To study ‘the great texts’ is to begin a lesson in contemporary humility, in the possibility of revelation, and in the realisation that even the wisest today know a relatively small amount. Studying the great texts is an antidote to bigotry and that wonderful Greek term ‘xenophobia’
Before one can go on to assess with the same detachment the extent to which the hitherto dominant Western civilization is damaged or dying, one must be reminded still of another historical datum, which is that entire civilizations do perish. The tremendous endings of Greece or Rome are not a myth. Life somehow continues after the fall, to be sure, but it is that very “somehow” which tells us that something above mere existence has disappeared. That something is what we call civilization. It is an expression of collective life cast in determinate ways, an expression which includes power, “growth”, a joyous or grim self-confidence, and other obvious signs of a going concern. But it consists also of tacit individual faith in certain ideals and ways of life, seconded by a general faith in the rightness of the whole. It follows that widespread disbelief in those intangibles and the habits they produce in day-to-day existence brings on the dissolution of the whole.
This statement from forty-six years ago sheds some light on the new conflict (hardly a debate, more a fight) over the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and its hope to partner with major universities for degree studies in Western civilisation, and fund new academic positions and major scholarships for undergraduates and graduates. The Columbia text allows that the culture of the day is in trouble and has fallen from more self-confident heights, which are described earlier in the book. The author reminds us that Greece and Rome fell, and that the West as we know it has no guaranteed future.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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We all have some awareness of ideas that a civilisation will last forever, an institution will exist perpetually, or even a “Reich” will last for a thousand years. Historians of ideas can tell us about millennial fantasies and how the drive to absolutise the transient constructs of human experience can take hold. One great ruler was said to have introduced mercury into his veins to aid in the quest for immortality. Whole societies may try to achieve that via more symbolic, ritualistic and occasional bloodthirsty means involving human sacrifice.
Eric Voegelin, a scholar from that Columbia-book era, said in his lucid text The New Science of Politics (1958) that a culture can grow and collapse simultaneously. Stability, a source of value, may be an illusion, and a seemingly strong culture can vanish rapidly as unbridgeable gaps open between generations, or unpredictable disruptions erupt, or consciousness just changes irrevocably.
The Columbia text, for instance, identified the baneful legacy of the First World War still seeping like a gas into our contemporaneity. One can continue to discuss that mega-event as a massive, self-inflicted cultural or civilisational wound to all areas of human endeavour. Whether in 1958 or 1972, the matrix remained heavily influenced by major wars.
In 1958, little more than a decade had passed since the use of twin atom bombs ended the Second World War in the Pacific, and the Americans had projected their military presence to the far north of North Korea and the Chinese border, only to be forced back to what became and has remained the demilitarised zone. The American government resisted its own military advice to make use of atomic weapons to win the Korean War by absolute and extreme means. By 1972 the Cold War had normalised mutually assured destruction, and if there was an oikumene inhabited by humans, it was vulnerable to obliteration. Von Clausewitz’s 1830 dictum, “War is politics by other means”, had reached the end of a road, an impasse.
My point is to allow that Nick Riemer, strident spokesperson against Ramsay Centre programs at Sydney University, is close to one mark in disallowing a supremacy to Western culture and a “civilisational inferiority of non-Western cultures”. The issue might not be whether there is a measurement and evaluation to be made about Western civilisation itself, but about the Ramsay Centre and its programs and what it promotes. The two issues are distinct. A third issue might lie in what particular board members with a governance role in the Ramsay Centre think about these matters. The three issues are not identical.
I think that many people (Ramsay proponents included) do not wish to overplay the West or presume to prove by empirical measure, presumption or political or religious theory that some Western politico-cultural zone actually exhibits or ought to exhibit civilisational supremacy—whatever precisely that might mean or look like.
India and China and Indonesia and all African states are not colonies or parts of Western political empires; neither are the Koreas or Japan, however enmeshed in the powers of global capital and power-plays. China will be second to none and its own centre of reality, come what may. President Trump is easily the most controversial America leader in a very long time but we are too close to his incumbency to evaluate it or attribute enduring significance to it, or even to know what “making America great again” might mean.
But without dismissing them, let us for the sake of discussion just leave aside outstanding Western scientific, technological and engineering culture that has given the world transformative engines, instant global communications, air travel, antibiotics, anaesthetics, genomics, the capacity to gaze into deep space and many other pragmatic, secular and monetisable achievements. These and many other like markers can be held in suspense for a time, though they make any culture possessing them “pretty good” on some, partial measures of civilisation.
Opponents of the West might accuse me of “glib racism” even to form or think of forming any such list. Nick Riemer has done so recently in his Twitter account, accusing the CEO of the Ramsay Centre of “glib casual racism” that Sydney University will be normalising—simply for listing the distinctive literature that a program on Western civilisation would routinely include and suggesting that Chinese people as such would recognise the value in it as just that.
The nineteenth-century grand-scheme thinker G.W.F. Hegel quipped that the Owl of Minerva flies at dusk. Insight is gained only at the end of the day, as night falls. The West comes to self-understanding (in the minds of some) just as it vanishes from the screen or falls away unstoppably—noting the literal origin of decadence in decadere, to fall away. Hegel may have been overly enamoured of Napoleon at the time. More importantly, a culture can be renewed and its core values rediscovered. This can happen via a process of creative recurrence or by means of seriously re-reading and re-evaluating the claimants to core texts, core art, core buildings, inventions, events, individuals and so on.
Some may object to this as a process. It is not clear why. No one would object to placing a hundred different bottled wines in brown paper bags and conducting a blind tasting. Out of empirical participation in the actual wines, a canon of excellence would emerge, and convergent tastes lead to normative (but not infallible or binding) outcomes. In some such ways, all culture can be participated in by a “participatory tasting” process, though, to step outside the metaphor, the mind in all its critical faculties needs to be engaged. Literally, a culture is not a wine.
Even if the present mainsprings of Western culture are in trouble, Riemer assumes far too much. His Sydney Morning Herald opinion piece of September 6 reads more like a particular kind of religious speech or sermon, a kind that many religious people rightly avoid. He warns the secular congregation that a kind of secular hell or inferno beckons in the Ramsay project; a kind of infamy. And as in the weird religion of Cold Comfort Farm—“I’ll tell ye, there’ll be no butter in hell!”—there will be no balm in the campus Gilead if Ramsay takes hold.
For Riemer, the Ramsay Centre needs to have a kind of anathema sit declared against it. The Ramsay Centre becomes a kind of secular hell, we are told, because it will be used to “bolster xenophobia and national chauvinism” in our society. I cannot find one single argument in support of this claim, and I remain unpersuaded by his call to take a leap of (secular) faith on his authority.
The study of great books does not cause or presume the inferiority of non-Western cultures and neither does it denigrate Eastern texts—as any Westerner who has grappled with the Buddha or with the Upanishads knows full well. Jesuits, when they arrived in China, found a culture that impressed them. To read the accounts of the canonisation process for Francis Xavier (by G.O. Schurhammer), as I did at Glasgow University in 1983, is to be exposed to sixteenth-century records and documents that invite core re-reflection on how the world seemed to exemplary sixteenth-century minds. It can lead one to conclude that none of us think of the world in quite the same way today. Neither can it lead one to conclude that the Jesuits were racists.
One of the best experiences of my prior university studies was engaging with traditions and texts in the Classical Indian Thought program at Melbourne University in 1977. I was as interested in the vitality these studies brought to the predominantly Western canon studies I was otherwise attending to and which were being enriched by this exercise in boundary crossing. This is why Ramsay is not meant to be a stand-alone program but is meant to foster a synergy with leading universities here.
Many great Western texts (reading and discussing them) moderate any emphasis on the unassailable purity of the English language as one paradigm of the West—for all the English language’s ubiquity or everywhere-ness. Aristotle and Plato were Greeks, and the King James Bible originates in an ancient Hebrew text and an older Greek text. Latin is a foreign country for many today. To go there expands the mind and becomes a pre-requisite for understanding any developed Englishness or British world. While not being the sine qua non of the English language, that hybrid and vigorous lingua of multiple tributaries, it can remind the West about the Romans (in their own immense diversity) who are in a sense still the “ghosts” behind the scene of contemporary Europe. “From Jerusalem to Rome” was a motto for the New Testament text the Acts of the Apostles. From Rome to London is a theme that generates recurrences today, as is evident to anyone who spends time in that capital or amidst its history.
To study “the great texts” is to begin a lesson in contemporary humility, in the possibility of revelation, and in the realisation that even the wisest today know a relatively small amount. Studying the great texts is an antidote to bigotry and that wonderful Greek term xenophobia.
A Western canon challenges any view that all texts are indifferently of equal value or can be read for equal benefit and outcomes. No one who goes into a bookshop, or online, or into a library believes this. Differentiation and choice on merit are a characteristic of many disciplines, even blind wine tasting. It can be the same with the things of the mind.
I am going to jump in here and without mulling, give a list of the texts I rate as significant in my path through university and on into the longer journey. Some may have read greater books. I’d love to have your list. To be on my list means that I have read this book and learned from it. It does not mean that I automatically therefore believe it. It simply means I acknowledge the vast gap that would exist had I no familiarity with these texts—and as Tolstoy (that radical leftie) implies in “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”, time is short and one can only read so many things. The day comes to an end.
Aristotle De Anima
Plato Republic plus Plato on the death of Socrates
Isaiah, Jeremiah and Lamentations
The Four Gospels
St Paul Romans, Galatians, Corinthians
Hadrian The Dying Hadrian’s Address to His Soul
Philostratus Life of Apollonius of Tyana
The Apostles’ Creed
The Nicene Creed
The Angelic Salutation
“Hoc Est Corpus Meum”
Machiavelli The Prince
Shakespeare Any two or three plays, plus some Sonnets
King James Bible
John Foxe Book of Martyrs
Gallonio Life of St Philip Neri
G.W. Leibniz Discourse on Metaphysics
John Locke A Letter Concerning Toleration
David Hume An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding (especially Chapter X)
John Wesley Some sermons
Immanuel Kant Critique of Pure Reason
Mary Wollstonecraft A Vindication of the Rights of Women
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Newman Apologia Pro Vita Sua
Newman An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine
Newman The Idea of a University
Charles Darwin any and all
Judith Hook The Sack of Rome
Winston Churchill A History of the English-Speaking Peoples
Ludwig Feuerbach The Essence of Christianity
Karl Marx The Communist Manifesto
D.F. Strauss Leben Jesus (translated by George Eliot)
Carl von Clausewitz On War
Abraham Lincoln Gettysburg Address
Geza Vermes Jesus the Jew
Albert Schweitzer On the Edge of the Primeval Forest
Elie Kedourie Nationalism (also: The Chatham House Affair)
Eric Voegelin Order and History vols 1 to 8
Eric Voegelin The New Science of Politics
Karl Popper The Open Society and its Enemies
René Girard various and collected
J.D. Spence God’s Chinese Son: The Taiping Heavenly Kingdom of Hong Xiuquan
Julius Kovei Moral Notions
T.S. Eliot “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
W.B. Yeats “Sailing to Byzantium”
W.H. Auden “The Shield of Achilles”
Stephen Spender ‘The Chalk Blue Butterfly”
Blake Songs of Innocence and Experience
Robert Frost Various
Allen Ginsberg Howl
Tolstoy “How Much Land Does a Man Need?”
Jack London “To Build a Fire”
The list is incomplete.
In listing these works, some of which are single poems, and one is a single line, I outline a curriculum that says, “Read these first, and often, for themselves, and work your way out from them and back in to them via wider commentary and elucidation. Be careful with beginning with anything like independent theory or special claims to a correct point of view or perspective.” In the end, each of these texts will be more important than any explication or indeed rationalisation of them or rewriting of them within some larger theory. In some sense they will be exemplary, even where “mistaken”, and they can generate their own master themes and reflective philosophy or metaphysic.
In attacking the Ramsay Centre, Riemer gives no spacious credit to an open-mindedness of inquiry where engagement with a set of distinctive and preferenced texts is primary, whether in seminar or in collegial discussions between scholars and students. Discernment, friendships, clarity, clarification and openness are all scholarly virtues, along with a hard-headed commitment to pursue arguments to their proper conclusions. Riemer even seems to assert that valuing these kinds of texts as distinctively Western is to exhibit a glib or casual racism.
It is no argument to mention the names Tony Abbott and John Howard as shibbolethic evils of the Right. To mention them may be an ad hominem, one of the rhetorical devices philosophers are urged to shun early on; an attack on the person and not the argument. It may be more than that and exhibit gnostic elevation to a vantage point where those who are not admitted to the vantage point are written off as lost. In the end it is not “reason” speaking, but only a “raising of the voice”. University discussions need not be trapped in a false dichotomy of Left-Right mindedness, trampling over a limited landscape of the mind. The great W.H. Auden springs to mind, in his 1952 poem “The Shield of Achilles”:
She looked over his shoulder
For vines and olive trees,
Marble well-governed cities
And ships upon untamed seas,
But there on the shining metal
His hands had put instead
An artificial wilderness
And a sky like lead.
The French philosopher Alain Badiou took St Paul seriously, though totally disagreeing with him on core points. He wanted to read and write about him all the same. Badiou simply dismisses St Paul on the resurrection as fixated on a “point of fabulation” and goes on to back various forms of socialist-Marxist utopias as the true form for society; an atheism unbounded.
I happen to think Badiou is mistaken in his reading of St Paul, in some core way that is not easy to describe. But in thinking him mistaken, I want to read Badiou and discuss him with colleagues. I have no desire to dismiss him (not totally anyway; and in the end I’ll read St Paul myself before I read Badiou, even if I have to bear the cost of learning koine Greek to do it better). I want to be free to read and study both, to agree or disagree with either, and without being written off as a twit, or worse, a miscreant or an implicit racist needing to be silenced or excluded.
To associate the Ramsay Centre directly with a “globally emboldened racist right” is disingenuous and insulting. Well, it is mistaken at least. To bring in the “final solution” speech of a sub-university member of parliament, hardly a house of scholarship, does not help Riemer’s anti-Ramsay campaign. On the contrary, a Ramsay Centre program will be part of the antidote to extreme speech and bigotry in our wide brown land.
Inspection of Riemer’s article at this point shows that he simply accumulates every potentially dodgy thing going on in Australia and loads it into an anti-Ramsay barrow. The Ramsay Centre becomes a kind of contagion to be avoided. Riemer is simply mistaken in some complex way at this point.
He dramatically invites us to “stand up unequivocally to European cultural supremacism”, but this reads as the slogan that it is. Riemer appropriates the words “rational and progressive” by badging them as oppositional terms to the Ramsay Centre —which is thus automatically “irrational and regressive”?
We do not need these easy dualisms. It is not the epitome of rationality to oppose the Ramsay Centre. Rejecting Ramsay won’t do a single thing for promoting pluralism, diversity and inclusion but may simply narrow a syllabus or lose an opportunity or entrench a prejudice.
Dr Ivan Head was the Warden of St Paul’s College in the University of Sydney for twenty-three years and holds a PhD from Glasgow University on the study of miracle stories.