The title of In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea (Graywolf Press) is a bit of a flirty tease. In this thought-provoking though frustrating polemic by John Armstrong, Philosopher in residence (at the Melbourne Business School) and Senior Advisor to the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, civilization is defined as “the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas, and objects” and it hasn’t gone anywhere. It is not a matter of looking for it, but of wanting it enough, sort of like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz clicking the heels of her red slippers and desiring her way back home to Kansas.
“The civilizing mission,” Armstrong argues, “is to make what is genuinely good more readily available and to awaken an appetite for it.” It is tempting to think jump-starting an appreciation for the finer things in life could be a matter of building a better alarm clock.
So what keeps us asleep, what stands between philistinism and our natural appreciation of the arts and humanities, curbs our primal yen for reflection and fellow feeling, for the good and the beautiful? Armstrong spends much of the book explaining the disconnect, partly blaming civilization’s bad rap as an agent of colonization and elitism. He makes a strong case that becoming civilized is a democratic process, a matter of developing a will to move on to more sophisticated relationships rather than wallowing in material status – “the transformation of lower needs by the cultivation of higher concerns.”
The goal of becoming civilized isn’t happiness, prestige, or tourism, but to encourage an active flourishing of the sensibility, an emotional and intellectual cultivation of the self, an ennobling of the soul. Armstrong refers to Plato’s steps toward a contemplative ideal, as well as Matthew Arnold’s belief in culture as supplying the balm of “Sweetness and Light.”
To his credit, the philosopher admits there are those in today’s cultural industrial complex, academics, critics, and artists, who keep us snoozing because they betray their mission to defend standards of quality. He mentions false idols, such as Andy Warhol. Worse, the professoriat perpetuates our sleepwalking by reducing the humanities into pedantic cultural capital, failing to see that “what we love about the past ought to be productive in the present.”
Armstrong insists that there has been a collective failure in academia to renew the emotional and intellectual significance of the humanities, a snobbish refusal to transfer a personal connection with civilization to the broader public: “academics have no sense that such love should be a force in the present – a creative force guiding what we build and paint and write and compose and speculate about now.” He touched on this issue in an earlier posting on The Public Humanist.
What else keeps us dozing? Mass culture should be a launching pad to bigger and better aesthetic experiences, but barbarism and decadence, seen here as a narrowing of our sense of meaning, are rewarded as ends in themselves in commercialized societies. The bottom line is that no one sees any material profit in working to spread a deepening love of the humanities. So, he argues, those who truly care about the fate of civilization must find ways to make cultivating sensibility and elevating taste profitable, to turn the intertwining of spiritual and material prosperity into big business.
The most compelling part of In Search of Civilization is its insistence that “business and the humanities can educate one another. And in doing so can solve the greatest question of our age: How can money and goodness work together to make us happy?” Maybe it is not as crucial an inquiry as Armstrong claims, but many humanists would give their eyeteeth for the answer. His response is provocative but irritatingly skeletal: corporate moguls in the future will “marry two earlier trends: creative leadership in influencing what people want; together with a service towards actual needs. The future of business lies in teaching people their real needs, not just fabricating new wants.”
Money used to be made by selling us things that made us feel good (or at least promised contentment), but in the decades to come industry will cater to our craving to be good, to contemplate good things, to experience good art and ideas.
Armstrong calls this fanciful notion “desire leadership,” but he doesn’t give us concrete examples of what that entails, though he offers some examples from history of powerful tastemakers who had no problem selling beauty at a tidy profit. The prospect of ‘desire management’ courses at universities sounds somewhat alarming to me, and Armstrong does not consider how sharp disagreements about what is or is not civilized (surely the Warhol empire will strike back) will no doubt shape the contours of desire hawked in the marketplace. Will there be competing brands of highbrow civilization, a Coke and Pepsi of Enlightenment?
But Armstrong’s hero Matthew Arnold raises a more serious drawback. In his 1888 essay “Civilization in the United States,” Arnold insists that America is a crass wasteland that trumpets its cultural greatness while relentlessly pursuing green backs and ignoring intellectual accomplishment. “In truth, everything is against distinction in America,” he gripes, “the glorification of the ‘average man,’ who is quite a religion among statesmen and publicists there, is quite against it.” No Sweetness and Light for us. The mention of “publicists” raises the question of how competing “desire leaderships” will market our yearning for civilization – and how the language of commerce, now fused with a Twitterized technology and media, may contort the idea Armstrong defends so lucidly.
The book’s focus on civilization as a matter of awakening and extending our love of the superior -- rather than as a result of the pleasures of the intellectual hard work it takes to elevate our minds – suggests that the philosopher may be spinning his sales pitch to anticipate the advertising campaigns to come. In Search of Civilization is well worth pondering, but its solution to the corrosion of the concept of civilization risks replacing one kind of tarnish with another.
Bill Marx edits The Arts Fuse, an online magazine dedicated to the arts and culture of New England.