top of page


4 September 2016


Talks at the Opera House


This weekend I enjoyed experiencing some famous people live in the Opera House during Sydney’s FODI, the Festival of Dangerous Ideas.  It was hard to choose from the large number of talks and panel discussions on offer, but in the end I settled on two:  “Breaking a Rule a Day”, where Lionel Shriver talked about civil disobedience, and “Mercy”, where a panel of eminent legal experts, authors and philosophers discussed the need for mercy in the modern justice system, starting with the famous quote on mercy from William Shakespeare’s courtroom scene in The Merchant of Venice.

Whilst I greatly admire Lionel Shriver as an author (especially her book We need to talk about Kevin, the chilling account of a dysfunctional mother-son relationship and the making of a teenage murderer), the event itself, for my liking at least, lacked substance and therefore I won’t dwell further on it.  Too much time was spent on discussing the intricacies of the US tax system and the justifiability of breaking some rules when filling in the tax return – with philosophically shallow and socially/morally questionable arguments of the successful author.

Sunday night’s event on Shakespeare’s concept of mercy and its applicability to the modern justice system had more substance.  It was a nice twist to start with a theatrical performance of the courtroom scene and to have some of the actors as part of the discussion panel.  Other eminent contributors were the British philosopher A. C. Grayling (his book on friendship inspired my very first blog!), as well as Germaine Greer, Michael Kirby and Deng Adut.  The full text of the quote in question can be found at the end of this blog.

There were many thought-provoking contributions and left-field interpretations of Shakespeare’s play – as the gentleman sitting next to me said: “I now see Shakespeare in a totally different light.”  Grayling differentiated between two different strands of mercy that are applicable to justice:  mercy as compassion where, before passing judgement, you take into account all the circumstances of a case and the potential consequences of your sentence, and mercy as forgiveness where you take into account every human being’s imperfection and fallibility and judge accordingly and mercifully.

I rather liked Grayling’s example of the court case between a cyclist and a motorist over a traffic accident.  The motorist defended himself by saying that the cyclist had ‘wobbled’, thus causing the accident; the judge ruled that every cyclist is “entitled to a wobble.”  This can be interpreted metaphorically in the sense that every human being has their ‘wobbles’ (it is called being human), and thus this principle of mercy in judging others should guide all human relationships, not just court cases.  It tied in nicely with some of the key thoughts I expressed in my blogs The Perfection Myth and On Friendship.

The discussion raised other interesting questions, for example whether we judge ‘aliens’, outsiders, differently and less mercifully.  In 16th century Venice, where Shakespeare’s play is set, the Jewish moneylender Shylock is such an alien, and although he seems to be the villain of the play, he ends up entirely destroyed when justice turns against him rather mercilessly – a disturbingly anti-Jewish twist sometimes underrated in interpretations of The Merchant of Venice.  The connection was made to ‘aliens’ in modern-day Australia (such as refugees, asylum seekers, temporary residents, minorities), and whether they are judged less mercifully even in this day and age.

One message that can be taken from the play in any case is that we should beware of glorifying the letter of the law above compassion, mercy and forgiveness.  Those who do may well run the risk that one day fate will turn against them and that they will be judged equally mercilessly.  Shylock certainly paid a high price for demanding his "pound of flesh" and rejecting all notions of mercy and compassion.

It is always thought-provoking to hear great minds exchange ideas about ‘the big questions’, and once again I was confirmed in my credo of seeing philosophy, debate, critical thinking, theory of knowledge, ethical discussion as a crucial and all-encompassing part of a properly holistic school curriculum and education.  It is fantastic that events such as the Festival of Dangerous Ideas are being organised and that they clearly, as confirmed by the large audiences, fill a need for many people searching for answers to the big questions of life.

The quality of mercy is not strain'd,

It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven

Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;

It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

'Tis mightiest in the mightiest: it becomes

The throned monarch better than his crown;

His sceptre shows the force of temporal power,

The attribute to awe and majesty,

Wherein doth sit the dread and fear of kings;

But mercy is above this sceptred sway;

It is enthroned in the hearts of kings,

It is an attribute to God himself;

And earthly power doth then show likest God's

When mercy seasons justice.


(William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, IV, 1)

bottom of page