Back to the Future

Dr Jacob Bronowski, wrote and presented the 1973 TV series 'The Ascent of Man'.
Dr Jacob Bronowski, wrote and presented the 1973 TV series ‘The Ascent of Man’.

In 1973, Dr Jacob Bronowski  was asked to write and present a documentary BBC television documentary series, The Ascent of Man, along with an accompanying book. Its subject was the history of human beings through scientific endeavour, and was intended to parallel art historian Kenneth Clark’s earlier “personal view” series Civilisation (1969), which had covered cultural history.

In 1974 when asked by Michael Parkinson what his idea for the future was, Bronowski replied: ‘I have no idea, but I am convinced that human beings take pleasure in work, rather than in idleness. I am convinced that when people are accused of idleness, it just means that they are being accused of hating the hum drum job that doesn’t tax them that they have been put into. So I am convinced that the ideal world for every human being is one in which he or she does a job that they are good at, like doing, and gives them satisfaction. That’s my utopia.’

Today, finding suitable employment for our disenfranchised is one of our major challenges.

A quote from Dr Jacob Bronowski.
A quote from Dr Jacob Bronowski.

Civilisation Revisited

Kenneth Clark in a typical pose while presenting the 1969 TV documentary series 'Civilisation'
Kenneth Clark in a typical pose while presenting the 1969 TV documentary series ‘Civilisation’

One of the benefits of ageing is that one has all that extra time available during a sleepless night. For me, YouTube has recently occupied much of my ‘bonus’ hours. In particular, I have enjoyed revisiting many of the films, documentaries and TV series that influenced me in my twenties. Most recently, I have watched ‘Civilisation – A Personal View’ by Kenneth Clark. It was made in 1969, and much has happened to our civilisation since that time. Here are some of Kenneth Clark’s closing remarks to the series:

‘The future of civilisation doesn’t look very bright, and yet I don’t feel at all that we are entering a period of barbarism. The things that made the dark ages so dark – the isolation, the lack of mobility, the lack of curiosity, the hopelessness –

don’t obtain at all. I’m at one of our new universities – the University of East Anglia – where these inheritors of our catastrophes look cheerful enough.

Naturally, these bright minded young people think poorly of institutions and want to abolish them. One doesn’t need to be young to dislike institutions, but the dreary fact remains – even in the darkest ages, it was institutions that made society work. And if civilisation is to survive, society must somehow be made to work.

“I believe that order is better than chaos; creation is better than destruction. I prefer gentleness to violence; forgiveness to vendetta. On the whole, knowledge is better than ignorance; human sympathy is better than ideology.

“In spite of recent triumphs of science, man hasn’t changed much in the last 2,000 years and in consequence, we must still try to learn from history. History is ourselves…

“We should also remember that we are part of a great whole, which for convenience we call Nature. All living things are our brothers and sisters…”

I wonder what Kenneth Clark would add to these thoughts now?

A quote from Kenneth Clark's 'Civilisation'.
A quote from Kenneth Clark’s ‘Civilisation’.