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

Apr 20, 2024 by

Book Review by David Gibney, Mercator.

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

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

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.

Read here.

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