Lord Clark on Civilization

This is a long excerpt from the book Civilization by Kenneth Clark, later Lord Clark, writing in 1969. I was living in Florida in the early 1970s and I watched the ten-part PBS series “Civilization” (the transcripts of which comprise this book) and I remember how moving it was. The test of any work of art — including the art of accumulating and disseminating wisdom — is the test of time. Forty years one, I find little to criticize here. These were his concluding words, pp. 346-7

And yet when I look at the world about me in the light of this series, I don’t at all feel that we are entering a new period of barbarism. The things that made the Dark Ages so dark — the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiosity, the hopelessness – don’t obtain at all. When I … visit one of our new universities, it seems to me that the inheritors of all our catastrophes looked cheerful enough… In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious and as critical as the young are today.

Of course, there has been a little flattening at the top. But one mustn’t overrate the culture of what used to be called “top people” before the wars. They had charming manners, but they were ignorant as swans…. The members of a music group or an art group at a provincial university would be five times better informed and more alert. Naturally these bright-minded young people think poorly of existing institutions and want to abolish them. Well, one doesn’t need to be young to dislike institutions. But the dreary fact remains that, even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work, and if civilization is to survive society must somehow be made to work.

At this point, I reveal myself in my true colors, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last 2,000 years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call nature. All living things are brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

This series has been filled with great works of genius….There they are; you can’t dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what Western man has achieved in the last thousand years….

I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills civilization. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W. B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem.


Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because good people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no center. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.



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