zenpundit.com » Blog Archive » In Search of Civilization, a review

In Search of Civilization, a review

 [by J. Scott Shipman]


In Search of Civilization, by John Armstrong 

In Search of Civilization is a refreshing and erudite examination of civilization, how it developed in the past, negative present day connotations, and why it remains importance and relevant today. What follows is a detailed overview of Part One, and with any luck, the teaser will be enough to convince you to read this important book. For me, this is a truncated review. Normally, I would provide a 1200-1500 hundred word overview, but like Zen, I’ve been busy and wanted to share what I had with you. This books makes a nice foil for John Gray’s Black Mass, which I read recently but probably will not review.

Also, some books have wonderful finds in the bibliography. Back in the early 80’s I chased footnotes for about two years—and have no memory of what the original book was, but I went from one reference to another. Going forward, I’ll provide the titles from the bibliography that piqued my interest, which may also provide the you a little more insight on the works that influenced the author. Please let me know if this is or is not useful to you.

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.”

Part Two Civilization as Material Progress, Part Three: Civilization as the Art of Living, Part Four: Civilization as Spiritual Prosperity 

References you may find of interest:

F.R. Leavis, The Great Tradition

C.P. Snow, a lecture “The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution

Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy  A free online copy here.

 Kenneth Clark’s BBC television series Civilization

Bernard Berenson, The Florentine Painters of the Renaissance (1896)

T.S. Elliot, an essay called “Tradition and the Individual Talent

7 Responses to “In Search of Civilization, a review”

  1. Greg Linster Says:

    Nice succinct review Scott!  I added it to my list on Shelfari.  Also, yes, I like your idea of adding references of interest at the end.  

  2. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Greg, Many thanks! I’ll be a better Shelfari bubba after I’m finished with my book and a few other nits:)) (like a new website!)

  3. zen Says:

    Excellent review, Scott. Love of civilization, like an accurate perception of the costs of savagery, cuts against the grain of neo-Rousseau-ism. Sort of the default worldview of many ppl in the social sciences, despite it being unscientific mysticism.

  4. Bryan Alexander Says:

    More to read…Scott, did you read Morris’ Why the West Rules, for Now?  Delightful book for all kinds of reasons.  The title is somewhat misleading, since the book is really a total history of humankind (gulp) seen through an analytical prism that’s one part simulation game, one part Hari Seldon (Asimov, Foundation).  Very engaging writer.

  5. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi Bryan, Many thanks for the recommendation. I’ve not read the Morris book, but will add to the list. Hi Zen, Thanks!

  6. david ronfeldt Says:

    Not only has “civilization” gotten a bum rap in academia and elsewhere; so have “evolution” and “progress” — a set of concepts I like that are wrapped up in each other. . Progress — “the idea that civilization has advanced in the past, is now advancing, and in all likelihood will continue to advance in the foreseeable future” — has been one of the grand themes of Western civilization and philosophy (Nisbet, 1994 p. xi; also, Bury, 1932).  Its meaning has varied across the ages, but generally involves both material and spiritual advances as a result of human endeavors.  For Americans, this means improvements in “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”  Science and technology are often viewed as the main engines of progress, but organizational innovation and intellectual creativity get credited as well, depending on the theorist. . Nowadays, progress is commonly measured in terms of quantitative increments of economic, social, and political growth — the stuff of national development experts.  Surely this matters.  But from a long time perspective, what matters more is the flowering of new civilizations.  And accounting for this is no mean endeavor; large forces must be illuminated.  Military capacity tends to be one of them.  As British art historian Kenneth Clark once aptly noted (1969, p. 18), “All great civilizations, in their early stages, are based on success in war.”  True, but spititual/religious energies matter as well.  Thus, says another British historian, Christopher Dawson ([1929] 2001, pp. 3-4), “Every living culture must possess some spiritual dynamic, which provides the energy necessary for that sustained social effort which is civilization.”  In any case, the point stands that, over the long term, civilization and progress are usually thought to proceed hand in hand.  . But I’m starting to sound academic.  So I’ll just end by saying thanks, Scott, for posting a useful interesting pertinent review. .

  7. J.ScottShipman Says:

    Hi David, Excellent comments! You are welcome, sir!
    I believe you will enjoy Armstrong, both of you come at civilization from similar tacks. Armstrong underscored the power of relationships in shaping civilization. At the end of the day how we treat each other is vital, with compassion and humility. 

Switch to our mobile site