Prehistoric cave painting, Cueva de las Manos, Argentina

A civilised discussion

If we are to defend civilisation, we had better pin down what we are talking about

This article is taken from the May 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Michael Bonner loathes modernist buildings, contemporary art, postmodernism and John Lennon’s song “Imagine”. Yet his taste in music is unpredictable: mid-diatribe against philistine 20th century architects, he writes:

I am not especially fond of Beethoven … and luckily I am not forced to listen to him at all times; but the buildings in which we all live and work are essential to civilized life, and it is impossible to avoid objectionable architecture when it surrounds us everywhere.

Evidently this is not a typical young fogey.

Initially Bonner studied Classics; then he earned a doctorate in ancient Persian history. Although no longer an academic, he has written three scholarly monographs. A champion reader, he appears to take diligent notes on every book he buys; God only knows how much he spends on Amazon purchases every month. His interests range from prehistoric archaeology to political science to Aristotelian philosophy.

In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present, Michael R.J. Bonner (Sutherland House Books, £17.99)

In Defense of Civilization is intended simultaneously as a defence of “civilisation”, a work of critical intellectual history, and a meditation on what has gone wrong in the modern world. He claims to have been inspired only partly by Kenneth Clark’s magisterial 13-part television documentary Civilisation (1969) in his views of what “civilisation” is. What exactly is that? 

Clark gave no succinct definition of civilisation; instead he provided his audience with a survey of a thousand years of European art, architecture, literature and music so that there was no mistaking what he meant by the term. Bonner, by contrast, prefers to use anthropology, archaeology and intellectual history as his means of exploration. Is civilisation a concept, or a phenomenon? If we are to defend it, we had better pin down what we are talking about.

Bonner defines civilisation in terms of three specific “senses”. The first is a sense of “clarity”, which originates in the idea that the world is a coherent whole which human beings can perceive and understand. Bonner struggles somewhat to define his second sense, that of “beauty”, but perhaps that is a subject for another, much longer book. His third civilised sense is that of “order”: the belief that there is some principle of organisation in the world whereby all things have their proper place and purpose.

In places, Bonner finds it easier to define civilisation by pointing out what does not seem “civilised” to him. A good example is modern American culture:

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.

Bonner tempers this attack by noting that, when the French president Emmanuel Macron denounces “woke” culture, “this strikes me as extremely ironic, coming from the land of Robespierre, Saint-Just and Napoleon”. This is unfair to Napoleon. The Little Corporal is not the real enemy here, though; postmodernist philosophy is. 

For all his combative stances, Bonner seems reticent to offend readers

Bonner expends a great deal of energy explaining what postmodernism is, and how it damages civilisation. For all his occasionally combative stances, he seems reticent to offend his readers, or spell out his own more provocative views. Instead he settles for a vaguely curmudgeonly, world-weary gloom, opening In Defense of Civilization with the proclamation: “Human history is largely a record of failure.”

In his chapter on “clarity”, Bonner eloquently lays out why we need confidence in our powers of reason and perception, if we are to express ourselves and communicate. To sum up these thoughts, he cites the Catholic philosopher Josef Pieper’s claim that “the natural habitat of truth” is in language, and therefore in clear interpersonal communication. Bonner himself lacks confidence in his own ideas, however. Despite all his displays of eclectic knowledge, he never quite brings himself — in a book entitled In Defense of Civilization — to articulate precisely how civilisation ought to be defended. 

Bonner is at his best when he lets himself ruminate freely on pet subjects such as prehistoric cave paintings and Near Eastern archaeology. Otherwise, too much of the book is taken up with potted surveys of intellectual history, and polite, sometimes long-winded summaries of other writers’ work. What about what Bonner thinks? He seems strangely reluctant to provide straightforward answers to the three most urgent questions he should be asking: what is civilisation? How do we defend it? And why bother?

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover