Modern philosophy and the founding of Melbourne? Essay #1

With thanks to Professor Roth’s great eloquence, the modernist philosophers of Europe are getting into my head, but how to apply their arguments to the (short, western) history of Melbourne?

Before there was any ‘modern philosophy’, or any ‘classical philosophy’ for that matter, the Wurundjeri people of the Kulin Nation knew the country around the Bay as Narrm. Before any foreign settlers had dipped their boots in the Merri Creek – there was no known built environment upon which to regard the activity of man as a vanity or a folly.

Rousseau (JJR to the young ones of today) may have felt vindicated by the reports reaching Europe of the early colonisation of Australia before his death in 1778. His view of indigenous peoples was a simplistic one – ‘nothing is so gentle as man in his primitive state, when placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.’ (Discourse on Inequality, 1754)

Had those reports to Europe of the early meeting between two different cultures been accurate – and neither underplayed or romanticised the lives of the aboriginal peoples living in Australia at this time – they may have given some insight into a diverse group of peoples with deeply established cultures and long-lived sophisticated societies.

Piece by piece the colonists (some brutes it must be said and others burdened by ill-placed enlightened), staked their claims along the Yarra and the Bay without respect or reference to the peoples to whom the land physically as well as spiritually belonged. They ignored the knowledge and wisdom of the people who understood the land implicitly and set about creating shelter essential for a people quite unprepared for and ignorant of the harshness of the Australian climate.

The ‘history of Melbourne’ – or at least the Melbourne Council’s version of its founding in 1835 is, like most histories, littered with the names of dead white men so I’ll jump ahead…

The gold rush riches that fell into the pockets of ‘the enlightened men’ of the emerging city in the 1850s satisfied their need to demonstrate both wealth and authority. So the city of Melbourne, full of pride and pomp, set about its great labour of building. The edifices in stone of the the Houses of Parliament (1855), the State Library (1856), the (Old) Treasury (1858 – 62) and Government House (1876) stamped a strange neoclassical permanence on the once undulating hills surrounding the Yarra.

As a young city Melbourne could realise (in stone) the aspiration toward the liberal ideals of Locke and Voltaire (from a generation before) to found a society based on religious pluralism, a separation of Church from State and with a sound distance between Parliament (North of the Yarra) and the Monarch’s representative (South of the Yarra.)

But this was a thirsty colony and this is where the Utilitarian happily arrives as the city expands.

Because if there’s one proper article to satisfy the utilitarian it was beer, and by 1886 the red bricked Carlton United Breweries building crowned the top of Swanston St and pumped out amber liquid as fast as the locals could drink it. Hence the new city met John Stuart Mill’s credo    ‘The only proof capable of being given that an object is visible, is that people actually see it …. In like manner, I apprehend, the sole evidence it is possible to produce that anything is desirable, is that people do actually desire it.’ (Principles of Utility from Utilitarianism published in 1863)

Before I am accused of lambasting all dead white men I’ll just stop for a minute to thank Hoddle and Bourke for their broad streets and laneways which (despite some problems with sorting out traffic) have now established Melbourne’s great character.

If you have to trample carelessly over the culture of another people at least do as Bentham would and insist on it being for the good of the majority… mmmm… something else to think about.

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2 thoughts on “Modern philosophy and the founding of Melbourne? Essay #1

  1. Great essay! – there could be a ‘mirror’ one about the founding of Canada’s biggest cities. Here too the indigenous people rights, culture and traditions have been trampled over… and over again. In the favour of JJR I would say that at least he recognized the fact that the same as human beings can deceive themselves about their own moral qualities, philosophy too can serve as a resource for self-deception.

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    • Thanks so much for the comment. Personally I’m with JJR too – I don’t think the great pursuit of materialism and modernity has delivered any universally better societies. I suppose where I differ is that he held a very European view (as might be excused) that indigenous people were somehow ‘simpler or unenlightened’ when, of course, their knowledge systems and social structures and lore are just as sophisticated as any other society – otherwise how would these people still be sharing the same planet?

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