Wednesday, February 07, 2024

In Defense of Civilization


Book Review by Peter McKenzie-Brown 
In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present 
By Michael R.J. Bonner 
Sutherland House, Toronto, 2023; 220 pages


I read this book just after it came off the press last summer. I found petty faults – for example, footnotes are at the bottom of pages rather than in a notes section. Also, there is no index.


Why This Book?

Putting those points aside, for history buffs like me the book is a delight. For one, it uses Canadian spelling, like “defense” in the title. The Canadian author has terrific academic credentials (master’s and PhD degrees in Iranian history from Oxford) and is fluent or knowledgeable in French, Greek, Latin, Persian, Arabic, Aramaic, and Hebrew. The mind boggles. 


Three Purposes

This book has three major aims, in my opinion: To explain what makes civilisation what it is; to discuss what we are in danger of losing in the event of social collapse around the world, and to point the way toward renewal.


To quote from the first paragraph of Bonner’s intro, “Human history is largely a record of failure. Economic strife, inflation, military overstretch, foreign warfare, domestic unrest, famine, and disease have always conspired against us and usually defeated us…. We must struggle through hard times, enduring a substantial reduction in living standards and state capacity, or the total collapse of institutions.”  The rest of the brief intro summarizes the horrors of recent years (think 9-11) and mentions such sources as Kenneth Clarke’s 1969 BBC documentary Civilization. (Speaking of that wonderful series, I will bring my DVD copy to the club meeting – first come, first served.)


Bonner suggests that there is a consensus in the West that something is wrong. Many people have the uneasy feeling that the liberal democratic order is in danger, and that civilization itself hangs in the balance. This feeling could be dismissed as alarmism, but the pandemic, and global political instability and rioting are reminders of the fragility of civilisation everywhere. A recent example? Think of the horrors arising in the Middle East in recent months, and the impacts of those horrors around the world – not least of which, I would argue, have been anti-Semitic riots within Canada.


The Rise and Fall of Empires

Bonner provides numerous commentaries on empires and societies that have collapsed throughout human history. But history has another side to it: Human civilisation has extraordinary powers of recuperation. Drawing on such examples as the revival of Europe after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the ebb and flow of civilization in China despite repeated foreign conquests, he shows how humankind’s quest for clarity, order, and beauty – what he calls “the crucial elements of civilization” – evolved through the thoughtful examination and imitation of past events. 


The book’s breadth seems to be an effort to bring both Middle and Far East into conversation with the West by identifying shared avenues of cultural and historical exchange – eras in which not only money and goods were traded, but so did ideas about the fundamental nature of the common good. Bonner charts the sharing of ideas about stability, peace, and order from neolithic cave paintings to the throne room at Persepolis, where depictions of warlike tyrants crushing their foes gradually gave way to images of the king sitting calmly on his throne before respectful advisors and cheerful courtiers.


Ideas have mattered since the beginning of time, he suggests. Indeed, civilisation itself grew out of ideas. Thus, the civilising thoughts of philosophers like Confucius make up part of the story. So do the ideas of ancient Greece, those of Copernicus and on and on. This is the concept that underpins this wonderful book. So doing, it provides an almost magical perception of the growth and evolution of our planet.


“There would be no break with the past without enormous misery,” he writes, and attempts to do so are not some sort of disinterested, theoretical consideration, but a true assault on the past leading to the obliteration of present civilisation, which turns out to be literally, not merely historically, contingent upon all that has gone before.


That argument may not seem particularly revolutionary, and it’s hardly a bad thing. Revolutions, after all, too often come at a high cost in ruin and carnage. Certainly, Bonner is not alone in seeking a return to the fundamental truths that have accompanied us along our way out of the caves of prehistory and onto the many tree-lined boulevards of the modern era.


There are innumerable volumes on the history of our planet and its successes and failures, going back thousands of years. Unlike many histories, this one brings new voices and a profound understanding of the Middle East into the story. By bringing other voices and new cultures into the story, he implies saving the discussion of civilisation-building from being dominated by the West. Great ideas come from people past and present. One way to further appreciate them is to read this book.






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