• Emily Rose Seeber

Using an assembly-story to get students thinking about political leadership and mercy


Two words that every teacher dreads: 'giving assembly'. Tomorrow it is my turn, and the first time I will have done it at my new school. That means I am keen to get it right. This week I have been reading Willingham's book, Why Don't Students Like School, and I have decided to take some of his advice about constructing the structure of the assembly as a story. For this I need to identify a conflict, or a question, which my assembly-story will revolve around.

Conflict: should our rulers be merciful?

I have decided to speak about the debate between Seneca and Machiavelli on this conflict about political leadership. I wrote an essay on this topic as part of my philosophy course last year, and I felt at the time that there was a good balance between student reflection and intellectual content to make a worthwhile assembly. More importantly though, in this time of turbulent political change, it is crucial that students understand the terms of the debate and the philosophical positions on which they stand.

Stage 1: Setting up the conflict

According to the Roman thinker and statesman, Seneca, writing in 55-56 to the young Emperor Nero, leaders should be merciful and virtuous in exactly the same way as all citizens are expected to be. They should forgive easily and not punish their citizens too harshly. A leader should act as a loving father towards his people. Leaders should be merciful.

Machiavelli famously satirises Seneca's position in his most famous political tract, The Prince, which was written in 1513, demonstrating that a leader who displays this kind of mercy is not really being merciful at all, as they are allowing their citizens to push the boundaries more and more. This will, according to Machiavelli, make society more fractured and unstable which is less merciful than simply punishing wrong-doers properly at first, harshly if necessary, and having a more stable state which is of benefit to all. Mercy is the virtue of ineffective rulers.

Within the context of my assembly-story I have now given the two sides of the conflict and set up the terms of the debate.

Stage 2: Getting to the heart of the conflict

Machiavelli holds this extreme view because he holds some underlying assumptions which lead him to reject the traditional virtue of mercy. Firstly, he believes in the instrumentalist ethical principle that 'the end justifies the means'; rulers are subject to different moral codes to ordinary citizens. Secondly, he believes that rulers are able to operate in secret and carry out their cruelty behind closed doors without the people finding out. Thirdly, he thinks that at heart, we are all selfish, greedy, ambitious individuals who will always put our own interests ahead of the good of the state. Finally, he assumes that the purpose of punishment is to deter immoral citizens from criminal behaviour.

Seneca does not hold these assumptions, hence why he is able to hold such a different view to Machiavelli about the nature of leadership. In order to help students make this comparison I have made a Venn diagram showing the different background assumptions Machiavelli and Seneca make.

I have now provided the intellectual context for the conflict in my assembly-story.

Stage 3: Explaining why resolving the conflict matters

How we sit on these issues, in a modern day context, determines what kinds of virtues we should be looking for in our political leaders, and if we are encouraging our students to be thoughtful citizens, we should be giving them the tools to evaluate the kinds of leadership they want to see from politicians. My assembly-story is peppered with examples from modern life and finishes off be asking the students to reflect on where they stand on these debates.

  • Do they want a free and open press, or do they believe that rulers should be able to work in secret when necessary?

  • Do they believe that leaders should never have to compromise their personal values for the good of the state, or that being able to do that on the people's behalf is the role of a political leader?

  • Do they believe that people are good and will naturally work together for social harmony, or that they are all underhand and selfish?

  • Do they think that punishment of criminal should be harsh to prevent further crimes, or milder to allow the wrongdoer to reform and become a better person?

Asking these sorts of questions helps students to understand why resolving the conflict between Seneca and Machiavelli is important. Although they may not be able to answer all of these questions easily or have views which are on both sides of the debate, they can see that there is a relationship between what we think about these issues and the kinds of leadership that we think will help us to live in a stable, prosperous country in the future.

Willingham suggests that "on its own, the answer is almost never interesting", which is why spending so much time elucidating the question is so important. Now of course, as it is an assembly and not a lesson, I do not want to resolve these debates for the students, so I am skipping Stage 4 of the assembly-story. Instead I am leaving them with open questions to reflect on themselves. But I am hoping that, with Willingham's help, I have given them enough of the picture that they will want to find out the answers for themselves and finish the story in their own ways.

The full text of the assembly can be found HERE and the associated slides can be found HERE.

#philosophy #broadercurriculum #cognitivescience #assembly #politicalthought

© 2017 by Emily Rose Seeber.