In Defense of Civilization

In Defense of Civilization

This is an interview with Michael Bonner about his book, In Defense of Civilization, just published yesterday by Sutherland House.

BM: Your book, In Defense of Civilization, comes out on April 4th. What prompted you to write this book? What was the impetus? 

MB: Right at the outbreak of the pandemic in early 2020, a friend of mine and I were lifting weights at the gym. We were already very upset with the state of the world, and the news out of Wuhan was making us even more concerned. After some reflection, we realised that there was nothing we could do about anything but continue ‘getting huge’ at the gym. Kidding aside, he then suggested that I write a short book that would explain, broadly speaking, what had gone wrong in the world. 

Apart from that there were two main impetuses. 

The first was our collective experience of pandemic, quarantines, lockdowns, extreme political tension, rioting, forebodings of doom, quasi-apocalyptic expectations, and latterly warfare. I am referring to the main events that have happened since the beginning of 2020. But I have long detected a growing sense that something was wrong, and in fact worsening. We can obviously cite the crash of 2008 as the main symbol of contemporary failure and decline; and it is doubtful that we have ever recovered, even though the acute economic problem has ended. In any case, the optimism of the 80s and 90s, when I was growing up, is gone, and has given way to a different sort of mood which strikes me as much more grim and nervous. I wanted to try to understand this mood and to explain its causes. But I also wanted to figure out what had gone wrong, what had failed, what had declined. How could I describe that ‘what’ except to call it civilization – that much-abused and unfashionable term that we still use to describe the whole complex of art, culture, government, politics, and society? 

The second impetus is somewhat more convoluted. If I were really serious about invoking that word ‘civilization’, I felt that I had better try to define or explain it. Apart from attempting an anthropological explanation for the appearance and perseverance of civilized life (which I do in the book), this meant revisiting the same intellectual ground covered by Kenneth Clark in his 1969 documentary series called Civilisation: A Personal View. There is, after all, no more famous attempt at discussing the subject of civilization. Clark was looking back on the two World Wars, the Great Depression, the triumph of ideology, the Cold War, and so on. From Clark’s perspective it must have seemed as though the Transatlantic world had come a long way from those disasters, and that a more civilized age was possible. The student protests and other upheavals of the late 60s gave Clark pause, though. He described contemporary western civilization as lacking a ‘centre’, thanks to the decline of both Christianity and Marxism. But this did not dissuade him from predicting that the future would be bright. Fifty years or so later, I find Clark’s expectations to have been somewhat naïve, and I wanted to explain why.

BM: What are we defending when we speak of defending civilization, and just what are we defending civilization from?

MB: First of all, the title of the book should be construed almost literally. I am trying to defend the concept of civilization itself. I want to remind people that it is a real, meaningful, useful term, not a mere abstraction nor an outmoded boo word. Civilization is, I believe, a real mode of life which should be distinguished from, or contrasted with, others. One such mode can be found in the very remote past, long before the appearance of civilization, in the period known as the Upper Palaeolithic. This is where the book starts. 

In the middle of the book, though, I focus on the loneliness and malaise that took hold at the end of the 20th century in the West. This problem is reflected in suicide statistics, as well as the diminishing number of people involved in social clubs, friendlessness, deteriorating family formation, and so on throughout the West. Since the book went to print, I keep seeing worse and worse statistics about these things. 

It is that sort of malaise, defeatism, or hopelessness that now poses the most serious threat to our civilization — more serious, I think, than any external foe or weapon of mass destruction. How did it come about? First of all, it is not new. Many people assume that it must be of recent origin. But the truth is that the extreme individualism and mutual alienation within the contemporary West has been noticed by many observers from Hannah Arendt and Kenneth Clark in the 20th century to Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th (to name only three). Even earlier, in the 17th century, when John Donne said that ‘no man is an island’ he was inveighing against an increasingly atomised society of religious and social factionalism. This sort of deteriorating society produced people like Montaigne and Descartes who were more interested in their own inner thoughts than real life. Francis Bacon and Thomas Hobbes likewise preferred to live in fantasy worlds of their own imagining rather than confront the factionalism around them.

Such social deterioration had already produced the Wars of Religion in late 16th century France, and would soon explode into the Thirty Years’ War on the European Continent as well as the Civil War in England. Whether or not we may soon have a similar experience (and some people think we may), we need to remember that civilization is fragile. It can fall apart quickly. Keeping it going requires much more effort than we have lately put into it. So, if I had to sum it up, I would say that we have to defend civilization from our own laziness and complacency. 

A lot of people misinterpreted Fukuyama’s ‘End of History’ idea to mean that there was nothing more we needed to do to because the perpetual ascendancy of Western Civilization was already assured. Many people who lived through the 1990s and early 2000s thought at the time (and may still think) that it was a moment of unrestrained Western self-confidence, bordering on foolhardiness. But, as I see it, it was really the moment when the West squandered what was left of its inheritance, and allowed its culture and institutions to deteriorate.

BM: What do people often get wrong about civilization? Or, if you prefer, are there any persistent notions about civilization that you think we ought to do away with?

MB: In the West, there is too great a temptation to equate civilization with technology and progress. We can start with the old idea of the ‘Agricultural Revolution’. This is the theory that civilization itself represents a revolutionary shift in the ‘mode of production’ (from hunting and gathering to agriculture). It is completely wrong. 

The stability and rootedness that make civilised life what it is do not depend on any particular technology or mode of production. This is borne out by archaeological evidence. Throughout the Near East, about 11,000 years ago, we find traces of settlements around communal ritual centres before the full development of agriculture and the domestication of animals. The most famous of these places is the site of Göbekli Tepe, in what is now Turkey, where large stone structures seem to represent the world’s first temple dedicated to cult of ancestors. Similarly, at the 9,000 year-old site of Çatalhöyük, also in Turkey, we find evidence of what may be the world’s first town. Permanent dwellings were built and rebuilt there according to a uniform pattern, and ancestors were buried under the floors of dwellings. Each household had its own private shrine, and each collected and displayed its own artworks and hunting trophies. These signs of long-term stability and a shared past appeared well before the full development of agriculture while the old hunting-and-gathering economy was still going strong. 

So, again, the idea that civilization depends on technology is wrong. If anything, it is the other way round: the stability and rootedness of civilized life has given human beings the leisure to pursue science and other forms of exploration. 

Apart from all this, it seems sheer philistinism to think that contemporary people are more civilized than the builders of the pyramids, the early followers of Confucius, or the members of a mediaeval guild simply because we have smart phones and they did not. 

The doctrine of progress is extremely pernicious. It is one thing to hope that the world will improve, or that human skill or our technology will get better. It is quite another to insist that progress is an inevitable law of history. If that were true it would, of course, be the perfect excuse for exactly the sort of passive fatalism that destroys self-confidence and which leads to disappointment. And yet the Western belief in progress is so deeply ingrained that very few of us ever seem question it. 

The expectation that things will always get better is basically an article of faith. Its ultimate origin is a misunderstanding of the Christian view of history as having a single direction and a final culmination, as well as the Christian idea that mankind could be progressively enlightened through the working out of a divine plan. These are fundamentally spiritual ideas, though, and were never meant to imply that human ingenuity could perfect the world. But with the collapse of traditional Christianity during the Reformation, the vision of a perfected humanity and ‘a new creation’ became goals here on earth. 

The theory of inexorable progress appears to be backed up by the rapid acceleration of technological change from the industrial revolution onwards. And it seems to be justified by the ever-expanding personal freedoms within liberal societies since the end of the Cold War. Those developments are unusual, though, and the beliefs that they have encouraged have no basis in the larger scene of human civilization. No one at any other time expected technology to advance endlessly, nor was there any sense that moral or social progress was an inevitable process of history. Our ancestors saw history as a cycle of the birth, growth, decay, collapse, and rebirth of civilization; and this is more realistic outlook than ours. 

Many of us also want to assume that there is a necessary relationship between technological and social development, as though a technological society must necessarily be a better one. But in reality there is no such connection. The history of the twentieth century proves this. Rapid technological and scientific change did not make us better, more virtuous, or more civilized. Arguably, science and technology served mostly to abet more efficient methods of homicide and oppressive social control. The Nazi and Soviet tyrannies are obviously the most extreme examples of this error. But the mistake was made everywhere: eugenics, social Darwinism, and utopian fervour were fashionable even in places where liberalism prevailed. 

Arguably, nothing has done more to disrupt the stability and rootedness of civilized life than science and technology. In the middle of the 20th century this challenge was symbolised by the atomic bomb—a technological triumph in which all the vivifying aspects of scientific exploration culminated in the power to destroy all living things. But, less calamitously, we can also cite Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and Quantum Physics: two visions of our universe, both apparently true, but mutually contradictory. The irreconcilability between a sub-atomic world too small to see and one too vast to comprehend has left us utterly bewildered within a universe that we cannot understand or explain. The strange, disorderly abstractions of modern art embody a seemingly hopeless confusion which has hardly abated since the early 20th century. 

Now, amidst our present malaise, many of us still want to believe that technology will save us somehow. It will not, if we continue to allow civilization to deteriorate. We should worry more about preserving the conditions that make civilization possible than ushering in ever more radical innovations.

BM: Who is your model reader and through what lens does s/he approach this book?

MB: First, I will say who is not the model reader. Anyone who expects me to fly the flag for the superiority of one civilization over another will be disappointed. There is, as I argue, more that unites us all than divides us; and the habit of civilized life produces the same outcomes everywhere, though of course they vary according to tastes and manners. Moreover, anyone who expects a long essay about the Anglo-American Culture War will come away unsatisfied. Though I raise that subject in the book, and though I think it will be obvious where my sympathies lie in that contest, I view the Culture War as a by-product of a deeper malaise that has arisen from within contemporary liberalism. So right-wing libertarians and the vanguard of the woke elite may be saddened to discover that they are united in a mutual commitment to ever-expanding personal freedoms and dissolution of social bonds. 

The ideal reader is someone who senses that something is wrong and wants to sort out what it is. I wanted to provide a framework, a vocabulary, and something like an ‘historical grammar’ that would help people come to grips with how we got to where we are and what went wrong.

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