pindar standing before us carved in the marbles of Phidias. The Middle Ages, in conformity with their inherent dualism, possessed a double ideal; their imagination did, in fact, dwell in a kind of perpetual oxymoron. Dante has fixed forever the religious ideal of the soul that counts the world well lost for her own salvation; Cervantes has caught the ideal of the soldier knight just as it was passing away in the new life of the renaissance. And the renaissance itself had its portrayal of the ideal man, its humanism, described in the Courtier of Castiglione. Coming nearer to our own day, the ideals of the opening nineteenth century, the dreams of a pantheistic return to nature, the hopes of individual liberty passing so lightly into license--do we not read them in Wordsworth and Shelley and Byron?

These are but a few familiar illustrations chosen from many. They are sufficient to show--if exposition be necessary--how the imaginative life of a nation, its culture in the restricted sense of the word, is only a carrying out, a realization in terms of art, of the national ideal lying half revealed in the actual life of the people.

And, if this be so, what national ideal has America today on which its culture may be built up? Renunciation, self-development, religion, chivalry, humanism, pantheistic return to nature, liberty--all these have existed and have born their fair fruits; what have we to offer in their place? The subject of this symposium may stand as a sufficient answer, Wealth--wealth and its complement which we call humanitarianism or socialism, and which is, in fact, nothing more than the extension and dilution of this same ideal; wealth aiming at the control of vast material forces, humanitarianism seeking, first of all and above all, material comfort for the multitude while masquerading in the guise of religion, and covering itself with the cloak of brotherly love.

Now no one would be so blind as to assert that the love of money and of material things is a new influence in the world; the love of money has, of course, always existed, and has always been a great force in human affairs. But its power today is different in two important particulars. In the first place, the magnitude of the fortunes possessed by a few men is vastly greater than the world has seen in any previous age, with the possible exception of a short period in the history of Rome. The wealth of our richest men today is so enormous as to affect the imagination with a sort of hypnotic obsession; it dazzles and subdues our intelligence. And, secondly, this incalculable wealth is in the control of a new group of men, whether they be better or worse morally than the rich men of old. Formerly great wealth fell to successful soldiers and court favorites, or was inherited in noble families; it came indirectly to speak. The possessors of wealth may have been wicked and base, but this wealth in the public eye was merely an adjunct of their position. Today the development of mechanical forces is bringing wealth more and more into the hands of a different class of men. They owe their possessions to the direct control of the material sources of wealth, or to the manipulation of money itself. They stand for wealth and production of wealth and for nothing else. And they are the men who affect the imagination by their unknown powers. Whose are the names continually bruited now in the public ear? Not the sailor's who wins a great victory, is flattered with indiscriminate ovations today and forgotten tomorrow; not the statesman's who lives in retreat after a few years of service as President of the nation. No, the great men are those that manage the oil wells of the country, or the railroads, or the steel mills, and you may see their stronghold in the narrow lanes that wind about Wall Street.

I have traveled a good deal here and there, from city to city, but I always come back to this point of land which we call Wall Street as the most genuine expression of our national life. Walk through these sunless canyons and look up at the towering, threatening buildings. The architecture of these streets is impressive for its originality and its significance. It symbolizes perfectly the power that dwells and labors in this fastness and it is utterly distinct from anything the world has ever seen before. In comparison with these mountains of iron and stone the churches of the land (mere cockle shells for the most part), and the libraries, the colleges and the museums, dwindle in impressiveness to mere toys. Here is the palace and the fortress and the temple of wealth, and it signifies to America today what the Parthenon signified to Athens, or Notre Dame and the Louvre to Paris, or St. Peter's to Rome.

I remember a few years ago, when the tallest edifice of the city was erecting, the impression made by its skeleton rising high up into the air. The vast network of steel girders and columns seemed to my fancy to stand like the bars of a huge prison in which the human spirit was to be caged; and over this structure of steel was laid a thin veneering of ornamental stone not unlike the wanton and meaningless luxury of those who pass from accumulating wealth to spending it. The building stands now enormously high and oppressive by reason of its isolation; you cannot gaze up its endless rows of windows without a sinister sensation that the whole monstrous thing will topple over one day and crush you in its ruins. And beneath it, far beneath its upper stories, crouches a little homely church, old St. Paul's, with its tombstones crumbling in the shade!

The architecture of Wall Street, I think, presents the true culture, the true imaginative creation of the day, for the simple reason that it is the most genuine and adequate expression of the national ideal. But the influence of this material ideal does not stop here. Come with me to Harvard, our most cultured university, and see its effects. The academic department of that institution is yearly losing ground before new departments that teach the manipulation of those mechanical forces by which the fortunes of Wall Street are nourished. The very building in which the earlier ideals of culture are taught looks insignificant in comparison with the new engineering hall where the engines of commerce rumble and grind all day. And in the academic department itself the old humanistic studies dwindle and are hardly considered seriously, while the economic courses, which scarcely existed a score of years ago, attract more and more the real strength of the college. Even those studies of abstract science which flourish so nobly and of which we boast so complacently are but a higher development of the same all-absorbing desire, at any cost, to make ourselves masters of the material resources of the earth.

The influence of the new ideal on art is to convert art into the mere veneering and amusement of life, into a tasteless covering of luxury that hides the sordid rapacities of a Wall-Street life as those ornate and meaningless shells of stone conceal the true structure of a Wall-Street building. In place of an Italian palace, simple in its furniture and moderate in its adornment, you may find a mansion on Fifth Avenue into which the spoils of the ages are thrown together with a wanton and vulgar profusion such as the world has not dreamed of since the days of Imperial Rome. And in literature--the commonest aim is to sell a half million copies of a novel and grow rich. The novels speak for themselves; they are for the relaxation of the moment and bear no relation to the significant things of life. What is on the whole the most philosophic history of the United States, the incompleted work of John Fiske, makes the realization of this commercial ideal the end toward which the evolution of humanity has gravitated unerringly from the beginning, and magnifies this ideal as the highest conceivable. America leads the world in civilization because she has most frankly recognized this ideal.

But there is another side to this question as I have intimated. Some one will say that not wealth is the true ideal of the day, but humanitarianism, socialism, brotherly love, equal distribution of wealth. The retort is in one sense right, but in another and profounder sense changes nothing that has been said. Humanitarianism is in the end nothing else but the extension of the same ideal from the few to the many; a substitution at best of the ideal of comfort for the ideal of material power. I know that the socialist reformers look to the proper distribution of wealth as merely the first step which is to be followed by some greater spiritual reform. But as a matter of fact the spiritual ideal is at present a nebulous hypothesis; the creating of universal comfort is the actual aim and ideal held before the eyes. It is well in itself, but the present day exaggerated insistance on it arises from the absence of other ideals. It grows and absorbs our energies because it is without a serious rival. It is the flower of materialism, a mere dilution of the more concentrated ideal of wealth. The upholders of it look upon it as a propaganda against the ideal of wealth; they are in reality fostering what they seek to overthrow.

The effect of this sentimental form of the ideal on the national culture is great and will become greater; already the most serious work in American fiction today tends to deal with this humanitarian propaganda in one form or another. The only American novels I have read for some time which seemed to me to possess, along with artistic cunning, that vitality of art which comes from the inspiration of a popular ideal are Miss Wilkins's Jerome and The Portion of Labor. The poems of Mr. Markham, although themselves intrinsically vulgar, show, I think, the only region in which really significant poetry may yet be written under the present empire of wealth.

Significant poetry, I say, but can hardly believe that any work of permanent greatness or loveliness can spring from such a source. On one side is the art of luxury--the vapid novels and meaningless pictures and houses that are made for money and for the pleasure of those who are absorbed in money; these show the cynical acceptance of the ideal of wealth and may not detain us further. On the other side is the art of humanitarianism, filled with the pathos of despair or the bitterness of revolt; it is at least a serious appeal to the heart, but it has no share in the joyous outcome of an art that grows out of a spiritual or broadly human ideal, and that will be held as a precious inheritance hereafter. The very bitterness and pathos of it all show that it speaks the revolt of a mind imprisoned within the same material ideal--of a mind that tortures itself to escape, but sees nothing and knows nothing beyond its prison walls. Both the cynical smile of prosperity and the bitter cry of humanitarianism in art are the natural projection of the popular ideal of life into the realm of the imagination. They represent respectively the feeling of those who have succeeded under the ideal of wealth and of those who have been crushed beneath it. Neither the one nor the other is lovely, but they both unite to form our national culture. The change, when it comes, will not come from a victory of the pathetic fallacy of socialism, as some fondly suppose, but from the rise of some new and fairer vision of life to supplant this present ideal of wealth which has been fostered into such predominance by the sudden and enormous increase in the mechanical facilities for producing wealth.

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