Barbarians At The Gate?

Philistines are people who have something to be embarrassed about but nevertheless do not feel embarrassed. In common usage a philistine ought to feel embarrassed primarily because he lacks “culture”: cultivated taste in prestigious leisure activities. This usage proves self-defeating in societies that are pluralistic about leisure, as I will explain. Must we, then, abandon the pejorative label altogether?


No. It is important to be clear about the kinds of people that we should not want to be. And with sincere apologies to the Aegean “Sea People” who landed in Egypt in the 12th century B.C.E., I think that the modern pejorative usage of “philistine” is ripe for evolution. I will elaborate on how I think it ought to be used in what follows.       

Let me first explain why I think that the most common usage proves self-defeating in societies that maintain leisure pluralism.

Consider, by contrast, a society that is not pluralistic about leisure, one that has a normative hierarchy of social classes and associated leisure activities. In such a society elites and non-elites alike will tend to agree that the elites have lives worthy of admiration (including their distinctive leisure activities). Think, for instance, of the court society surrounding an early modern monarch: classical concerts, ballroom dances, plays, all attended in elaborate gowns and wigs.

It is entirely appropriate for elites under these circumstances to identify and denigrate as philistines those who are conspicuously beneath them (who have crude, common taste) or those who are against them (who are hostile or indifferent to their forms of leisure). Status at court – with its norms of leisure and etiquette – is derived from proximity to the king. A philistine is most distant from the king, or an enemy of the king’s court. Disparaging someone by labeling him a philistine in this context is a political act that makes sense given the political order.  

If this seems immediately obnoxious to you it is probably because we do not live in such a society. In American society, neither wealth, political power, family history, nor even higher education makes a person’s life presumptively admirable. As a result, the leisure activities of the wealthy, powerful, aristocratic, and highly educated have no claim to superiority. People who present themselves or are presented to the public as paragons at the top of some normative hierarchy are as likely to be mocked as they are to be admired.

To the extent that a person has time for leisure in contemporary American society he will feel no compunction whatsoever about how he chooses to spend it. He might engage in a variety of leisure activities: play tennis, contemplate metaphysics, go fishing, learn Talmud, collect comic books, go to art galleries, attend lectures, watch all of the films and TV shows made by David Lynch, reenact historical wars, taste wines, and so on. Or he may use the time simply to rest: nap on a hammock, float in a pool, smoke a joint and listen to dub music, take a walk, watch TV flicking aimlessly through the channels, and so forth.

Different subcultures and groups in America appraise these options differently and there is no mutually agreed upon perspective from which to render a definitive appraisal. Thus there is pluralism about leisure in America.

A person who unselfconsciously labels others philistines in the traditional sense – as uncultured dolts – has something to be embarrassed about in this environment. He should be embarrassed about the fact that he holds to his superiority despite lacking a justification that anyone outside of his own clique would be willing to accept. He should be at least a little self-conscious of the fact that he looks like a coiffed buffoon to many of the people who appraise his cultured pomp very differently.

If he nevertheless fails to feel the appropriate embarrassment then it is he who is in some sense the philistine. This is how the common usage proves self-defeating.

In a pluralistic society where no one agrees about what are the highest leisurely pursuits, the canonical texts, the most fundamental beliefs, the best way to live, etc., the philistine is the person who is not sufficiently embarrassed by the contingency and “unjustifiability” of his particular preferences.

The philistine in our time is a person who lacks awareness of his own relative absurdity.

A philistine adage is: “I do not apologize for myself.” Or, “I make no apologies for who I am.”

In social life each person encroaches on every other with his weird world of preferences, affiliations, aversions, and other often inexplicable motivations. We should all be at least a little bit apologetic for it. We should all step gently with just a modicum of general embarrassment about the things that are important to us that we will never be able to explain adequately, let alone justify, to others.

It is not that you should avoid being absorbed in obscure connoisseurship or any other passionate pursuits, lest you slip into philistine self-satisfaction. The point is that there should always be some acknowledgment of idiosyncrasy when you finally emerge and come into contact with others.

In general, the easiest way to accomplish this is with a good sense of humor, especially when it is appropriately self-deprecating. But it is also worth somehow communicating your appreciation to others: “I know how ridiculous I must seem given that you do not share my preferences, obsessions, worldview, etc., and I appreciate your indulgence.”

Where this sentiment is communicated reciprocally among most members of a pluralistic society there is reason enough to call it “enlightened.” It is especially enlightened if this sentiment is communicated reciprocally with respect to the widest range of preferences, beliefs, affiliations, and aversions.

The philistine gets in the way of this enlightenment.

Don’t be a philistine. 

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