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TV Review: Civilisation: a Personal View by Sir Kenneth Clark

TV Review: Civilisation: a Personal View by Sir Kenneth Clark

10 Mins
March 16, 2011

April 2007 -- Newton Minow, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission in the early 1960s, famously called television a “vast wasteland.” He wanted more government regulation of broadcasting, but he never bothered to ask whether the perceived problem of poor media quality was in fact caused by government regulations—for example, licensing and limitations on the use of the broadcast spectrum.

From the advent of modern broadcast television in the late 1940s until the 1980s, most viewers might have had, at best, a choice of only three national networks, a local independent station or two, and perhaps a PBS affiliate. All that changed in the 1980s, especially because of the 1984 Cable Act, which led to an explosive growth in the number of cable providers. By the middle of that decade, the war between the Betamax and VHS video recorder formats was at its apex as American consumers hooked up more and more of those devices to their TVs. By 1987, video rental income from the proliferation of Blockbuster-type outlets reached $5.25 billion, more than the income from that year’s movie ticket sales. Soon came DVDs, Tivo, satellite program providers, high-speed internet, new cutting-edge recording devices, and instant downloads.

As a result, no one can seriously maintain that there is a dearth of quality TV any longer. Viewers have a huge menu of fare from which to choose: the Arts & Entertainment Channel, the Discovery Channel, the Learning Channel, the History Channel, and the National Geographic Channel, to name only a few. Now, we can see anything we want at any time we want, and this includes access to a cornucopia of high-quality documentary programming.

But even before the media revolution, a number of documentary series stood out as exemplars of nonfiction that educated, inspired, and challenged the mind. These series—from what now seems like a bygone era, but which was only a few decades ago—were so good that today’s viewers would do themselves a great favor to rent, purchase, or download them.


I have selected seven of these as the best classic documentary series, and I’ll be reviewing each of them in future issues of The New Individualist. So as not to keep you in suspense, those series are:

Civilisation: A Personal View, by Sir Kenneth Clark, in thirteen parts, first broadcast in 1968. Clark looks at art, architecture, and aesthetic human achievements in the context of the ideas that dominated Western culture from the fall of Rome to today. It’s a feast for the eyes and the mind!

The Ascent of Man, by Jacob Bronowski, in thirteen parts, first broadcast in 1973. Bronowski reviews the history of science and the ideas that both moved and were moved by the expansion of human knowledge. The series conveys the excitement of discovery and of knowing.

Cosmos, by Carl Sagan, in thirteen parts, first broadcast in 1980. Sagan gives us a history of astronomy and, more broadly, of man’s discovery of his place in the universe. Both how we know as well as what we know are front and center in this series, which imaginatively illustrates just how nature works.

Connections, by James Burke, in ten parts, first broadcast in 1978. Burke shows us how technological advances occur as individuals build on prior inventions and insights. For example, how did seeking cures for malaria lead to men landing on the Moon? Such are the sorts of provocative questions asked and answered in this series.

These classics educated, inspired, and challenged the mind.

Young People’s Concerts, by Leonard Bernstein, 53 parts, aired between 1958 and 1972. Bernstein gives youngsters—and musical novices of any age—a thorough review of what classical music is, what its various forms are, what symphonic instruments are and how they’re used, how music is orchestrated, and many other musical matters. To illustrate his points, Bernstein conducts the New York Philharmonic, which assists him in each episode. The series demonstrates that understanding music can lead to a much greater enjoyment of it.

Free to Choose, by Milton and Rose Friedman, in ten parts, first broadcast in 1979. The Friedmans reveal how individual choice is central to economic prosperity and how the free market system really works. The series is better than almost any introductory economic class you’ll ever take.

In Search of the Trojan War, in six parts, by Michael Wood, first broadcast in 1985. Wood is a historical detective who not only seeks the truth behind the Iliad, the first great literary work in the West, but shows us the process of acquiring knowledge about the past. It’s a romantic quest that blends science and scholarship.


So, by what criteria have I chosen the Magnificent Seven?

To begin with, I selected series that were initially aired before the late 1980s on broadcast stations, principally PBS or independent stations, rather than on cable stations. Thus, these series stood out in a limited viewing market.

Today’s array of educational programs range from junk to jewels. Because of the increased access through so many cable and satellite providers, many of the best series and programs, both regular and special, are tailored for niche markets. Modern Marvels focuses on technology in general as well as impressive engineering projects while Extreme Engineering looks at—well—super-impressive projects. Mythbusters attempts to debunk urban legends. (See TNI, May, 2006.) Some series are based on well-known scientist-authors who turned popular niche books into programs. Über-physicist Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time and string theorist Brian Greene’s Elegant Universe were such high-end products.

By contrast, the seven best series of the old broadcast era tended to be broadly focused in order to garner a wider viewership. The material they contained had breadth as well as depth. Even the one series on my list that seems most narrow in scope, In Search of the Trojan War, called upon history, archeology, literature, architecture, linguistics, and geology, among other disciplines. And it was from these series that many of the later niche programs took their inspiration.

Next, I chose series that were the creations of specific individuals who had the vision and drive to bring their unique personal perspectives to the small screen. These series are the products of individualists at their best. Even when speaking in measured tones and careful words, these people were clearly passionate and in love with their subject matter, engaging the viewer by means of their sheer enthusiasm. Further, all of them are in love with human creativity and the products of the human mind, and they wish to impart knowledge and understanding to the viewer. Some of today’s middle-brow programs aim mainly at the passive mind, satisfied to present mere curiosities and to exploit the “Wow!” factor. But the authors of these classic documentaries are teachers at their best; the viewer participates in healthy mental exercise and comes away with a more profound appreciation for the subject matter.

All but one of these classic programs had accompanying books, giving viewers the opportunity to explore the topics in greater depth. The exception was Leonard Bernstein’s. His was an open-ended, occasional series, not a regularly scheduled TV show; it did not have clearly defined first, middle, and last chapters that could be easily translated into a book.

These films present the best achievements of the human mind and imagination.

I also selected these classic series because all dealt with creation and discovery, whether of art, technology, science, or wealth—that is, the best achievements of the human mind and imagination. The last topic—wealth—is too often omitted from such lists. But wealth is not only the foundation of human survival and physical comfort; it is a prerequisite to advances in all the other areas explored in these series. Thus, the Friedmans’ Free to Choose deserves to be on the same list with classics like Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation.

A note is also in order about the inclusion of In Search of the Trojan War. As I’ve indicated, this series is not principally a recitation of an historical event. Rather, it is the discovery, by the application of human reason and detective work, of an event that was thought for centuries to be a myth. This is why one of the finest series of the old broadcast era, The World at War, while very much worth seeing, is not on my list.

Also note that I haven’t presented these in order of “best first.” Instead, I’ve grouped them somewhat topically. I leave the viewer to determine his own favorites, though I warn him that since all of them are so good, this will be a very difficult, though enjoyable, task.

Finally, I chose these seven series not only because they stood out as examples of quality programming in an earlier era, but because they also have stood the test of time. They still hold up well today, decades later, and when first aired they set the standards for all similar shows in the media age that was to come.

The viewer with a thirsty mind and a love of the best within us will find these “best of” series more than worth his time. If you’ve seen them before, years ago, you’ll be thrilled to rediscover just how good they are. If you haven’t seen them before, then you are in for an intellectual and spiritual treat. Enjoy!

Originally broadcast in1969, Civilisation is perhaps the first great television documentary series. Filmed in over one hundred locations in thirteen countries, this ambitious production was made specifically to showcase the first color television broadcasts by the BBC in Britain and was meant to be a feast for the eyes. It later became a hit in America as well and was broadcast often on PBS stations.

Sir Kenneth Clark’s thirteen-part series probes the ideas that have arisen, developed, changed, and declined in Western Europe between the time of the fall of Rome and today. Since Clark was an art historian, it’s no surprise that, although he discusses music and literature, he focuses especially on how the ideas of a particular age were manifested in the visual arts—painting, sculpture, ornamental objects, and architecture. Indeed, he opens the series with a quote from 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 trustworthy one is the last.”

Throughout the series, Clark revels in human creations of beauty and thought. In every age that he examines, he explores its distinctive contributions to civilization. And this means that he looks especially at their contributors: while he discusses the ideas and conflicts of each era, he always focuses on specific individuals who manifested those ideas and figured in those conflicts. His message is clear: History is not about disembodied forces; it’s about forceful individuals.

History is not about disembodied forces; it’s about forceful individuals.

Clark also constantly contrasts one era to another, pointing out how the limits, contradictions, or excesses led to later reactions that, while carrying their own civilizing elements, might also be wanting. However, this does not mean that he is a scoffer, looking for feet of clay. More than anything, Kenneth Clark was a lover of the civilized. In the 1960s, when the program was produced, some questioned—as some question today—whether our civilization is worth preserving. Clark answers that this is why it was important to “look at the ways in which man has shown himself to be an intelligent, creative, orderly and compassionate animal.”


The first episode in the series begins with Clark asking, “What is civilization?”—and answering, straight-out: “I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet. But I think I can recognize it when I see it.” He then turns to the Notre Dame cathedral in the background and states, “I’m looking at it now.”

This non-definition might not sit well with philosophers. But to arrive at a definition, it is better to travel with Clark through the centuries as he gathers and assesses empirical evidence and to turn later to the question of a formal definition.

Clark focuses exclusively on what he knows best, Western Europe. He establishes his historical starting point by noting that “All the life-giving human activities that we lump together under the word ‘civilization’ have been obliterated once in Western Europe, when the barbarians ran over the Roman Empire. We got by [in the words of the title of his first episode] by the skin of our teeth.”

The history of civilization, this art historian acknowledges, is not just the history of art. He notes that barbarians, even in the narrowness of their privative societies, have excelled in ornamental works. But classical man felt the need to develop “qualities of thought and feeling so that he might approach … an ideal of perfection. He might do this through dance, song, through systems of philosophy, and through the order that he imposes on the visible world. The children of his imagination are also the expressions of his ideal.” But eventually, the classical world simply became exhausted and lost its confidence. The more vital northern barbarians were able to roll over it.

The rest of the series is about the revival, struggles, pitfalls, and triumphs of the West.


Clark guides us through the progress of Christianity and its institutions in the Middle Ages, and he explores the Gothic architecture that expressed the quest for the divine in a recovering culture. The viewer is also treated to examples of intricate design on books, religious ornaments, and the like that reveal beauty, attention to detail, and outlets for the creative. But ultimately, the constraints of religion gave rise to the reaction that was the Renaissance.

Men of that era of rebirth looked back for inspiration to the examples of ancient Greece and Rome. In an episode covering this period, appropriately entitled “The Hero as Artist,” Clark introduces us to “lively, intelligent individuals who created the Renaissance, bursting with vitality and confidence. They weren’t in the mood to be crushed by antiquity. They meant to absorb it, to equal it, to master it. They were going to produce their own race of giants and heroes.”

By comparing Michelangelo’s monumental sculpture of David with Verocchio’s, created twenty-five years earlier, Clark shows us the changing spirit of that era. “The Verrocchio is light, nimble, smiling, and clothed. The Michelangelo is vast, defiant, nude.” He draws a comparison to the progression that we will later see “between Mozart’s Figaro and Beethoven’s Fidelio.”

Of Michelangelo’s David, he says, “It’s only when we come to the head that we’re aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world had never known.” Here, he speaks of the “spiritual” in human rather than religious terms. “I suppose that this quality, which I’ve called ‘heroic,’ isn’t part of most people’s idea of civilization. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we usually call ‘civilized life.’ … And yet we recognize that to despise material obstacles and even to defy the blind forces of fate is man’s supreme achievement.” Clark sees this perspective manifest in the David, as do we when we look upon the “living cage of ribs, those tense, architectural muscles of the pelvis. Above all … this huge, Florentine hand.” Clark concludes that “Since, in the end, civilization depends on man extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the appearance of Michelangelo’s David as one of the great events in the history of Western man.”

Clark writes of the great Renaissance artist as Ayn Rand writes of her fictional architect-creator, Howard Roark. “Everyone who met Michelangelo recognized that he had an unequalled power of mind and skill of hand. Even as a boy, his spiritual energy terrified people.”

"Even as a boy, Michelangelo's spiritual energy terrified people.”

Next, he turns to those ideas and attitudes germinating in Northern Europe that gave rise to the Reformation. He shows us, in art, the serious personal piety found in the North—for example, in Albrecht Dürer’s portrait of Oswald Krell. Clark provides a good portrait of Dürer himself, including a look at his then-scandalous self-portrait, in which the artist painted himself in the face-on pose traditionally reserved for portraits of Christ. Clark also introduces us to Erasmus of Rotterdam and to his book In Praise of Folly, one of the first great popular publications in Europe and one that punctured the growing pretensions of the late Renaissance.

In the episode “The Pursuit of Happiness” (he notes that America’s Founders considered this a proper aim for mankind), Clark criticizes the culture of France, which had dominated Europe for half a century. He speaks of the “grandeur achieved through the authoritarian state” but finds that “French classical architecture has a certain inhumanity. It was the work not of craftsmen but of wonderfully gifted civil servants.” By contrast, the countries of the North reacted against such architectural austerity through the rococo style, which was “brilliant, inventive, and altogether enchanting.” The North also expressed the values of civilization through music, most notably that of Johann Sebastian Bach. He notes that while Bach’s music was religiously inspired, it was really a reflection of reason.


But Clark is at his best looking at the ages in which the human mind was in its ascendancy.

The title of his episode on the Enlightenment—“The Smile of Reason”—is drawn from his observation of a statue of Voltaire—“at a certain level, one of the most intelligent men who ever lived.” Clark notes, “He’s smiling, the smile of reason.”

Portraits of all the other writers, philosophers, and dramatists of the French eighteenth century, he observes, are smiling as well. Why do they all smile? “It seems to us shallow” from our vantage point today, as we confront the great problems of our time. “We feel that people ought to be more passionate, more convinced or, as the current jargon has it, more committed.” But the spirit of the Enlightenment was anything but superficial. “The smile of reason may seem to betray a certain incomprehension of the deeper human emotions, but it didn’t preclude some strongly held beliefs. Belief in natural law, belief in justice, belief in toleration. Not bad.”

And their legacy was not bad, either. “The philosophers of the Enlightenment pushed European civilization some steps up the hill, and in theory at any rate, this gain was consolidated throughout the nineteenth century. Up to the 1930s, people were supposed not to burn witches and other members of minority groups, or extract confessions by torture, or pervert the course of justice, or go to prison for speaking the truth.”

“Voltaire was in many ways the heir to Renaissance humanism,” he says, “but there was a vital difference. The Renaissance had taken place within the framework of the Christian church. A few humanists had shown signs of skepticism, but no one had expressed doubts about Christian religion as a whole.... But by the middle of the eighteenth century, serious-minded men could see that the Church had become a tied house, tied to property and status and defending its interests by repressions and injustice. No one felt this more strongly than Voltaire. ‘Crush the infamy.’ It dominated his later life and he bequeathed it to his followers.”

Thus, the eighteenth century faced the task of constructing a new morality “without revelation or Christian sanctions. This morality was built on two foundations. One of them was the doctrine of natural law. The other, the stoic morality of ancient republican Rome.”

Clark doesn’t limit his examination to the Enlightenment in France. After all, England played an important role, and it was there that Voltaire sought refuge from French authorities, who were far less tolerant of dissent than their English counterparts. Clark also takes us to Scotland to consider the contributions to civilization of James Watt, Adam Smith, and David Hume, among others.

But it was in America that “the aims of the [French Enlightenment] Encyclopaedia were first realized.” And the epitome of the Enlightenment in America was Thomas Jefferson. “He was the typical universal man of the eighteenth century. Linguist, scientist, agriculturalist, educator, town planner, and architect.” Of a drawing of Jefferson, our guide and narrator remarks: “What a willful, independent head.” We tour architect Jefferson’s Monticello. We see the bed that he designed to open into two rooms, his revolving table and chair—a whole houseful of inventions. And then we see the University of Virginia, the buildings and their arrangement, all designed by that great institution’s founder, who also happened to be the author of the Declaration of Independence.

Clark once more turns to art, specifically to Jacques-Louis David’s paintings of scenes of heroes and great events from ancient Rome. We see in David’s style a revolt against the refined, genteel, earlier paintings of the Enlightenment. And for an embodiment of the spirit of Rome in America, Clark offers us Houdon’s statue of General George Washington setting aside his sword. “Houdon saw his subject as that favorite Roman Republican hero, the decent country gentleman called away from his farm to defend his neighbor’s liberties.”


As we learn to expect from Clark, his review of the Enlightenment proceeds to an exploration of the reaction against it.

“For almost a thousand years, the chief creative force in Western civilization was Christianity. Early in the eighteenth century, it suddenly declined. In intellectual society it practically disappeared. Of course, it left a vacuum. People couldn’t get on without a belief in something outside of themselves. And during the next one hundred years, they concocted a new belief, which, however irrational it may seem to us, has added a good deal to our civilization. A belief in the divinity of Nature.”

Clark finds in the reaction to the Age of Reason a greater appreciation of nature. Prior to the inspiration provided by the lovers of nature, few would climb a mountain simply for the joy of the experience. As the representative of this turn from reason, Clark offers us Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Clark calls Rousseau a genius while acknowledging his many defects.

The advocate of reason is often tempted to evaluate thinkers or commentators by their reaction to Rousseau: The more favorable their assessment, the less favorably they should be regarded. Clark calls Rousseau a genius while acknowledging right off his many personal defects. He relates Rousseau’s revelatory experience on an island, where “he became completely at one with Nature. He lost all consciousness of an independent self.” Rousseau believed that “our existence is nothing but a succession of moments perceived through the senses.” In other words, “I feel, therefore I am.”

While this focus on nature might have inspired new and appealing manifestations in art and music, Clark steers toward the proper conclusion about putting feelings first. He calls this perspective “an intellectual time bomb that ... has only just gone off, whether to the advantage of civilization now seems rather doubtful.” He warns about the failure to realize “how far abandonment to sensation might take us or what a questionable divinity nature might prove to be.”

One who embodied this failure, he points out, was the Marquis de Sade, who said, “Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty.” From this, we can see the consequences of Rousseau’s notion that “natural” man, rejecting reason and giving in to the impulse of the moment, is virtuous. A contemporary who understood was Voltaire; his scathing response to Rousseau’s notion of virtue was, “No one has ever used so much intelligence to persuade us to be stupid.”

Clark does maintain that the eighteenth century world had become too rigid and enclosed, and that “An enclosed world becomes a prison of the spirit.” It was that caged spirit’s rebellion that liberated the passion of a Beethoven. But the spirit of Rousseau also gave rise to the French Revolution, to massacres, and to disaster for Europe.


Unfortunately, by the time Clark reaches his world of the 1960s, he has adopted a somewhat conventional view of the problems of urban poverty from the nineteenth century onward. He accepts the Malthusian belief that population as such seems to be a problem. But simultaneously, he celebrates what he calls “heroic materialism.” As an example of a modern hero, he gives us the great civil engineer and bridge-builder Isambard Kingdom Brunel. The geometric shapes of vast frameworks, girders, and arches are “our own style, which expresses our own age as the Baroque expressed the seventeenth century.”

By the end of the journey, Clark has taken us through 1,500 years of the rise of the West and its near-suicide in the wars of the past century. But he is an optimist. He doesn’t think we’re moving into a new Dark Age. Observing students in a library who look nothing “like the melancholy late Romans or pathetic Gauls,” he doubts if so many people ever have been “as well fed, as well read, as bright-minded, as curious, and as critical as the youth are today.”

Civilisation is a joy to watch, not only for its intellectual content, but because it is a vivid and visual series—not simply a series of lectures by a talking head. Much of it focuses on the art, architecture, and other outward manifestations of the ideas and culture of each age. We see the places where individuals of genius lived and worked. Meanwhile, the understanding that Clark imparts allows us better to appreciate the grand creations and creators that he shows us.

In the not-too-distant past, no student could get through a university without taking a solid Western Civilization course. In most of today’s perhaps wrongly named “institutions of higher education,” this requirement, and the appreciation of why it is so important, have disappeared.

But in the place of such courses, Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation endures as a feast for the eyes and the mind. Perhaps the appreciation that he imparts for the creators of the past can inspire others to be creators of the future.

Edward Hudgins


Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins is research director at the Heartland Institute and former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society.

Edward Hudgins
About the author:
Edward Hudgins

Edward Hudgins, former director of advocacy and senior scholar at The Atlas Society, is the founder of the Human Achievement Alliance and can be reached at ehudgins@humanachievementalliance.org.

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