Time to think, for thinking’s sake

August 17 / 196

The School of Historical and Philosophical Studies’ Frederik Vervaet has been selected from a very competitive international field to undertake a residential membership at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study in the first term of 2018.

The Institute is a privately endowed centre for research near the town of Princeton, New Jersey (though not associated with Princeton University), founded in 1930 by a philanthropist. It was intended to be a paradise or haven for academics to pursue blue-sky research, released from their regular teaching and administrative routines.

Associate Professor Vervaet says the Institute’s unique emphasis is on research for which there is no immediately obvious application. 

“We live in an era where regrettably there is often a priority given to utilitarian research subjects,” he says, “with so-called ‘pure’ research often seen as being esoteric, and not related to reality.”

“Unfortunately that means we risk missing out on those accidental discoveries that later turn out to be hugely important. 

“For instance the principles identified by Einstein (who was one of two permanent appointments at the Institute), would not have been possible if not for the work of Greek philosophers, who originally had these brilliant ideas for which there was no immediate purpose: until someone came along later and realised their potential.”

It’s not the first time in human history that such a project has been devised, he says.

“The Ptolemaic Kings of Egypt (305-30 BCE) sponsored an equivalent institute in Alexandria, dedicated to the pursuit of theoretical knowledge, where scholars were paid to simply think. The principle of the steam machine was invented then, but it took roughly two thousand years and the Industrial Revolution for it to find a practical application.”

Associate Professor Vervaet will leave for the USA mid January, with his two eldest children who will attend the local middle school. He says the boys are excitedly anticipating a North American winter, and that the Institute is very family friendly, with strong ties to local public schools, making it easy for researchers with parenting responsibilities.

While resident in Princeton he will continue his research for a forthcoming monograph that is wholly dedicated to the question of how precisely Octavian (Caesar Augustus) managed to convert one of the Roman Republic’s most iconic aristocratic rituals, known as the Triumph, into a monopoly of the imperial house.

"The Triumph was a kind of victory parade and memorialising ritual which had been a distinctive feature of Roman life for a long time, was a jealously guarded privilege of the Senatorial aristocracy," he says.

“Through wily acts of statecraft Augustus managed to restrict involvement in the Triumph to members of his own family, signalling a massive break with republican traditions, and a move away from Republic toward Empire.

“I want to better understand what caused these momentous changes and how Octavian used and abused established constitutional rules to force out the aristocracy without breaking any written laws. I’m also hell-bent on demonstrating that he began the work earlier than has previously been thought, living by his personal motto of ‘hurry up, slowly’.”

Associate Professor Vervaet is one of only very few Australian academics to be granted a Membership and credits the very positive reviews of his previous monograph for his selection from a field of 600 applicants. 

“It’s often very difficult for researchers in the Humanities to be able to concentrate on writing substantial studies under performance appraisal frameworks that better suit the Sciences and require articles and other published outcomes on an annual basis, so I see this as a vindication of the time and effort I put into writing that book of well over 200,000 words.”

“This IAS Membership is great for my reputation as an ancient historian, but also reflects well on my program, Classics and Ancient World Studies, on the School, Faculty and the University as a whole.”


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