Dan Sandman

52: Civilisation by Kenneth Clark

In Art, Books, History, Non-Fiction on 26/12/2014 at 12:00 pm

Civilisation by Kenneth ClarkIt’s non-fiction this week, and Kenneth Clark’s classic Civilisation (British spelling), first published in 1969, is the book I have chosen to finish this year with. Within its pages are thirteen essays spanning the history of Western civilisation, from the fall of the Roman Empire to rise of The United States of America, and almost everything in between – excluding Eastern civilisation and the history of woman. Brilliantly written and loosely matching the BBC television series of the same name, this book is written by an enthusiast whose work has set the standard for quality broadcasting ever since. I think in many ways, as a post-television form of art history, this gripping narrative is yet to be surpassed.

Each chapter is focused around a particular heading – for example ‘The Pursuit of Happiness’ or ‘The Worship of Nature’ – explores this topic referencing great works of art or philosophy or music or literature or engineering or science, and broadly follows a chronological timeline, weaving in and out freely. The essays teach a generally humanistic outlook, and one which argues ‘that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction (pg.245).’ Through his authoritative enthusiasm for art and knowledge, Clark stresses the important role that ‘men of genius’ have played throughout history and advancements in learning. For Clark, its Michelangelo or Einstein or Shakespeare – the geniuses of this world – who carve out a path towards a better world. And his arguments are very convincing, well thought out and founded by years of intense reading.

However, as the subtitle suggests, this is A Personal View and one which is open to debate. To highlight this, even I myself – a newly converted Clark fan – think that Clark is a little bit biased towards his Catholic and Scottish roots (as he very well should be, if that’s where he’s preaching from). But for what little my thoughts are worth, I agree with many of Clark’s opinions and tastes – despite the fact that he was writing fourteen years before I was born. He is right to think that not everyone will agree with his personal view of European civilizaion, and that cynical intellectuals will continually seek to undermine those with a humanistic outlook. Personally speaking, what I continue to like and support, is Clark’s appreciation of courtesy and nature, his stance against those interested in vendetta and violence (again, see pg. 245), and the intellectual curiosity of his every sentence.

Search for Civilisation by Kenneth Clark online, buy the book from a bookshop or borrow it from your library.

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