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'I'm not elitist', says festival author -

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ELEANOR HALL: He insists he is not an elitist but in his latest new book on civilisation, Professor
John Armstrong laments the failure of culture to keep up with material prosperity in the West over
the last century.

Professor Armstrong is philosopher-in-residence at the Melbourne Business School and he does see
the business world providing a civilizing influence and perhaps sooner than we might expect.

Professor Armstrong is at the Melbourne Writers Festival to talk about his book In Search of
Civilization: Remaking a Tarnished Idea and he joined me earlier in The World Today studio.

John Armstrong, thanks very much for joining us.

Now you say in the title of your book that civilisation is a tarnished idea. Why is that?

JOHN ARMSTRONG: Well, I think that people have lost confidence in use of this big word -
civilisation. Towards the end of the 19th century it got joined up with the colonial project.

So countries, particularly Britain, would go around the world saying - we are going to take over
your country, more or less, but don't worry because we are doing it for civilisation.

ELEANOR HALL: So what is your definition?

JOHN ARMSTRONG: Well, I think that civilisation in fact is the name of something we aspire to
rather than something we have got.

It captures the coming together of two of the great themes of human life. One is the desire for
material security and prosperity. The other is what one might call spiritual prosperity - the
ambition to have deep meaning, serious relationships, happiness.

ELEANOR HALL: So what do you make of the popularity of spiritual self-help groups and books in many
Western societies today?

JOHN ARMSTRONG: I think they are an indication of a tremendous need but I am struck that a lot of
that self-help is happening outside of the great cultural institutions. So it is not our national
galleries, it is not our universities that are the focus of this self-help.

I think that our spiritual needs have gone into a thousand little streams - none of which is very
deep or substantial.

ELEANOR HALL: Is your ideal society, what would it look like? What would we be reading? How would
we be living?

JOHN ARMSTRONG: I think my image of a civilised society is where people take into their commercial
business lives a set of ideals and imagination and the kind of emotional seriousness that allows
them to carry out the projects of meaning and value in the midst of the messy world.

ELEANOR HALL: Yes, in your book you say that you look at changes in business philosophy over the
last several decades and you say that you are now optimistic that business could be the catalyst
for bringing civilisation back in from the cold. What makes you optimistic about the role of

JOHN ARMSTRONG: I see, I spent a lot of time now talking to people in the business world and I am
very struck by their appetite for ideas. It is always going to be challenging in a commercial
environment to really focus on those things.

But I am convinced that there are a great, great many people within the commercial world who care
about civilisation.

ELEANOR HALL: Does this mean that they are reading Tolstoy and looking at Renaissance paintings?

JOHN ARMSTRONG: Um, no it isn't. It doesn't mean that - but Renaissance paintings and Tolstoy are
vehicles for getting us to concern with beauty and meaning in life. They are very good vehicles for
doing that.

But you can talk about elegance without looking at Renaissance painting; you can talk about the
search for meaning in an individual life without reading Tolstoy.

I think many people in the commercial world would be surprised to find how close some of their
concerns are to the concerns of Renaissance painting and the great novelists.

ELEANOR HALL: Your critics would no doubt describe you as an elitist. Are you comfortable with

JOHN ARMSTRONG: I am slightly enraged by it but I'll keep a lid on it. I am actually a
universalist. I believe very strongly in the potential of everyone and it is entirely wrong to
suppose that what I am saying is that one group of people deserves to be treated better than
another. That is the opposite of what I am saying.

ELEANOR HALL: John Armstrong, thanks very much for joining us.


ELEANOR HALL: That is Professor John Armstrong. He is philosopher-in residence at the Melbourne
Business School and he is at the Melbourne Writers Festival to talk about his latest book In Search
of Civilization.