The books that the West needs to read again5 January 2019
What could have been so subversive? Chased off the campus at the Australian National University and Sydney University, the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation has done a deal with the University of Wollongong to teach the degrees it will fund. Some academics there reached for the smelling salts. A visiting fellow has stopped visiting. Others sniffed the imminent arrival of neo-fascism, the barbarians through the gates.
As a way to cast light on the biggest academic controversy of 2018, The Australian Financial Review asked the Ramsay Centre’s Simon Haines and Stephen McInerney to nominate 10 of the great books of the West they think we should read before we die. In our New Year bumper edition’s Review section, they let the books speak for themselves. There was Plato and Virgil, Shakespeare and Dante, Machiavelli’s realism, and Rousseau’s equality and social justice versus Burke’s conservatism. Some are just rollicking good reads. Nothing drives straight to the conflicted emotions of war like. The
Iliad. Or comprehends a world of lies like King Lear. But when the West is being tested by simplistic populist politics within, and by increasingly confident authoritarian great powers from outside, it’s not a bad thing to go back to founding texts and ideas. The Ramsay Centre’s sin is to teach these books in their own right, not just as objects for demolition in some post-modernist experiment. Though Ramsay could do that too: as the mental infrastructure of the West, the great books have spawned every idea from fascism to anarchism, even the nihilistic relativism with which shriller academics have knocked all those dead white males off their privileged pedestals.
But it’s the liberal strand of Western thought that has been the most fruitful, precisely because it is the most self-aware, the most self-doubting, and the most capable of absorbing criticism. There are older civilisations than the West, and civilisations with which it overlaps. It is Western liberalism that has continuously renewed and improved itself to an uncommon degree.
That was the mechanism by which it moved from darkness and cruelty to life-enhancing improvements like democratic self-government and rational, empirical scientific inquiry, and then spread them around the world. It generated individual freedoms – and from that, the creative destruction of the market place that has created prosperity and abolished poverty like nothing else before it. Liberalism is gradual, and changes things from the bottom up. It is the opposite of top-down attempts to create Utopia like revolutionary socialism. Liberalism is all about improvement, but it works with human
The Marxists decided that if their socialism didn’t work then human nature would have to be changed, eventually with the gulag and the firing squad. It would be a stretch to suggest that gentle neo-Marxist academics – as devoutly as they believe that all human history and culture is but a ruling-class conspiracy – are in the same boat as Pol Pot. But their objections to Ramsay as a prelude to fascism are just as absurd.
Liberalism is once again in need of renewal, and its old ideas in need of reviving. In an era of ‘post-truth’ domestic politics, lies are currency and a new swamp of cynicism is being created. The old Western-led international order that defeated the Soviet Union has gone. In its place is a no-rules balance of great powers free to operate through bluster, brinkmanship and intimidation. Business too is short on trust and a sound sense of purpose. It needs to go back to the reminder from Adam Smith that a free economy only comes from moral beings who are able to look at themselves and know the difference between vice and virtue.
Many have argued that the West’s elites have become too smug and entrenched, and do not know how to deal with the populist demands now being made of them. To that conflict will be added the vast impact of new technologies many people barely grasp. But you do not need to look at the classic texts for long to know that we have been resolving dilemmas like this for a long time. We need to go back to some of our own best ideas. We need more Ramsays, not fewer.
Credit: Australian Financial Review – see full article here
Picture credit: The great books supply our mental infrastructure. Jim Pavlidis illustration