Peter Craven | Classics and why we must keep them alive

Apr 22, 2022 | News & Media

One of Australia’s leading public intellectuals and our most distinguished independent literary critical voice to deliver the third Ramsay Lecture for 2022.

Sydney, Friday 22 April 2022: Why are the classics of our literature – indeed of any art form – important and why should we strive to teach them?

The “simplest answer to this”, according to culture critic Peter Craven, “…is to say, in the manner of Henry James, it’s because of the depth of the life they represent, the moral aspect of literature by which we recognise it as a symbolic form of truth, or in the case of philosophy, an explicit engagement with human understanding via the practice of argument.”

Peter Craven’s expanded, more complex answer is revealed through a ‘tour de force’ lecture, Classics and why we must keep them alive, our third Ramsay Lecture for 2022.

In this lecture he journeys back in time, taking us through centuries of great works, through various translations and adaptations, through famous dramatisations, and through the infusion of ancient cultures into each another. In so doing, he discusses the classic works that have impacted him, and which he believes to be the best ever produced. He also reveals the connectedness of great works to one another and shows how the classics serve as points of entry to our understanding of other cultures and world history in general.

Provocatively, Mr Craven argues that it is through the classics we learn that “…the history of civilisation is at the same time, as Walter Benjamin reminded us, the history of barbarism: Athens executed Socrates and Rome executed Christ..” And that “…Renaissance England, Shakespeare’s England, was an axe-blade world, a world of religious persecution and an exorbitant abuse of power.”

At the same time, says Mr Craven, we need to resist some unjustified cancelling of the classics, and to ensure that deserving modern works, such as the poetry of Les Murray, are passed onto future generations.

“We need to be constantly aware that literature can be a difficult pleasure, something that was not forgotten in the wake of modernism. We need to be our own library of Alexandria and resist the flames flickering all around us.”

Mr Craven is a culture critic, widely regarded as one of Australia’s leading public intellectuals and our most distinguished independent literary critical voice. He was the founding editor of Scripsi, of Quarterly Essay and the Black Inc Best Of annuals. He writes about every aspect of culture from Shakespeare and the Bible to television. He is a frequent contributor to both the Murdoch and the Nine press. He writes a weekly column for The Spectator and is the former drama critic of the The Saturday Paper

Due to COVID-19 this Ramsay Lecture event has been recorded. It will be available via our website as both a video and podcast from Thursday 28 April.

Media contact: Sarah Switzer 0407 816 098/