Episode 53      18 min 09 sec
Growing Spiritual Prosperity

Philosopher and author Assoc Prof John Armstrong talks with host Jacky Angus about the importance and challenge of pursuing "spiritual prosperity" against a backdrop of overwhelming material expectations.

"Capitalism is fundamentally about giving greater freedom to people and one of the huge questions for the world is how to use freedom well." - Assoc Prof John Armstrong




           



Assoc Prof John Armstrong
Assoc Prof John Armstrong

Associate Professor John Armstrong is a Senior Advisor in the Office of the Vice-Chancellor at the University of Melbourne and Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne Business School. He is the author of several internationally acclaimed books: In Search of Civilisation (forthcoming 2009); Love Life Goethe (2006); The Secret Power of Beauty (2004) Conditions of Love (2002) and The Intimate Philosophy of Art (2000) - all published by Penguin UK; his books have been widely translated.

Born in Glasgow, John was educated at Oxford and London, where he completed a Ph.D. on the appreciation of art, before moving to Australia in 2001. His primary interest is in the quality of relationships to ideas, people and objects - and the significance of such relationships for individual and collective flourishing. He is currently writing a book on the secret thoughts, hopes, fears and fantasies we have about the meaning of our own lives.

Credits

Host: Jacky Angus
Producers: Kelvin Param and Eric van Bemmel
Audio Engineer: Craig McArthur
Theme Music performed by Sergio Ercole. Mr Ercole is represented by the Musicians' Agency, Faculty of Music
Voiceover: Paul Richiardi

Series Creators: Eric van Bemmel and Kelvin Param

Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division in association with Asia Institute.

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Growing Spiritual Prosperity

VOICEOVER
Welcome to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia. Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  That’s upclose.u‑n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.

JACKY ANGUS
Hello, and welcome to Up Close, coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I’m Jacky Angus.

In today’s episode of Up Close we consider philosophy for a good life, a philosophy where values and ideals fit into our lives and into our education system.  For example, how important is developing a sense of ethics for commerce and business students?  This is a time where medical ethics, research ethics and business ethics are usually part of a university education.  How are we to understand this attempt to balance initiative, on the one hand, with the possibility of exploitation on the other?  Well, who better to address such questions than a philosopher?

With me in the studio today is Associate Professor John Armstrong, Philosopher in Residence at the Melbourne School of Business here at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Welcome to Up Close, Dr Armstrong.

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Thank you very much.

JACKY ANGUS
When it comes to behaving ethically, business seems to have got a bad rap from educationalists, doesn't it?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Well, that's true.  I think that often education is uncomfortable with the ambitions and drives of business, particularly with the drive to become rich.  Educationalists rarely become rich – they tend to be on the side of restraint, caution and, I suppose, worry about what commerce might be doing to our society.

JACKY ANGUS
But, given recent events at the global financial level, shouldn't commerce and business studies include training in ethics.  

JOHN ARMSTRONG
I think it’s incredibly important that business and commerce are conducted within a good ethical framework.  The question is, how to bring that framework into existence?  How do you get people who are very excited by making a lot of money, who are very keen to go out into the world and do what they can in business – how do you get those people to operate with greater respect for other people, with more caution about the future?

The idea of just having a course, so you go into the class and you're told you should care more about other people and so on, isn't very likely to be effective.  I think that’s really the problem that we face.

JACKY ANGUS
You say somewhere, I think, in your writings that capitalism, to really work, depends on mature people, depends on a mature civilisation.

JOHN ARMSTRONG
That’s absolutely right.  Capitalism is fundamentally about giving greater freedom to people and one of the huge questions for the world is how to use freedom well.  In many countries the history has not quite got to that stage yet, so there are still the battles about how to get a lot of freedom.  In countries like Australia, US and, perhaps, Britain as well, there’s already a lot of freedom there.

In a sense, the urgent questions are now about how to use freedom well.  We haven't collectively paid enough attention to those issues but it’s now becoming clear that we should do so.

JACKY ANGUS
One of the interesting things you talk about in your work is the need for a relationship to ideas and places and people and memories.  Can you explain what you mean by that?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
When we think about relationships between individuals, think about friendship.  A good friendship is a high quality of relationship, quite different from someone you just happen to know.  In a close friendship, the other person gives you something that you really value and you give them something that they really value.  A good friendship is good for you; it is very personal and it contributes to the development of who you really are and who you can be.

Friendship between people is a very important model for thinking about our relationship to ideas.  An idea can be like an acquaintance.  Sometimes if you get to know an idea it can contribute something genuinely good to you, but you have to bring yourself to that relationship – you have to have a sense of why me, what is this idea really saying in my life, what does it really matter to me?  I think that if we ask that question we’re enriching the relationship between an individual and an idea.  That idea, like a friend, can play a good constructive role in our lives.

JACKY ANGUS
Does that mean that really improving people’s understanding of that relationship is absolutely central to a good education, particularly tertiary level?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
It’s not just having an understanding of a relationship, it’s having a relationship – it’s very sad to imagine someone knowing a lot about friendship but not having any friends.

JACKY ANGUS
Indeed.

JOHN ARMSTRONG
The aim is to have those relationships.  In having them, as in friendship, you have to do things within yourself.  Friendship has certain kinds of expectations about who you are.

A relationship to an idea, again, is about discovering not just facts about the idea but things about yourself and that’s why it’s part of the maturing process.  I think that we need to concentrate on bringing that personal growth, that personal development, into intellectual life a lot more.

JACKY ANGUS
I know that one of the things that interests you is civilisation and what it means.  Civilisation is one of those words which, although it sounds splendid, is a bit obscure.  What do you mean by a civilised life and civility?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Civilisation is to do with the joining up of two things that can go well.  One is what I call “material prosperity”.  That means being on top of getting things done; having enough money, having enough resources in your society.  The other thing is what I call “spiritual prosperity”.  That really means the quality of your internal life; the kinds of things you care about, what you find beautiful or interesting, how meaningful your experience is.

In an ordinary life, I would guess, we want both of these things to go well.  As societies across the world we want both of these things to go well at the same time.

The last 25 or 30 years, I think, have shown acceleration in many places of material prosperity.  That is, we’ve got much better at accumulating financial resources until quite recently – until the crisis – but, broadly speaking, that was what was going on.  I think we’ve had much less progress in cultivating spiritual prosperity; happiness, appreciation of beauty, love of other people, a sense of noble purpose in life.

Many countries have experienced an imbalance between, as it were, the resources almost like a muscular strength and a sense of meaning and value.  So all that muscular strength doesn't really have the control, a sense of what it should be doing – the mind that should be controlling it has not really developed at the same pace.  It’s like adolescence: it’s a point where someone’s capacities for action have developed very suddenly but their understanding of what is good or right or how to make a good life for themselves has not developed at the same pace.  It will, perhaps, in the future but it hasn’t yet.

We’re in a kind of adolescent situation where we’ve had these great increases in resources but not an increase in wisdom and maturity.

JACKY ANGUS
You're listening to Up Close coming to you from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  I’m Jacky Angus and I’m talking to Associate Professor John Armstrong.
Well, John, we’ve talked about material prosperity and balancing it with spiritual prosperity.  How does one achieve spiritual prosperity in a kind of philosophic sense, I suppose?  I mean, I know that Aristotle talked about a sort of contemplative speculation, which is a complex phrase, but even if one becomes more contemplative, more thoughtful, this does assume a psychological readiness, doesn’t it?  It sounds like it’s a complicated business.

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Spiritual prosperity, I think, is not ultimately a complicated characteristic.  When I think about the people in my life who I would say have got spiritual prosperity, they’re not the brainiest, not the most highly educated, not the people who have read the most books and so on.  It’s, rather, people who have digested their experience, made sense of their experience, who have patience with more complicated things but who have got a strong internal sense of justice, of what they believe, of what is good.

Those qualities are strengthened and enriched but what I might call intellectual education, at least they can be.  Studying history or philosophy or reading works of literature is like having conversations with other people who have gone before us through the path of life and tried to make sense of it. And often, they’ve got really valuable and interesting things to say.  So, studying their works, thinking about their works is an extension of the normal, natural, non-intellectual process of seeking maturity, seeking spiritual value and spiritual prosperity.

I think we should see sophisticated or serious education here as helping a process which goes on anyway.  It would be a mistake – in fact, I think it’s one of the big mistakes of recent Western culture – to mis-describe cleverness as spiritual prosperity.  There’s a drive to let’s see how sophisticated we can get, what clever things we can say, how amazingly complicated we can make something.  That is not actually a help in life and that’s where the problem lies.

JACKY ANGUS
One of the things I know you've written on is happiness and love and art; that these are things that actually trigger, I think, in everybody’s mind.  Also in beauty – why does beauty matter in this whole wonderful scheme of things?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Beauty is a very profound experience.  When you find something beautiful it strikes you as loveable, as desirable, as good, and it touches deep chords in us.  We long for what we see there, we long for what it points to.  That experience is telling us something very important about ourselves and about the world, but having that experience is not dependent upon being intellectually sophisticated.

JACKY ANGUS
It kind of points to something beyond, too, doesn't it?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
The things that may seem very distant or ideal – perfection, love, a sense of completeness, of everything being right – they are available to us in that object.  For me it’s like looking at the sunset where the sunlight is coming down through the trees and it’s all golden and light.  I think it’s telling me something very important about life and about myself.  It’s saying, have more of this in your life, remember that this is what you care about.

JACKY ANGUS
As you speak, it sounds to me as though one really needs an education in the humanities before you can do a lot in the world.  I wonder, do scientists miss out when they don’t have this sense of having read the great books of literature and philosophy, perhaps having some understanding of art, having experiences of beauty?  Or is that not necessary?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
You don't have to have read lovely novels or spend time thinking about sunsets in order to be a good scientist.  The issue is about people.  Beauty and the encounter with the writings of some of the most thoughtful and imaginative people in the history of the world is not something that should be there for one section of the population who happen to do a course in it.  These are universal human goods – it’s not something that you just sort of miss out on because you were a bit busy doing something else.
I think, also, that one of the key things that we are going to face in the future is the control of science; that is, the values which guide our use of scientific resources.  The power of the scientific understanding of the natural world is so vast, so precise, that it’s going to unleash incredible capacities to mould human beings, to change the way we live.  We will need to be extremely wise – collectively wise – in order to use it well.

I’ve been talking about how economies, as they grow, give freedom and opportunity to people and that freedom and opportunity needs to be used well.  Science is in the process of doing that tenfold.

JACKY ANGUS
Coming back to the universities and to education in general, obviously even secondary and primary school education, there does seem to me to be a need to emphasise values and the capacity to choose better through the curricula.  Would you agree with that?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
It’s a tricky problem here.  The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, once argued that most of our character is determined before we start at school.  It’s very dependent upon our upbringing, it’s dependent on who our friends are, it’s dependent upon the kind of world that we’re introduced to.
I think there’s only a certain amount that schools can do.  I think we have to look more broadly into the kind of society and culture that we have.  So if you say, for example, that a huge part of a child’s education will actually happen through the internet and television, then it’s really in those areas that we have to look.  I think that’s going to take a lot of grown up intervention, a lot of grown up confidence to deal with; it is not an easy matter but it’s a very important matter.

JACKY ANGUS
Are you optimistic?

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Well, optimism is a way of saying you think something is worth doing and that you're going to make the effort to do it.  It’s not the belief that inevitably things are going to be great; it’s more like a confidence or a willingness to give something a really good go.  We need to believe that we can improve the quality of our culture, and I sincerely believe that that is possible.

JACKY ANGUS
And on that positive note, thank you very much, Dr John Armstrong.

JOHN ARMSTRONG
Thank you.

JACKY ANGUS
You’ve been listening to Up Close, from the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Relevant links, a full transcript and more information on this episode can found on our website at upclose.unimelb.edu.au.  You can leave a comment on any episode of Up Close by clicking at the link at the bottom of the page.  Melbourne University Up Close is brought to you by the Marketing and Communications Division, in association with Asia Institute, at the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Up Close is created and produced by Erik van Bemmel and Kelvin Param.  Our audio engineer is Craig McArthur and our theme music was performed by Sergio Ercole.

I’m Jacky Angus.  Until next time, thank you for joining Up Close.  Goodbye.

VOICEOVER
You’ve been listening to Melbourne University Up Close, a fortnightly podcast of research, personalities and cultural offerings of the University of Melbourne, Australia.  Up Close is available on the web at upclose.unimelb.edu.au, that’s upclose.u-n-i-m-e-l-b.edu.au.  Copyright 2008 University of Melbourne.


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