A Stick in the Mud

(Apropos of North Korea, Syria, Ukraine and Donald Trump)


Kenneth Clark

Uploaded Oct. 22, 2007

Lord Clark comes clean about his “biases” and beliefs, in this unedited clip taken from the end of “Heroic Materialism”, the final episode of the superb 1969 BBC2 documentary, “Civilisation”


At this point I reveal myself in my true colours, as a stick-in-the-mud. I hold a number of beliefs that have been repudiated by the liveliest intellects of our time. I believe that order is better than chaos, creation better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence, forgiveness to vendetta.

On the whole I think that knowledge is preferable to ignorance, and I am sure that human sympathy is more valuable than ideology. I believe that in spite of the recent triumphs of science, men haven’t changed much in the last two thousand years; and in consequence we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves.

I also hold one or two beliefs that are more difficult to put shortly. For example, I believe in courtesy, the ritual by which we avoid hurting other people’s feelings by satisfying our own egos. And I think we should remember that we are part of a great whole. Which, for convenience, we call nature. 

All living things are our brothers and sisters. Above all, I believe in the God-given genius of certain individuals, and I value a society that makes their existence possible.

These programs have been filled with great works of genius, in architecture, sculpture and painting, in philosophy, poetry and music, in science and engineering. There they are; you can’t dismiss them. And they are only a fraction of what western man has achieved in the last thousand years, often after setbacks and deviations at least as destructive as those of our own time. Western civilization has been a series of rebirths. Surely this could give us confidence in ourselves.

I said at the beginning that it is lack of confidence, more than anything else, that kills a civilization. We can destroy ourselves by cynicism and disillusion, just as effectively as by bombs. Fifty years ago W. B. Yeats, who was more like a man of genius than anyone I have ever known, wrote a famous prophetic poem. In it he said:

Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

The best lack all conviction, while the worst

Are full of passionate intensity.

Well, that was certainly true between the wars, and it damn nearly destroyed us. Is it true today? Not quite, because people have convictions, rather too many of them. The trouble is that there is still no centre. The moral and intellectual failure of Marxism has left us with no alternative to heroic materialism, and that isn’t enough. One may be optimistic, but one can’t exactly be joyful at the prospect before us.