Pre-History of the Culture Concept

Philipp Foltz, Discurso funebre pericles

The reality and experience of gravity precedes the development of the concept of gravity and the adoption of the word “gravity”. Similarly, the reality and experience of culture long precedes the development of the modern concept of culture and the adoption of the word “culture”.

Every human is not merely a biological being but also a social being. Every person is born into a particular context of social relationships. Every person learns how to behave and how to think in a manner that is particular to the social entity or entities of which the person is a part. While there are myriad definitions of ‘culture’, that which is cultural is distinct from that which is merely biological. Since so little is purely biological, every one of us is profoundly shaped by culture, whether we are conscious of this or not. In modern times, ‘culture’ has become a central concept in many social sciences. The complexity of cultural reality, together with the absence of any final external determinative authority, has led to myriad attempts to encapsulate the essentials of culture in pithy definitional statements. An analysis of culture and of cultural dynamics has become a very sophisticated enterprise which must consider a vast array of factors that play a part in explaining how humans can be so varied in how they view reality, in what they believe and value, and in the ways they think, act, speak and relate to others and the world around them.

We would not expect to find, and we do not find, such intensive and focused analysis of cultural reality until quite recent times. My interest in this paper is on locating conscious pre-modern attempts to articulate ideas that are relevant to and/or anticipate our contemporary conceptions of culture. What follows is not comprehensive but notes some of the major contributions in history up to and including Tylor’s famous definition of culture in 1871.


Ancient Chinese Foundations

Throughout much of Chinese history a basic distinction has been made between fa and li. Fa is conventionally translated as ‘law’, while li is conventionally translated as ‘rites’ or ‘rituals’, but with traditional customs, mores and norms in mind.[1] The relationship between fa and li is a complex one and much debated, complicated by the way these terms assume different meanings in different contexts. But it can be said that Chinese history has been characterised by two contrasting approaches to creating political order. One clear approach, termed fazhi, has been that of the State using coercive power to force people to conform to laws, which sometimes have flown in the face of traditional culture. The alternative Confucian approach, lizhi, seeks social and political order by especially appealing to what might be thought of as traditional cultural values.[2] Indeed, especially in Confucian thought, li approaches a concept of culture. As Nilar observes,

“The rites of li are not rites in the Western conception of religious custom. Rather, li embodies the entire spectrum of interaction with humans, nature, and even material objects. Confucius includes in his discussions of li such diverse topics as learning, tea drinking, titles, mourning, and governance.”[3]

The system of norms that constitute li govern a broad range of practices and involve ideal guidelines for behaviour, especially interpersonal interactions.[4] However, arguably, li falls short of a full conception of culture. It is a conservative conception which, given its stress on traditional customs, rituals and values, does not adequately allow for the dynamism of culture and the reality of cultural change.

Ancient Greek Foundations

The city-states of ancient Greece formed one pan-Hellenic community, despite adopting different political systems – democracies, oligarchies and aristocracies. Indeed, as Wooyeal and Bell remind us, Herodotus “defined the Hellenic body or unity as a community of race, a community of language, a community of religion, and a community of manners.”[5] Citizenship was of major importance to most if not all of the city-states. Typically, strict limits were placed on the number of citizens, with citizenship usually denied to foreigners. This was associated with a strong “attachment to one’s own geographically based political community.”[6]

In ancient Greece there were three words in particular which bear relation to what we now refer to as culture: nomos (often rendered ‘law’, as typically in the New Testament), ethos and paideia. This language was especially used with reference to the life of citizens in the polis which was of such central importance that the oikos or household, with its obligations, played second fiddle.[7] This stands in stark contrast to the marginalisation of citizenship and the primacy of the family and attendant obligations in ancient China.[8]


In the sixth century BC, the poet Pindar said “Nomos is king over all!” (nomos basileus panton). It is important to understand here that for the ancient Greeks the term nomos did not merely refer to the written “law” but also to the unwritten “law”, that is, to customs. So it is that in Pericles’ Funeral Oration as presented by Thucydides, Pericles states:

“We give our obedience to those whom we put in positions of authority, and we obey the laws themselves, especially those which are for the protection of the oppressed, and those unwritten laws which it is an acknowledged shame to break.”[9]

In the great play Antigone, Sophocles creates a scenario which sets such an unwritten law against a written law. Cleon regards Antigone’s dead brother Polynices as a traitor. He therefore legislates that his corpse be left exposed on the battlefield, prohibiting the performance of any sanctifying rituals. Antigone, knowing that to defy Cleon’s law means certain death, nevertheless feels compelled to do that which a higher law demands of her - to provide her brother with proper burial rites. Despite others imploring him to change his mind, Cleon implacably refuses to accept the validity of this unwritten law, with tragic results for himself as well as for others. By implication, a healthy society is one in which there is a harmonious relationship between written and unwritten laws and customs.

By Herodotus’ time nomos was used in three broad ways[10]:

  1. To refer to a written law enacted at a particular time.

  2. As standing in contrast to physis (‘nature’) and describing human behaviour that varies from society to society.

  3. To refer to what we would call ‘laws of nature’ – regularities in the working of the cosmos.

In particular, nomoi were effectively the rules which so strongly governed society that it was almost inevitable that the life of every individual would be shaped by traditional values and demands. The Ancient Greek use of the word nomos comes close to matching our modern concept of “culture”, since nomoi comprehended the laws, customs, institutions, traditions, way of life and ethos upon which every citizen depends.[11]

Ever since the sixth century BC, the Greeks had argued as to whether nature (phusis/physis) or convention (nomos) had primacy. In other words, the nature or nurture (culture) debate is ancient, though our modern approach to this matter is skewed by the fact that for the ancient Greeks ‘nature’ did not equate to naturalism in our modern sense. Indeed, they had a transcendent view of physis as denoting ‘the divine norms of the universe” from which the “norms of human and social behavior” were derived.[12] So, for the Greeks, the issue of primacy did not necessarily presuppose an antithesis between physis and nomos. Indeed, Heinimann observes that in the Hippocrates’ treatise named “On Airs, Waters and Places”, the two concepts are complementary.[13] However, Herodotus reveals that, after the Greeks defeated the Persians, while some attributed this victory to the influence of Greek nomoi, others, especially in aristocratic circles, believed that it was the Greek’s personal physis that made them such successful humans.[14]

For Plato and Aristotle nomoi is integral to the very nature of the polis. For them and thinkers like Protagoras and Thucydides, nomos served as a check on individuals, whose pursuit of personal interests and profit, threatened social cohesion.[15] Their views of nomoi were fashioned against the backdrop of Sophistic treatments of nomoi as being merely culturally conditioned and relative, a perspective they developed after the Greeks came into contact with other civilizations and were thereby exposed to different nomoi.[16] Sophistic views threatened the entire foundations of Greek morality, suggesting that even such categories as “good and evil, truth and error, justice and injustice were not divinely sanctioned or rooted in nature but were mere conventions created by human society on the basis of expediency or imposed by those with superior power.”[17] In the fifth century BC, Antiphon provides the longest discussion of the contrasting relationship between nomos and physis. This work, fragment 44, has been variously interpreted, but at the least he questions nomos, saying:

“In this we are made barbarians, the ones against the others; for by nature we are all organized in a similar way in all respects, barbarians and Greeks. You can observe the necessities of what is organized by nature in all humans, as it is provided by the same faculties for all of them; and in this there is neither barbarian nor Greek discriminated among us: we all breathe into the air by mouth and nostrils, we laugh when we are glad in our mind, and we weep when we are feeling distress; and by hearing we accept the sounds, and through brightness we see with our eyesight; and we are active with our hands, and we walk with our feet."

Antiphon actually begins with a conventional definition of justice as ‘not transgressing the nomoi of the city in which one is a citizen.’[18] Antiphon effectively adopts the stance of cultural relativism, because he sees such nomoi as being merely products of social agreement, whereas physis, ‘the things of nature’, denotes that which is ultimately necessary. As Antiphon saw it, “the majority of the things that are just according to nomoi are hostile to nature.” He notes that while people can hear and see because of nature, it is nomos that determines what objects it is appropriate for a person to hear and see.[19] Nevertheless, Antiphon should not be seen as completely rejecting nomos. He recognises, for example, that refraining from murder or repaying debts is not a natural necessity such as seeing with the eyes or hearing with the ears.[20] But nomos involves laws opposing murder and requiring the repayment of debts.[21]

In Plato’s Crito the perspectives of the imprisoned Socrates and his visiting friend Crito are contrasted.[22] Crito, the pragmatist, is “imprisoned” by his values: reputation (public opinion), property and physical life, which, since he regards this as an absolute value, causes him to fear death. Socrates, the idealist, is “free” because, though his body is imprisoned, his soul supremely values justice. Crito tries to save Socrates’ body, while Socrates endeavours to save Crito’s soul. Socrates holds the view that one person cannot directly damage another person’s soul. However, he can damage the nomoi upon which every citizen depends.

In Socrates’ view to be a human being is to be a citizen. A city is its citizens, its institutions, customs, laws, traditions and ways of life. Heraclitus had insisted that citizens defend their nomoi as if defending their city walls. This is so because while nomoi are imperfect and not firmly rooted in natural principles, they are to be treated with the same kind of respect and obedience as is due one’s parents. For every individual is raised by both parents and nomoi, which includes, for example, language.

Socrates believes that the “soul” or ordering principle of the city is its nomoi, its culture. While one cannot direct harm the soul of another, one can indirectly do this by undermining the city’s culture. For “the caretakers of custom are the souls of men who revere custom; customs are sustained by souls that cherish them - keep them alive.” It is nomoi, culture, that binds citizens together. An unjust act is one that undermines this culture, this social order. For without conventions, institutions and social structures such as language, life and dialogue would be impossible. Socrates sees these as providing the very conditions which made his own life and career possible. So, to undermine culture is to not only destroy one’s own enabling context but also the matrix and context of the lives and activities of others. While customs change, life without customs is impossible.

Even by bribing the guide in order to see Socrates, Crito has chipped away at the social order that makes friendship and conversation possible. Everything a citizen does either contributes to or detracts from the culture of city, its moral and social environment.


The word “ethics” derives from the Greek word ethos. In rhetoric ethos was the first mode of persuasion used by a rhetorician, establishing his moral competence, as well as perhaps his expertise and knowledge.[23] In such contexts as Greek tragedy or pictorial representation ethos might denote “character.” However, this word was also used to refer to “usage”, “custom” or “way of life.” In the LXX, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, this word is used in 1 Kings 18:28, which speaking of the Baal prophets, reads: “So they shouted louder and slashed themselves with swords and spears, as was their custom, until their blood flowed.” In John 19:40 the word is used to say that the wrapping of Jesus’ body with spices in strips of linen “was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.”


All of the above illustrates that the reality and experience of culture was very real in ancient Greece. The importance attached to paideia further reinforces this. This is a word which approximates our modern words “enculturation” and “socialisation.” Paideia was the classical Greek system used to educate and train people from childhood so that they might assume their rightful place in the polis. Such “enculturation” included mousike and physical education. Mousike meant activities inspired by the muses, encompassing tragedy, comedy, elegy, oratory, music [in our sense], dance, natural history, history of society and astronomy.[24] So paideia involved extensive development of body and mind and we can add to the foregoing list such things as gymnastics, grammar, rhetoric, poetry, mathematics, geography, physical sciences, ethics, and philosophy,[25] though, significantly, not the visual arts.[26]

Paideia did not merely refer to the process of education but also to the end or result of the process.[27] This is because, as Jaeger points out, “Human nature and reason are the pillars of Greek culture.”[28] Consequently, the Athenians especially sought to develop the humanity of their citizens, to bring about morphosis, ‘the formation of man’, something that was to resonate within later Christianity with its emphasis on transformation of character.[29] It was understood that if Greek civilization was to flourish, as intended[30], that it was necessary to produce human beings who were competent to exercise “direct, active political responsibility in the popular assembly.”[31] But this presupposed “one of the most powerful human instincts upon which all education and progress depends, the instinct of imitation,” that is, conformity to an “ideal pattern of humanity.”[32] In the minds of Plato and Aristotle, nothing less than soteria, the very ‘salvation’ of society is contingent upon the realization of this goal.[33]


As we continue to consider early historical developments, we are particularly interested in those reflections of ‘otherness’ which involve a significant degree of reflection upon the nature of the differences found among those who are not like ‘us.’ For example, it is true that barbaros was used by Greeks to denote ‘others’, but it hard to find examples of this word’s usage that involve any substantial analysis of cultural dynamics and difference. This term was certainly used in a pejorative manner to denote those inferior to ‘us.’ But this was by no means a necessary use. At its most rudimentary level it simply recognised the fact that the other spoke another language. Herodotus used the term in a neutral fashion to refer to those who were not Greek. In a similar manner, we see Paul using the term in a neutral fashion in 1 Corinthians 14:11 to simplify signify a foreigner who speaks a language we don’t understand. Further, in Acts 28:1-10 the term is used twice in a context where Luke speaks in a highly positive manner about the Maltese as barbaroi. Herodotus recognised that the Egyptians had their own equivalent word for ‘barbarian’ to refer to all people who spoke a language other than their own.[34]

Herodotus wrote about the customs practised by non-Greeks he encountered as he traveled in Asia, Egypt and Greece.