Go Forth and Prosper


In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

John Armstrong

Graywolf Press, 2011, 208 pp., $24.00


By Peter Lopatin


As the subtitle of John Armstrong’s latest book suggests—and correctly so—the notion of “Civilization” has lately fallen into disrepute and desuetude in intellectual and academic circles. Hostility to “civilization” as an intellectual theme and substantive desideratum arises, Armstrong argues, because the very concept bears the implication that, in some important if ill-defined way,  a civilized society is superior to an uncivilized one—an irritating and even repugnant notion to many a liberal arts professor.

A further layer of tarnish consists in the association of civilization with societies that have achieved a higher level of material and technological development than others (“more factories, more guns”), which then used their attendant power to assert moral superiority and lordship over the uncivilized: “The root of the problem appeared to be that the idea of civilization had kept bad company. It had been eagerly invoked to justify colonial expansion.” More significantly for Armstrong’s thesis, the association of civilization with material prosperity offends the sensibilities of those who regard wealth in general as necessarily ill-gotten, the fruits of a vast zero-sum game with a few winners and legions of downtrodden, exploited losers. There are many such skeptics among the contemporary professoriate, who have sought to topple the idea of civilization from its perch as the most noble achievement of human culture.

For Armstrong, however, the circumstance that civilization “is not at present a fashionable topic of intellectual discussion” says more about the degraded state of the humanities than it does about civilization. In this ambitious yet modestly written work, Armstrong (philosopher in residence at the Melbourne Business School) argues that we have a vital stake in redeeming the concept of civilization from its detractors and in restoring it to its rightful place of honor as the proper focus of the humanities. Beyond that, however, he offers up a robust defense of material prosperity as a necessary condition for civilization and human flourishing.


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Armstrong identifies four alternative (though not mutually exclusive) conceptions of civilization: 1) belonging, “a collective scheme of values; a way of living [that] structures the inner life of all those who belong to it”; 2) material progress grounded in the kind of economic and political “maturity” sufficient to allow the development and deployment of material power through sophisticated technical capacities and a high degree of social organization; 3) the art of living, understood as the “sophisticated pursuit of pleasure” as manifest in the great panoply of cultural forms: the Japanese tea ceremony, the preparation and enjoyment of foods, the cultivation of conversation and friendship, and, more generally, the elevation of the ordinary activities of life such that they are invested with higher meaning; and 4) a kind of spiritual prosperity, entailing intellectual and artistic elegance, in which “life-giving ideas” extend beyond the musty halls of galleries and libraries to be internalized and used in our own lives.

Armstrong’s project, however, is both broader and deeper than simply to provide an account of how people have defined civilization. His second aim has a polemical component: “I want to move from asking the historical question about how people happen to have defined civilization to the philosophical question about how we ought to define it.” [my emphasis] On that score, it is striking that In Search of Civilization is a deeply personal work; the author makes frequent and effective use of revealing personal anecdotes. For instance, he recalls a conference in London at which three “eminent academic figures” presented papers taking as their point of departure a notion which had by that time become received wisdom in academe: “civilization could no longer be regarded as a particularly important idea.” Armstrong describes his “distress” at this notion: “What I was witnessing at the conference was not just another mildly diverting academic discussion. It was a glimpse into the state of the foundations of civilization; and the sight was extremely worrying.” In contrast to the dispirited disposition prevailing among the bien pensants, Armstrong revels in the enduring richness of civilization’s offerings, which he sees not as artifacts to be catalogued but as ideals to be emulated.

Nonetheless, Armstrong is no Pollyanna. Rather, in struggling to understand the discontents and conflicts within civilization he comes to champion its achievements. Armstrong recognizes that prosperity and freedom, though desirable in themselves, do not suffice to make us good. This fact points to what he calls “the crisis of freedom and power.” Three essential features of modernity—liberal economic markets, cultural democracy, and freedom of opinion—seem to stand in opposition to his conception of civilization as aiming to make us “wise, kind and tasteful.” Free markets allow us to acquire (within our means) whatever we want. But the marketplace is indifferent to the quality of our choices. All that matters is that we pay; cultural democracy places everyone’s preferences on an equal footing. Who is to say that Verdi is to be preferred over Lady Gaga? Cultural democracy recognizes no authority in such matters. Freedom of opinion operates without regard to the quality of opinions expressed, “irrespective of logic, evidence and self-examination—so long as it doesn’t directly and obviously harm other people.”

There is both a pessimistic and an optimistic response to this crisis. The pessimistic response is fairly obvious:

Triumphant vulgarity rules the world…because the democratic numbers and the market forces always win. Once you have markets, cultural democracy and freedom of opinion, questions about merit and meaning will always be settled by majorities and money. But majorities and money have no real authority on questions of value.

Indeed, the material wealth of nations is no assurance of spiritual, intellectual or aesthetic wealth. To the contrary, “material and spiritual prosperity are incompatible because the conditions which maximize efficiency in the production of material goods are at odds with human flourishing.” The remarkable achievements of material production have given us our CAT scanners, dishwashers, cell phones, and entertainment on demand, yet we experience ever more atomization and alienation. Something seems to be missing: “One is inclined to feel that ‘life is elsewhere’: I am not living the life I am supposed to live.” But what is the life that one is supposed to live? And how, in the context of a modern technological world whose most obvious attainments seem to be of a purely material nature, are we to go about living such lives? What, indeed, does it mean for humanity to flourish?


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Hostility toward material wealth has a long precedent; it is not the recent invention of liberal academics. Not alone among the ancients, Socrates disdained wealth as irrelevant or even inimical to the pursuit of the welfare of the soul. The Cynics regarded wealth as an undesirable distraction from the attainment of virtue. For the Stoics, wealth was among the “indifferent” things of the world, contributing in itself neither virtue nor vice. These Hellenic attitudes were influences on the early Christians, who regarded wealth as an obstacle to salvation. As recounted in Matthew 19:24, Jesus said to his disciples: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.” While the Church amassed enormous wealth and put much of it toward the production of magnificent works of art and architecture, Christianity has tended to regard God and Mammon as standing in opposition to one another.

Even if individual wealth doesn’t partner easily with virtue, Armstrong offers a resolutely optimistic defense—indeed, one might say a celebration—of material prosperity for society. Far from being inimical to civilization, Armstrong argues, material prosperity is an essential ingredient without which human beings cannot flourish and no civilization worthy of the name can exist: “Without material resources, without worldly competence and the ability to wield power, depth of mind and heart is impotent.” Material prosperity is not a problem; it is part of the solution, providing the conditions upon which spiritual prosperity can grow. But to do so,  it must serve a purpose higher than itself, reflecting the essentially dual aspect of human nature. As physical creatures, we seek comfort and security; but we also possess “minds that aspire to abstract ideals: beauty, goodness and truth.” Those who have lost faith in the idea of civilization see the duality as a conflict of irreconcilable opposites, and thus conclude that spiritual prosperity must decline, pari passu, with every increase in material prosperity. However, Armstrong envisions a “sweet spot where the two kinds of prosperity intersect and enhance one another”, and he sees that locus as the crucial pivot point about which civilization turns.

In the spirit of Kenneth Clark’s television series Civilization—a powerful influence on Armstrong’s thoughts—Armstrong endorses the view that “being civilized is to do with internalizing and using ‘life-giving ideas’”, which are the source of the spiritual prosperity that is the necessary complement to material prosperity in the creation and stewardship of anything worthy of being called a civilization. He understands spiritual prosperity according to the triumvirate of “depth of thought, feeling or experience; attachment to higher things; and mental space or breadth of mind.” These correspond, respectively, to 1) the capacity to reflect on questions of value, without decadent sentimentality or self-absorption: “Why is this good? Why is it important? Why do you believe that? “ 2) the capacity to apprehend and to accede to the claims that beauty and goodness make on us; and 3) the capacity for what might be called “critical open-mindedness” (as opposed to the uncritical receptivity to what is merely new or transgressive—something all too commonly on display in today’s art scene.)

Armstrong concludes, “The essence of civilization can be defined like this: Civilization occurs when a high degree of material prosperity and a high degree of spiritual prosperity come together and mutually enhance each other.” It is a striking feature of our age that the magnitude of our material prosperity has exceeded our spiritual resources. The error of the pessimists is to deprecate the former in the misguided belief that doing so will somehow enhance the latter. But as Armstrong argues, the result will be the opposite. What is called for, rather, is a wiser melding of the two, guided by the question, what should we desire?

Yet the devil is all in the details, and it remains unclear how, in complicated and pluralistic countries like the United States, this fusion of the two forms of prosperity might be attained. Should it entail spontaneous cultural renewal at the local community level? Or guided from above by the elite class who create and shape culture through media and higher education? Armstrong doesn’t spell this out. Perhaps it is unreasonable to demand a blueprint, and general principles and guidelines are all that may reasonably be expected. In any case, Armstrong’s robust and impassioned defense of material prosperity is a needed breath of intellectual fresh air.


Peter Lopatin is a freelance writer and teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.

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