In many ways, episode 10 of art historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 serie Civilisation is his most political episode, although he discusses the political questions of the day through a discussion of some cultural peculiarities of 18th century France, England and Thomas Jefferson. A wide subject, perhaps viewed through too narrow a lens. As a result of very much working towards the Atlantic Revolutions, but not really discussing them, episode 10 is somewhat unbalanced.
The large themes are all there: the Age of Reason, Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, the American Revolution and a hint of the French. But one gets a feeling that it is too much, a little out of Clark’s comfort zone perhaps. Economic developments leading up to the Industrial Revolution are not discussed, in line with Clark’s earlier confession that he is not much interested in economics. As a Scotsman, Clark discusses Scotland and its particular brand of Enlightenment almost lovingly, explaining how it was in Edinburgh that pure Classicism came into being, that would influence architecture all over Europe.
But it is Clark’s discussion of the Paris salons that is more important. Here he does pronounce an economic verdict: he says that the fact that the French upper classes were not “oppressively rich” kept them free from “too much toadying and pomposity.” He reiterates a point made earlier:
“a margin of wealth is helpful to civilisation, but for some mysterious reason great wealth is destructive. I suppose that, in the end, splendour is dehumanising, and a certain sense of limitation seems to be a condition of what we call good taste.“
But the salons had other civilisational qualities. Recalling his remarks about the 12th and 13th centuries, to which can be added his defence of the Virgin Mother against the Reformation, Clark mentions a “sudden consciousness of feminine qualities,” of which he says
“I think it absolutely essential to civilisation that the male and female principle be kept in balance. In eighteenth-century France, the influence of women was, on the whole, benevolent; and they were the creators of that curious institution of the eighteenth century, the salon.“
In a way, what Clark holds to be true for 18th century England, that it “was the paradise of the amateur,” was also true for France and its salons. It is a point that Clark both makes and misses. He compares the salons with the Court of Urbino, before mentioning hat the salons, as part of Paris society, were fortunate to be
“free from the stultifying rituals of court procedure and the trivial day-to-day preoccupations of politics.“
The same could be said of Scotland, which was far from the center of power after 1707. It is a curious comment on the interplay between cultural developments and politics, that Clark does not make more explicit. If it were indeed the men and women of the Paris salons that were “the outstanding philosophers and scientists” of their time, they were also outside of power. So when
“they wanted to publish their very revolutionary views of religion. They wanted to curtail the power of a lazy king and an irresponsible government. They wanted to change society.“
they wanted to do so as outsiders. If they did get “rather more of a change than they bargained for,” however, it might have been their own doing. Although he leaves off discussing the French Revolution, Clark describes one aspect of French Enlightenment thinking that will be awfully familiar to any, even cursory, student of the French Revolution: its totalitarianism.
Calling the “frivolous eighteenth century” the heir to Renaissance humanism, Clarks says that there is a vital difference: that it did away with Christian morality. There was criticism of the Church, Clark says. Perhaps, but when wasn’t there? Clark concludes that the century
“was faced with the troublesome task of constructing a new morality, without revelation or Christian sanctions“
in order to maintain a civilisation. That it founded this morality on two sources: the doctrine of natural law, presumably stripped of its Christian connotations, and “the stoic morality of ancient republican Rome.” It would be better to say, its a particularly 18th century French interpretation of Rome. When Clark then paints a particularly grim picture of this new morality, how it makes the douceur de vivre lose its hold on European man, and foreshadows the excesses of the French Revolution, he has a point. Grim ideas, especially when they come to power, have grim consequences.
But to say it was this morality that inspired the American Revolution? That is an opinion in need of more reasoning than Clark provides. Clark doesn’t mention it, but when this new morality clashed with the old, as it would during la Terreur, it took a heavy toll. For all Clark’s claims that religion would die in the 18th century (see episode 11), this wasn’t true for everybody. But the French Revolution, edged on by its new morality, and proclaiming itself to be a new start for humanity, would not brook opposition. Not in Paris, nor in the Vendée. The Revolution demanded obedience, and when it did not get it, it responded with the guillotine. In a short while, all the injustices the revolutionaries had complained about, they inflicted on the country themselves – and more. The only consolation is that tragedy can inspire great art, such as the Dialogues des Carmélites, below.