The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

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The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

The Independent Voice of Southern Methodist University Since 1915

The Daily Campus

SMU professor Susanne Scholz in the West Bank in 2018.
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Sara Hummadi, Video Editor • May 18, 2024

The non-traditional Wild West

Professor John O’Malley of Georgetown University addressed SMU staff and students Thursday evening on the subject of his award-winning book, “Four Cultures of the West.”

The lecture, co-sponsored by the Dean of Research and Graduate Studies and the Medieval Studies Program, focused on four important cultures that illustrate the Western society of both the past and present.

O’Malley described his reference to culture as “a configuration of values, assumptions, symbols and style.”

The first culture is the prophetic. The prophetic culture is characterized by the avocation of societal change. In this category, O’Malley identifies great historical figures from Moses to Martin Luther King Jr. Examples of the culture’s values are justice and purity.

The Academic culture, embodied by people such as Aristotle and Einstein, consists of “pursuing an idea, esteeming a good argument, and unmasking a bad argument.” Universities are testaments to this culture and represent institutions of “remarkable resistance and longevity.” The Academic culture advocates truth, rationality and professional skills.

O’Malley’s third culture is the Humanistic culture, illustrated by poetry, rhetoric and public service. Winston Churchill is a somewhat contemporary example of someone who falls into this category. The goal of this culture is to promote the common good. It works toward wisdom, unity and a better society.

Finally, the culture of Art and Performance is one that has been threatened by the Protestant Reformation’s restructuring of rituals. Its purpose is to “touch the spirit” in an attempt to convey the “ineffable.” O’Malley stated that we cannot live without ritual.

“What’s dumber than a parade?” he asked. “It doesn’t translate into words, yet it’s extremely important.”

O’Malley emphasized that these are not the four cultures of the west, but rather four important cultures that help us understand how western civilization reached the point it is at today. They evolved from being Christian-oriented to becoming more secular. O’Malley asks his readers “to look at certain important influences” rather than regard these cultures as the sole influences of western history.

Certain values may appear in more than one of the four cultures, but may only configure one. Similarly, some people fit into more than one culture, some in none.

O’Malley explains, “Cultures are partners and rivals.” They influence one another but also confront each other at times.

O’Malley, a Jesuit priest, received his doctorate degree from Harvard University. He has taught at Harvard, University of Michigan, Boston College, Fordham University and Oxford University. His honors include a Guggenheim Fellowship, a fellowship in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and membership on the American Philosophical Society. He has served as president of the Catholic Historical Society and the Renaissance Society of America.

Apart from “Four Cultures of the West,” O’Malley has written three other books and close to 100 scholarly articles.

O’Malley admitted that the subject of “Four Cultures of the West” seemed acceptable for classroom discussion, but he was apprehensive about publishing it for peers to criticize.

“I still get very nervous about it,” he said.

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