No Minister

‘Decadence vs. Vitality’

with 8 comments

With the onset of the Great Chinese Snot Pandemic in 2020 one of the things I decided to do was finally get into reading a number of books that had been collecting dust around the house, but also watching three great TV documentaries that were fifty years old.

These three were related, in that they were driven by the BBC, and in one case its American cousin, PBS. They were:

Civilisation – by Kenneth Clarke (1969)
The Ascent of Man – by Jacob Bronowski (1973)
America – by Alistair Cooke (1973)

All three programmes made it quite clear from the start that they were the personal view of each man, and as such I think they can be forgiven for the things they missed or perhaps paid too little attention too. But that is true of all stories.

Recent events have caused me to look in particular at this final section from the last episode of Alistair Cooke’s America. As the man himself says in the opening:

A wise historian usually stops twenty or thirty years before his own time because, like the rest of us, he can’t see the wood for the trees.

Watch it and see what you think about the key question: Is America in its ascendent or its decline? That question still stands, but most of his observations remain brilliantly prescient.

Just three years earlier, Kenneth Clarke had discussed much the same thing, at least by implication with his starting point or Rome.

Civilisation does require a modicum of material prosperity — enough to provide a little leisure. But it requires confidence far more. Confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, and confidence in one’s own mental powers. Vigour, energy, vitality: all the great civilisations have had a weight of energy behind them. People sometimes think that civilisation consists in fine sensibilities and good conversation and all that. These may be among the agreeable results of civilisation, but they are not what make a civilisation, and a society can have these amenities and yet be dead and rigid.


Written by Tom Hunter

October 3, 2022 at 3:57 pm

Posted in History, Reading, Movie, Music Reviews, USA

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8 Responses

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  1. As a child milking the house cow in the evening, “letter from America” from Cooke was a regular colliding item on the one Radio available 100 Kms north of Christchurch, 3YA.
    I consider that to be a major catalyst for my obsessive appetite for international “News” another was the “radio newsreel” that came from The Beeb with its musical intro “Imperial Echoes”.
    Aah nostalgia?


    October 3, 2022 at 5:18 pm

    • Gotcha nostalgia right here for your Colonial Subject’s enjoyment.

      Tom Hunter

      October 4, 2022 at 11:43 am

      • The BBC World Service theme tune on this clip kept me company in some very strange places and countries. starts at 0.20


        October 4, 2022 at 12:13 pm

  2. Allistair Cook video. Very good. Thank you.


    October 3, 2022 at 5:31 pm

  3. “Civilisation does require a modicum of material prosperity ”

    Bullshit, he’s wrong right there.

    Civilisation requires economic prosperity. All the great civilisations have been built on it and will from now into the future everlasting.

    Without that you have nothing to build your culture on, or build your cathedrals or your roman aqueducts, or your country estates for the rich on the back of the British Empire.

    Still enjoyed his writings though. He probably didnt much understand business or economics or finance


    October 3, 2022 at 5:41 pm

    • The key word is “modicum”.

      Aristotle’s life would look to us like that of a dirt-poor peasant but clearly he was surrounded by enough prosperity to have free time for a lot of thinking, which stands as a good enough definition of what “modicum” means in practice.

      Tom Hunter

      October 4, 2022 at 11:42 am

      • Well could be Tom but I would think the average peasant, such as my self, would not have even enjoyed even a “modicum” as life was , nasty, brutal and short.

        I think a true modicum is perhaps just a feature of the industrialization age as after all that gave us, the masses, the spare time to think like Aristotle

        The Greens and Labour want to take us back to that time. Cycling everywhere doesn’t leave a lot of free time after you have harvested the greens in the backyard you are having for dinner, lunch and dinner.


        October 4, 2022 at 12:51 pm

  4. Those programmes would not be broadcast now as the population has been dumbed down

    Fighting Temeraire

    October 4, 2022 at 5:12 am

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