The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Philistinism is a derogatory term used to describe a particular attitude or set of values. When a person is called a Philistine (in the relevant sense), he is said to despise or undervalue art, beauty, intellectual content, and/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 (i.e. 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.

A Philistine in Old Testament terms was a pagan inhabitant of the southwestern coastal cities of Canaan, such as Gaza. The Philistines were the neighbors and enemies of the Hebrews. The word came from Hebrew pelishtim, the people of 'Pelesheth' ('Philistia'). The word Philister (Luther's translation) was taken up in German student slang, supposedly first in Jena in the late 17th century, as a dismissive term for the townspeople (compare the American college slang, 'townies,') It is said that at a memorial service for a student killed in a town-gown clash, the minister took for his text the words of Delilah to Samson,'The Philistines be upon thee, Samson!' .

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.

Compare barbarian, boor , churl, vulgarian , yahoo.

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Last updated: 05-07-2005 16:52:49
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04