The word “civilization” once represented confidence in complex social systems in general and in the social systems of the ancient Mediterranean world and its European successor in particular. Derived from the classical Latin term “civilitas,” which refers to the art of civil government or to citizenship, the English word only came into use in the modern period, probably about the middle of the seventeenth century, to describe a highly developed state of society or people who adhere to the norms of a highly developed state of society. “Civilitas” was already ambiguous in antiquity. The Romans used it to translate the Greek “πολιτική” (politike), or the means of governing a civil community. In the classical Greek tradition, this often meant the management of small city states through face-to-face interactions, but the imperial Romans extended the concept to refer to behavior and institutions that could be spread over vast stretches of territory and different peoples. Being civilized, in the modern sense, carried the varied senses of being part of a broad geographic or imperial order, participating in sophisticated and orderly cultural and political interactions, or conforming to the norms and traditions of a heritage based on Greco-Roman civility or a social pattern in some sense analogous to it.
“Civilization” always calls to my mind Vachel Lindsay’s now politically incorrect poem, “The Congo,” which lauded the triumph of civilization over African “mumbo jumbo.” The condemnation of the Belgian mission civilisatrice in Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost (1998) is one of the most recent illustrations of the contemporary loss of confidence in our civilization. It echoes the well-known retort of Gandhi, who, when asked what he thought of western civilization, replied “I think it would be a good idea.” This loss of confidence arguably began to spread in the years following World War I, when Ezra Pound described the modern developed world as “a botched civilization.” By the end of the twentieth century, challenges to Euro-American dominance of the world reinforced cynicism about the past and future of western civilization and about the very concept of civilization.
We may have carried cynicism too far and risk rejecting the values of civilization along with its imperfections. John Armstrong, a Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School and Senior Adviser to the Vice Chancellor at Melbourne University, offers a fresh look at this idea in In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea (2009). Armstrong examines the different uses of the word and attempts to say how those uses overlap and to suggest what value the idea of civilization might have. He identifies four major senses of the word: civilization as belonging, civilization as material progress, civilization as the art of living, and civilization as spiritual prosperity. He sees being civilized, in other words, as having social, economic, aesthetic, and spiritual dimensions.
Those looking for an argument and conclusions are likely to be disappointed. Armstrong’s work is neither strictly systematic nor rigorously logical. His goal is to say what civilization means in general by saying what it means to him. The book is inconclusive and tentative, but this is a part of its charm: it offers a meditation on civilization rather than an argument about its nature. It is social he suggests, because it entails high quality relationships with other people and draws on ideals from societies of the past. It is economic because a good life, for him, involves a decent standard of living. It is aesthetic because it requires the balancing of the energies of barbarism with the refinement of decadence. It is spiritual because it calls people to depths of feeling and lofty ideas. Ultimately, he sees civilization as the effort to reconcile two kinds of prosperity: material and spiritual.
One of the limitations of Armstrong’s book is that it is so abstract. Civilization, like ice cream, comes in specific flavors. But thinking about what is valuable in civilization in general may help us recover confidence in our own civilization.