Commentary Magazine


Civilisation, by Kenneth Clark

The Scenic Tour

Civilisation.
by Kenneth Clark.
Harper & Row. 378 pp. $15.00.

The word “civilization” seems to have made its first appearance almost two hundred years ago, in 1772 to be precise, when Boswell suggested to Dr. Johnson that he use the term to denote the opposite of barbarism. To Kenneth Clark, however, civilization is apparently not always the opposite of barbarism, although it is better—this we learn on page one of Civilisation, together with the somewhat unsettling information that the author can recognize but not define the phenomenon. This admission notwithstanding, Clark proceeds to mention numerous indicators of civilization, and perhaps an implicit definition does emerge in the course of his sweeping survey.

We find at once that “humane” and “reasonable” appear to be favored adjectives when an exemplar of civilization is described. Idealism is also seen to be important, along with confidence, vigor, and energy, although these qualities are sometimes shared with barbarians. Indeed, it is loss of confidence (plus exhaustion) which, according to Clark, destroys civilization. Historically, civilization seems closely related to war, and is always founded on military success. Yet refinement, spirituality, sincerity, tolerance, humanitarianism, and aristocratic detachment are also part of the story, although Clark cautions that douceur de vivre should not be confused with civilization. In any event, creativity alone is not a prerequisite: a brilliant artist like the Souillac master of the early 12th century, for example, is too fantastic and bizarre to be acceptable.

Civilization seems to have flourished best in courts and monasteries, the finest example being the Montefeltre court at Urbino in the 15th century. Chartres, the medieval and baroque cathedral, and prose, together with such eminences as Montaigne, Newton, Raphael, and Erasmus are all civilizing forces. Civilization is helped along by money and (narrowly) by printing, and it has flourished only in internationalist periods. Finally, to end a necessarily partial, though hopefully representative list, both the domestic architecture of colonial America and the Greenwich Hospital in England embody civilization, as does the 18th-century recognition of the proper place of women in society.

On the negative side, a place in civilization is denied to the following, among others: Hogarth (whose art has insufficient beauty), the traditions of Northern Europe, late medieval England, Henry VIII’s court, Mannerism, 17th-century Germany, and excessive wealth. In view of this inchoate catalogue, one must be forgiven for failing to see what Clark means when he says at one point that Tahiti and similar islands “were not civilizations in the sense of the word which I have been using” (emphasis added).

But which sense is that? Heroic or reasonable? Vigorous or detached? Like Baroque Catholicism or 18th-century America? While no one would wish to deny that European civilization has presented many faces to the world—and Clark indicates admirably the difference between a Beethoven and a Montaigne—unless there is some unifying principle on which his interpretation is based, the reader can only be baffled. Clearly Clark does not see civilization as it is seen by many scholars today: namely, as the set of beliefs, thoughts, and tastes that informs an entire society, and is manifested in political institutions, religion, economic behavior, family patterns, morality, landholding, social relations, as well as in philosophy, art, and literature. According to this view, any society that is sufficiently cohesive and long-lasting to develop a set of common attitudes, and is also capable of creative expression, qualifies as a “civilization.” (And under the terms of this definition, one might plausibly argue that Tahiti has made the grade.)

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Clark obviously comes to the issue from an entirely different angle, and his book is in fact quite clearly in the long-established tradition of Geistesgeschichte—the history of the spirit, culture, or intellect of an age—which is perhaps best exemplified by Jacob Burckhardt’s Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy. But how different this book is from Burckhardt’s. Even if one does not allow for more than a century of scholarship since Burckhardt wrote, one could point to the enormous gap in purpose and responsibility between that classic and Civilisation. For Burckhardt took seriously the need to define one’s terms and to look at a whole society. Clothing and cookbooks received as much attention as Raphael. Clark, by contrast, regards “civilization” not as a means of describing society, but as an independent and absolute ideal attained occasionally by a few men who by their efforts manage to pull “mankind a few steps up the hill” every now and again. This emphasis enables him to concentrate on the subjects that chiefly interest him—style, “advances” in thought and expression, and the creations of a few towering geniuses—but to ignore the interesting and important issues that ought to be the first concern of anyone writing on this subject today. After all, one of the masterpieces written in the century since Burckhardt is Freud’s Civilization and Its Discontents, which considered civilization to be an influence that repressed humanity, heightened guilt, and tempered happiness: the antithesis of nature. Civilization is the term by which modern man defines himself, and over which he argues with a passion that once was reserved for Virtue or Faith. Yet none of this is even considered by Clark.

What is so troubling is that a book essentially designed to take a quick, random look at a few of the glories of European culture should assume so grandiose a framework. Clearly “civilization” here means little more than a burst of creativity or a change in sensibility, and indeed one is left with an overall impression of a romp through Western art, poetry, and music, taken in Burckhardt’s spirit—relishing the marvelous things Europeans have produced—but with none of Burckhardt’s profound and perceptive historical analyses. If Clark had really used these cultural achievements as a way of exploring the meaning of “civilization,” his book could still be considered important, but since he seems merely to be describing some of his own favorite artists, poets, and composers, the reader might find far greater substance and understanding, presented with no less elegance, in H. W. Janson’s History of Art or E. H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art.

The book’s intended audience is as puzzling as its theme. As is well known, the published volume is based on programs originally presented on BBC television and subsequently shown in this country on the NET educational television network. From this one might infer that Civilisation was intended for the cognoscenti, but in fact the heroes are entirely predictable, and even the anecdotes—Beethoven tearing out the first page of the Eroica—will be familiar to anyone with a minimal grounding in the history of European art and thought. Perhaps, instead, the entire venture was meant to provide an introduction to Western culture for the uninitiated. If so, a number of basic responsibilities have been ignored, not so much in what should have been covered (although the absence of Dominic, Aquinas, Calvin, Pascal, Velázquez, Locke, Leibniz, Lessing, and Brahms, to name a few, must give pause) as in the attitudes expressed.

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Civilisation is subtitled “A Personal View,” and there is nothing wrong with that, but when judgments become so personal that they seriously distort the historical record, they should not be inflicted on those seeking an introduction to the subject. And it is worth pointing out here not only that the book has already become a best-seller, but that both the book and the film series (which costs thousands of dollars) are being sold to two-year junior and community colleges throughout the country, obviously for use as basic texts in courses on Western Civilization. Which leads us to the next question—what attitudes toward the past and toward various people will the neophyte, struggling to appreciate Europe’s creative achievements, imbibe from Civilisation?

He will find, first, that much seems to be inexplicable—not only the meaning of “civilization,” but also such diverse matters as the effect of the Crusades (“I simply don’t know”), the Terror in the French Revolution (no explanation beyond “communal sadism”), and modern art. There is not much more clarification in the sentence, “Well, that’s the medieval mind,” which is offered as an interpretation of the paradoxical blending of the pagan with the Christian. And Dürer, we learn, “was a very strange character.” Yet such mystification is surely not necessary, since extensive work has been done on all these problems and plausible interpretations have been offered by a number of scholars.

The reader will also find that merits and demerits are awarded with lordly assurance, but little justification. Historians, he will be told, consider the 10th century as barbarous as the 7th because it lacked political or written achievements. This seems to suggest the nonexistence of Hugh Capet, Otto the Great, and Canute, as well as to ignore the founding of the oldest surviving representative assembly, the Allthing, and the redaction of Beowulf, not to mention the Golden Age of Cordoba. In a similar vein one will discover that the Middle Ages did not read the Ancients with insight, which is hard to reconcile with the pervasive influence of Aristotle in the 13th century. As for Leonardo, he was not truly a Renaissance man since his obsessive curiosity places him not with all those Italian writers of manuals, investigators of perspective, overseas explorers, and the like, but in the late 17th century (the era of quietism, the genteel salon, Boileau’s rules of poetry, and the restraints of classicism?).

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Moving to the 16th century, one learns about the brutal Northerners, particularly the Germans. “Northern man,” as revealed in a few sculptured faces, is more serious and earnest than his Italian counterpart (Savonarola?); he seeks truth; he is hysterical. His “earthy, animal hostility to reason and decorum” is inimical to civilization, and the Hussite movement is mentioned only because it almost wiped out the courtly civilization of Bohemia. Germans are easily excited (in contrast to the Italians!) and their uneasiness has been a “nuisance” to the rest of Europe (while their inability to develop a clear prose style has been a disaster). The North in the 16th century was full of bullies (unlike Italy, with its condottiere and Cesare Borgia?), though “these destructive national characteristics” were not present in the 1490’s, which was an internationalist age. Presumably they all bubbled to the surface only when Luther appeared on the center of the stage.

Shades of the 19th century! If Clark reveals anywhere how the scholarship of the last half century has passed him by, it is here, in these simplistic efforts to uncover “national character.” And the poor Germans continue to do badly, because after the Reformation they remain inarticulate until 1700. Which appears to mean that we must count as nought the remarkable growth of German universities in this period, the country’s preeminence in publishing and the book trade (why else was William Harvey’s tie Motu Cordis first published in Germany?), and such leading European thinkers as Böhme, Comenius, Pufendorf, and even Leibniz. It is a rather tall order in the service of a “personal view.”

Only Spain does worse. Although Scotland in the 18th century qualifies for inclusion thanks to Hume, Adam Smith, and the Adamses, nothing the Spaniards did is of equivalent importance. Only Cervantes and a few saints and Jesuits managed to “enlarge the human mind,” which means that medieval Spain, by any measure one of the most important of Clark’s “civilizing forces” in European history, has to be ignored. Although the Vikings do manage to slip into the story because they contributed “the spirit of Columbus,” the actual patrons of Columbus are evidently less significant. Ximenes, the mystics, Las Casas, Spanish chivalry and drama—all can be left out because, after all, Spain “has simply remained Spain.” Impeccable logic, but did not Holland, too, remain Holland in the 17th century, never really becoming a part of some elusive European mainstream?

Possibly the most questionable of Clark’s interpretations is his assessment of the Reformation. While one can agree that Protestants destroyed many lovely images, it is both misleading and untrue to assert that “the motive wasn’t so much religion as an instinct to destroy anything comely” because people were enraged by “incomprehensible values.” It would be difficult to imagine a more complete misunderstanding—the Protestants knew exactly what values the images represented, and they were bent on transforming those values. Their motives, moreover, were entirely religious; their overwhelming aim, to simplify religion, was firmly rooted in a comprehensive set of beliefs. Although they smashed the statues and windows which had perverted Christ’s unadorned message, nothing could have been further from their minds than the wish simply to destroy comely things. And it is equally untrue to say that “religion [was] of course being used as a pretext for political ambitions” in the wars of religion, implying that nobody was really fighting for his faith.

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A final troubling thesis is Clark’s linking of civilization with war. While one might agree that only military success provides the stability civilization needs (though there are exceptions, such as Switzerland), it does not follow that one must accept as irrefutable Ruskin’s dictum that great art appears only in nations of soldiers. Late Elizabethan England was certainly no nation of soldiers, nor was Melville’s America, Scott’s Scotland, or Van Eyck’s Flanders, all of which did rather better than Sparta or Gustavus Adolphus’s Sweden. And Clark abandons consistency when he makes brutality inimical to civilization. Richard II’s murder sends civilization flying out the window, while Sir Thomas More occupies the small patch of civilization that existed between Richard Ill’s and Henry VIII’s murders. If Henry’s court (which, incidentally, More did not serve “against his will”) was uncivilized because of the executions committed there—and despite the presence of Holbein, Wyatt, and others—how was it possible for Lorenzo de Medici to rise above the killings which followed the Pazzi conspiracy? It would seem that murder fails to interfere with civilization only when the art with which it is associated is so great that it must be included in this survey.

Clark endorses the unexceptionable sentiments that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and that men should learn from history. On both counts one must wonder why he joins the fashionable but shrill parade of alarmists about computers. Machines, he suggests, are always enemies of civilization (unless they happen to be early printing presses), and the fact that machines are capable of increasing knowledge, or that history has often shown them to be responsible for great creativity, is not deemed relevant. In an almost Marcusean vein (what bedfellows!) Clark asserts that machines are the means by which a minority keeps the rest of us in subjection. Presumably this blanket condemnation extends to the computer’s life-saving applications in such different fields as medicine and flood control, but that should not be too surprising since neither medical advances nor Darwin is given a place in Civilisation.

Although these opinions might be considered part of the “personal” view Clark is propounding, they border on what might more accurately be called prejudice, and those who use this book as an introduction to Western culture should beware. It is possible that they may be no more than confused by occasional elliptical references to subjects otherwise not dealt with—Aquinas, Tasso, Pascal, Fragonard, etc.—or by such errors as the splendid schoolboy howler of spelling “principal” as “principle” (a secretary transcribing the TV soundtrack?). But far more serious is the likelihood that they will be receiving a distorted impression of Europe’s past, and present, if they accept Clark’s pet peeves in the spirit in which they are presented: as unimpeachable interpretations.

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Are all these strictures misplaced, too harsh for what is, after all, nothing but a bit of fluff? Well, they would be if it were indeed fluff. But the educational-TV imprimatur, combined with best-selling and textbook status, indicate that these thirteen essays are likely to provide the framework for the way in which the reasonably intelligent and/or educated of the 1970’s will view Western culture. It is true that Civilisation contains much that is perceptive and elegant. “The smile of reason” is a happy invention for a discussion of the Enlightenment; the chapter on German Rococo is a splendid and graceful excursus; many of the figures, notably Charlemagne, Raphael, Bernini, Rembrandt, Coleridge, and Brunei, are admirably presented; and there are stimulating insights throughout. Taking art to be Renaissance man’s means of expression is a most fruitful perception, as is the illuminating comment that Raphael’s idealization of ordinary human beings deadened both truth and morality, and ultimately produced what Clark calls a “hideous” reaction in modern times. The idea that creativity blossoms when austerity is followed by relaxation is also appealing, though one might still prefer Milton to Dryden. But occasional delights like these cannot make up for shortcomings that are, at root, an abandonment of responsibility.

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It is all very well to express one’s pride in what Europeans have accomplished, and every man is entitled to a few prejudices about the workings of history. When, however, one’s purpose is to instruct and enlighten, not merely to expatiate on one’s likes and dislikes, then one has certain obligations to one’s readers. The latest in scholarship should not be ignored, precision should not be evaded, and condemnations should not be issued lightly. No one can deny that the BBC photographers and technicians have produced a magnificent film, a sumptuous unfolding of beauty that cannot fail to move its viewers—even in real life Michelangelo’s David does not have so striking an impact—and for this alone the junior colleges’ money has perhaps been well spent. The book maintains these high standards, for it is handsomely laid out and beautifully illustrated, but neither commentary nor text comes close to achieving such consistent excellence. A great opportunity for education and enlightenment has been missed.

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