Recently I revisited the masterful 1970 BBC production, “Civilization: A Personal View by Lord Clark”, a sweeping, approximately 12 hour DVD tour of the historic places, structures, artifacts and legacy of the evolution of Western Civilization in Europe from the collapse of the Roman Empire to the 19th century, as guided and described by the eminent art historian Lord Kenneth Clark. I highly recommend it for its quality of presentation and for the often provocative commentary by Lord Clark along the way. Much of the commentary struck me as sad in a way in the sense that it described a world from which to a significant extent we have become alienated and no longer recognize. And why is this so? Primarily because the foundational linchpin of the development of this civilization in all of its manifestations was the Christian religion, a heritage which has now been hollowed out in Europe and has not been sustained by the dominant culture for at least five or six decades.
I have made three trips to Europe in the past six years and have visited a number of the places and viewed many of the structures and artifacts highlighted in the Clark tour. These are awesome places, with enormous implications for the historical development of Christendom, which was synonymous with Western Civilization. Many of these places are now mostly museums and tourist stops. Who will sustain their viability in the story of the development of the greatest civilization in world history in the absence of their grounding in the worldview that produced them? And, more importantly, who and what will follow in a next phase of civilizational evolution? I wonder and I worry.
In an essay in The New Criterion, Charles Murray writes that a major stream of human accomplishment is fostered by a culture in which the most talented people believe that life has a purpose (“this is what I was put on this earth to do”) and that the function of life is to fulfill that purpose. Further to his point, the characteristics of nihilism are at odds with the zest and life-affirming energy necessary to produce great art, architecture, and cultural artifacts, not to mention a broad range of other manifestations of human accomplishment, the kind that is demonstrated in the tour by Lord Clark. If life is purposeless, no one kind of project is intrinsically more important than any other kind. And what is the most direct cause of the belief that one’s life has a purpose? Belief in a personal God who wants you to use your gifts to the fullest, a belief that has been in constant decline in Europe for about a century. There is a secular counterpart to this in the form of Aristotle’s pursuit of “the good”, a concept which has also been out of style for many years.
Can we turn around this sense of purposelessness? Murray is optimistic, probably more than I am. He believes that humans are ineluctably drawn to fundamental questions of existence and purpose and that the elites that have shaped culture in America and the West have avoided thinking about these fundamental questions for too long and will inevitably return to them. I hope he is right before it’s too late.