Narrow and Broad Conceptions of Civilization

20 January 2015


Civilisation Clark

At the present time I hold a view of civilization that is quite broad, and which pushes civilization back to the origins of settled agrarianism. As I see it, all of the essential institutions come into place quite early, although they are present in a very rudimentary form. The first few thousand years of civilization, given this broad conception, consist of a painfully slow and incremental refinement of these rudimentary institutions until they become undeniably civilization, and we find fully developed literature, monumental architecture, elaborate social differentiation and organized religion, another other social institutions.


I did not always hold this broad conception of civilization, and I would say that it was a study of prehistory that was decisive in the evolution of my broad view of civilization. Yet I do not doubt or deny that there are many persons who know much more about prehistory than I do and who nevertheless deny to the efforts of prehistoric humanity the title of civilization. It was once customary (that is an unsatisfactory word in this context) to identify civilization with the historical period, and to identify the beginning of the historical period with the invention of written language. While written language did play an important role in the organization of civilization, it must be accounted a coincidence (or, at most, as loosely-coupled association) that fully developed civilizations of antiquity appeared at about the same time in the historical record as written language. I suppose that my own view, before I became critical of my own presuppositions, was to more or less identify civilization with the emergence of written history, so that I formerly accepted this historiographical convention.

Does civilization begin with written records?

Does civilization begin with written records?

In many of my posts on civilization I have referenced Kenneth Clark’s book and television series Civilisation: A Personal View, and in this work we can find hints of a very narrow conception of civilization, which stands out as all the more interesting to me as it contrasts so sharply with my own views at present. This narrow conception of civilization is most apparent in the discussion of England in Chapter 6, in the context of the Protestant Reformation. Early in the chapter Clark mentions in passing, “…the barbarous and disorderly state of England in the fifteenth century,” and later in the same chapter he wrote:

“I suppose it is debatable how far Elizabethan England can be called civilised. Certainly it does not provide a reproducible pattern of civilisation as does, for example, eighteenth century France. It was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 163

Certainly any conception of civilization that would deny that Elizabethan England — for some, a high point of civilization — constitutes a civilization is a narrow conception indeed, but Clark immediately goes on to add a number of intangible considerations in the characterization of civilization:

“…if the first requisites of civilization are intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality, then the age of Marlowe and Spenser, of Dowland and Byrd, was a kind of civilisation.”


Here Clark concedes that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization; in other words, there are distinct varieties of civilization, some of which we would unproblematically identify as civilization, and some marginal cases, like Elizabethan England, which might be plausibly interpreted as a civilization if we judge the period sympathetically. This is still a rather narrow conception.

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

An engraving by Hogarth, Midnight Modern Conversation, of which Clark said, “Plenty of animal spirits, but not what we could, by any stretch, call civilisation. ”

I don’t have any interest in either defending or criticizing this particular judgment, but I am interested in the principles implicit in this judgment, as the contrast of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization may be considered comparative concepts in the study of civilzation, which can contribute to a more scientific understanding. Early in the book Clark disclaims any idea of civilization and offers no definition, but as his exposition develops a number of principles manifest themselves in the narrative. The example of eighteenth-century France comes up several times, so that we may conclude that, for Clark, this constituted a paradigm of civilization.

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “ can't deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

“La Lecture de Molière” Jean François de Troy, which Clark contrasted to the Hogarth, “…one can’t deny that the de Troy is a picture of civilised life.”

Strangely enough — strange because it seems like it comes out of an entirely distinct scholarly context, or, one might say, out of a different civilization — this seems also to have been the view of Michel Foucault, who frequently in his historical writings (by which I mean the earlier books thaat are narrowly focused case studies of madness, prisons, clinics, and the human sciences) uses the term “The Classical Age” (l’âge classique), which for Foucault seems to mean the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries — though Foucault no more offers a definition of l’âge classique than Clark offers a definition of civilization. For Foucault, l’âge classique constituted a particular épistème in the development of civilization, and one superseded by the emergence of the modern world.

Michel Foucault's Histoire de la folie à l'âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Michel Foucault’s Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique established the idea of a classical age without defining it.

Though Clark and Foucault give us no definitions, Clark does offer the intriguing hint that eighteenth century France provides a pattern that can be reproduced, whereas Elizabethan England does not. This idea of a reproducible pattern of civilization I have called (again, drawing on references to Clark) the iterative conception of civilization, and I have contrasted the iterative conception to the heroic conception of civilization. If this contrast holds good in this context, then, if Elizabethan civilization, as Clark allows, is a kind of civilization, it is an heroic civilization. And certainly Shakespeare is an heroic figure in literature, a singular genius who transformed the language thus creating the conditions of a civilization of the word — another idea that Clark introduces, and contrasts to the civilization of the image, i.e., the civilization of medieval Catholicism.

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

Sir Christopher Michael Wren

By the end of Chapter 8, Clark specifically singles out England as an exemplar of civilization, a new paradigm, as it were, to set next to the salons of eighteenth century France, though this is the England of Christopher Wren rather than the England of Shakespeare. Of Wren’s Royal Naval hospital at Greenwich and its dining hall Clark wrote:

“…the result is the greatest architectural unit built in England since the Middle Ages. It is sober without being dull, massive without being oppressive. What is civilisation? A state of mind where it is thought desirable for a naval hospital to look like this and for the inmates to dine in a splendidly decorated hall.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, New York et al.: Harper and Row, 1969, p. 215

While I don’t reject Clark’s characterization of civilization in this passage, I think it should be acknowledged that this is no less singular and no less idiosyncratic that the earlier England of Shakespeare. What Clark does not say, but which is implicit in his remarks, and in his overall point of view, is that there is an element of democratization involved in building a magnificent naval hospital where residents could dine in splendor. While this is not democracy as we have come to think of it more recently, in comparison to the extremes of poverty and luxury that marked the “civilization of the image” of medieval Christendom, this is in comparison enlightened and magnanimous to spend so lavishly for an institution intended for individuals who were in no sense the elite of agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization.

V0013271 Royal Naval Hospital, Greenwich, with houses either side, sh

Thus the idea of narrow and broad conceptions of civilization must itself be broadened to account for the possibility of a civilization that only accrues to the benefit of the most privileged members of society (a different conception of a narrow conception of civilization) and a civilization that accrues to peoples of a society across social classes and irrespective of privilege and hierarchy (a different conception of a broad conception of civilization). Earlier in his exposition of the Reformation Clark noted how Protestantism became an excuse for uneducated individuals to take out their fury on a higher culture in which they did not share. One might argue that this is a consequence of cultivating a narrow conception of civilization in which the benefits of civilization are not distributed widely.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

The dining hall of which Clark wrote, often called The Painted Hall.

Nearer to our own times, communism, like Protestantism before it, was often used as an excuse for the uneducated, lower strata of society to release its fury against a high culture in which it did not share. We have all heard the stories of the horrors of communism, and I would not wish to minimize them, having often written on the topic. On the other hand, there were moments in which the communist leaders grasped that it was an opportunity for them to demonstrate their concern for the masses in whose name they undertook the revolution by lavishing resources on the people that once would have gone into Tsars palaces. The most famous example of this is the Moscow Metro, the stations of which were designed as “people’s palaces,” which the working class could enjoy during their commute.

Moscow Metro station

Moscow Metro station

Of course, the idea of a broadly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a broadly conceived civilization, as the idea of a narrowly based civilization is distinct from the idea of a narrowly conceived civilization. Yet in the case of narrowness we can see that narrow conceptions foster narrow bases, and narrow bases foster narrow conceptions, so the two are not unrelated. Probably also a broadly based conception of civilization fosters a broadly conceived civilization, but this is not as intuitively striking as the coincidence of narrowness.

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