An Offbeat Odyssey: One Rube’s Quest For the Definition of the “Cultured Individual”

Another long post, galleons. I’d apologize, but thinking about what I’m going to say in these is pretty much the most interesting part of my 12-hour shifts. So either enjoy the product of my bored brain… or leave.

Before lapsing into unconsciousness last night, I did my usual blog check to see who had updated. I was on a friend’s blog when I noticed something that gave me pause: he claimed to be a cultured individual (and I’m not saying he’s not, for the record).

This is why I enjoy reading his blog, despite the fact that he’d probably prefer I didn’t- it usually gives me something to think about (though not in the manner he intended, I imagine).

Because, when I thought it over, I realized I’d never had someone in my acquaintance refer to themselves as “cultured” before. And it’s not a matter of the pretension of declaring something like that, because pretension is often just the jealous person’s go-to phrase for what is really a statement of fact. I think it’s because there’s no longer a useful definition about what makes an individual cultured or refined.

But every word, every phrase, must have a definition. And as a self-styled verbiphage, I feel it is my duty to discover the rather elusive definition of the cultured individual.

***

We’ll start in the hallowed haven of the written word, the Delphic oracle of the definition.

The dictionary.

As ever, I begin with the dictionary that came on Ghiert (and is, without a doubt, my absolute favorite application on my computer). Here, cultured is defined as “characterized by refined taste and manners and good education.” Refined taste? Seems a bit… vague. As does the idea of a good education (more on that in a bit).

Webster’s Dictionary of the English Language also states that the concept of being cultured is, “characterized by mental and moral training.”

The Random House Unabridged Dictionary adds, “…the quality in a person…that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc…development or improvement of the mind by education or training.”

Let my argument commence.

***

I believe that the prevailing American (and western European, to a degree) concept of the cultured individual has its roots in the late 19th century need to make social distinction between the “old money” and the “nouveaux riches.”

The 19th century, as most of you should know, was the time of the Industrial Revolution:

I find the idea of taking a post about being a refined individual and peppering it with crude humor to be deliciously amusing.

As a result of the changes to manufacturing, mining, technology, agriculture, etc. that marked the Industrial Revolution, the accumulation of wealth also underwent a transformation. In the time preceding the 19th century, the upper class was comprised almost solely of nobility. Wealth was inherited, passed through families along with titles and estates. Even in America, where the traditional nobility was banned by federal mandate, the upper class was still comprised of old families that could trace their roots back to European nobility. Their wealth had been handed down with their name, creating a pool of old money in the new world.

But the Industrial Revolution allowed for the entrepreneurial, ambitious, and slightly lucky to amass great wealth in just one or two lifetimes. These were lower or middle class citizens, who, through a fortuitous and/or calculated set of decisions and opportunities, had risen to the tops of their fields, garnered immense wealth, and were suddenly thrust into the world of the upper class. And the old money was not pleased by this.

We’ll get back to that in a moment.

During the time of the Industrial Revolution, Romanticism was sweeping the world of the arts. While it began as a revolt against the Age of Enlightment’s social and political norms, it soon became a reaction against the rationalization of nature that dominated the Industrial Revolution. These were the days of William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and John Keats. The Romantic artists railed against the “dark Satanic mills” (Blake) of this industrial period. They valued, among other things, the importance of nature in art. This reversion to a more nature-based ideal even extended into music. The Romantic period for music showed a marked increase in the inclusion of earthy folk music and focused on passionate, emotional pieces of music. Across the board, artists of the Romantic period scorned the rigid framework, the harsh monotony, the factory feel of the Industrial Revolution.

And here is where the old money found its refuge. The upper class fractured, splitting into those who came from generations of wealth and breeding and those who had previously belonged to a lower social class. While the new money would garb themselves in the trappings of the rich, the old money scorned them as lacking the polish and refinement good bloodlines and a noble upbringing brought. Old money, always steeped in the world of art and music (for who else could afford to be patrons?), now relied on their knowledge of the world, of music, of literature, of foreign politics, to distinguish themselves from the new money. New money, wearing all the frippery of the upper class and mingling in the same circles, lacked that knowledge of other cultures, of art, of politics. Through this, the old money maintained their need for elitism.

And it is this image invoked by most Americans and Europeans when the term “cultured” is used- the image of the refined, elegant noble. The old money.

***

While bits of that world still linger in our own (from old families like the Rockafellers and Kennedys to the continued practice of debutantes in the South), our society has changed in the years since the Industrial Revolution. And it seems as if the old ideas of the “cultured” individual no longer fit.

Let’s look at this a piece at a time:

Education

In the past, education was a luxury only afforded to the rich. As it is today, education was costly. Because of the cost of education (money not only lost by paying the institution one was attending, but also by not working, like the rest of the world), only upper crust families could afford to educate their children. As such, education became a staple of the cultured individual. In a world of the ignorant, the educated were intelligent, articulate, and worldly.

Remember, knowledge is power. It’s always been something we, as a people, covet, even as we fear it (Eve and the apple, anyone?). The educated have always garnered respect among the uneducated, their knowledge wielding a special type of power over the masses.

In the modern age, however, most people have an education. And not just a high school education, either. Young people study at colleges and universities in every state across the nation and in thousands of universities abroad. Education is no longer a rarity- it is a standard.

Even more amazing are the learning opportunities beyond the classroom. We are wealthy in a way the world has never been in the past. We have books. Mass produced, mass distributed books. And thanks to those lovely institutions called “libraries,” these books are available to everyone, from the dirt poor to the fabulously rich. We can buy books, we can check them out. Books, which used to be so highly prized before the invention of the printing press (ah, the days of monks meticulously copying books by hand), are now ripped, torn, battered, thrown away, and given away on a whim. They are everywhere. Everyone has access to them and all the knowledge they contain.

And, of course, there’s the internet. The internet takes libraries and grants them a big ol’ 1-Up:

The internet is home to the knowledge housed in libraries, but it also houses professional papers, professorial lectures, interviews, documentaries… When used correctly, the internet opens the doors to unlimited educational opportunities.

So, in this world of boundless information, how can we distinguish the “well-educated” people who are on their way to becoming truly cultured? After all, education is about more than a degree. I know plenty of people with degrees who are not very well-educated at all.

Is it about where one got one’s degree? Do you have to attend a nationally ranked high school and an Ivy League university and study to Ph.D. level in order to be considered “well-educated?” I think most people would balk at that definition. You can have a truly remarkable education at a school that is not “the best in the nation.” After all, much of the education process is not about teaching something, but about inspiring students to go out and learn on their own. To pursue their own, individualized education.

A degree is not much of an indicator of whether one is well-educated or not. It is a great indicator that you spent 3+ years studying enough of a particular subject in order to pass the tests. That you showed up to enough classes to pass.

But even if you truly devoted yourself to your studies, if you actually learned while in college (instead of just memorized and bullshitted), you still might not be “well-educated.” Why? Because a well-educated individual needs to be knowledgeable about more than just one subject matter. The well-educated are polymaths, Renaissance men. They know about a wide range of subjects. They know how they interact.

These are the people who are “cultured,” regardless of their degrees.

Appreciation For the Arts

The common idea of the cultured individual is someone who listens to Mozart while staring contemplatively at a Monet masterpiece, then settling in for an evening of reading John Donne.

But… why?


I’m an avid reader (as I’m sure you’ve noticed if you’ve ever paid terribly close attention to how often that “Currently Reading” list on the sidebar changes). As such, I’ve read many of the novels and poems considered to be classics. And, frankly, I can say that I’ve disliked many of them. Does a dislike for classic literature immediately preclude a person from being considered cultured?

I say nay, and not just because I don’t want to be left out of the running to one day be considered cultured. I disagree because I think that artistic appreciation is about more than simply liking the classics.

Don’t get me wrong, classical music and opera are things I enjoy. Put on the aria from Madame Butterfly or Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and I’m in heaven. But I like them for them. Take Scheherazade. I find it to be exquisitely crafted and nearly poetic. The strings alone (that violin breaks my heart with its beauty) are so subtly arranged as to creep up on a person and break through their emotional barriers. The piece is grand in scope, while maintaining the intimacy of Scheherazade in the sultan’s chambers late at night. I cry every time I hear this piece. It’s sensuous and truly moving. That is why I love this piece, not because it is considered classically excellent, but because I find it to be technically stellar… and it moves me.

Of course, the fact that I find it technically impressive means that I agree with those who consider it a classic. Sometimes I agree with the quality of a piece of classic art. Sometimes I do not.

Charles fucking Dickens comes to mind.

But just because I don’t like everything that’s considered a “classic” doesn’t mean I don’t respect these works. I don’t enjoy many pieces of classic literature. But I understand why they are considered important. I know why they are classics. And I respect them for it. I dislike the writing style of Lord of the Flies, for example, but I think its look at the darkest parts of humanity and our base nature is apt. So long as you respect the classics, it’s not necessary to always like them.

And being cultured is about more than knowing/liking the classics. It’s about experiencing the breadth of each artistic discipline. Cultured people don’t just listen to sonatas and concertos. Their music collections run the gambit, from folk to funk, jazz to showtunes, rock to rap, country to Tuvan throat singing. In order to appreciate music, you have to listen to music. All kinds of music. Hear how each style is arranged, how vocal stylings differ. You learn what differentiates Dixieland from contemporary jazz.

To be cultured is to experience culture. As many aspects as you can.

If you scoff at the idea of modern music/art/literature being considered part of a cultured individual’s regular listening, you are a fool. Not only is truly spectacular music/art/literature being produced every year, but remember that one day, some of these pieces will be considered those paradigm-shifting, revolutionary classics of our age. Experience them now. Be a part of the changes they create in the world around you.

Vincent van Gogh is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. His bold brushstrokes and vivid use of color have inspired artists for ages. However, when he was alive, he was practically unknown. The artistic community did not see his work as impressive in any regard. It was only after his death that van Gogh’s work began to rise to prominence.

Proof positive that it’s important to experience your modern arts in addition to your classics. Quality is quality, regardless of the era it was created in. Society often doesn’t realize this until later (ah, hindsight), but the cultured individual should be able to make this distinction, society be damned.

When it comes to artistic appreciation, the cultured person learns about each artistic discipline. They know why they like particular pieces. And they can tell you. You don’t have to like the classics, but you do need to respect them. And you need to be able to articulate why you like or dislike particular pieces. It’s not simply “a matter of taste.” You have reasons you don’t like certain things. Have opinions. Know your opinions. Be able to articulate said opinions. Cultured individuals don’t always agree on matters of artistic appreciation, but they are able to defend their own opinions eloquently.

Besides, these disparities in opinion are what spark intelligent debate. And that’s a damn staple of the cultured person’s communication.

Experiencing Other Cultures

More so than anything else, travel seems to be the golden ticket into the ranks of the cultured. People who travel consider themselves to be more worldly and experienced than those who do not. They are an elite group.

The thing is, travel is very useful in the pursuit of becoming cultured. This is because there’s no better way to learn about another culture than to experience it in person.

Or so I hear.

Anyway, traveling is not the only way to learn about other cultures. Talking to people from other countries, reading, listening to their music, learning their languages, studying their religions and folk tales… these are other ways to learn about other cultures. Just because you don’t have the money or ability to travel doesn’t mean you can’t learn about these places. That you can’t experience parts of them. Foreign films, culturally-specific music, folk tales… they all reveal what is important to the people of these lands, what they appreciate, what makes them unique and incredible.

But for the love of Feynman, if you get the chance to travel, do so. Travel is the best way to experience these places. But that’s the rub- it’s not just about traveling. It’s about experiencing things while you are there. Talk to the locals. Go to the markets. Admire the architecture. Learn about their traditions. If you can, attend their festivals. Visit their natural wonders.

These experiences open up your mind and broaden your thinking. They allow you to understand the people of foreign lands, to understand their political issues (and teach why your knee-jerk “simple” solution, made by an American brain, might not work in their culture). Learn their religions and practices. When you strive to understand another culture, another people, you end up learning a lot about people in general. It allows you to think about your world from a new perspective.

That’s what makes a person cultured- the acquisition and application of the knowledge gained from these experiences.

Food/Drink

Cultured people do not take their dates out to the local bar and grill for a romantic night out. Why? Because they understand good cuisine.

If you can’t tell a cup of instant coffee from a freshly roasted, burr-ground cup of organic coffee, your palate isn’t terribly refined. Ah, there’s that phrase. A “refined palate.” What the hell does that mean?

It means that you’ve trained your taste buds to recognize subtle differences in flavor. These subtleties are what take a drink or a dish from good to exceptional. This isn’t something you can inherently do. This is something you have to learn.

Which means you have to eat. You have to sample all kinds of food, from all different cultures. It also helps if you cook and can learn how various flavors combine. We all have to eat. But we have the option to make it sensual and exciting. We don’t just have to shovel food into our gullets. A good meal is a journey. An experience all its own.

Because we all share the need to eat, we can all appreciate a truly exquisite meal. Food helps set a mood. From a romantic dinner to a backyard barbeque, there are ways to make your meals memorable and tasty.

Every culture specializes in a different type of cuisine. They each combine ingredients in fascinating, unique ways. Cultured people strive to try a wide range of cuisine styles. That is how you train your palate.

The same is true of wine (another staple of the widely-held definition of what makes a person cultured is their appreciation for a fine wine). Vinification, like cooking, is both art and science. It takes skill. It takes finesse.

French wines are renowned for their quality. After all, the French have been making wine for ages. They’ve honed their craft. However, they aren’t the only place to go for a good wine. California and Australia have some amazing wine. But you only know that if you train your taste buds to discern the differences between various vintages and wineries. And certainly between the different types of wine.

If you are not a wine fan, that’s fine. It’s about acquiring that refined palate. In whatever you eat and drink. You can learn to tell quality brandy from the cheap stuff. You want quality vodka in your martinis (I’m not a gin martini fan… sorry). You know what makes tea or coffee taste rich.

Again, I think it’s less about conforming to the standard ideal of what a cultured person eats/drinks, and more about cultivating your own personal tastes. By experiencing a wide variety of foods and beverages, you form opinions on what you like. And you can say why.

Having informed opinions and being able to defend them and share your knowledge with others- that’s what being cultured is really about. Isn’t it?

***

But the dictionary definitions of being “cultured” also state that a person should be refined. Lacking in vulgarity. Elegant and poised.

Hmm…

It’s true that your public persona is part of the puzzle that makes up the cultured individual. You are taken seriously as an intellectual when think before you speak, when you explain your opinions eloquently, when you politely listen to the opinions of others (before debating them… civilly, of course). There’s an air of polish about these people. They are confident in themselves without being arrogant. They are well-spoken. They are polite.

I actually do think that it’s important to create that type of public persona. Part of being a cultured individual is knowing how to interact with people. To foster an air of sophistication. Because, if you are cultured, you are sophisticated, in your experiences and your tastes. You should portray that in how you present yourself to people.

Of course, that’s just your public persona. You can be cultured and still cuss like a sailor in your downtime. And while you should probably look put together in public, in the comfort of your home you can relax in sweats and a ratty t-shirt, if the mood strikes you.

You can be cultured and still be a dork. Or a nerd. Or a jock. Or a serial killer.

Take Hannibal Lecter. He’s certainly a cultured man… he just also happens to kill and eat people:

That put together, cultured persona you put on is not the only part of your personality, after all. It’s only one part. So it’s possible to be uncouth in your downtime and still be a very cultured person. People are complex. There is so much more to them than the face they show the world. Or to their friends. Or lovers. Or colleagues.

But yes, if you want to be taken seriously, if you want to be considered a cultured person, it’s important that you learn how to move in “polite society.” As I said, understanding how to interact with people is an important part of being cultured, after all.

***

So… I’ve spent this entire post examining various facets of a concept in order to find a definition, and I’ve found that a succinct, simple definition might not exist. Or, if it does, I haven’t found it yet.

But I think we’ve found the blueprint for being a cultured individual in modern society. And that’s a start.

***

Here’s the million dollar question (that you may or may not be asking yourself right now):

Do I consider myself cultured?

The answer is, sadly, no.

I don’t.

Considering how full of myself I am, that might surprise you. Remember, there are facets to each person.

It’s something I aspire to. But I just don’t think I’ve experienced enough. I don’t think I know enough. There’s so much out there, and I’ve barely made a dent.

I do, however, like to think that I’m firmly on the path to becoming cultured. But I really don’t think it’s a label I could currently affix to myself with any degree of comfort.

I mean, really… did you read the comics I threw in here? *grin*

3 responses to “An Offbeat Odyssey: One Rube’s Quest For the Definition of the “Cultured Individual”

  1. “I know plenty of people with degrees who are not very well-educated at all.”

    Ain’t that the fucking truth.

    I think one criteria that could be added into a possible definition of cultured is ‘not being fazed by anything.’ You have enough of an experience of the world (through education and travel) that you know, as you say, a little bit of a lot, so that when you encounter new people or new situations, nothing really takes you by surprise, and it’s very difficult for anything to offend you.

    Then you can try to make an analysis of it to see if pleases you, but it’s your ‘cultured-ness’ that makes the analysis more in-depth and enlightening than a ‘non-cultured’ person.

  2. Well, as far as your proposed addition to the list, I have to disagree. I don’t think that “not being fazed by anything” is necessarily the mark of a cultured individual.

    Now, I see where you are coming from. What you really did with this was attempt to sum up the spirit of the cultured personality in a singular phrase. Which is something I had trouble with through this entire post. Mostly because I think the definition is a bit too complex for a tidy summation.

    But the reason I don’t think that particular trait belongs on the list is that I don’t think being jaded is cultured. I’ll agree with you that something you acquire when you work to become cultured is the ability to handle more varied situation smoothly. Much of this is because you see the world differently- through a more multi-faceted lens than the rest of the population. However, to say that nothing takes you by surprise when you are cultured is a depressing notion.

    David Mamet once described theatre as giving a person “a sense of cleansing awe.” That power to overwhelm the self, to influence and alter emotions, to bring about a feeling of wonderment… that is something no person should ever lose the ability to experience. Cultured or not. When you lose the ability to be taken by surprise, to be floored by a discovery, to stare in abject wonder at a sunrise over the ocean… well, then you’ve lost something vital to the human condition, in my opinion.

    I think the cultured individual might stand in awe of different things (or the same things, but for different reasons), but that rush of surprise and wonder is a universal.

    That being said, yes, the cultured person tends to not be offended over trivial matters. After all, offense is based in hate and fear. We hate/fear what we don’t understand. When we are cultured, we understand much more of the world and of people than we do if we are not. Ergo, we lose that knee-jerk “oh my gawd, this offends my delicate sensibilities” response.

    Shit, I just talked (wrote?) your ear (eye?) off. I’ll stop now.

  3. Sorry, I wasn’t clear — by ‘not fazed’ I meant ‘not offended,’ not ‘not surprised’ or ‘jaded’. So basically this . . .

    “That being said, yes, the cultured person tends to not be offended over trivial matters. After all, offense is based in hate and fear. We hate/fear what we don’t understand. When we are cultured, we understand much more of the world and of people than we do if we are not. Ergo, we lose that knee-jerk “oh my gawd, this offends my delicate sensibilities” response.”

    . . . is what I meant. And that ability to not be offended then lets you observe things in your own unique way, instead of just aping the ‘expected’ reaction, which you might get from a TV character, or something. So I guess we basically agree after all.

    But again, it was only one criteria, not the only one. I’m sure to be cultured requires many different characteristics all wrapped up into the whole.

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