March 2011

Guy Cunningham


In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong

John Armstrong sets a difficult task for himself in his latest book, In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Right up front he acknowledges that, “with the possible exception of God, civilization is the grandest, most ambitious idea that humanity has devised.” All the same, the word makes a lot of people uncomfortable, due to its past associations with colonialism and imperialism. Unlike some of his fellow philosophers, however, Armstrong is unwilling to give up on “civilization” as an ideal, seeking instead to redefine the term in a way that emphasizes its greatest strengths while rescuing it from the “bad company” it has sometimes kept.

In his telling, “Civilization is a life-support system for high quality relationships” built around the virtues wisdom, kindness, and taste, and its primary value is that it helps us “become better versions of ourselves.” This is a personal matter for Armstrong -- he evinces a love of art and beauty that can be quite moving. He explains that he undertook this project partially in response to a conference organized by the Getty Institute where scholar after scholar asserted, “civilization could no longer be regarded as a particularly important idea.” Armstrong rejects this, explaining that he felt as if “I were being told -- in the politest and most erudite way -- that what I love is not important.”

Despite Armstrong’s efforts, though, some readers may reject his entire project out of hand on the grounds that “civilization” is too vague a term with too chequered a history. And the author fails to directly address any specific critics of “civilization,” which is disappointing. The book is also quite Eurocentric -- though Armstrong writes adroitly about some non-European practices, most strikingly a Japanese tea ceremony, he is most interested in discussing canonical Western figures such as Thomas More, Adam Smith, and Aristotle. And his attacks on a “decadent cultural elite,” a group he says has failed to preserve and promote our artistic and cultural achievements, are often too broad and unfocused.

Fortunately, Armstrong is no Culture Warrior. His “decadent elites” are academics that study narrow, arcane topics at the expense of pushing back against the “barbarism” that pervades modern life. Taking his cues from Matthew Arnold, who labeled the aristocratic class of his own day “Barbarians,” Armstrong defines barbarians not as outsiders, but as people with “a high degree of material prosperity but no corresponding spiritual prosperity.” In this context, barbarism is “unbridled, unprincipled power” used in “the absence of reason.” In a sense, Armstrong’s chief targets are the kind of people you might call boors -- those that live unfulfilling lives built around mindless consumption -- and those who refuse to call them on their boorishness.

But Armstrong spends far more time praising beautiful things than he does criticizing boorish ones. And he has a great ability to make what he loves come alive for the reader. This is most evident when he lingers upon a simple Japanese tea ceremony: “the drinking of tea is itself a respite -- a self-conscious moment of idleness -- away from the demands and constraints of duty and business. It should be a quietly convivial occasion; and part of its meaning is that life cannot always be like this.” More than a chance to rest, this respite shows us, “we can take fairly minor ordinary activities and raise them to a higher meaning.” This is accomplished by seriousness of purpose; Armstrong wants us to invest all experience with the seriousness with which an artist invests her work.

This seriousness can often be downright countercultural, such as when he examines the reading habits of the artist Poussin. In contrast to contemporary readers, who have a limitless digital library available to them online, the painter is said to have owned only nineteen books, which he reread continuously. Armstrong calls this a “beguiling” situation, and meditates on the virtues of rereading: “Rereading [books] allows for the thoughts in them and one’s own thoughts to grow together; for the secrets of the works to be carefully and slowly appraised, for the content to be thought over and thought through.” The point is not that the reader should emulate Poussin and limit oneself to only a handful of books, but that Poussin’s example offers an inspiration for us to reread more ourselves.

In the end, Armstrong’s core belief -- that people should work to cultivate “qualities that inspire,” namely goodness, beauty, and truth, because “when we love these qualities we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness, and taste” -- will resonate with a lot of readers. After all, kindness and wisdom are certainly good things to aspire to. Even if Armstrong doesn’t fully establish his definition of civilization as the definitive one, he makes a good case that “civilization” as an idea is still far from obsolete.

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong
Graywolf Press
ISBN: 1555975801
208 Pages