In the time of Cicero — think togas and Rome, and a Pompeii yet to buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius — the word “culture” had romantic and optimistic connotations, meaning a cultivation of the soul. But thanks to some pretty bleak events to follow — persecutions and diasporas, the death of Christ, the Dark Ages, plagues — by the 17th century, the word had taken on a slightly more judgmental tone.
As Tulane philosophy Prof. Richard Velkley puts it, the word eventually came to refer “to all the ways in which human beings overcome their original barbarism, and through artifice, become fully human.”
Today, we use culture to describe many a thing that neither Cicero nor Rousseau would probably understand. Ke$ha comes to mind.