Justice and Hope: Essays, lectures and other writings
Melbourne University Publishing, $65 hb, 599 pp
For a man many would regard as the very epitome of the type, Raimond Gaita seems rather hostile to the concept of the intellectual. It is ‘irredeemably mediocre’, he explains, inferior to the kinds of moral and political responsibility that attach to teacher or politician. Intellectuals are active in the public domain, grappling with ideas, culture, and politics, but they have often lacked independence of mind, he says, ‘because they never had it or because they sacrificed it to the cause’.
When Gaita articulates his ideal of a university, the vision is of ‘a community of scholars’, of a contemplative life that requires ‘inwardness with values slowly apprehended by living the life of the mind in community with fine exemplars of it’. In that sense, he believes, the university is finished. And while some academics might take time out of their teaching and research to become public intellectuals, it is not an obligation.
Yet Gaita would seem to many the archetype of the Australian academic as intellectual, one of a fairly small number of humanities scholars in this country who have left a significant imprint on the culture. He is best known as the author of a much-admired memoir of his childhood as the son of European migrants, Romulus, My Father (1998), later a film, but here he is essayist, reviewer, and lecturer. The pieces range from the short, sharp reflection on a current event, such as ‘Why the War Is Wrong’ (2003) on Iraq, through to extended reflection of a more challenging – and perhaps ‘academic’ – kind, such as that on whether torture can be a lesser evil.