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Scorched but standing — two symbols of the West

Niall Ferguson
 

By Niall Ferguson (Original source The Times)

“‘Absolutely heartbreaking. A magnificent monument to western civilisation collapsing.” Thus wrote the mercurial young conservative Ben Shapiro last Monday before it was clear that Notre Dame, although burning, was not wholly collapsing. The great Parisian cathedral was, he added, “a central monument to western civilisation, which was built on the Judaeo-Christian heritage”.

There was a time when such an observation would have been open to criticism only for its lack of originality. After all, Kenneth Clark began his hugely influential television series Civilisation against the backdrop of Notre Dame — “not perhaps the most lovable of cathedrals, but the most rigorously intellectual facade in the whole of gothic art”.

Fifty years ago you could say (as Clark did) that the Graeco-Roman statue known to us as the Apollo of the Belvedere “embodies a higher state of civilisation” than an African mask because it expressed “an ideal of perfection — reason, justice, physical beauty, all of them in equilibrium”.”

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