Tim Chappell, Professor of Philosophy at the Open University, started the year’s Williams Project meetings in style with two different but related talks on the theme of Tragic Dilemmas.
The first, aimed at younger students, was a more general discussion about what a dilemma is, and how we go about resolving them. Our thoughts centered around “Sophie’s Choice”, a novel and film based on real situations in Nazi concentration camps, where Sophie has to decide which of her two children is to be sent immediately to the gas chamber. Tim showed how absurd it is to used any kind of calculation (e.g. utilitarianism) in making this decision. He stressed the importance of empathy, of imaginative involvement in the decider’s dilemma, as an important way by which we can use these situations to think about moral choices.
The second talk, a more formal lecture aimed at older students, was a detailed examination of moral philosophy based on a scene from Aeschylus’ Agamemnon, where the Chorus describe the Greek king’s dilemma between abandoning the expedition to Troy (and thereby losing all his status among his fellow kings) and sacrificing his daughter Iphigenia. (The goddess Artemis was preventing the wind from blowing the right way, and demanded this price.) His decision, to kill his daughter, successfully gets the ships to Troy, and leads directly to military success and glory; but it also leads to his own death, as on his return his wife Clytemnestra kills him in revenge for their daughter’s life. Tim drew attention to Agamemnon’s words just after he has made his choice: “May all be well” – a desperate plea, made by one knowing it won’t be. Agamemnon was in a completely messy situation – there was no way out, and no moral system could help him. Tim’s point was that there were two contrasting ways of looking at the moral world. One, put forward by Plato and moral-system people such as utilitarians, claimed that by using such and such a system one can always find the right thing to do, that all can “be well”; the other, shared by Aeschylus, Bernard Williams and himself, was that there are lots of situations in life where this won’t work, where we are just stuck and there’s no way out. In these circumstances what might help us a little is not a moral system, but an imaginative empathy developed from our own experience of life, and our experience of literature and drama. When we watch Agamemnon on stage we in some strange way feel what it’s like to be in his shoes, and gain some moral strength and wisdom from the experience.
The Ancient Greeks and Romans placed a huge amount of importance on their sexual being, and had a keen interest in the biological and psychological mechanisms behind lust and carnal desire. Daisy Thurkettle’s talk at the Williams Project on provided a fascinating insight into the various botanical and pharmaceutical methods that the ancients used to synthesise lust and cure impotence (or perhaps less eloquently, ‘get in the mood’). The talk began on the use of essential oils in swathes in royal palaces, such as Cleopatra (who allegedly bathed in milk and rose), but the audience was quickly surprised to learn that love potions and cures for impotence were not only used by the femmes-fatales and powerful goddesses of myth, but by actual Greek people.
These cures included a mass of vegetables and plants which were, perhaps obviously, considered to have genitally-themed aesthetics (leeks, carrots and terebinth tree, anyone?). However, what really gripped the audience were the variously disgusting, poisonous and cannibalistic ingredients; these included dried human marrow, powdered silver beetle, wolfsbane, skink lizard and the famed hippomane – a piece of membrane found on the head of a newborn foal, which was mixed with milk to create the potion Dido made for Aeneas. Needless to say, any combination of some of these ingredients probably caused more death than arousal.
Miss Thurkettle called on a wide range of texts – fragments by various ‘unknown’ ancient authors, texts by Apuleius (including the famous Golden Ass), Hippocrates, and even the Bible. The overarching message of the talk was that the ancients were actually scientifically wise beyond their time in the discovery of some biologically effective aphrodisiacs, but were also developed psychologically (perhaps unintentionally) in their use of the placebo effect.
At a packed meeting in the Library this year’s winners gave presentations on their essays.
Stuart Innes (‘Have attitudes towards mental health really changed?’) gave a clear historical summary of how societies have responded to and attempted to treat mental illness, framed within a powerful argument for a mixture of approaches. He was insistent that a reductively “scientific”, drug-based, approach was not the answer, but that counselling and therapy had central roles: humans have evolved with the ability to share with others their feelings and thoughts, and we should use this as a strength.
Rachel Maton (‘Why did 16th– and 17th-century Europe experience widespread witchcraft hysteria, and a subsequent peak in witch-hunts and trials?’) discussed in detail the many different theories which have been proposed to explain why numbers of trials increased in an age of supposed rationalism. These ranged from scapegoating and feminism to the invention of the printing press. She concluded with a balanced evaluation, arguing that it was due to a number of factors coming together; she also downplayed the contribution of the feminist argument (that the suppression of witches was allied to an expression of male power): even in England a good quarter of all those condemned were male, and in Russia and Estonia the vast majority were men.
Xiaoxuan Liu (‘Einstein’s special theory of relativity: a general explanation for its formation’) gave a humorous and in-depth explanation of Einstein’s theory, using an alternative method for deriving E=mc^2 than the one she had used in her original essay. She argued that while many people find the dramatic effects of relativity (e.g. time dilation, changes in mass) the most appealing aspects, she preferred the raw beauty of its mathematics.
All three speakers were extremely impressive – they were clear, authoritative and engaging; all were, in short, easy to listen to, despite the (each for different reasons) challenging nature of what they were talking about. They could also deal with questions with confidence and charm.
After a splendid formal dinner Tim Morrison (OC and former Howard Essay Winner, now Head of Classics at Oundle School) introduced most of us to Thales, the first Greek philosopher, and as such the first recorded person in Western Europe to question for himself accepted explanations for how the world worked. Despite being perfectly able to use his intelligence to make money (one year he predicted a bumper olive crop and bought up all the presses), he thought it more interesting and important to study the heavens and think for himself about the world – just the sort of inspirational figure needed by this year’s LVI as they embark on their own Howard & Mitchell essays.
Continuing, from Richard Barham’s talk, the Olympic theme, and reinforcing the PE department’s week of Olympic lessons, our own Mrs Bint and Mr Wille led a presentation and discussion on cheating in these most revered games. Interesting similarities emerged, from nationality switching (a Cretan competed for Ephesus; Zola Budd changed from South African to British), through familiar bribery to performance enhancing (Pelops’ winged horses, modern-day drugs), we realised that, when national pride and lots of money are at stake, not a lot has changed.
Professor Geoffrey Hawthorn, from the University of Cambridge, spoke to two WP audiences about the Athenian general and historian Thucydides, and how, when he read him later in life, he found him to be greatest writer on politics there has been. Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian War, fought between Athens and Sparta from 431-404 BC, is remarkable for its refusal to tell us what to think; the bare-boned narrative, punctuated by full-scale debates where participants argue what courses of action to take, gives us just people’s deeds and their words – there is no explanatory ideology, no religious or political framework. It is intensely human.
Afterwords many students stayed for refreshments and to discuss the talk with Geoffrey. It was a particularly special meeting, as Patricia Williams, Bernard’s widow, was able to be with us again.
Our own biologist-drummer-ancient historian Mr Eardley introduced the two younger branches of the WP to the campaigns of Darius, and his son Xerxes, against Greece. Particularly at risk was the fledgling democracy in Athens. With maps, anecdotes and wit he led us through the personalities, the military aspects, and then on to wider questions about the importance of the Greek victories for the rest of Western European history.