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Is progress real? Historian Michael Bonner on civilization and how the past can renew our present

Podcast & Video

This episode of Hub Dialogues features host Sean Speer in conversation with Michael Bonner, historian, and political advisor, about his ambitious book, In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present. They discuss what makes a civilization, why architecture is such an important expression of societal values, and how we can work towards renewal in our modern age.

You can listen to this episode of Hub Dialogues on Acast, Amazon, Apple, Google, and Spotify. The episodes are generously supported by The Ira Gluskin And Maxine Granovsky Gluskin Charitable Foundation and The Linda Frum & Howard Sokolowski Charitable Foundation.

SEAN SPEER: Welcome to Hub Dialogues. I’m your host, Sean Speer, editor-at-large at The Hub. I’m honoured to be joined today by Michael Bonner, an historian, political advisor, and, according to Nassim Taleb, a “rare bird.” He’s also the author of the must-read new book In Defense of Civilization: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present, which has already received considerable praise for its depth, breadth, and big ideas. I’m grateful to speak with him about the similarities between the modern West and empires and societies that have collapsed in the past and what we can do to avoid their fate. Michael, thanks for joining us at Hub Dialogues, and congratulations on the book.

MICHAEL BONNER: Thanks, and thanks very much for having me. It’s good to see you again.

SEAN SPEER: It’s an ambitious book. You write that its purpose is threefold. One, to explain what makes a civilization what it is. Two, to show what we are in danger of losing in the event of collapse. And three, to point the way toward renewal. Let’s start with that first aim, Michael. What is a civilization? What distinguishes it? How do we know when we’re part of one?

MICHAEL BONNER: Well, this is a million-dollar question. How you know when you’re a part of one, I think, is the more salient thing than trying to define it abstractly. And that’s what I do in the book. That there’s some kind of shift that occurs in human history from the period that we call the Upper Paleolithic to the beginning and middle of the New Stone Age, or Neolithic, and trying to describe what that difference is and how we get from wandering around hunting and gathering to living in one place, and so forth. That’s at the heart of answering that question.

If you look at—well, first of all, I should say, we obviously don’t really have texts. You don’t have texts at all, so there’s nothing you can read about how your typical Paleolithic person felt about anything or how he viewed his place in the world, and so forth. But there are paintings. There are paintings within caves. There are musical instruments, including flutes. There’s the beginnings of pottery and things like that. So you can look at those things to compare what they are like then with what they are like after people have settled down.

And what I think I see is a representation of human beings placed in the world suddenly becoming clearer—that there is a—some reason has appeared for people to settle down in one place. Instead of the ferocious energy and vitality that you find in Paleolithic art, you also begin to find narrative and depictions of rootedness and stability in the art that comes later. Nobody, for instance, just to give you some examples here. Putting aside questions of the survivorship bias, nobody seems to have ever painted a horizon or a sun or a moon, or a group of persons, a family, until very, very late in our history as a species. The question is: why? And the answer that I give is, “What has taken shape, what has developed is what we call civilization.”

SEAN SPEER: The book describes three “outcomes” that you associate with a civilization, including a sense of clarity, beauty, and order. How do these three outcomes find expression in a civilization? How are they cultivated? And perhaps, more importantly, how are they lost?

MICHAEL BONNER: A deep question. Well, first of all, I should say, I mean, people can probably quibble with these rubrics or whatever. They obviously are, I think, interrelated to some extent. And there’s a certain amount of subjectivity that goes into recognizing these things, and I understand that. But we have to find, or I wanted to find, headings, or, as I say, rubrics, or these concepts that could form some kind of basis of assessing human material, culture, and philosophy or politics, or what have you, over a long, long period of time. So looking at something like the interior of an old kingdom Egyptian tomb, for instance, which is obviously very, very, very early in the development of civilized life, what do you see? Well, there are images of the world. There are writing in the form of hieroglyphs. And if you look at them, what are they trying to tell you? Well, first of all, you have this portrait of human beings and nature in which everything seems coherent and orderly. It isn’t like the jumble that you see in Paleolithic art. Sometimes Egyptian art can seem rigid and stiff, and so forth, with maybe less of that sort of vitality that you find in earlier art. But nevertheless, you see this coherent, orderly picture. Writing itself takes the form of images and pictures, not signs that represent just sounds.

And the art is executed with what you would call measurement, or a heavy emphasis on proportions and symmetry. Even to the point sometimes of a bit of what you might call a distortion in Egyptian art, the famous stereotype of people walking with their arms, funny, or the—nevertheless. What you’re seeing is an idealized picture of clarity, clear, intelligible images, and language taking the form of images. You see beauty expressed as symmetry, and you see political and religious order taking shape in the way nature or kings and officials, and so forth are portrayed. Now, again, I said people might be able to quibble with this, but if you keep these things in mind, I think that you can see an evolution or a decline in these rubrics over time when the Egyptian state collapses or when the dynastic history comes to a halt in what are known as the intermediate periods. You can see these things deteriorating.

And the farther you go, the worse it gets after a while. And the very, very last hieroglyphic inscription ever, it comes from the late Roman period. It’s just this disorderly jumble. Someone would’ve still been able to read it, but it is very, very far from the beauty and the structure, and order of the old kingdom. Now, projecting this very, very far into the future, up into our own time, you can see that these principles are still there, but we, in the modern world, have lost a sense of measurement and proportion in art. And the various trade movements online are constantly lamenting this and so forth. But I’m not really convinced that they really understand what has happened. But just to pursue that one example because this is an increasingly deep subject. I would say that we have to understand that there is a deeper current of thought and of outlook that is behind this question. Just to focus on the beauty question, on the question of symmetry and measurement. It presupposes fundamentally that the universe is intelligible and coherent and that you can depict it through mathematical expressions. This is something that ancient people took for granted. I don’t know if anybody ever wrote it down before Pythagoras, but Pythagoras himself must have inherited it from someone because we know that Egyptian and Mesopotamian art was structured according to grids and what we call a canon of measurement.

So it’s not that we don’t know how to draw anymore or that we’ve somehow forgotten how to measure things. Obviously, if anything, we are probably better at measuring things than anyone ever has been at any other time. But we no longer believe that the universe is a coherent place, the features of which can be measured. That may sound crazy, but it is true. What happened is that artists, who have always been very susceptible to this kind of thing, were really quite impressed by the discoveries of modern physics in the late 19th and early 20th century. And what they thought they learned from physics was that everything was incoherent jumble, that Einstein’s theories of relativity were true, quantum mechanics were also true, but the two contradicted one another. Now, outside the art world, this contradiction reaches a peak of absurdity in the postmodernists, who invoke things like the uncertainty principle or Schrödinger’s cat or whatever in bizarre literary forms, which they fundamentally misunderstand. But the difference in the early 20th century, artists really did make an effort to try to understand these things and try to depict world with four dimensions, and trying to show in some kind of visual form what this space-time continuum was, and so forth.

And ironically, even those principles have been forgotten, and now artists repeat what they see in early 20th-century art. Now, whether you think that’s a decline or not, obviously, half the world is going to tell me that I’m wrong. I think that is a form of decline. It is demoralizing in a sense to think that the world you inhabit is somehow unintelligible and that you are somehow incapable of doing it. This is a fundamentally different concept from saying, “We accept that the world is intelligible, but we also accept that we’re too stupid to understand it.” Now, we’re saying, “Not only is it too complex for us, it simply cannot be understood by anyone or anything, and we’re not even going to try.”

SEAN SPEER: The book, interestingly, dedicates a considerable amount of attention to architecture. What’s the relationship, in your mind, Michael, between architecture and the health of a civilization? And what lessons does the past provide about it?

MICHAEL BONNER: Yeah, well, I mean, architecture is an interesting one because it is a form of artistic expression that combines so many other aspects of human life that it could be considered the most important social art or social activity that we can actually engage in, not only because we need protection from the elements but also because the idea of a permanent building where people gather for social purpose or where someone or family dwell or where work takes place. It’s the best way we have of marking out a piece of space for some kind of particular purpose. And of course, if you build it to last, it also extends through.

Now, again, based on what I think I understand about the development of settled life, architecture must be considered one of the most important developments that arises from the idea of a stable and settled existence. That it’s not the contrary to what a lot of people might assume. It’s not like beautiful classical architecture of any particular kind that makes the civilization; it is the civilization that makes it. You have to have the sense of stability and permanence, and rootedness first, right? This is why things like Nazi or Soviet architecture don’t really seem particularly moving or appealing, that it’s either a faux classical pastiche without any of the beliefs behind it or it’s meant to express the crushing power of the huge totalitarian state.

So civilized architecture should satisfy human needs. It should be built on a human scale. It should be built with social and communal purposes in mind. It should not challenge us. It should not attempt to make any particular points about anything by making us feel confused or uncomfortable. Now, this may seem obvious, and to a certain extent, I’m repeating ideas that have been expressed many times by the former Prince Charles, now King Charles III. But it’s not really sinking in. I must say, outside family homes, for the most part, contemporary architecture is uncomfortable. It isn’t built to last. It’s hard to tell where the door is. It’s built on such a large scale that you have to stand miles away in order to take it in. I think that this is a problem. When you get into postmodernist architecture, like the work of Eisenman, for instance, in some cases there are stairways to nowhere or huge holes in the floor. Some houses he built didn’t have toilets in them. A lot of oddities that crop up that I think are meant to make some kind of particular point about contemporary life but which leave us ultimately unsatisfied and uncomfortable. More effort, I think, should go into, as I say, meeting human needs, putting people at ease, and creating spaces that are protected from the elements that allow social intercourse to occur. And that mark had a particular space for a particular purpose over time.

And just to put this into perspective, look at downtown Ottawa. The parliamentary precinct made originally in the late 19th century, and then parts of it were rebuilt in the early 20th because of a fire. This is an expression. It’s actually quite monumental if you stand near, it’s surprisingly big, as many people will discover. This is an expression of permanence and a monumental expression of the solidity and power of a new country. And then compare that to the buildings that went up around it or near it in successive ages. The Pearson buildings or the John Diefenbaker building, which looks like they come out to Star Trek or something like that. Or the brutalist monstrosity across the way at Place du Portage; it’s just a fundamentally different set of ideas, and you can see how our outlook has changed over time and not necessarily for the better.

SEAN SPEER: It speaks to a broader line of thinking in the book about progress. If assumptions of progress are a distinguishing characteristic of modern life, you aren’t convinced. You open the book with a great line: “Human history is largely a record of failure.” Talk a bit about how you think about progress and failure. How should we think about them in the context of the book’s grand sweep of history?

MICHAEL BONNER: Well, first of all, I would say, you’re absolutely right; I don’t believe that progress is a real thing, which is to say—it’s not that I don’t think that things can get better; I think that they can, but I think that there are obvious limits on how good they can get. But they can also get worse. They can also deteriorate and decline, and they do, and it’s just odd to me that modern people need to be reminded of this. If your only experience of life is from, say, I don’t know, the 1940s up until 1995 or something, or at least if you live in the West, you might think that “yeah, everything just kept getting better and better and better.” And then, if you died in the late 1990s or whatever, you might go to your grave thinking that that’s just the way the world was, but you would be wrong. Not only is progress not a law of history, there’s just not really a good reason to believe that.

I’ll give you one important example. The so-called medieval Dark Age from, say, the ninth or 10th century to the dawn of the Renaissance or the Age of Exploration. This was a time when schoolmasters will tell you that this was somehow some sort of benighted age of cruelty and oppression, and so forth. Of course, that’s nonsensical. But the great religious wars, the persecutions, and all of the witch burnings happened after the Renaissance. So that’s one, I think, critical example of how a much older time, which is greatly maligned still by a lot of people, was in at least one critical way more civilized than what came after. And of course, the experience of the 20th century with the two world wars and ideological struggles, and so forth. I mean, I don’t know—there’s a part of me where I want to say that I really don’t understand how anyone can associate that with an age of progress.

There’s also an interesting book out now by Mary Harrington called Feminism Against Progress, which is this kind of the same perspective on another topic which is basically granting that certain things did in fact improve but there was a limit to them. And now, the urge to move beyond the biological limits of the human species over this actually going to create problems. So not only is the doctrine of progress not a law of history; it isn’t inevitable, but it also can have a tendency to lead in dark places which we saw in the 20th century. So I’m inclined to be very skeptical of it. I think that not just as a political conservative but a small “c” conservative person, I think that there are many things that we got right the first time and that they can’t really be improved. I mean, you can’t really make a bowl or a cup any better than the first bowl or cup. The jet engines are not really significantly faster like planes; planes reached their peak in the ’70s and since then, we’ve been trying to make them safer rather than faster. There are limits to these things.

History itself is more like a cycle, just like an economy; the economy doesn’t just keep getting bigger. The boom and bust are part of a single cycle, and unity and dissolution are also part of a cycle in a society. The formation and growth of civilization is also followed by collapse more often than not. So basically, when we were told in the 1990s that everything was just going to keep getting better and up and up forever and so forth like that, that wasn’t true. And there may be nothing we can do to stave off the decline in eventual collapse and on the longest possible scale, the sun will eventually explode. So it’s all headed toward calamity anyway. There may be nothing we can do about that, but there are certain things that we can certainly try to avoid in order to accelerate these problems. One of the things you can do if you really want to make things worse is to uproot yourself from what worked before, from the past, and try to create this sort of new futuristic utopia, which was, in one form or another, the dominant outlook of elites and intellectuals in the 20th century. And I think we’ve paid a high price for it.

SEAN SPEER: Let me follow up, Michael. How can we then distinguish between good progress and bad progress? Give us a framework for judging between the two.

MICHAEL BONNER: Hmm. Well, I think that—look, this is a very deep question. I guess another way of phrasing it would be, “How do you know when something is good enough? How do you know when something works?” It may be that you have to go through or we as a species have to go through this cycle of collapse and rebirth many, many times in order to figure that out. But the fact is that the earliest civilizations did, in fact, collapse; they didn’t just simply evolve. They did collapse. And if they didn’t, we would still have Sumer and Akkad, and Ancient Egypt with us right now. They did indeed collapse. But despite those collapses, everybody seems to have thought that the right thing to do was try to put them back together and carry on. I think that we have the advantage of being able to look back on quite a long sweep of history and look at what worked. And what worked because it has lasted. So that’s probably a disappointing answer, but there are real limits apart from just thinking about what worked and observing the past.

There are real limits, I think, to what we can achieve or what we can do as a species; they’re imposed by biology or by nature. When we have tried to supersede them in the past, as we tried in the early 20th century, or maybe even like the idea of the perfectibility of man that comes out to the enlightenment of someone. When we have tried that, not only did things not really work out well, but it was just disastrous. We have to be aware of this.

Where are the people, for instance, who—a healthy suspicion of something like tech or internet technology? There’s a tendency to dismiss this kind of thing, but we might want to take a little bit more seriously speed in general, or asking ourselves, “What are potential downsides of new things?” That’s just not really part of popular outlook right now. There’s a huge emphasis still on innovation, and I think in the present circumstances in which almost everyone can admit that something is wrong or something feels off, or that the technological utopia that we were promised hasn’t really come to pass. There are still a lot of people who think that the way out is some other piece of innovation, some new gadget or outlook, or something. And I think that’s probably wrong, that we should instead think about potential downsides, first of all, and second, what has actually worked in the past, what made us happy and virtuous before, and whether that stuff is not worth holding onto.

SEAN SPEER: Let’s stay on this line of discussion for a minute. You write in the book that “long ago, we developed the urge to create a new and different world, and we’ve uprooted ourselves from the old one. In so doing, we have badly disrupted our sense of place and purpose.” Michael, talk about causality here. How has our instinct towards what you might call utopianism contributed to the sense of attenuation and disorder that defines the current era?

MICHAEL BONNER: I thought that when I wrote that half of the book the world would accuse me of being a pagan or a heretic or something because what’s at the root of that is secularization, if that’s a real word, a secularizing of Judeo-Christian vision of time, which is that it has a goal, history has a goal, right? And people like—I’m not going to list names, but there’s a Hegelian or Marxist interpretation of that that comes about in the 19th century that our special friend, Francis Fukuyama, picked up on that history has this purpose or direction, okay? If you are a Christian or a Muslim, or a Jew, that will take a scatological form in the idea that there is a plan—there is a divine plan unfolding in the world, and then it comes to an end at the end of time, at which there’s a final judgment or something. However, if you’re into that idea but you think it’s taking too long or something like that, you might persuade yourself that you can do something to accelerate it to make it happen sooner or to realize this divine plan here on earth and that you can transform yourself.

There are passages in St. Paul that seem to suggest that there’s some kind of like—he talks about putting on a new man or becoming new, renewing yourself, and so. If you take that literally, you can persuade yourself that you are able to do that in some kind of non-spiritual sense. And the result will be something like the revolutionary terror or Bolshevism, the new Soviet man, or the end of a racial struggle in history that the Nazis believed in, and so forth. So I have a very dim view of trying to take that stuff literally and act it out in real life.

But anyway, as I say, luckily nobody has yet attacked me about this or criticized me, but that is what is at the root of that. I don’t want anyone to assume or to think that I’m secretly trying to blame Christianity or something, which I’m not. But there is this tendency in Western thought to think that you can detect a direction in history and then push it forward. And famously, I don’t know if anyone has talked like this really very recently; I could hear someone like Justin Trudeau saying stuff like this, but I remember Obama talking about being on the right side of history and the quotation made popular by Martin Luther King about the arc of history bends toward justice, and so forth. Maybe you can make it bend with a little bit of effort, and so forth. I don’t think that that’s ultimately a very healthy outlook; I think it’s going to lead to disappointment and to violence as it has in the past.

SEAN SPEER: Let me ask a follow-up because one of the things I wondered as I read the book is: Are there any true conservatives left today in your view? How would a conservatism rooted in the book’s ideas diverge from its contemporary form?

MICHAEL BONNER: Okay. So I have friends who no longer speak of conservatism. They talk about something more like reconstructionism because they are so cynical, jaded, or disappointed that they think that there’s nothing left to conserve. Now, I’m afraid—I mean, literally afraid—that that could be true, although I don’t know for certain. If we were in late Roman times and I were some sort of monk or bureaucrat fleeing a barbarian invasion or something, what would I take with from the present state of affairs? Would it be the collected works of Beyonce? Would it be the novels of—would it be like the Harry Potter story? I don’t know. I think you see what I’m getting at.

But are there true conservatives? I mean, this is a question that has actually come up many times in the past, and I would point to a figure like Confucius, who felt that in his time, it was a period of great upheaval and disorder, and that he was harking back to a much more ancient time.

Long before the Chinese unification, he thought that the peak of Chinese civilization was in the Zhou state, Z-H-O-U. I did a video presentation, and the AI that indicated the parts of the presentation, I was talking about the Duke of Zhou, and its spelled J-O-E, so it’s not the Duke of Joe, it’s Z-H-O-U. This is like centuries before Confucius, and he holds this up as the peak of Chinese civilization, not his own time. And he and his followers are trying to reconstruct this very ancient period and its values and customs, and so forth. We can do the same thing. We don’t have a tradition like Confucianism in the West, but we arguably need one. The idea that we are somehow trying—that we as small-“c” conservatives are trying to just keep things the way they are right now—that’s philosophically incoherent because if we had always been doing that, then nothing would ever have changed, and obviously we know that it did.

But the idea that there was a spirit of the age of the Duke of Zhou that could animate and inform all of future history, that’s a valuable idea which I think we might be able to learn from. There’s also the much-denigrated Eastern Roman Byzantine state that carried on for a very long time seemingly unchanged. Of course it did change. It did evolve in a sense, but the linguistic and artistic forms were kept very, very—they were very tightly controlled and changed little. That is an example of a Western civilization that was intensely conservative that held its own against extremely hostile forces around it that we might wish to look at. But in any case, the remedy is roughly the same, which is reestablishing some kind of connection with the past.

I note where I live now; I no longer live in Toronto. I note, looking around me in the rural area of Durham, all these old abandoned graveyards where people who, I don’t know if they have any descendants or anything like that, but they’re no longer used. In that sense, they’re abandoned. They’re still maintained, and so forth. But these are symbols of some kind of past that is, by North American standards, rather old. We’re looking at maybe 200 old years here. We would do better, I think, to try to maintain something like that—some sense of a physical presence or continuity with our ancestors. Then, I don’t know, arguing endlessly about tax rates or something—not that that isn’t important, but it’s that sense of history and feeling of permanence and so forth that I think we as conservatives need to try to recover.

SEAN SPEER: In his review of the book for The Hub, Howard Anglin wrote, “Civilization is inextricably connected with religious worship. A good reminder that the cult at the heart of culture has always been a shared religion.” Assuming you agree with him, what does that mean for so much of the western world that is increasingly secularizing? Can we have a civilization divorced from religion?

MICHAEL BONNER: Hmm. Well, the short answer is no, because one religion will drive out another. My view in the book, yes, I agree with Howard exactly, but I also add that the tendency toward religion is something that cannot be avoided because I think it’s biologically determined.

People like—what is his name?—Steven Pinker and Jonathan Haidt, amongst others, they link the religious tendency to the biological requirement of human beings to impute theories of mind to other animals and possibly even things. It’s very important to us to be able to tell whether the thing that we’re face-to-face with has a mind or not. And if that is your tendency, you could easily get into the position of recognizing some sort of mind within an impersonal force in an object or an animal. Now, I think that even from a theistic perspective, being able to recognize minds would be an important feature of humanity when it came to recognizing the divine or spirits, or have you. So I don’t think we—I think that Haidt and Pinker are atheists, but I think that the explanation still makes sense either way.

So I don’t think we’re ever going to escape that. I think that in the contemporary world conventional or traditional religions are much better at containing those forces or controlling and directing the human tendency to what I call “metaphysical speculation” so that it doesn’t run wild and get out of control. When it does run wild, you get these spiritual breakdowns that you find in, say, 19th-century occultism or the seances and weird spiritism that took hold in the Muslim world in the 20th century. Now contemporary wokery, wokeism, or whatever, it definitely has a spiritual element, and especially in the ideas of these vast impersonal forces that somehow need to be exercised or warded off by means of special knowledge or confessions. I’m thinking anything from Critical Race Theory to the patriarchy lurking everywhere or even on the Right, the conspiracy theories that have cropped up, or people who think that some aspect of postmodernist philosophy or feminism or something is this vast force that has to be kept away from you or have you.

Yeah, so you’re going to get a religion whether you like it or not; that’s point number one. Point number two is, yes, Howard is right; that is arguably the impetus behind settled life. Well, let me back up. If you’re going to settle down in a place and you previously didn’t, that presupposes that you have changed your outlook as to where you belong in the world and what human beings are like, and what the world is like. If you’re going to live with other people to whom you are not immediately related, that also presupposes some kind of change of outlook. Why is it that people suddenly start living in one place and they start dwelling together? Well, the evidence is that somehow we don’t know how, but the evidence is that there was a cult of ancestors that developed within the Near East. And we find that we—it’s very hard to see its evolution, but you can see it fully formed in the earliest settlements and dwellings. People realized that they had shared common ancestors so the different families could—they were not immediately related, they could nevertheless trace a shared lineage within a specific place. So that’s the earliest religion for which we have evidence. Whether Paleolithic people had a religion, and they probably did. But what it was like, we don’t really know, but it must have been different from this new idea.

So the cult of ancestors means you have relatives, and the relatives all belong in a specific place. So consequently, you find people are building their houses over top of burials so that the people who live in a specific house are burying people over hundreds of years proverbially below the floorboards, or they’re saving skulls and decorating the skulls, and keeping them. Sounds weird to us, but that’s what they did. And there are vestiges of this, I think, in Mediterranean and Near Eastern customs surrounding masks. The Romans were very big on masks that you had your ancestor’s death masks in your foyer, and you would collect them over generations and so forth, and there would be public processions of them where you would. I think Polybius talks about reading out the deeds of your ancestors as the masks are being carried around.

So that is the religion, which I think reflects the outlook of early civilization. It survives to some extent within all the great religions and especially in something like Confucianism, where the idea where families have ancestral shrines or there are huge emphasis on filial piety over multiple generations and that the spirits of your ancestors are somehow watching over you or guiding you, or somehow influencing life. This is an idea that is, I think, almost totally absent from the modern West. There are really very few reasons for people to take an interest in the remote past. There are some eccentric genealogists out there, but the idea of a new world across the sea where people leave behind their traditions and become new and different people, or this kind of deracinated religious utopia of the Puritans, so forth is established in the new world. And the connection with the old one is severed. This is a tendency that has developed in the West, and I think that it is deranging. It disrupts, as you said before, the sense of time and place and the sense of continuity. And let me be clear: I don’t think that people are going to develop a cult of ancestors soon, but there has to be some kind of connection and stability if there’s going to be the kind of civilized life that I described.

Now, incidentally, this is exactly what people like G. K. Chesterton and Edmund Burke are talking about. I think Chesterton, in his usual way, he talks about the democracy of the dead or something like that. This is exactly the same idea, and it’s what John Stuart Mill and his liberal ilk lampooned as a despotism of custom, which they hated and wanted to destroy. So I take a dim view of that. But what we need to do is reestablish that connection with the past represented by shared ancestors.

SEAN SPEER: Notwithstanding the particularities of our current moment, including smartphones and Twitter, and whatever, I was struck by the book’s insight that civilizational collapse is the rule rather than the exception. In that sense, let me ask a two-part question. First, what are, if any, universal causes of civilizational collapse? And second, if the past is a guide and collapse is probable—if we’re here for a good time, not a long time—what is the case for not merely letting autonomy rip for as long as it’ll last?

MICHAEL BONNER: Oh my goodness. Well, yes, this is a very difficult question because it seems so appealing, this idea that, in modern jargon, you can be your true self and you don’t owe anything to anybody; you are not shaped by any institutions or anything like that, or parents for that matter, and that you can mould your own destiny, and so on and so on and so on. Superficially, it seems like an appealing idea, and nobody wants to say, “You can’t be yourself or whatever.” But anthropologically, it doesn’t work.

I think that the proof that I would give is simply how unhappy people tend to be now in the West. Who is it? The American Surgeon General just released a report on the epidemic of loneliness. Something like only 30 percent of people see their friends every day. It’s pretty grim or—and a similar 30 percent of households consist of only one person. There’re lots of grim indicators there that you can look up.

I think it’s an important question for us, whether this was caused by the liberal sense of autonomy or by something else. And the reason—it’s very tempting to try to blame liberalism, and I think that it does deserve to share some of the blame. But these problems have also cropped up in China and Russia, which are not liberal places at all, the atomization and loneliness and deracination and falling fertility, and so forth. These are problems practically everywhere. They may be problems that are occasioned mostly by modernity itself or by technology. And that the ultimate—the liberal angle—is simply that this is a post-hoc philosophical justification for a tendency that has already been underway for some time and that this is just making a virtue of necessity, if that’s the right metaphor.

Now, on the other hand, if liberalism is indeed the source of the problem, that presupposes that the solution. But I don’t know if there’s some sort of other alternative that anybody has yet and that we could either revert to or that hasn’t been tried yet. If you ask [Francis] Fukuyama, there’s no alternative to it. So if it’s the source of our problem and there’s no alternative to it, that’s pretty upsetting.

However, atomization and this deterioration, it seems to be a consequence of all 20th-century ideologies; both the Soviet and Nazi tyrannies thrived on it. And the Roman government also sought, to a much lesser extent, but still sought to keep people divided, and they eventually went so far as to ban clubs, the sorts of things that we might call guilds or civil society, or things like that. In the West, we didn’t have to ban them. They all just died out. Maybe not completely, but mostly. This is the thesis of that famous book, Bowling Alone and before that, there was another one called The Quest for Community. It could be that this dissolution is simply part of the rhythm of the fall and rise of civilization. It could be. Then again, you also have people like Peter Turchin claiming that the fundamental problem is the immiseration of the populace and elite overproduction. In other words, you have a bloated and incompetent upper class. This could also describe many moments in the past.

But nowadays—I don’t know if we’ll ever have enough information to make some kind of vast theory about how these things collapse, but the fundamental thing for us now—the fundamental goal— should not be coercing people into ever greater freedom or more autonomy but to reconnect people, especially after the pandemic. If people really are as lonely and sad as the surveys say, what other conclusion would you come to but to say that whatever we have been doing so far has simply not been working and it’s time to—I was about to say it’s time to try something new, but perhaps it’s time to try something old?

SEAN SPEER: Which is a good segue to my final question. Talk a bit about what a collective revival or renaissance might look like. How could we pull our civilization off the course it’s on towards greater decadence, decay and, as the book argues, ultimate collapse.

MICHAEL BONNER: Well, look at what worked before; maybe it’s too soon for that. But in both East and West, the scholars and bureaucrats, and so forth who were inspired by the achievements either of the Roman world or the earlier Iranian Sasanian Empires. They were inspired by ruins and by the visual memorials of the past as well as the literature that was left behind. So perhaps it’s too soon for us to be looking back on anything in particular; maybe we haven’t been here in the new world long enough or the post-war consensus hasn’t been—it’s not old enough to—but I would say that sooner or later that will probably happen, but I don’t know exactly what it will be that people look back, but they will look back on something since that’s a universal tendency.

I was looking at some polling recently. The overwhelming majority of Americans thought that the world was better 50 years ago. It was overwhelming. And only 10 percent of people in the nine richest countries in the world thought that things were getting better. People will obviously quibble with this and say, “Well, what are they talking about when they have smartphones? And obviously, these—” But the plain fact matter is that lots of people are inclined—everyone, I think, if not everyone, almost everyone—they’re inclined to look back and to think about what worked, to think about what has been lost, and to try to imitate it.

In the period that we call the Renaissance, there was a drive not just to imitate but also to surpass, to supersede the ancients. Perhaps one day that will take hold here. Now, one of the benefits, if I may say so, at least in theory, of a globalized world or a multicultural society is that we have more to look back on, at least in theory, right? That placing these various cultures and their histories on an equal level in theory means that there’s a greater variety to imitate. But it’s not going to happen if we keep hearing about how cultural appropriation is evil or if the past counts for nothing and should be forgotten, or that only people of the given cultural group can comment or think about their own past, so that a guy like me thinking about Confucius or something that that’s somehow fundamentally wrong, or the postmodern idea that there’s some kind of, I don’t know, that you can’t really look back—sorry. When you do look back on these things, all you see is the exercise of power or something like that. Just put all these things aside; don’t worry about them, and I think it will not be possible to keep back the spirit of nostalgia and invitation forever.

SEAN SPEER: Well, one aid in such a renaissance would be the book In Defense of Civilisation: How Our Past Can Renew Our Present. Michael Bonner, thank you so much for joining us at Hub Dialogues.

MICHAEL BONNER: Thank you very much.