The Ideal of Culture: A book review by Bob Morris

The Ideal of Culture: Essays
Joseph Epstein
Axios Press (May 2018)

“When I get a little money, I buy books. If I have any left, I buy food and clothes.” Desiderius Erasmus

This is the fourth in a series of anthologies of essays written by Joseph Epstein and published by Axios. He also wrote 29 other books, many of them anthologies of essays. I am among those who are convinced that he is the greatest essayist now writing in English. Certainly none has more to share and can express it better. There are 63 essays in this volume and, as usual, he focuses his attention (and ours) on a remarkably extensive range of subjects. He has a wide and deep frame-of-reference within which to examine (and share) whatever attracts his interest. It could be anyone at any time, anywhere, throughout history.

If Isaiah Berlin were to ask Epstein, “Are you a hedgehog or a fox?” my guess is that his answer would be “Both.” To what does the title of this anthology refer? Here are three brief passages from the first chapter:

“What I mean by the ideal of culture is high culture, as set out by Matthew Arnold in his 1867 essay “Culture and Anarchy.” Arnold described this level of culture as ‘the best that has been thought and said,’ but in our day it has been enlarged to include the best that has been composed and painted and sculpted and filmed.” (Page 8)

“Opinions are well enough, sometimes even required; but I have never quite been able to shake the capping remark made by V.S. Naipaul on a character in his novel Guerrillas: ‘She had a great many opinions, but these did not add up to a point of view. Culture, true culture, helps form complex points of view.” (20)

Finally, while reading Michael Oakeshott’s Notebooks, “I came across two interesting passages…’To be educated is to know how much one wishes to know and to have the courage not to be tempted beyond that limit.’ And second, that culture ‘teaches that there is much one does not want to know.’ I wonder if, in the current age, our so-called Information Age, knowing ‘what one doesn’t want to know’ isn’t among the greatest gifts that the acquisition of culture can bestow.” (21)

With all due respect to the Big Picture of knowledge, wisdom, and literacy, the unique greatness of Epstein’s essays — in my opinion — is found in the style and grace of his rapport with his reader, one that he establishes and then enriches while sharing his thoughts and (yes) his feelings about “Old Age and Other Laughs” and then “Kafka”…”University of Chicago Days” and then “The Young T.S.Eliot”…”Tacitus” and then “Why Read Biography?”…”Dreaming of a Jewish Christmas” and then “Machiavelli”…”Memoirs of Hadrian” and then “Hitting Eighty.”

He seldom contradicts himself but yes, he really is large…he contains multitudes.

Thank you, Joseph Epstein, for your latest anthology of adventures. You conclude thusly: “A perhaps too relentless self-chronicler, I seem to have written essays on turning 50 (‘An Older Dude’), 60 (‘Will You Still Feed Me?’), 70 (‘Kid Turns 70’) and now this. If only I can get to 130 or 140 — who knows, there just might be a book in it.” Because you and I are about the same age, I really hope we both have quality of life then. In that event, here’s the deal: If you create it, I’ll read it.

 

 

 

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