The Criteria of Culture

According to Paul Selver, Orage’s thoughts on culture have a lasting validity:

“At a time when artistic values are hopelessly falsified, when abject balderdash is fulsomely praised as though it were wisdom from on high, when awards and rewards are lavished on the shoddy and the fake, I turn with relief to the prose of Orage, and once again hear his voice expounding ideas which have a lasting validity…”

“…Culture I define as being, amongst other things, a capacity for subtle discrimination of words and ideas.

Epictetus made the discrimination of words the foundation of moral training, and it is true enough that every stage of moral progress is indicated by the degree of our perception of the meaning of words. Tell me what words have a particular for you, and I will tell you what class of the world-school you are in.

Tell me what certain words mean for you and I will tell you what you mean for the world of thought. One of the most subtle words, and one of the key words of culture, is simplicity. Can you discriminate between natural simplicity and studied simplicity, between Nature and Art? In appearance they are indistinguishable, but in reality they are aeons apart; and whoever has learned to distinguish between them is entitled to regard himself on the way to culture. Originality is another key word, and its subtlety may be suggested by a paradox which was a common place among the Greeks; namely, that the most original minds strive to conceal their originality, and that the master-minds succeed.

Contrast this counsel of perfect originality with the counsels given in our own day, in which the aim of originality is directed toward appearing original – you will be brought, thereby, face to face with still another key-idea of Culture, the relation of Appearance to Reality. All these exercises in culture are elementary, however, in comparison with the master-problem of disinterestedness. No word in the English language is more difficult to define or better worth attempting to define. Somewhere or other in its capacious folds it contains all the ideas of ethics, and even, I should say, of religion. The Bhagavad Gita (to name only one classic) can be summed up in the word. Duty is only a pale equivalent of it. I venture to say that whoever has understood the meaning of ‘disinterestedness’ is not far off understanding the goal of human culture.”


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Selver, Paul, 1959. Orage and the New Age Circle, London: George Allen & Unwin.