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Friday, August 05, 2011


Four Cultures of the West
by John O'Malley
p. 2004
Harvard University Belknap Press

  I am of the opinion that you can't understand the present without a thorough grounding in the history of Christianity.  It may be possible to be a thoroughly non-Christian western intellectual today, but that has only been true for about 20-30 years.  Before that, even the anti-Christian writers and thinkers KNEW about Christianity because it was IMPOSSIBLE not to know.  As a general rule, political liberals, intellectuals and hipsters spend more time mocking Christianity then understanding it- and that is a shame.

   It's one thing to say that the history of Christianity is important to know, it's quite another to find the right books to convey that knowledge.   Half a millennium of religious conflict between Catholics and Protestants has introduced a ton of partisanship into the subject area.  Thus, when I find a good writer on the subject-  I stick with him.  John O'Malley is one of he good ones, Catholic though he may be.  Last year I read his excellent history of the Jesuit Order, The First Jesuits.  Four Cultures of the West takes as it's starting point the contrast between "ATHENS AND JERUSALEM" i.e. the respective influences of the Hellenic Philosophers vs. Hebrew Prophets on Western Civilization, itemizing that overlapping influence by describing Four Cultures and talking about their modern descendants.

   Culture One is the culture of "Prophecy and Reform"- here he is talking about the culture that gave rise to "JERUSALEM": Hebrew prophets, Christian Saints & Luther and his disciples.  This is a culture resistant to compromise and moderation.

    Culture Two is the culture of "The Academy and the Professions."  This is the culture which arose out of Athens, developed into medieval scholasticism, then into the University.  It's hard to ignore the impact of the University on our modern world but less easy to understand the relationship between the University and medieval  Scholasticism.

   Culture Three is the culture of "Poetry, Rhetoric & The Common Good."  This is the culture of what we would call today "The Gentleman"- educated but not scholarly- a culture that includes the Humanists of the Renaissance, the rhetorical orators of Rome and their spiritual descendants. Culture Three developed a strong critique of the Scholasticism of the medieval University that succeeded in transforming that institution into it's modern version.

   Culture Four is the culture of "Art and Performance"- this one is pretty self explanatory and probably the most familiar to readers of this blog since it includes popular music/popular culture, novels, etc.  Unfortunately, O'Malley's discussion of Culture Four is largely comprised of a recounting of the Iconoclast/Iconophile debate that took place in Southern Europe during the early middle ages, so it actually turns out to be the weakest chapter of the whole book.

   Developed out of a lecture series, Four Cultures of the West is very readable- no specialized knowledge required.  O'Malley's main point is not to describe each culture as independent from one another, but rather to note how they have influenced one another and how each has influenced the Modern World.  Each of the four cultures has maintained relevance from Ancient times to Modern times.  O'Malley is not trying to be totally inclusive- he acknowledges that he is omitting other significant cultures, such as the culture of the Germanic tribes on Rome's northern border, and the commercial/business culture that started in the early modern period.  Ultimately, O'Malley has a strong thesis, and this book is a good introduction to the subject of Four Cultures of the West.


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