August 25, 2009


What is civilization?: Everyone is in favour of civilization, but exactly what is it? A British intellectual has taken up the challenge of defining a very slippery concept. : a review of In Search of Civilization By John Armstrong (Francis Phillips, 24 August 2009, MercatorNet)

Armstrong picks his way carefully through these contradictions to provide his own definition: "Civilization is constituted by high-quality relationships to ideas, objects and people." Readers acquainted with the posted comments to Mercatornet articles will recognise the intense, even violent, arguments that ensue whenever general statements of this kind are made: who is this author to define high-quality relationships, my opinion is as valid as his -- Beethoven and Britney Spears (to use the author’s own example) cater for different tastes, neither superior nor inferior… and so on.

The author recognises that the modern democratic, rather than the past hierarchical and deferential, society will lead to this kind of intellectual anarchy. In effect, he is appealing to like-minded (high minded?) readers and as a reader I am very sympathetic to his thesis, even as I recall countless arguments with highly educated friends who completely reject anything that presupposes shared or objective truths. ("History is bunk", stated Henry Ford. "Religion is bunk" I was recently informed by a friend).

"Love", Armstrong continues, is the one-word version of the phrase ‘high quality of relationship’." The aim of civilization should be to make us love goodness, beauty and truth -- and the greater the freedom of ideas and behaviour in a society the greater our need for civilization. Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy, with its definition of "the best that has been thought and said", is quoted, as is Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, which first stated that a high degree of national wealth was necessary for a civilized society. Yet wealth alone is not enough: the core problem of the West, according to the author, is that "material prosperity has increased while spiritual prosperity hasn’t". What is this prosperity of the soul? A somewhat circular argument: the love of goodness, beauty and truth and their integration into our daily lives. He concludes: civilization occurs when a "high degree of material prosperity and a high degree of spiritual prosperity come together to mutually enhance one another."

And since only monotheism can render objective truths, there are rather few civilizations. And its religious nature is why the Left is barbarian.

-INTERVIEW: What Is Civilisation?: Why is civilisation an important idea? Is it about art, or is it a social and political concept, as suggested in the phrase 'the clash of civilisations'? Melbourne philosopher John Armstrong tackles some big questions. (Alan Saunders, 10/07/06, ABC: Philosopher's Zone)

Alan Saunders: Well, let's look at the big question that is going to be addressed in your series: the simple question of what is civilisation? I mean can we define it?

John Armstrong: I think we can, really quite well. Civilisation is fundamentally to do with two kinds of prosperity being integrated: the material prosperity of control over the environment, control over resources, and the ability to use those, to mould those to your ends and do things with them. That's the kind of material prosperity aspect. And then the other side of it is what I might call the imaginative prosperity, which is really to do with having good values and having good ends through your trying to use your resources well. And I think that the concept of civilisaton is just the idea of these two things being fully integrated and working very well together.

-REVIEW: of In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea by John Armstrong ( Felipe Fernández-Armesto, Times of London)
-REVIEW: of In Search of Civilization ( Noel Malcolm, Daily Telegraph)
-REVIEW: In Search of Civilization (Steven Poole, The Guardian)
-REVIEW: of In Search of Civilization (Elizabeth Speller, Financial Times)
-REVIEW: of In Search of Civilization (Fred Inglis, Times Higher Education Supplement)
-REVIEW: of In Search of Civilization (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 25, 2009 7:12 AM
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