What are the hallmarks of a truly civilised society? This brilliant new book maps a path to renewal

In Defense of Civilization: How the Past Can Renew Our Present
By Michael R.J. Bonner. Sutherland House. 2023. 230 pages

With nations at war with one another on the fringes of Europe, and many outwardly peaceful and materially wealthy nations at war within themselves, with their own centuries-old values, this book offers important perspectives on what a civilisation is, and why it is important to protect it.

Michael Bonner is a political advisor based in Canada. A historian by training, he received a doctorate in Persian history from the University of Oxford. In addition to his policy work, he has published a number of books on Iranian history. His academic background in ancient Iran, and ancient civilisations more generally, gives a valuable breadth to his arguments that is often lacking in other scholarship on the theme of our contemporary civilisational malaise. 

Bonner often refers to Kenneth Clark’s 1969 BBC documentary series, Civilisation, throughout his book, describing it as “perhaps the most engaging thirteen hours of television ever”. Nevertheless, he critiques Clark’s narrow geographic and cultural focus, and Clark’s failure to ever actually define what a civilisation is. The present book is, in some ways, a response to Clark’s project. It has three aims: to explain what makes a civilisation what it is, to show what we are in danger of losing in the event of a collapse, and to point a way towards renewal. 

The book presents arguments that are as interesting as they are challenging. For instance, Bonner opens by trying to bring valuable clarity and definition to the term “civilisation”. Historians and anthropologists have sometimes associated it with the beginnings of agriculture, or have treated the term as little more than a synonym for literacy. However, Bonner argues that these things emerged after – and even independently of – civilisation.

For Bonner, “[t]he civilized attitude first took shape in the material culture of the Neolithic period, about twelve thousand years ago,” in modern-day Turkey. His argument works towards identifying three distinctive traits of civilisation: “Clarity, beauty, and order – they appear together first in Egypt; but they are the main results of civilisation everywhere.” 

There follow chapters on each of these defining features. Bonner does not settle for shallow or minimalist contemporary portraits of clarity, beauty, and order. This is important as unfortunately some of these terms have been co-opted by the very online and very simplistic reactionary fringes of the internet, unhelpfully throwing them under the long and ill-defined spectre of the “far right”.

Rather, Bonner explores them through time, as early as our knowledge of ancient civilisations permits. This makes these chapters on clarity, beauty, and order particularly fascinating, and really shows the depth of Bonner’s learning. He traces the history of these ideas, sort of miniature histoires des mentalités, from their earliest stages to their precarity today. He makes cogent cases for all three ideas as central to a civilised culture, and his book must be read and appreciated on its own terms in this regard. 


Clarity is rooted in “confidence in our powers of perception and reason”. The twelfth-century rediscovery of Aristotle turbocharged Europe’s intellectual, cultural, and scientific development. Ironically, the most recent century or two has seen the increasing prominence of subjectivity in contemporary discourse.

However, if we permit the universal to be subordinate to the subjective, then language loses its efficacy, and communication increasingly lacks clarity. A civilisation that cannot communicate and transmit its truths cannot remain a civilisation for long. “It is a paradox of European intellectual history,” notes Bonner, “that, as facts proliferated, so did uncertainty and relativism.”

Although Bonner makes his own case for restoring reason to its rightful place, it is hard not to be reminded of the late Pope Benedict XVI, who warned against the creeping dehellenization of Christianity and Western culture more broadly, and strove to emphasise the ultimate unity of faith and reason. For Bonner,

“What we need is confidence – confidence in our senses and intellect to understand the world and confidence that the truth is the same for everyone.”


A superficial reader might decide they have worked out beauty for themselves. It is in the eye of the beholder, after all. However, Bonner really shows his depth of learning here, taking us back to the earliest known traces of civilisation. He posits objects as utilitarian as prehistoric hand axes as evidence of “an early and universal human satisfaction with symmetry.”

From this perspective, beauty was not irreconcilable with utility, as it is sometimes perceived to be today. Rather, “art, craft, and technology were unheard of in ancient times” – they were one and the same. From sturdy hand axes to the impermeable constructions of ancient Egypt and Greece, harmony and proportion served a functional purpose while also being aesthetically pleasing to the end-user.


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For Bonner, the rot set in when things seemed to be at their best – Renaissance Europe. The sixteenth century saw painters and sculptors grow in prestige in contrast to their woodwork, pottery, and metalworking counterparts. This divergence may seem benign, but Bonner compellingly criticises the resultant “tendency toward idealism in art,” arguing that it transformed beauty “into an invisible abstraction […] detaching it entirely from utility.”

A glance at the dull monotony of modern urban developments or the questionable creations of modern art indicates that unfortunately this estrangement never healed. Rather, twentieth-century culture has witnessed a starkly utilitarian sort of anti-beauty in art and architecture, on the one hand, coupled with a condemnation of attempts at ornament and decoration as mere tacky pastiche, on the other.

Interestingly, the one ray of hope comes from the green movement, whose zealous pressure to wean us off fossil fuels means that ultimately “the gigantism and ungainly distortions of Modernist and postmodernist architecture will cease to be possible” as the swathes of glue and plastic that hold together the ephemeral edifices of modern life dry up.


Order is the third of the three pillars of civilisation for Bonner. Like mathematics, order is something real and perceptible, but not visible. We often fail to appreciate it when it is present, and can struggle to pinpoint its absence at the root of our malaise when it is gone. Again, Bonner takes the reader to the fascinating earliest traces of civilisation.

He explores the archaeological findings at Gobekli Tepe in modern-day Turkey, where an eleven-thousand-year-old civilisation there preserved and displayed human skulls over many centuries. Its inhabitants seem to have been remembering and honouring their dead, which points to some sense of the spiritual.

For Bonner, it “implies a new belief in stability over time,” “a belief in the importance of a shared past; and it also suggests a particular view of the future.” When one feels that one has received something valuable, and that it is important that it is passed on, some kind of organising principles naturally develop. Order begins to matter. 

Contemporary philosophy tends to see individuals as the basic unit of society and the state as supreme. However, kinship and ancestry predate the complicated edifices of modern bureaucracy – and ultimately will always outlive them. Indeed this was conclusively manifested in the results of Ireland’s recent referendums, which sought to remove motherhood from one part of the Constitution, and introduce the highly dubious and undefined concept of “durable relationships” alongside marriage in another section.

Sensing legal, socio-economic and political disorder, the electorate voted almost 3-to-1 against the amendments, and the government suffered the largest referendum defeat in modern history. The civilisations of Gobekli Tepe and modern Ireland are not so different after all. Blood is thicker than water.

Bonner tracks the deterioration of order and our growing atomisation in recent centuries – from the Reformation, which left society fragmented between groups with different values, often distrustful of one another, to the increasingly authoritarian governments of twentieth-century Europe, particularly the Soviets and Nazis, who promised a new, top-down, and highly centralised kind of order, “a break with the past by freeing the individual from all ancestral and institutional ties”.

Interestingly, Bonner points to the Church as the most enduring institution amid the promises and failures of grasping governments and stifling bureaucracies. He points out that “after the fall of Western Rome, perhaps no local institution was more stable and durable than the parish”. Even today, Christianity’s radical egalitarianism continues to scandalise:

“Christianity offers the exact opposite of popular contemporary alternatives, with all their immutable hierarchies of power and privilege.”

Echoing Benedict XVI’s arguments for the ultimate unity of faith and reason, the Hellenic and the Hebrew, Bonner perceives that “Christianity re-oriented believers backward to humanity’s earliest past, and eventually became a repository of Graeco-Roman heritage.”

This entwined existence means that, as modern Westerners grow apathetic and ultimately disconnected from Christianity, both as a practice and as a background cultural reality, they may find themselves uprooted from the ancient and enduring ideas of European (and consequently pagan) culture, too – spiritual and cultural orphans vulnerable to the overreach of increasingly centralised governments. 

Ultimately our rejection of our civilisational roots attests to our own loss of confidence and lack of character. We mistakenly think we can remake ourselves in a new image by repudiating what we are and where we have come from, or by treating cultures as disposable and parasitically drawing on the bits and pieces of other cultures that appeal to us. But cultures are not disposable and civilisations that have endured for millennia deserve more respect than we give them.

Bonner gives Pope John Paul II the last say on order: “Respect for other cultures could only come from those who respected their own,” the late pope argued, “and only a culture that had preserved itself could add to the variety of human experience.” Like the ten-thousand-year-old skull fragments in Gobekli Tepe, the ossification of Western civilisation and its values awaits if we fail to respect it and lose the courage to transmit it.

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David Gibney is a school teacher in Dublin. He holds a PhD in English literature.

Image credit: Pexels


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