The Elizabethan Conception of Civilization

19 October 2019


Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603)
The Armada Portrait, c.1588. Attributed to George Gower (c.1546-1596).

In his book and television series Civilisation, Kenneth Clark cast doubt whether there was anything that could be legitimately called an Elizabethan civilization, hence, I assume also, any possibility of an Elizabethan conception of civilization:

“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. But if the first requisites of civilisation 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.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 6, “Protest and Communication”

This might seem like a rather trivial passage to pluck out of a larger work and to use as a lens to focus on the concept of civilization, but there is much of interest here, so hear me out.

Firstly, let’s start with the implicit distinction with which I began between a civilization and a concept of civilization. It is entirely possible that the Elizabethans had a concept of civilization, even if they themselves did not measure up to this concept, but it is highly unlikely that this is the case despite the possibility. The term “civilization” was not explicitly introduced until much later — significantly for Clark’s observation, by a French writer, Victor de Riqueti, marquis de Mirabeau, in 1757 — and we will assume that the terminology was introduced to meet a need that was felt to express an idea for which there was, as yet, no terminology. Again, it is possible that the concept of civilization existed in Elizabethan England before the term was introduced, but, if so, that would be a separate inquiry, though what we will have to say here would be relevant to that inquiry.

Setting aside the concept of civilization for the Elizabethans, there is the simpler question of whether the Elizabethans themselves were civilized, and Clark allows that Elizabethan England was a kind of civilization (a kind of civilization perhaps, but not, it is implied, civilization proper). This remark in passing is worth noting. Clark himself seems to prefer his characterization of civilization as a reproducible pattern, but he also allows for the possibility that intellectual energy, freedom of mind, a sense of beauty and a craving for immortality may characterize a civilization even in the absence of a reproducible pattern. In other words, there may be several distinct kinds of civilization, such that Enlightenment France exemplifies one such kind, while Elizabethan England exemplifies another kind. This seems pretty sensible, and, moreover, I agree with it. But if there are several kinds of civilization, what are these kinds? In other words, what is, or what ought to be, the scheme of taxonomy for civilizations?

At this time I am not prepared to offer a taxonomy of civilizations (although this is implicit in my other writings on civilization — more on that another time), but I can make some observations relevant to a taxonomy of civilizations. Since Clark focuses on civilization as a reproducible pattern, let’s also focus on that for the moment. Here I am reminded of a passage that I quoted in Civilization and Uniformity from Sir Mortimer Wheeler’s classic work, The Indus Civilization:

“…the Harappans were, first and last, lowlanders, as befits a civilized folk. The diversity of the hill-divided village groups is in standing contrast to the widespread uniformity of the riverine civilization.”

Sir Mortimer Wheeler, The Indus Civilization, third edition, p. 2

For Wheeler, mountain peoples remained idiosyncratic in their isolation, while lowland agricultural peoples mingled and lost much of their uniqueness. The emergence of uniformity, hence a reproducible pattern, is a product of the evolution of certain societies, and once a society evolves in this direction the process reinforces itself. Uniformity lends itself to iteration, and iteration renders any idiosyncratic tradition uniform over time; uniformity is the chicken and reproducible pattern is the egg.

Other examples of reproducible patterns would be the Hellenistic civilization that dominated the Mediterranean Basin during classical antiquity and the industrialized civilization that has emerged since the industrial revolution. Later iterations of Hellenistic civilization were highly uniform, but this pattern had its origins in the earliest societies of classical antiquity, which were likely highly idiosyncratic the closer we approach to their origins. E. R. Dodd’s classic study, The Greeks and the Irrational, highlighted the idiosyncratic nature of ancient Greek society as against the prevalent perception of Greek rationalism. Probably, like most peoples, the Greeks began with highly idiosyncratic institutions and evolved toward reproducible patterns. That others also took up the Greek pattern of civilization and reproduced it themselves probably contributed to wearing away of what remained that was peculiarly Greek in Hellenistic civilization.

I have previously discussed this contrast between iterable models and the idiosyncratic in terms of The Iterative Conception of Civilization and The Heroic Conception of Civilization. In my post on The Iterative Conception of Civilization I also implicitly reference Kenneth Clark in relation to the civilization of classical antiquity in the Mediterranean Basin. My implicit reference to Clark was to this passage:

“The same architectural language, the same imagery, the same theatres, the same temples — at any time for five hundred years you could have found them all round the Mediterranean, in Greece, Italy, France, Asia Minor or North Africa. If you had gone into the square of any Mediterranean town in the first century you would hardly have known where you were, any more than you would in an airport today. The so-called Maison Carree at Nimes is a little Greek temple that might have been anywhere in the Graeco-Roman world.”

Kenneth Clark, Civilisation: A Personal View, Chapter 1, “By the Skin of Our Teeth”

That Clark mentions the comparison with an airport today shows the relevance of a reproducible pattern not only to Hellenistic civilization but also to our contemporary industrialized civilization.

It has only occurred to me now, after all these years, that the distinction between the iterative conception of civilization and the heroic conception of civilization can be assimilated to the familiar historiographical distinction between the nomothetic and the idiographic formulated by Wilhelm Windelband:

“…the empirical sciences either seek the general in the form of the law of nature or the particular in the form of the historically defined structure. On the one hand, they are concerned with the form which invariably remains constant. On the other hand, they are concerned with the unique, immanently defined content of the real event. The former disciplines are nomological sciences. The latter disciplines are sciences of process or sciences of the event. The nomological sciences are concerned with what is invariably the case. The sciences of process are concerned with what was once the case. If I may be permitted to introduce some new technical terms, scientific thought is nomothetic in the former case and idiographic in the latter case.”

Rectorial Address, Strasbourg 1894, Wilhelm Windelband, History and Theory, Vol. 19, No. 2 (Feb., 1980), p. 175

Following Windelband, when a civilization is constituted by a form which invariably remains constant, it is a nomothetic civilization; on the other hand, when a civilization is constituted by the particular in the form of an historically defined structure, it is an idiographic civilization. Given this distinction, Clark’s implicit distinction between French civilization of the Enlightenment, which is characterized by a reproducible pattern of civilization, and Elizabethan English civilization, which was brutal, unscrupulous and disorderly, corresponds to the distinction between nomothetic and idiographic civilization.

But I would not go so far as to assert that there was nothing idiosyncratic about French civilization during the Enlightenment, and nothing nomothetic about Elizabethan civilization; it is a matter of degree, and degree of separation, between the nomothetic and the idiographic. Other civilizations that tended toward the idiographic would include, by my reckoning, Viking, Polynesian, Mongol, and Turkic civilizations (I mentioned all of these in a recent newsletter as instances of semi-nomadic societies); we have already seen other examples of highly nomothetic civilizations, viz. Hellenistic and industrialized civilization.

There are certainly nomothetic features of Elizabethan England… so what are they? Let us take a passage from The Life of King Henry the Eighth as an indicator of nomothetic structures of Elizabethan civilization, when Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, says the following in regard to the infant Elizabeth:

She shall be loved and fear’d: her own shall bless her;
Her foes shake like a field of beaten corn,
And hang their heads with sorrow: good grows with her:
In her days every man shall eat in safety,
Under his own vine, what he plants; and sing
The merry songs of peace to all his neighbours:
God shall be truly known; and those about her
From her shall read the perfect ways of honour,
And by those claim their greatness, not by blood.

William Shakespeare, The Life of King Henry the Eighth, Act V, Scene v, lines 31-38

To reduce this passage to the skeleton of implied properties of a successful society, we get security, including food security, peace, religious truth, and moral edification. Just below this passage, in line 48, the above is reduced to the litany, “Peace, plenty, love, truth, terror…”

“Neighbours” in the above Shakespeare passage must be taken literally to mean neighbors in one’s immediate geographical vicinity, as the passage has already drawn a clear distinction between “her own” and “her foes.” It is only among her own that the happy picture of peace and plenty obtains; while no sketch is given of the condition of her foes, we can make an imaginative extrapolation that this was a life of conflict and hardship, in some measure imposed by the benevolent Elizabeth no less than the peace and prosperity of her subjects was bestowed as a kind of royal gift upon the people of England.

Even though England at the time was a monarchy (it is still a monarchy today, but a constitutional monarchy in which the queen reigns but does not rule), it is fascinating that there is in this passage an explicit renunciation of virtue claimed by inheritance, and, presumably, also by social position or condition. The passage opens with “her own” blessing their queen, so that the people of England have offered up blessings to their queen, and she, in turn, provides the model of virtue for her subjects to adopt and practice (in other words, the moral model provided by the Elizabeth I as a pattern reproducible by her subjects). This places the queen not only as the political and military leader of England and the English people, but also the moral leader of her people. Arguably, the moral unity of Elizabethan civilization being explicitly disconnected from inheritance (i.e., blood) is a device that allows for the iteration of the model beyond any narrow biological definition of civilization.

The moral unity of a civilization, as with religious truth and moral edification in the foregoing list of properties, is certainly among the most important reproducible patterns that transforms an undifferentiated mass into a coherent whole capable of carrying out great works in the realization on a civilization’s central project, as, for example, the defense of the realm against the Spanish Armada and the consolidation of the Anglican Church as a specifically English religious institution that has ever since defined the spiritual life of England.

Wherever or whenever an exemplar is raised to prominence and presented as an example for others to follow (as with the queen and the queen’s behavior) we know we are in the presence of an explicit model intended as reproducible pattern. Since the form that European civilization took after the collapse of the western Roman Empire was that of a multiplicity of small kingdoms, each idiosyncratic to some significant degree, the ideology of kingship (and queenship) played a crucial role in the iterative elements of medieval European civilization, of which Elizabethan England was one example. It is to be noted in this context that France was always the largest of the medieval European kingdoms, and therefore that kingdom that most nearly approximated the geographical extent and population size that could result in a more nomothetic civilization, as arose in France with the Enlightenment.

The Armada portrait of Elizabeth I, attributed to George Gower (reproduced above; there are several contemporaneous copies of this image — one might even say iterations of this image), presents the monarch as an idealized archetype in conformity with the ideology of kingship. Elizabeth I is shown in regal splendor, with paintings of the defeat of the Spanish Armada behind her, and her right hand on a globe of the world, covering North America as though protecting the personal property of the crown. Any number of allegorical elements of this painting could be characterized as exemplars for her subjects not merely to reproduce, but to extrapolate to the end of an imperial destiny for the English crown. This is no small invitation to the nomothetic elaboration of the Elizabethan English model.

The European model of geographically bound kingship was a personal appeal to the people of a given kingdom at a time when literacy was rare and the primary forms of conveying an ideology were through sermons and images. In so far as the subjects of the English crown could look to Elizabeth (or, rather, to images of Elizabeth) as an exemplar, the connection between monarch and subject was personal. This personal relationship to civilization might be considered a distinctive trait of idiographic civilizations, but we should not think of civilizations of this kind as somehow deviating from an ideal model, or as constituting a lesser form of civilization, but rather as an adaptation to particular conditions. Whereas the Hellenistic model was iterated throughout the Mediterranean Basin at a time when this geographical region had already been civilized for thousands of years, and the exemplars of this civilization therefore grew in fertile social soil, the civilizations of Europe were extending their conception of civilization into a wilderness where no previous knowledge of civilization could be assumed.

With this in mind, we should not wonder at the success of the early modern European powers in colonial expansion, since the conditions of European civilization entailed a model iterable under hostile conditions.

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2 Responses to “The Elizabethan Conception of Civilization”

  1. “With this in mind, we should not wonder at the success of the early modern European powers in colonial expansion, since the conditions of European civilization entailed a model iterable under hostile conditions.”

    Potential lessons there for a spacefaring civilisation?

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