Gotham Diary:
In Relation
19 August 2014

One of the books that I’ve been re-reading this summer is John Armstrong’s In Search of Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea. It’s an appealing book, but it disappoints. Nothing so strenuous as remaking transpires in its numerous brief chapters. What we get instead is a lovely sermon, replete with Matthew Arnold’s sweetness and light. We are exhorted to be our best selves, and to develop high-quality relationships with people and things of merit. Civilization is not only the best thing we’ve got, but a kind of mutual-aid operation. While it protects us from our grosser inclinations, we protect it from the ravages of time and ignorance. I agree with almost every positive statement that Armstrong makes. But I cannot imagine that his book would inspire anyone habituated to television as a pastime to turn off the set and improve his or her personal cultivation. While In Search of Civilization cheers on those of us who already appreciate the finer things in life, it does not outline a method for acquiring such appreciation.

How is the man in the couch supposed to begin? Armstrong recalls leading a group of tourists through Florence.

My tour group wanted to be there but did not have a clue what to do with the pictures, statues, buildings and histories on which the reputation of the place rests.

Armstrong quite rightly faults the people who do have a clue for failing to enlighten the public, but, again, he doesn’t propose a scheme for enlightenment. How do you make complex thought apprehendible to people with little experience of it — people for whom anything “serious” is likely to be boring? How do you configure a diet that introduces worthwhile sustenance at the right time? Serve it too early, and it’s cabbage. Withhold it too long, and it’s tepid tea. No wonder those with a taste for nectar devote themselves to cultivating their own gardens.

Having no better ideas myself, I can’t fault Armstrong. But I’m piqued by a thread that runs through his book: the idea that he is working up a philosophy of civilization. At the beginning, he describes a conversation on this very topic.

My friend at lunch was trying to saddle me with the task of discovering what other people have thought about civilization. Whereas what motivates me is something more personal. What do I think? To put it another way, I want to move from asking the historical question about how people happen to have defined civilization to the philosophical question about how we ought to define it.

I applaud Armstrong’s determination to keep things personal; indeed, one of the nicest things about In Search of Civilization is its resemblance to the Web log that I have been looking for for years but never found. But I disagree with the “other way” in which Armstrong states his mission. I don’t believe that a distinction can be made between the historical question and the definitional decision. I suspect that Armstrong wants to spare the reader, and perhaps himself as well, the trouble of sorting through attics of thought before coming to any decisions about what to keep and what to dump. But the replacement of history by philosophy is a mistake of ancient vintage. Plato was an early victim. Instead of inquiring into what is the case, and what has been the case before, Plato proposed to study what ought to be the case, for the simple reason that what ought to be the case must be the case. Centuries of scientific rigor have freed our natural inquiries from this distracting delusion, but the premise lingers on, particular in the purlieus of moral thought.


History is an awful jumble, incomparably messier than “one damned thing after another.” But civilization as we know it is the residue of history. If we don’t know it, then civilization is just so much rubbish taking up space in dusty museums. So we must begin by knowing it as the residue of history. Where did the artefacts of civilization come from? What are the origins of civilized behavior? We cannot hope to grasp the totality of history’s object — everything that has ever happened — but we can try to explain the history of what remains. We can edit and refine, correct and polish the explanations offered by those who have gone before us. The root of my personal optimism is the faith, perhaps inborn, that we can always understand things a little better, a little more completely.

Philosophy, with its notions of how things ought to be, is the last thing we need when trying to explain civilization. We need to stick to what has actually happened, so far as we can make it out. We need to set things out in relation to other things. There are thinkers who believe that the American Revolution was driven by high-minded ideals. There are other thinkers who trace it back to economic opportunism. The role of slavery in the foundation of the new sovereignty casts doubt on both propositions. (In the end, slavery makes no economic sense.) The historian’s job is to lay out the evidence in a way that reduces its complication — its tendency to contradict other evidence — to a complexity that is capable of accommodating inconsistency. For that’s what the American Revolution, like all  ambitious human enterprises, was: inconsistent.

History is empirical and skeptical; it concerns itself with material evidence. Until the Nineteenth Century, most of that evidence was coextensive with the remains of Mediterranean civilization — the temples, the antique histories, the Roman roads — that survived the convulsive gestation of modern Europe. History was philosophical in nature, prone to tell us what ought to have happened. Then historians began consulting bureaucratic archives. These documents were not created with any thought of history in mind, and that unselfconsciousness not only made them more trustworthy but created a counterweight to the wishful thinking of Mediterranean history. History as practiced in modern Europe now became the critical study that it remains today, a pursuit of ongoing and endless, ever more comprehensive reassessment.

History is the central discipline of the humanities because it weighs and considers men and women as they are and have been. It  rejects what ought to have been, so that we may see more clearly what we might become.