Sir Kenneth Clark’s Mindless Civilization

I’m currently in the midst of watching Sir Kenneth Clark’s celebrated Civilisation, first broadcast by the BBC in 1969 and subsequently by PBS. I had heard so much about it, and remember watching it as a child, and was looking forward to having a guided tour of Western Civilisation by one of its most outspoken advocates. Unfortunately the tour, thus far, has been something of a disappointment.

The first disappointment is that Clark skips over the first thousand years of the Cvilisation he is celebrating by choosing to begin in the so-called Dark Ages. There is no mention of Homer and his timeless and peerless epics; no mention of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripedes; no mention of Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. For that matter, though perhaps less surprisingly, there’s no mention of the wisdom enshrined in the Old Testament. Like Greece, Rome is barely mentioned. The impression is that Clark has plucked his starting point from thin air, in which it floats without foundations. These great civilisations are parenthetical afterthoughts; they are the footnotes to Clark’s civilisation and not its foundations. Like Homer, Virgil is overlooked, as are Boethius and Augustine. Clark is not consoled by philosophy; he is confused by it. His discussion of Aquinas is so brief and vacuous that one would think that scholasticism had played no role in shaping civilisation. There is no discussion of the Church Fathers, rendering Clark’s civilisation fatherless, a bastard child of subjective aesthetics.

The series begins bizarrely on a remote island off the coast of Ireland, signifying that civilisation had all but been wiped out by the barbarians and that only a handful of Irish monks were keeping the flames of faith and civilisation alive. One would think that the Benedictines never existed, or that there was no pope in Rome. One would think that England had not been baptized in the late sixth century by the great St. Austin of Canterbury, who had been sent by the pope, St. Gregory the Great, or that the great English saint, St. Boniface, had not sallied forth to convert the Germans a century or so later.

Clark is in his element when waxing eloquently on art or architecture but seems to flail around like a man out of his depth when discussing music or literature. His treatment of Dante, for instance, is banal. He states that Dante’s use of the imagery of light is the aspect of his work which “we” like best, speaking on “our” behalf. “Speak for yourself!”, I snorted upon hearing this judgment of Dante on my behalf. The problem is that Clark’s woeful ignorance of Thomistic theology and philosophy makes Dante inaccessible to him. The problem is compounded because such ignorance is as applicable to mediaeval and early-Renaissance art as it is to mediaeval and Renaissance literature. Such art speaks to us through the power of theological symbolism. If we don’t know the theology, we will not see the symbolism. We will not understand the painting.

Clark’s ignorance of the unity of faith and reason inherent in the philosophy and theology of Christendom leaves him speechless, literally, when discussing the great Shakespeare. He simply selects three speeches from the Bard’s works (from Lear, Hamlet and Macbeth), suggesting that Shakespeare’s philosophy can be gleaned from the speeches themselves, the last of which is Macbeth’s famous assertion that “life … is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing” . Clark concludes that Shakespeare was the first great writer for whom religion was unimportant, implying that Macbeth’s words represent the Bard’s own nihilism. Why, one wonders, should the words of a mad and desperate mass murderer, moments before he receives his just deserts, be a representation of the weltanschauung of the playwright?

The truth is that Clark is a decidedly modern man who sees history and civilisation through the superciliously defective lens of post-“enlightened”, i.e. disenchanted, culture. Although not quite Eliot’s “hollow man” or Waugh’s “Hooper”, his vision is sullied by the sundering of reason from faith and feeling. For all his love of the Renaissance, he is a child of the enlightenment and is the slave of that particularly pernicious zeitgeist.

Perhaps I’m being a little harsh on a man who at least loved the beauty of western civilization, even if he did not understand the goodness and truth that gave the beauty its form. It is significant, perhaps, that Clark was received into the Catholic Church on his death bed, fourteen years after his seminal television series was first broadcast. It is also difficult to dislike a man who fearlessly attacked Marxism, postmodernism and their “hippy” children in the late sixties, when these destructive and deconstructive forces were at their most powerful and pervasive. His comments on the subject of 1960s radical University students, in the penultimate episode of Civilisation, are priceless: “I can see them [the students] still through the University of the Sorbonne, impatient to change the world, vivid in hope, although what precisely they hope for, or believe in, I don’t know.” There is, however, a grim irony in the very criticism that he levels against his postmodern enemies. Clark is himself “vivid in hope, although what precisely he hopes for, or believes in, we don’t know”.

This eesay was also published in the St. Austin Review

Joseph Pearce


Joseph Pearce is Writer-in-Residence and Director of the Center for Faith and Culture at Aquinas College in Nashville, TN. He is also the co-editor of the St. Austin Review, executive director of Catholic Courses and series editor of the Ignatius Critical Editions. His book on Alexander Solzhenitsyn received the prestigious Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

  • poetcomic1

       What is civlization?  It is Catholic civilization.  A northern visitor to Spain during the golden age of Spanish theater noted that when the church bells were rung in Madrid just before consecration and overheard during the play,  both actors and audience knelt down.  This Protestant visitor said, “It was all I could do to keep from laughing”.    The ‘reformation’ is reaching its final end in mass consumption, endless ‘play’ and 24/7 illusion.

  • Steve from Long Island

    I have recently finished watching this series on
    I agree with your assessment but Prof. Clark does give us an appreciation for the art and beauty of architechture as well as some history of Western Civilization.  While far from complete as a study of all of the breadth and depth of our civilization, the ten episodes are well worth watching for what they do offer.  I highly recommend spending some time watching this episodes on the computer in full screen mode.  Unfortunately, there is so little offered along these lines, then or now.  I also can’t help but wonder how much of his original interpretation had to be cut out or culled to fit into only 10 episodes on the BBC.  Perhaps it’s not all his fault that so much was left unexplored and unsaid.

  • Bill Russell

    Sir Kenneth Clark was received into the Catholic Church shortly before he died.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    If Sir Kenneth was speaking of the mood of the Sorbonne during the “events of may” (1968), then  he sadly misjudged it.  I recall one of the slogans daubed prominently on the walls of that seat of learning was ” Le futur n’a plus d’avenir” – “The future has no future.”  Now, that really did capture the spirit of the age.

  • G Sim Johnston

    I think this article is entirely off the mark.  Clark had twelve episodes to work with and of course he had to abridge.  The fall of Rome is a perfectly logical place to start.  Throughout the series he gives the Catholic Church its full due; moreover, Clark is correct:  in some respects, the Irish monks did save western civilization.  In the episode “Grandeur and Obedience”, Clark flat out states that generations of liberal Protestant historians have been wrong about the Counter-Reformation and that the Rome of the popes is one of the great achievements of western culture.  Not many art historians, moreover, bother to note that Rubens attended Mass every day or that Bernini went on frequent Ignatian retreats.  Clark, moreover, virtually invented this kind of television series and had many imitators, like David Attenborough.  I don’t know what Mr. Pearce was expecting, but “Civilization” remains one of the best things ever done on the small screen.

  • Athelstane

    I have long been a fan of Clark’s Civilisation, and also of Joe Pearce, so I’m a bit conflicted.

    When Clark is talking about art, he’s clearly in his element,and worth listening to – even when I don’t agree. When he ventures outside of that, it’s hit and miss.  Clark *was* weighed down by a “modern” perspective, but it’s never quite enough to bury what are clearly sound (if unformed, or misformed) instincts.  Instincts which, as Joe rightly notes, led him to the Church before his death. 

    Every narrative involves choices. Clark’s choices might not be what Joe or I might choose. The “Irish [monks] saved civilization” theme is and can be overdone, as I think it is here, but it’s not an indefensible focus for a narrative arc like this.  I’m still mesmerized every time by the opening of Episode I (“The Skin of Our Teeth”), where he vividly declaims how close a scrape the West had, and that he’s making no bones about using art as the thread on which he plans to hang most of his narrative.  

    I think “Civilisation” can be used in a Catholic education, but it would certainly need to be accompanied by other sources, and a sound formation. 

  • Athelstane

    There’s one other point I would make for Joseph Pearce’s benefit: why Clark’s starting point is actually a quite defensible one. 

    Joe notes that Clark launches his tale in the Dark Ages, and thereby “skips over the first thousand years of the Cvilisation he is celebrating.” The difficulty here is that it’s hasty to assume that, in fact, the civilization Clark is celebrating really is a thousand years older than his starting point. That civilization is, in reality “Western Civilization,” which suggests that his series is really misnamed.  

    Danish historian David Gress has made the point (though not original to him) that Western Civilization really only becomes a going entity in the Dark Ages, because only then does the unique fusion that it represents actually come into being. In this sense. the West is actually a fusion of three cultural strains: Christianity, Rome, and Germanic culture. None of these three by themselves were “the West,” though they were essential to its identity. Rome and (to a lesser extent) Greece, then, were our civilizational progenitors, and we in a certain sense, their heirs; but they are distinct from us.  Something quite coherent and distinct formed in Europe between the 6th and 15th centuries, and that thing was, simply, the West.  

    Which also happened to be, not coincidentally, when the Catholic Church came fully into its own.  To posit the beginning of “the West” in classical Greece is, I might argue, to reduce the absolutely essential role that Christianity (and specifically Catholic Christianity) plays in the very identity and definition of the West. I don’t know how coherently or consciously Clark really reached the same conclusion.  Yet, somehow, that seems to be how it actually played out, and it redounds to the credit of the Church as a result – however much he loses the plot at various points.

  • Mell

    I wasn’t aware of Crisis Magazine until today.  I enjoyed this essay very much, and will be sharing it with my husband.  Thank you.

  • Guest

    Homer’s epics are indeed timeless, though few people read them.  They are not, however, peerless.  Read Virgil’s Aeneid–the whole of Europe did, after all of Rome had.

    As for Kenneth Clark, I suggest you read his art historical work to form a fuller opinion of him.  His two-volume autobiography is fascinating.  Whether we can expect from him the views of a younger G. K. Chesterton I doubt, but I think the expectations of him in this short essay of Mr. Pearce’s are way off base because ill informed.  I don’t think Clark was an enemy to the Church, just ignorant of it in the way of any number of professional academics outside the Church.  I hope Mr. Pearce is not making an enemy of Clark.

  • P. Roehl

    Much too harsh. As an introduction the series is remarkable. Why do academics often become such marmish nitpickers? Such competition and jealousy between them. Bravo to Clark and his enduring program> 

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  • Ryan

    Worthless whining.

  • Ivan

    Civilisation tried to familiarize culture, music and architecture of Medieval to modern Europe to broader audience and it mainly succeded in doing so.

    This article is full of hostility based on irational conclusions. Like all TV programs Civilisation had it’s running time and contents had to be shortened. It is absolutely irrational to expect that everything from Homer, Greece and Rome up to today could be packed up in 13 episodes.

    Author of this article berates Clark for saying “we” do this “we” do that and in the same paragraph does the same thing by saying “Such art speaks to us through the power of theological symbolism”.

    As for Sheakspeare, of course Clark chose only some of the speeches from some of his works, if the author of this article had listened to Clark more closely he could notice Clark saying that it is impossible to contain Shakespeare in a single programe let alone couple of minutes of one episode. It is also very possible that Sheakespeare spoke through Macbeth, Shakespeare was a down-to-earth man who comprehended that none of us is virtuous and impeccable and I can’t imagine him looking down on Macbeth and imaging Macbeth too unworthy of conveying Bard’s thoughts – such would maybe be the point of view of some hypocritical scholar but not of great Shakespeare. Unfortunately I just can’t seem to find any more strength to illuminate inaccuracies of this tendentious article although there would be enough material to write an essay.

  • benice

    This is a phenomenal documentary, even now!