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In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea Hardcover – March 29, 2011
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“[Armstrong] is out to lead philosophy back to its most urgent, traditional and noble task: that of helping us to live wisely and well. His new book, lyrical, courageous and uplifting, is seeking to do nothing less than reform the ambitions of western societies.” ―ALAIN DE BOTTON, The Observer
About the Author
JOHN ARMSTRONG is Philosopher-in-Residence at the Melbourne Business School and senior adviser to the vice-chancellor of Melbourne University. He is the author of several internationally acclaimed books on art, aesthetics, and philosophy.
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Part One Civilization as Belonging
Armstrong's quest to define civilization began as he was reading a bedtime story to his son, and he advances that "with the possible exception of God, civilization is the grandest, most ambitious idea that humanity has devised." From that introduction, Armstrong makes a compelling case for civilization. He notes that it is difficult to get one's mind around the concept since "civilization" touches everything. As a result, he offers that our ideas about "civilization tend to be rather messy and muddled."
Armstrong goes on to frame civilization as "a way of living," a level of political and economic development, "the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure," and finally, "a high level of intellectual and artistic excellence." Separately each of these, what I'll call working definitions, made sense. But Armstrong rightly attempts to define, frame, contextualize civilization, not from historical perspective, but rather the philosophical in a way that is relevant to our times.
The actual word "civilization" is, according to Armstrong, not "fashionable" in our globalized world, particularly among those one would expect to be the "defenders." He offers that civilization carries a "moral implication" whereby one society is somehow better than another, "fully human" or "superior." And nations often advance the idea that they are better, more civilized, etc. Those defenders (in the arts and humanities) mentioned above have become "wary and negative" with respect to civilization. I'll call this standard-less ambivalence based primarily on fear. Fear of "what," you may ask. Fear of offending. Harvey Mansfield in City Journal made an excellent point with respect to political correctness:
"When there is no basis for what we agree to, it becomes mandatory that we agree. The very fragility of change as a principle makes us hold on to it with insistence and tenacity. Having nothing to conform to, we conform to conformism--hence political correctness. Political correctness makes a moral principle of opposing, and excluding, those of us who believe in principles that don't change."
Principles are a big part of civilization.A brief review of Samuel P. Huntington's classic The Clash of Civilizations follows. Armstrong reminds of Huntington's words: "In coping with an identity crisis, what counts for people are blood and belief, faith and family." Armstrong recounts Huntington's view of civilization a sense of "loyalty" and "shared identity." Armstrong calls this an "organic conception of civilization;" witness the identity politics of the in the aftermath of 9/11 where it seemed the US, for once, stood as one. The phenomena can be found around the world, regardless race, religion, or ethnicity. If there is a community of people, chances are there will be shared identities, but is this "sharing" civilization?
One of the strongest parts of the book is the emphasis he places on the "quality of relationships." With the aforementioned "sharing" and "loyalty" Armstrong rightly asks about the quality of individual relationships and the impact on civilization. He compares the loyalty of religious believers to their faith to their loyalty to their civilization. Armstrong believes, and I agree, we share much more in common than one might, on first glance imagine. He says, "The rich achievements of any civilization are not in violent conflict, and in fact are on the same side in a clash between cultivated intelligence and barbarism. The irony is that such barbarism too often goes under the name of loyalty to a civilization." Armstrong believes that a "true civilization is constituted by high-quality relationships to ideas, objects, and people." In high quality relationships there is love and Armstrong sees civilization as "the life-support system for high-quality relationships." Civilization sustains love; I like the implications.
The cultivation of high quality relationships tends to bring out the best in people. He goes on to discuss the paradox of freedom--as we in the West live in cultural democracies. He asserts that vulgarity is "triumphant" because of our democratic ideals; the majority rules. Freedom comes with great responsibilities, greater responsibilities than living in a coercive state. At the level of the individual we make choices, satisfy appetites. "The civilizing mission is to make what is genuinely good more readily available and to awaken an appetite for it."
This is an important and modern look a the idea of civilization and comes highly recommended.
With the vocabulary in hand, we can discuss civilization in an intelligent and coherent manner, but more importantly, we learn how to recognize this precious human achievement of civilization and realize its inherent delicacy. We may be not able to put a value on civilization but we certainly learn how to value it.
The principles of civilization are inherently conservative principles in that in our civilization we have a patrimony worth preserving. We should be suspicious of attempts to make sudden changes to settled arrangements and mature institutions and not be too quick to embrace large scale panacea solutions. However, the principles of civilization betray us when they array us against progress and change. The principles of civilization benefit us when they help us to see that real progress and beneficial change come about only incrementally, just as civilization itself evolves incrementally. Change should not be desired for change sake, but nor should change be resisted simply because it is change. Maintaining civilization requires discernment, perspective and judgement on our part but as Will Durant once put it so well, civilization exists only by cosmological and geological consent, subject to change without notice.
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In Search of Civilization by John Armstrong
The aim is to reflect on a term like'civilization'.Read more