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Review: “In Defense of Civilization” by Michael R. J. Bonner

“Bonner has done a great service in reminding us what true civilization means, the cost of losing it, and how we can regain it.”

Civilization is something that we live within without realizing that it is a striking achievement of human ingenuity, courage, intellect, and will. We have become so accustomed in the West to things working at a basic level that we have for too long simply assumed civilization’s permanence and vitality. Lately, this blithe complacency has started to shift as a result of what some have called the “crisis of competence,” wherein our complex system of systems that comprises our modern industrial civilization is starting to come apart at the seams. This crisis of competence underlies a sense that things are coming apart, and the only question is whether we are in the “gradual” stage of our civilizational bankruptcy, or the “suddenly” stage, to paraphrase Ernest Hemingway.

Historian Michael R. J. Bonner is driven by these questions to mount a defense of civilization in the face of proliferating assaults on its very foundations. His book, which was published earlier this year, is a wonderful explanation of what civilization is, how it arises, how it is threatened, and why it matters. Bonner’s purpose in writing this book is to “explain what makes civilization what it is, to show what we are in danger of losing in the event of collapse, and to point the way toward renewal.”

As Bonner reminds us, what we take for granted is more fragile than it appears on the surface, and we can lose what we have if we are careless. As he writes, our present circumstances are “a vivid reminder of the fragility of civilization and the threat of collapse.” Even so, “our reflections should not be confined to the melancholy contemplation of disaster and destruction.” This is because, he writes, “Human civilization has extraordinary powers of recovery; and, since its original appearance long ago, civilization has always been preferable to barbarism or anarchy. Renewal is possible even after a long interval, as is shown, for example, by the revival of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, or the ebb and flow of civilization in China despite repeated foreign conquest.”

Yet, civilization as a word that signifies a concept is under suspicion, both on the Left and the Right. For the Left, it represents a form of Western supremacism that oppresses the rest of the world and minorities within its own boundaries, with the borders themselves being a legacy of bigotry. The Right meanwhile, particularly the online dissident right that has seen a growth in influence due to the acuity of some of its diagnoses of our present predicament, takes inspiration from Oswald Spengler. He argued in his 1918 work The Decline of the West that what he called Zivilisation was the calcified shell that remained after the dynamic, vital forces of Kultur had dissipated through the lifecycle of peoples, unable to comprehend truly or communicate across divides of time, place, and ethnicity. Therefore, our contemporary state, epitomized by the entrenchment of a woke New Moral Order through the layers of the managerial state, transnational extra-political structures, and corporate oligarchies represents the consummation of life-force killing Zivilisation in our own time.

By excavating the fundamentals of what civilization actually comprises, Bonner has done us a service in reminding us that civilization as such is a far greater thing than the deadening weight that Spengler and similar thinkers argue. Bonner does not simply analyze civilization as a matter of procedure or materialist mechanisms, though these are indeed integral to its foundation and functioning. He goes deeper by taking a cross-civilizational survey to show what a rightly ordered civilization looks like, and what it would mean for our own to recover and be restored to its essence. Only by recovering its origins can we apprehend the rightful ends toward which we should aim.

So, what is civilization? Daniel J. Mahoney, in Recovering Politics, Civilization, and Soul, defines it as “that state of human flourishing where ordered liberty is tied to law and self-limitation, and where progress in the arts and sciences, and in economic productivity more broadly, is accompanied by a sober appreciation of human imperfection and the fragility of all human achievements.” How we must act to achieve and retain such a state of being means that “civilized human beings must combine a certain confidence in the ability of human beings to govern themselves, and to achieve great things, with a pronounced appreciation of the sempiternal drama of good and evil in every heart and soul, and even of the fragility of civilization itself.”

This is all well and good, but it does not tell us what drives the formation and cultivation of civilization, nor what impels it into the future and across the realms of human experience in both the landscape of the world through the actions of people and the landscape of the mind through the dissemination of beliefs, concepts, and ideas. Bonner writes that a “sense of our place in the world, when fully developed, was the main impetus for settled life and what I am calling civilization.” He expands, giving a clear definition: “there are three principal features or outcomes of civilized life. These are clarity, beauty, and order.” These abstractions in the minds and hearts of men interact with the matter of the world to create the heights of civilized life that peoples across the world down the ages have aspired to, reached for, and grasped even if for a fleeting moment in the span of the longue durée.

Bonner lists his own foundational inspirations for this book at the beginning as a means to explaining his views on his narrative and thesis. At the ground level, almost in a literal sense, sits Jacques Cauvin’s The Birth of the Gods and the Origins of Agriculture, which melds the moral with the material in its analysis of the genesis of complex societies and the evolution of culture. This means that Bonner’s view of civilization rises above that given by Kenneth Clarke in his magisterial Civilization television series. This amounted to an “I know it when I see it,” which is insufficient in a time like ours when so much of what was still taken for granted as normative in Clarke’s time is under relentless assault.

Even though complex agricultural societies had arisen around 9000 BC, and art was hardly unknown to humans before that, given the stunning cave paintings in Lascaux and elsewhere, Bonner therefore roots civilization’s true origins in Ancient Egypt. It is worth quoting Bonner at length:

“Civilization produced three main outcomes, and they are discernible first in the material culture of the Egyptian Old Kingdom. The first is a sense of clarity, expressing the idea that the world is a coherent whole which human beings can perceive and understand. It gives rise to the use of language to describe the world and our experience of it, and becomes visible in the elegant presentation of hieroglyphs in which words and ideas were recorded for thousands of years.

The second is a sense of beauty, expressed with seemingly mathematical rigor in the harmonious proportions of Egyptian art and architecture.

The third, less obvious, but more profound than the first two outcomes, is a sense of order. It is founded on the belief that there is some principle of organization in the world in which all things animate and inanimate have their proper place and purpose. We can see this in the sympathetic depiction of nature and in symbols of political and religious authority. Clarity, beauty, and order—they appear together first in Egypt; but they are the main results of civilization everywhere.”

Bonner then proceeds over the following chapters to expand on this definition. He looks at how civilization has been reborn again and again in the chapter titled “Renewal,” by looking backwards across the span of years and plundering the great treasure house of historical human wisdom and ingenuity, but also by ranging across the map of the world through the interplay of cross-cultural exchange combined with internal life-worlds. Both the material and the moral facts within, without, and between peoples precipitate the rise and fall of civilization itself.

Speaking of which, Bonner ends this definitional chapter not on what civilization is, but considering what it is not. What happens when civilizations fall to pieces is shown by the utter devastation left in the wake of the Bronze Age Collapse, in which the whole of Greece, the Near East, and the Aegean and Mediterranean was left as a wasteland for centuries. Egypt was left standing, but only as a shadow of its former self. While the myth of the Golden Age is pretty much a human universal, it really does seem accurate to say that something great was lost to the darkness of unremembered time, only glimpsed at in the collected oral tradition that produced the Illiad and the Odyssey.

Civilization did recover, even if it was a recovery wracked by pain, brutality, and grief. Bonner employs the broad sweep of history in this chapter to show such recoveries took place over different times and places. The reader is treated to sections to Assyria and Phoenicia, Rome, Europe after Rome, the rebirth in the Persian then Arab Muslim East, India, China, Iran, and the European Renaissance. Bonner’s expertise is in history, and he has studied and mastered a range of ancient languages, which aids in the keenness of his insights in this chapter and throughout the book. His study of the languages of the ancient Near East unveils a world with which many will not be familiar, and which adds to the texture of the knowledge gained.

The historical and cultural texture just described in this chapter reveals that there were unique things contributed by each of the civilizations in question to the sum of human wisdom, on which many of the others drew for their own rise and triumph. Renewal of civilization’s sources is rooted in knowledge and appreciation for the living past. In Bonner’s examples we see repeated imitations of what has come before, both inside and between civilizations.

One example is Charlemagne’s revival of classical Latin as the linguistic architecture of a renascent European power in the wake of the collapse of the Roman Empire and the Dark Ages. Another is the preservation of Greco-Roman texts from the Classical period by the early Arab empires, translated into Arabic by Syriac and other Christian scribes, then disseminated back into Europe, helping to drive the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. As Bonner writes, “the imitation of the remote past was an enormous boost to self-confidence” during the Early Modern period, “which issued both in the discovery of the New World, and renewed confidence in all human faculties.” This drew on sources of wisdom and intellect within and without Europe. Finally, China is the most potent example for us today: “The history of imperial China is a cycle of dissolution and reintegration of basically the same territory, the same administrative structures, and the same philosophy over the course of two millennia, no matter where the ruling dynasty came from.”

Bonner’s appreciation for, and wonder at, the achievements of the examples used is obvious without being overstated. He demonstrates time and again that each case of civilizational greatness is not confined to one people or race, as some have always claimed, and now claim again. Difference does not necessitate disdain, and particularity and universality are not adversaries. One can only apprehend the true universality of the human condition through the particulars of time, place, and people.

And yet, Bonner also avoids the moral and cultural self-hatred that masquerades as self-knowing relativism, a stance that so many supposed scholars in the Western world employ today as a means to repudiate any of the good in the legacy of the West. By showing the role other civilizations have played in the formation of our own, Bonner demonstrates the richness of human experience, while not denigrating the uniqueness of what makes us who we are.

Bonner’s disposition and intellectual approach is one that the best scholars from our own past used to embody, and which is now burned away in the fire of repudiation. He embodies the stark difference between cosmopolitanism and internationalism. As Roger Scruton has written, “cosmopolitans are at home in any city; they appreciate human life in all its peaceful forms, and are emotionally in touch with the customs, languages and cultures of many different people. They are patriots of one country, but nationalists of many. Internationalists, by contrast, wish to break down the distinctions between people; they do not feel at home in any city since they are aliens in all. They see the world as one vast system in which everyone is equally a customer, a consumer, a creature of wants and needs. They are happy to transplant people from place to place, to abolish local attachments, to shift boundaries and customs in accordance with the inexorable tide of political need or economic progress.”

In “What Went Wrong,” Bonner considers the roots of our present crisis. For Bonner, the two fundamental culprits are the Renaissance, and Petrarch’s form of humanism that posed man as his own creator; and the Reformation, which destroyed a sense of tradition and unity within the Western Church, further reinforcing the potential for reality-defining individualism through the doctrine of sola scriptura and sola fide.

The utopianism found in 16th and 17th century texts such as Thomas More’s Utopia (1516), Ludovico Agostino’s Dialogues on the Infinite (1580), Tommaso Campanella’s City of the Sun (1602), Ludovico Zuccolo’s Dialogues (1625), John Valentin Andreae’s Christianopolis (1619), and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1624) combined with the violence and upheaval of that era. This encouraged thinkers like Francis Bacon, René Descartes, and Thomas Hobbes towards skepticism, scorn, and disdain for the lessons of the past, instead positing man as the measure of all things, author of his own life and creator of socio-political order sui generis. Rousseau, Hegel, Mill, and Marx in their own ways pushed this revolution in the minds of men forward, laying the groundwork for the 19th century’s belief in inevitable progress. Liberalism, for Bonner, “promises a break with the past by freeing the individual from all ancestral and institutional ties.”

Bonner writes:

“Forgetfulness of ancestors and an indifference to future descendants are not caused by atomization. Those factors could easily become a negative feedback loop or a vicious circle, of course, but the chain of causation goes the other way. The desire to make a radical break with the past is the cause of all forms of forgetfulness, indifference, dissolution of social ties, and at length atomization. Long ago, we developed the urge to create a new and different world, and we have uprooted ourselves from the old one. In so doing we have badly disrupted our sense of place and purpose. Apart from the malaise that I have described, many horrific disasters have arisen from this.”

The optimism and wild hope of the Enlightenment therefore crashed into reality in the 19th century, when changing material conditions under industrialization and the advancement of science meant that the uprooting of the past as a means to understand the present and prepare for the future lent the century an increasingly despondent air in the high citadels of intellectual endeavor. Drawing on Peter Conrad’s Modern Times, Modern Places: How Life and Art Were Transformed in a Century of Revolution, Innovation, and Radical Change, Bonner writes that “Many people decided that there was therefore no point in trying to go on living anymore. Others concluded that it was man who needed to be taken apart, studied, analyzed, treated, and finally cured and readjusted. The light of reason accordingly gave way to darkness and various occult obsessions: spiritualism, seances, table turning, automatic writing, theosophy, and so on would purge man of his defects and adapt him for a new, utopian society.”

Passing through aesthetic, literary, and musical monuments to pessimism like Wagner’s Ring Cycle, Heine’s poetry, and Goya’s paintings to name only a few, this all culminated in the philosophical dynamite of Friedrich Nietzsche, whose mind was exploded by a genius that turned into madness once the consequences of his philosophy became clear. By the early 20th century, it was perceived by the thinking classes “that there was no fixed space or time, science was untrue and unreliable; and the building blocks of the universe behaved in an unpredictable and unintelligible ­manner, and they consisted of mostly empty space. Religion was false.”

The Death of God simply gave a name to a phenomenon that gained momentum through the century, with extraordinary numbers of intellectual killing themselves between 1860 and 1938. The Heroic Pessimism of Nietzsche and the Heroic Materialism epitomized by H.G. Wells combined to produce the Nazi and communist totalitarian nightmares that drenched the world in blood. Futurism, analyzed by Bonner, was the artistic synthesis of these streams, emphasizing strength, dynamic will, and defiance in the face of uncaring fate. It was no surprise that its leading lights like Marinetti saw Mussolini’s Fascism as the wave of the future. Nazism and Stalinist Communism adapted this aesthetic and the message it expressed for their own ideological ends.

In the wake of such horror, the West came out of World War II as “Icarus Fallen,” as Chantal Delsol puts it, burned up by the fires of our own debased and immoral creations. Belief in transcendent truth was no longer tenable, but nor were ideas and ideals as such. Ideology was therefore suspect, and the end of overarching meta-narratives in favor of managerial governance was celebrated. We retreated into a post-material existence of self-justification and affirmation, coinciding with the philosophies like existentialism proving popular. This all combined with the end of Western empires, which unveiled the decline of European power and influence, along with a proliferation of perspectives on government, beliefs and metaphysics.

Along with the advancements in communication and industrial technology, was it any surprise that the reality-denying force of post-modernism took root in the academy and increasingly across society? We now live in the rubble that this collapse in sense-making institutions and beliefs left behind, in a world bereft of mediating institutions between the individual and the state, riven by what Christopher Lasch called a “culture of narcissism,” atomized as Alexis de Tocqueville feared, seeking solace for our tragic existence in the false idol of identity politics, a debased “quest for community,” as Robert Nisbet might have put it. The product of this state of affairs is the “new Postmodern Man … cut off from his ancestors’ ideas and customs.” He “revel[s] in eclecticism, in contradictions, in absurdities, and in disruption of norms. He ha[s] no idea where he came from, where he [is], or where he [is] going, and that [is] how he like[s] it.” The generation that embodied this worldview are the Baby Boomers: “No generation has more bafflingly aimed both at ‘living in the moment,’ as though there were no future, and at a sort of ageless, deathless process of never-ending self-cultivation in which the past counts for nothing.”

Given that the self-creating self is an impossibility and ultimately produced utter barbarism, none of this is really that much of a shock. The quasi-religious nature of the woke new moral order, stemming from a secularized form of Protestant heresy is anatomized this way by Bonner:

“The age of empires may have begun amidst all the confident exuberance of the Renaissance, but it ended in humiliation, guilt, cruelty, and violence. Yet the European talent for uprooting people from their ancestral customs and reshaping their societies has continued. Europeans and Americans just do it to themselves now. Americans have always claimed somewhat hypocritically to hate empire, and contemporary American wokeism advertises itself as the enemy of neo-conservatism and colonialism alike. And yet the three are so similar that they may not be distinct phenomena at all, but rather three expressions of a single impulse. The insistence on altering, abolishing, or defunding institutions, renaming everything, and pulling down statues was once achieved abroad by European colonial powers, and eventually by American military and foreign policy. Now they happen spontaneously within America in an effort to dismantle an old and to establish a new society.”

It has become clear that our present cannot become our future, if we wish that future to be one that constitutes a worthy legacy. Our “actually existing post-liberalism,” as Mary Harrington calls it, is a political, cultural, economic, and metaphysical order that is increasingly inimical to a life well lived. Solutions from the woke left and racialist right will only push us further into the abyss.

To engage in the hard work of restoration of what makes life meaningful for the individual and the familial, local, and national communities that give our existence its purpose, Bonner calls for a recovery of the virtues of clarity, beauty, and order. All of these combine to give our lives their essence and help us to see that not only is life worth living, but that it is good and we should show gratitude for having been pulled from Chesterton’s wreck of non-being through our birth.

It is this call for a recovery of the primary civilizational virtues as he sees them that conservatives must take heed. I have written before about how the “politics is downstream of culture” meme is wrong, given that law, politics, and culture intertwine and influence one another. The American conservative penchant for idealist abstraction expressed as “ideas have consequences” ignores the central role that institutions, networks, and power structures play in deciding which ideas have consequences and who makes them have such.

However, Bonner reminds us that those who wish to restore our civilization and beat back the deranged and depraved woke New Moral Order must have a higher conception of the good than mere power acquisition and implementation. If a conservative or reactionary vanguard gained power in a circulation of the elites but lacked the proper grounding in the true, good, and beautiful, all oriented to the most high, then the machinery of the modern state will simply be used for a different kind of malignant managerial despotism. Bonner has done great a service in reminding us what true civilization means, the cost of losing it, and how we can regain it. He is not optimistic, but he is hopeful. This is how we should all approach the predicament of our condition, especially in times such as these.

Henry George is a columnist at Merion West, focusing on politics, political philosophy, and culture. 

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