When the fluorescent glow of modern entertainment begins to wear on you and the adolescent emanations of our entertainment industry start to make you despair, you can do no better than to return to the classics. And should you choose to do so, you will find no more rewarding experience than to watch, or re-watch, Kenneth Clark’s seminal series Civilisation.
The famed art historian, who among a host of accomplishments notably helped safeguard the treasures of the British museums during World War II, created in 1969 thirteen glorious hour-long episodes that finally demonstrated the full potential of the cathode ray tube. Despite nearly 1,500 years of achievement in philosophy, poetry, science, music, architecture, law, art, and religion, the cultural world of Western civilization was in the late 1960s experiencing a moment of self-doubt. Lord Clark (who earned his feudal honors partly as a result of this televised cri de coeur) wanted to remind his audience—some of whom had forgotten, many of whom had never been taught—what civilization was really all about, why it should be preserved, and why, and how, it had persevered for nearly two hundred years after the barbarians had pushed over the classical world.
His kaleidoscopic tour (color was new then to television) is a remarkable adventure that begins just after the fall of the Roman Empire, with Western civilization precariously preserved (“its heart almost stopped beating”) in the minds of monks hiding on the rocky, wave-swept northern isles of Skellig Michael and Iona. Clark emphasizes the fragility of civilization and sums up the primary cause of collapse in words that have recently become a focal point of our presidential selection process: a lack of energy. Classical civilization had lost confidence in its ideals; it was bored; it was exhausted. And while it might have drifted along for some time longer (as perhaps our civilization is in danger of doing?), it could not withstand the influx of the barbarians.
If Clark’s disaffected contemporaries (he notes that even in Roman times there were advanced thinkers who “thought it fine to gang up with the barbarians”) found his historical observations vaguely antique in the 1960s, they seem rather more precocious fifty years later when the Middle Eastern migrant crisis is in the headlines daily. But his simple summary of what constitutes Western civilization must have seemed, to the malcontents, even more impudent. He declares in episode two that it could be “convincingly argued that Western civilization was basically the creation of the Church.”
Clark is no wide-eyed idealist, and he recognizes that it takes more than faith to build a civilization. As a modern man, he says he abhors violence. But returning to the idea of energy and confidence, he explains how conflict, fighting, even glory, are critical components of civilization. And it is obviously the case that without Charles Martel’s defeat of the Moors in 732 and Charlemagne’s savage efforts to reunite Europe, Western civilization would not have emerged. Clark also distinguishes the Church’s temporal power from its spiritual foundation. Because men of intelligence “naturally and normally took holy orders,” and because the Church was democratic and international, it is understandable that its impact was transformational. Nevertheless, the architecture and art produced by men of faith is clearly full of confidence and energy, and Clark responds personally to its clarity of purpose. The tenth-century Cross of Lothair, which is bejeweled on the front but carries a simple etched engraving of the crucifixion on the back, is “one of the most moving objects that has come down to us from the distant past.” Indeed, the respect and reverence that Clark lavishes on the artistic and cultural pillars of Western civilization creates its own foundation for the rest of the series—and rings a clear note of truth in a modern world full of doubts.
As Clark walks through the next few episodes and centuries, the sheer range and scope of his learning is intimidating, and we witness the full edifice of Western civilization as it is slowly erected on the Christian foundation. The courtly respect for women grew out of the period of chivalry, and mirrored the growing devotion to Mary in the church; the rise of the Franciscans dramatized their belief in the unity of creation and brotherly love, movingly recorded and interpreted by Dante and Giotto—and by Clark without any postmodern dissection of motivation or judgment.
The rise of banking and trade, and the hard labor of men of genius (no murky historical currents of inevitable progress here) continued its development. Petrarch and Boccaccio did as much as anyone to reintroduce classical knowledge to the Western world, Clark says. And the confidence in the value of man as the measure of things produced a new realism in painting. But the old themes are still strong: “Botticelli’s Venus, not at all the amorous strumpet of paganism, is pale and withdrawn and dissolves into his image of the Virgin Mary.” When the ambitious Pope Julius II decided to rebuild the Cathedral of St. Peter in Rome on a scale matching and exceeding the glory of the ancient world, the consequence is Michelangelo’s immortal ceiling on the Sistine Chapel, a great celebration of the unity of man’s body, mind, and spirit.
Alas, the perceived unity was not to last. The arrival of the printing press and its first great virtuoso, the ecclesiastically reform-minded Erasmus, began to test the foundations. But Erasmus was concerned about the Protestants. Clark quotes a letter of his saying: “I have seen them return from hearing a sermon as if inspired by an evil spirit. The faces of all showed a curious wrath and ferocity.” Luther had no such concerns, and while he was personally opposed to the destruction of images and works of art that soon followed, the whole edifice of Western Christianity began to shake and crack, literally, as statues of the Virgin Mary and stained glassed windows and reredos were smashed and destroyed.
Clark concludes that the energy of Protestantism was revitalizing, and prevented the petrification of Western civilization that doomed the classical world. But he is nevertheless highly sympathetic to the Catholic world and suggests that civilization never really recovered: “One can’t point to a single piece of specifically Protestant architecture or sculpture, which shows how much these expressions of civilization depended on the Catholic Church.” The destructive wars that dominated Europe for over a century forced thinking men such as Montaigne to isolate themselves to ponder the truth, and to reexamine the foundations of existence. Shakespeare’s declaration, spoken by Macbeth, of life as “a tale/ Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,/ signifying nothing” seems, to Clark, an unthinkable utterance before the Reformation shattered Western confidence, though he suggests that outstaring the world’s emptiness was in the end a sign of strength.
Of course, in Baroque Rome, the Authority of the church was maintained even in places that seem surprising today, such as the artistic community, where it produced an “expenditure of human genius in the service of God made triumphantly visible to us with every step we take.” The great artists of the time, he says, were all “sincere, conforming Christians” who prayed, went on retreats, and attended Mass regularly. And their art was an expression of their faith. In fact, the sixteenth-century religious revival that produced St. John of the Cross, St. Ignatius Loyola, and St. Teresa of Avila was “a period of sanctity almost equal to the twelfth [century].” So while the refined intellectual atmosphere of the Protestant north may have been stimulating, the Catholic Church remained the great civilizing, harmonizing force for ordinary people. And Clark extols its works with admiration.
Although much of Clark’s series is dedicated to exhibiting the manifestations of the intellectual mindset of Western civilization as represented in architecture and the visual arts, the score throughout is impressive and evocative, and when it is appropriate he puts music and musicians on center stage. He compares Handel’s Messiah to Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam as a rare masterpiece of the highest order which appeals immediately to everyone. Long passages of Bach accompany a magnificent tour of the German organs, expressions of municipal pride and the work of local craftsmen. Clark laments that “when the Calvinists in their still more resolute purification of the Christian rite prohibited organs and destroyed them, they caused more distress than had ever been caused by the destruction of images.”
Of course, Reason soon began to intone her siren song, and the intellectuals harkened to it. The rational practicality that first emerged in the Netherlands (where, Clark says, men began to ask not “what is God’s will?” but “what works?”) started to spread. A Scotsman, Clark takes understandable pride in the achievements of his fellow countrymen Adam Smith, David Hume, Joseph Black, and James Watt.Voltaire’s passion for justice and toleration challenged the Church, which to many of his contemporaries seemed increasingly corrupted by worldly affairs. While Voltaire remained a Deist (over his personal chapel appeared the words “Deo Erexit Voltaire,” erected to God by Voltaire), materialism gained ground, and Christianity became rationalized into the self-evident truths of Natural Law (perceived by Washington and Jefferson) and the stoic, classical Republican virtue which are sunk as the pillars of a new morality.
Then, in Clark’s view, after nearly a thousand years, the animating force of Christianity, at least in intellectual society, declined and practically disappeared. In the 1730s, the French philosopher Montesquieu had noted that there is “no religion in England,” which seems surprising given the cultural view that inevitably perceives the decline of religion always to be a contemporary phenomenon. But a belief in Nature blossomed in England and was distributed to the European mind by Rousseau, who concluded that “our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived through the senses.” Clark contemplates the effects of the deification of sensation—“I feel therefore I am”—that continues to dominate modern life, and reminds his viewers that the Marquis de Sade noted that the goddess of Nature was hardly innocent, but in reality hungers for bloodshed. Nevertheless, Nature inspired Wordsworth’s poems, and Turner’s sublime paintings, as each endeavored to describe the world accurately, and therefore to capture the only Truth, a marked change from the traditional depiction of Christian religious themes.
When Nature inevitably fails as a god, the Western mind lurches towards the excitement and feeling of Romanticism for fulfillment—another theme that continues to brood over the world to this day. But the frantic emotion that consumed the French Revolution (which, Clark says, began as a product of the Age of Reason) also conjured up Napoleon who, though destructive in some ways, Clark reminds us also embodies the energetic, fighting spirit of civilization to a high degree. It is a profound and provocative observation that war is a life-giving component of civilization, and Clark quotes Ruskin uneasily, saying “No great art ever yet rose upon earth but among a nation of soldiers.” But the failure of political revolution to remake society, and the tyrannical impulse it unleashes, broke the spell. When Napoleon declared himself emperor, Beethoven tore up his dedication (to Napoleon) of the Third Symphony, and Byron, the poet of the age, had his lyric prisoner of Chillon, on being released, conclude that life is still the same: “I learn’d to love despair,” foreshadowing Beckett and Sartre.
Civilization endured, however, and the industrial revolution soon poured forth from an energetic middle class. But the complacent, conventional morality was emotionally unfulfilling to intellectuals and artists who were left with a continued “sense of isolation and despair.” Still, Clark’s discourse on Rodin’s outrageously modern sculpture of the French novelist Balzac, who towered over the nineteenth-century imagination, suggests a glimmer of light. Though it enraged its contemporary critics, Clark calls it perhaps the greatest sculpture of the age precisely because it captures the writer’s essence, which was his ability to “gobble up” people without a thought: “Balzac, with his prodigious understanding of human motives, scorns conventional values, defies fashionable opinions, as Beethoven did, and should inspire us to defy all those forces that threaten to impair our humanity.” And, though Clark doesn’t mention it, Balzac’s intellectual touchstone was the Catholic Church.
The series concludes with an ambivalent segment on “heroic materialism.” He begins with New York as its centerpiece, commenting that while Manhattan may look like a celestial city from a distance, up close it’s “not so good.” Of course he approves of the fantastic reductions in poverty, hunger, plague, and slavery that have been achieved, but expresses concern about the potential for technology-enabled authoritarianism and destruction. He senses the spiritual emptiness of the modern world, but celebrates the new generation. “These inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough, and not at all like the melancholy late Romans or pathetic Gauls whose likenesses have come down to us. In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well fed, well read, as bright minded, as curious and as critical as the young are today.” Which gives him some hope.
The intellectual journey that Clark chaperones is plenty invigorating, and more than sufficient to justify the series. But the production itself is a worthy vessel for his learning. Throughout, it maintains a majestically slow pace. Luxuriously long moments where the visuals are completely unencumbered by any commentary whatsoever are hallmarks of Civilisation; you can almost feel the delight that the cinematographers must have felt as they tested the full power of their new, full-color medium. And the wide range of geography, architecture, art, music, and ideas that are explored is its own intrinsic expression of civilization, as well as a defense of it. As a personal view, Civilisation is hardly comprehensive. (Spain is left out entirely.) But all art is personal. And if it seems, now, like something out of another era, that only enhances its sense of authenticity. Even the screen colors, which are a slightly different palette than the collage that generates HDTV, effortlessly serve to create a distinct mood. All this, viewable on YouTube or DVD, is a gift for modern eyes.
Finally, Clark himself is a piece of cinematic art. He steps onto the stage in his period suit, wearing his patrician voice lightly, and, like a great actor, his calm, gentlemanly presence transports you back in time to, well, a more civilized era. He flexes his shoulders, and stretches his neck, and swallows as he gathers his thoughts, not as if he is on camera, but as if he is in your living room. Which he is. And he is simply being himself. It is hard to imagine someone like him—his pure smile is un-reconstructed by the dental artistry of our times—successfully navigating the demands of our contemporary video culture. There is no artifice; it is simply the power of creation at work, and as an aesthetic experience it is dazzling.
As the series ends, Clark calls himself a “stick in the mud.” But he is not really, and he knows it. He is his own embodiment of energy and confidence, and a supreme example of a cultivated, civilized man. He appreciates the deep order of Western civilization, and understands that the intellectual and artistic challenges of our time are of a type, and in that sense are concerning but not alarming: all this has happened before. And he warns humorously against overrating “the culture of what used to be called Top People before the wars. They had charming manners, but they were ignorant as swans. They knew a little about literature, less about music, nothing about art, and less than nothing about philosophy.” After his thirteen-hour personal celebration of our past, it is hard not to be a little optimistic about the future—although, as the show closes, Clark remarks wistfully that the “intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism,” and he recognizes that that “isn’t enough.”
But the real-world epilogue to the show is inspired: fourteen years after the show was produced, Lord Clark on his deathbed personally completed the circle of Western civilization that he traces in his series by becoming a Catholic. Perhaps the foundations of our world are more durable than we know?
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 6, on page 36
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