Sir Kenneth Clark’s Mindless Civilization

I’m currently in the midst of watching Sir Kenneth Clark’s celebrated Civilisation, first broadcast by the BBC in 1969 and subsequently by PBS. I had heard so much about it, and remember watching it as a child, and was looking forward to having a guided tour of Western Civilisation by one of its most outspoken advocates. Unfortunately the tour, thus far, has been something of a disappointment.

The first disappointment is that Clark skips over the first thousand years of the Cvilisation he is celebrating by choosing to begin in the so-called Dark Ages. There is no mention of Homer and his timeless and peerless epics; no mention of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripedes; no mention of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. For that matter, though perhaps less surprisingly, there’s no mention of the wisdom enshrined in the Old Testament. Like Greece, Rome is barely mentioned. The impression is that Clark has plucked his starting point from thin air, in which it floats without foundations. These great civilisations are parenthetical afterthoughts; they are the footnotes to Clark’s civilisation and not its foundations. Like Homer, Virgil is overlooked, as are Boethius and Augustine. Clark is not consoled by philosophy; he is confused by it. His discussion of Aquinas is so brief and vacuous that one would think that scholasticism had played no role in shaping civilisation. There is no discussion of the Church Fathers, rendering Clark’s civilisation fatherless, a bastard child of subjective aesthetics.

The series begins bizarrely on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, signifying that civilisation had all but been wiped out by the barbarians and that only a handful of Irish monks were keeping the flames of faith and civilisation alive. One would think that the Benedictines never existed, or that there was no pope in Rome. One would think that England had not been baptized in the late sixth century by the great St. Austin of Canterbury, who had been sent by the pope, St. Gregory the Great, or that the great English saint, St. Boniface, had not sallied forth to convert the Germans a century or so later.

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Clark is in his element when waxing eloquently on art or architecture but seems to flail around like a man out of his depth when discussing music or literature. His treatment of Dante, for instance, is banal. He states that Dante’s use of the imagery of light is the aspect of his work which “we” like best, speaking on “our” behalf. “Speak for yourself!”, I snorted upon hearing this judgment of Dante on my behalf. The problem is that Clark’s woeful ignorance of Thomistic theology and philosophy makes Dante inaccessible to him. The problem is compounded because such ignorance is as applicable to mediaeval and early-Renaissance art as it is to mediaeval and Renaissance literature. Such art speaks to us through the power of theological symbolism. If we don’t know the theology, we will not see the symbolism. We will not understand the painting.

Clark’s ignorance of the unity of faith and reason inherent in the philosophy and theology of Christendom leaves him speechless, literally, when discussing the great Shakespeare. He simply selects three speeches from the Bard’s works (from Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth), suggesting that Shakespeare’s philosophy can be gleaned from the speeches themselves, the last of which is Macbeth’s famous assertion that “life … is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” . Clark concludes that Shakespeare was the first great writer for whom religion was unimportant, implying that Macbeth’s words represent the Bard’s own nihilism. Why, one wonders, should the words of a mad and desperate mass murderer, moments before he receives his just deserts, be a representation of the weltanschauung of the playwright?

The truth is that Clark is a decidedly modern man who sees history and civilisation through the superciliously defective lens of post-“enlightened”, i.e. disenchanted, culture. Although not quite Eliot’s “hollow man” or Waugh’s “Hooper”, his vision is sullied by the sundering of reason from faith and feeling. For all his love of the Renaissance, he is a child of the enlightenment and is the slave of that particularly pernicious zeitgeist.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on a man who at least loved the beauty of western civilization, even if he did not understand the goodness and truth that gave the beauty its form. It is significant, perhaps, that Clark was received into the Catholic Church on his death bed, fourteen years after his seminal television series was first broadcast. It is also difficult to dislike a man who fearlessly attacked Marxism, postmodernism and their “hippy” children in the late sixties, when these destructive and deconstructive forces were at their most powerful and pervasive. His comments on the subject of 1960s radical University students, in the penultimate episode of Civilisation, are priceless: “I can see them [the students] still through the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don’t know.” There is, however, a grim irony in the very criticism that he levels against his postmodern enemies. Clark is himself “vivid in hope, although what precisely he hopes for, or believes in, we don’t know”.

This essay was also published in the St. Austin Review.


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