Friday, May 23, 2014

In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea

Global Positioning Systems (GPS) use trilateration to pinpoint something on a map. So what does this have to do with the tarnished image of civilization? Well this “pinpointing” process reminds me of the approach taken by John Armstrong in his book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. Instead of satellites in space, however, Armstrong uses ideas.

Armstrong’s project is to attempt a reasonable definition of the idea of civilization. The concept of civilization has been badly mauled by scholars and left empty of content as a guiding principle in our world today. So we need a better one.  This task is harder than it seems. Armstrong’s approach is to look at civilization from different angles—like holding a crystal up to the light. Every chapter in this little book (it is 196 pages) is an effort to tilt the crystal slightly and tease out more of its detail.

Each chapter plays with some aspect of the idea of civilization. I’m using the word “play” in this context because that is the impression I have from reading each chapter. The ideas are developed organically, almost haphazardly as you sojourn through the pages. Haphazard may be too strong a term. I don’t want to mislead anyone. Armstrong does have a plan and the book progresses from more ancient understandings of civilization to newer ones. Yet the details he picks out are novel and the connections he makes between ideas are not ones you would normally think to link. The exercise is illuminating. Armstrong examines the leisure time of influential Romans, he spends time in Moore’s Utopia, he ponders Mona Lisa’s sexy smile, and he converses with Freud and others. This isn’t dry bones systematic lecturing but more like coffee time on a comfy chair thumbing through a photo album of western civilization’s picture-ideas.

The conclusion? Armstrong suggests you have civilization when a high degree of material prosperity and a high degree of spiritual prosperity come together in mutual enhancement. His book makes a solid case for the efficacy of this definition. Political leaders (actually anyone with a stake in building our society) should take note.

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