Eagleton, “Culture”


The more I think about it, the more I come to see that law is downstream of culture. Of course, law affects culture, too. The anti-discrimination laws have helped to shape our culture’s understanding of racial justice. The Court’s school-prayer decision shaped public education, which changed the way Americans understand the place of religion in our daily life. There are lots of examples. And yet, I think, culture influences law much more than the other way around. So many legal doctrines, especially in the church-and-state context, turn on cultural understandings. For example, what is a compelling interest that justifies restricting religious liberty? What would a reasonable observer infer from a public religious display? And so on.

The importance of culture was a theme of our center’s most recent Tradition Project meeting last November, which included a keynote by Sir Roger Scruton. But culture is not only an interest of conservatives. Last week, Yale University Press released a new book by the Marxist literary critic, Terry Eagleton, Culture, which addresses some of the same themes and authors as our November conference. Eagleton, a professor at the University of Lancaster in Britain, is famous, among other things, for his take-down of the new atheism about a decade ago. Here’s the description of his new book from the Yale website:

One of our most brilliant minds offers a sweeping intellectual history that argues for the reclamation of culture’s value

Culture is a defining aspect of what it means to be human. Defining culture and pinpointing its role in our lives is not, however, so straightforward. Terry Eagleton, one of our foremost literary and cultural critics, is uniquely poised to take on the challenge. In this keenly analytical and acerbically funny book, he explores how culture and our conceptualizations of it have evolved over the last two centuries—from rarified sphere to humble practices, and from a bulwark against industrialism’s encroaches to present-day capitalism’s most profitable export. Ranging over art and literature as well as philosophy and anthropology, and major but somewhat “unfashionable” thinkers like Johann Gottfried Herder and Edmund Burke as well as T. S. Eliot, Matthew Arnold, Raymond Williams, and Oscar Wilde, Eagleton provides a cogent overview of culture set firmly in its historical and theoretical contexts, illuminating its collusion with colonialism, nationalism, the decline of religion, and the rise of and rule over the “uncultured” masses. Eagleton also examines culture today, lambasting the commodification and co-option of a force that, properly understood, is a vital means for us to cultivate and enrich our social lives, and can even provide the impetus to transform civil society.