Civilisation: it’s more than good culture

An insightful new book reminds us that we need both spiritual and material wealth to create the good society.

Angus Kennedy

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The world has become more civilised over the past 50 years than anything in the popular imagination allows credit for. Whether it is 300million people lifted from poverty in China – almost equivalent to the entire population of the United States – or continuing advances in living standards, literacy, information technology and life expectancy, civilisation has been everywhere on the march.

When we discuss it and think about civilisation though, we are more likely to talk of the lost ‘glories’ of Mayan civilisation or at best Ancient Greece and Rome (though not without making a sneering reference to their slave-based economies) than we are to call ourselves civilised. Or we discuss how climate change will destroy civilisation and we hear how maybe that would be a good thing since the world is apparently vastly overpopulated with a greedy and destructive humanity. We listen to Maurice Strong, first executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), saying: ‘Isn’t the only hope for the planet that the industrialised civilisations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?’

Why this low opinion of civilisation? It is partly because we operate with a very one-sided view of what it means to be civilised. We tend to see it only in terms of culture (and usually elite culture at that), the arts or personal behaviour, and we forget or dismiss the more practical side of it, the side that has to do with material as well as spiritual prosperity.

One of the strengths of the philosopher John Armstrong’s new book In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea is his identification of the importance of the material side to civilisation. Where the sheen has been taken off the idea of civilisation, it is precisely on the side to do with the material aspects of life. But what that leaves behind – the spiritual side – becomes equally tarnished if it is left to stand on its own; it becomes mind without body, quality without quantity. We must produce as well as consume to create meaning in our lives; if we do not, we become decadent.

For example, the crowning of the city of Liverpool as European City of Culture in 2008, almost as a reward for its economic devastation, and the current hopes placed by the UK National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts (NESTA) in Britain’s creative industries are contemporary examples of this decadent separation of the material from the spiritual and cultural.

But civilisation – Western civilisation in particular – has been under attack for well over a hundred years now, longer if we go back as far as the Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment. The post-Second World War Frankfurt School argued that civilisation has a tendency to self-destruction, that reason grows to take dominance not just over nature but over humanity itself, that reason led to fascism, and that in the end we can only take solace in art. Civilisation is dismissed by many as, at best, a relative good with all civilisations being equally worthy. Others have a particular problem with Western civilisation as nothing more than cultural imperialism. Perhaps most tellingly, the environmental critique argues that human civilisation is no longer sustainable and is nothing more than an act of barbarism against nature.

In this context it is refreshing to find someone who is prepared to stand in defence not only of civilisation, but also of material prosperity. The attempt to do so in these times is so difficult that Armstrong comes across in parts as almost otherworldly. It is so rare to read someone willing to use words like ‘wisdom’, ‘good taste’ and ‘refinement’ that one wonders if Armstrong has either missed the past 150 years or is hopelessly naive. Nonetheless, he makes a very useful stab at laying out what he thinks civilisation is and why it is so important for us.

Armstrong identifies four views of civilisation and examines them in turn: civilisation as belonging to a particular culture and society; as a certain degree of political and economic development, as material progress; as the art of refined and tasteful living; and as spiritual prosperity. The first of these is well known from Samuel P Huntington’s The Clash of Civilisations: the idea that each civilisation provides those born into it with certain ways of being, laws and social norms: this is civilisation as Kultur. We know though that merely belonging to a civilisation is not enough to make one civilised in a strong sense. We recognise degrees of civilisation within a people as a whole. A civilisation, for example, which operates prisons for huge numbers of its people hardly fits our ideas of what civilisation really means. Belonging is not a sufficient condition of civilisation, although it is surely necessary.

Armstrong sees this as a problem of the separation of quantity (official civilisation and widespread social norms reach most of the people) and quality (the deeper attachments in a few to the best in all civilisations). The trick is how to bring quality, the best on offer, to the widest number of people. Armstrong follows Matthew Arnold in arguing: ‘The work of civilisation is to speak to the ordinary self of its longing to become the best version of itself.’ We must take the best of each civilisation to make ourselves better. This means giving people the freedom to develop love for ideas, objects and other people, not simply regulating them.

If we agree then that civilisation is not a relative cultural concept, but something common to us all, the best of humanity, then maybe it is to be located in material progress, as Adam Smith had it: in the division of labour, increasing efficiency and reducing costs that allow us to accumulate possessions, wealth and technological advances. Armstrong points out that the problem here, of course, is that we do have spiritual as well as material needs. We ‘are physical creatures with minds that aspire to abstract ideals: beauty, goodness and truth’.

We often hear worries that increasing material prosperity actually leads to a decline in spiritual prosperity – whether because of growing inequality and hence envy and violence, or through the struggle to keep up with the Joneses. In other words, material wealth leads to alienation. Being rich doesn’t make you happy, as we hear so often these days.

Civilisation, though, has to be a marriage of material prosperity and prosperity of the soul. For Armstrong, Goethe is a key exemplar of what he means. He traces in his earlier book, Love, Life, Goethe: How to be Happy in an Imperfect World, how Goethe rejected Romanticism, had little time for those who wanted to make reality out of their poetic dreams, but instead wanted to make reality poetic. He tried to live well in an imperfect world, to be human without God and without replacing him with Nature, to create ‘a marriage of depth and power – which is a good definition of civilisation’. He doesn’t want to ditch material prosperity, but, if you like, wants to bring good taste and enjoyment back to consumption. He wants to find a way in which we produce what we want to consume. That is, for the quality of demand to keep pace with the quantity of supply.

Why is it though that this gap between quantity and quality, between reality and our ideas, exists? As Armstrong puts it: ‘The core problem of Western civilisation is that material prosperity has increased rapidly while spiritual prosperity has not increased to the same extent.’ As individuals, we have our weaknesses, of course, and as a society we are not organised for the benefit of all. One of the reasons why we despair of civilisation is that we see so much barbarism on display and not so many examples of the sophisticated pursuit of pleasure, the art of living. If we simply accumulate more and more stuff – piling it up like some modern Midas – we hardly exhibit civilised behaviour. We are not bringing refinement and taste to our possessions.

What Armstrong is talking about here is the need to give meaning to the process of accumulation: a library of unread books bought only for show might count for him as meaningless accumulation. A library of well-used and well-loved books, though, is an example of how material things and possession can lead us on to higher things, can serve to ‘raise people from mass to elite culture’. Not by dismissing mass pleasures with contempt, but by recognising them as addressing the same concerns as elite culture, but in a less developed and insightful way.

Elite culture does not mean the snobbery, airs and graces of the rich and powerful. The famous art historian Kenneth Clark tried to ‘define civilisation in terms of creative power and the enlargement of human faculties’, not in terms of ‘leisure and superfluity’. Civilisation is essentially a public, open and democratic concept. In terms of architecture it is the portico, the colonnade, the loggia and not the castle, palace or stately home. It is the Parthenon not the Tower of London, St Mark’s Square not the gardens of Versailles. It is more about letting someone out from a side street into busy traffic than it is about owning a Gainsborough.

Decadence, on the other hand, is consumption without creativity or production and leads to fatalism and defeatism, ultimately to a loss of meaning in our lives and in society. When we fund our consumption on tick, on mortgage equity, we accumulate without purpose and lose sight of the what for.

Armstrong ends with a definition: ‘Civilisation occurs when a high degree of material prosperity and a high degree of spiritual prosperity come together and mutually enhance each other.’ We consume in a refined way and that same refinement encourages production. While the definition may be good, albeit dualistic, and his unwillingness to jettison material prosperity laudable and brave, he sees our current problem as being the ‘greater strength of the pursuit of material prosperity, which has attained a degree of magnitude that outruns the spiritual resources of our time’. He aims for ‘the development of spiritual prosperity in such a way that it can hold its own against the material drive’. We live in a global economy but we are not happy.

Here Armstrong runs the risk of becoming truly naive or sounding like a self-improvement manual. He suggests that we find ways of making doing good profitable. That doesn’t mean that he thinks making profits is morally good. Instead he wants us to be paid for being noble and intelligent. Nice, but no cigar. Business is not about teaching people their real needs and then delivering them: its about making profits by whatever means necessary. And it is not about to get into bed with the humanities to refine our tastes.

Where Armstrong goes wrong is in terms of a massive underestimation or simple failure to recognise the degree to which the pursuit of material prosperity is now seen as morally bad. We have no shortage of voices telling us to look to our spiritual wellbeing: to be happy because we are poor. We have next to no one pointing out that – certainly in the developed countries – we have not been producing enough for a long time now, have not been moving humanity forward fast enough in a material sense and it is because of that reason more than anything else that the spiritual side has fallen behind. It has been 40 years since we put a man on the moon; Concorde, the nearest thing we had to fast international travel, is grounded. We have lost faith in our ability to produce and are forced to choose between barbarism (accumulation to no end) or decadence (consumption without production).

Only one alternative at the moment moves us beyond this stark choice, but would destroy civilisation: the green argument that we must both produce and consume less in the interests of nature and the planet. This is to render us meaningless. If we produce and consume the minimum for survival then existence becomes worthless. If we get over civilisation, we become natural beings only and not natural human beings. In an age of austerity we must make the argument for both quantity and quality. We must demand more growth and production, not blindly, as ends in themselves, but in the context of asking ourselves: what kind of world do we want to create for ourselves and what kind of lives do we want to lead?

Clark saw civilisation as the history of ‘life-giving ideas’. For example, that means asking why the Renaissance is important to us more than it means knowing a lot about the history of the Quattrocento. This creation of meaning is what allows civilisation to renew itself. It means understanding, for example, that ‘nature is violent and brutal, and there’s nothing we can do about it. But New York, after all, was made by men’. And so we can ask why and what next for the great idea of civilisation.

Angus Kennedy is a member of the organising committee of the Battle of Ideas festival.

In Search of Civilisation: Remaking a Tarnished Idea, by John Armstrong is published by Allen Lane. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

For more book reviews and essays, see the spiked review of books.

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