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Philosophy at 3 a.m.


It’s a warm summer day on Hamilton’s campus, but in Room 102 of the Kirner Johnson building, students are making a sacrifice to the gods.

 As part of the Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy (HCSPiP), students from Hamilton and institutions across the country are taking part in a roleplay exercise for their class “Democracy in Athens.”

With names like Thrasybulus, Meletus, Aristocles, and Xenophon, the students transformed the classroom into an Athenian assembly in 403 B.C.E, taking part in a lively debate over the enactment of a new law.

The next 90 minutes go by in a blur. After sacrificing a “pig” and making a prayer to the gods, the 20 philosophy students take turns passionately defending or condemning the proposed law. A heated debate follows as the session moves into an open discussion.

“Athens must be a feared force in the Greek world again!” one student shouts. “Are we not a democracy? Who are we if we leave justice in the hands of the gods?”

The speech leads to a flurry of counterarguments and cheers — or jeers — from the crowd. After both sides have made their case, the voting begins and the law is passed.

When they aren’t posing as Athenian assemblymen, the undergraduate students of the HCSPiP are taking classes with philosophy professors and working with a diverse group of students chosen for their desire to learn.

Over the course of two weeks, students take three classes taught by Ball State University Professor of Philosophy Juli Thorson, Frostburg State University's Shoshana Brassfield, and  Iona College's Charles Rathkopf. After the program ends on July 6, each faculty member will present their work at the Innovations in Pedagogy Conference.

Organized by Associate Professor of Philosophy Russell Marcus, the program is funded by the Chauncey R. Truax Fund for Philosophy. Accepted students receive free room and board, as well as an additional stipend to make up for lost wages.

“The program is for all students who are interested in philosophy purely for the love of the work,” said Marcus. “It’s important to us that the program is accessible to a diverse group of students.”

Several graduate students are also attending the program to serve as teaching assistants. While the courses don’t offer any college credit, the program is designed to expose students to graduate level work and learn new skills with a group of other philosophy enthusiasts. 

 For many of the participants, this sense of community was exactly what they were looking for. “I was so excited to meet with kids that were equally as passionate as me,” said Ronnie Ruse ’19, a student from Grinnell College. “Sometimes with philosophy you can get caught up in your own head and feel like you’re the only one who’s into this. It’s refreshing to know that you’re not alone.”

After Ryan Stewart ’21 left his “Democracy in Athens” class, the debate with his fellow classmates lasted long into the night—as late as 3 a.m. “These conversations are all about chasing those probing questions that you just can’t get out of your head. It’s an opportunity to meet with those who are just as engaged as you are and keep digging to find answers to those questions.”

“Philosophy is everywhere you look,” he said. “I hope to incorporate it in the way I live and the way I practice law. It’s something that relates deeply to individuals—the way we see the world and the way we live our lives. I don’t think I’ll ever forget this experience, and I hope I can take it far.”

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