In Part 1 of his 1969 documentary series on the history of Western art, Kenneth Clark defines civilization in a rather illuminating manner:
Civilization means something more than energy and will and creative power, something the early Norsemen hadn’t got, but which, even in their time, was beginning to reappear in Western Europe. How can I define it? Very shortly, a sense of permanence. The wanderers and the invaders were in a continual state of flux; they didn’t feel the need to look forward beyond the next march, or the next voyage, or the next battle. And for that reason, it didn’t occur to them to build stone houses, nor to write books.
A true civilization produces architecture, art, artifacts, customs, heritage, and traditions that are meant to last. A barbaric culture may invent some crude forms of these things, but their purpose, and the mindset that generates them, remains fundamentally different, and thus the results are different, too. While civilization engenders a consistent set of customs—a coherent and unifying way of looking at the world rooted in time and tradition—the barbarian is unmoored from any such stable pillars.
I am reminded of the contrast between civilization and barbarism established by Alfred, Lord Tennyson in his narrative poem Idylls of the King. In one episode, Sir Geraint, a knight of King Arthur’s, leaves the safety and stability of Camelot and heads into the wilds with his wife, Enid.
Along the way, the couple encounters Earl Doorm, a barbarian warlord, whose manners are quite different from the dignified etiquette of the king’s court. Here, in the hinterlands, warriors don’t abide by a sturdy, unchanging code of chivalry. As an example, observe the way the barbarians eat—more like animals than human beings:
Earl Doorm … called for flesh and wine to feed his spears.
And men brought in whole hogs and quarter beeves,
And all the hall was dim with steam of flesh:
And none spake word, but all sat down at once,
And ate with tumult in the naked hall,
Feeding like horses when you hear them feed;
Till Enid shrank far back into herself,
To shun the wild ways of the lawless tribe.
Doorm’s lawlessness goes further still, for when Enid refuses to submit to his wishes, he strikes her—an act unthinkable for a chivalrous knight. This finally brings Geraint back to his senses, both literally and figuratively, and he defends his bride by beheading the barbarian.
Geraint may have left Camelot because he was disgusted with the shortcomings of civilization, the failure of its members to live up to their ideals, but he was soon reminded that the alternative, represented by Earl Doorm and his followers, is far worse. The ways of Earl Doorm can bring no stability because they are founded on the impulse of the moment, not rational thought nor the attempt to build something lasting.
When we discover something true or good, our natural tendency is to preserve it. We might say that a healthy culture is the attempt of a people to preserve all the good and true things they have collectively gathered. A civilization is really the planting of a flag in the earth, the declaration that “this, we will defend: these values, these people, these memories, and these fields.”
Civilized people look at the past and see in it their identity, as well as wisdom to hold on to, a precious treasure store gathered against the uncertainties of the future. Later in his documentary, Clark reflects, “Civilized man, or so it seems to me, must feel that he belongs somewhere in space and time, that he consciously looks forward and looks back, and for this he needs a minimum of stability.”
But do these words describe modern America?
I fear the modern American is often unaware of its place in relation either to the past or the future. It frequently disdains the past. It generally envisions the future as the continuation of an undefined and unlimited “progress” toward a goal that, by definition, always recedes into the distance.
Our culture, in many ways, is one of transience. We sometimes call it a “throwaway culture.” We throw away old books and paintings because we don’t think about or value the past. We throw away plastic bottles and wrappers and toxic chemicals because we don’t think about the future. Our products are designed and produced with planned obsolescence, the precise inverse of the principle of civilization, which is to make something that will endure. Throughout our lives and careers, we move from one place to the next, like the Huns on the vast steppes of Eurasia, which disassociates us from a sense of responsibility or commitment to any one place. Our very homes are disposable to us both in the sense just outlined and in the sense that our building materials are far less lasting than the stone and brick and marble structures we see throughout older cultures.
A degree of permanence is both a prerequisite and a continual goal of a true civilization. Even more important than the physical manifestations of this staying power—strong buildings, timeless art—are the spiritual and moral manifestations. Indeed, I wonder whether we can have one without the other. If a people do not share unchanging philosophical and moral values, which alone give lasting unity, can they hope to build a civilization that will hold up against time’s battering storms?
When I was in Ireland, I visited the ruins of a monastery on the shores of a mountain lake. It dated from at least the A.D. 900s. The monks who built it were not going anywhere. To them, the mountain lake was the best place they could be this side of paradise. And still standing, near a crystalline brook, were two churches, some houses, and a round tower that was constructed to keep watch for approaching barbarians and to provide refuge during an attack.
The structures were abandoned long ago, of course. They are now ruins. And yet, they’re in remarkable condition, considering their age. They’re still here. After 1,100 years, the turning of many seasons where leaves have fallen on the glassy lake and snow has whitened the hillsides and the moss has grown upon the boulders amid the twist of tree roots in the shadow of the mountain, the charcoal-gray stone tower still rises up from a cluster of trees and points skyward.
I wonder—could such a place be built today? And who would lay their hand to the task?
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