Supplement on Causes in Culture

(Supplemental to A Thomistic Account of History)

Since knowledge of culture is the proper and highest object of history as part of moral scientia, as was said above, an investigation of causes in human culture is necessary to complete this account of history. But first a few qualifications. Since a culture is defined by its idea of human flourishing, in so far as that idea changes over time, so does the culture. Hence the need for periodization in the study of culture, although no periodization can be particularly precise because human affairs do not admit of precision; it seems, for example, that the different understandings of human flourishing between Old and Middle Kingdom Egypt, in so far as we understand them correctly, indicate that periodization of Egyptian history does reflect a genuine shift in what human flourishing was thought to be. Likewise, no social group perfectly shares the same idea of human flourishing either through time or at any given time, so an account of culture is partly an account of the differing ideas of human flourishing within a culture. But the very fact that they are within a given culture indicates that these differing ideas share essential similarities. The different periods of Ancient Egyptian history, for example, are recognizably Ancient Egyptian in a way that the periods after the Islamic conquest are not, despite the fact that these later periods have the earlier periods as part of their causes. (If this were not the case, then knowledge of a given culture or society through time would be impossible.)

The material causes of a culture are what make that culture possible, both at its origins and at any given period; this is chiefly human nature, the given human population, its environment, particular actions and things made, and cultural and material inheritance from predecessors.

A culture is a group’s way of realizing its idea of flourishing through an ordering of habits and actions, and this is the formal cause of the given culture. Now, within this way ordered to an idea of flourishing are many habits, and among these, some are higher than and more determinative of others. A group’s understanding of the gods or nature, for example, and its ways of living in a given environment exercise profound influence on the culture and thus are most determinative of the group’s habits. The habits highest and most determinative are those that either are caused in some way by things higher than humanity (supernatural, natural, etc.) or are simply outside this social group’s control (environment, invasion, cultural inheritance, etc.) or those that are caused by what the social group considers to be higher than humanity or outside the group’s control. A group’s considerations of these matters are sometimes the most determinative, sometimes not; this is because beneath their consideration of a thing lies the real thing itself with a real nature which they may not understand; so, their culture may be affected by the real nature of the thing without their being aware of it. For example, Egyptian culture was affected by the fact that the Nile River is not a god and so cannot answer prayers or be relied on to respond to sacrifice, even though the Egyptians did not know this; the Egyptians, thinking the river a god, would respond to the Nile’s lack of answering prayers in certain ways, and those responses shaped Egyptian culture in certain respects.

Second to these, the group’s idea of human flourishing specifies which other aspects of culture are more determinative than others for that group. In general, these are of two kinds, as human beings create their own order either, first, in themselves or, second, in things external to them. Thus, with respect to the order human beings have created in themselves, there are those habits either in some way caused by what members of that social group do and have done (family, organizations and institutions, skills, communication, inquiry, particular acts, etc.) or those in some way caused by what members of that social group consider that its members do and have done. Then, with respect to the order human beings have created in things external to them, there are those habits either caused in some way by what members of that social group have made (texts, art, craft, engineering, things destroyed, etc.) or by how members of that social group consider what its members have made.

The final cause of this culture is human flourishing as the members of the culture understand it. This is related to human flourishing in general as an inquiry is related to its object.

The efficient cause is hard to specify in any one case, but it is that whereby a social group comes to develop its particular means of reaching its particular understanding of flourishing. History as a narrative of great deeds is chiefly a study of efficient causes.

— Return to A Thomistic Account of History.

About Timothy Kearns

Timothy Kearns received his PhD (2014) and MA (2007) from the Center for Medieval and Byzantine Studies at The Catholic University of America and his BA in Classics from University of Texas at Austin (2001).

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