Flat White

The Ramsay Centre: knowledge or nihilism

30 January 2019

4:43 PM

30 January 2019

4:43 PM

Everyone must surely be aware that the Ramsay Centre has held discussions with a number of Australian universities as it tries to establish liberal arts courses that would lead to a degree qualified by the epithet, Western Civilisation. And you would also be aware that the leaders and academic followers of many of those universities have rejected the course and bitten the hand that would have fed them the money.

I recently discussed some objections to the course with an academic and was surprised to discover that he did not understand either the nature of the problem that required a return to what is euphemistically described as the Great Books, or why those Books, in particular, would solve the problem.

It would be churlish to attribute academic objections to a left-wing bias just because Tony Abbott promoted a course in a slightly jingoistic way. Unfortunately their rejection of the Ramsay proposal because of Abbott’s enthusiastic if imprudent endorsement of Rhodes style scholarships to Australian universities was merely a front for their left-wing ideology.

Abbott’s Quadrant description of Paul Ramsay’s idea of the Western canon is very much a history tale told by fools, a lesson of “how our civilisation grappled with life’s biggest challenges in British achievements.” That he noted in passing that the ‘great books are still well worth reading’ may well have been missed.

If Ramsay’s thoughts on the project are accurately reported, he was not aware that the principal reason for studying the books of the great thinkers is to understand why we are where we are and if there is anything we can do about it. A quick look at the curriculum being offered for the BA Western Civilisation suggests they have taken note of that offered by St John’s College at Annapolis, Maryland rather than Oxbridge. Although, given the absence of Keynes’s, General Theory of Employment Interest and Money from the curriculum suggests that whoever was responsible prefers invisible hands and market mechanisms (and tooth fairies?) to Keynes’s more Aristotelian, practical theory of economic activity. That, however, would not satisfy the objections of the academic left. Nor does it explain why the course is needed. The reason, in one word, is methodology which is also why people qualified at Oxbridge must also be avoided.

What is not recognised, is that the West is in crisis. That crisis is being played out in the United States in the full scale and dishonest assault on the President by the MSM, political foes and academics only because he won an election that the left considered was theirs. The same crisis, however, is also evident in the dishonesty of liberal academics who are so obsessed with their methodologies that they refuse to allow young men and women an opportunity to make up their own minds.


The Western crisis is actually the result of the triumph of science over of the truly human. The West’s practical purpose was once viewed as bringing liberal democracy to the world. In one sense, the virtue of that purpose was compromised by the utilitarians who abandoned what was right, or just according to human nature, in favour of majority rule and the radical equality of Karl Marx’s theory of history.

The West’s theoretical purpose, however, had been put under siege in a battle between classical natural right and modern science, a variant of which has developed into the social sciences, economics, psychology, political science, sociology and anthropology of today. The other source of the West’s theoretical strength, Biblical revelation, had been under constant assault since the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, despite all the hype, all the promises, the social sciences have proven themselves unable to deliver the human happiness that they promised their real knowledge would deliver.

When modern political science is unable to say, as it is today, why liberal democracy is better than Soviet or Chinese tyranny, it is time to re-examine the claims of both ancients and moderns, in order to see whether classical natural right does not have a better understanding than either its modern variant or the social sciences. Young men and women must know whether there is something in liberal democracy that is worth defending or whether they should abandon themselves to some other music.

Knowledge of classical natural right, the best way of life for man, the best laws, the best way of living together according to human nature, was the project of political philosophy and unaided human reason; what has been called common sense. The principal spokesman for that project was and is Aristotle.

Aristotle was challenged on two fronts: by Niccoli Machiavelli who suggested political success would come from the study of what men do rather than what they ought to do; and by the mathematical science which culminated in Newtonian physics. Newtonian physics became the model for nineteenth-century social science, the scientific study of man, beginning with the positivist sociology of Auguste Comte.

Positivism of necessity distinguishes between facts and values. Science could analyse facts but values, concepts such as justice, injustice, good, bad, virtuous, vicious, what men ought to do, were deemed subjective and unknowable. There was also a scientific project of studying history, historicism, which assumed that all thought was simply a product of its time. Historicism, like positivism, end up in nihilism where there are no principles or values.

It was the Jewish philosopher, Leo Strauss who articulated this dispute most clearly in his book Natural Right and History. That book provides a most complete demolition of positivism and historicism and the modern project. It should be mandatory reading for every university student and those who wish to understand both the battle and why the Ramsay course is necessary.

The crisis of the West, therefore, is characterised by the intellectual dispute between political philosophy, the highest form of human reason and social science. While Strauss’s scholarship and that of his students have begun to turn the tide in favour of human reason, as the Australian universities have demonstrated, the power of the value free academic has yet to be overcome in this country if students are to receive an education to which they are entitled.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that no matter how reasonable something is, its success can never be guaranteed unless someone with authority and nothing to lose decides to make it his legacy. There is a man who fits that bill. He is the Minister for Education, Dan Tehan. My guess is that his Department is counting down until the ALP takes control. In the meantime, they will provide him with difficult curriculum choices such as whether the kids in Grade II should be reading Dick and Dora or Dick, Tom and Dora, or Dora and Jane.

On the other hand, he has the authority to insist that our universities see reason and co-operate with the Ramsay Centre’s endeavours to make a liberal education available to Australian students. It is only a question of carpe diem. He could then always walk away from politics, head held high, knowing that he has contributed more to Australia’s liberal democracy than anyone else in Canberra.

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