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on the Bard College Berlin Student Blog

The School of Athens (Credit: Raphael, 1509-1511)

“The story so far:
In the beginning the Universe was created.
This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move.” (Adams, The Restaurant at The End of the Universe)

Whether the core was excavated from the bowels of the Earth 15 years ago or 500, the fact remains that Plato’s Republic is a timeless piece of philosophy that embodies the very essence of the discipline. It not only provokes a constant reinterpretation of our understandings and beliefs, but because the subject of the book is the human soul, a phenomenon unchanged from Socrates’ time despite changes in the environment, its relevance remains regardless of the epoch.

No matter how much thermodynamics likes to emphasise that time is the only constant, it cannot be denied that some times seem to change disproportionately to others. Athens isn’t the same mild-wintered, Mediterranean wonderland it was when Socrates frolicked in the streets: the tides are changing, and people must adapt to the urban heat island effect in the city centre if they want to survive. This is why, on noticing the general unrest in the student mind regarding Plato and the (long dead) old (white) man’s place in the twenty-first century, I felt perhaps it was time someone wrote a Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Republic, to show what one can expect when opening this treasure-chest.  Here’s what my Guide has to say about the unbelievable things they talk about in the Republic:

Listen, Listen:

“In the next place, get yourself an adequate light somewhere; and look yourself — and call in your brother and Polemarchus and the others — whether we can somehow see where the justice might be and where the injustice…” (The Republic, 427d)

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“Plato Goes Live” Poster. (Credit: Bard College Berlin)

The contest “Eine Uni – ein Buch” invited German universities to pick a book, any book. The goal: to inspire a semester of events, ideas, and extensive, diverse participation… all with this single text. BCB students entered with Plato’s Republic. And we won. We were among ten universities who received the scholarship. Yay, us! The result: seminars, debates, conversations, film fests, and “a Long Night of Plato” sprouted from the seminal work of an infamous, bearded Ancient. (Shout out to the sponsors: Stifterverband and the Klaus Tschira Foundation, in co-operation with DIE ZEIT.)

Full disclosure: I’m not a student in the Plato course, not a Plato-phile in the slightest. Even so, last Tuesday curiosity led me to the “Wandering Image” event at the ICI Berlin Institute for Cultural Inquiry. It was one of those ruggedly sleek buildings tucked away in a Prenzlauer Berg courtyard, packed with well-dressed intellectuals.

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Gotta get your partyin’ in somehow (Credit: Sabrina Slipchenko, BVG)

“Life’s not all about dancing, kid” I say with a pointed finger. I’m in the mirror giving myself a pep talk. There are readings to do, papers to write, yadda yadda- but I just wanna boogie. And why not, anyway? I didn’t come to Berlin to spend my Saturday nights in bed with Christian Joppke’s treatise on liberal democracy. The angels of my better nature are all a buncha nerds.

But there’s something exhausting underneath this necessity. There’s a scale underneath, weighing “cool” experiences against “not cool” experiences. If I don’t balance book learning with wildness, somehow I feel like a failure. Maybe I don’t have to take the night out, just because it exists. Maybe I don’t have to feel like life is moving too fast, without me. Maybe well-being means something other than staying up ‘till 2 am breaking a sweat. I just don’t want to be 80 years old, on my rocking chair, thinking of all the readings I’ve done. Or maybe it’ll be less lonely that way, later.

Petite France, a historic district in Strasbourg and part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Grande Île. (Credit: getyourguide.com)

On the 28th August 2017, I crossed from Germany into France — from the little town of Kehl into the city of Strasbourg where I will remain for the upcoming academic year as part of the Erasmus exchange program with BCB. As I had never visited France, I was more than excited for my Erasmus Exchange, and curious about the similarities and differences I would find between these two nation-states at the heart of the European Union. But, despite the attention I afforded the view from the bus window, I’m still not sure exactly when I crossed the border. There were no bells or whistles, no fanfare, no berets or baguettes in sight. The landscape remained unchanged and my fellow passengers continued to doze, or stare at their mobiles, uninterrupted. It was only when we disembarked that I noticed how road-signs and the displays in shop windows were no longer in German, but French. Listening in on the conversations of those who buzzed around the terminal, I quickly recognised its distinctive melody, a smooth and slippery river of sound falling unintelligibly upon my dumb ears.

Almost a month later and I can’t help but think the true wonder isn’t how similar these neighbouring countries seemed to me initially, but how language and culture are preserved despite their geographic proximity, and how deeply the notion of the border runs within the human psyche.

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Susan Nieman on Why Grow Up (credit: BCB promotional poster)

Susan Neiman gives a presentation on her book Why Grow Up? at BCB (credit: BCB promotional poster)

In an audience consisting mostly of 20-something-year-olds, the question “why grow up?” awakens both curiosity and a deep mistrust. This mixed reaction comes as a result of wanting to know how to do it while harboring a suspicious attitude towards anyone who might try to make us do it too quickly. “Why grow up?” is the inquiry that Susan Neiman, the acclaimed moral philosopher and director of Potsdam’s Einstein Forum, delved into from behind the podium in Bard College Berlin’s lecture hall. Her book of the same name was published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in 2015 and deals with our society’s idea of adulthood.

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