In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea


“A self-effacing, humane and unparanoid call to change our wealthy yet often barbaric world for the better.”

In this provocative cri de coeur, the philosopher John Armstrong rescues the idea of civilization from irrelevance and connects it to our search for individual happiness. “Civilization” once referred to a society’s technological prowess, its political development, or its cultural achievement. In the modern era, however, the word became...

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In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

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“A self-effacing, humane and unparanoid call to change our wealthy yet often barbaric world for the better.”

In this provocative cri de coeur, the philosopher John Armstrong rescues the idea of civilization from irrelevance and connects it to our search for individual happiness. “Civilization” once referred to a society’s technological prowess, its political development, or its cultural achievement. In the modern era, however, the word became burdened by the legacy of colonialism and connotations of elitism. For it to have value once again, according to Armstrong, we must understand that a society balances material prosperity with spiritual prosperity if it is to merit the term “civilized”—and currently we are impoverished.

In Search of Civilization is his corrective. As he roams from anecdote to aesthetic appreciation—from the banality of an early job at an insurance company to the redemptive wonders of a seventeenth-century church spire visible out an office window, from Adam Smith’s philosophy to the Japanese tea ceremony—Armstrong reminds us that culture lies within us and that its nourishment is essential to a flourishing society.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Civilization is not the elitist project of haughty imperialists and starched academics, but a thoroughly humane effort "to make us wise, kind and tasteful," according to this luminous philosophical meditation. To Armstrong (The Secret Power of Beauty), philosopher in residence at Melbourne Business School, civilization is many things: the culture and mores that give a people their identity; a material prosperity that underwrites the "spiritual prosperity" of creativity put to noble ends; a heroic mission of taming barbarism; "a carrier of epic meaning" that gives transcendent purpose to our all too brief lives. He traces these themes in the writings of thinkers that include Aristotle, Adam Smith, and Virginia Woolf and through charming exegeses of civilizational set pieces like Florentine museums and the Japanese tea ceremony. But Armstrong's treatment is as much visceral and emotional as intellectual; to him, civilization conjures memories of lamp-lit libraries, fine meals with good conversation, city streets lined with comfortable houses, an encounter with a Parisian prostitute that ended with him stumbling shame-faced into a church choir practice. Armstrong's manifesto makes a relaxed but compelling case that dignity, refinement, and standards stand at the center of the good life. (Mar.)
From the Publisher
“[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
Kirkus Reviews

An impressionistic and heartfelt call for a better understanding of civilization, in a book that encompasses fine art, faith and prostitutes.

Armstrong, the "Philosopher-in-Residence" at the Melbourne Business School, laments how the term "civilization" has recently become attached to elitism or warring ideologies. It is better understood, he argues, on an individual level, as a way of reconciling individual lusts with more high-minded ambitions, deliberately avoiding a specific philosophical line. Discussing the battle between carnal instincts and intellectual edification, for instance, Armstrong confesses a moment from his guilt-struck youth when he told his father he was going to a museum, only to patronize a brothel instead. His contempt for himself at the time, he argues, was misdirected; civilization isn't a moral code so much as a way to find a personal balance. Not surprisingly, Saint Augustine is an important touchstone for Armstrong, as are Martin Luther, C.P. Snow and various Greek philosophers, all of whom are brought in to support the argument that a civilized life involves an unapologetic embrace of both material and spiritual wealth. As a guidebook for better living, this isn't especially handy. The author's tone is genial and ruminative, and he generally avoids providing specific tips for how we might best cultivate our more civilized selves. (His suggestion that businesses work harder to make products that serve our spiritual needs as well as our materialistic impulses seems doomed, if not downright Pollyanna-ish.) Yet if it's not explicitly prescriptive, the book holds the same appeal as classics like Epictetus' Manual. For Armstrong, the individual's efforts to become civilized—to feel the emotional intent behind a work of art, to clear physical and temporal space to contemplate oneself—is a bulwark against the commercialized noises that beset us. We can be wealthy without being materialistic, he insists, and artistic without pretension.

A casual but considered look into the meaning of a civilized mind.

Michael Dirda
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.
—The New York Times
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781555975807
  • Publisher: Graywolf Press
  • Publication date: 3/29/2011
  • Pages: 208
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.48 (h) x 0.74 (d)

Meet 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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