Summary: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation Part 1 – “The Skin of Our Teeth”
In part one of this 1969 thirteen part series, art historian Kenneth Clark (1903 – 1983) discusses a great range of topics. The disappearance of the Mediterranean centered Graeco-Roman Civilisation through exhaustion. The Celtic Church and it’s unique development, focused on the pictorial element, on the edge of the world, culminating in the Book of Kells. The Carolingian Renaissance and its rediscovery of the Mediterranean world and the written word. Throughout the episode, and the series, Clark is guided by a quote by John Ruskin:
“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.“
He formulates from this the idea that art, in the broadest sense, is the translation of cultural and civilisational ideas into the material realm. Clark discusses the difference between culture and civilisation, beginning by pointing out that he can’t define ‘civilisation’, but knows it when he sees it. He does, however, come to the conclusion that it requires permanence.
The Graeco-Roman Civilisation of the Mediterranean he describes as a homogeneous whole, “the most extraordinary creation in the whole of history.” It filled the world in which it held political sway with buildings, instantly recognisable as belonging to this civilisation. Lasting for, Clark says, 600 years its remains are visible in all areas around the Mediterranean. When this civilisation collapses, it is from exhaustion, the inability, the unwillingness to continue it through a loss of confidence in itself. These are the true enemies of civilisation.
This collapse allowed the influx of ‘Barbarians’, and finally the closing of the Mediterranean world by what he calls a new “agent of destruction“: Islam. This closing forces Western European civilisation, at this point Christianised, to shift its center of gravity towards the Atlantic Ocean. Here, at the edge of the continent, the Celtic Church keeps the fires of civilisation burning. But it is an inward looking world, surrounded by barbarism. It reaches high points in the arts, in its own unique style. At the end of the 9th century, this chapter closes because of too great a pressure of Viking invasion.
In continental Europe meanwhile, Clark mentions the Carolingian Renaissance, which he claims as a new beginning for Western civilisation. Partly through the Franks’ ability to keep Islam at bay, partly through its preservation of Roman manuscripts, and partly through its higher level of organisation. Mentioned especially is the re-establishing of contacts with the wider world, the ‘Byzantine’ Empire and the renewed importance given to the written word, with the consequent development of the Carolingian minuscule, which became the calligraphic standard for European written Latin. Although after the death of Charlemagne his empire fell apart, Clark maintains that civilisation afterwards did not descend to the depths it reached before its formation. In short,
“we got through by the skin of our teeth.“
This article is part of a series. Follow this link for the next part.