Art historian Kenneth Clark’s documentary series called Civilisation (1969) is THE landmark defense of The West. And he made it for that purpose. In fact, he addresses some of the well-behaved Marxists at the Sorbonne near the end of the series, while making his final pitch. It was apparent to Clark that Western Civilization was being decimated, “de-constructed” and would invariably be destroyed in the very Universities that should have been extolling its virtues. And that someone needed to push back. So he did.
In perhaps the best episode of the series—”The Artist as HERO”, Clark covers the great creators of the high Renaissance, including Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoniand and Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino.
My favorite quote from this particular episode is below. It deals with Michelangelo’s David in a way that Aristotle would approve of. In fact, it’s in part based on a conception of true happiness—Eudaemonia (which Clark defines but never mentions). In Clark’s conception, simple happiness or pleasure is often the enemy of Aristotelian Eudaemonia (human flourishing). He’s quite correct.
Aristotle believed that true happiness arose from the achievement of one’s values on this earth, through leading a virtuous, productive and full life. When a person looks back on portions of that grand adventure, a unique emotion is experienced that is not directly connected to simple contentment or hedonistic pleasure. Eudaemonia is a very different expression of authentic happiness—self-actualization, and it is the province of the heroic spirit.
“Seen by itself the David’s body might be some unusually taut and vivid work of antiquity; it is only when we come to the head that we are aware of a spiritual force that the ancient world never knew. I suppose that this quality, which I may call heroic, is not a part of most people’s idea of Civilisation. It involves a contempt for convenience and a sacrifice of all those pleasures that contribute to what we call civilised life.
It is the enemy of happiness. And yet we recognize that to despise material obstacles, and even to defy the blind forces of fate, is man’s supreme achievement; and since, in the end, civilisation depends on man’s extending his powers of mind and spirit to the utmost, we must reckon the emergence of Michelangelo as one of the great events in the history of western man.”