The Virtue of Courage

Professor Simon Haines is stepping down this year from his position as the founding CEO of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation. This is an edited version of his welcoming speech to the Australian Catholic University’s new scholars for 2024


IT’S ALWAYS wonderful to greet new undergraduate scholars, but this year for the first time the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation also has twelve post-graduate scholars, taking the new Master of Liberal Arts degree in Western civilisation, the first ever in Australia. It’s a real breakthrough moment, another exciting first for Ramsay, with potentially huge impact on mid-career professionals. I do hope that many scholars taking the undergraduate degree will go on to the Masters of Teaching that Australian Catholic University has linked to this degree—that double qualification will make you the best teachers in the system.  

The words scholar, scholarship and school come from the ancient Greek word schole, which meant leisure or free time, and also what you do with your free time. It came to mean especially a group of people doing one particular thing with their free time, namely engaging in learned discussion. Learned discussion became the definitive conception of the best thing people can do with their spare time, hence the famous fifth-century Athenian “schools of philosophy”, which were the original prototype of our universities. And while I’m on this subject, leisure comes from the Latin word for licence or permission, meaning someone who is literally “freed to do something”, set free from distraction or the requirement to earn a living. Freedom is an important part of this group of ideas. Freedom of thought. So what you have here is the original true meaning of “a scholarship”: something that quite literally sets you free from all other distractions so you can discuss something together with others, search for meaning. It’s in a sense the true meaning of freedom, what freedom is for, its telos, as the Greeks say, its purpose. 

This address appeared in May’s Quadrant.
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But freed to do what? What kind of learned discussion will this leisure enable you to look for or to have? Well, for one thing, you’re going to have to learn to read all over again. I bet you think you already can read, especially the Masters students. But not like this. By the time you have singly and together as a group paid the closest attention to Antigone and Jane Austen, Aristotle and Wittgenstein, Galileo and Newton, Mary Shelley and Machiavelli, Blake and Thucydides, Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground and St Paul’s Epistle to the Corinthians: you will have not just read, you will have been read by all these books, because believe me these books are alive, they’re not just inert lumps of text, they are fully charged, high-voltage electric dynamos. In fact they are more than alive, they are hyper-lives, condensed essences of the extraordinary critical often counter-cultural minds that produced them. 

So, by the time you’ve done that, first in solitude and then together in class, for three whole years, by the time you’ve glimpsed that what you’re dealing with isn’t just a disconnected list of the names of dead writers but the deeply connected 3000-year story of a whole civilisation, with its own unique ideas of science and democracy, goodness and justice, beauty and truth, human and divine love—by the time all that has happened to you, you’ll never be the same again, literally. Your brains will have physically changed, been re-wired (as cognitive science is now showing us about reading). Your capacity for paying attention to what it means to be human will have been lifted up out of the trivial world of TikTok and Instagram and onto a higher level of thought which will be of enormous benefit in your lives—and also in your careers, where you will be better at mastering complex human situations and institutions than your AI-dominated attention-deficient colleagues. 

Remember that reading, mass literacy, was the initial spark that brought us the first industrial revolution and all the immense gains in prosperity and well-being that followed. So this kind of advanced reading in great primary texts will be needed more than ever as we move into the fourth industrial revolution, the ultra-digitised world of the future. 

Here’s why that’s true and so badly needed. The capacity for attending to human complexity, which reading uniquely develops, is a moral capacity. It’s the direct contrary of the lazy and dangerous tendency we are now seeing everywhere, to categorise all human beings by one or two of their views or attributes, their class or gender or race or tribe or a couple of their opinions, which is known as identity politics and is not a progressive force but the opposite, a completely regressive one. 

Look up the word atavistic: regression to a primitive tribal condition. It’ll be up to you and your colleagues to show your generation how to move beyond a trivialising and conformist and divisive and often extremist mindset, which is being so dangerously turbocharged by social media. Your minds will have been formed, or your characters permanently marked, by something deeper and more human, more profound and permanent, wiser and stronger and freer than the ephemeral chorus we hear all around us. 

The word character comes from another Greek word which means marks made or incised on wax by a sharp writing implement. You could call those marks of character and wisdom “the virtues”: judgment and courage, patience and temperance, charity and hope. Indeed, virtue originally meant strength and courage, from the direct Latin translation of an original Greek word. 

Let me wrap up in the spirit of how your degree will work by reading from three of those great texts or writers I just mentioned and paying attention to the virtues they are recommending or teaching or thinking about. The first writer is the poet and artist William Blake, writing in the 1790s, at the time of the French Revolution, the single greatest political upheaval of modernity. This is from a little poem called “The Divine Image”.

For Mercy has a human heart,

Pity a human face,

And Love, the human form divine,

And Peace, the human dress.


And all must love the human form,

In heathen, Turk, or Jew;

Where Mercy, Love, and Pity dwell

There God is dwelling too.

I’ve taken classes where we spent an hour figuring out those lines: but in short Blake is looking for the divine potential in the human spirit, the God that could live within us in the form of something called Mercy or Pity or Love. But he also wrote another contrary poem called “A Divine Image”:

Cruelty has a Human Heart 

And Jealousy a Human Face 

Terror the Human Form Divine 

And Secrecy, the Human Dress 


The Human Dress is forged Iron 

The Human Form, a fiery Forge. 

The Human Face, a Furnace seal’d 

The Human Heart, its hungry Gorge.

Is the human form divine, is the form of the divinity that rules us, the divinity that we become, going to be terror, or love? Stark choice: and maybe one that does indeed confront us in Russia and Ukraine and the Middle East.

My second text is not 230 but 2500 years old, originally written in Greek, the words of the Athenian statesman Pericles, spoken at a funeral for young men who had just died in battle to save their city from an imperial autocracy trying to destroy and enslave their country, and written down by the greatest historian who ever lived, Thucydides:

Our government is called a democracy because its administration is in the hands of the many, not the few.

That’s it. So short. But no one ever said that before him, and no one has ever said it better. And we have to hang on to it. It’s a core belief not just of the West but now of many societies—Japan, India. Yet Thucydides’s whole book is a tragedy, a warning, showing how democracy can contain the seeds of its own downfall, but how for that very reason we must always be ready to defend it. I offer you here, just as a sidebar, a much more recent version of the same thought, this one from America 160 years ago, also a funeral speech for those who died in a great battle to abolish slavery and save democracy:

these dead shall not have died in vain—but so that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

What both Pericles in Athens and Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg are talking about is not just democracy and freedom. What they are praising is one particular virtue, the one which Aristotle and many other classical writers called the greatest of all the virtues, the one whose meaning, as I just said, lies within the meaning of the word virtue itself: and that is courage. The courage that those young men showed in dying for their beliefs. Courage without which nothing in which you believe can be defended, and all the other virtues wither away. The courage to call out the evil and terror and cruelty and tyranny that there has always been in the world, in Lincoln’s case slavery, in Pericles’s case an evil empire: nowadays, well, let’s pause to remember Alexei Navalny.

And maybe remember also the courage of what you might call the two founding figures of our whole civilisation, two figures you will certainly be thinking about during your degrees: Socrates of Athens and Jesus of Nazareth, who both had the courage to die for their convictions: the two of them representing the Classical and the Christian, the Hellenic and the Hebraic, the twin roots, you might say the double helix, the DNA, of our whole civilisation.

But what is that DNA? What is at the heart of the values that that courage is ultimately defending? It’s human life itself, a very particular kind of life-affirmation that is peculiar to our civilisation: an insistence on the unique and even sacred quality of every human soul in its freedom and in that search for truth and meaning which, ultimately, is that freedom. And here’s a paradox: the meaning and truth of each life is most often realised in other lives.

Here’s my third quote, from St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, a foundational Christian text, but maybe more than that because even when much of our society isn’t Christian any more many of its values are still founded on original Christian concepts. Here’s one of the most powerful and beautiful things ever said about another apex virtue, the Christian equivalent of the classical prime virtue of courage, we could call this grace, maybe mercy, pity, peace and love all rolled into one, a kind of wisdom-knowledge, an understanding of the human heart as knowing and being known, of God as a concept inherent in the human form and the human heart. Paul has a different word for it, and of course he’s writing in Greek, like Thucydides, but I’m reading from the King James translation, which is the only really acceptable English-language version:

Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

“Charity” here is not the concept as we know it today, a form of assistance to the disadvantaged. It’s the struggle, incumbent on us all, to help each other to know as we are known, for each life to become as free and human and truth-seeking as it possibly can in conversation with and recognition of other lives and in pursuit of what transcends all lives. You’re on that path to freedom and truth and knowledge now, to being known by each other and by the minds you read and are read by on this course, and beyond that to human understanding as mutual understanding, and of the divine as an aspect of the free human spirit. These are precious years for you—make good use of them.

5 thoughts on “The Virtue of Courage

  • Sindri says:

    Ironic, really, that the disdain directed towards the Centre should be a compelling illustration of why the Centre is needed. Here, found at random, is an abstract from a paper about the Centre in an academic journal called “Patterns of Prejudice”:
    “This article examines the intersection of discourses of ‘western civilizationism’ and white supremacy through a case study of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, a philanthropic foundation that has established undergraduate degrees in ‘western civilization’ at Australian universities. Proponents of the Centre argue there is nothing harmful about celebrating western civilization and reject any suggestion of a link between what Maher, Gunaydin and McSwiney describe as a ‘civilizationist discourse’ and racism. The authors draw on neo-racism scholarship to inform a critical discourse analysis of the Centre and supporters’ publications, demonstrating that the themes of western civilization articulated by the Centre are linked to the logics of white supremacy. Accordingly, they argue that the Ramsay Centre discourse uncritically reproduces central pillars of white supremacist ideology through its cultural essentialism and veneration of western civilization. Following Rogers Brubaker’s work on western civilizationism, they find evidence in the Centre and supporters’ output of the three themes Brubaker claims make up western civilizationism, namely, Christian identitarianism, secularism and liberalism. They also offer three additional themes—decline and renewal, academic capture and teleology—that they contend are central to the Centre’s western civilizationist discourse. In addition to the notion of civilizational clash inherent to civilizationism, the Ramsay discourse evidences an inwards turn that emphasizes the threat of cultural degeneration caused by an allegedly ‘anti-western’ internal Other. They argue that this inward turn is driven by concerns of academic capture by these anti-western elements, narratives of civilizational decline and renewal, and a teleological reading of history that situates the West as the pinnacle of civilizational development. Examining constructions of western civilization in the context of an Australian case therefore improves the representativity of the literature on civilizationism, demonstrating that it is not limited to the northern and western European far right, but can also be identified in the mainstream political discourse of settler-colonial societies such as Australia.”

    • andoshakey says:

      … Ramsay Centre discourse uncritically reproduces central pillars of white supremacist ideology through its cultural essentialism and veneration of western civilization…
      As the only civilisation to have a central pillar that states that all life is sacred then I’d say that it’s a civilisation worthy of veneration.

    • David Isaac says:

      Th West may or may not be the pinnacle of civilization but it is our civilization,it belongs to us and we MUST celebrate it. We should be just as tolerant of suggestions to the contrary as leftists are of dissent from their metastasising nonsensical dogmas.

    • padraic says:

      “civilizationism”. Wow! That’s a newie. Up there with “this point in time” and other delights. Shakespeare – eat your heart out.

  • sonofscott says:

    Democracy would be a great idea – if we had one.

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