Western civilisation: A primer for willing readers

Paul Monk / 30 July 2018

The recent stand-off between the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and our most prestigious universities is a disturbing symptom …

Source: Western civilisation: A primer for willing readers

The recent stand-off between the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation and our most prestigious universities, over the idea of a bachelor of arts in Western civilisation being introduced on their campuses, is a disturbing symptom of the state of higher education in this country. It is to be hoped it can be constructively resolved.

Without entering into that dispute, it’s worth reflecting on why anyone might want a bachelor of arts in Western civilisation. Forty years ago, it was exactly what I wanted and I enrolled at the University of Melbourne hoping to get one. I discovered that there was no coherent curriculum providing what I sought. There was simply a wide range of course options from which one was encouraged to choose a major field after first year.

Cobbling my course of studies together as tenaciously as I could, I majored in European History, ancient, medieval and modern. I didn’t do this out of racism, sexism, imperialism or “bourgeois” snobbery. I did it because I had a thousand questions about my own civilisation and the modern world and I refused to get on with a professional life until I could get some at least provisional answers.

I chose classical studies (Greek and Roman history, theatre, art, poetry and philosophy), classical social theory (Marx, Weber, Durkheim, Tonnies, Gramsci and others), Reformation history, an excellent introduction to economic history called Origins of the Marketplace Society, a fascinating subject called the Changing Place of Women in Western Society and Thought from 1800 to the Present, modern French history (1870-1970), the Russian Revolution (1860-1941) and Roman historiography (the study of how Roman history has been interpreted during the past 500 years).

I obtained many of the provisional answers I’d been after. I came to think of what I was after as access to the Library of Alexandria — but in an up-to-date version.

I began to see the world in more coherent terms and to see the relationships between the different disciplines and the patterns in human civilisation across time. I built up from scratch a library of about 3000 books. Quite apart from the courses I took, I read voraciously, acquainting myself with many of the great books and much 20th century scholarship.

The Library of Alexandria was an alluring mental model. It was a key reference point in Carl Sagan’s path-breaking Cosmos, released on television in 1980, while I was still doing my undergraduate studies. That library, or museum — House of the Muses, as it was called — was designed to hold every serious book written. It is legendary, and Sagan lamented its decay and eventual destruction in antiquity.

The original inspiration for the Library of Alexandria was the personal library of Aristotle in Athens, put together by the philosopher in the second half of the 4th century BC. It was that library and the works he wrote using it that made Aristotle, in the famous medieval description of him, “the master of those who know”. The modern sciences began, in many ways, with the critique of Aristotle and, since the 16th century, have enabled us to expand our knowledge of the cosmos and of the human world, past and present, beyond what even he could have imagined. But his works remain astonishing in their range and lucidity.

There is a delightful book about the fate of the Library of Alexandria by Italian scholar Luciano Canfora, The Vanished Library, in which he attempts to reconstruct its origins, nature and destruction. By the time that book was published, I had completed my PhD (on American counter-insurgency strategy throughout the Cold War, in Southeast Asia and Central America) and was working as an analyst of Japan and North and South Korea for the Defence Intelligence Organisation. I was self-consciously a citizen of a Western state looking at the wider world.

It has always seemed to me that the outcome of a decent education should be that one goes out into the world and discovers that what has been gleaned from the best books comes alive and assumes a reality for which one’s studies have been the preparation. There is a passage in Goethe’s Italian Journey that I have long thought epitomises this. Goethe, born in 1749, was in his mid-30s when he toured Italy. The book is his journal of the tour. When he arrived in Rome on November 1, 1786, he was overwhelmed by the sense that “the dreams of my youth have come to life”.

He wrote: “The first engravings I remember — my father hung views of Rome in the hall — I now see in reality, and everything I have known for so long through paintings, drawings, etchings, woodcuts, plaster casts and cork models is now assembled before me. Wherever I walk, I come upon familiar objects in an unfamiliar world; everything is just as I imagined it, yet everything is new.”

What Goethe experienced on his arrival in Rome is what should be available to every graduate from a good education. I had my own experience of just this kind, 200 years after him, when I first visited Washington, New York, London, Paris, Rome and Athens during my PhD field work in 1984-85.

Another model for how a sound course in Western civilisation — or more broadly “liberal education” — can enrich one’s sense of being in the world is Byron’s long poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, the epic reflection on his own grand tour of Europe. The whole work is one of the finest monuments of English romantic ­poetry. It was possible not merely because Byron toured the continent and saw many things but because his educated mind was capable of responding to what he saw and of composing extended and beautiful poetry to express his moods and perceptions.

Byron was steeped in the poetry and histories of the European past. Canto I of his long poem begins with a beautiful homage to that past:

Oh thou! in Hellas deemed of heavenly birth

Muse! Formed or fabled at the minstrel’s will

Since shamed full oft by later lyres on earth

Mine dares not call thee from thy sacred hill:

Yet there I’ve wandered by thy vaunted rill;

Yes! Sighed o’er Delphi’s long deserted shrine,

Where, save that feeble fountain, all is still;

Nor mote my shell awake the weary Nine

To grace so plain a tale — this lowly lay of mine.

The Nine, of course, were the Greek Muses of the arts, not least Clio, the Muse of History. Who, when so many people lament the lack of meaning in their lives, could not want to be able to find, experience and express meaning as Byron did here?

Goethe and Byron had privileged upbringings. They also lived when the modern sciences were only beginning to open up space, time, matter and world affairs in unprecedented ways. Byron died in 1824, Goethe in 1832. Charles Lyell published his Principles of Geology in three volumes between 1830 and 1833, either side of ­Goethe’s death. Charles Darwin read Lyell’s work on his voyage in HMS Beagle, which set off in December 1831. His findings and his thinking would trigger a revolution in our understanding of the natural world, our evolved nature and our place in the larger scheme of things.

The old idea of a “liberal education” was largely humanistic. From the 19th century onwards, this became inadequate. The history and philosophy of science ­became more and more indispensable to any serious and “humane” education. But the generation of new knowledge proceeded at such a pace that a coherent curriculum became more and more difficult to frame or sustain. By the early 20th century, the universities had all but given up attempting it. Yet our civilisation badly needs something on these lines and each of us as individuals needs it to some extent.

Edward O. Wilson, a distinguished entomologist and philosopher of science at Harvard University, attempted to address this need in his lovely 1998 book, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge. Like Sagan, he harked back to classical antecedents. He hailed what he dubbed, following physicist and historian Gerald Holton, “the Ionian Enchantment”. This term arises from the assessment that the Ionian natural philosophers of the 6th and 5th centuries BC sought to understand the world as a whole and in naturalistic terms, not mythological or theological ones.

“Einstein, the architect of grand unification in physics, was Ionian to the core,” Wilson wrote. Liberal education must also now become “Ionian”.

Unlike Goethe and Byron, Wilson did not come from a privileged background. Nor did he live in the romantic era in Europe. Nor did he come to the Ionian Enchantment through poetry. He came to it through his studies in biology. His opening lines in Consilience read: “I remember very well the time I was captured by the dream of unified learning. It was in the early fall of 1947, when at 18 I came up from Mobile to Tuscaloosa to enter my sophomore year at the University of Alabama.”

He was fascinated by Linnaean taxonomy, until he found a mentor in an intense, chain-smoking assistant professor “newly arrived in the provinces with a PhD in entomology from Cornell”. This teacher handed him Ernst Mayr’s Systematics and the Origin of Species and told him to read Mayr if he wanted to become “a real biologist”. Reading it, he found himself overcome by the Ionian Enchantment. This is what we need in our universities for the 21st century.

Even the best universities have often failed to provide anything like it. The young Edward Gibbon was an omnivorous reader from childhood; a habit, he wrote in his autobiography, that he would not have exchanged “for the treasures of India”. But when, in 1752, aged 15, he was sent to Magdalen College, Oxford, he found the atmosphere stifling, describing the academics as “monks sunk in port and prejudice”.

He was expelled for becoming a Catholic and was sent by his father to Lausanne to a private tutor, in 1753. The next five years of private tutoring were decisive in the formation of his mind and character. His stock of erudition was set in order by a plan of study. He mastered French and Latin and the rudiments of Greek. He ceased to be Catholic and even “English”, becoming instead a cosmopolitan European.

On his own grand tour, he vis­ited Rome in 1762, 24 years ahead of Goethe, and it was there that he discovered his vocation: writing the history of the decline and fall of the Roman Empire — out of an interest in its implications for the “European Republic” of his time. Byron read Gibbon’s acclaimed history himself before going on his own grand tour, including Rome.

Evelyn Waugh’s Oxford, so memorably depicted in his novel Brideshead Revisited, was also stifling — 150 years after Gibbon. Waugh, too, left the university to pursue more creative ideals.

As Sheldon Rothblatt reflected, in 1976, in Tradition and Change in English Liberal Education, the ancient universities of England (chiefly Oxford and Cambridge) have always struggled to deliver a rounded education that stimulates rather than stifles students’ minds. Moreover, the goalposts keep moving, which complicates the task. It is no different here.

The Ramsay endowment is an unprecedented opportunity for us nationally to have a serious crack at designing courses in Western civilisation that stimulate and genuinely educate students. There is scope for bold experiments and new thinking. We need courses for the 21st century, it need hardly be said. They cannot be merely backward looking, inward looking or conservative. To this end, they must be grounded in both “consilience”, in Wilson’s sense, and in literate humanism in the Goethean or Byronic sense.

Crucial to such an undertaking is “Big History” — the apprehension of Western civilisation and, indeed, the human presence on the planet, in the context of advanced, scientific cosmology, evolutionary biology, the history and philosophy of science and the archeology of the Holocene, which is to say the history of our species since the end of the last ice age.

Steven Mithen’s After the Ice: A Global Human History 20,000 to 5000BC would be one way to introduce this last element of the course. David Christian’s Maps of Time: An Introduction to Big History (2005), or his most recent book Origin Story: A Big History of Everything (2018) are a good start.

Against this background, one could set the great themes and problems of Western civilisation: the origins of freedom of speech and constitutional government in the Greco-Roman world and the downfall of the classical republics; Greek theatre and art; epic and lyrical poetry; the ideas of scientific inquiry, critical thinking and historical investigation; the nature and development of religion; the rise of Christianity and its impact; the Reformation; the modern secular revolutions; and the development of modern ideas of liberty, governance and international relations.

As a historian, student of international relations and sometime intelligence analyst, I still love Thucydides’s The Peloponnesian War. It was intended by its author not to entertain a passing multitude, as he wrote, but to be useful for all time, since human nature being what it is, the things recorded in it were likely to occur again and in much the same way.

There are so many unforgettable and instructive passages in it: Pericles’s funeral oration, the plague at Athens, the civil strife at Corcyra, the Melian dialogue, the debate over and the fate of the Sicilian expedition. In the midst of all that sit Euripides’s tragic drama The Women of Troy and Aristophanes’s anti-war comedy Lysistrata.

Bryan Doerries’s The Theatre of War: What Ancient Greek Tragedies Can Teach Us Today (2015) is a fine text for such a course. Clif­ford Orwin’s The Humanity of Thucydides (1994) is a wonderful complement to the history itself. Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory might then be used to create a 20th-century perspective on the classical history.

But a core reading should be Lucio Russo’s The Forgotten Revolution: How Science was Born in 300BC and Why it had to be Reborn (2004). Russo shows that in the Hellenistic era, the century and a half after the death of Aristotle, authentically scientific thinking began to transform the culture centred on Athens, the Aegean and Alexandria. Then it ground to a halt because of anti-scientific cultural trends and even the memory of most of its achievements was forgotten almost until our time.

The Ionian Enchantment can fade; the Library of Alexandria can be destroyed; knowledge can give way to dogma and obscurantism. We should educate against such possibilities in the 21st century.

All the more reason.