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"[M]arx would have called Flaubert a bourgeois in the politico-economic sense and Flaubert would have called Marx a bourgeois in the spiritual sense; and both would have been right since, Flaubert was a well-to-do gentleman in physical life and Marx was a philistine in his attitude towards the arts" --Lectures on Literature (1980) by Nabokov

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Philistinism is a derogatory term used to describe a particular attitude or set of values. A person called a Philistine (in the relevant sense) is said to despise or undervalue art, beauty, intellectual content, or spiritual values. Philistines are also said to be materialistic, to favor conventional social values unthinkingly, and to favor forms of art that have a cheap and easy appeal (e.g. kitsch).


Philistinism affords a contrast to Bohemianism, as the character of a smugly conventional bourgeois social group perceived to lack all the desirably soulful 'bohemian' characteristics, especially an artistic temperament and a broad cultural horizon open to the avant-garde. To the chosen few, the 'Philistines' embodied a smug, anti-intellectual threatening majority, in the 'culture wars' of the 19th century.

Goethe had several comments on the type. "The Philistine not only ignores all conditions of life which are not his own but also demands that the rest of mankind should fashion its mode of existence after his own", and "What is a philistine? A hollow gut, full of fear and hope that God will have mercy!"

Jonathan Swift applied the term to a gruff bailiff in a lawsuit, and Richard Brinsley Sheridan applied the term to one of his characters, 'that bloodthirsty Philistine, Sir Lucius O'Trigger,' in The Rivals, 1775, but 'Philistine' really came to have its modern English secondary meaning, of a person deficient in the culture of the Liberal Arts beginning in the 1820s.

Matthew Arnold was the champion of Victorian 'high culture' countering the forces of the Philistines. In his Essays in Criticism (1865) he pointed out (in his essay on the German poet Heinrich Heine) that "'Philistine' must have originally meant, in the mind of those who invented the nickname, a strong, dogged, unenlightened opponent of the children of the light." In fact German students applied it to the long-suffering townspeople of university towns. In another context Arnold wrote, 'The people who believe most that our greatness and welfare are proved by our being very rich... are just the very people whom we call the Philistines.' From his example, 'Philistine' passed into the enlightened liberal's armament of cultural scorn.

Vladimir Nabokov associated with philistinism the prudish attitude of accusing works of art to be obscene, and described a philistine as a "full-grown person ... whose essential nature is anti-artistic," and whose mentality is formed of the stock ideas and conventional ideas of his or her group and time", adding that "generally speaking, philistinism presupposes a certain advanced state of civilization where throughout the ages certain traditions have accumulated in a heap and have started to stink".

Historical Philistines

The Philistines were an advanced culture relative to their contemporary Canaanite neighbours. The Philistines were not indigenous to the region: they may have (according to general, though not fully substantiated theory) been part of a larger group known as the 'Sea Peoples' who made war on Egypt and lost – eventually settling just outside Egypt's sphere of influence. Modern archaeology in Israel has shown that Philistine urban structure, commercial complexity and technology (pottery/iron) were all more advanced than that of other contemporary Canaanites. Most telling of all comes from 1 Samuel where the Jews (still a Bronze Age society) describe the resentment of trading-dependence with the Philistines for obtaining and re-sharpening of iron agricultural tools. This command of iron (and unwillingness to trade iron weaponry) allowed the far smaller Philistine culture to survive the perpetual warfare with their Hebrew neighbors. Their culture could not withstand the Assyrian and later Babylonian expansions into Canaan, however, after which they disappeared as a cohesive cultural group.

See also

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