Speech Day - Declamations
01 July 2023
On Saturday 1 July, we held our annual Speech Day - a prizegiving and a celebration of the achievements of the leaving Sixths.
Here, we share two of the Declamations made as part of proceedings.
Euan (Extended Essay): A contemporary interpretation of Rousseau's attack on "civilisation". How accurate is Rousseau's claim that "civilisation" has reduced freedom in part two of "A Discourse in Inequality"?
"When approaching the extended essay, I sought the opportunity to explore a discussion in philosophy which I had previously left untouched, and then to engage with it with a contemporary perspective. In doing this, I hoped to expose ideas which endowed new meaning to a traditional text, and reveal old wisdom to guide us on present issues.
"I was pointed in the direction of Jean-Jacques Rousseau's early work, Discourse on Inequality, in which, he argues that humans in a primal ‘state of nature' had more freedom than humans in contemporary, industrial, scientifically and civically developed societies. Within Rousseau's work, I identified three principles, which I may call luxury, pride, and communal dependency, as the driving force behind this loss of freedom, before identifying their presence in contemporary structures such as smartphone addiction, limbic capitalism and unjust labour systems. I concluded that, Rousseau's 16th Century observations still ring true to some extent. However, I felt that whilst Rousseau paints a compelling image of the freedom which we have lost in contemporary society, his failure to include freedoms which we have gained since the state of nature renders it distorted. We have liberated ourselves considerably from the oppression of, for example, disease and the Darwinian struggle for survival. As such, a more accurate picture of human development is one where humans have undergone - and constantly undergo - a neutral shift in the structures of oppression which we face and the opportunities we receive, both limiting and expanding freedoms.
"I believe that Rousseau is right to encourage us to be conscious of how our freedom is presently affected by oppressive structures. We should be actively mindful of that which we are reliant on, and which we are influenced by. However, I maintain that the profile of contemporary society is not solely one of irreversible degradation. The same developments which oppress us in Rousseau's eyes also enrich life and give it beauty: we cannot have the privileges of art, love, and family without the burdens of labour, dependency, and ownership. As such, we should be looking forwards, towards mindfully shaping future human development in the most positive way possible, rather than backwards, as nostalgia for prehistory is neither warranted nor constructive.
"As my chosen methodology to verify Rousseau's defence of the state of nature was to contrast it with contemporary society, the greatest difficulty I faced was excluding outdated notions which stood in the way of direct comparison. The most obvious example was his use of the dichotomy of ‘civilisation', which he identified with European culture, and ‘savagery', which he exemplified with the Native population of the Americas, doing very little to disguise his Eurocentric and racist sentiments. Whilst I was confident in my choice to reject these ideas and embrace a more international and socially conscious definition of ‘development', I was aware that I was willfully contradicting Rousseau's ideas, and potentially distorting his argument from his original intentions, however flawed they may be. This led me to consider more generally whether the time for celebrating historical names such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau was simply coming to a close.
"My intention with my extended essay was to revitalise A Discourse on Inequality for a modern world, and whilst I believe I found some applicable insight in Rousseau's words, there is certainly an enormous challenge to bridge the gap between our current perspective and those from history, to engage in meaningful discourse about our world with someone who simply never experienced it."
Lucas (Extended Essay): Reader engagement with morally reprehensible protagonists. In what ways, and to have purposes, do Mann's Death in Venice and Moore's Watchmen engage the reader with morally reprehensible protagonists?
"For my Extended Essay I wanted to choose a topic that would be indirectly related to my future aspirations in criminology. I was also looking for a topic that would allow me to explore my rediscovered passion for literature after feeling burnt out from GCSEs.
"After some discussion with my supervisor, I settled on writing about reader engagement with morally reprehensible protagonists. Whether it be in literature, television, film or any other artistic medium, such characters seem to be a cultural mainstay despite their inherent repulsiveness. Why is that? What is it about such morally compromised characters that interests us? Ultimately, I decided to write about two works drawn from very different periods and cultural backgrounds in order to explore what the works might have in common despite their obvious differences. The one was a classic, literary work from 1912, namely, Thomas Mann’s novella “Death In Venice”. The other was Alan Moore’s seminal comic book “Watchmen”. In very different ways, in form and in content, both works offer suitably disturbing characters for analysis. Thus my Extended Essay set out to explore the question: “In what ways, and to what purposes, do Mann’s Death in Venice and Moore’s Watchmen engage the reader with morally reprehensible protagonists?”
"Early on I determined my central thesis: that Mann and Moore use their protagonists to do two things. Firstly, each seeks to provide socio-cultural commentary on the times in which they were writing, pre-world war one Europe for Mann and Cold War America for Moore. At the same time their aim is to engage readers’ imaginations in some truly disturbing ways, employing emotional, psychological, artistic and moral means to encourage the readers to reflect upon universal ideas such as human nature as well as on their own motives for reading.
"I ought to explain briefly what these texts are about so as to outline what they tell us about ourselves. “Death in Venice” (translated from the original German) is inspired by Mann’s own journey to the city. It follows Aschenbach, an ageing, widowed writer who finds himself unexpectedly attracted to a very young boy. The story charts his downward spiral into obsession as he struggles with the divide between simultaneous desire and shame. In “Watchmen”, Moore takes superheroes and presents them as antisocial weirdos. In particular Rorschach, a Batman-esque character, is shown to be a psychopathic, far-right delusionist who, arguably, causes more problems than those he intends to solve.
"I found that in both works readers are engaged primarily through the author’s initial presentation of the central character. At first Mann’s protagonist is presented as someone inviting empathy. He is an old man, life has passed him by, and he feels isolated from others. However, this empathetic introduction is later subverted through Aschenbach’s interest in the young boy, forcing readers to re-evaluate their initial perception of him. Moore utilises a similar strategy of causing the reader to reconsider their view of his protagonist by gradually revealing the initially sadistic Rorschach to be the product of a broken home, abused in childhood and abandoned by everyone.
"In this procedure, I saw a shared trajectory in the authors’ recontextualisation of their main characters and reshaping of the reader’s views of both men. Despite his outstanding literary achievements, Aschenbach stands ultimately to be condemned. Engagement with him is driven by the readers’ desire for their initial understanding to be vindicated, for him truly to be the empathetic figure for which they first take him. Rorschach, by contrast, is a heroic figure in the end. Whether Moore intended this to be the case or not, Rorschach’s development highlights the fact that initial impressions of individuals rarely, if ever, reveal a person’s true nature.
"So: back to the central question. What is the effect achieved by these morally reprehensible protagonists? Well, in my view, they serve a greater purpose than mere melodramatic entertainment. They offer a message, arguably that of a warning not to judge others too quickly, that can influence social values, politics, our treatment of others, and, most importantly, ourselves."