Book of the week: In Search of Civilization

Fred Inglis admires the ambition more than the paean to advertising

July 30, 2009

John Armstrong is a Good Thing. He is one of the newish philosophers, along with Alasdair MacIntyre, Simon Blackburn, Martha Nussbaum and Judith Shklar, who are determined to return moral philosophy to the intercourse of ordinary people.

He strives to take the big words with capital letters in front of them - words once at the centre of the conversation of culture and now relativised to a gossamer translucence - and restore something of their old black-and-gold magic.

He began with art, continued with love, wrote a miniature masterpiece on beauty and now has arrived at the pearly gates of civilisation. He is himself plainly civilised, not without humour, at times touchingly confessional (about sex, for example), direct, admirably earnest and unencumbered by scholarly debris.

He is, moreover, unafraid of diction that steers him close to the self-help and spirituality shelves in the bookshops, knowing that to speak directly of such matters - of the quality of relationships and the meaning of life - is indeed to touch upon the tears of things and our tender terror of mortality.

Armstrong knows that circumstances are always difficult for civilisation, a recognition that, one is relieved to say, prevents any danger of his collapsing into the reassurance of Reaction and droning iterations of the past as a better place.

He sees that the civilisations of Rome and of Florence under the Medici had their horrible aspects, and welcomes modern prosperity and accumulation, without which civilisation cannot accumulate the necessary mass and energy.

He contends that the good society attains a material prosperity that must be held at poise with a spiritual flourishing if it is to count as civilised. He adds that this balance is always veering, and that - as he puts it - when the balance wobbles over to one side, there gapes in waiting the monstrous abysm of barbarism, while on the other bubbles the revolting quagmire of decadence.

Throughout his fluent essay, Armstrong darts from example to example, for civilisation, like his previous big topics, is an ostensive ideal: you find out what it is by pointing to examples of it in all the multiplicity and sumptuousness of reference that may be packed into 200 (unindexed) pages.

So those pages are dotted with the genial figures of Adam Smith and Bernard Berenson; Brideshead Revisited's decadent and irresponsible Lord Marchmain is judged for what he is; the cool sexiness of Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres' Madame Devaucay is delicately appreciated; and - new to me - Abbot Suger, whose life's work was to make 12th-century St-Denis in Paris into the ideal of the good Christian society, is handsomely turned into an emblem for Armstrong similar to Thomas Carlyle's idealisation of St Albans and its hospitable friars.

There is in all this a strong ground bass of Christian apologetics that might set on edge the teeth of the pious atheist (me). But I am more deterred by something a bit too gentlemanly, something languid and Paterian in the tone and style of Armstrong's civilisation.

It comes out in an endearing little paragraph that strays rather too close to the kitsch of the advertising copywriter, where Armstrong gives us a glimpse of civilised life - a shot of urban urbanity in Edinburgh New Town, a view of Venice from across the lagoon, a lunch table in a garden under Provencal plane trees.

Of course, these are civilised moments and effects, but they are effects of leisure - effects, in effect, of the holiday time that seems to be the only time left in the rich economies for the imagining of civilised living and the ordering of the good society.

What Armstrong doesn't admit to, in his leisured and decidedly recumbent images of civilisation, is the hard, attentive work (itself one of the civilised values) required in the making of it.

Not only that. He doesn't tell us, as he should, the truth that George Orwell finds in Rudyard Kipling: "He sees clearly that men can only be highly civilised while other men, inevitably less civilised, are there to guard and feed them."

Perhaps the origin of this blankness lies in Armstrong's tendency to psychologism. He offers us a tabulated Aristotle, for sure, from whom we may take our guide to the golden mean, but then unbelievably (nonetheless according to the canons of the business school) places him alongside the pious inanition of dreary old Abraham Maslow's "hierarchy of needs".

Needs are here called upon, as indeed they are on the self-help shelves, to do far more work than they are morally capable of, and the only help they get these days is from that later addition to the fashionable vocabulary of psychoanalytic postmodernity, "desire".

Armstrong justifies this by his insistence on the traffic between "inner selves" ("depths", "mental states") and their outer manifestations in practice. But as Ludwig Wittgenstein would have reminded him, the outer manifestations-in-practice of culture are all we have to go on; they comprise the form and content of civilisation, whether in art, science or everyday conduct.

I do not want to make too much of what looks like a hardly credible and cringing act of genuflection towards the end of this talkative and likeable book. Armstrong is, the blurb informs us, philosopher-in-residence at Melbourne Business School, and it is a measure of the enviable goodness of Australian society that this should be so.

But when he tells us, in a really abject finale, that business should be in the business of "desire leadership", and that the "essential message of advertising is: you know what will make you happy, and we are listening to you", then the civilised reader can only burst into tears of laughter.

The gaffe comes damn near to destroying the book. After all, Armstrong quotes F.R. Leavis approvingly in his pages, and it is 80 years since Leavis first alerted people to the dreadful and debilitating force of advertising in the decay of civilisation. Civilisation, R.G. Collingwood tells us, "does not happen except to human beings; and to them it does not happen individually, it happens collectively".

The moral most vigorously taught by Armstrong's well-chosen and affecting instances of the polemics of civilisation - by Kenneth Clark's mighty television series, Matthew Arnold, Erasmus, John Ruskin and W.H. Auden - is that if intelligent and civilised people are not prepared to build and to defend their best creations with the necessary steeliness and resolution, they will be destroyed or seriously injured by those who hate them.

Armstrong makes me think these things, but he doesn't say them. If things are bad, and they are, civilisation will have to call on a harshness and a tenacity not to be found in this gentle, refined and civilised book.


John Armstrong, philosopher-in-residence at the Melbourne Business School, was born in Glasgow and educated at the University of Oxford, Birkbeck, University of London and University College London. In 2001, he moved to Australia with his wife Helen and their two children.

Since 2003, he has been an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Melbourne and is also its inaugural knowledge-transfer fellow.

Among his interests, he lists Real Tennis - "surprisingly popular in Australia" - daydreaming about beautiful buildings and going to hardware shops, but says his favourite social activity is throwing dinner parties.

Rather worryingly for visitors, he becomes "anxious" when people are about to leave.

"I want to bolt the doors and force them into fascinating conversation," he says.

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

By John Armstrong

Allen Lane, 208pp, £14.99

ISBN 9781846140037

Published 25 June 2009

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