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Gustavo Bueno

The Kingdom of Culture
and the Kingdom of Grace

Translated{1} by Brendan Burke
© 2011 FGB · Oviedo


At least in Europe, nearly everyone is in agreement that the idea of Culture (the substantialized idea of Culture) should be considered one of the five or six key ideas of our time. Held against the emblems of the French Revolution – Liberty, Equality, and Fraternity – the idea of culture has yet to appear. In comparing the perspective of our time with that of the French Revolution, we find that its ideals have yet to disappear completely. The idea of Liberty holds its ground in first place. Fraternity has transformed into Solidarity. The idea of Equality, however, seems to have lost much ground, while the idea of Culture itself has been gaining.

For more than a century, the idea of Culture has slowly been taking the place of the idea of Equality, at least in Europe. This displacement has partially expressed itself in a number of ways. The first is seen through a substitution which would express true equality not as a distribution of money, but rather, of culture. The second is a simple intersection which sees the two trajectories meeting at a point – the movement of an idea declining in prestige meeting with the movement of an idea ascending to reach second place. This ascension would also be preparation to take first place from the idea of Liberty, while seeking to reabsorb it at the same time through the declaration that only culture itself gives Liberty.

Whatever the case may be, I dare state (at least assertorically) that nobody really understands the meaning of the first word, Liberty. As for the second – the idea of Culture – I go even further and state apodictically that nobody understands the idea of Culture, in spite of its growing prestige. In the political realm, nobody understands the idea well, and nobody understands it poorly, because it is unintelligible. Such is my first «dogmatic» thesis, and from this point of view, the analysis of the idea of Culture’s ascension in the last century becomes much more intriguing.

Stemming from this analysis, my second «dogmatic» thesis reads as follows: the idea of Culture as a key-idea, a vital-idea, as an apex-idea, was incubated in Germany at the end of the 18th century (it was already alive in the work of Herder), where it grew and was nurtured in the greenhouses of German universities (Hegel, Dilthey, Windelband, Oswaldt, Frobenius, Spengler, Cassirer, etc.). It did not take on public and political dimensions however, until later, during the time of Bismarck, of the Kulturkampf – an expression coined, as is known, by the great atheist physiologist Virchow. Nonetheless, it was Bismarck himself who discovered its enormous potential as a directive idea in the politics of Greater Germany in its unification process. And this process necessarily implied struggle against France. . .and the Roman Catholic Church. Contraria sunt circa eadem.{2}


The modern idea of Culture had effectively appeared in the 18th century and was merely in appearance an extension or inflection of the traditional idea. Syntactically, its novelty already manifests itself. The traditional idea was expressed through a syncategorematic use of the term, whereby the term must always be genitivally linked to another term (agri-culture, cultura animi). In contrast, the modern idea of Culture is correlate to the singular, substantive use of the term. And so, according to Neidermann, one can speak of «culture» itself (and not, for example, «the cultivation of the soul») only since the 18th century.

As such, it seems senseless to speak of a mere complementarity or harmony between the traditional and modern idea of Culture. To a certain extent, they are two incompatible lines, as the traditional idea presents a subjective modulation according to which culture is seen as an aggregate of habits acquired through learning – not through heredity. In this same idea, culture is thought of as a purely factual, axiologically neutral reality, since habits can be good or bad and since the individual subjects acquiring them can be primitive men, savages, or even animals. The traditional understanding of culture is a psychological understanding taken up by the psychologists and ethologists of our time who define culture as the opposite of nature, just as learning is defined as the opposite of heredity.

The modern idea of Culture (almost by antonomasia, the «German idea of Culture») sees culture first and foremost as a sort of supra-individual organism (Frobenius called it paideuma), whose subject is no longer just an individual psychological subject, but rather, a People. And so culture could be said to be the spirit of the people, the Volkgeist, which of course reaches the individual, but by molding it, and even personalizing it («culture and personality») and elevating it above its merely animal or natural condition. Accordingly, objective culture cannot now be reduced to the condition of a fact – it is also a value. Culture is spirit and irreducible to the «soul», to psychology. Here is the gaping contradiction now introduced by the modern idea of Culture: the contradiction of an objective, impersonal entity that nonetheless molds an individual subject.

In addition, as far as it is considered «spirit», culture would be what makes a man a man, and not an animal. Thus the second blatant contradiction in the modern idea of Culture: the contradiction between the idea of unified, universal culture (perhaps inherent to Averroes’s – or Islam’s – universal agent intellect) and the recognition of multiple cultures of particular peoples that, in spite of the well-intentioned irenic gestures from anthropologists and theologians, are incompatible and fail for the most part to communicate amongst themselves.

In spite of these contradictions, the idea of Culture was soon assimilated, translated, and fragmented into a thousand pieces, and reconstituted in many other non-German countries. In England, the idea of Culture was reinterpreted by anthropologists by openly incorporating the contents of the traditional, psychological idea. Formulated in the same years when Virchow coined his formula, Edward Tylor’s formulation of culture held it as that «complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.»{3} Tylor’s reinterpretation contained a seed to neutralize the mystical components in the German idea of Culture by providing it with comprehensive content (including primitive cultures) and approaching it from a «naturalist» perspective (habit or learning). And so he heralded the anthropological use to be later added to the term cultural¸ particularly in Anglo-Saxon countries.

This use, however, was and necessarily had to be ambiguous. In referring to «peoples» or societies (with all the identity problems therein implied), its merely descriptive and factual claims had to be accompanied by a normative-axiological cloud («cultural wealth») which the new idea had imparted to it. And so the culture of each people would nearly always be valued as being the spiritual substance itself of this same people, the foundation of its irreducible identity, and its raison d’être. The culture of each people would become that which constitutes it – its heritage – which saves it, and which justifies it as such.

In short, the positive anthropological idea of culture has come to be what it is not only because it has renewed the traditional idea (subjective culture, habit), but also because it absorbs everything possible from the modern idea of objective Culture. As a consequence, the contradictions inherent to the modern idea of Culture will constantly accompany the former idea in its application. It is as if the effective idea of culture could only maintain its importance through the two aforementioned contradictions – one involving a subjective dimension within a supra subjective structure and the other confronting an objective, universally valuable sense of culture with the reality of particular cultures in mutual conflict. This latter contradiction appears undeterred by the postulates of cultural relativism manifested, for example, in a recent conference in Oslo, in which representatives from Amazonian cultures demanded that the value of their religion be equal to that of Catholicism and asked for the Pope’s help to achieve their goal.

These contradictions have sprung up in the most varied of stages. In England, the fame gained by Snow’s formula of the «two cultures» was probably due to the fact that it used the concept of objective culture to designate what was ordinarily understood as «subjective instruction» – the effect of an education in letters or in sciences. In Spain, the substantive idea of culture had already sprung up popularly before the Civil War (1936-1939), mainly through leftist political channels. As in other countries, it is «consecrated» in Article 44 of the 1978 Constitution, which states, «The public powers shall promote access to culture.» But access to what culture? The Constitution does not need to clarify. Culture is supposed to be given as an objective heritage to which one has a right to access. But how then to define this Culture invoked in Article 44 of the Spanish Constitution?

In following Eddington’s method to define Physics («that which is contained in the Handbuch der Physik»), perhaps our definition could be something to the effect of, «Culture is everything that the Ministry of Culture promotes or protects.» Nevertheless, these contents would not be the same as those under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Education and Science, the Ministry of Industry, or the Ministry of Public Works, even though they also make up a part of that «complex whole» in Tylor’s definition. In discussing regional, local or other types of communities, culture comes to be something like W.J. Thoms’s folklore, something which cultivates each community’s «identity markers».

In these contexts therefore, everything that is culture is «noble», «honorable», and something to be protected and cared for (contradictions arise when trying to determine contents: practices associated with lycanthropy are culture just as much as a rock concert). Above anything else, though, culture justifies. Recently, a Spanish public official was hounded by the press to provide an explanation for having spent millions to bring a foreign symphony orchestra to perform a concert. His response: «We hired this symphony orchestra because putting on a concert of this scale in our city is culture.» Most interesting is that the journalists appeared to be satisfied, as if to say, «Quite true, we didn’t realize that.»

A new use of the term culture can also be observed on the rise in various languages recently. Taking the place occupied by the term philosophy years ago, this new use returns, to some extent, to the traditional, syncategorematic sense («the culture of credit cards», «the culture of parliamentary pacts», «in Madrid’s Socialist Party there are two cultures which ought to coexist dialectically») and reminds of Snow’s use. At times, this traditional use borders on pejorative («the culture of the unemployed» is a formula used in official circles; similarly, social theorists speak of «the culture of poverty») but the term cultural in these uses generally maintains its ennobling, propagandizing intention.


Normally, it is considered a matter of fact that the substantive idea of Culture is a modern idea. The idea of culture appeared in the 18th century, just as the idea of universal gravitation appeared in the 17th century. This, however, requires an investigation into its causes, for it does not seem an empirical, random fact that this substantive idea of culture was formed at that moment, and not at others. One could even declare it impossible to find in Antiquity or the European Middle Ages, even if it were but in approximate formulations of ideas that could be superimposed on the modern idea of Culture.

What if it were possible to demonstrate that the idea of Culture was unfitting and impossible in Antiquity, and especially so, in the European Middle Ages? If such a demonstration were performed, the constitution of the idea of Culture in the modern period would cease to be a merely empirical fact. Its failure to fit in previous periods would be due to another idea blocking it in the global system of ideas in force at the time, in the space which corresponds to it within that system. It would first be necessary for this pre-existing idea to disappear so as to give way to the modern idea of Culture.

What then could this pre-existing idea be? Here is my answer – the idea of Grace, the idea of the «Kingdom of Grace». The «Kingdom of Grace» appeared for centuries – with all its consequent contradictions – as confronting, challenging, and struggling against the «Kingdom of Nature» (without destroying it, according to the more conciliatory versions: Gratia naturam non tollit, sed perficit).{4}


Antiquity hardly offered fertile fields in which to germinate an idea on the «scale» of the modern concept of Culture (the idea of paideia has, instead, more the subjective connotation of «education», Bildung). Numerous reasons play into this, but here I will offer only one: the oscillation of the Ancients’ anthropology between an extreme naturalism (which tended toward a systematic reduction of the idea of culture to levels unique to natural sciences) and an angelism (which led them to see the apparent contents in the idea of culture as surpassing natural settings and to locate them in a transcendent and metaphysical afterlife).

The myth of Prometheus and Epimetheus in Plato’s Protagoras is perhaps the best illustration of the first tendency.{5} That which is «denotatively» included in the idea of culture – weapons, utensils, accoutrements – was given by Prometheus to a few embryonic men to whom Epimetheus had forgotten to provide with the assets Zeus had initially assigned them. Hence, if one retrospectively sought the modern idea of Culture in this myth, one would find in Protagoras a clearly naturalist conception of culture. There, culture is conceived of as a substitute for certain natural organs that are either degenerate or lost. At its core, this is a conception of culture as «orthopedics». It is a conception of the aggregate of cultural contents as a conglomeration of «prosthetics» that allow a «bastard» monkey (as held centuries later by Paul Alsberg, Ludwig Klages, and Theodor Lessing) to employ an artificial, second nature to mimic that which authentic nature did not supply.

Nor is the ancient concept of Art as mimesis of Nature the best seed for an idea of culture. In fact, nothing similar to the idea of culture appears in Aristotle’s list of categories. (Only in the category of state – habitus, understood as an accident that the human subject may receive from its accoutrements – would it be possible to recognize retrospectively a minor «chip» from an idea of culture splintered by a naturalist’s instrument). Concerning the Ancient’s angelism, it is obvious that all the cultural contents transferred to the realm of the mythical, pre-existing or surviving human soul had to cease to be seen as cultural.


In a European territory tilled over by the Roman Empire, Christian societies began to emerge in the 4th and 5th centuries, mainly as Rome’s «successor states». These societies possessed a potent ideological unity which saw itself as covered, protected, and inspired by a supernatural canopy – «the Kingdom of Grace». The Kingdom of Grace comes from above, but does not remain there in an angelic world. It descends to Earth not only to redo an aberrant, abortive nature, but also to «elevate» human nature to a superior, almost divine state – the state in which God put Adam upon his creation in Paradise.

Having fallen from Grace in original sin, Adam and his progeny lost what had been given to them. In losing Grace, something in their nature ruptured (according to Saint Augustine, it was much more than just «something»). Later, through the hypostatic union between the second person of the Trinity and Christ’s humanity, and through the reproduction of the Trinitarian perichoresis (whereby the Father and His only begotten Son breathe forth the Holy Spirit), the historical reality of the Church Militant – the Roman Catholic Church – was established. Grace was therein seen as being bestowed upon men as a gift from the Holy Spirit, a gift which could easily restore the human nature ruptured by sin.

Its effects were, however, far superior to those restoring medical actions. For Grace is not only «medical grace» – as Prometheus’s titanic theft was – but even more so «elevating Grace» which raises man above nature and literally deifies him. As Catholic theologians say, uncreated Grace is, in effect, the Trinity dwelling in the just soul – a dwelling especially attributed to the Holy Spirit. It is not merely a superfluous predicamental accident, given that Grace touches the substance itself of mankind. Of course, for those dolts in whom Grace has not excessively shone, this idea of Grace is unintelligible.

Indeed, some of the most flagrant contradictions manifest themselves in the idea of Grace. First, the contradiction of a connection of identity postulated between an objective Grace – which is God in the presence of His action (actual Grace) – and a subjective Grace, which is a permanent quality inhered in the human soul (habitual or sanctifying Grace). The second contradiction is that between a supposedly universal Grace, as a gift God gives to all men, and the reality of a grace that is merely particular (and hardly extends beyond the circle of men living around the Mediterranean). This reality is reflected by those numerous dis-graced men who may reflect original Grace in their numerous enclosures, but are far removed from true Grace and irreducibly separated from it.


It seems obvious, then, that the thought of a Kingdom of Grace stood in the way of any idea that could approach the concept of Culture in the modern sense. This, because practically all the contents that today we call cultural – and of course, the most noble and spiritual – were called upon to form part of the jurisdiction of the Kingdom of Grace, to be «usurped» by it. Starting with the positive religions, the revelation, and language, these contents went on into moral doctrine and ended with politics – at the very least, St. Augustine held that the earthly city, on the fringes of the City of God, is merely Babylon and not even a political society, as justice does not reign there. With the modern period in full bloom, abbé Gaume was still professing this doctrine verbatim, from a perspective that we would today call «history-fiction»: «Raphael’s virgins, St. Peter’s dome in Rome, gothic cathedrals, Mozart’s, Pergolesi’s, and Haydn’s music, the chant of the Preface, the Te Deum, the Stabat, the Lauda Sion, the Dies Irae, all these wonders and thousands more are offspring of Catholic worship…Thanks to it, we have the most beautiful musical instruments, the organ and the bell…»{6}

Abbé Gaume’s thesis is undoubtedly excessive, but it is not completely lacking in foundation. Many of the contents in worship are now culture – present-day churches are simultaneously concert halls and museums, while masses and altar sculptures possess a strange esthetic prestige, even if they have lost their religious sense{7}. Nevertheless, there are many contents in our culture that have nothing to do with worship as abbé Gaume spoke of it. In either case, the question herein posed is different, since it does not look into «the influence of Christianity on modern culture», nor on art, economics, nor even on science. The question is on the idea of Culture, and, as my thesis has it, this idea of Culture issues wholly from the idea of Grace, as a transformation of the idea of the Kingdom of Grace.


It is impossible here to present even a minimal foundation for this thesis, and so I will limit myself to suggest its global trajectory. The division into two halves of the totality of being surrounding man – the Kingdom of Nature and the Kingdom of Grace – is still alive in the 17th century, and Leibniz is a testimony to it. Nonetheless, the «crisis of the European conscience» (among many other things) saw an eclipse of this Kingdom of Grace and a secularization of the Holy Spirit who produced that Grace. The Holy Spirit soon became a subjective, psychological spirit, on one hand (a spirit from which modern psychology would spring with its Lutheran lineage – recall Rudolph Goclenius), and on the other, it became the Hegelian Objective Spirit and Absolute Spirit. As the borders of the Kingdom of Grace began to dissolve, all the contents that it gathered were left as membra disjecta. A new correlative idea became necessary, and this idea was the idea of Culture.

Thereafter, «the sciences of the spirit» (Geisteswissenschaften) or the «cultural sciences» (Kulturwissenschaften, since Heinrich Rickert) came to substitute the old theology. The process was epitomized by the inclusion of the «scientific study of religion» as a key part of these cultural sciences – an inclusion incompatible with one of the components of the «plural» Catholic religion. For while the positive religions are surely culture for those who are not believers (say, from an etic perspective), it is impossible for Catholic believers (from an emic perspective) to consider their religion as culture, since it elevates them above both nature and culture itself in the modern sense{8}. For a non-Christian observer, a Pontifical Mass is a cultural ceremony full of social and esthetic meaning; if, however, a Minister of Culture staged a High Mass, which included ceremonies mimicking the transubstantiation of bread and wine, in the state opera house, then this undoubtedly cultural show would rightly be considered by the believer as a parody, sacrilege, pro-fanation. For the believer, transubstantiation is not a natural or cultural process, but rather a supernatural and super-cultural one.)


Accordingly, the modern idea of Culture has had to substitute the functions previously held by the idea of Grace, insofar as the opposite of Nature. Concert halls have become the new temples, and Sunday – the Lord’s Day – has turned into a day of culture, in the best of cases. The relationship between Culture and Nature is now parallel to that between Grace and Nature, and the theories to explain one and the other tend to correspond. There is an «Augustinianism» in the theory of culture, in which Culture, as the emerging Kingdom of Spirit, is conceived of as a kingdom which cannot be reduced to Nature; both Hegel and Cassirer belong to these «Augustinians». Contrarily, there is also a «Pelagianism», not in theology, but in culture; Darwin or Wilson could be compared to Pelagius or Celestius.

In addition, the modern idea of Culture inherits all the contradictions of the Christian idea of Grace. The first, the contradiction between objective or actual culture (actual Grace) and subjective, psychological, or habitual culture (habitual Grace); and the second, the contradiction between universal Grace (incarnated and administered by the Roman Catholic Church) and the reality of the dispersion of dis-graced peoples with false religions. This second contradiction transforms into a contradiction between a self-described «universal» culture (the European culture, centered not on Roman Christianity, but on German Christianity – Lessing’s, Fichte’s, Hegel’s. . .Heidegger’s –in the German culture) and the reality of the dispersion of multiple cultures that do not appear willing to accept subordination.


And so to conclude with the following question: Is not the idea of Culture, as a transformation of the theological idea of Grace, itself an idea of dogmatic theology, an intrinsically obscure, confused, and contradictory idea? Are not «the sciences of culture» just as weak – insofar as sciences – as the sciences of Grace? Should we not recognize the usefulness of the idea of Culture in sociological studies, while still declaring it an unintelligible idea?


{1} Translated by Brendan Burke, from Gustavo Bueno, «El reino de la Cultura y el reino de la Gracia», El Basilisco, second period, number 7 (Winter 1991): 53-56. An extension of the argument contained herein appeared as a book in 1996 and later in an extended 2007 edition: Gustavo Bueno, El Mito de la Cultura: ensayo de una filosofía materialista de la cultura (Barcelona: Editorial Prensa Ibérica, 1996). There is also a German translation, Gustavo Bueno, Der Mythus der Kultur: essay einer materialistischen Kulturphilosophie (Peter Lang: Bern, 2002).

{2} «Opposites approach the same place.» Translator’s Note

{3} Edward Tylor, Primitive Culture (New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1920): 1

{4} «Grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.» St. Thomas Aquinas. Translator’s Note

{5} Plato, Protagoras (380 BC), in W.R.M. Lamb (trans.), Plato in Twelve Volumes, Vol. 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; London: William Heinemann Ltd. 1967): 320b-324b.

{6} The original French reads: «Les vierges de Raphaël, la coupole de Saint-Pierre de Rome, les cathédrales gothiques, la musique de Mozart, de Pergolèze, d’Haydn, le chant de la Préface, le Te Deum, le Stabat, le Lauda Sion, le Dies Iraes, tous ces chefs d’oeuvre et mille autres sont fils du culte catholique…C’est encore au culte catholique que nous devons les plus beaux instrumente de la musique, l’orgue et la cloche…». Abbé J. Gaume, Catéchisme de Persévérance (Paris: Gaume Frères, 1845): 26, available at .

{7} I have here translated culto as worship, which lacks the etymological background of the Latin cultus. In Spanish, this common Latin root for both culture and worship (cultura and culto, respectively) highlights their relationship, which is here lost. Translator’s Note

{8} Kenneth Pike coined the terms emic and etic and they are still used in cultural anthropology to distinguish between actors’ and analysts’ accounts of behaviors. Bueno has «reconstructed» the distinction and broadened its reach in Gustavo Bueno, Nosotros y ellos. Ensayo de reconstrucción de la distinción etic/emic de Pike (Oviedo: Pentalfa, 1990). Translator’s Note.


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