‘Look on My Works, Ye Mighty, and Despair!’, by Bruce Buchan

I met a traveller from an antique land,

Who said—‘Two vast and trunkless legs of stone

Stand in the desert… Near them, on the sand,

Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,

And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,

Tell that its sculptor well those passions read

Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,

The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;

And on the pedestal, these words appear:

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;

Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay

Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare

The lone and level sands stretch far away.’

—Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘Ozymandias’ (1818)

We sit amid the ruins and desolation and wonder how the verities of our age became a ‘colossal Wreck’. Our illusions have been snatched away by the course of world affairs. Rights, abrogated. Democracy, denied. Lives, suspended. Not so long ago we were told that we stood at ‘the end of history’, on the cusp of a ‘new world order’. Now that vain boast echoes the mandate of Ozymandias: ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ As if on cue, the political class who drove us to this despair have gleaned from among the ruins of their governance and taken up ‘these lifeless things’ in service to that most predictable of refrains: the defence of civilisation.

Over recent months Australia has played host to a rancorous debate about the purpose of teaching Western Civilisation (Western Civ) and the prerogatives of philanthropists to shape a curriculum to their own liking. I will not add to that particular debate, because Dirk Moses, Richard Denniss, Nick Riemer and others have already so eloquently made the points I would now merely repeat. So let me instead offer a different reflection.

Australians are inhabitants of ‘an antique land’. For us Western Civ appears as once mighty Ozymandias, a tumbled monument from a former time when the claims of civilisation were thought to justify the horrors of colonisation. Now the ruins have been exposed by the actions of our own governments, which have invoked civilisation in more recent service to power: deceit to justify the ‘Forever War’ on terror; spurious security to justify brutality on our borders. Like the ‘two vast and trunkless legs of stone’ standing in the desert, how are we to understand the ‘colossal Wreck’ of civilisation resuscitated for our times?


Western Civ emerged as a curriculum at a range of Ivy League American universities in the first half of the twentieth century. As Europe demonstrated its refined civilisation in the trenches of the First World War, students at Columbia pillaged the ancient world in search of the origins of European genius. As the Great Depression unleashed by the commercial genius of the American stock market plumbed new depths, students at Chicago considered European literature and philosophy as the summits of civilisational aspiration. As the world grappled with the horror of the Holocaust, Stalinist terror and the mushroom-cloud shadow of civilisation’s nemesis lingering in the wake of the Second World War, students at Harvard considered history as a progressive path towards liberation.

The ideas embodied in the curriculum were themselves the product of a longer trajectory of intellectual development that included Victorian anthropology, Scottish political economy, German idealist philosophy and even—it can’t be denied—a smattering of Marxist historical materialism. I will come back to these deeper roots shortly. The early-twentieth-century development of the American curriculum was a response to the perceived need for a course that presented all commencing students across disciplines with a common grounding in the liberal arts. In meeting that need Western Civ privileged a form of knowledge—best described as ‘panoramic’ in its scope and ambition—assumed to provide a foundation for democratic citizenship. This knowledge was dependent not simply on the mastery and repetition of dates and facts but on the absorption of a normative interpretation of the supposed trajectory of Europe’s ascent to political, diplomatic and cultural global dominance, and of the inheritance of that mantle by the United States.

The organising concept of this knowledge was that of ‘civilisation’. As it was used in Western Civ courses and its textbooks, civilisation referred to a globally significant culture that subsisted in the salient institutions, norms and values that transcended the petty divisions between language groups, empires, nations, churches and ethnicities. Inherently, however, Western Civ gave voice to a fundamental assumption that civilisations were also hierarchical. While many cultures may at different points have been significant, the civilisation of Europe was the most desirable because only that civilisation gave expression to the highest yearnings of the human spirit for freedom, humanity and truth.

This inherent normativity was built into the very purpose and structure of the courses. That explains much of the success and wide appeal of the curriculum but also its great weakness as a pedagogy. The normativity of the courses created a fissure in their credibility. Western Civ was supposed to be an account of a process of development adorned by Europe’s invention of humanity itself. Democracy, human rights, liberty, science, the Renaissance, artistic beauty, poetry and literature, architecture, and the self—these were all located in the narrative of Western Civ as originating in Europe and transmitted to the rest of the world. And yet from its inception Western Civ was not merely a narrative of development; it was also an assumed telos or end point of that process of development. It was not just history; it was also and at the same time its culmination.

The schizophrenia of Western Civ as both process and end point was mirrored in the instability of its pedagogical design. The various courses and the array of textbooks that accompanied them were an uneasy compromise between a form of history wedded to the organising principle of chronological integrity and a form of literary studies that privileged a canon of ‘great books’ whose timeless greatness transcended European provincialism. These fissures and tensions were papered over by what appeared to be the trend of world history that seemed to consolidate the impetus of America’s global ascent. The experiences of world war, first and second, and the Cold War seemed to confirm that the United States had ceased to be merely a scion and beneficiary of Western Civ. It had become its crucible.

Western Civ provided another useful purpose in appearing to stitch together from the disparate threads of history and culture a modern constituency—The West—for world leadership. Western Civ provided a narrative that located American leadership of The West in the deep roots of the past, even though The West was a concept unknown in it. Western world leadership was thus pulled from a supposed tradition of Western Civilisation—like a rabbit from a magician’s top hat—as a fully formed imperial bequest. The curriculum of Western Civ was the means of knowing the terms of that bequest rendered palatable to modern tastes in either airy rhetoric (the ‘free world’) or parochial realism (the ‘Anglosphere’).

‘Half sunk a shattered visage lies’.

Many have forecast the impending decline of the Western Civ curriculum, but nothing suits the proponents of civilisation more than the prospect of decline. In part, the continuing appeal of Western Civ lies in the panoramic ambition to provide integrated knowledge that reads the past as a linear unfolding towards the present. Another part of its appeal is its resistance to what is widely perceived as the relativistic trends exemplified by critical pedagogies and its explicit disdain for those alternative approaches in humanities and social-science scholarship and teaching. While these alternative approaches have in recent decades provincialised and problematised the Eurocentric-cum-trans-Atlantic narrative of civilisational ascent, Western Civ has continued to provide the comforting glow of normative absolutism. The West is still the best.


Proponents of Western Civ like to portray themselves as the last genuine moral absolutists waging an unrelenting war against an ever-rising tide of cultural relativism, which they uniformly see as an ideological affectation fostered by scholars in the humanities who have fallen from the faith. As they see it, the hallowed halls of academe are now infested by intellectual heretics who have come to prefer the sanguinary sniping of ‘identity politics’ in a relentless cultural genocide perpetrated against the faithful. These heretics (variously identified as relativists, poststructuralists, postmodernists, feminists or ‘cultural Marxists’) have one aim: to tear down the edifice of Western Civ. What has been erected in its place is seen as a plethora of incoherent or indulgent ideological preferences that not only exaggerate the darker episodes in the story of Western Civ (slavery, imperialism and colonialism, nationalism, world wars, fascism, Nazism and so on) but also impugn the hallowed values of Western Civ itself.

Yet moral relativism is inscribed in the very fabric of Western Civ. That its proponents cannot begin to perceive this is a function of the pre-inscription on their field of vision of the ontological binary between civilisation and its opposite. Every affirmation of civilisation is in fact a re-animation of that opposite which must be identified and re-identified in order to sustain the edifice of Western Civ. Western Civ is an intellectual reflex of a constitutionally neurotic outlook bifurcated in Manichaean opposition.

Throughout its relatively short history, Western Civ has been shadowed, mirrored, paired, indeed joined at the hip with its opposite, sometimes called ‘savagery’, sometimes ‘barbarism’. Critics of Western Civ have suggested that this pairing was the product of the emergence of anthropology as an organised discipline of knowledge in the latter half of the nineteenth century, as European empires sought forms of expertise in dealing with subject populations they assumed to be far inferior. Anthropology developed in this context as the systematic study of diverse human communities in a continuing state of pre-modernity, usually more condescendingly described as ‘primitive’. Over time anthropology came to focus on the study of human cultures of different communities as the dynamic interrelationships of norms and beliefs produced from the universal confrontation of humans with the forces of nature, and the interactions between human groups.

Anthropology therefore seemed to step beyond history, or to pull open a curtain that had long separated the known historical record from the untold centuries of human evolution that came before it. As one scholar put it, with the development of anthropology ‘the bottom dropped out of history’ as the study of humanity receded ever further back into the mists of deep time, before writing, before civilisation. This was the ultimate conceit of Victorian anthropology: that primitive savagery was destined to recede before civilisation, and that the barbarians would be civilised. This confrontation of history with prehistory thus offered a validation of the claims of civilisation. Humanity’s evolution from prehistoric origins would have a historic culmination. Prehistory was the ugly blank canvas onto which the present projected an image of the past as it wished it to have been, in confirmation of the image it wished for itself. As the great historian Eric R. Wolf, author of the path-breaking critique of this vision of the past Europe and the People Without History (1982), explained of his own education in Western Civ:

Many of us even grew up believing that this West has a genealogy, according to which ancient Greece begat Rome, Rome begat Christian Europe, Christian Europe begat the Renaissance, the Renaissance the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment political democracy and the industrial revolution.

But this was history as fantasy, a neat exculpatory metanarrative leached of the specificity of historical context and rendered eternally serviceable by the incoherence deeply ingrained in the very concept of civilisation.


‘Civilisation’ was a neologism coined in France in the 1750s. As a term it proved useful to a range of intellectuals who were engaged in trying to analyse the historic forces (economic, geopolitical and intellectual) reshaping French society and mores, even while its legal and political infrastructure ossified and its imperial stature declined. As they saw it, civilisation referred to the process by which a whole society changed its mores to become more modern, more refined, more civil (civilité, civilisé), thanks to the beneficial, pacifying effects of commerce and a renewed appreciation for science, the arts and learning. Although identified primarily with France and with the aspirational and cosmopolitan outlook of its political classes, ‘civilisation’ was also thought to encompass a process of historical transformation working its way across the nations of Western Europe, largely by emulation.

It was apt, then, but unexpected, that the concept would find a new home in Scotland. Here, a range of enormously influential intellectuals adopted and applied the term in ways that reflected Scotland’s own fractured modernisation, involving a geographical separation infused with a temporal dissonance along the Highland line. A bustling, prosperous and actively modernising South was matched by what many came to regard as an archaic, fractious and savage North. It was the Scots, therefore, who gave to the concept a scaffold of historical credibility. Referred to as ‘stadial theory’, this Scottish invention provided the means for the universal—indeed global—application of civilisation. According to the theory, all of humanity was destined to develop through a series of stages (usually four) from the supposed simplicity of ‘savage’ tribes, to the hordes of ‘barbarous’ pastoralists, to settled agricultural villages, and then on to commercial civilisation.

Scottish stadial thinking appeared to provide a universally adaptable means of knowing the world of ‘humanity’. As empires and commerce brought peoples across the globe into ever-closer contact and interdependence, stadial theory enabled Europeans not only to locate peoples geographically but also to situate them temporally on a scale of universal human progress. Civilisation. And savagery. Savagery subsisted fitfully on the fringes of the European imagination, in peoples deemed uncivil, violent, uneducated, irreligious, primitive, or just not white enough. Originally the savages were those who resided beyond Europe’s hinterlands—the Irish, Scottish Highlanders, or the Sami. As Europe’s global ambitions and entanglements grew, savages abounded across the plains of Tartary, in the heart of Africa, among the forests of America and on Australia’s distant shores. Civilisation was a neat formula that proved able to accommodate the intellectual conviction that humanity was universal alongside the pragmatic assumption of great divides in development and capability within humanity. All was made explicable by reference to history unfolding before the eyes of Europeans who presumed to know who it was they were looking at.

The formula’s neatness, however, belied a fundamental confusion. As we have seen, civilisation referred to both a process of historical development and its end point or culmination. As such, various Scottish intellectuals filled the concept with lacunae that defied easy explanation. Adam Smith, often considered the inventor of stadial theory in his Lectures on Jurisprudence (1762–63), presented an ambiguous account of its motor force in the nebulous interplay between the instrumental pursuit of more rational means of subsistence and the ‘manners’ (beliefs and attitudes) appropriate to each stage of economic development. His friend Adam Ferguson, in his masterpiece An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767), thought civilisation inevitable but shadowed by the ever-present threat of personal moral corruption and national enervation. Their colleague and contemporary William Robertson, the historiographer royal, applied stadial thinking and the concept of civilisation in his ground-breaking History of America (1777). He was puzzled as to what to make of the apparent signs of civilisation among the otherwise savage Inca and Aztecs (Mexica), and what, presumably, to make of the stagnated civilisation of China and the supposedly decayed civilisation of India. The unsettling implication of his thought was that civilisation was not one but many. It was a Frenchman, the comte de Volney, who drew out this implication in his contemplation of the ruins of Egypt, The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolutions of Empires (1791). Empires, and the civilisations they encapsulated, would come and go. The historical record was a pabulum of eternally collapsed, collapsing and reproduced civilisations.

What, then, was the purpose of history and where was it leading us?

European intellectuals in the eighteenth century answered the question exactly the same way as American intellectuals did in the early twentieth. The purpose of history was to serve as intellectual confirmation of the already apparent direction of world affairs. The abbé Raynal provided one influential version of this answer in his (collaboratively written) Philosophical and Political History of the Settlements and Trade of the Europeans in the East and West Indies (1770). He argued that by means of empire the ‘commercial states’ of Europe had ‘civilised all others’. The idea that they had done so by means of benign commerce and a spontaneous love of Europe’s ‘civilisation’ was of course a nonsense (as Raynal knew). His multivolume study was a landmark in the history of Europe’s growing awareness of the global implications of its imperial and colonial ambitions and the unspeakable atrocity of slavery on which they rested. At its heart lay the most naked of presumptions: that the white men and women of Europe could possess the globe and reduce its lands, waters and inhabitants to their dominion. Could they not see it? If some did, many others appeared not to notice. In the 1790s, in the very early days of the British colony at Sydney Cove, the marine lieutenant William Dawes asked his companion Patyegerang, a young Eora woman, why the ‘black men’ around the colony were so ‘angry’. Her response was eloquent in its brevity. ‘Because the white men are settled here.’ A just riposte might have been to ask him what gave the white men the right. Civilisation?

As William Robertson started his career as a historian in the 1750s, he attributed the emerging global dominance of Europe to divine providence. It was a common enough salve for the festering wound opened by the question of right. But as the global contexts of engagement, communication and interdependence between peoples multiplied, the exposure of the wound became intolerable. When the Scottish colonial traveller Mungo Park found himself lost and alone in the interior of Africa, he was befriended, fed and housed by a benevolent group of poor African women. In his Travels in the Interior Districts of Africa (1799), Park acknowledged his debt to their spontaneous humanity, so far from the realms of his civilisation. The women lamented his plight in song, and their refrain seemed to puncture the civilisational arrogance of white Europeans in other climes: ‘Let us pity the white man’, they sang, ‘no mother has he’. The song Park recounted was later crafted and set to music by Georgiana Cavendish, the duchess of Devonshire, and deployed to aid the Abolitionist cause: ‘Go, white man, go; but with thee bear / The Negro’s wish, the Negro’s prayer, / Remembrance of the Negro’s care’. Civilisation had eagerly pressed slavery into its service, and could as easily live without it—but only on Europe’s terms. If he had begun his career imagining those terms to be providential, William Robertson ended it in the 1790s invoking (à la Raynal) Europe’s inevitable ascent in more prosaic terms. The ‘commercial genius of Europe’, Robertson wrote in 1791:

has given it a visible ascendant over the three other divisions [Africa, Asia and America] by discerning their respective wants and resources, and by rendering them reciprocally subservient to one another, has established an union among them, from which it has derived an immense increase of opulence, of power, and of enjoyments.

By the early years of the nineteenth century, as Anna Barbauld envisioned it in ‘Eighteen Hundred and Eleven: A Poem’, Britain’s global civilising mission would ensure that the Americas became the new seat of white-skinned peoples and their imperious ideas:

If westward streams the light that leaves thy shores, Still from thy lamp the streaming radiance pours. Wide spreads thy race from Ganges to the pole, O’er half the western world thy accents roll: Nations beyond the Apalachian hills Thy hand has planted and thy spirit fills: Soon as their gradual progress shall impart The finer sense of morals and of art, Thy stores of knowledge the new states shall know, And think thy thoughts, and with thy fancy glow;…

Civilisation was no longer Europe’s, or merely Britain’s, gift. It would become in course of time America’s prerogative.


The recent promotion of Western Civ in Australia is a purely political posture in the precise sense invoked by the former Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt. The purpose of its promotion is to draw a new battle line between ‘friend and enemy’ (one is tempted to say civilised and savage) in the Sisyphean culture war that now permeates global democratic politics. In the new dispensation of ‘politics as culture war’, the objective is to imbue each new front of struggle with the existential significance of a visceral political imperative to conquer. Service to this all-consuming imperative is now the sole function of the political partisan, whose task is to perpetually unsettle opponents by means of any specious fabulism that can be used as a battering ram. Western Civ is simply a new and serviceable weapon in that merciless fight. It is especially useful because beneath the tattered cloak of its preposterous absolutism and strained universalism lurks the triumph of the identity politics its partisans claim to oppose. Western Civ is the ultimate form of identity politics: a normative insistence on group identity dressed in the garb of historical immanence but subsisting in pure, unmitigated preference.

The belligerents on the side of Western Civ, with ‘wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command’, castigate scholars for their criticisms of both the proposal for a Western Civ curriculum and the explicitly disdainful and elitist pedagogical model being proposed to teach it. As the belligerents present it, it is not enough that scholars show an interest in the sources and texts taught as part of a Western Civ curriculum; they should be active partisans on behalf of Western Civ, as if the belligerents’ own claustrophobically narrow view of political right were fit for universal prescription. Putting aside the political maliciousness informing this representation, it is a requirement that no self-respecting historian should accept. If historians are partisans of anything, it should not be Civilisation but Context.

The task of the historian is to trace the contours of events, ideas, personalities or impersonal forces as they occurred in place and time. The objective is not to read the present into the past, nor to translate the past as if its unfolding were destined to lead us to where we now are. Western Civ is the misbegotten residue of a narrativising of the past in which context is made to serve the interests of linear normativity. Western Civ is an anachronism—a historical anathema. It is a creation of the present reflected back onto the historical past in circular proof of the necessity of its own existence. In a weird kind of cultural narcissism, proponents of Western Civ suppose that by gazing long and hard enough at the past they will see themselves reflected there.

To what other end, but to affirm the arrogance of right?

Western Civ is now and has always been simply inconceivable without the projection of savagery or barbarism to call it into existence. Where once whole domains consigned to the savages and barbarians could be construed as fresh fields into which civilisation could advance, now savagery and barbarism have to be created afresh to stir civilisational presumption from its slumbers. The West can still be the best, if only it could remember where it put its savages.

The twentieth was a century of genocides of unprecedented magnitude. At almost its very dawning, Europe’s colonial presumption instigated a genocide among the Herero in Africa. Genocidal colonisation was by that time nothing new to the First Nations of America or Australia, but the perfection of industrialised genocide in the very heart of Europe was something novel. In its wake, Hannah Arendt warned in The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) that in an age of globalised industrial civilisation ‘savages’ would have to be created anew. With a prescient foreboding, she feared that engineered statelessness would provide a potent wellspring of modern ‘savages’. She could not have foreseen the weaponised hatred of Muslims unleashed by the ‘war on terror’, a new crusade—our ‘Forever War’ for ‘civilisation’.

There are few more corrosive delusions in contemporary political discourse than the mindless presumption that an autochthonous genius we label ‘Western Civilisation’ actually exists. Western Civ is a monumental game of global bluff in which we are invited to pretend that the Rest owes the West a duty of beholden obligation for the benefits it uniquely invented and benignly bestowed. The moral corrosion that spreads like a stain from the breathtaking arrogance of this presumption is inscribed in bloodied fingerprints all over the not-so-distant histories of colonial conquests, plunders and dispossessions, slaveries, genocides, induced famines and engineered civil wars. For too long the partisans of Western Civ have tried to convince themselves that these were just the unwanted excrescences of a Western tradition more nobly minded and intentioned.

In 1768 Voltaire responded to what he perceived to be the horror of atheism by quipping: ‘If God did not exist, we would have to invent him’. God was simply too important a prop for society, for the sanctity of order and command, to do without. Exactly the same can be said of the tedious re-invention of Western Civ by elements of our political class. There is no coincidence in its present regurgitation. Across the putatively democratic world the neoliberal governing consensus is now in steep and irreversible decline. That consensus formerly bound elites and masses in a political project oriented towards free markets, free trade and a libertarian social program of privatisation and commodification of all vestiges of common purpose and common good. The crisis in which we are now engaged is one of government without consent. The neoliberal project is dead, but its objectives (free finance, privatisation, and commodification of labour) live on in governments that have moved decisively to animate mechanisms of the police state (consider the number of laws passed in recent years that enhance the powers of states to act not just within but beyond national borders). We have watched as the world took Australia’s lead in using these powers to demonise and to persecute those deemed ‘illegal migrants’. Now, the supposed leader of the ‘free world’—the American Ozymandias—has employed those same means to separate and incarcerate children in ‘tender age’ camps.

No wonder, then, that at this darkened juncture in world affairs a most tawdry of presumptions from our past has been dredged up again by those who seek a cloak of legitimacy for their outrages.

This is the way the world ends, Not with a bang but another course on Western Civ.

My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair! Nothing beside remains. Round the decay Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare The lone and level sands stretch far away.

About the author

Bruce Buchan

Bruce Buchan is an Associate Professor of History in the School of Humanities, Languages, and Social Sciences at Griffith University.

More articles by Bruce Buchan

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