Book Review: In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

Book Review: In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

Book by John Armstrong, published by Penguin Books Australia, 2009

Reviewed by Dr Joseph Collins

In Search of Civilization helps us explore a philosophical journey about the idea of civilization.  It begins with seemingly benign propositions: civilization ‘shapes its members’ sense of right from wrong’, ‘it’s all to do with the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure’ and ‘it requires a high level of intellectual and artistic excellence’.  These are developed in an entertaining narrative that draws on a variety of ethical perspectives making a compelling read.

The author, John Armstrong, is Philosopher in Residence at Melbourne Business School.  He has been recognised for his ability to engage general audiences in debate about complex and often provocative philosophical issues.  This book reinforces his ability to engage with people ‘who would never be scholars’

There are some engaging self-deprecatory anecdotes scattered throughout this work.  He was bullied as a boy, felt simultaneous lust and shame after a seedy encounter in a Parisian brothel and seemed in real pain recounting a childhood sensitised to the ways in which his parents caused each other miserable anguish.  There is an honesty, fluent style, sharp wit and sensibility in these vignettes.  While readers might well draw their own insights about these incidents they unquestionably expose a passionate man who is sensitive to personal intimacy and able to see the folly, barbarism and ethical vulnerabilities of civilization in himself.

Armstrong argues that readers’ attempts to understand complex philosophical constructs are likely to be hampered by a lack of time and other commitments, rather than a lack of intelligence or some other failure.  He accommodates this astute insight as he explores ‘civilization’ with a well structured analysis in four main sections; civilization as ‘Belonging’; as ‘Material Progress’; as the ‘Art of Living’ and finally as ‘Spiritual Prosperity’.  

 Armstrong does not strongly attach himself to any one of these ideas but favours a more sophisticated notion of civilization that draws upon all four.  Each section does however have sufficient examples grounded in various branches of moral philosophy to encourage the reader to form his/her own view.  For example, in answer to an issue as basic as one’s own identity, i.e., who am I?, Armstrong argues the importance of a civilization having a common or collective core set of values, as this creates expectations and behaviours without which civilization would disintegrate and its members would lose their sense of worth.  There are interesting lessons here for understanding how ethical dilemmas might arise in small peer groups or in our wider arenas of personal, business and other communities of interest, particularly in a time of globalisation.

During the discussion we are encouraged to ask a series of questions including:  Are there intrinsic core values in a flourishing civilization?  Do our individual values and principles matter in what it is to be civilised?As with most complex ethical issues, such questions rarely yield a simple answer but do help us explore the idea of civilization, making it easier to recognise and value civilization as an idea that matters.

One core idea with a persuasive ethical undercurrent consistently arises. Armstrong’s emergent thesis is that spiritual prosperity has not kept pace with material prosperity with the result that today we may be alienated, bereft of either meaning or happiness in our lives. Too much focus on material prosperity may not allow us to have a high quality relationship with the spiritual prosperity we might otherwise enjoy and vice versa. The relationship between the two is the key to genuine civilization.  They are inexorably intertwined in a ‘mutual enhancement’.

Armstrong underpins his idea by looking at how great works of art and other higher things cause us to ask: What is my life about?  What have I done with my existence?  Extending his questions beyond the individual to corporations may be a rationale for today’s increasing focus on corporate social responsibility.  Going one step further, might companies more courageously become a catalyst, in the same way as renaissance patrons, for quantum leaps in both material and spiritual prosperity of civilization?  Time will tell.

Armstrong does not seek to fulfil his purpose by focusing on definitional precision or completeness in his desire to answer the philosophical question ‘What should our idea of civilization be’?  He does however succeed in engaging his audience.  His ultimate conclusion about civilization is startlingly simple.  Armstrong artfully leads us to a proposition that fulfilment in the promise of civilization is in ‘the book of life’ that we all are writing.  Tarnished or not, civilization is definitely an idea that matters.

To view a video of John Armstrong talking about his book, visit here

To get your copy of the book, visit  Penguin Books Australia

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