Civilization – Precious and Hard Won

I wasn’t going to blog on this until I finished the series, but the opening music for the second episode brought too many fond memories to the surface for me to wait. I recognized the chant: Ubi Caritas et Amor. I have sung Lauridsen’s setting.

My folks and I watched part of the recent PBS series “Civilizations” and were disappointed. Great filming, some fascinating art, but it was hollow. So Mom tracked down the original BBC series, hosted by Kenneth Clark. It is chronologic rather than thematic, and locks on Western Civilization without apology or hesitation. Ah, 1969, when people still believed that the West was worth preserving, honoring, and fighting for.

The first episode rang so hard that I almost had to stop the DVD and catch my breath. “The Skin of Our Teeth” is how civilization survived the collapse of the western Roman Empire, per Clark, and he explains why the old system of the Mediterranean gave way to barbarians. He’s not looking at politics, or plagues, or climate change, but things of the spirit: energy, confidence, hope for the future. Rome grew comfortable and decadent, and lost the cultural will to keep going. Everything else was downstream.

Was it 1969 or 2018? Because that’s the same sense I get from a lot of the media today, and from the forces opposing civilization today. “There’s no hope for the future – climate change, decadent capitalism, too much individualism, racism, sexism, what have you  are destroying everything.” “Why bother? Smaller is better, and we’re better off not offending the Global South.” “There’s no god, religion is a patriarchal construct used to enslave people, and the world is better if we don’t have children.” “The world is so terrible it would be cruel to have children.”

And so the barbarians came. But not everything vanished. The Eastern Empire held some bits, and early Christians held more, and held it through the Vikings and others until the Franks began clawing toward the memory of the old Empire and a new sort of civilization.

That’s Clark’s version, and it is dated in some ways. He’s far more focused on the western end of Europe and the British Isles, and misses some pretty important things, in my opinion, including the role of Byzantine scholars*. But he also doesn’t have the benefit of all the archaeology and research done since 1968. And he’s spot on about what was needed to rebuild and re-ignite the fire of civilization.

Hope. Energy and vitality, things the Vikings and Germanic peoples had a surfeit of (at least, they did if you were trying to raise crops and they came upriver toward you.) The Franks combined barbarian energy with the understanding that the Christian Church provided a framework for organizing people. Once people got organized, they could do things their fathers had thought long-lost, like building enormous stone buildings, and moving into new territory, and trading with Asia, and not losing more of western Europe to the Berbers and Islam.

I get the feeling that the self-appointed elites in the West today have given up on hope. This is it, the best of all worlds because there’s nothing afterward. And Western Civilization has done terrible things, so if this is the best, nothing’s worth fighting for or hoping for. Not unlike the attitude Clark suggests gripped Rome.

And then there are the rest of us, the ones who have a faith, who like our neighbors and Western Civilization. We know things have been bad at times, and could be better now, but we are not giving up. We’re having families, defending our homes, and striving to keep out the modern barbarians.

I really wish the DVDs were better formatted so that I could show excerpts in class, Alas, they are what they are, and I’m glad to be able to watch the series again. It is dated in some ways, but very good ways as well. And I confess, it is fun checking off the great treasures that I’ve seen in person.

*Byzantium should get a lot of the credit often given to the Iberian Berbers for preserving and transmitting Greek works of philosophy and medicine.

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31 thoughts on “Civilization – Precious and Hard Won

  1. I sang the Durufle setting, and still have most of both bass parts in memory. That’s a good earworm.

    Fatih, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is Love.

    Faith in God, your self, and fellow man.
    Hope for now and the future, in all you think and do.
    Love to have courage to improve yourself, and to encourage others.

    Thanks for crystallizing a thought series. I need to discuss some very similar themes with a bunch of college undergrads, this weekend.

    • There is a very unfortunate typo. I know that you meant “Faith”, but it allows a factoid:

      “Fatih” is the Ottoman title for Mehmet. It means “the Conqueror”. Mehmet II was the guy that ended the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453, conquering Constantinople.

      Indeed, the greatest of these is Love, but the functional definition of Faith is to do the right thing, the same covenant concept as to be faithful. Something that the Lord asks of us.

      Be faithful to your Western Civilization. And even though I am not a Marine, Semper Fidelis!

  2. “I get the feeling that the self-appointed elites in the West today have given up on hope.”

    The loss of civilizational self-confidence in Europe, and by extension the entire West, is the theme of Arthur Koestler’s 1950 novel of ideas, The Age of Longing. The protagonist, Hydie, is a young American woman living in Paris. Once a devout Catholic, she has lost her faith. She is unable to be attracted to American or European men–her brief marriage was a disaster–but she falls hard to a committed Soviet Communist.

    It’s a thought-provoking book which deserves a wider readership. I reviewed it in my post Sleeping with the Enemy.

    • It’s not that the demon infested winged monkey Globalist servants of Satan have given up hope. It’s that they want to destroy Western Civilization and dance a jig on the smoldering ruins.

      See the difference?

  3. I think I saw bits & pieces of that series.

    It is likely worth looking for (or the book based on it).

    Wonder what either costs?

    • Thirty-five bucks.

      I got it several years ago, in a “we really need some sort of a history overview, because I want them to be better taught than I was”, and because of this post it is now in front of the playstation. Going to use my standard “turn it on and let them wander in” method. 😀

      • Want to point out that the one for 35 is a Region 2 DVD which means it’s for DVD players in Europe and it possibly won’t play on players sold elsewhere. For Region 1 (US & Canada) you’ll want to do the multi-format Blueray option for $42 otherwise the Region 1 DVDs are nearly $200.

  4. I would also recommend “The Ascent of Man” Link here to Wikipedia article.

    As an aside, one of the most interesting classes I took in College was “History of Architecture.” The professor covered the history part as well as the whys and hows of the historic edifices. Almost convinced me to change majors, but I had too much time and effort invested in engineering.

    • At least at Flat State U, the engineers never looked as miserable as the architects did. Granted, part of that was two architecture profs who had sadistic streaks – like assigning projects the day before Thanksgiving Break that would require the students to spend the entire break working in the lab. One year the kids rigged up a pulley system out the window so people could send up Thanksgiving Dinner.

        • Brutalist architecture, even it it isn’t officially Brutalist, but it weighs down spirits and depresses people even though it is “high tech” and “super efficient.”

          • The name sounded like something I would like, so I looked it up, and found it wasn’t to my taste.

  5. Faith, hope, and love are sadly lacking today on the part of the left… But thankfully they still exist in flyover country. Great music, and history DOES present lessons for those willing to take the time to learn it.

    • I thought it was Faith, Hope and Charity? If you have some time, check out #Walkaway. It’s people talking about leaving the Democratic Party and it insanity.

      • The King James (or Authorized Version) uses charity instead of love. The Greek is agape, as opposed to eros or philios.

        • agape, philios and eros all mean love. I think that CS Lewis wrote The Four kinds of Love.

          • Eros is physical, sexual love. Philios is “brother love,” or parental love, and agape is often defined as “sacrificial love” or as a hymn puts it “love divine, all loves excelling.”

      • IIRC The word “Charity” (which the KJ version uses) had when written a meaning closer to “Love”.

        Since the current meaning of “Charity” is different that the meaning that the KJ version used (when written), most modern Bibles use “Love” instead of “Charity”.

  6. I agree – many of the elites, those in highly public industries, do appear to have given up hope. It seems to me that they have been convinced, talked into, the argument that there is nothing worth while in Western culture and that the only conscionable way forward is to support other cultures.
    It is disappointing how many of these people clearly demonstrate they have not read much of the past and merely regurgitate what they have read from others of their ‘tribe’. It happens so much, and so clearly, that I am stunned that people can’t see how what they say and do doesn’t add up and is impossible!

    • It is a willful blindness that requires a great deal of effort to maintain. I’ve watched people, and even asked pointed questions, and they flat-out cannot see the contradictions. Like the feminists who insist that it is OK for other places to mutilate and murder women for the sake of “honor” and “purity,” then excoriate the US for “our horrible women’s rights record and rape culture.”

  7. There must be a way to combat these pernicious ideas. Men are not toxic. They are necessary and glorious. Hope is necessary and correct in today’s world. We are on the verge of so many interesting things. Also we have and can do so many wonderful things. There is still hope and wonder in this world.

  8. ““The Skin of Our Teeth” is how civilization survived the collapse of the western Roman Empire, per Clark”

    And that’s utterly wrong. If you’re really interested in the course of ‘civilization’, W.H. McNeill’s The Rise of the West is a much more detailed and researched exploration of the issue (but it requires reading). Let’s stop buying into the incredibly false notion the the “Dark Ages” were even a thing.

    • The idea of the transition from “Late Antiquity” to the Middle Ages hadn’t really been explored when Clark was doing his work. I was surprised to discover that dedicated archaeological studies of the period from the 400s until the 1300s, didn’t really begin on Continental Europe until the 1960s, so Clark doesn’t have some of hat material yet. And I would argue that if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the period after Rome’s border reductions was pretty “dark” and uncertain. I agree, McNeill is an excellent book. I like to read and watch around to find ideas and material I can use either in my writing or my teaching.

    • Lauridsen and some Gjiello. Lauridsen has such a sweep and power to his work. It sounds trite, but he “gets” what choral music can be. I love Mack Wilburg’s arrangements, but for original pieces, right now, Lauridsen is the best I’ve been fortunate enough to sing.

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