Cultural Anemia

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Francesco Occhetta, SJ

 Francesco Occhetta, SJ / Issue 2002 / 13 February 2020

Anemia is a blood-depleting condition that keeps sufficient oxygen from reaching body tissue. “Cultural Anemia” is a concept used to describe the arrogance and superficiality that traverse our society which are among the causes of both a certain anti-educational phenomenon and the loss, for politics, of its true identity, which is the service of the common good.

The Church tries to promote cultural commitment. However, because of the prejudices some people never abandon, she is misunderstood in this effort. If she calls attention to history, she is accused of being fixated on the past; if she theologically rethinks her pastoral praxis, she is accused of abstractionism; if she seeks critical dialogue with philosophies and the sciences, of useless academia; if she argues for a return to critical thought, of dangerous subversion. In short, there is much mistrust every time the Church tries to endow her presence with a cultural nerve.[1]

This observation can be combined with the perspectives of Massimo Cacciari.[2] According to the Venetian philosopher, we are experiencing a change of epoch. Although we have witnessed the collapse of the Soviet empire, global transformations in economic and political status quos, including the resurgence of China and India, the great European cultures – social-democratic, Christian-popular and liberal – remain tied to their values and judgments. But the new status quo considers these values to be prejudices.

A major educational problem has therefore arisen, that of the formation of the ruling class. In the past, they came through universities that exercised a cultural hegemony. But today is the time of anemia. Cacciari, who says he is a non-believer, sees in the work of the Church (discussions, debates, dialogue, polemics) the engine of a renewed Europe that cannot do without Christianity, a non-clerical-conservative Christianity that is serenely open to the signs of the times, without extremism, capable of enlivening a culture that is currently unwilling to propose radical forms.

However, a major problem arises here. Today’s culture is often only a generator of illusory promises, which aims not at “happiness,” but at fun and entertainment. Here culture loses its classical meaning and becomes a synthesis of communication, information and entertainment, a tool of domination, a way to make us accept in everyday life what this synthesis preaches and advertises.[3] Goffredo Fofi speaks of cultural opium and the narcissistic dimension as typical aspects of the current human condition: “I think, I write, I act, I film, I draw, I sing, I blog, I have a website – a drug whose diffusion is at its maximum – and this is enough for me to delude myself that I am someone, that I exist because I AM”[4]. Such an attitude faintly echoes something of what was for the classical Enlightenment the rejection of any tradition.

But while in the previous period of the Enlightenment this rejection was accompanied by joyful confidence in the progress of history and humanity, today’s human being, who carries the memory of the tragedies of the last century, is not deluded about the future and, under the drug of culture, coexists – the expression is Gaetano Pecora’s – with an “unenchanted pessimism,” be it radical or moderate. The radical one fixes the human person in evil, in an evil experienced as inescapable; the moderate one does not deny the reality of progress, but always bears in mind the threat of its collapse.[5]

Even so, this pessimism does not affect the fundamental legacy of liberal-democratic culture, which is the dominant one: the dignity of the individual, which generates legal tolerance, the conviction that there is something inviolable in every person, what in the past used to be called the “shrine of conscience.” Whatever their beliefs, the individual is held sacred and, as such, must be protected.[6] On this point there is a clear convergence of liberal, Catholic and socialist cultures.

A culture that is no longer all-encompassing

Talk about culture in general terms today is something of a bad habit. Our times now know the separation that the very rapid technological progress has established between humanistic culture (the culture of past centuries) and technical culture. Commenting on a small volume by the Latinist Ivano Dionigi, Carlo Carena writes: “An all-encompassing culture has become impossible and even rejected, and the concordia discors, the harmony of fields of knowledge has been broken, and is now considered impossible for anyone. Dionigi observes with great finesse that technology, born as an ally of science as an aid to humanity, today is no longer an instrument but an entity that invades and pervades, perfects and surpasses the human being and nature, guaranteeing that nothing is any longer impossible.”[7]

This is certainly one of the sources of cultural anemia. And today we are increasingly aware of it. “Knowledge about the human person has become increasingly partial, compartmentalized, marked by the disjunction between the spiritual and the material, the brain and the mind. As Heidegger said, never before has there been so much knowledge about the human person as today, and never before has so little been known about what human beings are. Our age knows the delirium of fanaticism, which multiplies, the madness of illusions that are believed to be rational, the blindness of a purely technical and economic rationality that ignores the profound realities of the human being.

It is on these apparently antagonistic but complementary fronts in the propagation of an immense blinding blanket that a humanist conscience must be more vigilant and militant than ever before. The mission of humanism is therefore to react against the dominant contemporary conception that maintains that every solution is of a technical nature and that ignores the anthropological importance of the imaginary, of myth, of religion.”[8]

The urgency of a humanistic regeneration becomes clearer to those who consider the mortal dangers that besiege humanity today: the proliferation of nuclear weapons, political-religious fundamentalism, internationalized civil wars, the degradation of our environment, the deregulation of the economy advocated by an unbridled financial speculation. The lack of harmony of religion with a secularized society highlights the more general cultural decline of contemporary Europe, which had been formed over the centuries by Christianity, and now unconsciously appeals to a return tithe values from which it was born. This, as we have seen, is the intuition of Massimo Cacciari.[9]

A Catholic of great culture, Carlo Ossola, speaks of the “sleepy grayness of our time” and of “a humanity so entirely secularized, deprived of any idea of ulteriority and of any question about itself, of any dream of salvation or nightmare of damnation, of any memory and trace left by belief.”[10] A situation that, projected into the near future, leads Massimo Firpo to think about the next triumph of liquid society, technology, smartphones, social and online consumerism.

The phenomenon of cultural anemia, which is then a vast spiritual crisis, shines an even more unfavorable light if one takes into account the prediction of Adrian Pabst, Professor of Politics at the University of Kent and scholar of the limits of liberal democracy.[11]

It seems, in fact, the form of participatory democracy embraced by the West  after the last world war is giving way to the concentration of power in small, unrepresentative groups with no duty of responsibility toward the citizen. There is therefore talk of a decline in popular political participation and the increasing influence of multinational companies connected with national governments.

To express this evolution, the term “post-democracy” is used, which contains in itself the disturbing concepts of either reversed totalitarianism or the emptying out of democratic politics.

The probable drift of liberal democracy toward oligarchy obviously leads to the tendency of the representatives of the people to constitute themselves as a self-referential minority, in which the holders of political power come from exclusive socio-economic groups, which leads to self-interested governments unaware of the long-term needs of the majority of society.

Three risks induced by such a drift are foreseeable. Firstly, an oligarchy strengthens the executive power at the expense of parliament. Secondly, populism and demagogy can be reborn as a reaction against the oligarchy. Thirdly, the weakening of social and civic ties can degenerate into anarchy. Pabst concludes: “My thesis is not that democracy is becoming equal to dictatorship, but rather that it is changing in the direction of new forms of illiberal authoritarianism.”[12]

It goes without saying that, in addition to the risks already described, there may also be the malicious exploitation of popular sentiments and the manipulation of opinions to an increasing extent, perhaps even exacerbating the much abused freedom of choice. Post-democracy knows how to manipulate the majority, even if it has no interest in imposing itself by force.

Treating anemia

The many shadows that thicken on our age, on its own extraordinary progress and success and on its too exclusively techno-scientific evolution can be easily denounced. It is more difficult to dissipate the many and polymorphous causes that generate and feed them.

Whatever the interpretations of analysts, whatever their ideological motivations, the general observation that our time suffers from cultural anemia seems to meet with widespread agreement. We have collected above some texts that express concern about this phenomenon that involves the whole West.

To treat an anemia that threatens to bring the end of an era, it seems to many thinkers that vigorous therapy is necessary, and it is identified both in a regular humanistic regeneration and in a re-education in its values. And there is no lack of those who place among these values those very particular ones that are derived from the Christian tradition.

The hope is that, at least, one will be convinced of the reality of the problem, and not let oneself be led supinely by the culture of narcissistic individualism and of the spectacle and return to thinking and behaving according to Spinoza’s famous phrase, which is the rule for those who want to save themselves from superficiality: “Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed solum intelligere” (“Do not laugh, do not mock, do not pity, do not hate, but only understand in depth”).

To understand in depth (intelligere as intus legere) is a disposition of mind and an exercise that strictly depends on humanistic training.


DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 4, no. 02 art. 5, 0220: 10.32009/22072446.0220.5

[1] Cf. M. Naro, “Il rischio dell’anemia culturale” in Feeria, 2018, No. 54, 14f.

[2] Cf. Oss. Rom., July 19, 2019, 3f.

[3] Cf. G. Simonetti, “La cultura come droga leggera” in Il Sole 24 Ore, August 11, 2019, 24.

[4] Ibid.; cf. G. Fofi, L’oppio del popolo, Milan, elèuthera, 2019.

[5] Cf. G. Pecora, “Il progresso e le scelte degli individui” in Il Sole 24 Ore, June 9, 2019, 25; G. Bedeschi, Declino e tramonto della civiltà occidentale, Soveria Mannelli (Cz), Rubbettino, 2019.

[6] Cf. G. Pecora, “Stato laico, sacralità dell’individuo” in Il Sole 24 Ore, September 15, 2019, 23.

[7] C. Carena, “Nell’epoca di twitter serve un nuovo umanesimo” ibid., July 28, 2019, 19; I. Dionigi, Osa sapere, Milan, Solferino, 2019.

[8] M. Ceruti – E. Morin, “Una rigenerazione dell’umanesimo” in Il Sole 24 Ore, October 13, 2019, 24.

[9] Cf. M. Campus, “Il (minor) peso dei culti nell’edificio europeo” ibid., October 20, 2019, 31.

[10] Cf. M. Firpo, “Dieci secoli di fede in Occidente” ibid., October 27, 2019, 23; C. Ossola, Dopo la gloria. I secoli del credere in Occidente, Rome, Treccani, 2019.

[11] Cf. Pabst, “L’Occidente va verso un dispotismo democratico?” in Vita e Pensiero 102 (2019/4) 26-33.

[12] Ibid., 27.