What Shall We Say Of Our So-Called Western Values?

It is no secret that former Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott is a fan of Western values.

On more than one occasion he has lamented what he calls “the great Australian silence” – the neglect of “the Western canon, the literature, the poetry, the music, the history and above all the faith without which our culture and our civilisation is unimaginable.”

Abbott’s predecessor, John Howard, is also known as a stout defender of the Western tradition and its values, and he too worries that we are losing our connection to it: “When we think of our civilisation, we lack an integrated understanding of the contribution of the early Romans and Greeks, the framework of what is frequently called the Judaeo-Christian ethic.”

Further afield, former UK Prime Minister David Cameron has preached the importance of Christian values for Britain.

More recently, and perhaps unhelpfully for the cause, Donald Trump has jumped on the bandwagon. In a rare moment of coherence, Trump delivered a speech ahead of the 2017 G20 summit in Poland, urging the defence of “our values” and “our civilization.”

In this country, talk of Western or Judeo-Christian values has been backed by action. Abbott and Howard are both involved in the recently announced Ramsay Centre for Western Civilization – the result of an extraordinarily generous bequest of some billions of dollars from the late Paul Ramsay – whose mission is to promote the study of Western Civilization.

European settlers in Australia are indeed heirs to a particular tradition (or related traditions). But that European heritage cannot simply be reduced to a core set of “Western values.” For much of its history, Europe was focused on virtues rather than values, and was characterised by an openness to past cultures that were essentially non-European.

Given the revolutionary potential of this outward and backward-looking perspective, it is curious that the invocation of a classical and Christian heritage these days is regarded as hallmark of moral and political conservatism.

When we look closely at the relevant history, this identification seems incongruous. Harvard Classicist Bernard Knox gets it exactly right when he tells us how strange it is to find classical Greeks “assailed as emblems of reactionary conservatism, of enforced conformity.” In fact, as he points out, “their role in the history of the West has always been innovative, sometimes indeed subversive, even revolutionary.” Something similar can be said of central elements of the Christian tradition which have provided the motivation for radical social and political reforms.

I fully endorse the sentiment that we need a greater familiarity with our own cultural, religious and intellectual past. But the study of what we might call “the Western tradition” will not turn out to be as comforting to advocates of conservative moral and political values as they might imagine. We will see that there is no neat alignment of the study of tradition with traditionalism and political conservatism. Rather the relevant history will bear witness to an ongoing conversation and a continuous dialogue with other cultural traditions. That dialogue was as robust in the middle ages and early modern period as in the post-Enlightenment era.

It is here that the great potential of a “Western tradition” project lies – not in the fetishizing of some imagined canon of fixed values, but in the preservation of a rich and varied past that can continue to serve as on ongoing challenge to the priorities and “values” of the present.

And it follows that it is not just long-gone cultures that can play this role, but also those that we encounter in the contemporary world. Knowledge of our own cultural traditions can be deeply enriched by perspectives gained from knowledge of other cultures. As the great comparative linguist and religionist Max Mueller succinctly put it (in the idiom of his time), “he who knows one, knows none.”

By Peter Harrison, an Australian Laureate Fellow and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, at the University of Queensland.

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