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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