Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation: A Personal View

Just (re)watch it below

In studying the history of civilisation, one must try to keep a balance between individual genius and the moral or spiritual condition of a society. However irrational it may seem, I believe in genius. I believe that everything of value which has happened in the world has been due to individuals. Nevertheless, one can’t help feeling that the supremely great figures in history – Dante, Michelangelo, Shakespeare, Newton, Goethe – must be to some extent a summation of their times. They are too large, too all-embracing, to have developed in isolation.

Kenneth Clark, in Episode 8: “The Light of Experience” 

of Civilisation: A Personal View (1969)

Clark at 15, photographed by Herbert Lambert in 1918.

Kenneth Clark (1903–83) was the greatest public educator of the 20th century. He began his career as an art historian, and was asked to catalogue the Leonardo da Vinci drawings in the Royal Collection at Windsor Castle when he was only 25. But academic scholarship was not enough for him: he believed that everyone should enjoy access to the best in art, architecture, music and literature. He devoted his life to this conviction.

Clark’s career as an administrator is the stuff of legend: by the age of 30 he was running the National Gallery in London. Later he served as Chairman of the Arts Council, and the first-ever Chairman of the Independent Television Authority. But his real gift was as a communicator.

Clark’s 1939 book on Leonardo da Vinci remains the finest, most accessible introduction available. In fact, all of his books are an education in themselves, and reward study even now. Yet he arguably owes his most lasting fame to his achievements as a broadcaster: nobody has ever come close to Clark’s success in communicating the joys of fine art and high culture to a mass audience.

Clark at 34, photographed by Howard Coster in 1937.

In February 1969, the BBC began broadcasting Clark’s thirteen-part television documentary Civilisation: A Personal View. This is the most important series in the history of the BBC, breathtaking in its ambition and range and budget: it embodies the broadcaster’s original goal to present its audiences with “all that is best in every department of human knowledge, endeavour and achievement.”

Civilisation: A Personal View is a witty, moving, profoundly learned attempt to explore the question: “what is civilisation?” When he poses this question to himself in the first episode, he famously responds, “I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms – yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it.”

Instead of seeking a verbal definition, Clark shows the viewer what civilisation looks like in the western tradition. In order to tell a coherent and largely self-contained story to an audience predominantly based in Britain,[1] his narrative focuses upon the evolution of culture in western Europe, charted from the fall of the Roman Empire right through to the emergence of computers and space travel. He adduces example after example of the highest attainments in painting, sculpture, architecture, music, poetry, philosophy, science and engineering. This does not mean that Clark has a vague, rambling, imprecise, indefinite, or open-ended definition of the term. In fact, it takes thirteen 50-minute episodes to spell out what “civilisation” means to him so that there is no mistaking his meaning.

The dome of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, designed by Sir Christopher Wren and finished by his son in 1708.

In Episode 6 (“Protest and Communication”), Clark lays out his four requisites of civilisation: intellectual energy; freedom of mind; a sense of beauty; and a craving for immortality. He adds, in speaking of Shakespeare: “one of the first ways in which I would justify civilisation is that it can produce genius on this scale.”

Civilisation is based on a sense of permanence. But as Clark spells out in the first few minutes of Episode 1 (“The Skin of Our Teeth”): “however complex and solid it seems, civilisation is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.”

Why does this matter for Classicists? For Clark, Greek and Latin literature, and the heritage of Classical Athens and Ancient Rome, are at the very heart of civilisation. The copying and preservation of ancient manuscripts is not merely a ‘civilised’ act; it is the action that guarantees civilisation itself. Greek and Roman achievements have a permanent value; every civilised generation discovers something new in them.

Leonardo’s unfinished ‘St Jerome in the Wilderness’, 1480–90 (Musei Vaticani, Vatican).

As a scholar of Leonardo da Vinci, Clark seems happiest when sharing the delights of the Italian Renaissance with his viewers. This is obvious when he discusses 15th-century Florence (Episode 4, “Man: The Measure of All Things”) and early 16th-century Rome (Episode 5: “The Hero as Artist”). He claims that the Florentines of the 15th century were “in love with beauty” in the same way that 5th-century Athenians were; he may have also been speaking unconsciously about himself.

Clark’s tribute to Raphael is the most illuminating short introduction we have to the Classical tradition, and the power of ancient art to inspire creative genius. He describes Raphael’s 1512 fresco The Triumph of Galatea (Villa Farnesina, Rome) as “the greatest evocation of paganism of the Renaissance”, and explains why this is such a miraculous work of art:

When Renaissance poets came to write Latin verse (very beautiful Latin verse too), they had plenty of models. But what wonderful imaginative insight it required for Raphael to recreate from scraps and fragments of sarcophagi a scene that must be very like the great lost paintings of antiquity.

Raphael’s is not the only imaginative insight on display here.

The triumph of Galatea, Raphael, 1512 (Villa Farnesina, Rome, Italy).

Clark sees civilisation itself as inextricable from an engagement with Greek and Roman culture. In Episode 10, “The Smile of Reason”, which focusses on the so-called ‘Enlightenment’ of the 18th century, Clark emphasises the centrality of Plutarch’s Lives and Livy’s History of Rome in the moral visions of artists no less than philosophers; the ideals of the American and French Revolutions draw on the example of the sternly virtuous Ancient Roman Republic. Later, even Napoleon is demonstrated to have seen himself in light of Greco-Roman history (Episode 12, “The Fallacies of Hope”). Europe cannot escape the Classical world.

Civilisation: A Personal View is precisely what it announces: a personal view. But after more than half a century, none of its critics have succeeded in dismissing its power. After all, you can’t argue against beauty. There is no more enlightening program in the history of broadcasting. All truly curious minds should watch it from beginning to end as they forge and hammer out for themselves that all-important artefact: their own personal view. Meanwhile, Clark’s own conclusion to the series (from Episode 13, “Heroic Materialism”) continues to resonate:

It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilisation. 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’ve ever known, wrote a prophetic poem, and in it he said:

Things fall apart; the centre 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.[2]

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 centre. 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.

54 years after the show first aired, the full series now has a stable and popular existence on YouTube:

Episode 1:  The Skin of Our Teeth (survival of European Art through the ‘Dark Ages’ to the Carolingian Renaissance)

Episode 2: The Great Thaw (the reawakening of European civilisation in the 12th century)

Episode 3: Romance and Reality (France and Italy in the later Middle Ages)

Episode 4: The Measure of All Things (the ‘Renaissance Man’).

Episode 5: The Hero as Artist (Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci)

Episode 6: Protest and Communication (the upheavals of the Reformation)

Episode 7: Grandeur and Obedience (Rome and the Catholic world in the 16th century)

Episode 8: The Light of Experience (the Holland of Rembrandt and the London of Purcell and Wren)

Episode 9: The Pursuit of Happiness (18th-century music and rococo architecture)

Episode 10: The Smile of Reason (revolutionary politics in 18th-century France and America)

Episode 11: The Worship of Nature (Romanticism and the belief in nature’s divinity)

Episode 12: The Fallacies of Hope (the progressive disillusionment of the Romantic movement)

Episode 13: Heroic Materialism (the rise of materialism and humanitarianism in the 19th and 20th centuries)


1 The text of each episode was published in various locations around the world when the series aired; the book containing a slightly expanded version of this text under the same title was one of the biggest-selling non-fiction works of the 20th century.
2 From ‘The Second Coming‘, 1919.