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Is time running out for Western civilisation?

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

17 February 2018

9:00 AM

‘What is civilisation? I don’t know. I can’t define it in abstract terms yet, but I think I can recognise it when I see it.’– Kenneth Clark, ‘Civilisation’, episode 1, 1969.  

Rather than a lazy attempt to avoid defining the very subject of his ground-breaking 1969 documentary, the quote from Lord Clark demonstrates not only the difficulty in defining Western civilisation, but the very concept of ‘civilisation’ itself.

And if we cannot adequately define what Western civilisation is, what chance do we have of conserving what is good and valuable about it for future generations?

As Dr Bella d’Abrera from the Institute of Public Affairs recently revealed, the study in universities of the essential canon of core social, cultural and economic topics from the history of Western civilisation has been overrun by the negative ‘re-writing of the past from the point of view of class, gender and race’, leaving today’s students – tomorrow’s parents and leaders – with a dim view of the West’s achievements and benefits.

What is Western civilisation?

Stephen McInerney from the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation described the latter as ‘the tradition of Greek philosophy, with its emphasis on Reason or logos, of Greek art, poetry and drama (with the tension between Dionysian ecstasy and Apollonian order), united with Roman law and Jewish revelation in a synthesis of Faith and Reason in Christendom, which came to encompass and spread beyond the borders of the Roman Empire.’

Naturally for an art historian, Clark saw the most important difference between civilised and uncivilised societies was not the former’s ability to create greater levels of stable and sustainable wealth and comfort to escape the Malthusian Trap of only subsisting from day-to-day, but its ability to confidently exploit this wealth and comfort to express in art, music, business and social organisation that McInerney identified as the ‘first and final questions, such as “Why are we here?”’

More recently, historian Niall Ferguson teased out six key features (‘killer apps’) which he felt were crucial to the West’s rise, but weak or non-existent in other civilisations. These were:


Competition in political and economic life, the basis for nations and capitalism; science, as the means to understand and efficiently harness the natural world, and provide the basis for military advantage; the rule of law as the means to protect property rights and peacefully resolve disputes; modern medicine, which led to major improvements in health and life expectancy; the consumer society that resulted from and sustained the Industrial Revolution; and the work ethic, the moral framework which provided the social ‘glue’ that held together the dynamic and potentially unstable civilisation created by the first five apps.

He also pointed to a seventh feature, the openness of the West to ideas from other civilisations. These included key scientific and mathematical concepts that later played vital roles in Western science, as well as Christianity.

Ferguson’s fifth and sixth ‘killer apps’ together point towards a key feature of Western civilisation which Clark also hinted at – its ability to manufacture not only an excess of wealth and material comfort, but also an excess of time for higher and finer thinking, which finds its expression not only in the great works of art that Clark identified, but also the scientific progress, representative governance, social solidarity and economic growth Ferguson identified, and the social, cultural and economic institutions which support them.

Is the West running out of time, or drowning in it?

Ferguson makes the important point that the benefits of the West’s ability to manufacture an excess of time was not restricted just to the upper tiers of Western societies.

In the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the trade union-led Eight-Hour Movement successfully campaigned for the eight-hour working day (‘eight hours labour, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest’) to provide equitable access for workers to the recreation and self-improvement time enjoyed by the middle and upper classes. It led to a degree of social and economic mobility which is weaker or absent in the far more rigid social structures of most non-Western societies, whose working classes by and large continue to work sixty or more hours a week. This fair and equitable opportunity to the excess of time which Western civilisation creates is, however, rapidly being eroded today. Australians in full-time employment, especially wage earners and small business owners, are working longer hours. With jobs being outsourced overseas, or increasingly made redundant by new technologies, they are shouldering an ever-growing burden of providing social and economic security not only for themselves and their families, but also for the growing numbers dependent on welfare.

They have little more than a few hours of leisure each night after long days at work, and have run out of time in an increasingly neo-Malthusian economy for much beyond sustaining their families’ standards of living as wages stagnate and costs of living rise.

And of the young and old workers with no work to fill eight hours of their days, they are admonished for wasting hours on computer games, or forgotten about altogether.

In the end neither those short of time or drowning in it are well-placed to consider the competing political visions currently fighting it out in parliaments, street protests and the media, with:

– Traditionalists struggling to articulate a vision that welds individual dignity and social solidarity onto a more stable economic platform

– Totalitarians discrediting not only their own ideology with vicious terrorism, but also individual agency by lionising ‘lone wolf’ attacks

– Libertarians pushing on from legalising same-sex marriage towards even more divisive attempts to instil a radically permissive sexual free-for-all into the fabric of Western Civilisation and especially the education of her young

With those who will have to live with the self-destructive consequences if either the totalitarian or libertarian philosophies become dominant (either individually or in coalition), unable or unwilling to afford the time to consider how to conserve and build on the best the West has offered, maybe time is finally running out for Western civilisation.

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