The Rubicon Reading Group
‘Go, my original, your glorious way! –
How truth would irk you, if you really sought it:
For who can think of truth or trash to say,
But someone in the ancient world has thought of it?’J.W. Goethe, Faust Part Two
In deriding an old would-be student, Goethe’s Mephistopheles was unaware that he was giving voice to a wisdom that would echo true in the Australian university sector nearly two centuries later. On the 16th of December 2018, the Ramsay Centre signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of Wollongong to fund a new BA Degree in Western Civilisation. The deal will see $50 million provided over 8 years, funding new facilities and a bevy of new staff. However, the announcement has been met with a chorus of near-universal criticism, with students and staff drawing attention to very real concerns over academic freedom and the influence the Centre will peddle over curriculum content, teaching and appointments. Of particular significance is the agenda of the Ramsay Centre, with former Prime Minister and board member Tony Abbott declaring that the Centre is ‘not merely about Western civilisation but in favour of it’. Verily, truth will not irk for Ramsay.
Contemporaneously, however, a small group of students and an ex-UOW staff member had begun planning a group that sought to discover and analyse the “truth and trash” of the ancients. The group was motivated by an understanding that was sometimes lost in the debates about the Ramsay Centre and its place on campus – an understanding that the classic works commonly identified as part of the Western canon are extremely valuable and can be read with a great deal of profit by a modern audience. Readers of Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Seneca, Lucan, Ovid, Boethius and many other great authors of antiquity will discover great minds attempting to get a handle on the political, economic and cultural problems of their communities. Many of these are issues which resonate today: the moral responsibilities of the powerful to the weak; the dangers of the narrow-minded pursuit of wealth; the role and status of women; and the question of how to build a better society and enjoy the “good life.” How the ancients grappled with these concerns, and how they portrayed them artistically, throws our modern approach to these same problems in a fresh light.
We are a very small group, but we hope that, in our humble endeavours, we can counterpose a useful alternative approach to the fife-and-drum stylings of the Ramsay Centre. There is a great deal of value in the classic works of the Western canon, as there is in the classic texts of other cultural traditions. Through a close, dedicated yet critical reading and review of these works, we can study in equal measure the “truth and trash” of antiquity without the ideological overheads of the Ramsay Centre.
If you want to connect with the group please contact Brett Heino