Is our civilisation changing as drastically as it did during the Reformation?

Kenneth Clark presents Civilisation in 1969

I happened to watch an episode of the late Kenneth Clark’s acclaimed TV series, Civilisation, on video yesterday. Clark was a mandarin figure and today he would be classed as unacceptably elitist: he felt that art and civilisation were created by exceptional individuals and that “the masses” – or the “plebs” as we should perhaps call them – were a threat to the culture of beauty and nobility which he loved. He was particularly drawn to the High Middle Ages and the Early Renaissance and, not surprisingly, given this predilection, became a Catholic before he died.

The episode I watched happened to be about the Reformation. “How quickly a particular civilisation can pass away” was Clark’s theme: the power of the Church in Western Europe, for good as well as for ill, was destroyed forever by the Reformers. He felt this was inevitable, but also sad; Protestant iconoclasts, with their “instinct to destroy anything… they couldn’t share”, smashed all the beautiful statuary in the Lady Chapel at Ely cathedral and a high point in the graceful and artistic depiction of human achievement was over.

I thought of Clark’s perspective when I later read a thought-provoking interview in the current Catholic World Report with a modern American man of letters, Chilton Williamson Jr. A writer of fiction and non-fiction, his most recent book is After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy, and his position on democracy is not dissimilar to Clark’s on civilisation. His definition of modern democracy is an ironic one: “A society that has achieved complete equality and justice and in which no man lacks for anything he wants, or decides he wants in future.” Asked why democracy has become an almost sacred belief in the West, he replied that its rise has coincided with the loss of religious belief. It became a “sacred notion” when modern man “lost touch with metaphysical reality to the point that they could no longer apprehend the reality of the human condition.”

Asked if it is possible to have a democratic state without a foundation of Judaeo-Christian beliefs, Williamson answered that it was possible, “though it is unlikely to survive long without the formative historical influences that brought it into existence in the first place”. These included the notions of “civility” from the classical world and “chivalry” from the Christian one. He added: “The more the democratic majority dismisses Christian moral and social teaching, the more it weakens the democracy it represents.”

All this, needless to say, is as politically incorrect as it is possible to be. Williamson is pessimistic about the future of democracy in the US. The huge scale of modern societies means that they “must somehow be more and more tightly governed as they become increasingly hedonistic and irresponsible, practically and morally speaking.” He thinks this will lead to the paradox of “chaos existing alongside of despotism”. He also believes it is impossible for any country “to export democracy to the Middle East, whose societies have no history of democratic institutions and whose people lack a tradition of public civility and restraint”. To try to do this, as we persist in doing, reflects our own “self-delusion: national grandiosity, self-importance, moral superiority and arrogance”.

Two thoughts remain with me after reading all this: the first is that despite democracy’s obvious flaws, it is still better to live in the West than in the Middle East (or in Russia or China); the second is that we will not be able to pay the economic bills for the social and moral chaos of our society indefinitely: political coercion will increasingly take over. It is odd to think that in, say, 200 years a latter-day Kenneth Clark might look back on our society as a singular historical period that has passed away, to be overtaken by a different system altogether.