Over a five day span earlier this month students in the Introduction to Ancient Rome class set out beer bottles, condom wrappers and Coca Cola in front of the Hercules statue near the Statler as part of a class project.
Spray-painted lines illustrated a forked path leading to either side of the statue. Two signs stood nearby, one displaying the cover of the book “On Duties” by Cicero. The other had a passage that stated:
When Hercules was approaching maturity, which is the time selected by nature for choosing the road in life one must travel, he sought out an isolated place. Sitting there for a long time, he could not decide which path was better for him. For he could see two paths, one marked PLEASURE and another marked VIRTUE.
Each day, a different group of eight students set out objects to represent their perceptions of the different paths of “pleasure” and “virtue.”
Items in the pleasure column included beer, condoms and junk food, all symbols of excessive consumption. The virtue category included items that symbolized service to others, with one depicting American soldiers, and other ideals of democracy (such as an “I voted” sticker).
One group designed its project through the perspective of a Cornell undergraduate, where pleasure included staying up late drinking and not going to class, while virtue involved being a good student.
Prof. Michael Fontaine, classics, was pleasantly surprised by his students’ results, saying “I thought it would be a lot harder to figure out, what does “pleasure” mean? It sounds like most of [the students] were happy with the way the group decision went.”
All five groups were given $100 to create their displays, thanks to a grant from the Center for Teaching Innovation that gave over a 1,000 dollars to the class in total as part of their active learning initiative.
The project was not without a few obstacles. Snow washed away the spray paint for the Thursday and Friday groups, and Statler staff even mistook the first group’s “pleasure” display as trash and threw it away. The Friday group had to exhibit their project in Klarman hall instead due to the heavy snow from Thursday.
The inspiration for Fontaine’s unique assignment was On Duties, a series of three books deriving from a letter from Roman philosopher and lawyer Cicero to his son Marcus in 44 BC. In it, Cicero details the best way to live honorably when faced with moral choices.
“Cicero was sort of the Barack Obama of the ancient world,” Fontaine said. “He was a guy who defied the odds and became Rome’s president.”
The 40 students in the Introduction to Ancient Rome class read and discussed a new translation of his work, which formed the basis of their real-life interpretations later on during the week-long project.
However, Fontaine emphasized that the project was about more than ancient literature and its true purpose was in the group collaboration.
“If we can surface people’s values, what they’re holding dear … it should help group projects,” Fontaine said. “I wanted them to figure out what they had in common with other Cornell students. How to get along in a team and compromise.”
According to Fontaine, the challenge lies in how the lines between pleasure and virtue are certainly blurred. For example, he described how many of the things that can go in the pleasure column can go in the virtue column, and vice versa.
In light of this, he said the tentative answer is that “virtue seems to be moderation.”
“It’s such a boring solution to the world, but it’s the only one anybody’s ever come up with that works,” he added.