Our civilisation is under threat: we must defend it

Ostensibly peaceful and wealthy European countries are at war internally with their centuries-old values, thinking they can repudiate what they are and remake themselves in a new image

Francis Fukuyama argued in 1992 that history had revealed the ideal form of political organisation to be liberal democracy

Civilisations rise and fall and today I write about a serious threat facing western civilisation. Just a minute Willie, some of you may say, we thought you wrote a science column? True, but some things are so important that, if they fall, almost everything else falls too; science included. I am inspired to write this column after reading In Defence of Civilisation by Michael Bonner (Sutherland House, 2023).

Bonner identifies three fundamental universal traits of civilisation – clarity, beauty, order. He describes clarity as “confidence in our powers of perception and reason and that the truth is the same for everybody”. But, subjectivity is growing increasingly prominent in contemporary debate. If the subjective assumes dominance over the objective, language cannot communicate clarity, and civilisations that fail to communicate have short lifespans.

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In the earliest phases of civilisation beauty and utility were easily reconcilable. From prehistoric hand-axes to the massive structures of ancient Egypt and Greece, harmony and proportion were both functional and aesthetically pleasing. However, in Renaissance Europe painting and sculpture outstripped woodwork, pottery and metalwork in prestige, transforming beauty into an abstraction, detached entirely from utility. This lead on to the monotony of modern urban development and the unlovely creations of modern art.

Bonner describes order as real and perceptible but not visible. He describes archaeological findings in Turkey of an 11,000-year-old civilisation that preserved and displayed human skulls over many centuries. They remembered/honoured their dead, indicating a sense of the spiritual, belief in stability over time, a shared past and a particular view of the future. When you feel you have received something valuable from the past important enough to pass on, organising principles develop and order becomes important.


Kinship and ancestry predate and outlive modern bureaucratic codes. This could partly explain the heavy defeat of the Irish Government’s recent referendum proposals to remove motherhood from part of our Constitution and insert the undefined “durable relationships” concept alongside marriage. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

How exactly is our civilisation under threat? Well, to begin with we have nations warring with each other on the edge of Europe and mutterings about possible nuclear war have resurfaced. We may be seriously losing our nerve. Recent polls asked Europeans if they would fight for their country if it became involved in a war – here are some examples of percentages willing to fight: Sweden 55 per cent, Poland 47 per cent, Switzerland 39 per cent, Ireland 38 per cent, France 29 per cent, UK 27 per cent, Germany 18 per cent, Netherlands 15 per cent (2015 WIN Gallup International Global Survey).

And within Europe we have ostensibly peaceful/wealthy countries at war internally with their centuries-old values, thinking they can repudiate what they are and remake themselves in a new image. An obsession with limitless freedom of choice in all areas has developed – dating app Tinder lists 37 different human genders. But, as Bonner explains, cultures are not disposable like that.

Although little comment is heard about non-European history, large swathes of western history are condemned as unjust and calls are issued that reparation be made for sins of previous generations, oblivious to the fact that the best that is attainable in human history is steady improvement, which has occurred.

In 1992, American political philosopher Francis Fukuyama published a widely-acclaimed book The End of History and The Last Man (Free Press 1992). He argued history had revealed the ideal form (or perhaps the least-worst form) of political organisation to be liberal democracy with a market economy.

Such organisation requires three things: 1. Free elections with outcomes implemented as the will of the people; 2. Authority for the state to enforce the law and provide services. 3. The state and its leaders to be themselves constrained by law. Fukuyama uses the term liberal in its classical sense, meaning individual freedom, limited government, individual autonomy, civil rights, free speech and laissez-faire economics.

Most western countries now approximate to liberal democracy. But liberal democracies are not immune to decay, as Fukuyama acknowledges, citing corruption, criminal politicians and a shrinking middle-class as particular dangers. There is also the danger that failure to recognise we have already attained the optimum structural organisation of society will cause us to damage ourselves by uselessly striving to make further unattainable advances.

The rediscovery of Aristotle in 12th-century Europe inspired intellectual, cultural and scientific development. Bonner advises the best way to revive a flagging civilisation is to use a previous successful civilisation as inspiration.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of biochemistry at UCC