Realism and Idealism in the Concept of Culture

GENTILE, Giovanni. The Reform of Education , translated by Dino Bigongiari, 63–84. New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922.

We found it necessary in the previous chapter to pass from the abstract to the concrete in order to arrive at the truth. The universality of the individual was made clear when for the empirical concept of the individual, abstractly considered, we substituted the deeper and more speculative one of the individual himself in the concreteness of his relationships. In like manner, the fundamental antinomy of education was resolved as soon as we replaced the abstract idea of the dualism of teacher and pupil, by the idea of their intrinsic, profound, unseverable unity as it gradually works out and is actualised in the process of education. We were enabled therefore to conclude that the real teacher is within the soul of the pupil, or, better still, the teacher is the pupil himself in the dynamism of his development. So that, far from limiting the autonomy of the disciple, the master, as the propulsive element of the pupil’s spontaneity, penetrates his personality, not to suppress it, but to help its impulses and facilitate its infinite development.

The same method of resorting to the concrete now leads us to the determination of a third essential element in the process of education. We have spoken of the master, and we have spoken of the pupil,—of the latter as becoming actual as universal personality, of the former as becoming identical with this same personality. We must now take up the connecting link between the two, that is, culture. By culture we mean the content of education, the presupposed heirloom which in the course of time must pass from the teacher to the pupil. This spiritual content, in being apprehended, appears under different aspects: as erudition and information; as formation of personal capacities and training of spiritual activities; as art and science; as experience of life and as concept and ideal of existence; as simple cognition and as a norm of conduct. It includes everything that comes within the scope of teaching, and from whose value education derives its peculiar worth.

Culture, so defined, may be conceived of in two ways; and in as much as their differences are highly significant in the sphere of education as elsewhere, we must now somewhat carefully consider them.

These two ways correspond to two opposite conceptions of reality, and as such they pertain to philosophy. But men in general constantly have recourse to them, and so it happens that people frequently indulge in philosophic speculations without knowing it; and much philosophising goes on outside the schools of the specialists, who are few compared to the great number of those who in their own way handle genuine concepts of philosophy.

Let us begin from the most obvious of these concepts, from the one which is fundamental and original to the human mind. Our whole life, if we consider the data of experience, seems to unfold itself on the substratum of a natural world, which therefore, far from depending on human life, represents the very condition of it. In order to live, to act, to produce, or in any way to exercise an influence on the external world, we must, first of all, be born. Our birth is the effect of a life which is not our life, which step by step rises and grows and spreads until it gathers all nature within itself. This nature existed before we were born, it will continue to be after we are all dead. Men draw their life from an organic and inorganic nature which had to exist in order that they might come into being. When nature will cease to provide these conditions, human life, according to this point of view, will come to an end; but nature, transformed, chilled, darkened, dead, will yet continue to be.

On this living trunk of nature our own life is grafted; animals come into existence, and among animals the human species. Each of us, as he comes into the world, finds this nature, developed, abundant, diversified in millions of forms, traversed by innumerable forces, organised up to the most highly developed structures, man included. We find this nature, and we begin to study it. We examine its parts one by one, their complexity, and the difference of their functioning. For each one of them has its peculiar way of being and of acting; it has its “laws.” The aggregate of these laws, mutually corresponding, and integrating one another, constitutes the natural world—reality—as it stands before us. With this external reality we strive to become acquainted; and in order that we may live in it we either adapt ourselves to it, or adapt its conditions to ourselves. In this reality too we acquire the knowledge of the needs of our organism and of the means by which they may be satisfied,—the ratio, so to speak, between natural desires and controlled resources.

We are also told that our organism is in constant change and hurries on to its destination, to our death, which we abhor as passionately as we cherish life, but which we accept because such is the law of human life, fatal and inexorable; for reality is what it is, and we must adapt ourselves to it.

But if reality appears as constituted before us, as therefore conditioning our existence, and as existing independently of us; if it is indifferent to reality whether we be in it or not; if we are truly extraneous to it, the conclusion must then be drawn that we, from the outside, presume to know reality and to move about it without being this reality itself or any part of it. For all reality is thought by us as a connected whole, though indeed vaguely; in its totality it is regarded as an object known to us, but existing in utter independence of this knowledge of ours. Its whole process is therefore complete in objective nature, which conditions our spiritual life, and this in turn can mirror reality but can never be a part of it.

This then is the primitive and fundamental concept that the human mind forms of reality. In consequence of it man feels that he is enclosed within himself: he knows he is producing the dreams and the fair images of art; that he can construct inwardly abstract geometrical figures and numbers; that he can generate ideas. But he also feels that between these ideal creations of his own, and the solid, sound, real living forms of nature, there is an abyss. He must, indeed, fall in with nature, in the process of generating other living beings of flesh and blood. He must avail himself of nature by first submitting to its unfailing laws, if he intends to give body, that is, real existence, to the ideal conceptions of his intelligence. On one side then we have thought; on the opposite side reality,—that reality, Nature.

This conception at a certain moment is transformed but not substantially changed. As we begin to reflect, we notice that this nature, as known to us, is not the real external nature, the nature which is unfolded in time and space, which we see before our eyes, an object perceptible by our bodily senses. We conclude then, that nature as known to us is an idea; that Nature is one thing and the idea of nature another. And if we think this perceptible nature and have faith in its reality and in the reality of its determinations, this nature in which reality is made to consist is the nature which is within our thought,—the idea of nature; or in other words, thought considered as the content of our mind. This thought is the aim of all the inquiries by which we strive to become thoroughly acquainted with nature, and which we finally discover or at least ought to discover when we succeed in attaining true knowledge. We say that we know nature only when we are able to recognise an idea in nature: that is, an idea in each of its elements, and a system of ideas in the whole of nature. So that what we know is not really nature as it presents itself to our senses, still less nature as it is, before it has impressed our senses; but nature as disclosed to us by thought, as it exists in thought—i.e., the idea. And this idea must be real, otherwise nature, which has its truth in the idea, could not be real. Not only is it real, it is that reality itself which a moment ago we were led to think of as consisting in external perceptible nature.

This reality makes the life of our thought possible, but it is not a product of this life. It is a condition and a prerequisite of thought, and as such it does not exist because we think it: but rather we are able to think it because it exists. It is eternal truth, at first unknown to man, then by him desired. In quest of it he gradually lifts on all sides the veil which hides it from his eyes, without however hoping that it will ever entirely disclose to him its divine countenance.

According to this transformed point of view, then, reality, which in the first instance appeared to be natural, that is physical or material, has now become ideal. But even thus it remains extraneous to thought, and unconcerned with the presence or the absence of it; transcending the entire life of the human spirit, and incessantly subject to the danger of error. Whereas the idea as a complexus of all ideas that can be thought (but have not been thought, or rather have not all been thought) is the beacon of light that guides the way of man in the ocean of life; it is Truth pure and perfect.

This idea evidently must not be confused with the purely subjective ideas which we spoke of above, and which as such are extraneous to reality. This idea is reality itself idealised. It is to this idea, for instance, that we all appeal when we affirm the existence of a justice superior to that of which man is capable, of a justice in behalf of which man is in duty bound to sacrifice his private interests, and even his life. This idea we have in mind when we speak of a sacred and inviolable right, whereas in daily practice there is perhaps no right which is not more or less trampled upon. This idea is before us when we consider truth in general: truth which is indeed real, even though it may not be seen or felt, much more real than physical nature, for nature comes to life and dies and constantly changes, while truth is motionless, impassible, eternal. In its bosom then we must try to find everything that we want to accept as not illusory.

But in substituting the conception of an ideal reality for the conception of a material one, reality as a whole continues to be something contradistinguished from us, an object indeed of our thoughts, but one which cannot be conceived as it is in itself except by abstracting it from our own thought.

We, then, who open our eager eyes in the endeavour to discover, to know, to orient ourselves, to live in the midst of a known and familiar world; we, thinking beings, and not simply things of nature, beings who as such affirm our personality in the very act of saying We, we then are of less account than the earthworms which crawl along until they die unknown to the foot that crushes them. We are nothing because we do not belong to reality; we deceive ourselves into believing that we are doing something on our own account, but in truth we renounce every desire of doing or creating something original, something we might really call ours; and we abandon ourselves, we drift away confused with external reality and submerged under the irresistible current of its laws.

This conception of life, which I have given only in its barest outline, is a very common one. For thousands of years it has persisted in the philosophical field, the nourishment and the torment of the greatest intellects of humanity. But humanity could not rest satisfied with a world conceived in such a manner; with a world which, whether we call it nature or idea, is at bottom always nature. For by nature we understand not only that reality which is in space and time, but also every reality which is not the product of our will, nor the result in general of that spiritual activity, which in a manner peculiar to all human acts reveals a diversity of values, extending from the sublimity of heroism and of genius to the lowest depths of cowardice and to the gloom of sloth. Nor can it be considered as the product or result of a process; for it is immediate reality, original and immutable. In a world which is Nature, man is an intruder, a stranger without rights, without even real existence. As a being, he is destined to be suppressed; nay, he does not even exist. And his life, with all his aspirations, his needs, his claims, is but a fallacious illusion which will sooner or later collapse. Man cannot help succumbing in a world where there is no place for him. Therefore a more or less cloudy gust of pessimism lowers over the consciousness that has stopped at this conception of reality. Leopardi is the most eloquent expression of the intense misery to which man is condemned in such circumstances, or to which rather he condemns himself. He condemns himself because he has it in his power to conceive reality otherwise. For let him ponder seriously and he will succeed in convincing himself that the naturalistic conception of reality is absurd. Philosophy has so demonstrated this truth, that he who now strives eagerly to attain a moral point of view in harmony with established principles can no longer repeat that note of pessimism, can no longer assert that the world is nature, or that it is the eternal idea from which nature is derived and by which it is made intelligible. Such views are no longer tenable.

The teacher who, because of his lofty mission, claims the right of forming souls, of arousing those powerful moral energies which alone empower man to live as a human being, may not, must not be ignorant of the fact that the contention of naturalism, which makes of the world an abstract reality, presupposed by the human spirit and therefore anterior and indifferent to it, is a belief that has been superseded and surpassed by modern thought. The teacher too can easily grasp this view, for in gathering all the arguments by which, along different lines, the new conception of reality has been attained, we find that the whole matter reduces itself to a simple and very easy reflection. Very easy in itself, though it may seem difficult to the greater part of us,—to the superficial thinkers, to the absent-minded, to those who lack the strength necessary to face the great responsibility imposed upon us by the truth which is derived from this reflection.

For naturalism reduces itself to the affirmation that we think nature, but do not ourselves exist; nature alone exists. We do not exist and yet we think, and we think of nature as existing. We do not exist and yet nature exists, of whose existence we have no other testimony than our thoughts. And if thought is a shadow, what will reality then be? The “dream of a shadow,” in the words of the Greek poet. Is it possible for us to stop at this conclusion? It is possible for an inexistent thing to vouch for the existence of something which we know only from its attestations? Such is the absurd position we are forced into when we assume that Thought, in equipoise with reality, remains outside of it and leaves it out of its own self.

We give the name of realism to that manner of thinking which makes all reality consist in an external existence, abstract and separate from thought, and makes real knowledge consist in the conforming of our ideas to external things. By idealism on the other hand we mean that higher point of view from which we discover the impossibility of conceiving a reality which is not the reality of thought itself. For it reality is not the idea as a mere object of the mind, which therefore can exist outside of the mind, and must exist there in order that the mind may eventually have the means of thinking it. Reality is this very thought itself by which we think all things, and which surely must be something if by means of it we want somehow to affirm any reality whatsoever, and must be a real activity if, in the act of thinking, it will not entangle itself in the enchanted web of dreams, but will instead give us the life of the real world. If it is not conceivable that such activity could ever go forth from itself and penetrate the presumably existent world of matter, then it means that it has no need of issuing from itself, in order to come into contact with real existence; it means that the reality which we call material and assume to be external to thought is in someway illusory; and that the true reality is that which is being realised by the activity of thought itself. For there is no way of thinking any reality except by setting thought as the basis of it.

This is the conception, or, if you will, the faith, not only of modern philosophy, but of consciousness itself in general, of that consciousness which was gradually formed and moulded under the influence of the deeply moral sentiment of life fostered by Christianity. For it was Christ that first opposed to nature and to the flesh a truer reality,—not the world in which man is born, but that world to which he must uplift himself: that world in which he has to live, not because it is anterior to him, but because he must create it by his will: and this world is the kingdom of the spirit.

In accordance with this conception there is, properly speaking, no reality: there is a spirit which creates reality, which therefore is self-made and not the product of nature. The realist speaks of external existence, of a world into which man is admitted and to which he must adapt himself. But the idealist knows only what the spirit does, what man acts. A nature, ever at work in the progress of the spirit, throbs in the soul of man, who with his intellect and his will re-creates it by its restless, unceasing motion. It is a world which is never created, because the entire past flows and becomes actual in that form which is peculiar to it and in which it exists, namely, the present,—history in the incessant rhythm of its becoming, in the ever-living act of self-production.

On what side of the controversy should the teacher stand who means to absorb into his soul the life of the school? Will he with the realists believe in a reality which must be observed and verified? Or will he as an idealist trust that the only world is the one which is to be constructed by him; that in all this task he can rely only on the creative activity of the spirit that moves within us, ever unsatisfied with what is, incessantly aspiring for what does not yet exist, for what must come to be as being the only thing which deserves to exist and to fulfil life?

There are then these two ways of conceiving culture, the realistic and the idealistic. By the former we are led to imagine that man’s spirit is empty, and that no nourishment can come to it except from the outside world, from those external elements which he can acquire because they exist prior to the activity by which he assimilates them. The latter, admitting only what is derived from the developing life of the spirit, can conceive of culture solely as an immanent product of this very life, and separable from it only by abstraction.

It is evident that the ordinarily accepted view of educators to-day is realistic rather than otherwise. The ideal and therefore the historical origin of the school itself is intimately connected with the realistic presupposition. For the school begins when man for the first time becomes aware of the existence of a store of accumulated culture which should be protected from dispersion. Grammar, for instance, exists before the notion of teaching it arises. Men already possess a language when they make up their minds to teach it to their children. Self-taught and inventive genius, by new observation and discoveries, gives rise to new disciplines; and men, discovering the value of such disciplines, determine to institute a school where they may be cultivated and handed down to the coming generations. In general then, first comes knowledge; then the school as a depository of it. It may be granted that the progress of learning is made possible or at least accentuated by educational institutions; but the fact remains that the school is founded on pre-existing knowledge. Science, arts, customs must exist before they can be taught to others, and they do exist, but not in the spirit of the one who is to acquire them, who must appropriate them as they are in themselves. The Iliad exists: Homer sang: the poems attributed to him were collected into an epic from which we learn of the beliefs, of the aspirations, and of the memories that were dear to the ancient Greeks, and every cultivated person to-day must derive from them his own spiritual substance. The teacher shows to his pupils how best to read, how to understand that epic which is a treasure of the past bequeathed not only to the modern Greeks but to humanity in general. For we all profit from this inherited spiritual wealth in the same manner that every man that comes into the world enjoys the light and the heat of the sun which he surely did not kindle in heaven.

The fact that culture, as the subject matter of education, exists before the exercise of that spiritual activity which can be educated only through its means, seems to the realist a condition without which the school cannot arise. Only as culture develops and spreads does the school grow and expand; and, in the progress of civilisation, as culture becomes specialised, the school is correspondingly differentiated into institutions of ever-growing specialisation. For the school can but follow and reflect the advance of science, of letters, of art,—of humanity in general in all it strives to perpetuate.

All this evidently can be maintained only from the point of view of the realist. For him the school is concerned not with those that already know and therefore have no need of it, but for those who are still ignorant. For them it is instituted; it ministers to their needs, and is therefore adjusted in the direction in which it believes their spirit should be oriented. In the school of physicians, there is not medicine but the learning of it, for if the art of healing were already mastered as it seems to be in the case of the professors, there would be no need of a medical school. There is indeed the professor in the lecture room; but he is there only for the learners, and his role has no meaning except in relation to their needs. He is the possessor of science, and as such he teaches and does not learn. The school then is not the possession of culture, but the development of a spiritual life aspiring to this possession; and this aspiration is possible because of the existence of the teacher who has already mastered it, who possesses it, not as his own property, but as social wealth entrusted to him for the use of everybody. He himself is only an instrument of communication. Culture antedates him; it does so even when he is the author of it. For it is not possible for him to impart it to others until he has first elaborated it himself, and not until the merits of his contributions have been in part at least recognised by the world.

The school to the realist presupposes the library. The teacher needs books, plenty of books in order to increase his knowledge and thus become better acquainted with that world through which he has to pilot his pupils. In the books, then, in the long shelves, culture lives: in the innumerable volumes that no one ever hopes to read; in the shelves which contain a world of beautiful things, and so valuable that man, as Horace says, should spend sleepless nights in order to acquire them, should endure cold and heat, fatigue and sacrifice. For humanity, we are told, lives in those volumes to which the teacher must somehow link himself if he intends to advance properly, to live the life which our forefathers have generously endowed for us, and to protect our spiritual inheritance from dispersion. In this atmosphere he must live; he must plunge in that spiritual sea which rolls limitless across the centuries. The pupil looks out upon this ocean which allures every man who is born to the life of culture. At first he clings to the shore, dreads the water, and asks to be helped until he has at least become familiar with the element. Who will encourage the beginner to leave the dry land and plunge into the deep where he would meet sure destruction? He must first be trained in some sheltered cove, where protected from the violence of the tumultuous surf, from the might of the indivisible mass of the ocean, he may gradually learn the ways of the deep.

The student must accordingly begin with a definite book; he must be saved from the haunting power of the library, which draws the youthful mind towards every volume, towards every subject. In the multitude of books, not all of them read, not all of them readable, thought founders, sees nothing, thinks nothing, is unable to rest in any of the things which he imagines exist in the vast library shelves. He must choose. Let him select, say, Dante. He reads the Divine Comedy, the poem written by that great Italian who has been dead these six centuries and now rests at Ravenna, no longer mindful of his Francesca, of his magnanimous Farinata, of his kindly master Brunetto, or of Beatrice. Dante created his miraculous world, he breathed life into his characters, wrote the last line of his last canto, smiled in rapture at the divine beauty of his creation, now complete and perfect, and died. His manuscript was copied thousands of times; and after the discovery of printing, millions of copies were made. In one of these we now are able to find it, this divine poem, just as it was written,—for we want it exactly as it flowed from his pen without the change of a letter, without the omission of a comma. And this volume is an example of what exists in a library,—of the culture that teachers strive to find there, and thence communicate to their pupils!—something that belongs to the world, something which is a part of reality, which men therefore can grasp, if they want to, just as they can get to know the stars and the plants, and all things of nature. The Divine Comedy can be realistically conceived in respect to us who open the volume and prepare to read it, for the reason that it already exists and arouses our desire. If we had left it on the shelf where it was resting, it would have had exactly the same existence. What we find in the volume, as we read of that land of the dead which is much more living than all the living beings who surround us in our daily life, would all of it have been in that book, would have continued to be there, even if we had never opened it.

But is it really so? If we reflect a while we shall see that this is not the case. The book contains exactly what we find there, what we are capable of finding there, nothing more, nothing less. Different persons discover in it different things, but it is nevertheless obvious that for each individual the book contains only what he finds in it; and in order to be able to say that the book contains more than what a given reader discovers in it, it is necessary that some other person should find that something more; and that the text contains this additional beauty is only true for him who discovered it and for those who seek it after him.

Dante waited for centuries for De Sanctis to appear and to disclose the meaning of Francesca’s words. Therefore it has been said that to understand Dante is a sign of greatness. Abstractly considered, of course, the poet is what he is, but only in the abstract. In the concrete, Dante is the author whom we admire and appreciate proportionately to our power. For as we read the poem in accordance with our training, and the development of our personality, Dante is grafted on a trunk which did not exist before us, which, on the contrary, is our very life; and before this life is realised, evidently none of those things can be found there which actually come into being in the process of its realisation. So that if we had not read the book, far from its being true that everything we found in it would still continue to be there, nothing would remain of what we find in it, absolutely nothing.

We have said nothing of “what we find.” But if we consider the matter we shall see that what we find is everything; everything for me; everything for everybody. Only that can come out of a book which the reader with his soul and with his labours is capable of getting out of it; and in consequence of these labours and in virtue of his soul he is able to say that a certain book has a content. In fact, to return to our example, the Divine Comedy which we know, the only one which we can know, the only one which exists, is the one which lives in our souls, and which is a function of the criticism that interprets it, understands it, and appreciates it. That Divine Comedy therefore did not close the circle of its life on the day when Dante wrote the last line of the last canto; it continued to live, still continues to exist in the history, in the life of the spirit. Its life never draws to a close. The poem is never finished.

This is true of the poem of Dante; it is true of everything which we conceive of as inherited from our great predecessors, from those who built up the patrimony of human culture. Culture then is not before us, a treasure ready to be excavated from the depths of the earth, awaiting to be revealed to us. Culture is what we ourselves are making; it is the life of our spirit.

Abstract culture, on the contrary, is merely as realistically conceived. It slumbers in the libraries, in the sepulchres of those who lived, who passed away and created it once for all. It belongs to the past, to the things that have died. But the past, if we really mean to grasp it, if we want to see it close by as something that is and not merely as an abstraction, the past itself, becoming the present, made into that actuality which we call living memory, is history,—history constructed by us, meditated by us, re-created by us, in accordance with our abilities;—and with our powers of evocation we awaken the past from its slumber and breathe into it the life of the spiritual interests, of the ideas, of the sentiments that are, after all, the living substance in which the past really survives, in which it is real. In the same way the only culture that can be bestowed upon the spirit, the only one that admits of being concretely taught and learned, the only one that can be sought, because it is the only one that really exists, is idealistic culture. It is not in books, nor in the brains of others. It exists in our own souls as it is gradually being formed there. It cannot therefore be an antecedent to the activity of the spirit, since it consists in this very activity.

This must be the faith of all those who cannot bring themselves to believe that they are strangers in this world, and that they have come here to exercise a function which is not their own. For the world in general, and the sphere of culture in particular, is not completed when we arrive upon the scene. This is why human life has a value, why education is a mission.

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