SEASON 1 EPISODE 9 Jun 23, 2024

Dr. Michael R. J. Bonner - In Defense of Civilization

What makes civilization? What do we stand to lose from it's collapse? And what is the path forward to renewal?

Episode Summary

Dr. Michael J. Bonner takes us on a fascinating journey from his early studies in classical and oriental languages to becoming a leading expert in Iranian history and a political advisor. We uncover the transition from academia to politics, driven by his early political engagement. Bonner's new book, "In Defence of Civilisation," born out of the COVID lockdowns, offers a critical reflection of what makes civilization, what we stand to lose from a collapse, and the path forward to renewal. 

We also explore the unintentional rise of monasteries as educational powerhouses during the early Middle Ages. Initially serving basic administrative and religious needs, these institutions evolved into cultural havens due to the literate class of monks. Michael highlights the influence of Gregory the Great's missionaries in Britain and how civilizations often turn to their past for inspiration in times of decline, drawing a parallel to the current state of our world and questioning what has gone wrong, whilst reflecting on the disillusionment with the 1990s' promises of liberal democracy and social and technical harmony.

Finally, we critique modern town planning and the shift from traditional values to progressive ideologies, examining the resultant social isolation and disappointment with technological advancements. Emphasizing the need for stability, continuity, and shared culture, we reflect on the erosion of communal spaces and the balance between career success and inner fulfillment. The episode concludes with a look at global cultural trends and how Western societies might reclaim their heritage in the face of these challenges.


Sebastian Lees: 0:36

Welcome everyone to another edition of the Fat Tony's podcast. Our guest today is Dr Michael J Bonner. Michael is a Canadian political advisor and historian of Iran. He studied classical and oriental languages as an undergrad and then took a master's degree and doctorate in Iranian history at the University of Oxford. He's advised members of the cabinet at both federal and provincial levels and currently lives in Toronto with his family.

Sebastian Lees: 1:05

Now Michael's going to like that introduction, because I lifted it directly from his book and we are here as well to talk about his new book In Defence of Civilisation how the Past Can Renew Our Future. In this book, michael broadly talks about what makes civilization what it is, show us what we're in danger of losing if it collapses, and also point the way forwards towards renewal. Now, this is an amazing book, and I will say to everyone I'm not just saying that because Michael is a guest here. Regular listeners know I don't work that way this really, really is an amazing book. It's so packed full of wisdom that I found myself having to pause every two or three pages just to take note of ideas or concepts or people that Michael is referring to that I really, really wanted to learn more about.

Sebastian Lees: 1:57

So welcome, dr Bonner to Fat Tony's, it's an absolute pleasure to have you here. Thank you for inviting me. It's a pleasure to be here. So before we talk about the book, for those guests that may not know you could you tell us a little bit about your background, kind of beyond the blurb that I've just lifted, and also, perhaps more importantly, tell us a little bit about the impetus for this book and what drove you to write it Right?

Michael Bonner: 2:29

Well, I don't want to give the impression, as I think the blurb and your introduction do, that I'm sort of naturally studious or academic. I'm sort of naturally studious or academic. I'm not. I grew up having practically no interest in anything apart from originally Latin and then eventually Greek, and then a series of oriental languages, beginning with Hebrew and Syriac and then eventually getting into Arabic and Persian. And if you ask me why I had these interests, I probably wouldn't really be able to explain it. But I found that I was good at learning and reading these things and that's what I ended up doing. And then eventually the question was well, you know, what will that all amount to? And the answer was history. I suppose I could have gone into something like classics or what have you, and of course there are classical historians. But it seemed that all those languages sort of lived together, so to speak, in the history of late antiquity, sort of the later Roman Empire. But that you know as interesting as I found that and you know I contemplated studying things like Byzantium, which is now much more, much better studied and much more fashionable now than it was in the early 2000s I thought the real thing to do would be to look at Rome's sort of ancient foe, namely Iran. I thought that Iran was the sort of key to understanding a lot of what was going on in late antiquity, for the simple reason that Iran opens both onto the Mediterranean world and into the Caucasus and northwards into the world of the steppe, and that you often have Roman historians writing about the migrations of peoples, or famously the Huns or the Germanic tribes, and as some of them show more interest in where they came from or why they got there and how, than others do. But the answer is basically the world of the steppe and transformations that were happening far across Eurasia, and Chinese sources, iranian sources have a sort of larger window onto that sort of thing and you know, something like Chinese history was beyond me because I, two of which were theses a master's and a doctorate, and then one was a sort of general history of late antique Iran under the Sasanian dynasty, and I still find that interesting. I still publish a little bit.

Michael Bonner: 5:31

But I did not want to be an academic. I was invited into political service toward the end of my doctorate. I was living overseas, contemplating what to do next. I was trembling in fear that I would have to become a professor God forbid and then I was invited to become basically a policy advisor back home in Canada to a, a man who was at the time the Minister of Immigration, and you know I found that very interesting. I had done, you know I'd been involved in political campaigns since I was a boy and my father had been a media training and crisis communications consultant who worked for a number of different Canadian politicians and diplomats. And you know I thought I could do it, thought I had what it took to do that, although it was completely new, very different from what I had been doing before, and I thought I would take the chance. I did it, went home, moved to Ottawa, became a political advisor and I've sort of stayed doing roughly that sort of thing over the past 10 years. I'm now out of politics, I'm a consultant, I'm a strategic advisor you might say as well as a registered lobbyist. Strategic advisor, you might say as well as a registered lobbyist obeying all ethical and you know guidelines and not just obeying but you know surpassing them, of course, to the highest ethical standard, obviously. And you know that's been, that's been fun. And I still get to write. I do a lot of writing for clients and for, you know, I help my colleagues as much as I can and I still work on my own stuff.

Michael Bonner: 7:24

As for the origin of the book In Defense of Civilization that came out of the COVID lockdowns, not only did I feel I had to have something to do, but also, you know, I had a couple of conversations with people, friends, often in politics, final straw or not necessarily the final straw, but the sort of the last, most recent thing that made us think that the world had really not turned out at all the way we had been led to expect when we were growing up in the 90s, and things like, you know, the end of history and the sort of inevitable triumph of liberal democracy and social harmony and a sort of ever-expanding freedoms and so on and so on and so on had not turned out the way I had expected at least, and that there was sort of a malaise that had really come to the fore when, you know, long before COVID. But it certainly asserted itself more strongly when people were sort of forced into their houses, having to sort of spend their time alone or in a sort of lack of social intercourse. So the question was then, or the questions that came to mind was well, what has actually happened If something has declined? What has declined? Or if there was something that was supposed to turn out a certain way and it didn't, what was that something? I felt it was more than simply culture or political order, although those were certainly involved. That, you know, we should look at. You know, the much older concept of what people meant when they said civilization, and that if civilization is meant to be equated with something like a Western way of life or sort of assumptions about how the course of history is meant to go, those seem to be really sort of inadequate and erroneous ways of looking at it and that some other principle or, you know, we had to redefine it in some sort of different way to really understand what was going on. And that's what I set out to do as to what they meant when they talked about civilization and what they meant when they talked about things like decline or ascendancy, progress if it was ever talked about in the past and renewal, how they came about.

Michael Bonner: 10:31

So I thought that, basically, to put the book as simply as possible, I think that the idea that the world just gets better and better and better, no matter what we do, is wrong. That may seem like a kind of banal conclusion, but it's still sort of widely believed in. And I think that when people you know people seem to have formed the conclusion that you know, we were just somehow beyond plagues or that somehow microbes would never bother us again, well, you know, there's an example where history didn't turn out that way, as well as stuff like you know political upheavals that there's. You know, people like Fareed Zakaria right now are talking about a kind of counter revolution to what some people characterize as a sort of arc of progress or a sort of inevitable constant progress. And I found that that's a very unusual way of thinking, the idea that everything is just going to sort of keep getting better and better, whereas throughout history, collapse, failure, calamity, sort of much more frequently the rule than you would think, living in and being educated in in the west. So the idea then was well, you know what did how? What did people do about that? How did they react to that? That that history, because obviously civilization carried on that.

Michael Bonner: 12:02

There have been many collapses, some really quite spectacular ones, and yet somehow things grow back. Well, how did they grow back? Well, there are lots of theories people have talked about. I think that you know there are people like Vico and Ibn Khaldun, and there's the theory of ages that you find in Hesiod and so forth, you know, or Hegel. I didn't really want to get into that.

Michael Bonner: 12:29

I find that those ideas are obviously a little too far-fetched and certainly untestable, but they show that historically people have usually thought of cycles and they have observed a kind of deterioration and then a regrowth of civilization.

Michael Bonner: 12:49

So, observing it just through historical sources or what have you, it seems as though the efforts made to rehabilitate human civilization were always about the imitation of past examples which, again, that may seem kind of banal to people, but it is very much contrary to the sort of Western liberal theory of progress, whereas or the old, the science, I forget who put this forward but the idea of the paradigm shift where, you know, suddenly people's outlook changes and you know they can only look back within the current paradigms, these transformations in the past.

Michael Bonner: 13:36

And I think that we could benefit from that theory of stability and a sort of more, you know, sort of orderly connection with past examples and with, you know, the sort of more ancient arts of what it meant to be civilized. So that's the basic thrust of the book in you know kind of rambling and convoluted way, but that's what I set out to do. There's no politics in it, or there's very little politics. There's nothing about like prescriptive government policy or, you know, this is how you should vote. There's nothing like that. It's not a political treatise, but it's more sort of historical. There's a little bit of art and archaeology in there and unlike some similar takes, I think mine begins at the beginning of, you know, in the middle of the Upper Paleolithic period. So you know, if you don't like prehistory, stay away.

Sebastian Lees: 14:42

If you do, you might get a kick out of it well, I always say this, but there's there's a lot to unpack there and firstly, I want to congratulate you on using covid in lockdown to far more productive purposes than I did. Uh, writing this fantastic book versus creating an online bar for people to drink with.

Michael Bonner: 15:00

Well, that's good too. There's a sort of social interaction.

Sebastian Lees: 15:07

And also you mentioned growing up in the 90s, which I've always said was an incredibly optimistic decade to grow up in. I feel like we kind of won the 20th century lottery by being able to grow up in the 90s. And I think what's also interesting, you talk about societal collapse happening in waves and when it's portrayed in the media and Hollywood, societal collapse is always portrayed as this kind of extinction level event that happens suddenly. So it's a nuclear war or an asteroid impact and then people I'm simplifying here, but you know go to bed one night and wake up and society is collapsed. When you look at the history of societal collapse, it often happens much more slowly. It's more of a decay or rot that sets in and and happens gradually over time.

Sebastian Lees: 15:56

And you talk about the years following the fall of Rome, the Roman Empire, in your book and I know previously other people have talked about.

Sebastian Lees: 16:07

If you were alive at the time, you would have been aware of a slowdown, you would have been aware of a shift, but for a long, long time afterwards, to a greater or lesser extent, it would have been business as usual and you wouldn't have witnessed this overnight collapse of society.

Sebastian Lees: 16:22

It happens over larger time spans and, being British, I think this has happened in living history. I look at my you know my granddad, two generations separated, who grew up in a time where the UK was the foremost superpower in the world, had a large empire, and then, within the space of two generations, has been relegated to, you could argue, soft power but largely a backwater state. But for my parents, in the intermedium living between those two states, they wouldn't have felt that civilization was collapsing around them. So I'm really fascinated by your book in that regard and you also mentioned you talk about religion a little bit and the role of state. And going back to the post-Roman collapse, To what extent do you think the church maybe I'm projecting here but almost provided the glue or the lattice for kind of stooge of barbarian strongmen for?

Michael Bonner: 17:25

a long time.

Michael Bonner: 17:25

But by the time the last one is gone the functions of the state have to be carried on as best anyone can by other means, and of course there are many examples of barbarian warlords like Theoderic organizing Roman patricians to sort of carry on a kind of Roman court in miniature and to perpetuate, you know, the workings of the old administrative state, but it doesn't last long enough to it just sort of doesn't reach a second generation, and as the Western state sort of fragments, you have efforts to create a kind of Roman state in miniature by Germanic peoples, but you know there are sort of varying degrees of success there, and most famously you have Charlemagne, crowned in the year 800, who claims to have revived the, the Roman Empire, and that also comes to a sad end toward the end of the 9th century. Otherwise, though, you have the inertia of the church, which is already very well organized, as well organized as anything else could have been. It's debatable to what extent it was ever really an organ of the Roman state. But you have a pope like Gregory the Great, who famously sort of steps into the void left by Western political authority, who you know tries to reorganize Western Christianity on a more sort of Roman model. You know the Germanic peoples would have had, in his view, a sort of somewhat aberrant Christianity, as did the Celts. There was the famous mission to Britain, sent to sort of, in Gregory's view, to sort of re-evangelize a people that he thought would have sort of fallen away from the religion, whereas it was more like a sort of heterodox or sort of aberrant forms of different kinds of Christianity brought in former ages and then isolated. So that's an example of a churchman, you know, trying to sort of fill that void and thereafter that void, and thereafter Gregory becomes the example of sort of, you know, a proper administrator on a Roman model who knew how to run a church and who you know defended Rome against the Lombard siege and corresponded with barbarian leaders to sort of keep them at bay or, you know, placate them or what have you. And that was simply because there was nobody else to do it. And eventually, under, you know, under Charlemagne's grandfather, this sort of relationship between barbarian leaders and the papacy starts to sort of Germanic warlord pretending to be a Roman and this new sort of barbarian Roman emperor gives protection to the church and so forth. So that's the sort of political angle to it.

Michael Bonner: 21:52

Culturally, I suppose I would say that the basic impetus for the eventual revival of Roman culture and learning that takes shape in the early Middle Ages is that the church simply needed literate people, and that's the most basic thing. People had to at least basic literacy to carry out their functions. And not just literacy, but you had to have some notion of how to compute a calendar, which was not an easy thing to do when you didn't have clocks. Have clocks and other very basic forms of learning to carry on, you know, to carry on the functions of any kind of administration. But you also have monasteries, and I think you know people who've seen movies like the Name of the Rose, where monks are sitting in the scriptorium copying things out and, and you know, imagining um, monks sitting there reading and writing all the time. That's a stereotype. There's truth to the stereotype, but it was entirely accidental and the reason for that is that, um, there were many different sort of monastic rules. The most popular one was the rule of St Benedict, and it was most popular because it was the most lenient, it was the least ascetic and it includes recommendations about reading. It suggests, you know, read a book a year if you can.

Michael Bonner: 23:34

Very modest, but there was never an intention to make monasteries centers of learning. That was an accident and it happened simply because you've got these institutions. They have to have their special books. There has to be some notion of, there has to be at least some minimal literacy so that people can read and say mass and things like that. You've got to have some knowledge of music and so forth. So somebody has to teach this sort of thing and the monks are generally being drawn from, at least in the early days. They're generally being drawn from the literate class to begin with and they wanted to live sort of roughly as they always did. So many of them would have already have had interests in reading and writing and so forth. So it's not hard to see how from there you get to centers of teaching and learning by accident. That was never the intention. It was more to sort of carry out monastic offices and train up. I think Benedict, saint Benedict, talks about training up a kind of quote-unquote militia for spiritual warfare, not for book learning. But that was the effect.

Michael Bonner: 24:59

And of course, what would you have had to read in the west, apart from um? You know, you, you had church fathers, of course, but then there was also a sort of raft of the huge welter of of pagan literature, some of which would have been viewed with suspicion, especially in the early Middle Ages. But if you wanted to learn Latin competently you had to read pagan authors. Some of it was obviously useful, some of it was interesting. It became more interesting as they went along and then, by the time Charlemagne has come along, the efforts to train up a literate class of churchmen and administrators turns into not a renaissance Latin literature in manuscript form, to transcribe and copy it from old crumbling scrolls into proper books and things like that, and to teach people at least a little bit about how to read them, how to read them. And of course it would have been very embarrassing for the. You know, if these guys who claimed to be restoring the Roman Empire, if they had just let all the libraries fall apart, you know they would have been never been able to live that down. So that's what they ended up doing.

Michael Bonner: 26:32

Now it should be said that Part of the impetus for that is simply that, again, if Gregory the Great had not sent his missionaries to Britain, I don't know how the revival would eventually have occurred.

Michael Bonner: 26:46

It might not have occurred, but the very fact that these people are going across to Britain to set up, ostensibly, a new church or to make existing Christians there more Roman.

Michael Bonner: 26:57

They had to have some kind of books with them and they had to teach priests or they had to educate people. So that's the origin of the so-called Canterbury School, set up by Theodore and Hadrian that Gregory sent. And then, of course, there's a straight line from there to Bede, working away up in Northumbria, and it's Bede who says priests need to be better educated, they need to be more intelligent, they need at least to know how to compute the calendar and read and so forth, and it's that influence that flows back to the continent afterwards. So those are the facts as to how it happened and it's simply hard to imagine, if you know, in some sort of alternative history, if there ever, if there would have been a revival from some coming from some sort of different quarter, I can't even imagine what it would have been like. The church and its institutions were practically the only sort of order left and they had all the books.

Sebastian Lees: 28:06

You mentioned Charlemagne and you mention in your book the idea that when civilizations collapse, the inspiration for revitalization, for rebirth, is from the past. And you talk about how, when the Roman Empire collapsed, people didn't ridicule it, and you just talked again there about how people sought to imitate it. They didn't look at it as a failure per se, and Charlemagne is perhaps one of the most famous examples. But even you know, you look at pre-industrialization Britain, which was arguably more Germanic and Western, desperately trying to link themselves more to classical civilization. And you look at the architecture of America as well. In the Senate there's this architectural inheritance, this cultural inheritance and respect for previous civilization, even going down to the granularity of banks and building. Societies in the UK would have Doric columns to signify stability and trust in investing with them Up until the mid-20th century or the early 20th century. And that's where we see this shift away. And I think this brings us neatly onto kind of the middle part of your book what went wrong or what's going wrong? And there's a quote I'd like to read directly from your book here Contemplating the state of our own civilization gives me an uneasy feeling. Something is wrong and we can all sense it.

Sebastian Lees: 29:39

At the end of Kenneth Clarke's Civilization. He passes judgment on his own time and says he still feels relevant now. And what he says still feels relevant now. No society has ever been more nourished or better educated. No generation of men and women have ever benefited more from science and technology of men and women have ever benefited more from science and technology. But the long decline of christianity and the moral and intellectual failures of marxism have left western civilization without a center. I think this is really relevant. I don't want to quote verbatim lots from your book, but you talk a little bit about architecture as well and palmbury, which is prince charles, now king charles and prince charles's attempt to rejuvenate classical or more traditional forms of architecture in the uk. He's famously quoted as saying modern town planners have done more damage to the uk than the luftwaffe ever did. Yeah, when you say it's left, it left us without a center. Could you elaborate on that a little bit more?

Michael Bonner: 30:42

yeah, I think that what clark meant by that was that christianity was, um, not I'm hesitating to use the word ideology, because it was replaced by ideology but it could be viewed as an ideology or a sort of series of moral and ethical assumptions that were inherited by the West and shared by practically everyone. And what I infer from that is that the absence of a shared culture, if you like culture, a series of assumptions and so forth, has produced a problem, a malaise. Now, of course, you can well say, well, perhaps the decline of Christianity and a malaise. Now, of course you can well say, well, perhaps the decline of, perhaps the decline of christianity and the malaise both have a third cause, that that could be possible, um, and I think that there's some, there's some. I mean, it could also be a sort of feedback loop, but I think there's some merit to the idea that they both have, that they both, that they both have a common cause, and that is the ideological commitment to progress, which is not simply the idea that we hope for the world to get better or that our lives improve. Certainly, within improve and there's a kind of, certainly within christianity there's, there is a sense of moral progress that sort of works itself out in in in history.

Michael Bonner: 32:26

But the contemporary vision of of progress is is a very different one, which is that the the world gets better by effacing or removing, cancelling, forgetting the past, and you can see that at work within various epochs of our history. Over the past, you might say, maybe since the Reformation, maybe since slightly before, but this is a peculiarly Western outlook, whereby the past is full of error and perhaps evil, and that it's time to move on from it and that the present can only be better because you have superseded some sort of evil thing. Now, I'm not going to affirm that there were no evil things that have indeed been abolished, but the fundamental problem is a sort of a byproduct of that, which is that you don't stop. According to modern doctrines of progress, there's really nowhere to stop when it comes to the work of abolishing things and that eventually, if some new thing is put in place of an old thing that you abolished, it in its turn will soon be abolished too. It in its turn will soon be abolished too, and this leaves people sort of deracinated, disconnected from one another, and it produces that sort of malaise that I described the people being very well. You know, better nourished than ever before and better educated and so forth.

Michael Bonner: 34:21

I still think that that's true and that is a manifestation of what I think everybody would call progress accompanied by any kind of sense of greater social cohesion or a kind of commitment to any kind of shared culture. And I think that that's clearly a problem. And I think that wherever you sit on the political spectrum, you can see now that something is definitely wrong practically everywhere. The American Surgeon General and White House are now constantly or regularly talking about a pandemic of isolation. They call it a pandemic Social isolation, malaise, a sort of lack of trust in institutions.

Michael Bonner: 35:22

And if you tell people for the better part of a century that everything that's old must go away and be replaced and that the course of history proceeds from ancient, just you know sort of one ancient evil to another until our own time, it doesn't surprise me that there are people who wish to see their institutions abolished or fundamentally changed, or that old relationships within families or to community organizations should be done away with and so forth.

Michael Bonner: 36:01

So I think that's the flaw in the West and within the context of the book I explain why it's a flaw. I explain the connection with civilization is that civilization must have stability and continuity, that you have to believe that you are sort of rooted somewhere, that your institutions are established and that the way of life is stable. That belief comes first. That belief comes first and the proof that it must come first is found in archaeology that there's no evidence of any kind of material or economic changes that usher in settled life. And the proof is also in our own time, whereby when you have a dominant ideology that tells you that everything must be swept away in favor of some new thing in order to be better, you get chaos, confusion and the kind of deracination that people are feeling now.

Sebastian Lees: 37:17

I completely agree. So, michael, you talk about malaise, we talk about the kind of 20th century impact of these top-down things like Marxism. In your book we also obviously have fashionism, but also this kind of, I suppose, what Nassim Taleb would call scientism, this belief in science as being able to solve all of our problems. And there's a great quote I think it's Peter Thiel in his book Zero to One, where he says we were promised flying cars and what we got was 130 characters, and this beyond the increase in computing power, this real letdown of the technological utopianism that we saw in the kind of mid 20th century, and I think that carried us for a while, but that's after that faded. That's when the rot really set.

Sebastian Lees: 38:08

It started to set in, and I think also we've lost what I call these third spaces in society where, up until you know, up until very, very recently, uh, people spent most of their day outdoors. You know, houses were quite plain things and the third spaces where people would interact as a community have largely just been, like you said, you know, out of the old, in with the new abolished in the 20th century, and I think I would argue that the only one left in the uk is probably the institution of the British pub, yeah yeah, which acts as a sort of community center in many ways, and we've really lost something quite significant there. Do you think geography and lifestyle are also kind of contributing to this, in the way that even since we grew up in the 90s there's been a noticeable shift? Kids just don't go outside anymore.

Michael Bonner: 39:06

Well, yeah, I mean, I, I absolutely agree, and I, just, I, I, I sort of snorted because I remember, um, even even in the depth of the pandemic, just sort of forcing my children outside like a drill sergeant, even even in the dead of winter, when you, you know, the snow was coming down. I would sort of march them around the neighborhood to make sure that they. But, yes, I think that the tech utopia stuff was extremely weird, even in the 90s. And you know, I, I, I used the internet from practically the first available opportunity to do so and chatted to people online. I had a pen pal overseas, you know, but I never thought that this was going to, uh, make, make the world a fundamentally better place. Whenever I heard that sort of expectation, I just thought that was really weird.

Michael Bonner: 40:05

People used to say things like, and I think some still do. They say things like you know, if only we could get every poor child in the global south to have his own laptop, you know, we could solve every. You know like, and I just I thought, okay, well, like what, what will that do? Like, I'm not saying it's bad, I just like how does that solve any particular problem? And and and what do you think the problem is? I mean, just like, how, how, if, if?

Michael Bonner: 40:38

If you think that the problems that we all face is somehow a lack of connection with one another overseas, then maybe. But I I don't think that that's the, I don't think that that that really gets to the heart of of the trouble that that humanity faces now or or has always faced, the uh. And the same goes for the promise of flying cars. I mean, how would things, would people be happier, would they be more prosperous and virtuous, if we had cars that flew? I just find that really, really silly.

Michael Bonner: 41:14

But what has also happened in our own time is that that kind of obsession makes people neglect other problems. And I think that that sort of end of history moment in the late 80s and 90s up to you know whenever we think it ended was a time of great cultural and spiritual neglect. And the way you know, the way out of it can't possibly be found in some piece of technology, since it's arguable that you know, at one remove or another, technology itself caused it and that you itself caused it. And it's the same sort of question why are people who are better fed, better educated, healthier, with more access to all this other stuff knowledge, learning, technology. Why are they so miserable?

Sebastian Lees: 42:18

There's this idea of technology being a MacGuffin as kind of it's open enough that we can project this mysticism on it, that it's going to solve all of our problems.

Michael Bonner: 42:29

Yeah. So there's clearly something else that's at the root of it, right, and I think that that's where the West as a civilization have failed. Now people have accused me of saying well, what you're saying is that only the Inquisition and the Church can solve the problem. No, I'm not saying that can solve the problem. No, I'm not saying that. But there is a kind of I can't think of a better word than spiritual but there is a kind of spiritual void, I think, that has formed and that, if you know, if, like hobbits, we had placed more emphasis on, on, you know, our own homes and and families and keeping close to our friends and and local societies and and so forth, that you know we wouldn't have quite the same kind of uh, troubles. We would still have troubles, but they would be different.

Sebastian Lees: 43:36

Yes, I think this idea that we're so much richer materially richer maybe not spiritually richer than even our grandparents were yet there's been no comparable levels in our increase of I don't want to say happiness, but maybe satisfaction or fulfillment. So, on one axis, we've seen this exponential improvement. Fulfillment so on one axis we've seen this exponential improvement. But I would argue it's not even state level. It's probably dropped a little bit, and you talked about alexis de tocqueville in your book, but I think he was amazingly prescient at some of the problems like this that may arise in meritocracies.

Sebastian Lees: 44:15

Yeah, you know I I'm not advocating for the life of a serf, of a, you know, a medieval peasant in any way whatsoever, but in a world which your status was fixed, you may hate the people on the tier above you, but you didn't need to feel anxious or ashamed for what you didn't have because it was set. In a meritocracy, in a material society where you're taught from birth that you can achieve anything you want, you know you can have anything, where the largest the, the ideology, is corporatism and capitalism and success. To me, it's no wonder that we're all feeling a bit more anxious spiritually because we've traded off one for another right. Yeah, it's like when you create a character in a computer game and you're given 100. This is probably a terrible example. It's an idea of mine, but you know you've got these traits and you can assign them to whatever it's like we're all focusing on career materialism and negating fulfillment, and whether you want to say spiritual fulfillment, I don't care, but fulfillment in one regard or another, inner fulfillment.

Michael Bonner: 45:19

Well, yeah, the good life right. But first of all, I'm full agreement there, and I've noticed that phrases like you can do anything you want, you can be anyone you want we hear that a lot less now, and I never, I don't, I do not tell my children that you can, you know, be whatever you want, you know. I think that a more, I think that a better lesson or better aspiration would be something like you know, practice, practice what you are good at doing and make sure that you are good at doing virtuous things. And there's no obligation to you know, like the idea that everybody has to grow up and become some kind of I don't know what they used to say. They used to say things like change the world and so forth. You know, I don't think that that's. I don't think that that's. I think that you know the world has changed too much.

Michael Bonner: 46:16

But yes, de Tocqueville is exactly right. And on the subject of feudalism that you allude to, I don't think that anybody should ever downplay how bad feudalism could genuinely be for some people. But the fundamental difference is that between now and the quote-unquote feudal world is that people would have been much less isolated then in or along a trade route or in any kind of significant settlement, lots of people would have lived, especially in, say, the 9th or 10th centuries. They would have lived in sort of horrible hovels on the edge of a forest or something. But what that economic arrangement produced were societies, guilds, cooperative, fraternal associations at every social level. That would have seen to the kind of things that are now taken care of by welfare states and we don't, and they would have afforded a kind of what's the word? I said fraternal. But you know, the kind of social life that you would get out of those sorts of associations are not what I would call flourishing right now.

Michael Bonner: 47:56

And you know there's a book called I'm going to get the title wrong, it's like Neo, the Age of Neo-Feudalism or something. I think it's by an author called Kotkin. He talks a lot about this and I mentioned it in the book. What he gets wrong about the feudal world when he's talking about what he calls like tech feudalism, is that we don't have that associational life that alleviated the, the, the misery. Uh, we don't have that, that kind of solidarity. And you know we have, we still have trade unions and so forth. But I mean, it's not, it's not the same, it's not the same sort of thing, don't have guilds or anything like that. So I think that contemporary people, as you say, they're certainly richer in a material sense and they can go, move around, they're much more mobile, they can fly around the world, but those kind of humane associations we don't have, or at least not the way we used to, and I think that's one of the main things that we're missing.

Michael Bonner: 49:07

You've also mentioned third spaces. I mean when I was growing up, you would go and just, even if you didn't want to see a movie, you could go and just sort of hang around the cinema with your friends and then decide what you wanted to do, and it was sort of a whole yeah, a mall, a coffee shop, a record, you know, record stores. Is it really the case that people genuinely don't want to do that anymore? I mean I find that hard to believe, but I mean you don't really find those things anymore. People are much less. You know, I'm shocked when I go driving around If I see a teenager on a bicycle, I'm shocked, I hardly see this or even a group of people.

Michael Bonner: 50:00

And I think you asked the question is that really spiritual? I mean, I think in a sense it is. I don't know what else we would call it or how else you would go about solving it, except by framing it as a problem affecting the soul. But you know, others may disagree. I mean, I'm kind of encouraged that people like Jonathan Haidt and others are talking about this now. But you know, the idea that you can just sort of remove all these associational, you can remove associational life and replace it with screens and and video games and and and remote work and so forth, I just don't.

Sebastian Lees: 50:48

I think that that's fundamentally misguided there's definitely a loss of something here and again you allude to it in your book. I do think we're seeing a reaction against it. Ironically, you see a lot of people talking about it on Twitter, which is a virtual medium, but once these third spaces have gone, where else are people going to do this to try and get a revival? And we are seeing a rejection against urban planning to more traditional forms. So maybe in the long stretch of history, more traditional forms. So maybe in the long stretch of history, this will be looked back upon as a blip.

Sebastian Lees: 51:22

I'm an optimist at heart, so I hope so. We're sort of coming up to. We've got about 10, maybe 15 minutes left here and I just want to talk about this feeling of malaise. There's this feeling that people can't quite pin on, but there's this feeling that things are in decline in the West. The kind of final part of your book talks about futures and what we can do about it, and you mentioned three kind of broad paths or hypotheses and I wondered if you could talk about your advice on what we maybe can do to slow or reverse this.

Michael Bonner: 52:05

Yeah, well, I think that one of the things that I left out of the book which I very, you know, I thought long and hard about it was, I mean, that there genuinely are actors in the world, there are leaders in the world who believe that there is something definitely wrong with the West and that they don't want it in their own country.

Michael Bonner: 52:34

Now, of course, one of these people is Vladimir Putin, who nevertheless, I think, is very obviously envious of Western and specifically American or in general sort of Anglo-Saxon, power and influence and so forth. And the sense of Russian renewal if it can even be called that, because I don't think that it is renewal, but they certainly would like it to be perceived that way is entirely reactionary, completely negative and is, I think, completely ineffectual and, if anything, it will simply hasten the demise of not just the Putinist regime but also of Russia, even as a polity. I mean, what on earth is being done about the? You know, every conceivable Western pathology is far more acute there thanks to the worship of, you know, sort of hangovers of the Soviet worship of technology and futurism and all of that stuff. And it's arguable, I think, that older, more small-c, conservative modes of life and values actually flourish better in the West than they do in the supposedly conservative, reactionary conservative revival in Russia. I think that something, anyway, that was left out of the book. I probably should have done a Russian chapter or something, but it's too late now.

Michael Bonner: 54:12

There is a China chapter, though, and I think that what's going on in China, as far as I can tell, is a little bit different than both the West and Russia, and it has a much deeper history that the Chinese sense of a kind of cultural patrimony that was lost in many 20th century upheavals, in many 20th century upheavals, most famously, but not exclusively, in the cultural revolution, the great what is it? Called the great proletarian cultural revolution, which was neither great nor proletarian nor cultural, but I think that people were able to look back after Mao and recognize that something had gone seriously wrong and that something needed to be done about it. Now they haven't gone as far as to reject Marxism-Leninism. There seems to be a kind of revival of Maoist ideas too, which is kind of alarming, or at least speaking well of Mao, but since the 80s within China, there has been a return to their ancestral culture. The grave of Confucius was famously ransacked by the Red Guards, and Mao boasted of how many Confucian scholars had been killed and, in contrast with Xi Jinping, confucius is back.

Michael Bonner: 56:03

Confucianism is well spoken of, as is Buddhism and other schools of Chinese thought, and if you look at what the Chinese themselves have had to say about this sort of revival, it's that they wish to maintain the high standard of living brought by modernity and technology, but to sort of fill that spiritual void that comes with it. Now I'm not saying I didn't write that chapter on China because I thought that they would necessarily succeed or that they were definitely on the right track or not, but simply to illustrate the idea that illustrate the fact that there are efforts in the world to to look back and reclaim what is valuable or what has informed one's, one's culture before, and that they can be directed from above, as it were. Now it's debatable to what extent the state is simply pushing at an open door, because there's already a kind of groundswell support, or whether they have encouraged it, and that will probably be discussed for some time. But to illustrate the point, I mean, can we genuinely Cicero and practice your Latin and not be laughed at?

Sebastian Lees: 57:51

It would probably be seen as almost offensive to be like that in the West now, and it's interesting with China because they're almost a textbook example. We talked earlier about wiping the slate clean out with the old, in with the new, and during the Cultural Revolution, this absolute rejection of traditional Chinese culture that occurred and was suppressed, harshly suppressed. And then you saw the counterpoint in Taiwan, where it wasn't suppressed and traditional Chinese culture was allowed to flourish. Now I think it would be too simplistic to say, oh, this is democracy versus whatever. But you do have these two paths, this almost like experimental split test that was allowed to happen and the Chinese state I don't believe would ever publicly admit to a mistake. But I think they are seeing elements of that in Taiwan and doing this course correction now and realizing the importance of it.

Sebastian Lees: 58:54

It's hard Taiwan is China with democracy, the Ukraine, to a very modern extent, is Russia with democracy, and it's hard not to look at those societies and dream about what could have been or what might one day be. I don't believe there's going to be a revolution in China or anything like that, but I do believe there's going to be a course correction. I think Vietnam is a really good example of this, which is essentially communist in all but name only now, and it's really interesting that the government are essentially capitalists with a communist sheen and slightly authoritarian. But this Asian concept of saving face, almost over a centennial timescale, I think is happening with some of these cultures.

Michael Bonner: 59:47

Yeah, I think you may be right about that, and I think, for the West, though, that's very much an ideological challenge and I think people are waking up to this.

Michael Bonner: 59:57

I saw, if that's the right metaphor, I saw a briefing in the Heritage Foundation in America, based in Washington DC, and it's not an entity that I normally pay attention to Western culture war and trying to exploit it and drive wedges into it where they can, but also that they are determined to keep this kind of thing away from themselves and to reassert a kind of it's not necessarily a more traditional thing, but at least to be able to speak well of the past and tradition and Confucian heritage and so forth, and that this would be a serious challenge to us, and I actually I mean it vindicates my chapter. But of course I went further and I would say well, not only do you have Xi Jinping and company quoting their own classics, but they also quote ours. They speak more favorably of our own, you know Cicero and Thucydides and Aquinas Hobbes, and that we will not be able to resist a rising power that has a more generous view of human culture and civilization.

Sebastian Lees: 1:02:12

I think that's an absolutely wonderful, wonderful way to come to the end of this. I totally agree the faith in history, the faith in maybe not our institutions, the faith in history, the faith in maybe not our institutions, but the faith in our civilization and who we are. You have to have that. And people talk about American exceptionalism as the driving force of the 20th century and maybe we will see historical exceptionalism as the driving force of the 21st century that causes this dynamic pivot between the West and East, and I'm not sure people are ready for that. Michael, dr Bonner, I absolutely loved having you.

Sebastian Lees: 1:02:51

As always, the time flies by ridiculously quickly. I feel like we've only scratched the surface. I would love to get you back for another hour at some point in the future, if you're up for this, to discuss these issues deeper Anytime. Love to get you back for another hour at some point in the future, if you're up for this um to discuss these issues deeper anytime. I know we're going to have a great reaction from this, from videos, and I know they're going to want to drill down a little bit deeper into some of these topics before michael comes back. Buy the book, buy the book, read the book in defense of civilization, how our past can renew our present, really, really looking forward to a future discussion. But before we wrap this up, is there anything we haven't talked about that you'd like to mention? Is there anything you'd like to shamelessly plug, or just any final things you'd like to mention?

Michael Bonner: 1:03:39

Oh, shamelessly plug. I'm trying to write a right now that that goes into that question of what is the west and traces, you know, our sort of intellectual heritage. So you know, from the fall of rome to to the, to the present. So watch this space, it's, it's coming.

Sebastian Lees: 1:03:58

I can't wait to read it. We will put links to all of michael online presences. You know, obviously, Twitter, any sub stacks, blogs, things like that We'll also link to the book. It's been an absolute pleasure talking to you. I've really, really enjoyed this conversation. Thank you so much.

Michael Bonner: 1:04:18

Me too. Thank you for having me.


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Host: Sebastian Lees
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