Michael Bonner’s “Defense Of Civilization”: Review And Commentary

It is an unhappy commentary on the state of societal affairs when a scholar is compelled to remind readers of civilization’s benefits.  Have things become so bad that we need to lay out arguments in favor of order, discipline, and our cultural patrimony?  Is what was believed to be self-evident for centuries, now not self-evident at all?  Are there really people who believe that a crass descent into barbarism and anarchy are preferable?  The unsettling answer to these three questions is, unfortunately, yes.  And this is the starting point of Michael R. J. Bonner’s stimulating and wonderfully researched new book, Defense of Civilization.  The book is not currently available, but will be released soon. 

Bonner’s purpose, as he declares in his introduction, is three-fold:  “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.”  He begins by calling attention to the fragility of institutions, and to the fact that a good part of history is a record of failure, dissolution, and cultural torpor: 

[C]urrent events are a vivid reminder of the fragility of civilization and the threat of collapse.  But our reflections should not be confined to the melancholy contemplation of disaster and destruction.  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.  [p. 2]

But what is civilization?  Can it be defined?  For Will Durant, it was “social order promoting cultural creation.”  Arnold Toynbee identified twenty-one civilizations in the course of recorded history, each of them approximately equal in value, and exhibiting certain regular features:

We know of twenty-one cases in which the enterprise of civilization has been attempted hitherto. We know of no case in which the goal of human endeavour has been attained yet, while on the other hand we know of fourteen cases in which attempts to attain the goal are proved to have failed irretrievably by the fact that the societies which made them have become extinct. The possibility of attaining the goal is still an open question in the seven cases of the civilizations that are still alive.  [A Study of History, vol. I]

Bonner, preferring the perspective of British historian Kenneth Clark, refuses to confine himself to a rigid definition of civilization. He tells us, “that sense of our place in the world, when fully developed, was the main impetus for settled life and what I am calling civilization.”  What matters to Bonner is not so much a checklist of requirements, but outcomes.  There are three of these.  The first outcome is “a sense of clarity,” which “expresses the idea that the world is a coherent whole which human beings can perceive and understand.”  The second outcome is a “sense of beauty,” which we find exhibited in the achievements of classic art and architecture.  The third outcome is a sense of order, which for Bonner embraces things both “animate and inanimate.” 

And yet civilization is fragile.  What seems as established as the Great Pyramid can come crashing down, sometimes with terrifying suddenness.  Around 1200 B.C., Bonner notes, the interconnected world of Mediterranean societies (Greece, Anatolia, Egypt, Babylonia, and the Levant) fell apart, in some cases violently, for reasons that are still not entirely clear.  This triggered a dark age, the features of which still flicker and echo in the surviving Homeric epics.   After the passage of many generations, civilization is slowly revived, as new institutions tentatively begin to congeal and extend their influences. 

But how does this rebirth come about?  It begins with a conscious memory of the past, and an attempt to imitate it, as we see in Charlemagne’s insistence on reviving classical Latin and the kings of Babylon clinging to the Old Akkadian as the normative standard for governmental and liturgical purposes.  Such imitation can have profoundly elevating psychological effects, Bonner notes:  “The imitation of the remote past was an enormous boost to self-confidence [during the Italian Renaissance] which issued both in the discovery of the New World, and renewed confidence in all human faculties.”

Bonner then turns to analyze the malaise faced by us today.  Are the challenges we face today the product of unstoppable historical processes, or are they correctible problems that require only the right combination of leadership, skill, and opportunity?  These are deep waters, with no easy answers.  In may places Bonner seems to tread the same philosophical waters as J.B. Bury in his masterful The Idea of Progress.  But I think he touches the heart of the problem with this comment:

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.  [p. 53]

Bonner’s profound observation echoes, I believe, what Kenneth Clark called the modern man’s “loss of confidence,” and what Toynbee called modernity’s “the schism in the soul.”  Toynbee ventured a definition of this vague, but omnipresent, existential schism:

The sense of drift, which is the passive way of feeling the loss of the elan of growth, is one of the most painful of the tribulations that afflict the souls of men and women who are called upon to live their lives in an age of social disintegration; and this pain is perhaps a punishment for the sin of idolatry committed through worshipping the creature instead of the Creator; for in this sin we have already found one of the causes of those breakdowns from which the disintegrations of civilizations follow.

Deprived of a compelling sense of external purpose, with external dragons to slay, modern man turns inward on himself, and expiates his rage in a grisly ritual of self-flagellation.  After reviewing the twentieth century’s grisly of ideological wars, Bonner makes a very astute observation:

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 [emphasis mine]. [p. 72]

But after reviewing the dismal modern record of institutional decay and decline, we are left with the question:  what can be done?  How can we restore and fortify Bonner’s three “senses”:  the senses of clarity, beauty, and order?  Language is the proper place to start:  “Josef Pieper, the great Catholic Platonist, says that ‘the natural habitat of truth’ is in language, and therefore in clear interpersonal communication.”  The only lasting way of restoring greater appreciation for beauty is education and exposure, such as exposure to better architectural standards in our daily lives.  When all is said and done, everyone has an instinctive appreciation for what is beautiful and what is not:

As we wean ourselves off fossil fuels, or as they run out, the gigantism and ungainly distortions of Modernist and postmodernist architecture will cease to be possible. The result will be a forcible return to traditional building techniques with natural materials and traditional styles. Structures built accordingly cannot fail to appear humane and beautiful, and nothing beyond a human scale will be possible.  [p. 124]

Bonner acknowledges that his review of the situation appears bleak, but suggests that a guarded optimism for the future is not unjustified.  Modern China’s attempts to reemphasize the legacy of the past, especially the reintroduction of Confucianism, may offer one successful example:

And so, when I contemplate China, I have mixed feelings.  China and the West now confront the same problems of hyper-materialism amidst a degraded and deteriorating civilization.  But only China seems to be in search of a solution.  Unfortunately, much of the quest will amount only to an enlargement of the state’s powers to surveil and control is citizens.  Many, perhaps most, of those citizens will nevertheless accept that state of affairs on the ground that it preserves stability and unity.  As long as Chinese citizens immigrate in large numbers to the West, and not the reverse, no such trade-off will be embraced here, I think…We in the West may soon see the break-up of tech monopolies and heavy-handed control of the Internet.  Western states may soon recover some of their former vigour and enforce public morality.  Nevertheless, it is hard to see spiritual and cultural renewal emerging from purely negative forces. [p. 177]

Bonner does not overlook the fact that this alleged Chinese revival of Confucianism has come at the expense of the construction of an increasingly totalitarian edifice of control.  And there are darker questions.  Is this a genuine revival of the ethics of the past, or is it the cynical attempt of Xi’s modern dictatorship to appropriate the cultural legacy of the past as a way of legitimizing his own absolutism?  There are no easy answers, of course, but Bonner implicitly recognizes that any Western revival must be organic for it to gain traction and have longevity.  We cannot blindly imitate foreign models. 

I cannot resist offering here a few comments of my own that may be relevant.  Our present cultural decline is primarily the consequence of decades of nearly unbounded wealth and affluence.  As comfort and ease spread, we lost touch with the virtues that promoted order, discipline, and social cohesion.  Struggle became the exception, and not the rule.  We began to confuse liberty with license, and affixed a name and a justification to every selfish impulse.  The good of the individual was pursued without any thought of the consequences to the good of society.  Compulsory military service, which for centuries had been a cultivator of the martial virtues, was phased out. 

Our political ruling class disgraced itself with frivolous wars, venal pursuit of its own self-interest, and an inability to solve the most basic problems.  Technological developments, such as the internet and cell phones, were adopted without any thought to what their enduring impact would be.  The result of all this is an enervating, pervasive moral corruption that has afflicted us from the highest to the lowest classes of society.  This rot has poisoned not just the minds and behaviors of our citizens, but their very bodies.  Obesity, drug use, and other physical conditions have proliferated, the result of crushed morale and a defeated spirit.        

Such situations have happened before in history.  I believe that a renewal will take place in one of two ways.  The first way would be if our society suffered a terrible crisis—either internal or external, either military or economic—that utterly discredited the current ruling classes and the system they presided over, and caused us to undertake an honest, fundamental reevaluation of priorities.  This is not the preferred way, of course, since it involves destruction and disaster. 

The second way would be for a cultural revival to take place in the intellectual sphere, which would then percolate into the educational fields.  This cultural revival would look very much like the advent of a new religion, or a new philosophy of life.  It would restore the teaching of, and training in, the classical and martial virtues:  not as dead letters on the cold shelves, but as living, breathing guides to life, adapted to modern conditions. 

Rhetoric, philosophy, mathematics, the sciences, art, music, and physical hygiene and education must be taught at the earliest possible ages.  Training in the martial virtues, in the military arts, must also take place.  The mind and the body must be developed together as one organic whole, which they are.  This type of education would almost automatically take care of Bonner’s three pillars of civilization (sense of order, sense of beauty, and sense of clarity).  The only way to deal with moral corruption is inoculate young minds with an educational curriculum that emphasizes the classical virtues, social responsibility, bodily health, leadership, and preparedness for conflict.  Moral hardiness and physical hardiness go hand-in-hand, and cannot exist without each other.        

Morals do not arrive in a youth’s head magically.  He or she must be trained vigorously in them, through example, practice, and trials.  It would almost require a new priesthood, a new fraternal order, to achieve; but it is possible, and it has been done in the past.  This cultural revival would train and educate an entire generation of young people, and they would eventually become the future leaders of a revivified and restored national polity. Someone so educated and trained would be imbued with a deep sense of social obligation and a respect for the requirements of leadership. Naturally, such a program of education would tread on many established toes, but it must be done if we claim to care about the preservation of our heritage.  

These are just a few thoughts of my own, ones that I have repeated many times over the past nine years.  In any case, I found Michael Bonner’s Defense of Civilization to be a profound and thought-provoking work.  It should be essential reading for anyone seeking answers to the most fundamental crisis of our era.