Western Civilisation

The Ramsay Centre and Open Inquiry

ramsay logo IIIn 1972 Columbia University produced a large  book called The University History of the World. Turning to section 101 on page 1146 I found this apt comment:

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.

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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


The Decalogue


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”

Augustine                    Confessions

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

Dostoevsky                  Various

Nietzsche                     Various

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”

Wordsworth                 Various

Coleridge                     Various

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.


6 thoughts on “The Ramsay Centre and Open Inquiry

  • Keith Kennelly says:

    The Precepts of Ptah Hotep. 2350 BC
    Amon Hotep’s Book of the Dead, 1500 BC
    The Epic of Gilgamesh, 1000 BC

    The Sermon on the Mount

    Saint Agustine
    His life

    St Thomas Aquinas

    The Canterbury Tales

    Martin Luther
    Just one

    All incl poetry

    Adam Smith

    David Hulme

    As much as is possible

    The great Early American thinkers
    Incl ALL the founding fathers,

    John Stuart Mill

    The Papal Encyclicals of the 60s and 70s

    Bertrand Russel
    The Hustory if Western Philisophy

    Jacques Barzun
    As much as possible

    James Burnham
    The Managerial Revolution
    The Machellivians
    The Suicide if the West.

    That’s a start

  • whitelaughter says:

    thank you, I’ve wanted a list like that from Quadrant for a while. Pleased with how much I’ve read – look forward to completing the task.

  • whitelaughter says:

    “The Dying Hadrian’s Address to His Soul”: which translation would you recommend?

    think I liked Byron’s best, but ‘likeable’ =/= ‘accurate’.
    Ah! gentle, fleeting, wav’ring sprite,
    Friend and associate of this clay!
    To what unknown region borne,
    Wilt thou, now, wing thy distant flight?
    No more, with wonted humour gay,
    But pallid, cheerless, and forlorn.

    George Gordon, Lord Byron


  • Jody says:

    This is where we are now; no question this woman is correct. This is a revolution and it is and has been taking place in universities. If this doesn’t terrify you then it’s hard to see what will and it explains why the Coalition is in complete chaos; the people in their ranks are victims of this culture too, so it has been comprehensively and devastatingly effective. And conservatives, by nature, are not combative like their leftist counterparts. Tony Abbott was one of the few exceptions. Conservatives live different kinds of lives; they are not fighting a revolution and they’ll often freeze in the face of those who are – simply because they don’t understand how high the stakes have risen. Professor Allan is also one of the few, but you just cannot do these things alone. Lack of freedom of speech is the first freedom to have been lost; the other corollaries to that are that you’ve got to be a ‘good person’ or you’re unfit for human association. There’s a vicious edge to most of their ideologies and it involves no less than reputational destruction for dissenters. If you talk about freedom of speech they’ll say, “well, what is it that you WANT to say that you feel you now can’t?”. A conservative will usually either go silent or make some lip-service remark in equivocation. The reply should be “can you HEAR yourself and the question you’re asking; do you not think it smacks of terrifying totalitarianism: that we need YOUR permission to speak?”. No, conservatives AREN’T BUILT COMBATIVELY, though they do make good business people and can fight on that turf rather well. Most of the modern horror of PC has found the legal profession leaving the society exposed to danger, criminals and an inability to punish because of inherent victimhood and ‘disadvantage’ of criminals. Even the soviets and Chinese can punish crime!! This program will explain rather tangentially the irreversible dilemma of our conservative polity. It’s a critical hour for our nation with a Coalition on its knees. There is no longer any space in the polity for a decent person like Scott Morrison and he’s flailing about trying to understand, as a Christian, how he can move forward with a life totally at odds with his christian beliefs. And climate change is the last front in the war of the revolutionaries; they own it! Please do watch this. UTTERLY TERRIFYING.


  • Keith Kennelly says:

    Trump is leading a massive change.
    He has another six years and he’ll be followed by the arch conservative Nikki Hayley.

    In 14 years the PC brigade will be an unfounded rump.

    The socialists will be infunded in the universities.

    The Chinese and Russian military expansion and opportunism, which is now occurring, is occurring solely because of their advantage in intermediate range nuclear weapons.

    The Chinese economy will be broken by Trumps tariffs and social unrest will take the joint.

    The Russians will go broke again trying to keep up with the US military expansion.


    Yesterday Trump dumped the treaty on intermediate nuclear weapons.

    He will arm every cruise missile with nukes. That will frighten the crap out of the military in both Russia and China. They can’t match that.

    A powerful and enegyetic US is what will change the world.

    There have only been crap self interested presidents since Ronald Reagan.

    They like all the educated elites, everywhere, did nothing but undermine the US.

    Germany will have finally won the war and will dominate totally Europe.

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