Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Book Review: "Civilisation" by Kenneth Clark

Kenneth Clark may not know what civilization is, but he darn sure knows it when he sees it. Specifically, he knows it when he sees it in art and architecture.

A Confession:

This was a textbook I was assigned in high school. Specifically, by Ms. Scott for our Humanities class. I... may have read significantly less of it than I should have. (I did read everything assigned from our American Lit book, as well as all of Oedipus Rex and Beowulf, so it's not like I was a total slacker.) Apparently it is also a collection of the transcripts (mixed with images) from a 1960s BBC documentary, which I also have not seen.


This book is an overview of Western Civilization from about 1000 through the early 1900s from the perspective of Kenneth Clark and focused especially on art and architecture (but especially on art). Clark begins with the declaration that civilization only made it through the Dark Ages by "the skin of our teeth." Which immediately shows his own inclination- were he a Medievalist he would bristle at the idea of a "Dark Ages." Yet, despite the shrill cries of that stripe of scholar (apologies to my Medievalist friends), there was something almost lost in that stretch between the collapse of Rome and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire. And while I do not necessarily agree with all of Clark's conclusions, I think at least a couple of them are worthy of note. Again, he doesn't specifically outline a definition of "civilization", yet I think we can identify a couple of its characteristics based on his writings:

  • Civilization involves a sense of permanence--a connection not only with the past (any culture can have that, however primitive), but also with the future. For example, buildings in a civilization are constructed not just for the current generation and not just as an expression of the trends of the moment, but to last for future generations as well. (Hence Clark's focus on architecture.) There is a sense, not even necessarily an articulated one, that what is being captured in stone will exist beyond the present moment for the indefinite future. 
  • Civilization involves an attitude of confidence. Certainly since the Renaissance this has meant a confidence in humanity and its abilities. (Earlier, of course, the certainty would have been certainty in God, or even in the church.) 
Obviously, these two points are related- one doesn't build for the future unless one is confident that the future is somewhat certain. If a bunch of naked barbarians could stream out of the forest at any minute and kill you and burn what you've built, there's not much point in doing the hard work of spending the time and effort to construct things out of stone. 
That said, the "confidence" aspect of civilization Clark applies mostly to art, especially the artists' confidence in engaging with the natural and supernatural world. From ~1000 to the early 20th century, the growth of civilization has meant the development of the human soul as it relates to others, nature, God, and itself. This relationship has meant an increasing confidence in the ability of man to understand and engage these aspects of the world. That has been the nature of Western Civilization, at least according to Kenneth Clark.*

This is certainly a well-written and interesting book, and would probably be worth picking up in the television form (should the price ever drop to something reasonable). I certainly don't know enough about either art or architecture to challenge any of his assertions in those areas. I do know that such a focus means an largely excluding Protestants (not completely, of course) and emphasizing Catholicism. Which is fine and probably even fair.
What I think is interesting and worthy of some reflection is the whole question of what this "civilization" thing is in the first place. This is one of the questions I often ask my students (without really knowing the answer myself): how is "civilization" different from "barbarism", and why does it matter? I've gotten a whole spectrum of answers, ranging from modern versions of the ancient Greek rule of reason vs. rule of emotion/appetite, to Christian vs. reprobate, to variations on Clark's preservation vs. destruction. As I said, I'm not entirely sure what the answer is, and as a Christian I don't know how much I should be focused on that anyway. If all people need the Gospel (and they do) whether civilized or barbarian, it's hard to get on the hobby horse about which is which.
With that said, I think there is some value to civilization- value beyond the greater material accomplishments that wealth and order allow. (Remember that Attila was pretty darn rich and certainly had an ordered camp.)  And I suppose Clark's suggestion that such value comes through artistic Beauty is as good an explanation as any.

Recommended for those interested in philosophy, art, history, and related subjects.

*And according to Victor Davis Hanson, who basically explores the same topic as it applies to warfare in the Ancient World in one of his older books called The Western Way of War. This book is also worth reading, though Hanson has unfortunately gone a bit crazy these past few years...

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