What does the word “civilization” mean? Philosopher John Armstrong opens his engrossing “In Search of Civilization” by imagining a late-night discussion program in which four panelists propose different definitions.
To the first panelist, a civilization consists of simply “what is shared and taken for granted by whole societies.” The second insists that “civilization is connected to the development and deployment of wealth and material power.” It’s what people mean when they say they’re out in the country, miles from civilization. A third speaker — Armstrong identifies him as a languid aesthete — murmurs that the word refers to “the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure,” to elegance and the enjoyment of good food and wine. The last panelist asserts that civilization “doesn’t indicate what is normal in a society; it picks out the grandest, most noble achievements,” that is, the great life-giving ideas, the best that humankind can achieve.
In the rest of his book, Armstrong examines more deeply these definitions and their implications for us today. In his opening discussion of the “clash of civilizations” — the title of a well-known book by Samuel P. Huntington — he emphasizes that the rich accomplishments of China, the West and Islam are not in conflict, but are rather “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.” In fact, true civilization is “the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas and objects.” (Love, Armstrong explains, is the one-word version of the phrase “high quality of relationship.”) Civilization, then, seeks “to find and protect the good things with which — potentially — we can form high-quality relationships.” It also “fosters and protects the qualities in us that allow us to love such things for the right reasons. The qualities that inspire love are: goodness, beauty and truth. And when we love these qualities, we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness and taste.”
To be civilized, Armstrong argues — with a nod toward Matthew Arnold’s influential essay “Culture and Anarchy” — each of us should strive to become our best self. This requires us to be attentive to ends rather than means. Cellphones, he observes, may allow us “to communicate more often, to take more photographs, to locate restaurants; but these resources do not automatically help us reach the ‘ends’ they ideally serve: good conversation, deep relationships, convivial evenings, the appreciation of beauty.” Whatever “the cross-currents of fashion,” we need to bear in mind those goals in life that truly matter.
Thus Armstrong doesn’t deride cellphones or any other aspect of technology, but he does emphasize that “civilization is material prosperity plus something else. The character of that something else is to do with inner life: the prosperity of the soul.” What matters is that an increase in material comfort be accompanied by a corresponding expansion in spiritual growth, by the nurturing and diffusion of “wisdom, kindness and taste.” To many, Armstrong admits, these three words will sound old-fashioned and elitist. But they shouldn’t. The real task of art and intelligence is “to shape and direct our longings, to show us what is noble and important.” Rather than happiness, per se, civilization should promote what Armstrong calls “flourishing,” a sense of personal “satisfaction grounded in character and action.”
Later chapters of Armstrong’s study take up some of the psychological aspects of civilization. For instance, our tragic sense of life is “founded on the fact that not all good things are compatible: it may be (for most people) impossible to have a happy marriage and a raucous erotic life; or to have a well-paid job and follow your own vocation; it may be that you cannot live in the place where you most want to live; responsibility is tedious and frightening; yet taking responsibility is important.” In the face of such inner conflicts, as well as life’s normal vicissitudes, civilization should help “strengthen us to face inevitable disappointment and suffering,” largely by instilling the stoic virtues: “the capacity to do without, to postpone pleasure, to make ourselves do things we do not want to do (when there is good reason to do them); to put up with minor irritations, to avoid complaint and useless criticism.”
Armstrong also emphasizes the spiritual benefits of paying attention to “little things.” He points to the Japanese ritual of the tea ceremony in which an ordinary activity may — through “care, authority, direction and focus of attention, the accumulation of experience, the winnowing of the essential from the irrelevant” — be raised to a life-enhancing art, infusing value and meaning into people’s daily lives far beyond the period of the ceremony itself. Just so, Armstrong reminds us, “the central ambition of the civilizing process is to develop — and improve — the quality of our relationships . . . to ideas, places, people, objects, difficulties and opportunities, memories, ambitions.”
There’s much else in this carefully written book: reflections on barbarism and decadence; a defense of “charm” in education; thoughts on the true experience of art; and the importance of transmitting to others what we love. In particular, the study of history, philosophy and the arts can supply us with “ideal achievements” worth emulating and integrating into our present-day lives. Our inner selves hunger for “the cultivation and education of depth,” just as our souls yearn for “higher things” and our intellects need “mental space” to foster open-mindedness, a receptivity to new ideas and the ability to live with ambivalence.
The heroes of civilization, Armstrong concludes, are those who teach us “how to combine devotion to noble values with an acceptance of the ways of the world.” Such a one was the Roman orator, public servant and philosopher Cicero, who could appreciate the refinement and cultivation of the Greeks while still honoring “the robust military and administrative capacities of Rome.” This view of the past — as a repository of humane values and inspiring examples — was central to the Renaissance and later centuries, but has been largely pooh-poohed by our smug and smirky age.
If you enjoy books such as the recent studies of Montaigne by Saul Frampton and Sarah Bakewell or regularly pick up the easygoing philosophical essays of Alain de Botton, you should look for “In Search of Civilization.” It’s a serious book, written with directness and simplicity, about what it means to live — in every sense — a good life.
Dirda reviews books for The Post every Thursday. Visit his book discussion at washingtonpost.com/readingroom.