The Meaning of Civilisation

Since 2001 Australia has had the good luck to have with us the philosopher John Armstrong, a Scotsman by birth. He is, as far as I know, no relation of mine, although all Armstrongs appear to spring ultimately from the western Scottish border with England, where their principal activities were far from civilised, and a famous John Armstrong was (deservedly, I think) hanged in 1530 on the orders of the Scottish king. Our John Armstrong is an Associate Professor in the Business School of Melbourne University, which had the good sense to appoint him. I understand that one reason is that his lectures are very popular and well attended. 

Many philosophers have striven to write about their subject in a way that can be understood by persons with only some general education. Almost all of us fail. But Armstrong succeeds magnificently, almost painlessly. What is even more to the point, he is an opponent of the easy scepticism that is so much in fashion with semi-intellectuals, and even intellectuals, of our present era; and he is equally an opponent of the accompanying relativism that distrusts absolute notions of truth, of virtue or of aesthetic worth.

The first chapter of his book introduces four speakers who offer definitions of civilisation. Each is given a plausible and beguiling speech defending his answer. First there is “a collective scheme of values, a way of living”. Islam, the West, China, India, the original way of living of the Australian Aborigines, Imperial Rome, all qualify. Second, there is “a certain level of economic and political development”; third, “the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure”; and fourth, “a high level of intellectual and artistic excellence”. All these positions are brilliantly elaborated by the speakers, but the short quotations I have just given show the clarity of the author’s thinking and the way he can sum things up. His further thesis, which emerges in later chapters, is that there is something greatly worth having in each position, something that can yield a notion of civilisation that represents something to be cherished and defended.

Armstrong relates how some years ago he attended a conference in London at the Getty Institute. There was a session on Civilisation in which three distinguished academics rejected the notion that the term could be used to pick out anything of moral importance. The argument, which I presume was presented in a most civilised way, was that civilisation was a way of thinking that justified colonial expansion. So there was nothing of special moral value in the notion. Thinking about the session later on, Armstrong could not but hold that there was a valuable conception of civilisation that needed to be rescued. The arguments that the speakers presented were, he thought, themselves a sign of our present intellectual and moral failure. The word civilisation carried for Armstrong “an aura of grace, dignity, good order, security” which he wished to affirm in the face of modern scepticism.

The first speech is the “tough minded” view, articulated most notably by Samuel Huntington in his book The Clash of Civilizations, where this clash was presented as a key to understanding the present geopolitical reality. It is clearly an important concept of social science that illuminates a great deal. But Armstrong points out that these clashing ways of life each involve a majority of persons who have little intellectual grip of the nature of the particular traditions within which they live, and no notion of how they might be defended against criticism. There may well be, he suggests, a notion of civilisation that can look down on the different ways of life and recognise what may be valuable and what is not valuable in them, in a non-relativistic manner.

One of the uniformly good features of Armstrong’s book, one that should greatly recommend itself to undergraduates and high school students, is the way his discussions are regularly linked to, and serve to introduce classical authorities at appropriate moments, be it a modern classic such as Huntington, or an ancient such as Aristotle. It is here, then, that he brings in as support to his argument Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy.

Let me digress here a moment before going back to the author’s line of thought. In 1949, when I was a third-year philosophy student at Sydney University, Professor John Anderson gave us a course on the philosophy of education. His critique of Herbert Spencer and John Dewey I found very boring, but when we got to Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy I read the text and came alive. Anderson had come from Edinburgh to Sydney in 1927. At first a communist sympathiser (though never a Party member) he had gone on to find merit in Trotskyism before finally breaking with Marxism and socialism by the early forties. I think he was somewhat lost for a political position—a simple conservatism did not attract him—and I make the guess that Arnold had been a spar that he got hold of as he struggled to find a political position. I was certainly in that position, having been persuaded by Anderson, especially at the lunch-hour meetings of his Free-thought Society, of the bankruptcy of the Left. Arnold came to me as a most welcome ray of light.

Returning to Armstrong’s argument, he sees Arnold, writing in 1867, as wrestling with the problem of freedom. The new liberties that were then coming increased people’s freedom, within limits, to do what they pleased. But how would they use this new freedom? Arnold feared for his civilising project of not letting go of “the best that has been thought and said in the world”, a slogan he put forward not as something dogmatic, but as something that could inform our thinking and acting, what he called the spirit of Hellenism. Armstrong is careful to point out how deeply pessimistic Arnold was of a good result, as shown particularly in his poetry, which is quoted. I take it that Armstrong does this deliberately to show the difficulties faced by what he calls “the task of making civilisation”.

In the chapter before he discusses the work of Matthew Arnold, Armstrong has a most illuminating brief discussion of the long and bitter strife between Protestantism and Catholicism in Scotland. No doubt it was something he himself saw, well after things had moderated, when growing up in Glasgow. He points out the special virtues that the two religions brought to the contest. He says:

“Protestantism at its best is grounded in an intense awareness of the drama of the individual conscience and takes a cautious approach to symbols. Catholicism at its best is grounded in an appreciation of the grandeur and depth of symbols and takes a cautious approach to the individual intellect as a guide to life.”

 It is, I take it, an understanding of this point by the adherents of either religion that would constitute a civilised attitude, and points the way a civilised person could to a degree rise above the clashes to which Huntington points. The point could be readily accepted by Arnold and even illuminates his famous phrase “sweetness and light”.

In Part Two of his book Armstrong proceeds to argue for material progress as an important necessity for civilisation to flourish. He fastens on Adam Smith, perhaps the most important figure in the Scottish Enlightenment, itself perhaps the most civilised of the various enlightenments that occurred in various places in Europe and North America. Smith was direct: he defined a civilised society as one where there was a high level of productivity and so a high degree of wealth. This, to put it most briefly, was achieved by division of labour, which is the secret of economic efficiency. Armstrong brings out the easily mustered thought-experiments that assure us that whole populations are immeasurably better off with the material plenty and diminution of suffering that can be enjoyed in the post-industrial world.

But Armstrong agrees with Arnold, as contrasted with Smith, that just to be prosperous is not to be civilised, and that prosperity is compatible with lack of civilisation, an argument that is also easy to make. But he does think that economic sufficiency is a necessary condition for civilisation. Just to mention the fact that all previous societies, however successful, depended on a degree of slavery, seems enough. What is needed in addition, Armstrong thinks, is inner or spiritual prosperity, and this, he will argue, is achievable. I take it that he assumes that works of civilisation and civilised practices spring ultimately from civilised spirits.

Armstrong now turns to Aristotle’s doctrine of the mean or middle way as a guide to human flourishing. (The word mean has I think given it a bad press.) In the most striking contribution of his remarkable book, Armstrong gives us an updated table covering ten ways of proceeding or feeling accompanied by the excesses and deficiencies of each virtue. His list is courage, pleasure, how much to spend, what to spend on, self-esteem, getting on, anger, social skills, shame and indignation. The pursuit of pleasure, for instance, is flanked by hedonism as excess and puritanism as deficiency. One could use the table, if so inclined, as a way of examining one’s own deviations from the mean!

Armstrong goes on discuss the psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs”, which he again presents diagrammatically, and again modified somewhat. In the lowest box there are core needs, such as liberty, health, work, literacy. If these are satisfied, middle needs are a natural outcome, such as status, increase of leisure, social networks, and accurate information. Above these again there are higher needs that may or may not emerge: appreciation of beauty, love of wisdom, noble purpose, cultivated imagination and generosity of spirit (Aristotle’s great-hearted man, or person as we might say now). Here of course we have the civilised virtues. Armstrong remarks that there is a tradition of anti-civil denigration of these virtues, for instance in Thorstein Veblen’s notion of “conspicuous consumption”, the motive for which Veblen sees is no more than a desire for status.

But perhaps the human flourishing that Armstrong has been sketching is not a realistic project? Perhaps it is no better than an unattainable ideal? In Part Three Armstrong addresses this criticism, calling the opening chapter “The Crooked Timbers of Humanity”, echoing Kant’s famous phrase. Armstrong is well aware that along with the “appealing possibilities of life”, there are also “the difficulties of existence”. He gives an account of Sir Thomas More’s Utopia, noting that the title of the book means “Nowhere”, and urges that the envisaged life of the citizens does not really sound very civilised. More’s friend Erasmus’s book with its ironical title In Praise of Folly is then called to witness. The sheer normality of messing things up that he describes suggests that civilisation is not really possible. Armstrong goes on to relate a fall from grace that befell him at the age of seventeen on a visit to Paris (not too serious, given his age and being in Paris, one might think).

Armstrong comes to terms with this. He says the watch-words of civilisation, one might think, are self-control, purity and dignity. But this asks too much; in practice there cannot fail to be a tension between civilised standards and reality. For the rest of this section of the book further difficulties are canvassed, including Freud’s great last testament Civilization and its Discontents, which argues that civilisation is a burden, a source of discomfort. (Another book, incidentally, that was a part of my education.) Armstrong points out importantly that a sense of the tragic and its place in life is actually part of being civilised.

He argues that civilisation lies between barbarism, power “in the absence of reason, and taste”; and modern decadence, an inability “to connect high culture to the demands of daily life”. Armstrong quotes some wonderful lines from Auden, new to me, that capture the decadent spirit confronted with barbarism:

Read on, ambassador, engrossed

In your favourite Stendhal;

The Outer Provinces are lost,

Unshaven horsemen swill

The great wines of the Chateaux

Where you danced long ago.

In the last section of the book, Armstrong argues that civilisation is material prosperity plus “spiritual prosperity”. The hero of this section is Kenneth Clark, with his wonderful television series Civilization. But even here, Armstrong points out, we must not think that “being civilised requires a lot of art and high-cultural information to hand”. Instead, he says, “being civilised is to do with internalising and using ‘life-giving’ ideas”.

One point one could make against Armstrong is that civilisation is somewhat more than an affair of the inner spirit. He does allow this in his summing up, when he says that the spirit must be widespread, and he rather briefly indicates that the social structure of particular societies will be important in nurturing the civilised spirit. But I believe that this point deserves and requires further development.


But I would not wish to end on a critical note. This is a wonderful and rich book. It is full of life, and thus is itself an instance of civilised discourse.   


D.M. Armstrong is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at the University of Sydney. 

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