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Cultural Vision and the Human Future


Robert N. Bellah

Reprinted by permission of the Publisher. From Douglas Sloan, Ed. Toward the Recovery of Wholeness: Knowledge, Education and Human Values, New York: Teachers College Press.
Copyright © 1984 by Teachers College Press, Columbia University. All rights reserved.

            I share with other contributors to this symposium the conviction that there is something profoundly awry in our modern Western culture and that our contemporary cultural, social, and political difficulties are in part a result of that fact. I share particularly with Huston Smith the hope that premodern and non-Western cultures might have something important to contribute to our getting out of these difficulties. I am convinced that cultural vision has much to do with the human future into which we will move. The problem is: what cultural vision and how do we appropriate it? In this paper I will consider four models for relating cultural vision, or rather the diversity of cultural visions, to the human future.

            The first and most pervasive view is that in which the modern West is taken as the most advanced culture and it is the task of other cultures to “catch up” with ours. Not long ago it was common to rank the cultures of the world in terms of how closely they resembled our own. Modern Western culture was seen as the standard of rationality and progress toward which all other cultures are or ought to be approaching. Thus the relation of the modern West and the rest of the world was that of teacher and student, with “us” doing the teaching and “they” doing the learning. In the nineteenth century this pedagogical role was expressed as “the White man’s burden.” In the 1950s it took the form of what was called “modernization theory.” There was no little truth to this model and indeed much of the rest of the world has been eager to absorb aspects of modern Western culture. But it has become increasingly clear that this whole way of thinking is morally suspect: too closely allied with colonialism and imperialism and too profoundly ethnocentric. But even more serious is the fact that this first way of dealing with our problem has run up against doubts about our own project that have made other cultures seem less obviously benighted.

            I would like to look for a moment at a rather extreme example of a “backward” culture, the extraordinarily interesting culture of the Australian aborigines. We think about it today differently than we did just a few years ago, in part because we understand it better, but largely because we understand ourselves differently.

            Before the Europeans came the aborigines had lived in Australia for at least ten thousand years, and yet through all that time they managed to leave the land almost exactly as they found it. In the words of W.E.H. Stanner:

They are, of course, nomads – hunters and foragers who grow nothing, build nothing, and stay nowhere long. They make almost no physical mark on the environment. Even in the areas which are still inhabited, it takes a knowledgeable eye to detect their recent presence. Within a matter of weeks, the roughly cleared campsites may be erased by sun, rain, and wind. After a year or two there may be nothing to suggest that the country was ever inhabited. Until one stumbles on a few old flint tools, a stone quarry, a shell midden, a rock painting, or something of the kind, one may think the land had never known the touch of man.1

            For generations Europeans used to think that making such a faint impression on the landscape was a sure sign of invincible barbarism. But now it is not so obvious. Imagine what a century or two of European occupation has done to the Australian landscape. Perhaps it may dawn on us that it is the native Australians who have a more “civilized” attitude toward nature than the modern inhabitants and it is we who are “barbaric” toward our environment.

            Nor must we too quickly condemn that aboriginal society with the word “scarcity,” which is used so sweepingly about all premodern societies. Again it is Stanner who sets us straight:

The notion of aboriginal life as always preoccupied with the risk of starvation, as always a hair’s breadth from disaster, is as great a caricature as Hobbes’ notion of savage life as “poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The best corrective of any such notion is to spend a few nights in an aboriginal camp, and experience directly the unique joy in life which can be attained by a people of few wants, an otherworldly cast of mind, and a simple scheme of life which so shapes a day that ends with communal singing and dancing in the firelight.2

            It’s not my purpose to romanticize primitive life – we have been through the noble savage routine before – nor to replace a pejorative stereotype with an idealized one. Australian aboriginal life is not paradise. There are seasons of the year when most people are mildly hungry. There are bitter quarrels and occasional bloodshed, particularly over women. The old men pretty well monopolize what prestige and power there is in this simple society and women and young people are under their domination. And yet for all that it is not a bad life. It is a life in which all can participate, without a division into a few who are admired and the rest who look on. It is a life of hard work and lean moments but also one of great beauty, lived close to the earth and punctuated by an annual round of rituals that lend drama and meaning to everyday existence. Of the religious life that is so central to Australian aboriginal culture Stanner has written, “It allows them to assent to life, as it is, without morbidity.”3 Few cultures or religions at any level of cultural development can claim more.

            I do not then want to reverse recent judgments and proclaim the aborigines our superiors. Yet if we really take all the rhetoric of development and modernization seriously there is something uncomfortable about how close the best of their life is the best of our own – especially when our own society contains an enormous capacity, and what seems on occasion and enormous desire, for self-destruction, totally lacking in the aboriginal culture. It may be that our society contains resources for self-transformation that are also missing in aboriginal Australia – I do not want to rule that out. Nonetheless a balanced look only enhances the doubts expressed by Robert Heilbroner:

For some time, observers skeptical of the panacea of growth have wondered why their contemporaries, who were three or five or ten times richer than their grandparents, or great-grandparents, or Pilgrim forbears, did not seem to be three or five or ten times happier or more content or more richly developed as human beings. This skepticism, formerly the preserve of a few “philosophically minded” critics, has now begun, I believe, to enter the consciousness of large numbers of men and women….
The civilizational malaise, in brief, reflects the inability of a civilization directed to material improvement to satisfy the human spirit. To say as much is not to denigrate its achievements, which have been colossal, but to bring to the forefront of our consciousness a fact that I think must be reckoned with in searching the mood of our times. It is that the values of an industrial civilization, which has for two centuries given us not only material advance but also a sense of élan and purpose, now seem to be losing their self-evident justification. And yet, the doubts and disillusions are only faint. But they are there, and the stirrings they cause must be added to the unease that is so much a part of our age.4

            Since Heilbroner wrote, these doubts have been confirmed on a mass basis by public opinion polls. In late 1978, for the first time in our history, a majority of Americans expected their own future to be worse than their past and, even more shocking, their children’s lives to be worse than their own. One of the strongest beliefs in our history, namely, that however tough we have had it our children will get a better break, is no longer self-evident. Progress, which has long been in doubt among our intellectuals, is now a shaken idol even among the masses.

            Most of the contributors to this symposium agree that something has gone wrong in the modern West. Most point mainly to ideological causes such as materialism and science – at least in the form of empiricism and positivism, a Western “mind set,” and so forth. As a sociologist I would like to discuss some of the things that correlate with that ideology that others have not mentioned. Peter Berger said recently that we sociologist are by profession vulgar and talk about things that philosophers, theologians and poets may sometimes ignore.

            I would like to start with a rather blunt social correlate of our ideological distortions, namely capitalism, and capitalism not just as a system of economics but as a system of social and economic power. I would suggest that capitalism entails a number of other vulgar and upsetting things such as exploitation, imperialism, war, and the threat of total nuclear destruction. I might add that I do not use the word capitalism as a term to contrast with the self-styled socialist or communist regimes, which I regard as merely statist versions of capitalism more completely bureaucratized than our own.

            There is, nevertheless, a distinction between regimes, even if the major powerful nations of the world all suffer from the same illness. Democratic capitalism is not the worst of systems. It is certainly better than authoritarian or statist capitalism. It produces a rather high level of ethical demand – what David Riesman called a rising standard of living – that, however, only increases our malaise, for it makes clear how short we fall relative to our expectations. Our present danger, and here I am thinking of American society but Western Europe and Japan are in many ways in the same boat, is that democratic capitalism has a deep built-in instability in that the economic system and the political power that goes with it relentlessly undermine all the moral bases of our democracy. It is this process of undermining that could lead to either cataclysmic nuclear disaster or permanent universal tyranny.

            By pointing to social correlates, which I think we ignore at our peril, I do not in the least wish to deny the importance of ideology. Ideas, sentiments, opinions, are important and in many ways central. But by remembering the social situation in which ideology operates we may see certain things we would otherwise overlook.

            I want to focus on the dimension of our current ideology that I believe is close to the heart of our distress. That is radical secular individualism and its accompanying egalitarianism. It starts from the assumption that the biological individual is the only human truth. This radical secular individualism is so pervasive that even those of us who would like to combat it, including those of us who have contributed to this symposium, are absolutely permeated by it. By saying that this pervasive set of assumptions is an ideology, which I think it certainly is, I do not mean to view it entirely as a product of intellectual history. It was not simply caused by Descartes, or Hobbes, or “modern science.” While intellectuals have certainly made major contributions to this way of thinking, it is certainly not the result of what certain intellectuals thought and wrote at certain times. What I most want to stress is that this ideology correlates with the way we live. It resonates with our economy, our political system, even with the way we organize our private lives. It is rooted in wholly unconscious preconceptions and practices that pervade us even when we wish ardently that this were not the case. This is because we live in a society in which this is the organizing way of thinking.

            We live in a social system that tells us, not just verbally but in the daily practice of life, that we are alone, that we are here to pursue our own interests, that neither anyone nor anything can save us except ourselves. It tells us that we must mistrust every noble impulse we feel because it must be only a form of our own self-seeking. A couple of years ago a friend of mine addressing a class on international human rights at the University of California-Berkeley Law School asked the students why they cared about human rights. The students had a difficult time with the question but concluded that it must be because it was in their interest. I would suggest that as an example of ideology masking human impulses that could not be articulated as such. We live in a society where a book by Robert Ringer entitled Looking Out for Number One was a best seller for many weeks and has spawned a whole series of successful imitations. Intellectuals seldom read or mention works of such vulgarity, though they may be telling us something of great importance about our society. But even a distinguished philosophical work like John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice premises the radically self-interested individual as the necessary starting point. Though Rawls’s argument far transcends that framework, he believes that in order to be convincing this is where he must start. That fact is as culturally telling as is Robert Ringer’s book.

            What I am describing cannot be simply categorized as a mind set, though it is that, for there is a whole set of social practices and institutions that breed, support, and reinforce it. The belief in the isolated self is reinforced by what happens to us in our daily experience. I am currently directing a research team that is inquiring into the mores – what Tocqueville called “habits of the heart” – of middle class white Americans. On the basis of that research, which is as yet in an early stage, as well as other reading and observation, I would say that the problems for middle-class Americans are certainly not those of oppression and unfreedom, even though middle-class undergraduates until fairly recently liked to talk in those terms. White middle-class Americans are probably as free, in any possible sense of the word except the highest philosophical and religious meanings, as any group of people have ever been. In many ways our way of life fulfills the wildest dreams of millennia of peasant societies. Most of the world envies us even as they condemn us. What the Vietnamese or Cuban refugees seek here is a concrete sense of material well-being that not all Americans have attained but that most Americans have reached to a degree unique in human history.

            But what Heilbroner and others have observed is that together with the full stomach has come the empty soul. For many our freedom is contentless and our daily life barren of meaning. Our research has found that for many Americans occupation causes psychic isolation. Work lacks the articulation with a larger organic society that it often has in other cultures and civilizations. Instead work creates boredom from which one seeks to escape if one is on the lower rungs, or if one is on the higher rungs it often requires a degree of anxious self-manipulation from which one desperately seeks relief whenever possible. Above all, work does not provide a way to tie one into larger structures of meaning and participation. Public life outside of work is often equally if not more barren, consisting of encounters either with the market, where virtually everything from the most private to the most material needs can be met by the payment of money, or with large impersonal bureaucracies that one learns at best to manipulate. We are studying that still sizable minority of Americas who resist the tendency to locate life in one’s own living room in front of the television screen. There are millions still struggling in one way or another to make a public life in America possible, but the cost is high and “burnout” a constant theme among those who are publicly active.

            What life in this extraordinarily rich society lacks above all is what the Australian aborigines have: that round of meaningful action that ties them into society, nature, and the cosmos. For us it is not only nature that has become cold, lifeless, and abstract. Society too is cold, lifeless and abstract. Even intimate relations grow more and more calculating. One of the things we did not expect is that the word “love” is viewed with suspicion among many of the people we are studying. Love is seen as dangerous because it threatens the autonomy and independence of the individual.

            Cumulatively the pressures and tensions of our way of life are very great and require certain reactions in order for us to stay alive and functioning at all. One increasingly important reaction that we are finding among middle-class Americans, in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Georgia as well as in California, is the alleviation of the greyness and deadness of one’s daily life by a stress on purely private inner experience.

            Owen Barfield in his contribution to this symposium points to the eighteenth century as a time when subjective experience was beginning to be emphasized as expressed in the appearance of such words as “interesting,” “entertaining,” and “exhilarating.” These words, he tells us, point to inner states with no necessary correlate with anything in the external world. Our research is finding an advanced stage of the same tendency. The words that come again and again in our interviews are “feeling,” “creative” and “creativity,” “aliveness,” “excitement,” and “energy.” Increasingly we come across rather cryptic phrases like “to get it” or onomatopoetic expressions like “zing.” What is striking is that we are discovering a private world of great intensity and no content whatsoever. There is a vehement insistence on selfhood but it is an absolutely empty self; except for the sheer quantity of excitation there is nothing there at all. Symbolic, ethical, or religious content terms get swallowed up in the language of psychic process. “Creative,” for example, would certainly be used more circumspectly in a society that deeply believed in God as the real creator. Among us creative tends to be a contentless quality pointing to the intensity of inner experience.

            The extreme individualism of our culture entails a functional, though not always an ethical egalitarianism. Individuals are both absolutely unique and absolutely interchangeable. There are no organic connections between them that would allow for an ethically meaningful hierarchy. Functions are different and some may supervise others but there is no sense of a whole of which all are parts. There are also no standards from which an ethical hierarchy could be deduced. No unique individual can be judged by any other. There can be no notion of noble or base. My sensations are as good as your sensations and who is to say anything about better or worse? We maximize individual choice beyond what any traditional society has ever done and then we deny all objective standards of choice. Choice is finally completely private. We stress human rights as our most sacred belief but we define rights as the absence of external limits on individual decision. The ultimate right becomes the right to commit suicide. Who is to tell me I should not?

            While this whole system obviously works and a complete collapse is not in sight, the level of dissatisfaction is clearly on the rise. It is not working very well and all the signs are that it is going to be working less well in the years ahead. If, then, we are not moving into a utopia of human happiness and fulfillment, if indeed our society is less and less capable of giving people a sense of meaning about who they are in relation to the world in which they live, then pretty clearly our culture is not the measure for all of the other cultures that have ever been. Let us turn then to the second of our four models of how to relate cultural vision to the human future.

            In reaction to the arrogance and self-importance of this first view there developed, at least from the early years of the twentieth century, a doctrine that can be called “cultural relativism.” Anthropologists studying quite simple cultures that would have been most despised by the Eurocentric theorists of modernization endeavored to show that such cultures had their own unique values that were every bit as worthy of respect as our own. Indeed they argued that since each culture is a self-subsistent whole there are no standards by which to judge them. While promoting the values of tolerance and pluralism the doctrine of cultural relativism had the ironic result, as Paul Rabinow is currently pointing out, of trivializing the whole enterprise of the study of other cultures. Since all cultures are of equal value and none has anything to learn from any other, why make the effort? Outside a particular cultural context there is nothing that is good, true, or beautiful. There is nothing in the whole range of comparative cultural studies that we need ultimately to take seriously. Therefore a position that started out emphasizing the uniquely different finally levels to sameness: We are all equally trivial. I would suggest that cultural relativism is finally another example of the radical standardless egalitarianism so central to our current ideology.

            Let us turn to the third of our models. There has been for a long time another position critical of ethnocentrism that differs strongly from cultural relativism. This position has been espoused, marginally and fitfully, by those Westerners who have never been happy with our modern “progress.” Critical of modern science, materialism, and power seeking, they chose to reverse the roles assigned by the modernizers and saw “us” in need of being taught by “them.” It was the spiritual wisdom of India or the natural life of the South Sea Islanders or the aesthetic grace of the Japanese that provided the standard relative to which we had much to learn. For long, only a few romantics, misfits, and spiritual seekers espoused such views because self-confidence in modern progress was almost unquestioned. Today things are different. Uncertainty about the future is endemic in Europe and America, as we have seen. Our own uncertainties are so great that it is enormously tempting to look somewhere else for an answer.

            While it is a valid though enormously difficult task to seek from these other cultures a way to change the drift toward death that seems so evident in our own culture, it is quite tempting and much easier to use them simply as palliatives that will allow us to keep going in the same direction. Indeed, it is common in our society to use oriental religions or non-Western philosophies for purely personal ends – exotic forms of energy, creativity, excitement, and zing. That is, I believe, a way of totally perverting those cultures, denying the context out of which they come, using them as a drug to keep people in the very system that is depriving them of meaning rather than giving them a resource for questioning it. Zen Buddhism, for example, requires a commitment to a total way of life, without which it runs the peculiar danger of being turned into a spiritual technology for ulterior ends. Fortunately we have in America today examples of Zen (and other oriental religions) being lived as a way of life, but we also have many examples of utilitarian distortion.

            While each of these three approaches to the study of other cultures has its merits, I have tried to show that none is very satisfactory. Is there another approach or is there another dimension to the study of other cultures that would be more fruitful, that would even help to rescue what is of value in the three common approaches discussed above? I think there is. I would suggest that we use the study of other cultures first to learn more about ourselves and that we can begin to consider what we can adopt from outside only on the basis of this deepened self-knowledge. In this perspective, the recent writing of Louis Dumont has been particularly suggestive.

            Dumont suggests that we are indeed in trouble and in need of help. In From Mandeville to Marx he writes:

[W]e are witnessing a crisis of the modern ideological paradigm. It is true that the tendency to see crises everywhere is strong in modern ideology and that, if crisis there be, it was not born yesterday but has been there for quite some time; in a wider sense, the crisis is more or less congenial, to the extent that some of us take pride in it. Yet, we may perhaps say that the twentieth-century crisis of the paradigm has recently gone through an intensification, deepening, or generalization.5

            But, he suggests, the crisis is so close to us, so involved in the very ways we think, that it is peculiarly difficult to define it. Hence, “to isolate our ideology is a sine qua non for transcending it, simply because otherwise we remain caught within it as the very medium of our thought.”6 The only way out of this dilemma, he suggest, is to adopt a comparative perspective. We must take imaginatively the perspective of a radically different culture and then, as it were, look back at the peculiarities of our own. A lifetime of studying traditional India has given Dumont precisely that point of leverage.

            Dumont isolates those aspects of modern ideology that differentiate it not only from India but from all traditional cultures, including that of the premodern West. Indeed, it is one of Dumont’s points that what we take for granted as “natural” is really a radically aberrant world view shared by no other culture in human history. In essence the rise of what he calls “economic ideology” makes the relation of the isolated individual and nature primary and derives society and culture from that, whereas every traditional culture made society and the relations between individuals primary and derived conceptions of both economics and the individual from the prior social matrix.

            Of course we know that radical individualism and a utilitarian attitude toward nature have never become completely dominant, even in the modern West. Older views that saw the end of man in the love of neighbor and the contemplation of God have never entirely died out. There is doubt whether a society based on individualism and utilitarianism alone could even survive. Yet the critical consciousness that seems to flow from individualism and utilitarianism is the source of our greatest achievements as modern men and women.

            This formulation of the problem suggests some of the difficulties we face. We need very much to learn from cultural models different from our own recent past, models of how to live that are less personally, socially, and environmentally destructive. Traditional societies throughout the world, including the societies of the premodern West, provide such models. But while we learn from other cultures, we must be aware of our own commitments. Our extremes need balancing polarities that other cultures seem to contain. But there is no other culture that we can uncritically follow, not even our own biblical and classical past, much as we have to learn from them still today. While we must certainly rethink our modern values, we cannot simply jettison them without so great a loss of identity as to make the whole project fruitless.

            One of the things that Dumont is saying is that equality and hierarchy, which are only specifications of those more basic terms individuality and wholeness, are among the great polarities of human life. We cannot escape either pole without pathology. In particular that in a culture that has gone far in the direction of egalitarian individualism we need to reassert the principle of hierarchy, above all the hierarchy of values. In our society we scarcely know what hierarchy is – we think it means domination. We cry out for community but we do not realize there is no community without hierarchy, no sense of the whole without an organic structuring of the parts. As a gesture toward recovering the human reality that the word hierarchy has traditionally carried I would like to suggest a current word that we might provisionally substitute at least in some contexts. The word I have in mind that might help to make our meaning clear to contemporaries is the word “ecology” – more particularly the term coined by an associate of mine, William Sullivan, “moral ecology.” Moral ecology implies not only interdependence, but standards, priorities, directions of choice that are not private or relativistic – precisely the things we have almost lost.

            But clearly we cannot create a moral ecology out of nothing. If there is any chance of changing the direction of our drift it will be because there are groups, communities, traditions, active and alive in our society, for whom this change of direction is a real possibility. We must seek whatever moral ecology actually exists. We must nourish every element of coherent culture and community that is still alive among us. Only coherent persons in coherent relation to one another can challenge the drift to catastrophe in the midst of which we live. There never has been and there never could be a society of pure atomistic individuals. Though that ideological tendency is strong in our society, we could not live without the sources of life that still come to us from the traditional religions and philosophies.

            I look in America to two places where there is sufficient coherence to provide the basis for a new direction. One is the civic tradition, where it is still alive, that has its roots all the way back in the ancient Greek polis. It is not identical with abstract liberalism or interest-group politics but still expresses even today a sense of public virtue and concern for the common good. And I would look to the churches and synagogues, which again and again in our history have provided the saving remnant. Religion has always had an ambiguous influence in our society, never more so than today. Yet time and again it is out of the religious communities, often with much opposition within them, that the forces for revitalization and renewal have come. Out of such traditions and communities in the chaotic period we are entering might come the reshaping of our economy and our polity. In a different, more human society science and scientists might find their rightful place as part of a larger whole.


1 W.E.H. Stanner, “The Dreaming,” in Reader in Comparative Religion, ed., William Lessa and Evon Z. Vogt (New York: Harper & Row, 1958), p. 163.

2 Ibid., p. 166.

3 W.E.H. Stanner, On Aboriginal Religion, Oceania Monograph no. 11, University of Sydney, 1966, p. 58.

4 Robert L. Heilbroner, An Inquiry into the Human Prospect (New York: W.W. Norton, 1980), pp. 18-19. This essay was written in 1972 and 1973.

5 Louis Dumont, From Mandeville to Marx (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977), p. 10.

6 Ibid., p. 27.

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