Summary: Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation Part 12 – After Christianity died, what became the prime civilising force in Europe?
The title of episode 12 ofart historian Kenneth Clark’s 1969 series Civilisation, The Fallacies of Hope, captures the idiosyncrasies of the Romantic Movement. A painter (Turner) who uses the works of a poet (Byron) as an inspiration for his painting. But when the poems were not “pessimistic enough,”
“he wrote a fragmentary poem to provide himself with titles. He called it ‘The Fallacies of Hope’. Bad poetry, good pictures.“
Episode 12 is the story of Romantic hopes, those that were dashed, those that remain; perhaps as fallacies themselves. Clark, as he did in episode 10, remains invested in seeing the Atlantic Revolutions as essentially the same, calling the first phase of the French Revolution from June 1789, the Constitutional or American phase. He does, however, admit that the French Revolution passed into “a new world” when citizens of Marseille marched on Paris in 1792 “singing a new song.
At the same time, Clark underestimates the monumental importance of the decision, in the same year, to change the calendar. The Revolution literally broke with established time, starting with the year I and a ‘rational’ calendar. Clark’s comment seems to miss the weight of this decision, merely commenting that “the change of years was a nuisance,“, but also claiming that
“the new names of the months (…) are poetical, and I wish they had survived. They express the love of nature which had become so closely entwined with the Revolution.“
He then comments on women’s dress.
As Clark himself pointed out earlier, we shouldn’t scoff at fashion. There is often deeper meaning in things that only seem superficial. But that makes this deficiency so agonising. It would be fair to point at the decision to start the years again, to introduce new hours, new minutes, a new length of the year, as more than just a symbolic break with the past, especially with Christianity – seeing how it is “the year of our Lord“, to note that this break was in the name of ‘rationality’. The fallacies of rationality?
Clark does not connect the French Revolution with the rational movement of the 18th century. The American Revolution was rational, he says, but what was possible in the United States was not so in Europe. However, it is possible that the outcomes of both Revolutions were guided by the ideas that were current, which themselves were given latitude by history and traditions. It is in this radical break with tradition, that the French Revolution is truly revolutionary.
Not uncritical of the Revolution, Clark mentions the replacing of Christianity by “a religion of nature,” to which he ascribes a “rather touching character.” He also asserts that
“it sometimes went rather too far: for example, it was proposed to pull down Chartres Cathedral and build in its place a temple of wisdom. There was a good deal of profanation and blasphemy, and a vast amount of destruction: Cluny, St. Denis, many of the sacred places of civilisation were partially destroyed and their contents looted.“
In the end though, one is left with the impression that Clark sympathises more with the Revolution, than with its victims. When discussing the heroes of the Romantic Movement, Clark is complimentary of the “archetypal Romantic heroes” like Van Beethoven and Byron. Beethoven is the optimist, believing that man was worthy of freedom and working this belief into his music. Byron is the pessimist, disillusioned after the Revolution turned sour, but not giving up on the ideas of the Romantic Movement. The recoil felt by Wordsworth and Goethe, causing them to turn away from the Revolution is described by Clark as “depressing“, almost a betrayal.
Clark remains generally positive of the Romantic Movement, and by extension of the Revolution, or the “Romantic movement in action.” Which, it is important to remember, he believes “is not over yet.”
“We are still the offspring of the Romantic movements, and still victims of the Fallacies of Hope.“
This raises a set of questions. If Christianity is dead, and the Romantic Movement killed it, what, if anything, has replaced it as the prime civilising force in Europe? What has civilisation gained or lost in the process? Clark touches on this question in passing, when he criticises the 19th-century bourgeoisie, but then asks what the mocking Romantics could put in place of middle-class morality when “they themselves were still in search of a soul.”
This is the hole left in Clark’s narrative, the hole in the French Revolution that it sought, in vain, to fill with a religion that never took root. Clark tells us that Balzac and Beethoven “should inspire us to defy all these forces that threaten to impair our humanity: lies, tanks, tear-gas, ideologies, opinion polls, mechanisation, planners, computers – the whole lot.” He left out the belief that Utopia is within reach, just beyond the horizon of the next revolution.