As a Christmas present I received a copy of Kenneth Clark’s 13-part survey. I get a lot of DVDs but rarely find time to watch them. You can’t read or write while you’re watching TV, but some random impulse caused me to watch the first part – “The Skin of Our Teeth”.
Lord Clark takes the Potter Stewart approach to defining civilization (I can tolerate the British spelling only once). He can’t tell you what it is, but he knows it when he sees it. Given the current demoralized state of the BBC, the series producer, I’m not sure why they continue to make it available. There is no political correctness in his view of civilization.
It is a Western phenomenon that arose in Greece and spread to Rome. It disappeared for quite a while – maintaining a solitary outpost in Byzantium. And then it slowly started again in the land of the Franks. Lord Clark regularly calls the barbarians “barbarians”. They of course are not civilized, nor are the Vikings. He sees Islam as a threat to Western Civilization and sees Charles Martel’s victory at the Battle of Poitiers as a seminal event in the rebirth of civilization. Fending off the barbarians, the Norsemen and the Muslim attack from Spain got us through, in his view, “By the Skin of Our Teeth”.
Clark quietly, but firmly, states that civilization begins with war and ends with boredom. Churchill said that Germany was proof that one could be cultured without being civilized. This is a distinction that Clark clearly believes, though he thinks art defines civilization. He thinks the abstract designs of the illuminated manuscripts produced by largely illiterate medieval monks superior to anything found in Islamic art. Did the BBC recently vet this program? The rebirth of high art in the 10th century was both a cause and a sign that civilization was returning.
Clark obviously believes that Western Civilization, ie Western European civilization, is unique. He states that having disappeared once it can vanish again. This was in 1969. It’s not necessary for me to make any further comments on current events. Maybe I’ll watch the second part.