There was some common ground where we lived. Romany often camped there. They were no trouble. They continued their nomadic life even among the encroaching suburbia. The area had been wilderness, barely cultivated until the Normans came. The Romans had avoided the marshes, making a rare deviation in their famously straight roads. The Vikings had settled at various points along the rivers. Civilisation came with the monastic orders who chose remote places. They brought learning and a disciplined piety as well as trade, agriculture and solid, stone buildings of aesthetic as well as practical value.
Civilisation is the culture of cities, of permanent settlements. These demand social organisation to administer to the needs of citizens. Resources are pooled and then redistributed according to codes of governance. These codes are determined by factors that may include ideology, property, hierarchy and social obligation. In place of tribal custom there are laws ordering the gathering of wealth through taxes and the ministering of needs. Elaborate systems of water supply and sewerage are deemed essential, as are means of maintaining order and decent social conduct.
Civilisation is more than social organisation. A sophisticated civic life may engender a refinement of personal tastes and habits. Living in comfort with a degree of leisure enabling the growth of elevated thought and sensibilities are said to be ‘civilised’ ways of being. The contrary is barbarism, a condition of disorder and brutality, a way of life without codes of restraint on selfish impulses.
The barbarians are the violent tribes out there beyond the wall. They are close by and perpetually threaten to prevail against civilised order. The signifiers of civilisation are those elements that serve no purpose other than to stimulate the senses or the intellect and are vulnerable to the cruel and rapacious power of savages bred in the wilderness where moral intelligence and aesthetic sensitivity have no place.
The barbarian, however, may be found within the city walls. City life since antiquity has been the notorious haunt of tricksters, cutpurses and whores. There are rogues waiting to fleece the unwary. They prey on innocence, a condition they despise as unworldly. Within the city walls all the world may be found. Anything may be bought at a price. The only value is the rate of exchange in the market place. “As a city requires its sewers,” St Augustine observed, “it requires its prostitutes”.
One thing saints understand is sin, having fought their battles against worldly temptations. The sight of the thief and the doxy in the cathedral’s shadow is as potent a symbol of the city as one can imagine.
Yet is the cathedral [or its equivalence] that is the enduring parameter of civilisation. Chartres was central to Kenneth Clark in his view of Civilisation, as it is half a century later for Simon Schama in Civilisations. For Orson Welles in F for Fake Chartres was the symbol of truth. The secular enquirers approach Chartres as pilgrims have done for centuries. The perfect harmonies of Chartres may bear witness to the feeling that the search for the essence of civilisation is the search for a metaphysic.
That is why civilisation is hard to define in theoretical terms. It is easier to describe its effects. Clive Bell’s attempt to define it served as a manifesto for the Bloomsbury aesthetic, but question of taste and decorative style are not enough. For Mary Beard the eye of faith is central to our experience of art. We are not required to believe in the specifics of a religion to appreciate its art. Our need is to encounter higher values than may be found in the world of tasks. As Kenneth Clark concluded, ‘heroic materialism’ does not satisfy the human need for a glimpse of the transcendent.
Each of us can understand these things only on our own terms. I don’t mean individual terms, although our view is necessarily personal. The terms by which we encounter civilisation are bound by whatever historical moment and social space we occupy. Kenneth Clark did not move beyond Western art because, he said, to broaden the enquiry would require much more space and go beyond the bounds of what he knew. He mentioned Spanish art only briefly, having no real knowledge of the language. That is carrying humility excess, but Clark [born 1903] was one of the old school of courtesy.
It was as a teenager that I learned the origins of that term from Clark. He speaks at length of courtly love and the development of medieval romance. I needed to learn more of Provencal culture. I learned it was remarkable, and its effects may continue to be found in the folk culture of the region.
It was contact with Arabic culture through extensive trade that engendered an entirely different way for men of the West to regard women. Desire was commonplace. Respect could be found. But adoration had been barely known until the Troubadours sang their ethereal songs of Levantine princesses. In the courts of love, presided over by women, these matters were decided as the songs of Amour Courtois were judged. The blend of cultures transformed feeling so profoundly that some see it as a change in human nature. Clark implies sympathy for this view.
The striking thing about Clark is his ability to summarise so well each aspect of his narrative of Western culture. How well he captures the essence of Erasmus and Montaigne, for example. Clark has proved such a stimulus to read and see and know all that his ‘personal view’ encompasses. There are omissions [often through lack of space]. There are blind spots. He does not seek out many female artists because many were awaiting rediscovery. And, yes, Kenneth Clark had a grand manner. Of course so many of his generation had, even if not born to such wealth and position. He also possessed personal qualities in addition to genuine modesty. He was touched that so many people responded to his work. He wished to share his knowledge, and he did so. A Fabian Socialist, he sought inspiration from Ruskin. It seems old-fashioned today, but in its time this was truly progressive.
Simultaneously Chair of the Arts Council and the Independent Television Authority, Clark was determined to break down the barriers of class prejudice. Most of his extensive TV work was for commercial channels rubbing shoulders with trivia in the search for a common culture. This was in marked contrast to coterie culture. You don’t watch Kenneth Clark for his street cred, nor do you see in him that patronising air of the media careerist. He was himself, and millions of English-speaking viewers in the world respected that.
Clark inspired many to explore further. I set myself the task of seeing or reading everything he mentioned. As Clark acknowledged, the exploration was incomplete. Others have taken up the challenge to broaden the scope beyond the West. Our general culture has gained an international perspective that enables us to value arts and sciences other than our own. We have learned also to acknowledge and value the influences of other cultures on our own. The work of Civilisations fifty years on from Kenneth Clark reflects this essential transformation.
This brings up again the question of what civilisation actually means. We speak of Western Civilisation, citing Plato and Sappho among its progenitors. Yet we speak of Christian Civilisation, a more exclusive and problematic term for a culture grounded in Hebraic and Hellenic thought. We speak of European Civilisation, but naturally include the Americas. We avoid awkward the question of where to place modern Australasia. A definition limits. It is easier to describe civilisation than to define it. It is easier to recognise its obvious manifestations than is to explore the nature of their origins.
I began by speaking of common ground. I was speaking of an actual place. Now I find an unintended secondary meaning. Civilisation is the common ground. The psalms speak of Jerusalem as ‘a city, a unity where the tribes gather.’ In a fractious world this sense of common identity is a necessity. There are those who find an emotional and irrational unity. It manifests itself in rawness, anger and violence. There are others who seek a thoughtful and creative unity, a coherent and sympathetic narrative of common identity.
For Marx the choice was between the development of commonwealth and communality or a relapse into barbarism. These stark alternatives present themselves to us. The tribes are gathering. It may be for peace or for war. The choice is ours.
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This post was written by Geoffrey Heptonstall