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Word Gems 

exploring self-realization, sacred personhood, and full humanity


Kenneth Clark's Civilisation 

Chapter 1 



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I am standing on the Pont des Arts in Paris. On one side of the Seine is the harmonious, reasonable facade of the Institute of France, built as a college in about 1670.

On the other bank is the Louvre, built continuously from the Middle Ages to the nineteenth century: classical architecture at its most splendid and assured.... upstream is the Cathedral of Notre Dame ...

Across this bridge, for the last one hundred and fifty years, students from the art schools of Paris have hurried to the Louvre to study the works of art that it contains, and then back to their studios to talk and dream of doing something worthy of the great tradition.

And on this bridge how many pilgrims from America, from Henry James downwards, have paused and breathed in the aroma of along-established culture, and felt themselves to be at the very centre of civilisation.

  • What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it in abstract terms -- yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now.

Ruskin said:

  • "Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts, the book of their deeds, the book of their words and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others, but of the three the only trustworthy one is the last."

On the whole I think this is true. Writers and politicians may come out with all sorts of edifying sentiments, but they are what is known as declarations of intent.

  • If I had to say which was telling the truth about society, a speech by a Minister of Housing or the actual buildings put up in his time, I should believe the buildings.

But this doesn't mean that the history of civilisation is the history of art -- far from it.

  • Great works of art can be produced in barbarous societies -- in fact the very narrowness of primitive society gives their ornamental art a peculiar concentration and vitality.

At some time in the ninth century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable -- as menacing to her civilisation as the periscope of a nuclear submarine.

An even more extreme example comes to my mind, an African mask that belonged to Roger Fry. I remember when he bought it and hung it up, and we agreed that it had all the qualities of a great work of art.

I fancy that most people, nowadays, would find it more moving than the head of the Apollo of the Belvedere. Yet for four hundred years after it was discovered the Apollo was the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. It was Napoleon's greatest boast to have looted it from the Vatican. Now it is completely forgotten except by the guides of coach parties, who have become the only surviving transmitters of traditional culture.

  • Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don't think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask.

They both represent spirits, messengers from another world -- that is to say, from a world of our own imagining.

To the Negro imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.

Fine words: and fine words butter no parsnips. There was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Graeco-Roman world. But, all the same, the  contrast between these images means something.

  • It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself -- body and spirit -- which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection -- reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium...

Graeco-Roman civilisation stretched ... right up to the Rhine, right up to the borders of Scotland...

  • It must have seemed absolutely indestructible ...

What happened? It took Gibbon six volumes to describe the decline and fall of the Roman Empire, so I shan't embark on that. But thinking about this almost incredible episode does tell one something about the nature of civilisation.

  • It shows that however complex and solid it seems, it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.

  • What are its enemies?

Well, first of all

  • fear --

fear of war, fear of invasion, fear of plague and famine, that make it simply not worthwhile constructing things, or planting trees or even planning next year's crops.

And fear of the supernatural, which means that you daren't question anything or change anything.

  • The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions, that destroyed self-confidence. And then exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness which can overtake people -- even with a high degree of material prosperity.

There is a poem by the modern Greek poet, Cavafy, in which he imagines the people of an antique town like Alexandria waiting every day for the barbarians to come and sack the city.

  • Finally the barbarians move off somewhere else and the city is saved; but the people are disappointed -- it would have been better than nothing.

Of course, civilisation requires a modicum of material prosperity -- enough to provide a little leisure.

But, far more,

  • it requires confidence - confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one's own mental powers.

The way in which the stones of the Pont du Gard are laid is not only a triumph of technical skill, but shows a vigorous belief in law and discipline.

  • Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations -- or civilising epochs -- have had a weight of energy behind them.

People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that.

  • These can be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.

So if one asks

  • why the civilisation of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.

And the first invaders of the Roman Empire became exhausted too. As so often happens, they seem to have succumbed to the same weaknesses as the people they conquered.

It's misleading to call them barbarians. They don't seem to have been particularly destructive -- in fact, they made some quite impressive constructions, like the Mausoleum of Theodoric ...

These early invaders have been aptly compared to the of English in India in the eighteenth century -- there for what they could get out of it, taking part in the administration if it paid them, contemptuous of the traditional culture, except insofar as it provided precious metals.

But unlike the Anglo-Indians, they created chaos; and into that chaos came real barbarians like the Huns, who were totally illiterate and destructively hostile to what they couldn't understand.

I don't suppose they bothered to destroy the great buildings that were scattered all over the Roman world.

  • But the idea of keeping them up never entered their heads. They preferred to live in pre-fabs and let the old places fall down.

Of course, life must have gone on in an apparently normal way for much longer than one would expect...

  • Civilisation might have drifted downstream for along time, but in the middle of the seventh century there appeared a new force, with faith, energy, a will to conquer and an alternative culture: Islam.

The strength of Islam was its simplicity.

  • The early Christian Church had dissipated its strength by theological controversies, carried on for three centuries with incredible violence and ingenuity.

But Mahomet, the prophet of Islam, preached the simplest doctrine that has ever gained acceptance; and it gave to his followers the invincible solidarity that had once directed the Roman legions. In a miraculously short time -- about fifty years -- the classical world was overrun. Only its bleached bones stood out against the Mediterranean sky.

The old source of civilisation was sealed off, and if a new civilisation was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic. What a hope!

  • People sometimes tell me that they prefer barbarism to civilisation. I doubt if they have given it a long enough trial. Like the people of Alexandria they are bored by civilisation; but all the evidence suggests that the boredom of barbarism is infinitely greater.

Quite apart from discomforts and privations, there was no escape from it. Very restricted company, no books, no light after dark, no hope. On one side the sea battering away, on the other infinite stretches of bog and forest. A most melancholy existence...

... the copying of books needed more settled conditions, and two or three parts of the British Isles offered, for a short time, relative security [island of Iona] ...

  • Civilisation means something more than energy and will and creative power:

something the early Norsemen hadn't got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe.

  • How can I define it? Well, very shortly, a sense of permanence.

The wanderers and the invaders were in a continual state of flux. They didn't feel the need to look forward beyond the next March or the next voyage or the next battle. And for that reason it didn't occur to them to build stone houses, or to write books... 

... it's surprising that the literature of pre-Christian antiquity was preserved at all. And in fact

  • it only just squeaked through. In so far as we are the heirs of Greece and Rome, we got through by the skin of our teeth.

We survived because, although circumstances and opportunities may vary, human intelligence seems to remain fairly constant, and for centuries practically all men of intellect joined the Church.

And some of them, like the historian, Gregory of Tours, were remarkably intelligent and unprejudiced men. It is hard to say how many antique texts were available in the Celtic monasteries. When Irish monks came to Europe in about the year 600 they found Roman manuscripts in places like Tours and Toulouse.

  • But the monasteries couldn't have become the guardians of civilisation unless there had been a minimum of stability:

and this, in Western Europe, was first achieved in the Kingdom of the Franks... Charlemagne is the first great man of action to emerge from the darkness since the collapse of the Roman world... His empire was an artificial construction and didn't survive him.

  • But the old idea that he saved civilisation isn't so far wrong,

because it was through him that the Atlantic world re-established contact with the ancient culture of the Mediterranean world.

  • There were great disorders after his death, but no more skin of our teeth. Civilisation had come through.

How did he do it?

First of all, with the help of an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York,

  • he collected books and had them copied.

People don't always realise that only three or four antique manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence

  • our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that began under Charlemagne,

and almost any classical text that survived until the eighth century has survived till today...

[200 years after the death of Charlemagne, the art of the times reflects a growing self-awareness, a new self-respect, on the part of Man; he no longer depicts himself in art as a pitiful, obscure figure.]

  • Man is no longer Imago Hominis, the image of man, but a human being, with humanity's impulses and fears; also humanity's moral sense and belief in the authority of a higher power.

By the year 1000, the year in which many timid people had feared that the world would come to an end, the long dominance of the barbarian wanderers was over, and Western Europe was prepared for its first great age of civilisation.



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