[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1808)

Easton Press, Connecticut, 1980, Collector’s Edition; fully bound in burgundy leather, with gold embossing and gold leaf and satin end-papers with gold silk sash; lithographs by Eugene Delacroix.

I am too young to be without desire,

Too old, too old merely to play.

It is healthy to suggest that people get punished if they get ideas above their station.  The greatest pests in history, from Caesar to Napoleon, were those who had to learn the lesson the hard way.  So did Adam and Eve.  So did Icarus.  The Greeks said that hubris would be met by nemesis.  In each case, people are trying to rise above the limits of their own humanity, and in each case the supernatural is involved.  Even in the tragedy of ambition of our greatest author, Macbeth, the fatal aspiration is planted by witches.

The German myth of Faust starts with a wager between God and the Devil (Mephistopheles).  (The great Indian epic Mahabharata starts with a dice game that was loaded.)  Mephistopheles bets that he can lead Doctor Faust astray.  Faust has climbed every intellectual mountain and is bored.  Mephistopheles offers to lend him all his powers if Faust agrees that if he allows himself to say that he is satisfied he will be at the disposal of Devil.  The pact is sealed in blood.  The Devil does his part and Faust is able to seduce and ruin Gretchen (or Margarete), but in doing so he enables Mephistopheles to call in the debt.  In American terms, that is one hell of a price to pay to get laid.

That is Part I of the verse drama of Goethe.  Part II is much longer and more esoteric.  Part I shows almost every style of theatre including commedia dell’arte.  People in Germany and intellectuals outside Germany put Goethe on the same level as Shakespeare.  But that, sadly, is about as far as it goes.  Goethe suffers the same fate as Pushkin – they are writers who are revered and adored at home but who somehow lose it in translation.  People are familiar with the Faust of Gounod, and the Boris Godunov of Mussorgsky, but very few outside Germany or Russia have seen the original.

Two passages will show the problem.  This is Mephistopheles:

I am not of the very great

But if you’ll take me as a mate

And go your way through life with me,

I shall willingly agree to be yours on the spot.

I’ll be your comrade to the grave

And if I suit –

I’ll be your servant, be your slave.

This is Gretchen:

I stand before him blushing red

And just say ‘Yes’ to all he’s said.

What a child I am! I cannot see

What he ever finds in me!

In English, that is bad poetry and worse theatre.  Compare these passages from the Doctor Faustus of Christopher Marlowe.

Was this the face that launched a thousand ships

And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?

Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.


Yea, I will wound Achilles in the heel,

And then return to Helen for a kiss.

Oh, thou art fairer than the evening air

Clad in the beauty of a thousand stars;

Brighter art thou than flaming Jupiter

When he appeared to hapless Semele:

More lovely than the monarch of the sky

In wanton Arethusa’s azur’d arms;

And none but thou shall be my paramour!

This Faustus does not go to the flames like Don Giovanni:

The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,

The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damned.

O, I’ll leap up to my God!  Who pulls me down?

See, see where Christ’s blood streams in the firmament!

One drop would save my soul – half a drop: ah, my Christ!

Ah, rend not my heart for naming of my Christ!

Yet will I call on him.  O spare me, Lucifer!-

Why then is this book there?  Apart from courtesy to the Germans, there are three things.  This is a very handsome volume that it is a pleasure to hold and read.  The story has a resolutive charm, even if it is the diametric opposite of the resurrection story.  Finally, about 25 years ago, I saw a production of Part I by the Melbourne Theatre Company directed by Barry Kosky and starring Barry Otto.  It was long but it held the attention of my two quite young daughters.  At the start, the lights were completely killed; two spotlights shot along each of the three aisles, gorillas galloped up and down the aisles to ultra-loud music; they were stopped by a burst of even louder machine-gun fire; the spots went out and down came a single spot on a gorilla out of which emerged Barry Otto as Faust.  It was like 2001, but by a factor of ten, and it never relented or looked back.  It takes balls, but Faust can be riveting on the stage.

Passing bull 178 – There’s one born everyday


Do you sometimes wonder if America will wake up one day, as did Italy after Mussolini and Germany did after Hitler, and ask – was this all just a bad dream?  If no, how did we let it all happen?  Did we just check in our brains, and our better selves, behind the door?

In his recent and wordy book Seven Types of Atheism, John Gray has a chapter ‘Secular Humanism, a Sacred relic’.  (The book is loaded with –isms.)  There is a section ‘From Nietzsche to Ayn Rand.’  The former is a spoiler alert for bullshit; so is the latter.

This Russian Jewish migrant to the U S would become the darling of the type of people who would stigmatise migrants and seek to lock the door against them.  She was an amateur philosopher and she has been treated as such by professionals.  But whereas this kind of intellectual lunacy had been the preserve of one side of politics, she may have been the harbinger of its shift to the other side.  She was into –isms and her brand of moonshine was called ‘objectivism’  Her anointed apostle said that objectivism was about ‘the concept of man as a heroic being, with his own happiness as the moral purpose of his life, with productive achievement as his noblest activity, and reason as his only absolute.’  When you get heroic, noble and absolute in the one sentence, you are assured of vintage bullshit.

This world view is set out in the novel Atlas Shrugged.   That very long novel has biblical force for the disciples of Ayn Rand.  Her view of self-interest was a form of ‘ethical egoism.’  Donald Trump, I suspect, has never finished a book in his life, not even a Famous Five, but if he had, it should have been Atlas Shrugged – the ego enshrined in pure bullshit.  You would not be surprised if you found some autographed copies lying around the IPA.

Naturally, Ayn Rand developed a following of the type called ‘cult.’  She is beloved by the Tea Party crowd and those who call themselves ‘libertarian’.  (A good sane mate of mine says that that word is code for fascist; all I can say in response is that I am against most labels.)  Mr Gray gives evidence of the cult as follows.

Rand’s cult aimed to govern every aspect of life.  She was a dedicated smoker, and her followers were instructed that they had to smoke as well.  Not only did Rand smoke – she used a cigarette holder – so that when she addressed large audiences of the faithful, a thousand cigarette-holders would move in unison with hers.

It is like a soft comic version of a Nuremberg rally, Charlie Chaplin style.  But – hilariously – the faithful were branded with the Bolshevik label the ‘Collective.’

The selection of marriage partners was also controlled. In her view of things, rational human beings should not associate with those that are irrational.  There could be no worse example of this than two people joined together in marriage by mere emotion, so officers of the cult were empowered to pair Rand’s disciples only with others who also subscribed to the faith.  The marriage ceremony included pledging devotion to Rand, then opening Atlas Shrugged at random to read aloud a passage from the sacred text.

So, in the space of a few lines, we have gone from Marx Brothers at the Opera to Mein Kampf, and no one in the Collective knew or cared.  ‘What is good for me is right.’  Someone else said this, but Rand approved it as the ‘best and strongest expression of a real man’s psychology I have heard.’  She later cut the following passage from her first novel We the Living:

I loathe your ideas.  I admire your methods……What are your masses but mud to be ground under foot, fuel to be burned for those who deserve it?  What is the people but millions of puny, shrivelled, helpless souls that have no thoughts of their own, no dreams of their own, no will of their own, who eat and sleep and chew helplessly the word put into their mildewed brains.

You can find almost everything that made Lenin loathsome in Ayn Rand.  There is in truth one born every minute.  Just ask the publishers of Janet Albrechtsen.  Or just look at the mob at a Trump rally – the ones Flynn worked over with ‘Lock her up.’  (And then ask yourself why a three star general should not get six with a four for that alone.)


The more complex questions are about the Coalition, which as Hennessy said on the ABC, ‘is at a crossroads of existentialism.’

The Guardian, 25 November, 2018

As a general rule, we should avoid words that we don’t understand – but which signify pure bullshit.

Here and there – The French Problem


On two of my six visits to Paris, I have been within earshot of the sounds of insurrection.  It is unsettling.  The French love a barricade and the first line of their national anthem has that bogus word ‘glory’ – after the exhortation to take up arms.  That’s fine before a footy match, or in Casablanca, but is that how you run a country?  It helps to understand this French love affair with violence if you look at events in England before their revolution and events in France after theirs.

During the 1700’s the people of the American colonies and of France revolted against their government.  In each case, the government had sought more revenue from taxation; the people wanted more representation in their government; when their governments denied their requests, the people revolted.

It is not just that the two revolutions have a lot in common – the French supported the American colonists against their old enemy England, and the cost of that support bankrupted the French nation.  Since that bankruptcy started the series of events that we know as the French revolution, that revolution may be said to have arisen from the determination of the French to keep up with the English.

The English had been developing a system of government since the Romans quit.  A system of government by the Crown in parliament had grown up with what the English called their common law.  Over the centuries, the English had experienced and absorbed four revolts each of which might fairly be called a revolution.  Between the first and second of these revolts, they had deposed two kings, and the deposition of one king – Richard II – was celebrated by the world’s greatest author in a play that put the fear of God into one of that nation’s strongest monarchs, Elizabeth I.

Armed barons induced King John to agree to a constitutional settlement.  The document, known as Magna Carta, is the root of title of the English constitution.  Since the king was assuming binding legal obligations, the settlement logically entailed, nearly six centuries before the French revolution against an absolute monarch, that the king was under and subject to the law.  This is how English judges and lawyers saw it, and have seen it ever since.  It is the foundation of what we call the rule of law.

This document laid the basis for civil liberties of the kind set out in the United States Bill of Rights.  It also rendered the doctrine of the divine right of kings into a kind of fiction, or regnal Dreamtime.  It was hard for a king to say that he was put there by God, and was only answerable to God, when in truth he held the Crown on terms laid down by his great and powerful subjects – who claimed to be acting on behalf of the whole nation – and where on a very bad day, the people would just depose a king if they thought that he was just not up to the job.

More than two centuries later, England obtained Home Rule from Rome.  It later defended that liberty under arms.  Unlike the son of the carpenter, the Holy Father had not renounced the kingdoms of this world.  One pope had annulled Magna Carta, and no self-respecting nation could leave itself open to that kind of foreign intervention.  The English proclaimed that ‘this realm is an empire’ – it had no peers.  (Before Agincourt, Shakespeare has the French herald Mountjoy giving the message of the French king, ‘now we speak upon our cue, and our voice is imperial.’)  In accordance with their custom, the English insisted that they were merely restating what had always been the case.  The pope issued fatwas and licences to kill the English monarch, and England felt the binding cement of the defeat of a great foreign armada.

This independence of the English church was fundamental to the capacity of the English people to mould their system of civil and religious governance as they saw fit.  What we call the Reformation was a great step up for the English parliament, since it was by its statutes that the constitutional settlement, including the succession of the Crown, was effected.  It was even harder for a king to claim authority from God when the royal succession was prescribed not by the Bible but by an act of parliament.  Putting to one side any spiritual differences, the constitutional effect of the revolution that we call the Reformation has been underestimated by historians.  If you doubt that effect, just look at the subsequent histories of European nations that did not achieve religious Home Rule – like Greece, Italy, Spain – or France.

In the seventeenth century, the English revolted against two Stuart kings.  The English nation owes a lot to that Stuart family from Scotland – they were a one-family Punch and Judy show, sent by God to provoke the English, and not bright enough to avoid quite terminal consequences.

The first revolt is sometimes called the Puritan Revolution.  It was fomented against a crafty and devious royal ideologue, Charles I, by a bunch of religious fanatics in parliament – both Lords and Commons – aided by common lawyers and judges outside of parliament, all king-busters straight from hell.  They procured the death of the king’s first minister by a parliamentary process that even Macaulay and Churchill conceded was revolutionary, but which might stand as a high point of ministerial responsibility.  (One of their great constitutional protests had said ministers should have the confidence of parliament.)  They forced through legislative protection of parliament against the king.

But Charles refused to go quietly and botched an attempted armed coup d’état.  This led to a civil war which the king lost to one of only two men the English have erected statues to outside their parliament.  When the king failed to negotiate responsibly, he paid the ultimate price for starting and losing a civil war.  The parliament proclaimed the end of the monarchy.  You do not get any more revolutionary than that – except that this was done by the law.

But the English were not ready for a republic.  It was too rude a shock, and they were frankly appalled by the excesses of some Puritans – who even liked closing pubs.  The monarch was restored with barely a ripple.  One vital statistic of English history is that after they passed a general act of indemnity, only about a dozen people were executed for their role in a revolution that saw the execution – now called the murder – of a king.

But when the second restored Stuart king refused to toe the parliamentary line, the English people revolted again.  This time they did it in style.  They called in a Dutch prince married to an English princess as a kind of receiver, and handed the Crown to him and his wife on conditions laid down in the English Bill of Rights.  James II fled, but this revolution, called the Glorious Revolution, effectively settled in 1689 the centuries old struggle between the crown and parliament.  The crown cannot get revenue except by act of parliament.  This is still the lynch-pin of parliamentary democracy in England and those states that follow its model.  This revolution was bloodless in England, but it was their last.

But at least as important as these revolutionary land-mark changes – that are celebrated in England and in the U S and elsewhere – were changes that evolved in England over six centuries.  English lawyers and litigants did not go the way of Europe in adopting Roman law.  They developed on a case by case basis their own native body of law based on custom and precedent.  This is the common law, which is still the ultimate source of authority for the English constitution, since it is the common law that says that parliament is sovereign.  The English gradually disbanded the feudal system under which people owed obligations to their seniors in return for protection (a kind of Mafia system that grew up in the chaos after Rome fell apart).  They developed their system of parliament from a small group advising the king and settling disputes to a broad representative body that was nowhere near being democratic, but which could and did claim to represent the nation in calling the king to account and making his advisers responsible to parliament.  They took the idea of a jury from the French as an ad hoc advisory panel to the crown to an essential ingredient in the judicial process, and a representative body in determining cases just as the parliament was in framing laws.  The jury was and is seen as a vital part of the constitutional settlement – in both the U K and the U S.  The Lords and Commons worked together to win their ascendancy over the Crown, and they did so with real help from lawyers, judges and juries.

By the time the English came to deal with James II, one hundred years before the fall of the Bastille, they looked back on, rejoiced in, and embroidered upon hundreds and hundreds of years of legal and constitutional development and political growth and maturity.

The Declaration of the Rights of Man of 1789 contained the following:

When the government violates the rights of the people, insurrection is for the people, and any portion thereof, the most sacred of rights and the most indispensable of duties.

This was a bad mistake by people who put logic above experience.  Of course people can rebel or revolt.  But never assert that fact of life in a constitutional document that might be said to found something suspiciously like a right.  You might end up with a people who are beyond reform by legal means.

In the hundred years beginning in 1789, France experienced those events that we know as the French Revolution and then horrible revolutions in 1830, 1848, and 1870.  Putting to one side, for the moment, the huge death toll of the revolutionary and Napoleonic wars – possibly seven million lives – and the subsequent coups, insurrections, and purges, France was subjected to the following forms of government in that period: the absolute monarchy of the Bourbons (Louis XIV); a limited monarchy ( the Rights of Man, and the detention of the king); a republic (the abolition of royalty and the execution of the king); a directory (after the fall of Robespierre); a tribunate (after a coup); the empire of Napoleon; the Restoration of Bourbons; the return of Bonaparte and his empire; the further restoration of the Bourbons (Louis XVI); the more limited monarchy after the 1830 revolution; the Second Republic (Louis-Philippe); the Second Empire (Napoleon III); and the third republic (after 1870).  Any nation so afflicted must be profoundly insecure.  France made banana republics look positively serene.

The horror of two world wars did not obliterate the French appetite for insurrection.  A revolution is a successful act of treason; an insurrection is a revolution that did not take off.  The French demand and get more benefits from their government than almost any people on earth.  Yet they periodically seek to blow up the whole lot.

The current insurrection takes us right back to the bad guys of Dostoevsky and Conrad – anarchists.  Like their comrades across the water who want the benefits of Europe without the cost, they aspire to what was rightly called the prerogative of the harlot through the ages – power without responsibility.

Here and there – Lowlights of western civilisation


Without seeing an outline of studies for the Ramsay proposal, it is difficult to comment on its educational utility.  I am currently writing my second version of the top fifty books.  If the proposal envisages offering a smattering of those, it will be a bit like a finishing school for English gels before they offer themselves up to the meat market with a sombre photo of a twin-set in Country Life.  If it is a matter of offering a dabble in history, literature and philosophy, it would be like offering a shallow B A before something useful or sensible.  I wonder how ‘Western’ adds to or subtracts from ‘Civilisation’, and how the course would treat the lowlights set out below.


The barbarism of ancient Greece and Rome – whose citizens called everyone else barbarians

The failure of our education systems to identify that barbarism – especially at Cambridge and Oxford

The Dark Ages

The Crusades

Feudalism (a Mafia protection racket)

Apartheid by England in Ireland for six centuries

Anti-Semitism throughout and from time immemorial

The inherent conviction of Kant and Hume, and other leaders of the Enlightenment, that people of colour were seriously inferior to white people

A growing hostility to Islam masked as concern about migrants or refugees

The hardening of attitudes to refugees – including people made refugees by failed policies of the West

The Thirty Years War, the religious wars on the Dutch, and the French religious wars.  (Has anything inflicted more loss and misery upon Europe than Christianity?)

The Inquisition

The Spanish Armada, and its motives

The perpetuation of the lie about Original Sin in order to hold women down

Holding women down

Persecuting Galileo and retarding Darwin

The intolerance of both Catholics and Protestants after the schism

Civil wars in England and America

The toleration of slavery – in some places until now

The spoliation and ruination of all of Latin America

The looting of India

The rape of Africa

The attempted rape of China and Japan

The actual dismemberment of the Middle East

The failures of European imperialism generally and in particular the cruelty of imperial powers and colonising peoples to indigenous peoples

Napoleon, Mussolini, Franco and Hitler.  (Russia is not part of the West.)

The role of Christianity in each of the above regimes

The perfection of terrorism in the French Revolution and by other oppressive regimes – all but the French claiming collaboration with Christianity

The intellectual failure of Marxism and the moral and political failure of Communism

The failure or degradation at one time or other of all the Great Powers of Europe and their Empires

Two world wars

The Holocaust

The Depression and the Great Financial Crisis

The failed interventions in Vietnam and the Middle East

The impending failure of the European experiment

The failure to civilise Russia

The failure of the rule of law to consolidate elsewhere than in common law countries and Western Europe

The involvement of so many religious bodies in abuse and covering up that abuse

The brutal ineptitude of American evangelicals

The present decline of Christianity and the failure to find something to put in its place

The sterility and uselessness of modern philosophy

The failure to confront inequality of opportunity and other lesions of what we call capitalism

The growing threat to the party system and democratic government

The consequent onset of the aberration called populism – the populists and those they follow are the antithesis of whatever western civilisation may be, and they evidence its failure

The sterility of popular entertainment and the popular press

The lingering death of classical music, opera, and modern jazz

The moral and intellectual collapse currently being experienced by the nation that once led the west

The present decline in literacy, numeracy, and courtesy

The failure to provide any sense of vision about where we are headed

The failure to come to grips with the notion that all the pillars of what is called western civilisation – religion, philosophy, the rule of law, courtesy (civility) and a sense of refinement – have failed or look likely to fail with the result that many now see the whole notion as having failed

A felt sense of superiority – notwithstanding all these manifest failures – and a need felt by some to engage in propaganda about the virtues and values of Western civilisation

Which will appear from the response – express or implied – of the zealots of western civilisation to this sad catalogue: ‘Well, yes, we have made mistakes – but we are much better than any other bastards – so stay with us for all of your answers to all of the big questions.’


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1605)

Random House, 1941; translated by Peter Motteux; illustrated with wood engravings by Hans Mueller; rebound in half-calf buttercup yellow, with cloth boards, and purple label in leather embossed in gold.

Here I am with my name in the history books…..

Don Quixote took it upon himself to free galley-slaves.  Some utterly presumptuous – no, more like it, completely mad – officers of the King took it upon themselves to execute an arrest warrant against the Don for this act of madness.  They tell the Don that he is the King’s prisoner and they call on all present to ‘aid and assist the Holy Brotherhood’.  For their pains, they stop a full fusillade from this manic Castilian knight.  The Don erupts in vituperation at the forces of the law in a manner that all of us have felt at least in part when given a speeding ticket.

Don Quixote smiled at the supposed simplicity of the fellows.  At last, with solemn gravity, ‘Come hither’ said he, ‘you offspring of filth and extraction of dunghills, dare you call loosing the fetters, freeing the captives, helping the miserable, raising the fallen, and supplying the indigent; dare you, I say, base-spirited rascals call these actions robbery?    You are a band of officers; you are a pack of rogues indeed, and robbers on the highway by authority.  What blockhead of a magistrate durst issue out a warrant to apprehend a knight-errant like me?  Could not his ignorance find out that we are exempt from all courts of judicature?  That our valour is the bench, our will the common law, and our sword the executioner of justice?

You are now in the world of what the title page of the book refers to as that Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote de la Mancha. He is probably the most loved character in the literature of the world.

Don Quixote was a Spanish gentleman under another name, of middle age.  He read so much about knight-errantry that he became captivated by its mythology.  He went out of his mind and then he went out into the world as a knight errant.  His madness was transparent to all who encountered him, even to his proverbial squire, Sancho Panza.  His most famous exploits were his mounted charges at windmills that his madness led him to see as giants.  As a result, the word quixotic is often translated as ‘tilting at windmills’.

His bizarre and hilarious adventures filled two volumes.  The second contains comments on the first.  He recovers his sanity just before he dies.  The novel was instantly successful and is widely regarded as the first and most popular of the modern novels.  It is frequently voted the best by writers.  William Faulkner read it once a year.

We cannot define the Don.  He comes down to us as a kind of hero, as a kind of clown, and as a kind of saint.  He has his own innocence, like a dog does.  He stands up for the oppressed.  He believes in the Sermon on the Mount, especially that part that says the meek shall inherit the earth.  But he can be philosophical about his mission.  After being trampled by a herd of bulls, he says;

Here I am with my name in the history books, a famous man of arms, courteous in my conduct, respected by princes, sought after by damsels, and just when I was expecting palms, triumphs, and crowns, I find myself this morning, as a climax to it all, trodden under foot, battered and kicked by a herd of filthy animals.

The only comparable character in literature is Falstaff.  Sir John Falstaff was one of the low company kept in the east end of London by the Prince who went on to become king in Henry V.  He stars in Henry IV, Parts I and II.

Don Quixote was nearly fifty when he went mad.  Falstaff was in his seventies when he died.  He was egregiously fat.  This was one of the principal items of abuse against him.  So far as we can see neither man ever married, although at least one woman claimed to have been on the end of a promise from Falstaff.

Falstaff was loud, boorish and rude.  Don Quixote was quiet, courtly and chivalrous – except when issuing a challenge to a discourteous knight or to the unwashed.  Falstaff was usually drunk – at any time of the day.  Don Quixote hardly touched the stuff.  Falstaff was completely dishonest and unreliable and unable to follow the rules unless it suited him.  It is hard to find anyone saying anything good about Falstaff – except a drunken slut or her importuned madam – even when they think he is dead.  Don Quixote was a man of honour, punctilious, guided by forms and precedents.  He professed to be guided by the behaviour of knights-errant of the past and he thought that he knew the lives of all of them.

Falstaff was a person of gross appetite who would now be diagnosed as someone prone to substance abuse.  Don Quixote was almost ascetic, to the chagrin of the relatively normal Sancho Panza, and felt drawn by the precedents of knights-errant to sleep outside.

Falstaff was an utter coward.  (Some quixotic critics dream the contrary, but they are away with the birds.)  Don Quixote may not have been too brave – because of his madness he hardly knew fear, and to the extent that he contemplated death as a possible outcome, he may have even relished it.  He was a man of faith.  Falstaff could have had none, except perhaps when scared, which was often.  They were both nothing if not resilient and the one vice they shared was excessive pride in what they saw as their virtues.  Falstaff could see things differently because he was bad; Don Quixote had to see things differently because he was mad.

Sir Anthony Quayle described Falstaff as a man who was ‘frankly vicious’.  We do not have the same problem with Don Quixote.  Whether or not he is out of his mind, we do not see him as a threat to others.  He is entitled to be the patron saint of those who are off-centre, in a way that Falstaff could never be.  It is not just that we have to get over our fear of madness – it is just as important that we get over our distaste for the odd.  A brush with the off-centre can be liberating for people of all sorts.

Shakespeare launched Falstaff as an attack on the establishment.  Our modern sensibility cannot now accept that the English caste system could treat other humans as cannon fodder in the way that Falstaff did – a trait that the English maintained until 1918 – but we find no negative forces like that in Don Quixote.  He represents a surer celebration of humanity.  The Asian Wall Street Journal on the occasion of the 400th anniversary of the publication of Don Quixote concluded its editorial by saying that the book –

… will continue to have important things to teach us about the impulses that animate mankind.

Writing in The Times on the same anniversary, Simon Jenkins said that 1605 also saw the first publication of the full text of Hamlet.  He said that both figures lead from the Middle Ages to introspection and the modern era.

But Quixote is the more inventive, funnier, sadder, the loftier mind and the better conversationalist.  His dialogues with Sancho, the knightly believer and the doubting servant, are among the most enchanting in literature.

Mr Jenkins expresses the view that if Einstein had not existed physics would have invented him, but if Cervantes had not existed there would be a hole in the tapestry of Europe.  It is hard not to agree.

Of course, people of all sorts have gone overboard over Don Quixote (as they have over Falstaff).  The first published work of Ortega y Gasset was a series of Meditations on Don Quixote which appeared in 1914.  Its temper is apparent from the following, which is anything but silly; it is, among other things, Latin, informed, graceful and spiritual.

In a certain way, Don Quixote is the sad parody of a more divine and serene Christ: he is a Gothic Christ, torn by modern anguish; a ridiculous Christ of our own neighbourhood, created by a sorrowful imagination which lost its innocence and its will and is striving to replace them.  Whenever a few Spaniards who have been sensitised by the idealised poverty of their past, the sordidness of their present, and the bitter hostility of their future gather together, Don Quixote descends among them and the burning ardour of his crazed countenance harmonises those discordant hearts, strings them together like a spiritual thread, nationalises them, putting a common racial sorrow above their personal bitterness.  ‘For where two or three are gathered together in my name’, said Jesus, ‘there am I in the midst of them.’

The two characters reflect the simple proposition that the impulses that animate mankind are the same for a mad knight and his squire as they are for an old-fashioned gentleman, or a waggoner bearing lions to the King of Spain, and they are the same for a drunken knight and his drunken slut as they are for a guilty king and his calculating son, the Prince of Wales.  Since it is the function of art to offer a lyrical reflection on the human condition, the persistence of these two reflections is a testament to their creators.  Between them, our two heroes, we have our protest against Bible-bashers, bully-boys, ego-trippers, footnote-fetishists, God-botherers, hair-splitters, hangers-on, killjoys, logic-choppers, nail-biters, name-droppers, place-fillers, possum-stirrers, shadow-boxers, shilly-shallyers, smart-alecs, tax-dodgers, time-stretchers and title-claimants – bull-artists one and all.

Don Quixote saw his mission simply. It was to relieve the losers.  As it happens, that mission was defined for an English court at that time in these terms: ‘…the refuge of the poor and afflicted; it is the altar and sanctuary for such as against the right of rich men, and the countenance of great men, cannot maintain the goodness of their cause.’

There is a consensus that Shakespeare and Cervantes died on about the same day, 22 or 23 April 1616.  If that is so and there is a Heaven, and these guys made it, some would be entertained by the prospect of calculating the possible accretion to a literary Paradise.

Like Falstaff, Don Quixote is a self-portrait of our own absurdity, and unless we can laugh at ourselves, we may as well turn our toes up – as well as our noses.  Above all, when you put this book down, you will do so with a feeling of loss of innocence that you have not felt since you put down The Famous Five or Biggles, The Secret Seven or The Saint.  This is Spain’s great gift to the world.


Passing bull 177 – Loose language


The White House says there is ‘no direct evidence’ linking the Saudi Crown Prince to the murder of a declared enemy of the Crown Prince.  What does that phrase mean?  It is not a term known to the law.  It is a phrase made up by spin doctors to enable the U S to prefer money to morals under that silly phrase ‘America First.’

Most people looking at the matter objectively are comfortably satisfied that the Crown Prince was actively involved in the murder.  They have reached that satisfaction based on what we describe as circumstantial evidence, and by the consciousness of guilt revealed by the stream of lies after the event in all of which the Crown Prince participated and for which on any view he is responsible.  Any doubt that anyone may have had was obliterated by the high fives the Crown Prince exchanged with another serial killer, Vladimir Putin.  That was a brazen insult to the whole world.  Anything goes for really bad people while the White House is as it is.  Now after a briefing from the FBI, which the President had denied to Congress, a Republican senator says that if the Crown Prince went before a jury he would be convicted.  Presumably the senator thinks that the evidence establishes the guilt of the Crown Prince of murder beyond reasonable doubt.

The evasion of the White House does raise the question of what standard of proof is appropriate for decisions taken by governments.  Our law knows three standards.  In civil disputes it is the balance of probabilities.  The person complaining wins if the court thinks that on balance their version is more likely than that of the other side – 51 to 49 will do.  In criminal proceedings the case must be proved beyond reasonable doubt – and judges are strictly enjoined not to flirt with that wording that they think is well understood by members of a jury.

Occasionally you will find an intermediate standard in civil cases.  If there is a very strong allegation – of say dishonesty- the court may hold that a standard somewhere between the two may be required.  In the proceedings against the Essendon footballers, the CAS expressed the standard as one requiring ‘comfortable satisfaction.’  In nearly fifty years of trying to apply this learning, I don’t think I have ever been happy with my grasp of the issue – to me it savours of like being a little bit pregnant – and nothing about the CAS decision enlightened or encouraged me.

Perhaps none of these standards is appropriate when looking at decisions taken by governments.  The very notion of onus of proof may not be suitable in looking at administrative decisions.  It may be a serious allegation to make that a foreign power is meaning to attack you, but it would be absurd to suggest that any finding higher than one on the balance of probabilities was required before you took steps to meet that threat.

For that matter, I don’t know whether this issue is canvassed by test umpires in rugby or cricket.  I suspect that as matter of fact rather than law or the rules of the game, the standard may depend on the gravity of the consequences.  Giving someone a red card may require more satisfaction than putting down a scrum after a finding of off side.  In the leading case on this subject, the then Chief Justice made one of the few statements on this point that I can follow.  He said that as a matter of common sense you might require more to convict someone of murder than you would to give him a parking ticket.

That discussion is enough to demonstrate the silliness statement of the White House about the guilt of the Crown Prince.

Another silly statement comes from those holding back on dealing with climate change.  They are past denial as such but not past calling scientists ‘alarmist’.  What’s wrong with being alarmed – as most of us are each morning in order to get us up to go to work on time?  Lincoln was alarmed at the threat to the United States and died holding them together.  Ghandi was alarmed at the continuance of the Empire in India and died seeking the release of his nation.  Churchill was alarmed at the rise of Hitler and lost the election after being the prime instrument of his defeat.  Mandela was alarmed at the sheer injustice of apartheid, and now the former terrorist is revered as a secular saint around the world.  And I may add that each of these heroes signalled fair bit of virtue on their way.

The bullshit in some of our press is alarming.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Edward Holmes (1845)

Folio 1991; half red cloth with gold lettering and red silhouette on gold on blue cloth front with red slip-case.

For this blessing, I daily thank my Creator, and from my heart wish it participated in by my fellow-men.

Is there any point in reading lives of the great artists?  What we know about Shakespeare can be comfortably set out on an envelope, and none of it tells us anything at all about King Lear.  It was a drama in verse – what can fact or fancy in prose tell us?  Does it help to know that Michelangelo had a fight with a pope or that Beethoven went deaf?  Perhaps; but if you read too much about Wagner, you may never want to hear him again, and you might swear off Parsifal forever.

Well, there may be something to be said for reminding ourselves that even geniuses are, au fond, merely human, and only one man may have had a better claim to genius than Mozart.

Edward Holmes went to school at Mr Clarke’s Academy in Enfield where a boy called John Keats was a pupil.  He learnt music with the very musical Novello family and became something of a music critic.  He idolized Mozart, but this book is useful for the letters of Mozart and contemporary reminiscences.  This Folio copy is beautifully produced.

In a letter to his father, Mozart says that he played to a count for two days.  This one knew how to behave – ‘he always says bravo in those places where other cavaliers take a pinch of snuff…’  He went on to say that ‘on hearing German melodrama, I felt a violent inclination to write.’

The letters contain many references to his love of the German nation, and to his love of the fugues of Bach and Handel.  He put several of the fugues of The Well-tempered Clavier into his own handwriting.

According to Mr Hodge, Mozart always composed in the open air when he could.  Don Giovanni was said to have been composed on a bowling-green, and the principal part of the Requiem in a garden.  In a letter written in a garden, he told how he had arrived in Vienna to find that dinner was served ‘for me unfortunately rather too early’ – 11.30 am!  Mozart sat down with, among others, two valets, the confectioner, two cooks ‘and my littleness.’  (He was only about five feet in height.)  Mozart told his father that there was ‘a great deal of coarse silly joking’ from which he remained aloof.  Perhaps, but we know that Wolfie was big on ‘coarse silly joking’ in a way that may still evoke a mild blush in the matronly glitterati in the concert-hall set.  But all this was far too much for the Victorian sensibility of Mr Holmes.  Against silhouettes of Mozart, Salieri, Gluck and Haydn, Mr Holmes says: ‘That he whose transcendent genius had asserted its empire over the whole musical world, and who even at this time had put forth unmistakeable evidences of his greatness should be put down to table with cooks and valets, is something to marvel over in this retrospect of Mozart’s chequered existence.  But how admirably he bore himself in this situation, silent and grave and keeping aloof from the rude company…’

Here is a trivia question.  Name the opera taken from Comedy of Errors.  Da Ponte turned it into an opera called Equivoci.  The music was written by Signor Storace whose sister played the first Nanette in The Marriage of Figaro, for which Da Ponte wrote the libretto.  Mozart wrote the opera in a month.  The tradition was that the overture to Don Giovanni was written the night before it was first given, and was first played unrehearsed.

An Irish singer called Michael Kelly played in the first Figaro.  He reminisced about Mozart.  ‘Mozart told me that great as his genius was, he was an enthusiast in dancing, and often said that his taste lay in that art rather than in music….He always received me with kindness and hospitality.  He was remarkably fond of punch, of which beverage I have seen him take copious drafts.  He was also fond of billiards, and had an excellent billiard-table in his house.  Many and many a game I have played with him, but always came off second best.  He gave Sunday concerts at which I was never missing.  He was kind-hearted and always ready to oblige, but so very particular when he played, that if the slightest noise were made, he instantly left off.’

Mozart was only thirty-five when he died.  He was working on the Requiem, and had composed the Ave verum corpus, possibly the most ethereal sacred music ever written.  Einstein said of it that, Mozart had resolved the problem of style.  Either work could only have been written by a man of profound Catholic conviction.

We may be allowed to hope that Mozart was at peace with himself when he died.  A few years before that, this man beloved of God (amadeus), wrote to his father: ‘As death, rightly considered, fulfils the real design of our life, I have for the last two years made myself so well acquainted with this true friend of mankind, that his image has no longer any terrors for me, but much that is peaceful and consoling; and I thank God that he has given me the opportunity to know him as the key tour true felicity.  I never lie down in bed without reflecting that – young as I am – I may never see another day….’  Some hold that those who are beloved of God die young.

Passing bull 176 Bull about theory and politics


When the English decided that they needed to have a revolution in 1688, they went ahead and did it, and they justified it with a theory later.  It was a great success – it was largely peaceful, and it continues to form the basis of our constitutional settlement.  When the French decided that they needed to have a revolution in 1789, they first developed a theory, and then they sought to implement it.  The result was a cruel failure from which France still suffers – they are lethally rioting against government as I write.

The difference between these two world views is as deep as the English Channel.  It lies behind the famous observation of Oliver Wendell Holmes that ‘the life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.’

The young republic of the United States sought to bridge those two outlooks.  The English Bill of Rights was the end product of centuries of development of the common law by judges and of the conflict between the Crown and Parliament.  It is still on the books and part of our mindset, but it gives us no grief.  We could repeal it tomorrow.

The Americans went further and wrote it into their Constitution.  That means it can only be altered legislatively by referendum.  But it can be altered – de facto or de iure – by judicial decision, in the form of a judgment of the Supreme Court.  What is the upshot of that excursus into locking in high principles and theory?  One is the frightful consequence of the right to bear arms as that right is currently interpreted by the judges.  Another is that those judges are now more than ever seen to be part of a political process and the outcome of pitched partisan battles.

We find either result to be equally repellent.  The law of abortion in the U S is for the most part written by unelected judges.  The current president was in some part elected by people voting in an election for the executive so that he can appoint to the judiciary people whose declared positions suggest that they can be relied on to rewrite the law to conform to the platform of one political party.  We abhor that mongrel process.

Australians have for the most part followed their English ancestors in preferring results to theory, and in preferring experience to logic.  ‘Just get on with it and do it – and preferably, shut about it.’  We don’t like or trust ‘ideology’ and what people call ‘culture wars’ are irrelevant distractions from people who did not have enough intellectual toys in their youth.  Most of us think that the phrase ‘political science’ is a contradiction in terms, and that therefore the most dangerous siren is likely to be blown by someone who confesses to a Ph D in that part of the domain of the arcane – and who of course has never held down a real job, or run a political campaign.

Now, all that stuff is very general, and open to the suggestion that it is unwarranted abstraction or empiricism without the benefit of evidence, but it also looks to me to be true.

And that is the simplest way to look at the way we voted in Victoria on Saturday.  We thought that one party had been too infected and divided by theory.  We preferred the crowd who said ‘Bugger the theory – let’s just get on with it.’

The consensus is that this truth will be ignored by those in the media who profit from banging on about theory.  That’s because that’s how they derive their livelihood.  It follows that the leaders of the federal opposition will each night fall on their knees and pray that their opponents continue to listen to and be guided by Alan Jones and Andrew Bolt.  They can be relied on to lead the Liberals into temptation and deliver them to evil – and an almighty thrashing from a vengeful public that justly feels betrayed by people who act more like mice than men.

There is after all a matter of tone.  I don’t want my Prime Minister pandering to shock jocks.  Mr Turnbull didn’t do that and that’s one reason I voted for him.  My estimation of Mr Andrews went up when I read that he refuses to talk to our resident shock jock in Melbourne.

May I go back to England?  It is in a frightful and humiliating mess.  They forgot their mode of operation.  They settled on some ideological objective and then sought to implement it.  They can’t.  Their high theories have collapsed in a heap against the facts of life.  They, like we, should remember what got us here.


Abbott calls for Liberal voter unity.

The Weekend Australian, 27 October, 2018.

Leading headline page one.  Marked Exclusive.  Who else would be silly enough to print that?


‘We are very mindful of the response that our announcement about recognising people who have served in defence has had today, and it was a gesture genuinely done to pay respects to those who have served our country,’ he said.

‘Over the coming months, we will be working consultatively with community groups and our own team members who have served in defence to determine the best way forward.’

‘If this consultative process determines that public acknowledgement of their service through optional priority boarding is not appropriate, then we will certainly be respectful of that.’

The Guardian, Melbourne Cup Day, 2018

We blew it.



The United States of America have produced some great jurists – scholars of the common law and what we call jurisprudence.  In the end, their work may verge on idolatry.  There is likely to be a touch of alchemy at the fringe of every great field knowledge or applied technique.  Occasionally even the bounds of logic get pushed.  But the work of these great thinkers and writers of the law is vital to the bloodstream of what we call the common law.

Roscoe Pound was not born into learning.  He was born just after the end of the American civil war and he died in the same year that the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo.  His parents were true pioneers in the west.  At one time or another he was a scholar (and that’s not a dirty word in America), generalist, professor, dean, reformer, and, perhaps most importantly, a trial lawyer.  He had three degrees, including a Ph D in Botany, but he never took a law degree.  Toward the end of the 19th century, he fought many cases as a trial lawyer before cow-punching juries in Nebraska.  Later he served as a Commissioner of Appeals in the Nebraska Supreme Court.  He wrote a very influential article for the ABA on ‘The Causes of Popular Dissatisfaction with the Administration of Justice.’  His trial experience left him with a distaste for ‘forensic gladiatorial show.’  He wanted the ideals of the common law to be relieved from the ‘yoke of crudity and coarseness which the frontier sought to impose.’  He then taught at Harvard where he was Dean for twenty years.

He had a mighty written output, but all his work is informed by his time at the Bar.  It is difficult to imagine Oliver Wendell Holmes before a Nebraska jury, but is easy to imagine him in deep philosophical discourse with Roscoe Pound.  Pound concluded his preface to The Spirit of the Common Law this way:

When the lawyer refuses to act intelligently, unintelligent application of the legislative steamroller by the layman is the alternative.

The first chapter is ‘The Feudal Element’.

In the sixteenth century, when the Roman law was sweeping over Europe and superseding the endemic law on every hand, the common law stood firm.  Neither the three R’s, as Maitland called them, Renaissance, Reformation, and Reception of Roman law, nor the partial reversion to justice without law under the Tudors shook the hold of our legal tradition.  In the seventeenth century, it contended with the English crown and established its doctrine of the supremacy of law against the Stuart kings.  In America, after the Revolution, it prevailed over the prejudice against all things British, which for a time threatened a reception of French law….

Pound makes a passing reference to elected judges and says:

A system of law-making through judicial empiricism calls for much more in a judge than popularity, honest mediocrity, or ignorant zeal for the public welfare may insure.

That is elemental – but too many elected officials don’t see it.

More on feudalism.

While the strict law insisted that every man should stand upon his own feet and should play the game as a man without squealing, the principal social and legal institution of the time in which the common law was formative, the feudal relation of lord and man, regarded men in quite another way.  Here the question was not what a man had undertaken or what he had done, but what he was.

Here is the distinction made by Sir Henry Maine in Ancient Law between contract and status.  It is fundamental to our history, as is the role of contract.

Then comes ‘Puritanism and the Law’.  In America, the puritans had the numbers.

What is peculiar to Anglo-American legal thinking is an ultra-individualism, an uncompromising insistence upon individual interests and individual property as the focal point of jurisprudence…..Two main factors may be recognised, namely, the emancipation of the middle class and Protestantism.

Further on:

The early history of New England furnishes abundant applications of the idea that covenant or compact – the consent of every individual to the formation and the continuance of the community – was the basis of all communities, political as well as religious.

Just look at the covenant that God made with his chosen people.

In ‘The Courts and the Crown’, Pound looked at the celebrated conference between James I and my Lord Coke.  His trial-bred realism allowed him to see the flip side.

Thus the Sunday-morning conference between King James and the judges, which is the glory of our legal history, led in the nineteenth century to constitutional doctrines that for a time enabled a fortified monopoly to shake its fist in the face of the people, and defy investigation or regulation.

We get more of an attitude that would not have gone down well with most donors to Ivy League universities.

…the fact remains that the present state of the law operates unequally and invites oppression and lawlessness.  No rich man has been subjected to the third degree to obtain proof of violation of anti-trust or anti-rebate legislation, and no powerful politician has been so dealt with in order to obtain proof of bribery or graft.  The common-law right of the accused poacher became the natural right of the accused magnate and entrenched in the bill of rights, shows how legal machinery may defeat its own ends when one age conceives it has said the final word and assumes to prescribe unalterable rules for time to come.

A glance at our jails since the Great Financial Crisis shows that that problem has just got worse.

Under ‘The Pioneers and the Law’:

A pioneer or a sparsely settled rural community is content with and prefers the necessary minimum of government.

This is how this remarkable man concludes this great book.

For through all vicissitudes, the supremacy of law, the insistence upon law as reason to be developed by judicial experience in the decision of causes, and the refusal to take the burden of upholding right from the concrete ‘each’ and put it wholly upon the abstract ‘all’ have survived.  These ideas are realities in comparison whereof rules and dogmas are ephemeral appearances.  They are so much part of the mental and moral makeup of our race, that much more than legal and political revolutions will be required to uproot them.

This book should be read by any lawyer who has what I may call faith.  It should also be read by those historians and philosophers who stubbornly refused to acknowledge the central role played by contract in the development of our laws and of our constitution.

And there’s a bonus – across the 216 pages of this mighty book, there is not one bloody footnote.

So, a man from the back-blocks of the West is generally ranked at the top level of jurists across the common law world – and he got there without a law degree but after running hard cases before outback juries.  He did a lot of work for railroad companies.  He would lose those. Juries did not like big corporations.  One day, when the railroad company had brought the suit, he won!  Someone got one of the jurors in a bar in the capital of Nebraska.  The conversation went something like this.

What happened?

Well, that judge tried to trick us.


He said that the railroad company was the plaintiff.  We know the railroad companies are always the defendant.  So, we came back with a good verdict for the plaintiff – to shove it right up the railroad company.

They don’t often teach you that kind of stuff at Harvard.  Roscoe Pound knew all about it.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Jane Austen (1791)

Folio Society, 1993; quarter bound in vellum, with gold title, and marbled boards, in embossed card slip-case.

…with one argument I am certain of satisfying every sensible & well disposed person whose opinions have been properly guided by a good Education – & this argument is that he was a Stuart.

Like Emily Bronte, Jane Austen was the daughter of a clergyman who spent her life as a member of the very discreet provincial middle class, and who never knew the love of a man – worse, according to the scheme of things back then, neither of them ever married.  It was a time when so many women were condemned to live and die in obscurity.  It is therefore remarkable that their novels were so different – it is like comparing a Haydn minuet to Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony.

This little history stands on the shelf for the novels of Jane Austen.  She wrote it when she was barely sixteen.  The handwritten manuscript is there in facsimile as illustrated by her sister Cassandra, and the text is set out in print.  As histories of England go, this one has the supreme advantage that it can be read in the time that it takes to give the dog a short walk.

In Northanger Abbey, the seventeen-year-old Catherine Morland says: ‘But history, real solemn history, I cannot be interested in….I read it a little as a duty, but it tells me nothing that does not either vex or weary me.  The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all – it is very tiresome: and yet I often think it odd that it should be so dull, for a great deal of it must be invention.’  That would be the view of the author of this little history, the ironical tone of which is signified by the observation that it ends with and which is set out at the head of this note.

The little book is notable chiefly for the fact that the author does not seek to hide or apologize for the fact that she is a she – and one who valiantly defends those of her sex – such as Joan of Arc (yes, the French witch!), Anna Bullen, and Mary Queen of Scots.  Curiously, she buckets two – Margaret of Anjou (the She-Wolf of France) and Elizabeth (‘that disgrace to humanity, that pest of society’) – who were the strongest of the lot, and more than capable of standing toe to toe with the men.

And what of the novels?  The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English says that Austen’s ‘life was conspicuous for its lack of event – allowing biographers to make it a study in quiet contemplation or quiet frustration – and for the strength of family ties.’  That for some would be a fair assessment of the novels, pretty and prim comedies of manners, where nobody works for a living, and nobody seems to live, and hardly anything ever seems to happen.  The revolting measure of the worth of a person by their income – all unearned – and the even more revolting dependence of women on the institution of rightless marriage to take them from one form of oblivion to another form of servitude can, after a while, get you down.

I prefer now to take these novels being read to me by Patricia Hodge, Amanda Root, or the woman with the best voice on the planet, Juliet Stephenson.  That way, the worst reaction that you can get is like that which comes a couple of hours after downing a Chinese take-away.

But, then, who could ever forget the way that the gruesome Mr Collins grovelled before the awesome Lady Catherine de Burgh, or the lordly magnificence of the disdain of Laurence Olivier to Greer Garson when he declined an invitation to take part in archery on the ground that he was in no humour to indulge the middle classes at play.  If you want to get down and dirty about snobbery, the Poms are bloody geniuses at it, and I think that the artistry of Jane Austen was a significant part of the English awakening – and a badly needed awakening.

People like Balzac, Ibsen and Chekhov put their own bombs under the bourgeoisie.  They were all brilliant and compelling in their own right – and they are all on this top shelf – but none was as dry or as subtle or as English as Jane Austen.