Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: a guide and celebration

Fifty-one years ago, when the first Apollo astronauts reached the moon, Sir Kenneth Clark (1903-1983), the eminent British art historian, was invited to the National Gallery in Washington DC to accept a medal for Distinguished Service to Education in Art. He had little idea of the frenzied crowd that would be on hand to welcome him. Clark, a modest and private person, found himself walking the entire length of the gallery amidst thunderous cheering. By the time he reached the speaker’s platform, tears were pouring down his cheeks.

The gallery was filled to capacity by an enthusiastic crowd anxious to see the man who had written and hosted the most unexpectedly popular series on culture in the history of television: Civilisation: A Personal View.

The subject of the series was the history of Western art; but this didn’t explain the wild enthusiasm. In fact, Clark had unwittingly tapped into grim, often unspoken fears of the time – that the social fabric of civilized life in the West was being torn asunder; that it was being undermined by endless war, random violence, moral decadence, and the ennui that corrodes any society overwhelmed by unprecedented material prosperity and a consumer mentality.

But now, from a tweedy and genial figure — more at home reading in an English country house than squinting into the brilliant limelight of sudden celebrity — came a sudden shaft of hope … Clark had brought Civilisation

Now, half a century on, we are embarking on a fascinating journey into the history and nature of Western Civilisation. This 15-week series will provide a guide to Civilisation: A Personal View. It can be used to accompany the DVD version or the episodes available on YouTube, or it can be read by itself as a synopsis of Clark’s great work.

The series was phenomenally difficult and expensive to produce. The research, filming and editing took three years (1966-9), the film crew of 12 travelled 130,000km to 117 locations in 11 countries, including 118 museums and 11 libraries. They shot 70,000 metres of film and spent $15 million. It was broadcast in over 60 countries and won many awards.

Sir Kenneth (Later Lord) Clark wrote both the script and the best-selling book based on the series. It offers his personal view of the emergence and evolution of Western Civilization since the Dark Ages, seen in terms of its art and architecture, along with literature and philosophy. He provides numerous insights and provocative ideas.

Below, courtesy of Mervyn Bendle, the first installment of Quadrant Online’s guide to Civilisation


The Skin of Our Teeth

The first episode of Civilisation: A Personal View focusses on the Dark Ages. Almost overnight, it seemed, Rome had fallen and Classical Civilisation had come crashing down. To set the scene, Kenneth Clark introduces and illustrates his notion of ‘civilisation’. He places this in the Western context and emphasizes that it is not a universal definition. Travelling from Byzantine Ravenna to the Celtic Hebrides, from Viking Norway to Charlemagne’s chapel at Aachen, Clark tells the story of the so-called Dark Ages — the centuries following the collapse of the Roman Empire when the essential elements of civilisation were very nearly lost forever. The West escaped oblivion, but only ‘by the skin of our teeth’.


The Key Question: Clark assumes from the start that art and architecture reveal a great deal about civilisation. But, what is civilisation? This question is crucial, but also somewhat deceptive and misleading, e.g., is Clark trying to define all civilizations? Is he claiming that only one sort of society (his/ours) is a civilization? Critics have made such erroneous claims, so it is vital to attain some clarity right from the outset. Clark himself seems unhelpful:

What is civilisation? I do not know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it.

He then turns to look at Notre Dame Cathedral. This seems vague, and implies that ‘civilisation’ is ineffable, so what’s going on?

Civilization & Civilisation: Basically, although he doesn’t make this clear, Clark is working with two closely related and overlapping concepts that have to be distinguished if his argument is to be properly understood. For the purposes of our studies, we will distinguish them as follows with slightly different spellings. For Clark (and us) the crucial concept is ‘Civilisation as Sensibility’:

1/ Civilization as Social System: ‘Civilization’ refers to a type of materially and culturally advanced society. In social-scientific terms, a civilization is any complex, geographically settled society characterized by all or most of the following factors: a stable system of state power and law; a comparatively advanced economy, standard of living, trade, and taxation; an effective system of defence; a complex system of social stratification and division of labour; developed urbanization, transportation, centralization, and monumental architecture; a complex religion serviced by a priestly caste; high levels of cultural productivity, symbolic communication, writing and literacy, and information storage; and a comparative independence from its surrounding natural environment. It may or may not support the ‘civilisation’ that Clark focuses on.

2/ Civilisation as Sensibility: ‘Civilisation’ in this sense refers to a form of aesthetic sensibility and orientation towards the world, i.e., it is a complex of characteristics found at the cultural and personal level. Clark alludes to these piecemeal through the series without ever consolidating them. They include an idealist form of aesthetic sensibility, an unrelenting yearning for transcendence, an expansive state of being, a penetrating type of insight, a resolute will, and a restless kind of energy; all of which have found expression in the art, architecture, literature, philosophy, and associated fields of endeavour in Western Europe over the past 1500 years. Clark also invokes other qualities of civilisation; e.g., it enlarges, deepens, extends, broadens, expands and, above all, it is life-enhancing. It also requires vigour, vitality, a range of vision, and a sense of history and continuity that provides an incentive to make things to last. Much of the series consists of examples and elaborations of civilisation understood in this fashion.



Cradles of Civilization: It was from Classical Civilization that this orientation towards human creativity and imagination was derived, as Clark makes clear. Civilizations are comparatively rare phenomena.  It is common to identify five ancient, geographically dispersed ‘cradles’ where a form of civilization first emerged independently around the world: the Fertile Crescent (Iraq); the Indus River (India/Pakistan); the Yellow River (China); the Central Andes (Peru); and Mesoamerica (Mexico). Some of these have survived to the present day, while others, e.g., Islam, appeared later.

Classical Civilization: To these is usually added the Classical form of civilization that first emerged and developed in Greece, and spread on an intercontinental scale under the Hellenistic and Roman empires until the onset of the Dark Ages. This is the seminal form of cultural system that provided the foundation of Western Civilization, finding expression in all aspects of politics, law, art, architecture, theatre, philosophy, science, warfare and religion. It is this civilization that first gave birth to the civilisation that developed in Europe and that Clark is primarily concerned with.

Civilization underlies Civilisation: However, civilisation doesn’t float about self-sufficiently in the air. Indeed, it seems historically and conceptually clear that ‘civilisation’ presupposes some level of ‘civilization’ that underlies and supports it, i.e., civilisation wouldn’t have appeared and persisted without the material support provided over many centuries by civilization. This means that Clark is telling two intertwined stories in Civilisation: (1) the primary tale of civilisation as it found artistic and aesthetic expression over 1500 years; and (2) the secondary tale of civilization in its Western form, as it also evolved over that time while providing the nurturing context for ‘civilisation’.



Two Images: To illustrate what he means by ‘civilisation’ understood as sensibility, Clark compares (in his book) two works of art: an African tribal mask, and the head of the Apollo of Belvedere, a Roman sculpture. He acknowledges that the mask might now be considered a more moving work of art, even though the Apollo was once the most admired piece of sculpture in the world. However, he then argues as follows:

Whatever its merits as a work of art, I don’t think there is any doubt that the Apollo embodies a higher state of civilisation than the mask. They both represent spirits, messengers from another world – that is to say, from a world of our own imagining. To the [African] imagination it is a world of fear and darkness, ready to inflict horrible punishment for the smallest infringement of a taboo. To the Hellenistic imagination it is a world of light and confidence, in which the gods are like ourselves, only more beautiful, and descend to earth in order to teach men reason and the laws of harmony.

He concedes that these may just be “fine words and [that] there was plenty of superstition and cruelty in the Greco-Roman world.”  But then he describes the type of sensibility he is concerned with:

But, all the same, the contrast between these images means something. It means that at certain epochs man has felt conscious of something about himself – body and spirit – which was outside the day-to-day struggle for existence and the night-to-night struggle with fear; and he has felt the need to develop these qualities of thought and feeling so that they might approach as nearly as possible to an ideal of perfection – reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium. He has satisfied this need in various ways – through art, architecture, stories, dance and song, systems of philosophy and through the order that he has imposed on the visible world.

Clark then concludes with a very forceful and comprehensive claim:

Western Europe inherited such an ideal. It had been invented in Greece in the fifth century before Christ and was without doubt the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history, so complete, so convincing, so satisfying to the mind and the eye, that it lasted practically unchanged for over six hundred years.



The Fragility of Civilization: This particular pursuit of civilisation all came crashing down with the Fall of Rome and the onset of the Dark Ages (c.500-1000AD). Suddenly, it seemed, one of the greatest civilizational edifices in human history was revealed to be astonishingly fragile and simply disintegrated. Clark asks, what happened? He observes that Edward Gibbon produced six volumes trying to explain The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, but he looks for some basic reasons for the collapse. These included fear – of war, invasion, plague, and famine – that made it seem simply not worthwhile trying to perpetuate civilization. He also emphasizes fear of the supernatural

which means that you daren’t question anything or change anything. The late antique world was full of meaningless rituals, mystery religions that destroyed self-confidence.

The Exhaustion of Civilization: Finally, he identifies exhaustion, the feeling of hopelessness that can overtake people with even a high degree of material prosperity.” This undermines the confidence that is essential to the survival of civilizations

confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers.

It is this that sustains the great “weight of energy” that propels a civilization, and so he concludes that

if one asks why the civilization of Greece and Rome collapsed, the real answer is that it was exhausted.

From Islam to the Atlantic: The sudden appearance of Islam in the 7th century cut across the life-lines of Classical Civilization and meant that “if a new civilization was to be born it would have to face the Atlantic.” However, at that time, “what a hope” there was of that, as waves of barbarian tribes and other marauders swept across Europe, through the Dark Ages.

Monks on Rocks: It was during that time that monasticism appeared. This phenomenon originated in Egypt and Syria and spread through Greece and France until the pioneering monks reached (literally) the edge of the world – the rugged islands off the west coast of the British Isles. There, in places like Skellig Michael and Iona, some slight memory of civilization was kept alive. Indeed, “for four centuries it was the centre of Celtic Christianity”, producing beautifully decorated manuscripts, including the Book of Kells (c.800AD). However, Clark notes that these works expressed a deeply impoverished image of man, depicting him as an inconsequential being.  

Viking Invasions: Eventually, even these isolated retreats became too dangerous, because “the Norsemen were on the move”. The age of the Viking raids began in 793, when Vikings attacked the abbey on the Holy Island of Lindisfarne off the northeast coast of England. The abbey was destroyed and its treasures looted; the monks were murdered, thrown into the sea to drown, or carried away as slaves. Iona then suffered the same fate. Despite the devastation of this era, which lasted until the 11th century, Clark believes the Vikings exhibited “the spirit of Columbus” in their courage and seamanship. However, they contributed little to civilization because they had no sense of permanence.

‘The Skin of our Teeth’: Clark contrasts this wanton destruction to the monastic efforts made to preserve ancient literature and some (meagre) level of literacy: “The monasteries [became] the guardians of civilization”. Although obscurantist clerics did destroy “many volumes of classical literature, even whole libraries, lest they seduced men’s minds away from the study of holy writ,” credit for this preservation still belongs mainly to the Church. Ultimately, given the challenges faced in preserving the Classical heritage, “We got through by the skin of our teeth”.



The Carolingian Empire: Central to this survival was the Carolingian Empire, constructed and held together by Charlemagne,

the first great man of action to emerge from the darkness since the collapse of the Roman world … it was through him that the Atlantic world re-established contact with the ancient culture of the Mediterranean world.

He collected material from all over the known world, especially books, and through his efforts, “civilisation had come through.”

Alcuin of York: Clark points out that “only three or four antique manuscripts of the Latin authors are still in existence,” and that “our whole knowledge of ancient literature is due to the collecting and copying that begun under Charlemagne.” And the Emperor (who could read but not write) was assisted in this by “an outstanding teacher and librarian named Alcuin of York.”  Under his guidance,

there have never been more splendid books than those illuminated for the court library, and sent as presents all over Western Europe.

Byzantium: Clark notes that the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium civilization survived and flourished during these years but that it was largely sealed off from the West by language and religious differences, and by its reluctance to become involved in the internecine wars in Europe.

Church & State: A vital matter arises at this point. Clark points out that Charlemagne allowed himself to be crowned by the Pope. This seemed to imply church supremacy over the state, and this became a contentious issue for centuries. However, this church/state tension may have been a dynamic asset:

Maybe the tension between the spiritual and worldly powers throughout the Middle Ages was precisely what kept European civilisation alive. If either had achieved absolute power, society might have grown static as the civilizations of Egypt and Byzantium.

Breakup: The breakup of the Carolingian Empire upon Charlemagne’s death gave birth to the basic shape of Europe as we know it, and the conflict and darkness of the previous age descended once again, although there were some advances in art, almost entirely of a religious nature.



A New Power: The Church quickly came to fill this vacuum. By the end of the 10th century

there was a new power in Europe, greater than any king or emperor: the Church. If you asked the average person to what country he belonged, they would not have understood you; they would have known only to what bishopric.

It was the Church that assumed responsibility for maintaining order.

Spiritual Transformation: Accompanying this shift in power, the 10th century also saw a fundamental shift in spiritual consciousness. This was symbolized by the appearance of the idea that “material substances could be made spiritual by art”, and that ornamentation could symbolize “the glory of God.”

The Crucifixion: This shift was also symbolized by the adoption of the crucifixion as the central symbol of Christianity. Previous religious art had focused on “miracles, healings, and hopeful aspects of the faith like the Ascension and the Resurrection.” Now there was a concern with the very human agony suffered by Jesus on the Cross and reflection on what that meant for the popular understanding of God. We can speculate on what changes to civilization produced these changes in civilisation.

Return of the Human: The Church “was not only an organizer; it was a humanizer,” and “men knew the pathos of life, and mortal things touched their hearts.”

And so,

by the year 1000, the year in which many timid people had feared the world would come to an end, the long dominance of the barbarian marauders was over, and Western Europe was prepared for its first great age of civilisation.

It is this we will discuss next week.

9 thoughts on “Sir Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’: a guide and celebration

  • paul scott says:

    Fifty-one years ago, when the first Apollo astronauts were involved in Stanley Kubrik’s film to fake up America’s hefty dominance in the world … > now you can carry on from there.

  • DG says:

    I think it was 1977, I had just started working in Cootamundra (NSW) and was holed up in the Railway Hotel. Too hot outside, so I spent the day reading Clark. The whole book in a day. ‘T’was great fun.

  • Stephen Due says:

    A wonderful introduction Mervyn, much appreciated. The subtitle Clark chose – “a personal view” – is important. Clark presented his ideas not to a mass audience, but to a large number of separate people, each of whom he saw as both a beneficiary of civilisation, and a potential contributor to its cultural riches. He recognised that the real genius of the West is found in the individual human personality.
    I was in my early twenties when ‘Civilisation’ was aired on Australian television. I was captivated by Clark’s intellectual brilliance and clarity of expression. In later years I made a pilgrimage some of the sites featured in the program.
    I have a copy of the book, reprinted by the Folio Society in 1999, but there is really no substitute for the original video, which reveals the charm and enthusiasm of this uniquely gifted communicator and teacher. He spoke to the camera as a boon companion and trustworthy guide on the journey of a lifetime, a great adventure. His old-world manners and subtle sense of humour captivated his audiences. No ordinary ‘expert’ could have been so persuasive or so inspiring.

  • Stephen Due says:

    Barry Jones recalls ‘Civilisation’ as program that “transformed standards in television”. Barry himself also contributed to the transformation of standards in television with his appearances in the long-running series ‘Pick-a-Box’ (1960-1968). His lively autobiography ‘A Thinking Reed’ recalls Kenneth Clark’s programs (an earlier one was called ‘Five Revolutionary Painters’) in a way that shows their importance in his own inner life. Many young men of his generation must have experienced through those programs a similar widening of their horizons, from the cramped mental quarters of an Australian suburb to the broader fields of British and European (and one might add American) cultural institutions.

  • Elizabeth Beare says:

    Oh, yummy. Count me in.

  • Wolfgang Kasper says:

    Given Kenneth Clerk’s agnosticism on how to define ‘civilisation/civilization’, I commend the fine definition of ‘Western civilisation’ by French philosopher Philippe Nemo to Quadrant readers. He defined the concept as being created by these five — and only these five — core elements:

    1/ The invention of the city (polis) and of schools by the Greeks.
    2/ The invention of Roman law, above all private law (private property and individual rights, the source of future humanism).
    3/ Biblical Judæo-Christian morality which promoted love and compassion (the notion that charity surpasses justice, the definition and understanding of progress).
    4/ The Papal Revolution of the 11th to 13th centuries (advanced above all by Pope Gregory VII), which synthesised and hybridised the above three core elements from Antiquity, stressing responsibility and rationality.
    5/ The Enlightenment, with intellectual liberty (freedom of thought and speech), political liberty (democracy) and economic liberty (free markets).

    Together, Nemo writes, these elements launched a rocket, the rocket called ‘The West’! Ultimately, it was to influence the entire world.

    (Above, my free translation from the French. I recommend Nemo’s influential book: Philippe Nemo, (2006), What is the West? Translated by Kenneth Casler; Foreword by Michael Novak (Pittsburg, PA: Duquesne University Press)

  • whitelaughter says:

    thanks for that. It appears to be on youtube; here’s the 1st episode
    looking forward to watching it.

  • Farel says:

    Roger Scruton’s comparison and contrast of civilisation and culture in his “An intelligent person’s guide to modern culture” provides a useful paradigm here I think. He reifies Clark’s view on how civilisation derives from culture-religion. It is more understandable, less mystical and ephemeral than Clark’s head-scratching agnostic stance. Definitely more helpful. Have a read of Scruton on this.

  • Trevor Bailey says:

    Mention of Scruton’s helpful critique and development of Clark’s modern masterpiece points up an interesting contrast, Farel. Sir Roger was the philosopher of aesthetics; Sir Kenneth was the aesthete. The latter chose to show while the former necessarily explained.

    We can do little better than recall the opening lines of Les Murray’s The Meaning of Existence: “Everything except language / knows the meaning of existence…” Clark’s Civilisation is, above all else, simply beautiful.

    So here’s to the less readily understandable, the mystical, and the ephemeral in life – and to the great good they promise to the individual imagination.

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