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What is Western Civilisation anyway?



The dispute about the Ramsay Centre sponsored Foundation for Western Civilisation had everything for those who like pub brawls: university governance, teachers unions, Howard and Abbott, culture wars, academic freedom, the power of money in establishing institutes, and a three-line whip for media bullies. These issues have been noisily herded and milked.

Tony AbbottThe question least discussed but perhaps most intriguing is precisely what may be meant by Western Civilisation. Protagonists in the debate seemed certain of its meaning, praising or damning its ideological associations, but rarely troubling to share their understanding of it.

Yet neither western nor civilisation nor their joining in the sonorous phrase, Western Civilisation, is self-explanatory. If Western Civilisation is taken to include its religious traditions, it immediately extends to the Middle Eastern cradle of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. If it is defined by its antecedents, it must include the Roman Empire, which included much of the Middle East and Eastern Europe. If it is identified geographically with Western Europe, it must take account of the Jewish and Muslim contribution to Spain. 

If Western Civilisation is defined by the intellectual traditions which shaped it, it must certainly take account of the philosophical and literary tradition of Greece and Rome. But it must also give full weight to the ways in which this tradition was filtered through Christian thinkers and institutions whose origin lay in the Middle East and in modern day Turkey. 

The Christian tradition cannot be understood without reference to Christian thinkers and schools in Syria, Egypt and modern Turkey who helped shaped Christianity in Western Europe. Nor can the flowering in the western half of Christianity and culture in the 12th and 13th century be understood without taking account of the contribution of the Islamic thinkers in recovering lost sources and through their scientific and philosophical studies. 

All this is to say that what is meant by western, by any definition, cannot be defined exclusively. It can be understood only through complex networks of interlocking relationships between people, schools of thought and centres of power and trade that in today's terms are not western. Those relationships were ones of interdependence, even when they were described by the participants as hostile.

Nor is civilisation easy to define. Its use is often evaluative rather than descriptive. It is normally a laudatory phrase — opposed to primitivity and barbarity, and normally associated with the development of towns and cities, with a literate culture, long endurance and lasting monuments. We speak of nomadic cultures but normally refrain from referring to nomadic civilisations.


"There is something to be said for making the tests of any civilisation its inclusion of the different and compassion for the weakest. A centre that assessed civilisations by these criteria might have something going for it."


We also expect civilisations to be civilised in their institutions and relationships. When referring to their achievements we focus on their art, architecture and elegance. Practices like public disembowelments, burning of witches, massacres and the persecution of minorities are usually seen as primitive survival or untypical fault lines within a civilisation. They are, of course, seen as the norm in non-civilisations.

Finally, and often most important, civilisations are identified and celebrated for their economic and political strength. Civilisations are conspicuous for their empires, client states and colonies. That is why critics of Western Civilisation evoke such rage. They are seen not only to take a wrongheaded intellectual position, but also to bite the teat that nourished them.

Civilisations invite the long view, the broad generalisation and the firm value judgment. In the case of Western Civilisation the value judgment has usually come first, followed by the generalisation and the long view.

In my youth a popularised Catholic account that focused on intellectual themes saw Western Civilisation reach its high point in the 13th century in a Europe united in faith, confident in reason, and under one rule and with a shared, coherent view of the world. That coherence was undermined by the intellectual shifts of Duns Scotus and William Ockham, further fractured by the Reformation, and undermined by the Enlightenment. From this declining civilisation, Marx, Stalin and the violence of the 20th century were seen as the natural reaping of the whirlwind.

This account differs sharply from a common secular view, which focuses on the contribution of Greece and Rome to rational thinking, its eclipse in the Christian Empire and the Dark Ages, its resurrection in the focus on the individual in the Renaissance and Reformation, culminating in the Enlightenment and the scientific culture it engendered and in the continuing struggle for individual freedom against religious or cultural obscurantism.

You can take your pick of these and other such large views. There is something to be said, though, for making the tests of any civilisation its inclusion of the different and compassion for the weakest. A centre that assessed civilisations by these criteria might have something going for it.



Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Ramsay Centre, Western Civilisation, John Howard, Tony Abbott



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Campion College president Dr Paul Morrissey wrote: "Great thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas, profoundly insightful writers like Dante, Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, and prolific modern writers such as Dawson, McIntyre and St John Paul II have all contributed to the canon and the formation of what we know as Western Civilisation, as well as artists like Michelangelo and musicians like Palestrina. All were motivated by the pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful…the tenets of Western civilisation and the works of its great thinkers and artists should be cherished, passed on and upheld as things to aspire to and take pride in." But a hundred years ago, Lenin, Gramsci and others realized that the proletariat would never be the vehicle to overthrow the industrial West. That could best be achieved by destroying its culture from within. Chief propagandist Willi Munzenberg noted, “We must organize the intellectuals, and use them to make Western civilization stink.” Cultural Marxists now control most of the humanities departments in Western universities. Students at the University of London recently demanded that “white” philosophers like Plato, Descartes, Kant and Bertrand Russell, be dropped from the university’s Philosophy courses. Similar action is underway in Australia and elsewhere.

Ross Howard | 20 June 2018  

Methinks the author doth deconstruct too much, to the point that the view of Western Civilization expressed here "dies the death of a thousand qualifications."

John | 20 June 2018  

Ross Howard's comments above remind me of Huxley's ironic observation in his increasingly prophetic Brave New World: The Resident Controller for Western Europe " . . . waved his hand; and it was as though, with an invisible whisk. he had brushed a way a little dust, and the dust was . . . Ur of the Chaldees; some spider webs, and they were Thebes and Cnossos and Mycenae. Whisk, whisk, and where was Oyssesus, where was Job, where were Jupiter . . . and Jesus? Whisk - and those specks of antique dirt called Athens and Rome, Jerusalem . . . - all were gone. Whisk - the place where Italy had been was empty. Whisk, the cathedrals; whisk, whisk, King Lear and the thoughts of Pascal. Whisk, Passion; whisk, Requiem; whisk , Symphony; whisk . . ."

John | 21 June 2018  

Western civilisation's most significant foundation is Christianity - and it forgets it at its peril. What Saint JPII said of Europe in 'Ecclesia in Europa' could be said of western civilisation which exists and gave us our understanding of human dignity at the base of our myriad social welfare programs. Here is what he said. "……More than a geographical area, Europe can be described as a primarily cultural and historical concept, which denotes a reality born as a continent thanks also to the unifying force of Christianity, which has been capable of integrating peoples and cultures among themselves, and which is intimately linked to the whole of European culture”.

Alice Larkin | 21 June 2018  

Someone once asked Mahatma Gandhi what he thought of 'Western civilisation'. He said "I think it would a very good idea".

Martin Hamilton | 21 June 2018  

A couple of articles some may be interested in reading. I thought they were sensible. http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2018/06/15/4857669.htm … via @abcreligion .... What Version of Western Civilization are Universities Offering Students? http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2018/06/14/4856790.htm … via @abcreligion

Stephen de Weger | 21 June 2018  

One of the defining characteristics of "Western Civilisation" that you forgot to mention Andrew is its passion for fighting wars and settling international disputes with guns rather than negotiation based on common sense.

Brian Finlayson | 21 June 2018  

Thanks to Isaac Newton we know that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. And while Newton’s 3rd Law specifically relates to objects and motion; it can equally apply to the spheres of culture and politics. Thus, if people perceive/believe that a work or political environment is pushing too far left, they will pull right (think Brexit and Trump), and vice versa. The Research School of the Bleeding Obvious tells us that the Humanities and Arts faculties of universities are by nature left-leaning - an ever deepening reality today as postmodernist and socialist preachers are afforded high priest status. This Leftist trend has been particularly problematic in the United States where the emergence of, among other things, trigger warnings and safe spaces has shackled free speech and infantilized students. Not surprisingly, ‘an equal and opposite reaction’ has emerged: in 2015, Jonathan Haidt (Thomas Cooley Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business) co-founded the Heterodox Academy. Haidt, along with hundreds of other university professors and graduate students had become fed-up (and scandalised) by the authoritarian nature of a number of university campuses and faculties. The Academy’s mission is summed-up by the following statement that its members, regardless of political affiliation or ideology, have endorsed: “I believe that university life requires that people with diverse viewpoints and perspectives encounter each other in an environment where they feel free to speak up and challenge each other. I am concerned that many academic ?elds and universities currently lack suf?cient viewpoint diversity—particularly political diversity. I will support viewpoint diversity in my academic ?eld, my university, my department, and my classroom.” Is the Ramsay sponsored Foundation for Western Civilisation just an Australian version of an ‘equal and opposite reaction’? Surely, when all is said and done, the role of universities is not produce activists, but to pursue the truth through reason and knowledge and evidence; to engage in graceful discourse, diversity of thought, and dissent?

Peter Day | 21 June 2018  

In such a complex concept there will of course be frequent contradictions to the main stream of Western Civilisation. For me, the sustaining corner-stone of the whole edifice, that comes down predominantly from the Judeo-Christian contribution to the whole, is the inherent worth and respect due to each and every individual, because they are loved by God. chirstin

Eugene | 21 June 2018  

Western Civilisation is the compendium of all those faculties that make up our universities - excluding the mickey mouse stuff like fashion studies, leisure studies, business studies, physical education etc. To exclude a study of Western Civilisation would require the exclusion from our current genuine universities of philosophy, logic, history, geography. literature, politics. medicine, law, architecture, engineering, mathematics, languages etc, etc. Suggesting that the university might be held hostage to a study of Western Civilisation by a promoter prepared to financially back such study is a bit twee when we consider that the universities are already hostage to business interests and low standard academia in return for fees paid by persons who don't have the natural ability to genuinely achieve at an institute of higher learning nor to contribute to society in a meaningful way as a result.

john frawley | 21 June 2018  

Yes. My first thought when I heard about this was that "whiteness" would have to be a core subject..... How wrong can you be!

Bev henwood | 21 June 2018  

Nice one Andrew. Another possibility is that Western Civilization is a dog whistle. "The elect will know what we mean. Nudge nudge". Unsurprisingly neocons and edgy capitalists are needing to sure up essential connections between so called christian values and capitalism. Luther and Calvin strengthen their arms arguing that the blessed are identifiable because of their hard work in this life which shows their God blesses them now and in will continue to do so in the afterlife. Jesus' notions of the blessedness of the poor and dispossessed is a bit uncomfortable but there is the trickle down dogma to fix that. Maybe rather than always looking through the prism of western civilization we should be looking through other prisms to find better ways. Or do we still believe our way is the best and only way? And a better use of Ramsay's dollars would be restructuring the public health services. Especially as so much Ramsay money went into lobbying Howard to promote private health care at the expense of the rest.

Michael D. Breen | 21 June 2018  

Fr Andrew, if you recall the Inquisition commenced 1231 A.D., when the pope appointed the first “inquisitors of heretical depravity.” Wikipedia. The Spanish Inquisition, doesn't end until the 19th century and the last execution was in 1826. At least 300,000 died. Alan Cowell NY Times 1992 "More than 350 years after the Roman Catholic Church condemned Galileo, John Paul II is poised to rectify one of the Church's most infamous wrongs -- the persecution of the Italian astronomer and physicist for proving the Earth moves around the Sun. Not until 1992, did the Pope formally close a 13-year investigation into the Church's condemnation of Galileo in 1633. The condemnation, which forced the astronomer and physicist to recant his discoveries, led to Galileo's house arrest for eight years before his death in 1642 at the age of 77." Giordano Bruno was tried for heresy by the Inquisition inter alia, challenging the churches arcane doctrines and espousing the Copernican theory. He was burned at the stake in Rome in 1600. Now would you really want John Howard, who denied the people overboard, and Abott, who knighted The Duke spruiking Western Civilization in the name of the Monarchy? Im glad ANU canned it.

francis Armstrong | 21 June 2018  

20180621 Note about Foundation for Western Civilization Ramsay Centre Eureka The philosophical or theological, moral, social and civil value systems which inform the choices of particular groups of people have grown or destroyed civilizations. Surely there is a benefit from being able to better understand such underlying forces and identify the drivers or triggers which move them. Shouldn’t a university be able to portray, consider, question and discuss all points of view in an open forum? What caused the thinkers, artists and politicians and normal citizens to build – philosophical, moral, social and economic structures such as Jewish, Chinese, American, Indian or Muslim societies that differ in appearance, morays and behaviour? Can the impact be ascribed to geography or race? Are the differences theologically based? Do we accept them unquestioningly? If we consider that our human identity is a globally unifying feature where do the differences in our theological, rational, civilian and social constructs come from? The argument against the Foundation for Western Civilization seems to suggest that we don’t need it, but it could provide an opportunity to examine, discuss and assess the impact of differences and similarities in the context of the Australian experience.

Melanie Felicity Agsten | 21 June 2018  

The comments thus far amply support your observation Father Andrew: "The question least discussed but perhaps most intriguing is precisely what may be meant by Western Civilisation." Sadly, one suspects W.C. means: rich white male dominated colonisation of everything, from real estate and financial resources to families, minds and hearts and souls to science and technology to philosophy, language, culture, the news media, entertainment and sports, and all of the arts. Really, there's no distinguishing between Monarchist W.C. and Marxist W.C. because both aim to enslave the whole person. Two mad dogs tearing the sheep apart. And, for what purpose? Often both justifying their greed and violence by referring to simplistic comic-strip versions of 'dominate-or-die' Darwinism. Those (many) of us who have actually lived happily among other cultures need to stand up to these ignorami who inform themselves only from their own one-eyed, incestuous polemic. If we also require a religious reason, then John's Revelation 7:9 should help: "Crowding around God's throne and the Saviour I saw an immense multitude of people from every race, nation, tribe, and language." Amen!

Dr Marty Rice | 21 June 2018  

The uni students on Q and A remind me of those who were not 'there'. "If you remember the '60s, you weren't there." "If you negate the furtherance of all the optimistic pedagogy of Western Civilisation you have absolutely 'no idea'. Or rather no uni." The term University was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which, with a traditional founding date of 1088, is considered to be the first university … and now, fair Italy! Thou art the garden of the world, the home Of all Art yields, and Nature can decree: Even in thy desert, what is like to thee? Thy very weeds are beautiful, thy waste More rich than other climes’ fertility; Thy wreck a glory; and thy ruin graced With an immaculate charm which cannot be defaced... The University of Paris (c.1150) the University of Oxford (1167). To all Australian uni students who negatively critique Western Civilization. Unless you have lived, studied and worked in Europe, you can have 'no idea of verity' anent Western Civilization and its fruit bearing boughs. Yes, throughout the world, the human heart, mind, and soul. The next best thing is what is now being proposed. Take it and run. Think you're escaping and run into yourself. Longest way round is the shortest way home. James Joyce

AO | 21 June 2018  

I wonder if studies in Western Civilisation might be aided by study of its context, particular encounters with adjacent civilisations such as Egypt and Persia, and possibly even India and China.

David Arthur | 21 June 2018  

Western civilization was built on what Jesus did with the 'Golden Rule' He qualified the ancient principle of treating others as one would want to be treated. The unique qualifier that Jesus provided was 'Love one another as I have love you.' Jesus provided the fundamental example of how humanity should behave. A few decades after Christ, Paul of Tarsus articulated the foundational constitution of the Jesus Movement or Church. It was simple and profoundly revolutionary vision of a Christian society made up of people who freely committed themselves through baptism to a community of equals: "For as many of you as were baptised into Christ, have put on Christ. There is no longer Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female. You are all one in Christ." (Gal 3: 27-28). All the old stratifications and determinisms on the basis of race, ethnicity and gender were eclipsed by radical equality based on the achievement of Jesus' own humanity example and teaching. That was the evangelical message sent out from the start to a world of inequality and inhumanity. That message changed the world and became the basis of a new civilization. Pity it proved too hard.

David TIMBS | 22 June 2018  

Now that, David, would make sense. The more we know of and understand the various civilisation on this tiny globe and the way they have interacted and related as they encountered each other, the wiser we all might be. But that is not what Abbott and the Ramsey Centred wanted. They want to (ab)use the reputation and standing of the ANU to promote Western Civilisation as superior to all others. A more obvious fit might have been Bond University or even ACU. Ask yourself why they didn't go to one of those at first.

Ginger Meggs | 22 June 2018  

The political intent of the proposed Ramsay Centre sponsored course in Western Civilisation at ANU or at any other Australian university was clear even before Tony Abbott's recent article in Quadrant. You only have to cast your eye over the courses available at any Australian university to see that the major culture presented is indeed, Western civilisation. Whether one is interested in languages, history, political science, literature, philosophy, religious studies, economics, commerce, or even the sciences and the various fields of engineering, the great majority of course content derives from Europe. For those who choose to major in an area like Indian philosophy, Chinese language and culture, Islam, Taoism, or History and culture of North-West Africa, necessarily, they will then be studying almost entirely outside of Western Civilisation. Given the preponderance of Western Civilisation in Australian university studies, only an organisation with a political axe to grind would want to sponsor yet one more course in that field.

Ian Fraser | 22 June 2018  

What is the political agenda behind a new concern about ‘western civilisation’? Would such study be academically independent? If this is necessary, and central to our national identity and history, then why isn’t ‘western civilisation’ already being taught adequately in our schools and universities – alongside the languages, literatures, cultures and histories of all the non-western societies now represented in our multi-cultural society? A distinction used to be made between ‘culture’, which was mostly ‘good’, and ‘civilisation’, which was mostly ‘bad’. In that paradigm, it was clear that no western society really lived by its professed values – ever – and ‘culture’ often functioned as a critique of ‘civilisation’. So what is the real relationship between what is considered positive about civilisation or culture, and the way societies actually behave, and how they configure values and ideals to justify their betrayal of them? What do and don’t they really learn from their roots and histories? And even within ‘the West’, societies are not all alike: there are profound differences today e.g. between ‘European’ and ‘Anglo-Saxon’ societies and their ‘mentalities’, few of which are flattering to Anglo-Saxons. Why is that, and is it yet another failure of ‘civilisation’?

Dr Stephen Lake | 23 June 2018  

Western 'civilization' needs to demonstrate a bit of humility, acknowledge its ideological hubris and accept that the foundations of 'liberty, equality and "fraternity" were not the sloganeering of the illuminati of the 18th century nor of the gas bags of the French Revolution but in the Pauline revolution spelt out in Galatians 3: 27-28. That's the basis of a genuinely human civilization founded on the achievement of Jesus' humanity. Pope Francis made that point, albeit subtly, when he addressed the European Parliament a couple of years ago.

David TIMBS | 23 June 2018  

The charge that university teaching of ‘civilisation’ courses is in the hands of ‘Marxists’ is a hoary complaint that was also made in Reagan and Bush’s America, and itself reflects a one-sided political perspective. It also ignores the fact that academics are required to be as objective and (self-)critical as possible, which in turn means that they, unlike those outside academe, cannot simply push an agenda. And today it is harder than ever for them to do so. It is equally disingenuous to imagine that any recruiting policy would of itself enable faculties to be stacked with ‘Marxists’. A more fruitful question would be, why it is that it is overwhelmingly individuals who value human rights, equality, justice and dignity, and all of the values that ‘western civilisation’ is supposed to embody, tend to be attracted to Humanities and Social Sciences disciplines in the first place. And why it is that it is overwhelmingly people with those same values who actually tend to produce literature, art, music and ‘culture’, while the same cannot be said equally for those who advocate the exploitation, inequality, and impoverishment of their fellow human beings. There is a more fundamental question here about the inherent nature of civilisation or culture itself and the role it assumes within any complex society. ‘Western civilisation’ has been a staple of American undergraduate studies for decades without, by and large, the kind of politicising that is now occurring around this subject in Australia. At the same time, however, it is questionable whether it has ever been possible to study a full and systematic programme of western civilisation at any university in Australia, and it is certainly not possible today. All of our universities have been subjected to the extremely uncivilised trashing of our Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences departments over the last 25 years, primarily by business-oriented managers and VCs, and as a result of a failed agenda shared by Labor and Liberal to strengthen our economy, and the vast majority of Australian universities now do not offer any meaningful and structured course in history from Antiquity to the present, nor a comparable programme in any literature, Australian/English-language or foreign, nor is it possible to properly study the entirety of western philosophy or any other analogous subject at any university, nor do they require all students to master foreign languages in the way that most of the rest of the world, whether western or non-western, does, nor is it possible to do graduate research here in some such disciplines because we have no appropriate supervisors. The most cursory glance at annual global university rankings and where Australian universities sit within them ought to give all of us pause; and it isn’t getting better. Insofar as the general state of Australian universities is atrocious, and both the content and the standards of their teaching leaves much to be desired, a situation that is considerably less true of most European countries (the seat of ‘western civilisation’), there is a very strong case to be made for reconsidering the teaching of western civilisation in our universities. But only if this is part of a broader review of the condition of our universities overall, only if it does not serve any political agenda, only if it serves to rethink the meaning of culture within any society, and only if it is coupled with a stronger investment in teaching non-western civilisations and cultures as well.

Dr Stephen Lake | 23 June 2018  

Quite a few of Andy's critics here misrepresents JP II who, far from exalting Europe and its civilisations in 'Ecclesia in Europa', alludes to a Christianity that has inculturated with and taken firm root in Africa, Asia and Latin America. The dialectical process through which that has happened is akin to what Hegel, Marx and other historiographers describe as thesis, antithesis and synthesis. There are some here so blinded by any mention of Marx as to insist upon world views that lie buried in the dust rather than to submit to any explanations of synchronicity and adaptation. These anti-globalisation purists, for whom civilisation began with Aquinas and ended with JPII, would hardly recognise Europe for what it actually is: post-Christian, with churches, monasteries and basilicas lying empty, totally secularised polities, and resuscitated only by large minorities of Muslims who share their religious sensibilities with Catholics and Protestants. Australia itself, Godless as it now is, has pockets of Christians, mainly in its Catholic schools, in which growing minorities of Protestants, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs take refuge because they sense that mission is far removed from the maintenance cultures that so many here are locked into. Abbott-backers are, like him, mere ostriches.

Dr Michael Furtado | 23 June 2018  

Not sure it's even 'western', the gang of Greeks were more 'eastern', however, as some comments alluded to, it's a bit of a dog whistle. Huxley in Brave New World refers directly when characters and/or devices were descriptively named e.g. 'Adolph Rockefeller', 'Malthusian Belt' and 'Lynda Lysenko'; of course Planned Parenthood (Margaret Sanger and the Rockefeller Foundation) isn't simply about reproductive services i.e. pro-choice versus pro-life, it's about who gets to choose on giving birth? In other words, to understand the dynamics for dog whistling, denigrating 'refugees', immigration/visa restrictions and focus upon statistically inflated population numbers via the UN Population Council's version of the NOM (expanded and inflated in 2006 but unannounced). The latter is used only by UK, Oz and NZ, originally influenced by the American Eugenics Society whose membership included Mengele's boss Otmar Frieherr von Verschuer, is a re-branding and relaunch of Darwin's cousin Galton's 'science of eugenics and racial hygiene' or maintaining WASP privilege. http://www.larouchepub.com/eiw/public/1993/eirv20n19-19930514/eirv20n19-19930514_023-the_population_council_from_euge.pdf Hence, the moral hazard for Christian politicians (both left and right) following political media wedge tactics for electoral gain, and enthusiasm for 'western civilisation', maybe unwittingly supporting eugenics and a fixed class system which previously despised Catholics (but now honorary WASPs)?

Andrew Smith | 23 June 2018  

Ginger Meggs and Ian Fraser miss the point that the Universities are now genuflecting to the pressures from Marxist-left (see admission of the Chief propagandist Willi Munzenberg that “We must organize the intellectuals, and use them to make Western civilization stink” mindlessly dismissing all the historical evidence to the contrary., The Marxist-left is not interested in truth. It never has been, as history attests. So it dismisses genuine research, genuine healthy debate and discussion; it dismisses free speech. So we are now entering an age of the most disturbing and deepest intellectual darkness.

Gerry | 23 June 2018  

I'd say Christianity has survived DESPITE western civilisation (ie the Roman Empire, etc) rather than because of it...

AURELIUS | 23 June 2018  

We have to work hard to change culture. Change culture that does not work. In uni, in the church, ( Archbishop Mark Coleridge in Rome again said recently: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fcr25tDWYSM ), and in society. A young friend of mine said, ''unless your a professed Communist at uni these days, you are not given a say- nor do you 'fit in'''.

AO | 24 June 2018  

Dr Stephen Lake: If there is a "political agenda behind a new concern about 'western civilization'", I would suggest it is because there is a sufficient and growing number of people, including the aspirational, who value, it deficiencies notwithstanding, the humanizing benefits of western civilization - culturally, economically, intellectually, spiritually - and recognize that the values on which it is founded and its legacy are under assault; ironically, in many cases, by those who are its beneficiaries in universities, by means of a hegemony of postmodernist and neo-Marxist course content in the Humanities, which are being supplanted in school curriculum by courses deemed to be of immediate relevance, such as behaviour management, sex education and vocational education. Engaging as these may be in a society where the traditional family has suffered significant breakdown, inordinate emphasis on 'hands-on' courses in schools such as these all but rules out student engagement with the broader, historically and philosophically contexted issues Humanities courses, properly speaking, offer; and which can offer liberating perspectives. To my mind, the situation is not irreversible, but needs to be addressed: beginning with an examination of the assumption that faculties and the academics who comprise them are disinterested in the pursuit of learning and are respectful of student work that may arrive at alternative conclusions to their own.

John | 24 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, It was Pope Benedict XVI who took pains to remind Europe of the infantile rejection of its patrimony in constitutionally secularizing itself and the consequences of it - the same pope who felt it necessary to alert the Church to the distortion involved in substituting Marxism for theology, a concern also expressed by his predecessor.

John | 25 June 2018  

@ Dr Marty Rice | 21 June 2018. The most 'balanced' comment here yet. We will always be prone to taking sides - it cannot be helped ... we are tribal at heart, that is until we realise that for sides to exist in the first place, and to exist in balance, there is a pivot, one we often forget is there. Life/Society is pivotal living. The pivot (up)holds the truth. God as the being/doing verb - Love, is the pivot. I finally see that now. The rest is all just mere historical, changeable, tribal, human politics fighting for positional power instead of seeking to balance on the pivot. Universities do go with the flavour of the generation, it’s to be expected, but those in them so often just don’t see it – hence the term ‘ivory towers’. And to think that this generation’s expert academics in their universities aren't socially controlled at least, well, that's just the kool-aid bubble talking. It's OK, though, the next generation, with those of the previous, as we are already starting to see (hence this discussion) will challenge the current incumbents, and the current incumbents will react and try to hang in and on to their definitional power for as long as they can. For those whose eyes are opening, just be and do Love/God. Sorry, is that too 'religious' or 'spiritual'? You're so spot on with your comment Marty. I get it now, I get it.

Stephen de Weger | 25 June 2018  

@AURELIUS | 23 June 2018 Yes, I totally agree - Christianity has survived in spite of Western Civilisation. Yes, yes! But, it also creates/ed and shapes/ed it, didn't it? It did this by either the positive expressions of our finest thinkers, artists, rulers, theologians and philosophers seeking truth. These sought to express all the Good in the human species, all the teleological positives of hope and wonder of what it means to ‘be’ a human ‘being’, for many meaning God being God, through, with, and in them, allowing God and themselves to be fully alive. On the other hand, other have sought to take over with their own version of what Western civilisation should be. However, this time that version is founded on their unconscious negative self-loathing expressions of their deeply scarred-by-abuse/neglect within Western and often Christian/Catholic households. Their visions were/are unconsciously driven by the unrealised, deeply distorted psychological damage-based, hell-bent, abuse-based, desire to self-destruct, and to bring as many of the bastards that damaged them as possible with them. Both exist and Christianity and all religions and politics and social movements and isms, exist in both their evil AND holy forms, (as is the case within us all as individuals as well), survives. It is that reality that is not influenced by generational, political and religious agendas. Life is not an external issue, but an internal one, and society is driven by individuals, both good and bad, who are given power. Which is which, is not always easy to discern, especially without a pivot.

Stephen de Weger | 25 June 2018  

Here's a concept that might help explain this discussion: Some here are talking only about 'back-stage' behaviour; others only about 'front stage' behaviour. The truth is, society, institutions, AND individuals are made up of both. See "Goffman's Front Stage and Back Stage Behaviour" ... (A product of Western Civilisation) https://www.thoughtco.com/goffmans-front-stage-and-back-stage-behavior-4087971 And then there's 'off stage' !!!!!

Stephen de Weger | 25 June 2018  

Gerry states, "Ginger Meggs and Ian Fraser miss the point that the Universities are now genuflecting to the pressures from Marxist-left ..." I have degrees in science, engineering, and philosophy, the latter including history of ideas, from two Australian universities, and I am therefore in position to argue that there is no over-emphasis on Marx or Marxism in any of the courses I have studied. My two children have degrees from another Australian university, one in commerce, the other in psychology. My wife has a Dip. Ed. from yet another Australian university. Again no preponderance of Marx or Marxism. Gerry, please let Ginger Meggs and me know what courses you are speaking of, and which university.

Ian Fraser | 25 June 2018  

There is an excellent supplement to this discussion in today's Sydney Morning Herald, written by the president of St John's Liberal Arts College in the US. It concludes with, "It is incumbent upon those who are passionate about higher education in Australia to consider whether the program proposed by the Ramsay Centre might equally enrich the lives and prospects of future generations of Australian students".

john frawley | 25 June 2018  

John, l'Osservatore Romano, reporting Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich. stated: “Without Karl Marx, there would not be any Catholic social doctrine, emphasising that the sociologist is not responsible for the crimes committed in his name...The Church’s social teaching owes recognition to Marx." Quoting Jesuit theologian Oswald von Nell-Breuning, Marx said: “This doesn’t mean that he’s a father of the Church. But his position has always been a point of discussion....We shouldn’t have allowed unbridled capitalism to steal from us the banner of justice towards the workers and of solidarity towards those who are trampled...Historically we need to separate a thinker from what was later done in his name by others... He must not be held responsible for all that was done as a result of his theories, even up to the Stalin gulags...Now that real socialism has ended in Europe, it’s perhaps possible to have a more impartial look at his philosophy, because he’s a thinker who’s contributed to shaping our history, even in a negative sense." (200th anniversary, Marx's Manifesto, May 5, 2018). Among other things, the Cardinal highlighted that Karl Marx was an “acute analyst of capitalism, and that today its political and ecological impact have become visible.”

Dr Michael Furtado | 25 June 2018  

“What is Western civilisation anyway?” You should be able to feel it when you see it.

Roy Chen Yee | 26 June 2018  

Thanks for your kind response Stephen (@ Stephen de Weger | 25 June 2018). This quote may progress our rich conversation, begun by Fr Andrew:- "In Jesus, time has been redeemed for the practices of peace. Its presence reminds us that Christianity is not a theory but a practice. To believe in Christianity, we need not only to know about God: we need to see God, to feel God and to love God in all things and at all times. That is our peace, our shalom. Peace follows the shape of the gospel; it needs to be seen to be believed." This is from: 'Living Gently in a Violent World: The Prophetic Witness of Weakness' by Stanley Hauerwas & Jean Vanier (ISBN 9780830834525). What a different world we would live in if every politician had studied this life-changing little book (barely 100 pages of large print). My earlier comment attempted to extend this in advocacy of godly 'power-under' interactions between the richly diverse global cultures we have been blessed with. The proposition is that this strategy has a richly positive future able to inspire and energise idealistic young people everywhere. Monarchical and Marxist polemical western civilisations attract only grey men.

Dr Marty Rice | 26 June 2018  

I doubt the victims of the godless ideology conceived by Marx would be favourably impressed by the occasional Romanese of the good Cardinal and Jesuit you cite, Dr Furtado.

John | 26 June 2018  

Thanks Ian for challenging Gerry partly on my behalf. Irt will be interesting to see if he can actually point out specific examples, let alone a broad tradition. My experience is similar to yours, two degrees at two different universities at two different times, one in engineering the other in arts, and no sign of any Marxist catechising. Likewise my children and my grandchildren. There is an article in today's Inside Story that is well worth reading for those who would better understand what went on in the negotiations between Ramsey and ANU. You will find it at < http://insidestory.org.au/the-rise-and-fall-of-western-civilisation/ >.

Ginger Meggs | 26 June 2018  

Roy Chen Yee: "What is civilisation? I don't know. I can't define it in abstract terms - yet. But I think I can recognise it when I see it; and I am looking at it now." - Kenneth Clark, standing on the Pont des Arts, downstream from the Cathedral of Notre Dame, and flanked by the Institute of France and the Louvre.

John | 26 June 2018  

John ... a) we live in the post-communist era; b) Cardinal Reinhard Marx of Munich, who is the President of the German Bishops' Conference, was appointed by Pope Benedict; c) Pope Benedict himself, in the document from which you selectively cite, was equally scathing of communism and capitalism, it being the Social Teaching of the Church that both doctrines are execrable; and that d) Lord Kenneth Clark's magnus opus on 'Civilisation' was mercilessly panned by the likes of David Olusoga, Mary Beard and Simon Schama, all of them art critics and historians of the highest magnitude. Coffee table memoirs of a television series that lived and died with the Sixties do not define the immensely wider reach of works of art and culture, which, since the seventeenth century, have covered a global terrain, except for those whose sensibilities are wrongly defined, despite the illumination of hindsight, by ancients, such as Chesterton, as it now turns out, 'that Europe is the Church and the Church is Europe'.

Dr Michael Furtado | 27 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, criticism of Marxism does not imply that I am uncritical of laissez-faire capitalism, though I am not aware that the latter contains as an ideological prescription the negation of God. No doubt, Clark has his critics, including Phillip Adams, but our sense of western civilization would be the poorer, I believe, without his aesthetic appreciation and religious sensibility. Perhaps this is largely a matter applying the "de gustibus . . . " principle invoked by you. Moreover, even a cursory reading of, say, the "International Socialist" should alert you to the various forms of neo-Marxist thought and action operative today. (And, for the record, I think it was Belloc, not Chesterton, who coined the phrase you employ about Europe and the Church.)

John | 27 June 2018  

'Europe is the Church and the Church is Europe'. Um, not exactly. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ej8HOhKdZpo

AO | 27 June 2018  

Dr Furtado, I find your claim that Simon Schama, Mary Beard and David Olusoga "mercilessly panned" Kenneth Clark's "Civisation" hyperbolic, to say the least. Schama is on record as disapproving strongly of the snobbish attitude some academics display towards popular history, so I don't see how you can enlist him in a slighting of Clark's work ("coffee table memoirs"). Olusoga recognises Clark's series as ". . . the landmark against which others are judged, the mother of all landmarks, the series that changed television." Like Mary Beard's, his main criticism of Clark's monumental offering was its near-exclusive focus on the achievements of "western man", an omission for which Clark himself acknowledges a case may be made, but not one, I'd say, that demands a glib dismissal of his accomplishment. It's also interesting to note, I think, that Clark's own dedication to art was significantly influenced by his viewing, at the age of seven, of a Japanese exhibition in London, an event, so he later recalled, that left him feeling, " . . . dumb with delight . . . I had entered a new world." Not, I'd think the sentiments of one closed to cultural achievement outside the West. No, it's critics from that school that repudiates individual genius and creativity, and loathes the inspiration of religious faith that are the most condemnatory of Kenneth Clark, not those "nursed upon the selfsame hill."

John | 28 June 2018  

Ginger and Ian may be surprised that many many parents are also shocked to discover that they have been “left comfortably in the dark” while the monster of a new sinister force of Marxist-Left ideology/mythology has risen silently behind them. Many parents do not realise how extensively the Marxist-Left has infiltrated our educational institutions and as Mark Latham describes - are now freely marching in lock-step in hob-nailed boots through all the educational and major institutions, not only in Australia but throughout the world, but under the cunning guise of harmless-sounding titles of “health education” etc. Conversely - Just a few examples of how people of courage and principle are being expelled from their jobs for daring to challenge the illegitimate status quo, fudged figures, blatant lies and hypocrisy in Univiersities, schools, financial institutions, work places. No matter how many years’ experience and knowledge, eg an academic or surgeon may have, even distinguished academics are not being allowed to tell the truth and academics, researchers not allowed to teach the true facts and are shut out of positions which would have enabled them to advance the search for truth via healthy debate, freedom of thought, freedom of speech.

Gerry | 28 June 2018  

My dear Gerry! I asked for specific examples, not more rhetoric. If it's as bad as you say, give us names, places, dates. And as for being silenced, I would have thought, based on recent evidence and experience, that we are more likely to get that from our increasingly right-wing and controlling federal government.

Ginger Meggs | 28 June 2018  

Great books of Western civilisation? No list would be adequate without Newton's "Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia", Darwin's "On the Origin of Species", Ilya Prigogine's "Order Out of Chaos", and James Hansen's "Dreams of My Grandchildren".

David Arthur | 28 June 2018  

The article and 46 other comments remind me of Speakers Corner at Hyde Park. I think the Ramsay Centre was trying to slip this Foundation in quietly without fuss. It may well have worked until Abbott's article in Quadrant. I think that the ANU made the right decision and I say this as someone who vastly appreciates the many stranded tapestry from a diverse range of sources termed 'Western Civilisation'. My 'take' is that you can't 'teach' anyone 'culture' or 'civilisation' in a university course. This is especially so with an overtly cerebral one such as the 'Great Books' approach. 'Culture' to me is something caught not taught. An attempt was made years ago to inculcate me with the Leavisite approach to English Literature at Melbourne University. I regard this as having been a form of narrow minded cultural brainwashing. These days that dated 'vision' - in the light of the plethora of literature in English from all corners of the globe - is seen for what it is. Various academics within the ANU have commented on the variety of courses offered by that university in Western History etc. It seems to me that culture in Australia is in an exciting stage of fermenting into something beautiful and new - a bit like during the Renaissance. The attempt to establish this Foundation at a university seems to me a retrograde step: a bit like Cambridge trying to prevent Erasmus introducing the then new Greek learning there under the banner of 'Keep Latin'. Latin was never thrown out. Talk about tilting at windmills!

Edward Fido | 28 June 2018  

“What is Western civilisation anyway?” Whether you see it as an organism or an engine, Australia works, not perfectly but quite well for the vast majority of its inhabitants, because of discrete attributes that collectively can be attributed to ‘Western civilisation’.

Roy Chen Yee | 29 June 2018  

Thank you John Frawley for your wisdom: "It is incumbent upon those who are passionate about higher education in Australia to consider whether the program proposed by the Ramsay Centre might equally enrich the lives and prospects of future generations of Australian students". If we refuse access to courses like "Foundations of Western Civilisation" sponsored by Ramsay Centre, then we equally should be compelled to throw out "Islamic Studies" sponsored by Saudi Arabia, etc etc. In the interests of logic and fairness, students absolutely need to see the "entire picture" of the world's cultures.

Gerry | 29 June 2018  

John, 'Chester-Belloc' is a term arising out of the close proximity of both sets of ideas, as well as from an approach to Catholicism that is now moribund. I bow to your quibbling clarification but it doesn't overturn my point. As for poor Lord Clark, do refer to Private Eye, hardly a neoMarxist tool to subvert the political aspirations of 'commo's' but instead a hilarious satirical journal serving the needs of Britain's ruling class, for a critique of his by now vacuous arts-ideology.

Dr Michael Furtado | 30 June 2018  

Kenneth Clark's " . . . now vacuous arts-ideology", Dr Furtado? Clark's appreciation of art is not an "ideology": it is an aesthetic, based on beauty and the recognition of its its self-transcending appeal and value. It is a characteristic of Marxist criticism to regard art as an "ideology", and to reduce its value merely to its propagandist and pragmatic effectiveness in relation to the ends of State. Herein, I'd say, lies vacuity and diminution.

John | 30 June 2018  

John, A paradigm shift (also radical theory change), a concept identified by the American physicist and natural philosopher Thomas Kuhn, is a fundamental change in the basic concepts and experimental practices of a scientific discipline. Since the 1960s, the concept of a paradigm shift has also been used in numerous non-scientific contexts to describe a profound change in a fundamental model or perception of events. Such changes, therefore, applying originally to the scientific revolution (or revolutions) to which Kuhn refers, apply to all changes in human thought and behaviour. They go beyond matters of empiricism (or evidence) and address various new ways in which we and others: artists, historians, theologians, philosophers, etc., epistemologise. This has nowt to do with violent revolutions, or indeed any other kind of revolutions, for revolutions, indeed, they are: in human thinking, behaviour, ways of seeing and doing, and, quintessentially, belief. Such 'revolutionary' thinking, is indeed always 'ideological' because it involves the use of concepts, language and classifications by which to explain and define what is new from what is tired, outdated, obsolete and anachronistic. Thus we 'reinvent' Christ when outdated paradigms won't work anymore to proclaim Him. Nothing to do with Marxism/neoMarxism. Ask any theologian!

Michael Furtado | 05 July 2018  

Leading Marxists of Frankfurt and Paris schools, e.g., Lukacs, Horkeimer, Adorno, Althusser, and those like Terry Eagleton whom they have significantly influenced, can, (and I daresay would), legitimately stake more than a large claim in the provenance of today's usage of the term "ideology" and its relevance to art and literary criticism, as well as Critical Theory. The alleged vacuity of Kenneth Clark's understanding of art still invites explanation, Dr Furtado.

John | 05 July 2018  

Dr Furtado, I don't see how proposing Khun's notion of paradigm shift as a model will advance the unity of belief and practice Christ desired for and bequeathed to his community of disciples. Consensus of expert perception only, Khun's justification for a new paradigm, is a less reliable criterion than the established scientific insistence on empirical examination to establish what is scientifically real. The application of Khun's model to theological method is susceptible to manipulation - for instance, the manufacturing of a 'theological' consensus of perception in opposition to formal Catholic teaching - whereas the testing of the theoretical and the novel against the empirical maintained in proven scientific method is more analogously appropriate to the Church's procedure of testing the new in the context of sacred scripture and tradition. I note, too, that Fr Andrew Hamilton, when describing the profile of Eureka Street (28/6), employs the word "reformist" rather than "revolutionary" - presumably because he recognizes that evolution and reform rather than revolution are more relevant to the development of doctrine and practice in the Catholic Church.

John | 06 July 2018  

Kuhn's new paradigmatic theorising is by now forty years old and without any significant, articulate or intelligent objection within the broad scientific and philosophical metier. He wondrously describes a constantly moving and incontestably improving universe of information, challenge, refinement and ideas that have left the elderly and moribund marxist and neo-marxist dialetical materialist modalities that so unnerve you well and truly behind in explaining human progress, discovery, achievement and invention. Indeed, we live in a post-marxist world, though judging by the excitable froth and bubble of some here, one would hardly believe it. As for Andy, he's a far kinder and less abrasive man than I am and so strives to be inclusive of those like you who delight in disagreeing with him. Fortunately I don't edit this journal, which gives me the freedom to contest some of your claims. As for Western Civilisation and Lord Clark, might I recall that Jesus, an observant Jew, had no idea of such a thing, beyond what we know as a profound disregard for the shady methods and brutal practices of those who oppressed his people, elevated his enemies and crucified him. Please don't confuse slavery with a cosmology that includes Notre Dame.

Michael Furtado | 06 July 2018  

Dr Furtado, I'd have thought that Karl Popper's critique of Kuhn's thinking on scientific method and paradigm shifts highly " . . . significant, articulate and intelligent"; and that more to the point here than Jesus of Nazareth's nescience of "Western Civilization" other than in its early Roman imperialist manifestation is the fact that Kenneth Clark affirms Christ's radical and constructive transformative influence on it. I also wish to say, contrary to your assertion, that disagreement with Fr Hamilton gives me no joy, and that instances of it over the years have been rare when compared with my support for his views in Eureka Street.

John | 06 July 2018  

Thanks, John. The jury is still out on the matter of Popper versus Kuhn. As to Kenneth Clarke, the Church has never endorsed his view of Christ's radical and constructive transformative influence on Europe from the perspective of lending particular importance to Western Civilisation, (as Clarke does). Catholicism teaches that Jesus transcends history and all other forms of cosmology 'now and for ever'. Perchance you know the prolific Christological work of Ilia Delio (Orbis Books/Maryknoll Press).

Michael Furtado | 10 July 2018  

To be sure,, the catholicity of the Church, along with their own propensity to decline, ensures that no one civilization is 'canonized', Michael. And yes, I am acquainted with Ilia Delio's Christological ideas, but can't say I'm a subscriber to them.

John | 12 July 2018  

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