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Nature’s Noblemen

A paean to the prophets of beauty and culture.

Apr 18, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 30 • By J.E. LENDON
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In Search of Civilization
Remaking a Tarnished Idea
by John Armstrong
Graywolf, 208 pp., $24

Kenneth Clark, 1966

Kenneth Clark, 1966

Popperfoto / Getty Images

The play of light through a glass of Château d’Yquem; the soaring terribilità of a nuclear aircraft carrier; the gleam in the eye of a John Singer Sargent beauty; the crunch of Charun’s fatal mallet, expunging a wounded gladiator in the Roman Coliseum to the cheerful airs of the water-calliope—all these are confounded within the generous realm we call “civilization.”

Professors do not like the word: The minority of clear thinkers complain that it admits of no definition that takes in all of its meanings, and the moral tongue-clickers (much the majority) think the term sullied by those generations when the West, or so they are assured, sought to impose its “civilization” upon others with the Maxim gun.

“Stuff!” cries John Armstrong. He will raise the principle of civilization up again to glory, and guide us to felicity in so doing. To Armstrong, civilization is necessary for the good life, and the good life consists of the elegant enjoyment of life’s good things, while the good society is produced by wealth and taste. Armstrong’s, then, is a philosophical Gospel of Wealth, and so a rather surprising irruption into common sense by a contemporary professor of philosophy—even one who has dealt in classic Italian automobiles.

Armstrong’s teachings are refreshing because high thinking has traditionally been hostile to money. Following Socrates, the philosophers of ancient Greece resolutely separated the things of this world from the welfare of the soul. The Stoics considered material goods irrelevant to the good life, while the Epicureans (despite their reputation) regarded piled possessions as a positive hindrance to the ataraxia, life without disagreeable sensation, which they sought. Cynic—“Dog”—philosophers sometimes pursued a pure asceticism: Diogenes the Cynic lived on the street in a giant pot, and (the story goes), when asked by the stooping Alexander the Great what gift he would like to receive, retorted, “Just stop blocking the sun!”

Come Christianity, the narrow eye of heaven’s needle always threatened the camel of wealth. As the new religion spread in the Roman world and had in practice to accommodate wealthy parishioners and plump prelates, nevertheless its theology shifted little in favor of Mammon. Even the globular Christian grandees of late Rome and Constantinople, whose shining silks hurt the eye and whose countless rings bent the hands that bore them—even they idolized filthy hermits babbling in the desert, and flocked to soiled saints perched high on poles, whose meager sustenance was hauled up to them in baskets, and whose discharges, conveyed down in those same baskets, were revered as relics by the prosperous pious below.

Greeks’ and theologians’ dour double disapproval of money has been the hideous inheritance of the West. Reinforced by aristocratic and would-be aristocratic disdain for work, hostility to wealth had, by the mid-19th century, torn free of its intellectual roots and become one of those ideas accepted without thought by a certain kind of intellectual, whatever his relationship to Greeks or theologians. Marx was heir to this prejudice, and the millions killed by Marx’s followers its victims. So pervasive was this idea that even 19th-century Utilitarianism, whose principle of “the greatest happiness for the greatest number” should have made its followers leading advocates of economic liberty (as, indeed, they began), evolved over time a hostility to getting and spending; John Stuart Mill ended his life a socialist.

The two imps of the ancient mind, that wealth is either irrelevant to the good life or its bane, still rule the world of higher thought today. And the second, grimmer goblin has given birth to monstrous modern offspring: first, the notion that others should be deprived of their wealth for the good of their souls; and second, that the height of human aspiration—the very perfection of the soul—consists exactly of high-mindedly depriving others of their means. We see this all around us. But although self-realization through smug confiscation is the secret ambition of most of the contemporary left, it is especially among today’s environmentalists that one gets the strongest sense that their own happiness is rooted, not in gamboling among the trees and dancing with the squirrels, but in contriving the impoverishment of their less morally elevated countrymen.

A laswegian contrarian in the tradition of Adam Smith, Armstrong scorns this deep-rooted suspicion of money. Civilization, says he, is essential for humans to flourish, and civilization consists of mutually vivifying material and spiritual prosperity. Beautiful things are essential to the good life, and so also the means to get them: There is nothing morally corrosive in comfort. We are not to be ashamed of our fat bank accounts, of our books and sculptures—or of our classic Italian automobiles. Freedom is necessary and capitalism good because they allow us these things; and the left’s aversion to capitalism is driven chiefly by snobbery. Still, consumption without taste is careless of beauty (witness the contemporary art market) or even destructive of beauty (witness modernist architecture). The past, the arts and humanities, should be our guides to the right use of our wealth, to what we should and should not desire. Shame, then, on the professors, who have confined the arts and humanities to the oubliettes of academic departments and who, by teaching their students only their own brand of micro-scholarship, have sundered the bond that properly exists between great art and books and public taste.

Armstrong paints a magically acidulous picture of today’s Florence, where ignorant prosperity in fanny packs heaves in its multitudes past masterpieces it is too ill-taught to appreciate, while the academicians of Harvard’s nearby Villa I Tatti (once the home of Bernard Berenson, perhaps the most civilized American that ever lived), who should be able to appreciate the glories of the Renaissance city, scribble their arid abstractions in indifference. And a special corner of Armstrong’s Hades is reserved for contemporary artists and writers who have accepted the professors’ dictum that the main purpose of their art is to be “interesting” or “provocative,” rather than beautiful and uplifting.

Matthew Arnold is Armstrong’s inspiration, and John Ruskin and Kenneth Clark and, I suspect, the contemporary conservative philosopher of aesthetics Roger Scruton: Armstrong’s book is wonderfully old-fashioned, avowedly and proudly conservative, an admirable excavation of good old ideas from admirable old authors. But what separates Armstrong’s book from today’s myriad moans about the decline of taste and rise of barbarism is its optimism: For in its unlimited, cheerful confidence in high culture’s power to elevate and ennoble, in the power of great art widely known to make lives better, In Search of Civilization reminds the reader ever so slightly of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

J. E. Lendon, professor of history at the University of Virginia, is the author of Song of Wrath: The Peloponnesian War Begins and Soldiers and Ghosts: A History of Battle in Classical Antiquity.

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