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.