Michael R.J. Bonner is a historian and a communications and public policy advisor based in Port Perry. In Defence of Civilization is his new book, now available for pre-order from Sutherland House.
When we talk about human flourishing, what is it that we want to flourish? When we speak of decline, what is declining?
When progressives talk about progress, what do they think is progressing? And when conservatives invoke stability and continuity, what is meant to be stable and continuous?
Each question might have a different answer, depending on your perspective.
We could think about the flourishing or decline of a specific person, a family, a company, or a government. But when we think about human beings in general, what are we talking about?
We used to use the word ‘civilization’. That word is out of fashion now, and it has many critics. The naysayers call the concept of civilization ‘Euro-centric’, ‘colonial’, ‘patriarchal’, and so on. We shouldn’t be deterred by such labels. Civilization, and all its connotations of stability and rootedness, is an extremely important concept, and we shouldn’t neglect it.
What is civilization? I think a lot of us would agree that we can recognize civilization when we see it. We can see it in fine art, architecture, literature, music, mathematics, well-functioning government, and even an orderly household. We don’t really need an abstract definition.
But sometimes we should remind ourselves that civilization is fragile. In fact, civilization has declined or collapsed many times in the past, and may do so again.
Recent history should be a reminder of this. Since the late 1990s, we’ve lurched from one crisis to another: terrorism, warfare, financial collapse, sluggish recovery, declining birth rates, pandemic, inflation…
At the very least, recent events are proof that history is not a story of limitless progress.
But this is exactly how most of us probably think of it. The Western belief in progress is so deeply ingrained that very few of us ever question it. Yet there is no good reason to think this way.
The expectation that things will always get better is basically an article of faith. It appears to be backed up by the rapid acceleration of technological change from the industrial revolution onwards. And it seems to be justified by the ever-expanding personal freedoms within liberal societies since the end of the Cold War.
Those developments are unusual, though, and the beliefs that they have encouraged have no basis in the larger scene of human history. No one at any other time expected technology to advance endlessly, nor was there any sense that moral or social progress was an inevitable process of history.
Many of us also want to assume that there is a necessary relationship between technological and social development, as though a technological society must necessarily be a better one. But in reality there is no such connection.
The history of the twentieth century proves this. Rapid technological and scientific change did not make us better, more virtuous, or more civilized. Arguably, science and technology served only to abet more efficient methods of homicide and oppressive social control. The Nazi and Soviet tyrannies are obviously the most extreme examples of this error. But the mistake was made everywhere: eugenics, social Darwinism, and utopian fervour were fashionable everywhere.
The old ideologies are extinct now. But instead of stability and rootedness, every day we awaken to a strange world of new things. The pace of technological change continues to accelerate. Virtual socialisation in an imaginary online universe, 3D-printed fake meat, eating bugs, colonising space, growing babies in artificial wombs, robot sex dolls, genetically-engineered immortality, suicide pods, transhumanism, and downloading human consciousness into machines are only a few recent innovations. And there is still a blind faith that science, technology, and innovation will somehow cure all our problems.
My book In Defense of Civilization shows that this faith is misplaced.
Every great revival has been inspired not by a utopian vision of the future, but by whatever had already worked in the past. The scholars of the Renaissance wanted to imitate and surpass the achievements of ancient Rome. The Romans imitated the Greeks, and the Greeks imitated the civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia.
We have the advantage of being able to look back on five thousand years of civilization to tell us who we are and what we might be able to achieve again.
We’ve tried practically every kind of innovation imaginable in the 20th century, and none of it has made us better, more virtuous, or more civilized.
Perhaps we are finally ready for something old?