Revisiting Civilization


I maintain a sort of spiritual kinship with the heathen invaders who picked through the ruins of the Roman Empire. These were men who stood in wonder at what had been accomplished by the people who came before them. I generally feel as if I am a sort of barbarian wandering through the ruins of a lost civilization my own self. I look at the beautiful art deco buildings in Berkeley and I know nobody will ever build anything like that in Berkeley again.  I look at the stupendous accomplishment of the American space program which put men on the moon. Does anyone believe we'll do that again in our lifetimes? I certainly don't: I think space exploration is finished. Has there been any great work of art or literature in the last 50 years? Please clue me in if there has been, because nobody has told me about it.

Consider Kenneth Clark's documentary on Western Civilization, made in response to the events of 1968. Could we make such a thing today? I don't think we can. It was partially designed to sell color televisions to the upper middle class people who could afford them in those days. Do you think a documentary telling the story of Western Civilization could sell anything to modern upper middle class people now? I don't think you could sell a stick of chewing gum with such an idea today; not unless there were some groveling shoveled into it -perhaps spiced by some sado-masochistic sneering at the very idea that Western people ever had a civilization worth preserving.

I don't even know if there are living people like Sir Kenneth Clark who could make such a documentary any longer. A wise and gentle boffin like Sir Kenneth couldn't possibly say such things any longer; he probably couldn't even think such thoughts any longer. Singing the praises of Western Civilization is now considered an act of cultural war, rather than a natural thing to do. You'd have to be some kind of thick-necked thug or barbarian wandering in the ruins of a forgotten civilization to notice that Kenneth Clark was a far better man than ignorant weasels such as modern documentarian Ken Burns.

The loss of such men is probably irretrievable. There may never again be Western men so cultured and gentle, yet also wise and well connected with the realities of what people really are. Men like this simply can't exist in the same world with ... "Lady Gaga" or whatever the latest cultural atrocity is. There are certainly intellectuals who believe the same things as Kenneth Clark; some of whom may even be as knowledgeable as him. However, they can no longer have Kenneth Clark's gentle and civilized character. A modern Sir Kenneth Clark would be ruthlessly assaulted on all sides by disgusting countercultural monsters. People would howl at him and hound him, and burn his effigy until he  turned his beautiful documentary into something bland and inoffensive and wretchedly brittle and multicultural. Either that or the modern Sir Kenneth Clark would become ... less gentle and civilized. Certainly he would be portrayed as half-mad or evil, as the media portrays anyone who displays the slightest affection for traditional Western civilization.

 In my blacker moments, I wonder if Western Civilization didn't actually fall some time in the 1970s. Certainly, looking around me, it appears we've been invaded by barbarians. It is good to keep his closing words in mind when faced with the doleful state of modern civilization, lest we all fall into despair.

At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole, I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven't changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves. I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. ... Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible. . . . Western civilization has been a series of rebirths. Surely this should give us confidence in ourselves....

It is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilization. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs.