IN BRUSSELS ON MAY 29, Britain's Liverpool assembled to meet Italy's Torino Juventus upon a peaceful patch of rural green maintained within an urban stadium, the image of civilization itself. This game, in the playoffs for soccer's European Cup, ought to have been a triumph of aesthetic grace over violence: a passionate war, a conflict of high intensity, but controlled by rules, traditions and exquisitely internalized discipline.

The game itself turned out to be exactly that. Juventus won the taut and breathtaking match, 1-0. The savage events before this soccer match were something else. Thirty- eight persons met a brutal death, 400 received injuries, more than 120 were hospitalized. How it started is unclear. An attack en masse by Liverpool partisans upon Italian fans (largely migrant workers in Belgium) led to panic and pileup. A wall collapsed. Dozens suffocated, scores were trampled.

Possibly the most shocking fact is that the violence appears to have originated among Englishmen, attacking the Italians nearest them. Englishmen! The famed race of law and reason, in whose noble country, even waiting for a bus, citizens peacefully queue up. Englishmen! Universally respected (and taunted) for their phlegmatic, understated ways.

Englishmen! In all the world envied for their capacity for order, and for the internalization of the common law.

The nations of the world ask, "If it happened among Englishmen, will we be next?"

It did happen, barely a fortnight earlier, in China, another typically restrained people, after the Chinese lost a soccer match to Hong Kong. Riots in the streets. Foreigners attacked. Autos overturned. In Brussels, though, the match had not yet even started. There were not, as yet, any grievances upon the field of play. The game of soccer, could scarcely have been the cause of the eruption. It was, in fact, only the occasion.

We fear for civilization when we see savagery. We should. Still, the ideology that most of us are taught in school is that, if persons do not act in a civilized, rational way, there must be some hidden explanation, some other "cause" separate from human perversity -- typically, something having to do with social class, inequality, or need. That is the great dehumanizing myth of our time. No one is responsible. Everyone is a victim.

This comforting illusion overlooks the fact that human beings often are, and wish to be, brutal. It is as natural for a human being to be uncivilized as to be civilized, to be a barbarian as to obey the Golden Rule.

Is it possible that, in much of the world, civilization is losing its hold? That the internalized constraints which make human individuals civilized instead of barbaric are loosening? If true, it is likely to show up first in private life, then in acts of violence and crime and then in public displays such as organized sport.

Certainly, few of the sociological explanations for this barbarity satisfy.

Some have attributed the rowdiness -- the sheer brutality -- to current unemployment. Except that one hardly expects those who could afford to travel from Liverpool to Brussels to be penniless. And unemployment by itself does not always breed violence, nor do social inequalities. In aristocratic ages (and in aristocratic nations still today), the gap between rich and poor has been even more visible than it is in Britain today. During eons of greater repression, the peoples of the world seemed far more passive.

Some reports claim that "right-wing extremists" among the Liverpool fans may have caused the violence in Brussels, as if to make of this another chapter in the war of the Left against the forces of Reaction. One doubts it. Soccer violence has occurred too often among a broad range of British fans these last 30 years; it seems to be getting uglier on a similarly broad basis.

In Britain, sociologists have long been saying that soccer clubs now attract a peculiarly working-class clientele. In addition, a particular "hooligan culture" has emerged, they say. Young toughs rove in predatory bands, smashing windows in the towns they visit, stealing, intimidating. Indeed, such incidents were reported in downstown Brussels well before the soccer match.

In China, the soccer riot was directed against foreigners. Even a Russian official and his daughter were terrorized by a mob shattering the windows of their automobile. Theoreticians cite the shock experienced by the Chinese, long sheltered from the outside world.

I think the explanation must go deeper.

The 20th century seems sometimes to be becoming an untypically Godforsaken era. Possibly, "Godforsaking" is the more penetrating term. Humans seem to have been abandoning themselves to their own devices. Each group is alone against the others. Each collective seems fearfully afraid that it alone is inadequate. Each can barely tolerate its inadequacy being known. And so the common pain becomes intolerable. Mob passions explode.

Clearly, those who commit such crimes do not imagine that they are violating the God who is in every person, violating even the God who lives within themselves. They imagine themselves to be takers, licensed to take what they can get. They try to still the inadequacy and the vulnerability that they sense within themselves by destroying others. That way of life is what the word "barbarian" signifies.

Just the same, is there something about soccer itself that brings out violence? Throughout the world, the most violent clashes appear to occur among the crowds at soccer matches. In fact, a brief but violent "soccer war" was fought between El Salvador and Honduras in the summer of 1969; in the tinder of many causes, the spark that set it off was a soccer game.

Soccer is, oddly, a game played with the feet, not the hands -- a self-denial that seems out of keeping with our manufacturing era. (The root of the very word "manufacturing" is "making by hand.") And physical contact in soccer, while it occurs in every game, is less total than in other major team sports. Soccer is an unusually cerebral sport, in which strategic and tactical decisions seem uppermost. The back-and-forth action upon a very broad surface weaves a fine net of tension, from which typically low scores (1-0, 2-1) allow infrequent release. Perhaps, for fans, the tension become exceedingly great.

In many stadiums around the world, the players must be protected by chain-link fences, moats between the stands and the field of play and heavily armed guards. Thus, for those in the crowd (and there must be many) who desire a physical as well as a symbolic catharsis, soccer offers little. By contrast, the violence on the field in American football strikes fear into the hearts of spectators.

But are we really to believe that 38 deaths can be attributed to the structure of a specific sport? Doubtless, not. Still, breakdowns in civilization do show up early at sporting events. More than half the excitement in any game is a most intense identification of one's fate with the fate of the team. Team sports are communal liturgies. To watch a match indifferent to the outcome -- that is, without having staked out for oneself something to lose -- is not really to be involved.

Tell somebody, "It's only a game," and they will know that you do not quite understand. Unless it hurts -- a lot -- to lose, no one has really participated in the contest. Spectators only watch; fans participate. Thus, fans are always in danger of becoming fanatical. That is half the civilizing exercise: to pit self-control against one's wild and irrational passions, only to bring them back within the bounds of rules and reason. Only so is the experience made complete.

Civilization begins with the creation of leisure. In leisure, people show what they freely value. As Josef Pieper wrote, the center of culture is cult. Sports themselves are a popular cult, an expression of what a people believes and takes joy in. They evoke a sense of transcendence, awakening us to how much better we can be. They awaken a world in which those human opposites -- passion and reason, violence and control -- are reconciled.

Civilization is founded on the awareness that every person has an internal dignity, given not by others, not by the state, not by any ideology, but by the Maker of all. In this light, crimes against persons are not only uncivilized. They are crimes against the Source of one's own humanity.

A civilization pays a high price, then, when it no longer honors character, self-mastery and the disciplining of passion. Even the games whose very performance embodies such instruction cannot survive a breakdown of these virtues, whether among their players or their fans.

The sports themselves embody self-mastery. Thence comes their flashing beauty, the joy that they evoke, the awe, the marvelous memories of sheer human achievement over the dark forces in each of us -- the dark forces of cowardice, quitting, fear, tempest, revenge, evil temper and the rest. Every sports contest awakens these evil passions. Fully achieved, each contest, the more hard-fought the better, slays them. Therein lies their beauty.

But the self-mastery required to play world-class soccer must also be internalized by its fans if they are to be worthy of what they cheer.

The discipline on the field in Brussels was exemplary -- great athletes place little value on merely free expression and unbridled passion; they must concentrate perfectly.

Off the field, the self-control required for contests of sport is being undermined all around us, carelessly or wilfully, and we are beginning to pay the price. One civilizing art after another is losing its force among us. Let us hope we do not also lose our sports -- among the most popular and, at that, among the highest, of our civilizing arts.

Human beings always tend to take civilization for granted. So they neglect to re-create its sources -- in self-mastery, character, and self-control. Both in private and in public, they positively cultivate "free expression." Then they are surprised when some free persons actually express themselves as barbarians; when the awakening of dark passions in a stadium exceeds all limits and takes a toll in human lives.

As Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce explained, every human being is born a taker, self-centered, aggressive, self-pleasing, demanding, whining. Growth in civilization depends upon self-transformation, such that each infant comes at last to respect others as it would wish to be respected. Apart from this so-called Golden Rule, civilization cannot be said to have come into existence.

The rules of sport incarnate this Golden Rule. Every rule applies equally to everybody. Players have different functions; the rules respect these. Those participants are civilized who willingly allow the rules to govern their conduct. In every sport, such demands upon self-control are immense. The hothead soon defeats both self and fellows. Under pressure, those most cool typically do best, keeping their eyes fixed through storms of passion upon the next play to be made. Sports are intended to be triumphs of self-governance.

A civilization that no longer teaches self-governance will soon become incapable of sport.