The Ramsay Centre’s 10 books you must read before you die

Dec 28, 2018 | Read

Forget the politics around the Ramsay Centre. Dive into the politics discussed in these 10 greatest books ever, write Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney.

Western civilisation has asked the deepest human questions for thousands of years, in the form of a great conversation carried on in books, art and music.

By joining this conversation, by experiencing some of these ageless works, we can learn from history, gain insight into our own humanity and better understand the foundations of our society.

This chronological list of great works in two categories – literature and political philosophy – may help you navigate family relationships during the holidays, reflect on this year’s banking royal commission, or think about political turmoil in Canberra, Europe or the US. It may even encourage you to read some of the books.

The Iliad – Homer

All philosophy, Plato said, is a meditation on death, but it was a poet not a philosopher who gave to the world the most profound meditation on death that Greek civilisation would produce. Homer’s Iliad centres on the fate of “swift-footed” Achilles, the psychopathic but magnificent Greek warrior. Confronted with an existential choice – to live a short, glorious life or a long but unremembered life – Achilles at first seems to reject the glorious path.

Dishonoured by his commander Agamemnon, he withdraws in a rage from the battle against the Trojans. The course of the war turns almost immediately against the Greeks, but when Achilles’ closest friend Patroclus is killed by Hector, introspection gives way to action. Knowing his own death will shortly follow any triumph, Achilles rushes into the fray, turning the tide of battle, until he confronts and kills the noble Hector.

The final book remains among the most poignant in the Western canon, as Achilles – his rage overwhelmed by King Priam’s grief for his fallen son – returns Hector’s body to his weeping father.

Sharpening the poem’s already acute sensitivity to the appalling plight of women in war, as the poem draws to a close, Hector’s wife, Andromache, laments her fallen hero and her own fate.

The Aeneid, Book 4 – Virgil

If having a passionate affair is something you want to tick off your bucket list before you kick the same bucket, you should first read the cautionary tale of Dido and Aeneas in Book 4 of Virgil’s Aeneid. This affair not only ends in tears, it ends in flames. Having fled the burning walls of Troy with his household gods on his back, Aeneas and his fleet are waylaid in Carthage on their way to Italy, where he is destined to resettle the surviving remnant of Troy. In Carthage he seduces Dido under the influence of the goddess Aphrodite.

The story offers a classic study of the battle between duty and desire – of our obligations to God and neighbour, on the one hand, and our personal passions on the other. In the end, Aeneas answers the call of the gods to recommence his journey to Italy. He abandons Dido who, in response, immolates herself, consumed by flames just as she had been consumed by passion. Later, in the underworld, in literature’s greatest rebuke, she turns away from her former lover, refusing to acknowledge his presence.

The Gospel of Mark

If for no other reason than you want to understand why we value forgiveness and human rights, why we feel we should help the poor, and why we tend to feel ashamed when we treat others in a way we would not like to be treated ourselves, you need to read “the greatest story ever told” (as it was called in a famous Hollywood movie of that name). Set in Jerusalem around 33AD , the story was the catalyst for the complete transformation of the Roman Empire and the birth of European civilisation – whose laws, morals, customs, education, music, art, architecture and literature it has ineluctably shaped.

It is the subject of the four canonical Gospels, of which Mark’s is the shortest and most urgent, dispensing with the infancy narrative and taking us straight to the heart of Jesus’s ministry to sinners and the poor. Suffering is turned to joy in the account of the resurrection, as the grieving women come to anoint with sweet spices the body of their crucified rabbi. “And when they looked, they saw that the stone was rolled away…”

Inferno – Dante

Dante’s Inferno is surely the greatest work of literature to be born out of a midlife crisis. A political exile from his beloved Florence, Dante begins his masterpiece describing how he lost his way “midway” in life. In the dark wood three wild beasts, representing various vices, hunt our hero before Virgil is sent to rescue Dante through the intercessions of Beatrice, the poet’s muse. Having passed through limbo, Virgil’s own place of residence, the pilgrims arrive in the second circle of hell, where the sins of lust are punished. Here they see Dido (see above) and encounter the tragic lovers, Paulo and Francesca.

Still tossing up whether to have that affair before you die? Dante will set you right. In what is the most famous episode in the entire poem, Francesca describes her adulterous affair with Paulo, which ended when she and Paulo were discovered in bed by Paulo’s brother – Francesca’s husband – who swiftly killed them. Dante faints in response, so troubled is he by the thought that carnal passion – which seemed so irresistible – could lead to eternal separation from God, “the love that moves the sun and the other stars”.

Lust, though, is the most minor of the major sins. Dante has greater ire for loan sharks. The cast of the damned in Inferno looks less like Halloween and more like the banking royal commission.

King Lear – Shakespeare

In an age when “misspeaking” at work, on social media or in emails can lead to the loss of one’s career and livelihood, it is worth revisiting the greatest of Shakespeare’s tragedies, King Lear. Cordelia’s refusal to “mend [her] speech a little” by adding “nothing” to the insincere flatteries of her two sisters, leads to her banishment, setting in motion a tragedy that ends with her dead body lying limp in her father’s arms – a kind of pieta, with the genders reversed.

As with Homer, we see what it is for a king to grieve over his fallen child, but Lear’s agony is worse than Priam’s, for Lear is himself responsible for the calamities that allow evil to triumph over his kingdom and home. The so-called medieval synthesis of faith and reason is here firmly pulled apart; the great chain of being dissolves and Shakespeare makes us feel what it is for humanity to return to a universe where, like the characters in Homer’s Iliad, we are no more to the gods than “flies to wanton boys – they use us for their sport”. Hammering home Lear’s terrible realisation that Cordelia will live “no more”, the most memorable and devastating line in the play contains one word, repeated five times: “Never, never, never, never, never!”

Republic – Plato

A group of Athenians discuss the immortality of the soul, the immorality of art, the illusions of everyday life, the equality of the sexes, the abolition of the family, the nature of political constitutions, the importance of education. But above all they talk about justice, the essential principle in both the self and the state. A bullying type says that justice is a chimera. Political life is the exercise of power and the satisfaction of appetite (sexual, material). The autocrat is the happiest of all because he can have whatever he desires.

Socrates has to persuade his disconcerted and sceptical friends that the truly just man or woman – even when suffering, poor and dishonoured – will be happier than the wealthy, powerful, respected tyrant. And that the best government is by wise, well-educated Guardians (the European Commission?), who understand what “justice” really means, what the best life really is for human beings, as individuals and citizens.

Unlike Aristotle, whose Politics is a dry empirical account of how we actually practise politics, Plato thought philosophy’s job was to imagine a utopia, based on the meaning of an intellectual idea. This conceptual approach to thinking has driven Western thought ever since.

History of the Peloponnesian War – Thucydides

The West’s first true work of history is also a tragedy: that of Athens herself. Pericles’ immortal Funeral Speech, his tribute to the spirit of democracy and to his city at her zenith, as a bastion of freedom against Persian and Spartan expansionism, is soon succeeded by a terrible plague. It kills a third of the population and demoralises the rest. Hedonism takes over; the values which made the city great are abandoned.

The Spartan conflict turns into a faction-driven civil war across the whole of Greece. Again values dissolve. The cunning rogue is respected, not the good man. The stupid and the violent flourish, the wise and peaceable go under. Language itself is corrupted. Moderation is called weakness, prudence is now cowardice. People are driven not by honour but by love of honour, by ambition, by desire for status.

Athens becomes cruel to her colonies, telling them that might is right. First hubris, then nemesis. Her great army invades Sicily: the tragic mistake or hamartia. The army is utterly destroyed, with heartbreaking descriptions of starvation, disease and imprisonment. Human flourishing is complex and unstable. The freest and most democratic of societies can betray or forget their own values.

The Prince – Machiavelli

Eliminate your enemies. If you have to be cruel, do it at once. Be feared not loved. Pretend you are virtuous but be “honourably bad”. Mankind is ungrateful, deceitful, greedy, timid, selfish. People value status above love. They get “bored with the good and long for the bad”.

No wonder Machiavelli has always had a bad rap. But he said these things on purpose. Renaissance Italy was a chaos of feuding factions and warring states. He was fed up with romantic advice books for princes, advocating Platonic or Christian ideals. He was interested in how we actually are, not how we ought or pretend to be.

Desire and appetite are always with us. Political life, like moral life in general, is a matter of seeing clearly how things actually are, so as to secure the flourishing of stable states. (Machiavelli thought republics were more stable than monarchies.) Political and Christian values don’t mix. Humility, mercy, self-abnegation and turning the other cheek don’t work in public policy or international relations.

Machiavelli points to an uncomfortable truth: our civilisation is founded on incommensurable value sets. The trick is to recognise this truth – and live with it.

The Social Contract –Rousseau

Mankind is naturally solitary and good; our institutions have made us wicked (and ruined nature). Society creates inequality by making us aware of our differences from others. These insights came to Jean-Jacques Rousseau on the road to Vincennes in 1749.

Like St Paul on the Damascus road, he “beheld another universe and became another man”. We are fallen beings: how do we redeem ourselves? How to shake off the chains of wealth, power and inequality we long ago ran headlong into? Answer: by politics, by the creation of a new kind of state. We must allow our corrupt individual wills to be subsumed within a new “general will”.

In this “fundamental pact” each of us must give himself or herself completely to the community of the like-minded. Those who refuse are “forced to be free”, saving them from their own corruption. The lawmaker “should feel himself capable of changing human nature”, of transforming each individual into a part of a greater whole. We must all enter a state of being in which we will see social justice and equality as our own true liberty. This view has enormous, quasi-religious power. It has inspired millions of people and the great political revolutions of modernity.

Reflections on the Revolution in France – Burke

Alone in the natural state, “stripped of every relation”, we are “naked and shivering” creatures, Irish statesman Edmund Burke wrote in 1790. Each person’s “stock of reason” is small. We need society, “the general bank and capital of nations and of ages”.

Society is indeed a contract, but one we enter into just by being born human, not by redesigning human nature. It is a partnership between the living, the dead and the unborn.

Our freedoms are an inheritance derived from our forebears; it is incumbent on us to transmit them to our posterity. Government is a “convenience”, literally a “coming together”, not an ideal template. Politics is to be undertaken in a spirit of self-sacrifice and restraint, with a deep sense of responsibility to the present and the future.

“The true lawgiver ought to have a heart full of sensibility” and must be aware of his or her own fallibility (politicians please note). Society is a delicate and complex fabric, easily destroyed. Institutions are to be cherished. Liberty is something we discover for ourselves in the self-sacrificing activity of preserving those institutions. The fanatical pursuit of perfect equality will destroy them; at the end of that road “you see nothing but the gallows”.

The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation seeks to advance education by promoting studies and discussion of our intellectual, artistic and institutional heritage. It has partnered with Wollongong University to deliver a bachelor degree starting in 2020. This list was prepared by the Centre’s CEO, Professor Simon Haines, and its executive officer (academic), Dr Stephen McInerney.

Credit: The Australian Financial Review