Star Turn

June 9, 2000

What do cat and pig cross-breeds and Dark Star have in common? Aristotle, of course. Brendan Howe meets a poetic don who can explain

Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man resounds through the cavernous lecture theatre at Lancaster University as students file in for Vernon Pratt's first-year philosophy lecture.

"It has nothing to do with philosophy except that it's great," he says as the music cuts out. "Does anyone know what it was? Old McDonald's what?" Laughter ensues and Pratt begins the lecture.

This is the second of two lectures on Aristotle's Ethics with a promised 20-minute film clip at the end.

Standing behind a podium, Pratt reviews the previous lecture: Aristotle has attempted to explain to us how we should live by recommending the life of the Athenian gentleman. According to Aristotle, what is good for human beings is their ability to live the life that is natural to them. This theory also applies to plants and animals, where their good is determined by developing the pattern of life characteristic to their species.

"Would you oppose the mixing of a pig and a cat?" Pratt asks. The class discusses the question in small groups. Pratt explains afterwards that he thinks thinking time is a good technique, if only to give his students a short break during the 50-minute lecture, so their concentration will stay the course. "It's achieved part of the purpose if people just talk about last night," he says.

The din of conversation is interrupted when Pratt asks: "Who thinks it's wrong - you're messing with nature there?" Most of the students raise their hands.

"Who thinks it's OK?" Only a few hands tentatively rise. This seems to prove the point Aristotle was trying to make.

Pratt then turns to virtue theory. A class of 250 created their own list during the first lecture with virtues of "courage" and "humour" resembling those Aristotle originally had in mind, while virtues of "political correctness" and "disposition to dress like Colin" were more modern examples that might not stand the test of time.

Aristotle's doctrine of the mean is illustrated through a series of charts on the overhead projector. Pratt explains that in every situation there is the possibility of two extremes: in danger a person can be cowardly and run away or act rashly by fighting back against the attacker.

"But there is a third way, as Tony Blair might agree," he says. This is the virtuous way, according to Aristotle. In danger, the mean is to act courageously. But this theory does not work similarly for all virtues. Aristotle's view of happiness is the "activity of soul in accordance with virtue".

Pratt's love for his chosen field is evident in his teaching.

"These metaphysical parts are fantastic," he exclaims while opening a passage from Thomas Carew's Mediocritie in Love Rejected: "'Like Danae in that golden shower, I swim in pleasure' - Curious reference that I don't understand." Laughter follows as he finishes reading.

The thoughts of a metaphysical poet is an attempt to get students to consider the topic further.

During the last part of the class, students sees philosophy and Hollywood interact in the much-anticipated film clip from Dark Star.

The 1974 science-fiction film presents a group of astronauts who have been given the task of launching nuclear missiles into dangerous stars to save the Earth, with the onerous task of trying to convince one of their spaceship's bombs that it should not detonate.

The bomb has malfunctioned and is still attached to the ship after being armed and commencing its countdown.

Unfortunately the bomb has started to think for itself and the frustrated astronauts attempt to argue with it by asking questions such as "how do you know you exist?" and trying to convince it that the order to detonate never happened.

The film is filled with classic philosophical material from the bomb's statement, "I think therefore I am", to its questioning of whether our senses can truly be relied upon to prove our existence.

"The bomb explodes at the end, which is a good way to end Dark Star and the week," are Pratt's closing words as the light dims.

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