Here and there – Reformation

Europe’s House Divided, 1490 – 1700

Diarmaid MacCulloch, 2003

One benefit of doing Summer Schools at Cambridge, Harvard, or Oxford, is to hear dedicated people in seats of learning enjoying the act of teaching.  That was comparatively rare for me when I attended Melbourne University a long time ago.  Well, one benefit of reading this book is to experience Diarmaid MacCulloch doing just that.  The subject is tricky and beset with land-mines, but the author navigates his way patiently and with justified authority.  I had read the book in Penguin form when I was writing on the subject.  The print there was too small to read in comfort.  Now, in this large, and expensive, version, you can take your time and get the full benefit of the author’s learning and application.

Most people brought up in the West will have their own biases.  I am a lapsed Protestant who has an incurably firm view about the impact upon humanity of the prodigious learning of Augustine and Aquinas.  In addition to his primary degree, the author took the Oxford Diploma of Theology.  He was ordained as a deacon in the Church of England, but he broke with the Church over its attitude to homosexuality.  In the Introduction to this book he says ‘I do not now personally subscribe to any form of religious dogma (although I do remember with some affection what it was like to do so).’  In 2001, he was awarded a Doctor of Divinity by Oxford University.  He has also accepted a gong.  Perhaps because any prejudice that he may have may simply reflect my own, I see no lesion of bias in this book.  If I am right about that, it is a very significant achievement.

Permit me another general observation.  In the current debate, if that is the term, about teaching Western civilisation, reference is often made to the Reformation as if it were some unalloyed blessing.  It was anything but that.  It brought generations of war and misery promoted wholly by this schism.  You don’t need the intellect of Kant to see that division flowing from doctrinal feuding is the worst.  Heresy may be the most lethal term in our language.  The Germans know this.  After World War II, they were asked what the worst war they had endured was.  They had two examples from hell before their living eyes.  A majority went back more than three centuries to cite the Thirty Years War.  That war is a dreadful blot on all our history, a direct product of the division wrought in the Reformation, and a frightful debit in the balance sheet of religion on earth.

The author patiently explains how the theory of transubstantiation was not made official in the medieval church, but got weighty backing before Aquinas.  We are looking at a medieval – pre-Renaissance – reliance on Aristotle – and his discussion of the nature of existence and the essential difference between substance and accidents.  In the sweet name of the son of the carpenter, how many of the flock were up for that gig?  There was a related issue of the exclusive (privative) intellectual snobbery of the clergy (priesthood).  ‘Their professionalism was expressed by their possession of an information technology – literacy (the ability to read and write).’  And the priests were bent on maintaining their monopoly – if necessary by burning to death people who had the temerity to want the gospel in their own language.  (One significance of the rise of lawyers in the Inns of Court was that they also challenged this monopoly.)

And then the author goes straight on to another disaster that is still wreaking misery for so many in and out of the church.

Clergy were increasingly differentiated from the laity by the official attempt to make the clergy celibate for the whole of their careers, thus separating them from the sexuality which is the most intimate mark of an ordinary human being.  This was a requirement borrowed by the clergy from a separate and distinctive section of the Church’s life – monasticism.

Does one of the great cancers on our community come down to us still from the monastery?

The author is particularly good on two doctrines that in my view have blighted mankind – original sin and predestination.  (OK – here are my prejudices – Augustine and Aquinas took the simple teaching of a Jewish Hasid (holy man) and drenched it in the chilling but pretentious logic of Aristotle and Plato – and it’s a fair bet that the son of the carpenter had never heard of either – and so armed generations of priests with the power to put down you and me for the benefit of their God; it was a bizarre and cruel form of religious authoritarianism that lasted for centuries – and makes the balance sheet look even worse for religion.)

In the Epistle to the Romans, Paul gave an extended commentary on the biblical story of Adam and Eve as they committed the first act of disobedience to God in the Garden of Eden: the first sin.  Augustine saw this corruption – original sin – as passed down from Adam to all humanity like a hereditary disease, and he linked heredity to sex, because like all heredity, sin was embodied in the act of procreation….All sin was thus Adam’s first sin, and no human being could escape it…..Augustine’s intellectual formation had been in a late form of Plato’s philosophy: Plato’s deity was perfect, individual and incapable of suffering, because suffering involves change which implies imperfection.  Since the perfect deity cannot change his mind, his decision about whom he chooses from humanity must be made only once.  All the saved must be predestined to salvation (and though Augustine rarely said this explicitly, all the dammed to damnation)….One can easily sympathise with the dry observation of the modern theologian Horton Davies that a God who cannot suffer is insufferable.

Well, people who say that a people as a whole are cursed with a hereditary disease have at least one very ugly fellow traveller.

Just what was it that gave these whizz kids the right to seek to wedge the infinity of God or the mercy of Christ between their paltry syllogisms?  And how do you seek to get someone into a church when at the back of your head is a song that says ‘Tough banana, your number’s already up, Sport’?  And in getting faith to take on logic with no runs or goals in, were they being any smarter than the Marylebone Cricket Club offering to take on the Yankees at baseball?

The thinking of the medieval church on indulgences being sold out of a ‘treasury of merit’ was as attractive as the thinking underlying derivatives that gave us the GFC.  Luther?

In any century in which he was born, Luther would have guaranteed a richly memorable night out, whether hilariously entertaining or infuriatingly quarrelsome.  Yet Freud is of little help in understanding Luther, whereas Augustine….is of central importance.

Although Luther rejected Aristotle, he could not break out of the gloom of Augustine.  Or the intellectualism – Luther came up with his own incantation that you won’t find in the bits in red – justification by faith alone.  Is that any more intelligible than transubstantiation?  Well, what got to Luther about indulgences was that they were dead against his own doctrine.  Logic then led him to deny the worth of good works.  ‘This was the parting blow of his book, and it was the very heart of the Reformation’s reassertion of the darkest side of Augustine: a proclamation that the humanist project of reasonable reform was redundant.’

And logic also led to division and death among the revolutionaries.  In 1526 four were solemnly drowned for being too progressive about baptism.  The community following Zwingli ‘committed itself to a policy of coercing and punishing fellow reformers whose crime was to be too radical.’ This is inevitable in revolutions.  And Luther would find out, with Lindy Chamberlin, that if you open your mouth often enough, you will put your foot in it.  The Peasants’ War was put down with the torture and death of thousands who had survived the battlefield.  ‘Luther, the champion of the ordinary Christian, had been transformed into an apologist for official savagery…’

The author deals briskly with Calvin.  Perhaps I might refer to what I said elsewhere after referring to MacCulloch.

God lets out the odds to make the winners feel better.  What kind of God would want to do that to his creation?  This kind of thing may have got by when Calvinists were a minority faith.  They could look at the masses outside for the damned.  But what if everyone came inside, and there was no one outside to look down on?  A minister addresses a congregation of 100 people.  Only one will be saved.  And guess who everyone thinks that will be….. In truth, there was more than just a touch of the soulless doctrinaire Lenin in Calvin.  These smug, dour killers of joy have probably done far more damage to the cause of religion than the Renaissance Popes.

The English reformation had nothing to do with God or religion and everything to do with Henry VIII and politics.  MacCulloch – charitably, perhaps – says that Harry believed his first marriage was bad, but he mentions that this king ‘cruelly emphasised his commitment to his personally devised religious ‘middle way’ by executing three papal loyalists and three evangelicals.’  That’s more Stalin than Lenin.  One evangelical observed that Harry liked to celebrate a new wedding by burning someone at the stake.

What about the Counter-Reformation?

Luther’s parallel solitary struggles with God led him ultimately to a sense that his salvation was an unconditional gift of God, making him free of all his natural bonds; this freedom empowered him to defy what he saw as worldly powers of bondage in the medieval western church.  Inigo [Loyola] found that his encounter with God was best expressed in forms drawn from the Iberian society which had created the most triumphant form of that same church: chivalric expressions of duty and service.  The contrasting conversion experiences thus led respectively to rebellion and obedience.  It was a momentous symbol of what came to separate Protestant Reformation and Catholic Counter-Reformation.

And could we see different developments in the civil polities on either side of that fault-line?

We are about half way through the book – near the end of Volume I.  The second part covers the bloody aftermath, including the Thirty Years’ War.  It may drag for some.

The final part refers to the Enlightenment and, as published in 2003, says this:

….the revelation of child abuse by certain clergy and religious of the Church….has had a catastrophic effect on the perception of the Church hierarchy in the English-speaking Catholic world, and if Catholics in other cultural settings react in the same way when they begin to take notice of what has happened, the effects on Roman Catholicism are likely to be profound.  The crisis places a question mark against the imposition of compulsory celibacy on the Church’s ministry as formidable as any posed by Protestants in the first decades of the Reformation.

That is an example of the insight and clear exposition of this model book of history.

Passing Bull 165 – It’s everywhere

Wherever you look, the bullshit in politics is so ripe that comment is unnecessary.  It speaks for itself.


‘I have no truck with bullying or intimidation in whatever form it is,’ Mr Morrison said. ‘‘I am the father of two young daughters and I have no truck with that sort of behaviour.

‘One of the things we are moving quickly to do is restore the strong culture in the Liberal Party and bring the party together and show the stability and unity that is necessary.’

Australian Financial Review 30 August, 2018

A  senior Liberal source familiar with the situation said when the police came investigating, Senator Cash ‘was asked to co-operate and she didn’t’.

She instead referred the police to her public statements on the issue, telling them, ‘I said everything I know at Senate estimates, I have nothing to add,’ the source claimed.

She was subsequently subpoenaed by the AWU as a witness. She instructed her lawyers to fight the subpoena.

Sources close to the senator rejected the assertion she was unco-operative. They say her reference to her public statements was the equivalent of giving a voluntary statement and the police were satisfied because ‘there was no follow-up by the AFP’.

Senator Cash declined to comment on the matter, saying her focus was about moving past the events of last week.

Australian Financial Review 31 August, 2018

Former Liberal Senator Helen Kroger, who chairs the party’s women committee, says, however, that the party does not have a bullying problem, although she acknowledged that it should have more female representation.  ‘I feel deeply sorry for Julia Banks’, Kroger told the ABC.  ‘But politics is a career not for everyone.  That’s the bottom line.

Australian Financial Review, 1-2 September, 2018

Cue West Australian Liberal MP Andrew Hastie, who on Friday turned up at a rally of striking members of the Australian Workers’ Union rally, 31 days into an industrial dispute with aluminium maker Alcoa. Mr Hastie – a so-called ‘‘conservative’’ Liberal MP – told the striking workers from a labour collective once led by Labor leader Bill Shorten that he supported their demands for better redundancy payouts and for minimum staffing levels. The former SAS officer blamed irresponsible climate policy for driving up power prices so much that it was forcing companies to screw down workers’ conditions.

Australian Financial Review 10 September 2018

An outspoken critic of subsidies for renewable forms of energy like wind farms and solar panels, Taylor said: ‘There will be no ideology in what I do.  My goal, the goal of my department and the goal of the electricity sector, must be simple and unambiguous – get prices down while keeping the lights on.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018

The premier and several senior colleagues acknowledged that Turnbull’s knifing had deterred some voters in Wagga but the federal senator Jim Molan dismissed those concerns, saying it ‘wasn’t a factor.

‘People were very disappointed that we were spending time taking about ourselves and to ourselves but it’s something that every now and again that you’ve got to go through,’ Molan said. ‘We don’t go through leadership spill for fun, I can tell you that.’

The Guardian, 10 September, 2018


I did say that comment was unnecessary, but the AFR did publish the following letter.

Dear Editor,

The evil of banality

Phillip Coorey had a destabilising effect on my breakfast this morning.  He said (‘Keystone coup’) that Tony Abbott may be the last one left standing in the fallout of the latest disaster in the Liberal Party.  But I was soon returned to that trance-like torpor that Australians fall into when confronted with the sheer banality of their politicians (‘Cash declined to give statement to the police’).  When asked about her role in another self-incurred fiasco, Senator Cash declined to comment.  She said ‘her focus was about moving past the events of last week.’

This is a world record for inanity.

The tragedy is that that is just what most Australians want Tony Abbott and Michaelia Cash to do – move on.  For citations you could have your pick of Dickens ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done,’ or Shakespeare, ‘Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it’.

But, then, did some dolorous soul raise the question of employability?

Yours truly

Geoffrey Gibson

My Top Shelf – Chapter 2


[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.]



Thomas Carlyle (1837)

J M Dent & Co (Everyman), 1906; 2 volumes; burgundy cloth with gilt lettering; subsequently placed in split slip-case with marbled exteriors, and burgundy silk ribbon extractors.

The Art of Insurrection.  It was an art needed in these last singular times: an art for which the French nature, so full of vehemence, so free from depth, was perhaps of all other the fittest.

How would a French provincial official back then have gone about making an observation about King Louis XV in a ‘sleek official way’?  At the very start of this book, Carlyle tells us that a man called President Henault took occasion ‘in his sleek official way to make a philosophical reflection’ about Louis XV.  If you look up President Henault, you will find that he seems to have been just the sort of French official who might have acted that way.  So, here we have a writer who arrests us in his first line.  We know at once that he is writing this book as literature, or, as we might now say, journalism.  But the book is much more than journalism or literature – it is theatre, and very high theatre at that.

As you get into this book, you will get used to being affronted in both your prejudices and your senses.  It is like being on the Big Dipper, and you are frequently tempted to ask – just what was this guy on when he was getting off on all this stuff?

The writing is surging, vivacious, and elemental.  The author likes to see the world from on high, and to put us all on a little stage.  When poor Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette quit the Louvre under cover of night in a bid to escape from France, we get a costume drama.  ‘But where is the Lady that stood aside in gypsy hat, and touched the wheel-spoke with her badine?  O Reader, that Lady…was the Queen of France!…Flurried by the rattle and rencounter, she took the right hand, not the left; neither she nor her Courier knows Paris…They are off, quite wrong, over the Pont Royal and River; roaming disconsolate in the Rue du Bac; far from the Glass-coachman, who still waits.’

You too can ‘roam disconsolate’ in Paris.  It is simple to retrace those steps, and it must have been quite a stroll for the Queen of France.  Instead of heading up the Rue de L’Echelle, they went up Rue Saint Honoré, and then ended up on the left Bank.  What turn might the Revolution have taken if the Queen had turned the other way?  Or if the Austrian Marie Antoinette had known as least something of the lay-out of Paris?  That the Louvre was then as it is now on the Right Bank?

The coach driven by the Swedish Count Fersen gets the royal family out of Paris ‘through the ambrosial night.  Sleeping Paris is now all on the right-hand side of him; silent except for some snoring hum…’  There is a change of carriage and then a German coachman thunders toward the East and the dawn.  ‘The Universe, O my brothers, is flinging wide its portals for the Levee of the GREAT HIGH KING.  Thou, poor King Louis, fares nevertheless, as mortals do, toward Orient lands of Hope; and the Tuileries with its Levées, and France and the Earth itself, is but a larger kind of doghutch, -occasionally going rabid.’  This is very typical – a surge of Old Testament, Shakespeare and Romantic poetry that invokes the heavens, and then falls calmly but flat in the gutter.

Louis is spotted by a tough old patriot called Drouet who recognized the nameless traveller from the portrait on the currency.  They are brought back from Varennes to the City of Light.  At Saint Antoine, the workers and the poor have a placard; ‘Whosoever insults Louis shall be caned; whosoever applauds him shall be hanged.’  This was the second time that the family was returned to Paris.  The first was when the fishwives brought them in from Versailles.  Carlyle had then said: ‘Poor Louis has two other Paris Processions to make; one ludicrous ignominious like this: the other not ludicrous nor ignominious, but serious, nay sublime.’

Carlyle would later become infatuated with heroes and the idea of the strong man, but even French historians struggle to find heroes in their Revolution.  Carlyle does his best for Mirabeau and Danton, but they were both on the take.  The bad guys are easy for him – Marat and Robespierre.  (Both Danton and Robespierre used the ‘de’ before it became lethally unfashionable.)  When someone moots a Republic after the flight to Varennes, we get: ‘“A Republic?” said the Seagreen, with one of his dry husky unsportful laughs, “what is that?”  O seagreen Incorruptible, thou shalt see!’  After Robespierre lies low in the general unrest, we get: ‘Understand this, however: that incorruptible Robespierre is not wanting, now when the brunt of battle is past; in a stealthy way the seagreen man sits there, his feline eyes excellent in the twilight…..How changed for Marat; lifted from his dark cellar into this luminous” peculiar tribune!”  All dogs have their day; even rabid dogs.’

The two references to rabid dogs are characteristic.  The son of a Calvinist stonemason in the lowlands understood and loathed the lynch mob, which France had descended into.  At the beginning of the chapter headed The Gods Are Athirst, Carlyle said that La Revolution was ‘the Madness that dwells in the hearts of men.’

And this Scots Calvinist rails against the weakness of mankind like a Hebrew prophet.  He knew, with Isaiah, that all nations before God are as nothing, and are counted before God as less than nothing, and as vanity; and that God brings the princes to nothing, and makes the judges of the earth vanity.  And he knew, with the author of the book of Ecclesiastes, that all is vanity, and that when it comes to evil, there is nothing new under the sun.

The lynch mob was at its peak in the Terror.  In some of the strongest passages in the book, Carlyle tells us how they made wigs (perrukes) taken from the heads of .guillotined women and breeches from human skins at the tannery at Meudon.  (The skin of men was superior and as good as chamois, but women’s skin was too soft to be of much use).  There is, we know, nothing new under the sun.

Hilaire Belloc thought that this writing was ‘bad’ and ‘all forced.’  That moral evasion may have been possible in 1906, when Belloc wrote it, but not after Gallipoli, Armenia, Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Srebrenica.  We have now seen other nations, European nations, forfeit their right to be part of the family of man.  Carlyle is merely documenting one such case in one of the most civilized nations on earth.  Does history hold a more important lesson for us?  Has the story been told this well elsewhere?

So, we can put to one side all the later stuff about heroes.  (It is just as well that the book ends with the non-existing ‘whiff of grapeshot’ – Carlyle had a view of Napoleon that is not now widely shared on either side of the Channel.)  If nothing else, Carlyle believed that people make history.  The alternative, that history makes people, has to face the challenges that it is dogmatic, boring, dangerous, and bullshit.  You will see that problem in spades when we get to Tolstoy.

Carlyle wanted to tell a story and to make the dead come alive.  In his own terms, he wanted to ‘blow his living breath between dead lips’ and he believed that history ‘is the essence of innumerable biographies.’  He has done that for me six times, and I am about ready for my next fix.  The graph-makers can stick with their graphs.  The French Revolution is history writ very large, and it has never been writ more largely than here.

When Winston Churchill came to describe the heroism of the Finns in resisting Soviet Russia, he finished with a figure of speech that concluded with the words nay, sublime.  When a journalist on The Wall Street Journal came to describe how French bankers recently went long on Italian debt, she said that they had done do in their sleek official way.  There was no attribution in either case, and none was needed – it is a comfort for some that there may be a community of letters out there.

And look out for the one who gives you a dry unsportful laugh, whether or not his feline eyes glitter in the twilight.

Here and there – An unsurprising Royal Commission


The most surprising thing about the Royal Commission into banking is the amount of surprise people feel.  What did they expect?

In 1983, a very old and respectable trustee company – Trustees Executors and Agency – failed and went into liquidation.  A very un-trustee like general manager had flirted with property development and short term money.  This collapse was a huge shock.  The Victorian Premier wanted the directors to surrender their passports.  (A few years later there were worse crashes.  Do you recall Tricontinental and Pyramid?)  ANZ acquired the business of the trustee by act of parliament.  One of the older trustee managers was heard to groan that bankers ‘don’t understand trusts – they only know debits and credits.’

There is a world of difference.  If you deposit money with a bank, it becomes theirs, and they have to pay you back an equivalent amount later.  But if you ask them to hold your BHP shares on trust for you, they become subject to much more onerous obligations and you get much more generous remedies.  In the first case, they get your money; in the second, the shares remain yours.  The relationship between creditor and debtor is very different to that between a trustee and beneficiary.  A trustee may have to account to a beneficiary for a profit taken innocently in the transaction.

Some think that the law has nothing to do with morals or ethics.  They are dead wrong.  So much of our law turns on whether people have been careful, honest, or conscientious.  If someone puts their confidence in me, the law says that I have to act toward that person in good faith, and take care that I do not have an interest or become subject to a duty that conflicts with my obligation to honour the confidence put in me.  These duties are called fiduciary.  If I get sued, the court might even inquire whether my opponent’s hands are clean.  So, moral or ethical issues abound in the law.

The banks probably educate their staff about bankers’ obligations of secrecy or confidentiality (which sit uncomfortably with the aversion of bankers to being called fiduciaries).  But plain and simple moral obligations tend to get forgotten in the blizzard of government intervention. They do however remain, and these obligations that are called equitable tend to be sternly enforced by the courts.

What education do the banks give their staff who act as trustees?  What do they get taught about that mystical word ‘fiduciary’?

That is one fault line on show.  Another relates to management.  The law says that ‘the business of a company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.’  At the risk of sounding like the late Bud Tingwell in The Castle, what do those words mean?

Very experienced directors, managers, and lawyers answer this question very differently.  The directors of a bank are not there to act as tellers, but how much direction do they have to give to managing the bank’s business?  Those words are elastic.  Does it matter that the law describes directors’ duties as fiduciary?  What are the directors of banks told about their obligations under the law?

Can you recall a time when we actually dealt with bank managers?  I grew up living beside one.  Alf had come up the hard way.  Alf could be rough and tough, but two things were certain.  Dishonesty never entered his head; and if he thought a would-be borrower was being stupid or greedy, Alf would let them have it – right down the bloody front.

Alf was not into equitable or fiduciary obligations.  He just did his job by the bank and its customers.  Both sides were content, in a way that we don’t see much of now.  If, as I suspect, there is doubt about the management of banks at the top, there is at least as much doubt about how they manage you and me – their customers.

Passing Bull 164 –Pride in race


The word ‘racist’ is loaded and abused.  The term ‘dog whistling’ is headed in the same direction.  I would prefer to avoid using either.  By the term ‘racist’,  I understand a person who believes that he or she is superior to people of a different race and who is content to say so.  The feeling of superiority is not in my view enough.  Many people deep down feel superior, if only because many people feel a difference between them and people of a different race, and very few escape making a judgment in their favour on the result of that difference.  The critical part is the readiness of some people to convey their sense of superiority to others including those whom they regard as inferior.  ‘Dog whistling’ is the name given to those who are ready to express that sense of superiority without getting caught.  The expression of superiority is disguised or ambivalent.  Such an activity is therefore the product of both malice and cowardice.  The superior people are, as the saying goes, eager to wound but afraid to strike.  Keeping any sense of superiority to yourself is by contrast the product of upbringing and manners.

The grosser part of the id of Donald Trump is Stephen Bannon.  Manigault Newman asked Bannon if rumours of his being a racist were true.

He said no.  He explained, ‘The same way you are a proud African-American woman, I am a proud white man.  What’s the difference between my pride and your pride?’

Bannon is proud to be white.  (Let us put to one side the silly ad hominem argument that his protagonist has the same belief and emotion – but for a different colour of skin.)  What is ‘pride’?

  1. A high or overweening opinion of one’s own qualities, attainments, or estate; inordinate self-esteem. 2. The exhibition of this quality in attitude, bearing, conduct; arrogance, haughtiness.

Well, Donald trump is obviously full of it.  But, if we put the Oxford English Dictionary to one side, things don’t get better in the Bible.  Pride goes before the fall and the meek shall inherit the earth.  But it is very hard to think of any meaning of the word ‘pride’ that does not entail that Bannon believes that as a white man, he is superior to people who are not white.  Given the context in which he makes that statement, it is also clear that he is content to say so, and to say as much to people who are not white.  Bannon therefore comes within my criteria for the word ‘racist’.

Bannon may or may not agree.  He would certainly deny ‘dog-whistling’.  He probably thinks his sophistry is clever.  It may be clever enough for Trump and those who attend his rallies, but it lacks all conviction for people who can see.  And by projecting his own arrogance or haughtiness on to others, he imagines a world where all people feel superior to people of a different race.  The resulting hatred and conflict might give a fair preview of hell.

You may or may not agree with that, but one thing is clear.  Mr Bannon believes that he as a white man is different to people who are black – if there were no difference –if black people were relevantly the same as white people – there would be nothing for either side to be proud of.  That then leads to at least three questions.  What exactly is the relevant difference between a white person and a black person?  What is it about that difference that leads Mr Bannon to be happy or proud that he is white and not black?  And why does Mr Bannon feel the need to tell people that he is proud of being white?

Say that I have hazel eyes, short hair, and flat stomach, but you have blue eyes, long hair and a pot.  So what?  What is the point of any difference?  Well, then, let’s get to the real point – why does it matter if my racial ancestry is different to yours?

And what is there about that difference that makes you proud to have your ancestry rather than mine – while you are presumably left to wonder if I could give a hoot?

Why, then, do you feel the need to raise any issue flowing from any difference?  If a blackfella walked into a pub at Halls Creek, or if a white governor walked into his governor’s mansion in Alabama, and said that he was proud that he was black or white, how peaceful do you think that the reaction might be?  If you remain so far unruffled, how would you be if you were Jewish and your best friend announced that he or she was proud to be Aryan?

Finally, what is there for you to be proud of about the fact that you are white when, to quote Beaumarchais, all that you have relevantly done is to have taken the trouble to be born?  Saying that you are proud to be white makes as much sense as saying that you are proud that you won Tatt’s.  It’s just the luck of the bloody draw, Mate.

Perhaps, then, Mr Bannon has done us a service by being so tart.  His is the dark arena of people like Andrew Bolt and Alan Jones.  They like the dagger, but they also like to muffle it with a cloak; and, like Mr Bannon, they are frankly vicious.


Writing on her social media presence earlier this summer, [Lara Trump] noted that her Instagram feed is ‘an achievement in blandness’ highlighting her ‘commitment to her kid, her dogs and her father-in-law without ever betraying a hint of personality’.

‘Woman to woman, I shared a connection with Omarosa as a friend and a campaign sister, and I am absolutely shocked and saddened by her betrayal and violation on a deeply personal level.’

The Guardian, 18 August 2018.

Once you have adapted to the notion that a member of the Trump family might be bland, you might ask how a connection woman to woman – either as a friend or as a campaign sister – might differ from a connection man to man or man to woman.



[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.]



Emily Brontë (1847)

Folio, 1991, bound in boards covered in green moiré, with slip-case; wood engravings by Peter Forster.

… and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.  It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same….

Wuthering Heights has passages like this that some English ladies – and I do mean ladies – that you might meet at Oxford know by heart.  It has become part of the English psyche.  It was the first and only novel of a young woman from Yorkshire who had probably scarcely been kissed by a man, and it fairly raises the question: just what did they put on the porridge of those young girls up there back then?

Emily Brontë was brought up in Yorkshire with a Celtic ancestry of an Irish father and a Cornish mother.  Her father was an Anglican minister and the parsonage was the centre of the life of the family which included a sister, Charlotte.  The girls went to a harsh Curates’ Daughters’ School but they had the run of their father’s library so that their education in literature was so much better than what modern children get – the Old Testament, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest.  The children’s mother died young, as was common in that time, and their aunt had a fiercely Calvinist view of the world.  The children began creating their own tales and legends and creating their own worlds for those legends.  They spent some time in Europe but they were unhappy away from the parsonage.  The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte came out two months before Wuthering Heights.  They are very, very different books.

When you think of Wuthering Heights, think not of a novel.  Think of Shakespeare – the passionate young Hamlet jumping into the grave in defiance of convention to embrace the dead body of a woman who went mad and then killed herself when Hamlet so coldly and cruelly rejected her; think of King Lear, plunged into madness by his sustained rage at being rejected by the one woman he loved; think of Othello, tipped over the brink of madness by the thought that the young, white woman he loved was not true to him; think of Macbeth, who allows the woman he loves to push him so that his ambition sends him and her to their respective hells; think of Malvolio, who is cruelly tricked into believing that his lady loves him and then is even more cruelly accused of being mad; think of Prospero, who uses his powers of magic to bring together those who had wronged him and then brings them undone – and then buries his magic.

Think of opera.  Think of The Flying Dutchman, and the thumping romantic drive of the music of the sea by Wagner, and the story of a rejected loner doomed to roam alone until he finds redemption.  Think of painting.  Think above all of La Tempesta by Giorgione.  Against a nocturnal European landscape, with sawn off pillars and odd buildings, and lightning in the sky, a young man in contemporary costume stands calmly watching over a nude woman suckling a child.  Have you ever seen anything so enigmatic?  What on earth can it mean?  Or are we simply impertinent to seek to put into words what this great artist put on canvas?  Well, then, why not just enjoy it?

Wuthering Heights is the story of a man despised and rejected of men, who is then rejected by the woman he loves, and who sets out to and does get revenge upon the whole pack of them, but who then, in the emptiness of his achievement, is reconciled to the memory of the woman he loved.

Catherine and Heathcliff get close roaming the wild moors, exulting in nature and their momentary freedom.  One day they raced down to look in on the Grange.  Heathcliff won the race.  Catherine went barefoot.  It is four miles each way.  Heathcliff says that they peeked through a window and ‘we laughed outright at the petted things’.  Were they really wild ones?

Cathy tells Nelly of her love for Heathcliff in the passage set out above.  When Heathcliff overhears her saying she will marry Edgar Linton he quits the house.  Cathy then goes on, speaking to Nelly in what might be the crux of the novel:  ‘Who is to separate us, pray?  They’ll meet the fate of Milo!….  Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars?  Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother’s power.’

Heathcliff returns after many years, rich and powerful.  Edgar Linton has very good reasons to fear Heathcliff.  Cathy is desperate for Edgar to receive Heathcliff, and we have one of the few funny moments in the book.  Edgar thinks it will be appropriate for the servant (Heathcliff) to be seen in the kitchen.  Cathy says she cannot sit in the kitchen but Nelly could set two tables, one for Edgar and Miss Isabella, ‘being gentry’, and the other for Heathcliff and herself, being ‘the lower orders’.

The scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff on his return are the most blazing.  ‘I meditated this plan just to have one glimpse of your face – and a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.’

In their final argument Heathcliff looks to Nelly like a mad dog foaming at the mouth.  There is a level of sustained hysteria not seen outside Dostoyevsky.  Heathcliff and Cathy flay and lacerate each other like mad monks.  It is like crossing Medea and Now, Voyager.

Has any other English writer unleashed emotional power – passion – like this?  The fury that Heathcliff unloads on those who should have been close to him – for example his wife and his son – must unsettle any reader.  Heathcliff twice refers to Cathy as a ‘slut’.  Nelly got it right when she said they were ‘living among clowns and misanthropes’.  But the more revenge and power that Heathcliff gets, the more empty becomes the shell of his life, and then we see that the second Cathy is looking to change things by being civilized.

For Heathcliff, God and Satan are one, and equally irrelevant, but somehow he manages to induce his own death, so that he can be at one in the ground with his Cathy.  The novel ends in this way: ‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor –…I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.  It is so English, and so wild.

This book comes up at us like a novel of Christina Stead – like a rough uncut diamond.  It is all rawness, and it is found in Yorkshire, of all places.  Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet come at us from the mists of the past.  (Charlotte found her male lead in Rochester in Jane Eyre – those Brontë girls sure liked their men strong and tough.)   Our novel is altogether more modern.  Heathcliff is the original angry young man who comes undone because his girl is not ready for him – Cathy prefers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, with a little bit of bovver on the side.

Well, who could blame her?  Heathcliff was a gypsy and he had all the makings of a real bastard.  And yet we know that neither was ever going to find peace above the ground.  How come, then, that Geoffrey Boycott was so boring?

Here and there – How guilty was Brutus?


Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario. 

Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives.  They are also close friends.  Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two.  Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part.  That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.

But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers.  They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head.  They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo.  They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down.  They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause.  He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest.  They approach Bob.  Seduction is their aim.

Bob is in two minds.  He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill.  But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend?  In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill.  Bob is finally won over.

Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces.  Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill.  Bob positively fawns on Bill.  When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs.  ‘You, too, Bob?’  Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators.  His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.

Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately.  It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.

So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus?  The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell.  Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell.  What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?

Let us deal with Dante first.  This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas.  Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation.  If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever.  But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.

Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch).  He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic.  On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.

It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas.  One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable.  It would be very hard to argue against that position.

But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler.  Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?

We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar.  There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful.  You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing.  And Judas had no grand ideological plan.  He just took the money.  They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers.  Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.

So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus?  It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.

It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar.  Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

Thy honourable metal may be wrought

From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete

That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.308-312)

Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus?  Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble?  For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?

Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general.  He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10-14)

So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?

… And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing he is,

Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,

Would run to these and these extremities

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg

Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,

And kill him in the shell.  (2.1.28-34)

We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous.  We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.  (2.1.62-65)

Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man.  He will offer a veneer of respectability.  An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.

And they pay very dearly for handing over to him.  He makes three mistakes that doom them all.  He says an oath is beneath them.  He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162).  Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods.  (2.1.171-2)

Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend.  (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.)  He does not want to get his hands dirty.  (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)

The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage.  Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump.  Game over.

There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S.  The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic.  The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs.  This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries.  This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob.  All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap.  In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’.  You can’t get much more up to date than that.

But our playwright had not done with Brutus.  The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine.  The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar.  The Judas kiss.  You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times.  Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.

And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them.  As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’

*This appears to be the verdict of history.  In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:

The Liberators knew what they were about.  Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome].  They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order.  Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words.  They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.

Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.

Passing Bull 163 –The Conservative delusion


We unfortunate Australians have just lived through another ugly farce orchestrated by people who like to call themselves ‘conservatives.’  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Alternatively, if this is what conservatives can do to us, the less we see of them, the better.  They are venomous and destructive.  And the masters of denial have no program for the future.  Building up is far harder than tearing down.

A while ago, I said:

The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they reveled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations.’….

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta….Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

Speaking of eighteenth century England, Sir Lewis Namier said:

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

The fundamental terms are as boring as they are inevitable – compromise, moderation, restraint, and tolerance.  Yet none of those terms could in any way be applied to those in the Murdoch press and Sky News who wanted Turnbull out and Dutton in.  On the contrary, these people favour the direct opposite – the view that ‘the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  I would happily eschew both labels ‘conservative’ and ‘populist,’ but if either has any use, it is to allow us to conclude that a ‘conservative’ cannot by definition be a ‘populist’.  (And anyone who can look at Peter Dutton and think of ‘plain human kindness’ is in serious need of medical attention.)

When Tony Abbott lost office as P M, it was by a vote of the party.  He and his followers did not like that truth.  They said he was the victim of a coup.  A coup involves the use of force to change leaders.  (A revolution involves the use of force to change the whole regime.)  Turnbull has now lost office by the same process.  Whether this could be described as a coup or not, the behaviour of Abbott and his media supporters was a direct repudiation of moderation or restraint.

To make it worse, the ignition point came after the party as a whole approved a policy that offended the plotters; just as it happened in England after the governing party there adopted the ‘Checkers policy’.  And in a world crying out for political leadership, the dissidents in each case complained that their Prime Minister had been able to get majority approval for a policy.

Last week’s farce was as predictable as Blue Hills.  But two strands seem clear.  One is that neither party stands for anything.  Labour v Capital went out years ago.  So did Left v Right.  In the last ten years, big business has become as unpopular as trade unions – and churches, government agencies, and sports administrators.  On the two moral issues – refugees and foreign wars – the two big parties both gave up and are now rock solid in a way that the community is not.  Those parties therefore seem driven to argue about things that should not rationally be arguable.  We then get a real problem like climate change being reduced to a shopping item of electricity prices.  The inanity is brazen.  What you then end up with is a crippling triumph of ideology over evidence.  Can you imagine a more complete rejection of the ‘conservative’ mind?

The second strand is that this is yet another big win for mediocrity.  We had a Prime Minister with intelligence and flair.  We now have a talking head that has got God.  That is such a sad Australian story.

We are left to console ourselves at the chagrin of the lynch mob.  Andrew Bolt was beside himself with rage.  You could taste his loathing of Turnbull through the television screen.  God only knows who shall feel the gall of his frustrated envy next.  He was like a taipan uncurled.  Credlin is frankly vicious.  But unlike Bolt, there is a chance that she believes some of her own product.  If Abbott were a dog, they would put him down.

Finally, most of these fake conservatives are overt or covert admirers of the most unconservative man ever born, the current President of the United States.  This may be just another instance of some mountebanks saying whatever comes into their heads provided it sells.  To that extent I agree with those who see our most recent debacle as just another instance of the world-wide descent of democracy into the gutter.

This is the second time that Malcolm Turnbull has been put down by jealous boobies for being both successful and rational.  On each occasion his successor was a surprise.  We shall have to see if this surprise is as nasty as the first.  Well, whatever else, it will at best be mind-numbingly ordinary.  The people of Australia are fairly wondering what we have done to deserve this.

I now see that some years ago, I wrote:

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor…. By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves….

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful? 

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations’……

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’


For reasons that will be apparent, I have yet again cancelled a subscription to The Australian.  They make it as hard as they can.  After two emails and a delay, I got back a machined response.  It contained the eternal lie: ‘We appreciate your feedback.’  It was marked ‘No-Reply.’

Passing Bull 161 – Omnipotence; or God Revisited


Allow me some Latin.  Rex fons iustitiae est.  The King is the fountain of justice.  That was the medieval view – the court of the King had many uses and phases, as did the High Court of Parliament.  Of the course the court of the king was the ultimate source of both justice and law.  A ‘doom’ might be like a ‘decree’ – a decision in a particular case or a ruling for future cases.

Nemo iudex debet in propria causa sua.  You cannot judge yourself: literally, no one should be a judge in his own cause.

Audi alteram partem.  ‘Hear the other side’ – a judge must listen to both sides dispassionately.

These principles are fundamental.  They underlie our notion of due process, and the principles that are called administrative law.

Only someone morally unhinged could query either principle.

Donald Trump is such a person.  Speaking of what is called the Russian investigation, Trump said:

I’ve decided to stay out….I don’t have to stay out, as you know.  I can go in and I could…do whatever.  I could run it if I want.

He could inquire into himself – and decide the inquiry.

Neither Nero nor Nebuchadnezzar could have made such a claim.  Even God might draw the line.

It is a sad reflection of the inability of a slow spoiled child to accept that other people also live on this planet earth.  When this nightmare ends, some people will have a lot of work to do explaining their silence when it mattered.


And although an integrity officer is also no panacea, it can act as an antidote.  But as mentioned, for this to happen, the role must be properly instituted.

Among other things, this requires that the person occupying the role is truly independent and doesn’t feel a need to curry favour with people within the organisation.  It requires that the integrity officer is provided with unfettered access to the organisation so that they can identify where issues exist and whether people are reluctant to shine a light on them.  And it requires that they are provided with the requisite platform and can speak truth to power.

Australian Financial Review 20 August 2018

Where is bloody George Orwell when we need him?



[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.]


An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle.  The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity.  For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’  Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’.  Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.

My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room.  It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off.  I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire.  Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf.  When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.

There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin.  I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times).  Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.

All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased.  Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere.  Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf.  This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare.  The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room.  The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.

For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.

The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves.  With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking.  Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said.  I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music.  That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe.  I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.

This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references.  I have written about most of these subjects before.  Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them.  Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.

Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then.  (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?)  The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates.  Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.

For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding.  The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.

For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West.  It is not a Top Forty.  There is no such thing.  My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out.  If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple.  This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.

Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there.  As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book.  You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes.  I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind.  The following pages tell why.


Geoffrey Gibson