Preserving What Works

Of civilizations past and present

Demagoguery. Tyranny. War. Pandemic. Famine. Gun violence. Climate change. Terrorism. Nuclear threats. Racism. Repression. The dreary parade of the world’s woes marches on, even in an era of relative prosperity, galloping technological advancement, astonishing medical breakthroughs, breathtaking cultural richness. No wonder Michael R. J. Bonner opens his new book, In Defense of Civilization, with the saddest sentence of this publishing season: “Human hist­ory is largely a record of failure.”

Fortunately, by the second page comes something of a salve, which suggests that plowing further into this little volume may be heartening: “But our reflections should not be confined to the melancholy contemplation of disaster and destruction.” Whew. What a relief. History is — like medical procedures that heal tissues and organs and restore functions injured due to age or illness — regenerative. Things fall apart, the poet tells us. But Bonner tells us that the centre holds, if by the centre we mean the broad sweep of civilization’s story: what civilization is, why it matters, how we can save it, how it can save us. And civilization, like salvation, is easily defined, or at least Bonner defines it with beguiling ­simplicity: “clarity, beauty, and order.”

Surely there must be more to it, and there is. Ancient, enduring institutions are essential. So, too, is stability. “Whatever the failures of civilized states throughout history,” Bonner writes, “civilization has always been preferable to what came before it.” And one of the properties of civilization, and of civilizations, is that they have the capacity to renew themselves. “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be,” he quotes Ecclesiastes, “and that which is done is that which shall be done: and there is no new thing under the sun.”

Contrast Bonner’s position with one Richard Ford offers in his 1986 novel, The Sportswriter: “All we really want is to get to the point where the past can explain nothing about us and we can get on with life.” That notion, expressed so crisply by one of our time’s best-known writers, has been part of the American creed, and to a lesser extent the Canadian one, for generations. The United States has always fashioned itself as a country of the future; the most powerful belief in American life is the idea that the next generation should have it better than the ­current one. History is for professors, not for politicians. Even now, when the future doesn’t seem brighter than the present, history is degraded. A recent National Center for Education Statistics report found that merely one in seven American ­students in grade 8 meets minimal standards of historical knowledge.

The U.S. hasn’t had a truly history-minded president since John F. Kennedy, who, in an essay published posthumously in American Heritage, argued, “Our history thus tests our policy: Our past judges our present. Of all the disciplines, the study of the folly and achievements of man is best calculated to foster the critical sense of what is permanent and meaningful amid the mass of superficial and transient questions which make up the day-to-day clamor.” In short, we judge the past, but in the view of both Kennedy and Bonner, the past judges us. Mostly it finds us wanting.

Bonner’s examination of civilization and its discontents is a tour d’horizon of ancient and contemporary thought and a tour de force of argument, full of pearls of wisdom, a rich oyster of ideas generated from this fundamental grain of sand: “Every great revival of civilization has been inspired by the past. Rebirth comes not as the result of random experiments that happened to turn out well, but the deliberate imitation of what had worked before: the ‘future possibilities which the past makes available to the present.’ ”

It is a view that is in violent collision with our contemporary worship of the new; Bonner cites Assyria, Phoenicia, Rome, the Babylonian and Persian empires, and China as proof. It is with China that his argument seems to have its greatest current relevance: “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.” Someone whisper that in the ear of Global Affairs Canada, please.

Overall, this book is a deep dive into the past, often pretty heavy going for the general reader. At times, it’s difficult to tell whether Bonner’s quotations from and allusions to great works — and, especially, to somewhat obscure theses and treatises — is erudition or simply showing off. Some readers may comprehend every paragraph, and kudos to them (let me add that I am glad they got tenure and hope they have a nice office and parking spot). Achilles and Agamemnon, Stravinsky and Descartes, Picasso and Braque, Kepler and Copernicus: they are familiar to me and probably to most readers of this magazine. Chrétien de Troyes, Ibn Taymiyyah, John Scotus Eriugena, Saint Hildegard of Bingen, Jean Bodin, and Pico della Mirandola: they may be part of your cocktail party twitter, and maybe of your Twitter feeds, but for all I know they could be members of the defensive unit of the Edmonton Elks.

In Defense of Civilization — an intimidating but important book — is not much over 200 pages, with inviting margins. If this were a John Grisham thriller, the average reader would speed through in three hours max. But this short volume is not a short read. Some days, I found it hard to consume more than four pages. A single paragraph, for example, might include ­references to Petrarch, Montaigne, Descartes, Hobbes, Spinoza, Hume, Rousseau, Kant, Marx, and Hegel. Such sentences are best digested in small bites. Read. Consider. Ponder. Repeat.

Then again, this is a book by an author whose current projects include examinations of the ninth-century Persian polymath Abu Hanifa Dinawari and the sixth-century reign of the Sasanian king of kings Khosrow I. He’s way smarter than most of us. Even so, through the parry of Bonner’s work, the thrust of his argument rings clear — and true. The windup may be arduous, but in several places the pitch is a change‑up that soars right into the strike zone, as with this passage:

Without the intellectual strength that came from imitation and mastery of the past, the sense of clarity and reason that belong to all civilizing epochs would never have been emphasized in the period that we call the Enlightenment. Though we may have misgivings about the triumph of science and the failed revolutionary spirit of that age, its emphasis on empiricism and objectivity have added something to civilization.

Bonner is bewildered — troubled — that Western civilization is in a malaise when lifespans have lengthened, the world has grown smaller (and thus people have more opportunity to understand disparate cultures), and the internet has put vast sums of human knowledge within mere keystrokes. Yet de Tocqueville, who knew America better than any commentator on cable or scholar in our most selective universities, predicted this predicament almost 200 years ago, explicitly warning that freedom and egalitarianism would degrade social ties. All of which prompts Bonner to conclude, “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.”

Bonner describes how European exploration of the Americas had a philosophical impact across the West. This hemisphere spawned a utopian dream, in large measure because conditions in the other one were so execrable. But by the early twentieth century, Bonner continues, it was evident “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.”

Isn’t that also a pretty good explanation of the twenty-first century so far? Doesn’t the fastest-growing segment of Americans and Canadians go by the term “nones,” which means they profess no religion at all? And if, as Bonner posits, “the chaos and confusion of the early twentieth century” opened the way to ­fascism, Bolshevism, and Nazism — three secular religions that led to mass murder and remorseless worldwide conflict (along with the burning of books, a Third Reich specialty that seems to have would‑be imitators in, among other places, Florida) — is there hope for us? The verdict is only a maybe.

On his way to that verdict, Bonner offers a novel critique of the ongoing phenomenon of cancel culture. Indeed, in this sometimes forbidding book, I found one of the most intriguing, provocative passages I have read this year:

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.

What we have, then, is an argument against the cult of the new and a defence of — an embrace of and, in some cases, the worship of — the old. Think of a phrase that emerged in the late eighteenth century: “tried-and-true.” While Bonner finds virtue in civil rights, ­feminism, the sexual revolution, and other modern movements, he also argues that these worthy campaigns have taken over the market of cultural ideas at a cost: “Like his hippie forerunner, the new Postmodern Man was cut off from his ancestors’ ideas and customs; and he revelled in eclecticism, in contradictions, in absurdities, and in disruption of norms. He had no idea where he came from, where he was, or where he was going, and that was how he liked it.” Bonner follows this observation with the bracing thought that the only elements of society that have grown stronger since the Second World War are banks, credit card companies, and a few other corporations. (Perhaps he’s thinking of the National Football League and the bottled-water business?)

Who or what is to blame for this mess? Baby boomers, for one. Bonner draws upon Bruce Cannon Gibney’s A Generation of Sociopaths, from 2017: “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.” Another culprit is liberalism, which, Bonner argues, “promises a break with the past by freeing the individual from all ancestral and institutional ties.” And this deliverance helps explain the origin of various forms of tyranny: “The French constitutional monarchy of 1791 was organized according to liberal principles, but gave way to the Reign of Terror in about two years. Kerenski’s liberal government collapsed into Bolshevism after half a year. And the Nazis were elected from within the ultra-progressivist Weimar Republic.” Bonner adds, persuasively, that liberalism also helps explain right-wing populism, since the latter provides “the only force promising to ­challenge the liberal consensus.”

Is there any hope for us? Perhaps — because Bonner argues that the salvation of the current age may come from our current plight. (Remember the wisdom of Churchill: “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”) COVID‑19, with its lockdowns and closures, forced us out of our offices and off the streets. In our homes, we rediscovered our families. We practised small acts of kindness. By isolating from the world, many of us were freed (catch the irony here) from what Bonner calls “the isolation of contemporary life.” We might even find that clubs, social groups, and volunteerism may be permanently enhanced, returned to their place in our routines. Bonner wants us to reconnect with our past so as to create hope for the future. “If there is a single lesson to take from the twentieth century,” he writes, “it is that most new ideas are bad and many are evil.”

This book is, in part, an argument against extremism, but Bonner’s own disavowal of the fresh is an extreme notion. Arguably, the world is better and our lives are richer because of the very fact that the world and our lives are more diverse. We are more open to understanding cultural differences and have taken stock of our failures, including those that have negatively affected Indigenous communities. But I also give Bonner credit. Heal thyself, he effectively tells us. The next time I hear Sam Cooke croon that he “don’t know much about history,” I’ll think of a character flaw, with civilization in the balance. Parts of this book may be indigestible, but its message is indispensable.