Custom Versus Culture: A Modest Distinction
“If it were proposed to all nations to choose which seemed best of all customs, each, after examination, would place its own first; so well is each convinced that its own are by far the best.” —Herodotus (III, xxxviii)
To be honest, it took about four readings of Rémi Brague’s essay “From What is Left Over” (First Things, August 2017) before I felt confident enough to tell myself I understood it. Some of the perplexity probably stemmed from the word culture being used over 60 times, and not always with the same meaning.
Unlike Isidore of Seville, I don’t think that etymology holds the key to the cosmos, but once I realized my confusion concerned this word culture, I consulted a dictionary to guide me out of the perplexity. Yet I also abided by C.S. Lewis’s instructions: “One understands a word much better if one has met it alive, in its native habitat. So far as is possible our knowledge should be checked and supplemented, not derived, from the dictionary.” And: “everyone starts telling us what the word does not mean; a sure proof that it is beginning to mean just that.”
The Oxford English Dictionary says culture and custom are both of Latin origin. Each came to Modern English via the Normans around the same time. Since the 1300’s custom has always meant modes of habits, behaviors, manners, practices, or as our Congress puts it, “ways and means.” (Even menstruation used to be called “the custom of women.”) The Greek equivalent, nomos, can mean law, nature, or custom, as in the line by Herodotus.
Culture as a synonym for customonly came into contemporary practice in about 1860. Nearly fifty years later Edith Warton, instead of using the word culture, swam against the current by naming her novel The Custom of the Country (1909).
If I went back in time to ask Samuel Johnson: “what is the culture of London here in the 1750s?” he wouldn’t know what I meant. If instead I asked him what the customs of London were, he would be able (through perhaps unwilling) to provide a ready answer. But if the medium really is the message, what has the parlance of our times lost by replacing the word customwith culture? Was anything gained by substituting one word for the other?
We still use custom in its traditional sense when we travel and complain of “going through customs.” This meaning is derived from the Latin custuma: the customary payment for taxes and tariffs. The customer was originally the individual who received the payment. Also closely related is the word costume, as Goethe recognized in his autobiography:
All men of good disposition find, with increasing cultivation, that they have a double part to play in the world, a real and an ideal one, and in this feeling is to be found the basis of all that is noble. The real part which has been assigned to us we experience only too clearly; with regard to the second, we seldom come into a definite knowledge about it.
As Johnny Depp recently learned after sneaking his dogs into Australia, customs officers are the guardians of what is physically permitted to come in and go out of a particular community. If he had read more novels — say The Scarlet Letter, Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, or Norman Mailer’s The Castle in the Forest — Mr. Depp might have known what it was like for Hawthorne, the consuls of Lubeck, and Alois Hitler to be customs officers. He might have learned how customs officers protect as well as procure culture within the domain of their assigned tasks. In this case, equal substitution of the word culture for custom appears plausible. For the duties that made up their occupations would not have substantially changed much had they instead been called “cultural officers.”
In his essay, Brague does try to distinguish the multiple meanings of culture. In doing so he explains that while European culture has required Christianity for the last two millennia, Christianity per se does not require European culture, or for that matter, any specific culture. He calls one meaning of culture “anthropologic,” another “casual.”
Brague’s casual usage of culture means cultivation — in both an agricultural sense as well as one of personal betterment, education, or what Germans call Bildung — comparable to the Arabic adâb, which can mean refinement, improvement, etiquette, or hygiene. To cultivate either a corn field or the mind of an undergraduate means to improve them, as when Walter Kaufmann observes in his biography of Nietzsche: “Culture consists in the overcoming of any discrepancy between inside and outside, and the uncultured man is not really embodied in his acts, thoughts and desires.”
Phrases like “subculture” (1914), “dominant culture” (1980’s), or even the older “higher culture” (1771) can usually be interchanged with custom without any substantial loss in meaning. Take Charles Taylor when he writes in A Secular Age (2007) that in the Middle Ages, “There wasn’t a popular culture from which the elites were excluded. Popular modes of piety, for instance, were shared in by gentry and clergy.” If instead Taylor had written “popular customs,” the original meaning of culture (which falls under Brague’s anthropological meaning) would still remain.
And when Rod Dreher writes in The Benedict Option (2017) that the Obergefell v. Hodges decision by the Supreme Court “was the moment that the Sexual Revolution triumphed decisively, and the culture war, as we have known it since the 1960s, came to an end,” I doubt that substituting “culture war” (1982) with “war amongst customs” would radically alter the intended meaning of the sentence.
But even though King Lear has “a tailor made thee,” the way we now use the phrase “tailor made” didn’t begin until about 1873. To say that an object is “custom made” (1819) or “customized” (1927) means, at least in the United States, that it is made for an individual customer. Yet to say something was “culturally made” rather than “custom made” doesn’t quite make for equal substitution. Here something in the speaker’s intended meaning has been lost in the shuffle.
With practice, focus, and management, basic customs can be cultivated into higher customs — informal rules become inflexible laws — which is what I think Brague is getting it when he points out that in the Roman world: “cult was fused with culture.” Later when he writes: “We often hear that the main aim of culture is ‘expressing oneself’,” his anthropologic meaning of culture merges with the casual meaning. Here custom and cultivation have intertwined, and “expressing oneself” means to cultivate for oneself whatever things one thinks are worthy of cultivating.
Brague points out how the early Christians saw pagan and (some) Jewish customs as superfluous to their cultivation to be Christ-like. He then puts a question to his readers: “In what sense is culture superfluous [to Christianity]?”
In seeking an answer to this question, Brague suggests English speakers contemplate the German concept of a “culture of being.” A Christian culture of being would mean a collection of customs that would make one more Christ-like, as was first observed at Antioch (Acts 11:19–26). A Christian culture of being might also mean that, by practicing such customs, one cultivates one’s potential Christ-likeness. Everything else could then be considered “superfluous.”
Maybe nothing was lost in substituting culture for custom, but the modern distinction is useful, for some clarity can be gained by the replacement. Anglophones now have one word for individual modes of repeated behavior (custom), and another for clusters of customs (culture). One word describes a particular pattern of behavior, the other a compounded aggregate of patterns of behavior.
But perhaps it’s best not to think about words too much. As Goethe advises: “Words are good, but they are not the best. The best is not made clear by words. The spirit in which we act, is what is highest. Action can only be grasped by spirit and portrayed by spirit.” Or perhaps Lewis said it better: “If all language is metaphor, then, there is literary nothing literal.”