'In Search Of Civilisation' cover
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In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea
By John Armstrong
Allen Lane £14.99, 195 pages
FT Bookshop price: £13.59

In 1872, the artist Gustave Doré produced an arresting book illustration of a cloaked figure sketching the ruins of a once great city. But this was no Athens, Palmyra or Rome. Entitled “The New Zealander”, the engraving showed an inhabitant of the new world looking at the ruins of London. Its message was explicit: 19th-century London might be pre-eminent in the world, but as a model of civilisation it was in decline.

More than a century later, we still inveigh about falling into decay, our anxieties still focus on our cities, and we bandy about the word civilisation, whether in the political drama of Samuel P Huntington’s theory of the clash of civilisations or the marketing speak in a brochure of a holiday cottage, “idyllically situated miles from civilisation”.

The notion of civilisation as an ideal to be examined, pursued and cherished, has become unfashionable. In a passionate and often very personal defence of its qualities, John Armstrong, a philosopher with a special interest in aesthetics, argues that the concept of civilisation still has specific meaning.

In Search of Civilization contains two philosophical strands. First, there is the search for clarity in the definition of a strangely elusive idea. Is civilisation a matter of the collective values and assumptions of society? Is it the rule of law and protection of the weak? Is it a state of technological advance, which facilitates productivity and the creation of wealth, or the resources to wage war? Is it an aesthetic agenda in which the highest levels of beauty and pleasure are available to the wealthy epicure or aesthete? Could it be all these things?

The second strand is a more polemical and unusual argument for the development of individual civilisation as an aspect of the more fashionable business of personal growth: for wisdom, kindness and moderation, which, in a curiously antique spirit, becomes a manifesto for the improving nature of art.

In restoring a meaning to the concept of civilisation, Armstrong is forced to explore some uncomfortable entities: barbarism, vulgarity, taste, nostalgia and the kind of value judgments and moral absolutes that have long been out of favour. Despite his clear intellectual courage, the author is not entirely successful in ridding the word civilisation of its accretions of privilege and cultural imperialism.

The author is a philosopher not a historian – a man of questions rather than answers – and while he retains a love for the literature and art of the past, he seems uneasy with the untidy contradictions of history. His conclusions come strangely adrift from context in an act of cultural bricolage as he urges a reclamation of a Renaissance that retains its paintings and innovation but has been stripped of its brutality; a Victorian Edinburgh of calm bourgeois villas with no view of its rat-infested hovels. More oddly, towards the end of his inquiry, he considers photographs of late 19th-century Berlin. He examines the pleasurable melancholy one might feel watching its sunlit boulevards, prosperous citizens at leisure, its fine architecture, knowing that everything there has gone. But for any modern viewer such sentimental musings must surely be overshadowed by retrospective knowledge of the crimes against humanity that this ostensibly most civilised of nations would soon devise.

Yet there is something else going on here. In Search of Civilization is underscored with the fragments of a memoir that, in part, explain Armstrong’s choice of topic, the book’s considerable charm and its spirit of innocent longing. In the name of civilisation, his is ultimately a plea for the world to be safe, for its artefacts to be beautiful and for men and women to be good.

Elizabeth Speller’s novel, ‘The Return of Captain John Emmett’ will be published in January 2010 (Virago)

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