In Search of Civilization

From The Washington Post:

Books0414dirda What does the word “civilization” mean? Philosopher John Armstrong opens his engrossing “In Search of Civilization” by imagining a late-night discussion program in which four panelists propose different definitions. To the first panelist, a civilization consists of simply “what is shared and taken for granted by whole societies.” The second insists that “civilization is connected to the development and deployment of wealth and material power.” It’s what people mean when they say they’re out in the country, miles from civilization. A third speaker — Armstrong identifies him as a languid aesthete — murmurs that the word refers to “the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure,” to elegance and the enjoyment of good food and wine. The last panelist asserts that civilization “doesn’t indicate what is normal in a society; it picks out the grandest, most noble achievements,” that is, the great life-giving ideas, the best that humankind can achieve.

In the rest of his book, Armstrong examines more deeply these definitions and their implications for us today. In his opening discussion of the “clash of civilizations” — the title of a well-known book by Samuel P. Huntington — he emphasizes that the rich accomplishments of China, the West and Islam are not in conflict, but are rather “on the same side in a clash between cultivated intelligence and barbarism. The irony is that such barbarism too often goes under the name of loyalty to a civilization.” In fact, true civilization is “the life-support system for high-quality relationships to people, ideas and objects.” (Love, Armstrong explains, is the one-word version of the phrase “high quality of relationship.”) Civilization, then, seeks “to find and protect the good things with which — potentially — we can form high-quality relationships.” It also “fosters and protects the qualities in us that allow us to love such things for the right reasons. The qualities that inspire love are: goodness, beauty and truth. And when we love these qualities, we come to possess the corresponding capacities of wisdom, kindness and taste.”

More here.