This video provoked huge interest just before Anzac Day – academic Marilyn Lake criticising the “mythology celebration” of the First World War.
As Shadow Education Minister Christopher Pyne said, the anti-Anzac Day backlash threatens to put this key national celebration “in with NAIDOC Week, Reconciliation Day and Harmony Day”.
Here’s a devastating and fascinating review by Geoffrey Blainey of Marilyn Lake’s 2010 book What’s Wrong with Anzac? (Come and see Geoffrey Blainey in Melbourne next Monday for the IPA’s launch of Nick Cater’s new book The Lucky Culture.) And this is an excellent column by Gerard Henderson on the reality of Gallipoli from 2005.
But was the First World War worth fighting at all? One of Britain’s greatest military historians, Sir Michael Howard, thought so – here’s a review in the Telegraph of one of his books arguing the case from 2002. This review in the Atlantic in May 1999 of Niall Ferguson’s The Pity of War is worth reading as well.
Why the classics matter
To understand the present we have to understand the past – often the very deep past.
The 19th century French liberal Benjamin Constant understood this when he compared the “liberty of the ancients” with the “liberty of the moderns” to show how freedom in the modern era was about individual rights, civil liberties, and limited government.
One of the greatest thinkers on the relevance of the classical world to today is the American classicist Donald Kagan. Here is a fascinating profile of Kagan published in the Wall Street Journal over the weekend. (He is the father of the foreign policy theorist Robert Kagan).
Kagan’s four volume history of the Peloponnesian war established his pre-eminence in American classics – here’s an interesting review of his shorter account of the war published in 2003.
But he’s also the world’s foremost advocate of university courses in Western Civilisation. As he told the Wall Street Journal:
The fight to shape free citizens in schools, through the media and in the public square goes on. “There is no hope for anything if you don’t have a population that buys into” a strong and free society, [Kagan] says. “That can only be taught. It doesn’t come in nature.”
As our politicians debate the content of the National Curriculum, this is something we need to remember. And he has a devastating critique of the state of Yale University, as he prepares to retire:
As he looks at his Yale colleagues today, [Kagan] says, “you can’t find members of the faculty who have different opinions.” I point at him. “Not anymore!” he says and laughs.
You can take Kagan’s entire Introduction to Ancient Greek History course at Yale University here. It’s meant to be excellent. And here’s an important speech he gave in 2005 to the National Endowment for Humanities: “In Defense of History”.
Reading, listening, watching
One other engaging classicist is Mary Beard, Professor at Cambridge University and an editor at the Times Literary Supplement. Here’s a review of her most recent essay collection, Confronting the Classics, in the Telegraph, and one in the Economist. Here’s a recent article of hers reviewing an exhibition on Pompeii at the British Museum. (And in March last year we linked to this fascinating essay in the New York Review of Books.)
Yale University has a huge range of video lectures and courses online that would be of interest to Horizons readers. For instance: a course on the early middle ages, from 284 AD to 1000 AD, a 24 lecture series on Cervantes’ masterpiece Don Quixote, a course on Roman architecture, and another on the moral foundations of politics. There are many more.
Here’s an interesting review of a number of recent biographies of Karl Marx, and why the academics pushing “Marx renaissance” are literary theorists, philosophers, geographers – but not economists. John Gray reviews one of the same books in the New York Review of Books this week.
And also in the NYRB, this interesting essay taking a fresh look at the Dada and surrealist movements.
An important piece in Standpoint magazine last month sheds light on another reason young peoples’ understanding of history is so poor:
Instead of learning through listening to teachers or reading books, pupils are expected to do so through projects. It did not take me long to work out why pupils are so ignorant of British history, despite spending over a year studying it (as laid down by the national curriculum). To study the Norman Conquest, pupils would re-enact the Battle of Hastings in the playground, conduct a classroom survey to create their own Domesday Book, and make motte-and-bailey castles out of cereal boxes.
The problems identified in Standpoint are as true in Australia as they are in the United Kingdom.
The Gillard government’s ill-fated National Curriculum has a similar focus on sources, projects and technological gimmicks. Year nine history students might create “a travel brochure … to advertise the achievements and opportunities available to an immigrant to nineteenth century Brisbane” or use “online conferencing and other forms of ICT to discuss historical questions and issues” (p66, of this document).
Such teaching methods ultimately confuse children, who end up unable to place historical events. In the May 2008 IPA Review, the IPA’s Richard Allsop pointed out that young learners actually want narrative – they want facts, places, names and dates. But progressive education systems are more interested in social movements and theory.
As the Standpoint article argues,
Chalk-and-talk teaching does not make history boring. It is the anti-teaching, anti-narrative and anti-knowledge dogmas within state education that make history boring.
Here’s the twelve page letter I wrote in 2011 to Education Minister Peter Garrett and every state, territory and federal politician in Australia explaining the problems with the national curriculum.
Reading, listening, watching
Not all narrative history is good narrative history, of course. This critique of the radical historian Howard Zinn’s Peoples History of the United States, from this month’s New Republic, outlines the pitfalls of self-consciously political and activist history writing.
And the New Republic also published this piece in March on the long legacy of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables. In the Drum in January Chris Berg wrote about how the musical and the recent movie have obscured Hugo’s political and religious messages.
Here’s what looks like an interesting book on the intellectual thought of Adam Ferguson, reviewed in the Wall Street Journal this week. Ferguson is a bit of a neglected figure in the Scottish Enlightenment. He was a contemporary of Adam Smith and David Hume. You can read his most famous book, An Essay on the History of Civil Society, published in 1767, at the Online Library of Liberty here.
Leszek Kolakowski is one of the greatest twentieth century thinkers – a relentless critic of Marxist thought and practice. This review in theWall Street Journal of his posthumous essay collection (Kolakowski died in 2009) is well worth reading. His magnum opus, Main Currents of Marxism, was one of the IPA’s 100 Great Books of Liberty. In Horizons in November last year, we linked to this great conversation with Kolakowski in Encounter in 1981.
We’ve linked to the great podcast EconTalk before. But this was a particularly interesting and challenging discussion between host Russ Roberts and Louis Michael Seidman, a law professor who advocates disobeying the Constitution. In this later episode, Roberts interviews another law professor, Glenn Reynolds, for the contrary view.
The Anglosphere isn’t the only place where the great virtues of Western Civilisation have come together. There have been many writers working in languages other than English who have extolled the benefits of free markets, freedom of religion, and freedom of speech.
The Dutch Republic, which was formed in revolt from the Spanish empire from 1566 onwards, was home to many great writers and intellectuals who mounted the case for liberty as powerfully, and often earlier, as the English thinkers like John Locke and Adam Smith. (Here’s a great piece from the Freeman on how liberal and open the Dutch Republic was.)
One writer relatively unknown to modern liberals and conservatives is Pieter de La Court, a Dutch businessman who wrote one of the strongest – and earliest – defences of free trade, freedom of religion, and the open economy. Here’s an overview of his life on Wikipedia. According to De La Court, “the highest perfection of politics and human society consists in this single point, namely, that the Subjects are left as much natural liberty as is in any way doable”.
You can read an English translation of his great defence of liberty and national sovereignty, The True Interests and Political Maxims of the Republic of Holland, at the Online Library of Liberty here. An abridged version is here, with a short note about his life. This liberal masterpiece was published in 1662 – 27 years before John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.
De La Court wasn’t the only Dutch writer on liberty. Much of the credit for the Dutch Republic’s religious toleration and free speech is thanks to Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert, who wrote that “Liberty has always consisted principally in this, that one could voice one’s opinion freely”. A biography of Coornhert and introduction to his most important work, Synod on the Freedom of Conscience, is available here.
Another great writer, Benedict de Spinoza, is now better remembered for his complex philosophical thought, but was also a great supporter of liberty. Here’s an introduction to his political beliefs from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Here’s a brief and useful overview of Spinoza’s life. His major political work, A Political Treatise, is also available at the Library of Liberty, but Horizons readers might enjoy this part of an earlier work, a chapter titled “That In a Free State Every Man May Think What He Likes, and Say What He Thinks.”
And Chris Berg’s book In Defence of Freedom of Speech explains why Spinoza was so central to the history of freedom of speech.
Reading, listening, watching
The great Roger Scruton has an important piece in Prospect Magazine this month on the philosophical conundrums of the UK’s Conservative Party – a must read on modern conservatism from one of the giants of modern conservatism.
The IPA will be bringing Roger Scruton to Australia next year. Details will be available soon.
Here’s a fascinating (if very rudimentary!) video about finding Friedrich Hayek’s personal library in the cellar of the University of Salzburg.
An interesting new book was sent to the IPA by a member, The Book that Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilization. Here’s a review by the Australian writer Bill Muehlenberg. My favourite history of the Bible is Bible: The Story of the King James Version 1611-2011. Here’s a review of that book in the American Spectator, and here’s why the late, atheist Christopher Hitchens thought it was a masterpiece.
And a good interview in the New Republic with Clive James. James’ Cultural Amnesia, published in 2007, is a masterclass in Western culture. (A New York Times review is here.) It’s an even more personal and more capricious intellectual history than Jacques Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, which we mentioned in the November 2012 edition of Horizons. Here’s a video interview with Clive James about Cultural Amnesia.
Almost every civilisation has had slavery at one time in their past. Two recent, and very different movies concern its abolition in the United States: Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained.
Spielberg’s film depicts Abraham Lincoln’s struggle during the Civil War to secure passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. Tarantino’s film is set three years before the start of the war, and concerns a freed slave trying to liberate his wife from a plantation. Here’s an interesting piece from George Mason University’s History News Network on what both films say about slavery and the law.
But there remains a story to be told about slavery: how liberal economists fought slavery in Britain.
One common nickname for economics is “the dismal science”. Few people know that the dismal science was dismal because it assumed that all people – of all races – were equal.
Adam Smith wrote in his Wealth of Nations that “The difference between the most dissimilar characters, between a philosopher and a common street porter, for example, seems to arise not so much from nature as from habit, custom, and education.”
But to the English writer and proto-socialist Thomas Carlyle this meant economics was a dismal science. He found there was something “dreary, desolate … quite abject and distressing” about a discipline that advocated all humans be treated as if they were the same.
Carlyle’s essay is available here – the title is too obscene to quote – and a withering reply from the great English liberal John Stuart Mill is available here. The best book to read on the relationship between free market economics and the anti-slavery movement is David M. Levy’s How the Dismal Science Got Its Name: Classical Economics and the Ur-Text of Racial Politics.
One slightly better known aspect of the crusade against slavery in Britain is its Christian origins, depicted in the 2006 film Amazing Grace – reviewed here in the New Yorker with barely a reference to William Wilberforce’s Christian beliefs. The National Review was more forthright, in this piece on Wilberforce and classical liberalism at the time the movie was released. And here’s an interesting discussion in the Weekly Standard about how Britain celebrated the 200th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in 2007.
As the IPA’s Chris Berg has pointed out, the Gillard government’s National Curriculum seems to treat slavery as if it was caused by the industrial revolution and economic progress.
Reading, listening, watching
John Gray has an important piece in the Times Literary Supplement reviewing the new book The Devil in History, describing Communism and Fascism as animated by a “hollowed-out version of a religious belief in providence”. Read the whole thing here.
Here’s an interesting piece on public debt in Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome from the History News Network.
In The Drum earlier this month Chris Berg wrote about politics and religion in the most recent adaptation of Les Miserables. Here’s a good piece in the conservative journal First Things about the religiosity of Victor Hugo’s great novel.
And have you ever wanted to read some of the work of the legendary economist Friedrich Hayek but didn’t know where to start? This EconTalk podcast from December between two George Mason University economists, Russ Roberts and Don Boudreaux, is an invaluable guide to Hayek’s essays and books.
The US cable channel C-Span does unique, hour-long interviews with authors about their books. Here’s one with Jason Brennan, author of a new book on libertarianism, and one with Anne Applebaum, author of Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, which we named as one of the best books of 2012 in the last issue of Horizons.
And finally, there is what looks to be a fascinating exhibition on at the Australian Museum in Sydney, Alexander The Great: 2,000 Years Of Treasures, featuring objects from the St Petersburg State Hermitage Museum. Here’s a review of the exhibition in the Sydney Morning Herald.