Daily Prompt: Literature And Caffeine

Hey, folks. Today’s Daily Prompt is all about teachers. Specifically, the ones who have had a significant impact – good or bad – on your life. This one’s actually kind of tricky; I was on decent terms with all of my instructors, but few of them ever stood out. I’ve always been an overachiever in academic settings – yeah, I was that kid – so teachers focused more on helping the struggling students. I got the (quite wrongful!) impression early on that they didn’t really care about what they were teaching, and were only there for temp work or couldn’t find employment at better schools. Just show up for class, finish the assignment, get the A, and move on. Nothing personal or mind-blowing.

That all changed when I transferred to a university for my upper division coursework. In my first semester, I had a class on Renaissance Literature. I was expecting the instructor to be an bland, cranky, grandmotherly type just like nearly every English teacher I’d had before. This professor, however, was full of energy, enthusiasm, and cracked tons of jokes throughout the lecture. She was so intense and ridiculously over-the-top, it was infectious. I later found out that she had a venti triple-shot Starbucks concoction before showing up every morning. The caffeine made her the life of the party, and it gave a serious boost to her presentation. Some students don’t like that kind of loopy personality (I certainly would’ve tired of it under different circumstances), but no one could deny its effectiveness. The only time it backfired is when she misread the syllabus and assigned the entire Book of the Courtier to be finished in a single overnight reading. It was insane, but we got it done. As an apology, she dropped the final exam from the course. Coincidentally, that extensive reading helped inspire my current world view.

Woe to anyone who underestimated her, though. There was a good reason she was in charge of the department’s graduate program. As goofy as she was in lecturing, she was absolutely ruthless when it came to grading, structuring, and editing. Not doing an assignment in perfect MLA Format was an insta-fail. Don’t craft an argument well enough? Be ready to get called out on it. I pride myself on my writing, but I wouldn’t be nearly as good without her turning my work into a jumble of red marks and annotations. Some of my finest papers were written in her classes. She challenged me to improve, something no other teacher even tried. This is on top of her bringing in extra books, movies, plays, and artifacts she’d collected over the years. She cared enough about what she taught to make it interesting, and spent plenty of one-on-one time with each of her students. She wanted us to be at our best, and nothing less.

Needless to say, that Renaissance Literature class wasn’t the last I saw of her. I ended up taking her courses in Shakespeare, Milton, 19th Century British Literature, and Critical Writing On Drama. I improved with each passing course, eventually becoming one her top students. She gave me her personal copy of the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare, as well as a film version of Hamlet. It eventually culminated on my graduation, as she was the one who shook my hand and nodded as I crossed the stage. That was such a long time ago, but I can remember it so clearly. I miss those strange but oh-so educational times. Maybe someday I’ll get a chance to thank her for what she did…maybe with a Starbucks gift card.

The Ends Justify The Means? Objection!

Hey, folks. I’m playing through Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies right now. For the uninitiated, Phoenix Wright is a video game series that focuses on the life and career of the titular Phoenix Wright, a defense attorney. Over the course of five games (and two spinoffs that focus on his rival prosecutor), players get to see a rookie lawyer develop into a courtroom veteran, eventually becoming a mentor to a new generation. These text-based games are famous for their humor, wacky characters, stunning twists, and an expansive, intricately-crafted storyline. Think of it like Perry Mason, but with crazy courtroom antics, supernatural entities, and truckloads of snark. Dual Destinies – released this past weekend on the 3DS – is no exception, so expect a review for it soon.

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One of the series’ most prevalent themes is the search for truth. Phoenix (and eventually his rival) must use logic and evidence to uncover lies in witnesses’ testimonies, stubbornly enduring and unraveling counterarguments put forth in the cases. However, it’s no longer so simple. As the story progresses, the legal system slides deeper and deeper into amoral territory. It’s not about seeking truth, but how you get that result. False claims, baseless accusations, and forged evidence become huge, destructive plot points in not only individual cases, but Phoenix’s career as well.

Dual Destinies takes this to the next logical step by giving the player a glimpse into an in-universe law school. Promising up-and-coming lawyers are not taught to seek the truth, but to achieve the desired result – a conviction or acquittal – through whatever means possible. The head professor flat-out states that “the ends justify the means” and encourages his students to follow that philosophy. It results in murder, potentially ruined careers, and innocent people come within inches of wrongful sentencing. To the game’s credit, the implications of “the ends justify the means” approach are made abundantly clear; not only does the player character understand how badly it hinders the judicial system, but actively fights against it through proper legal means. Given how the Phoenix Wright series is a satire of the Japanese court system, you have to wonder how much of this issue is strictly plot-based.

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My problem is with the phrase itself. We’ve all heard “the ends justify the means” so much that it’s become a mainstay in pop culture. Not only is it used in novels, movies, and television, but in real life as well. A lot of shady policies are lazily explained away by these five words, often without anyone reflecting on their meaning. Most people know that it’s a quote from Machiavelli’s The Prince, an Italian political treatise written in 1513. What most people don’t know is that the phrase is never stated anywhere in it. Going back to the original text, the exact quote is ”si guarda al fine”, which roughly translates to “you should look at the end”. Put into context – it’s in Chapter XVIII if you want to look it up – it’s a reflection of how a ruler maintains his kingdom. A prince must reflect on how best to keep control while still be judged honorable and praised by his people, lest he push things too far and gets his head impaled upon a pike. The same holds true for anyone who wants to adapt Machiavelli’s opinion to his or her own exploits; in reaching your goal, you have to carefully consider how to reach it.

Pragmatism, anyone?

Here’s the funny thing. If the phrase “the ends justify the means” were to be taken at face value, then Machiavelli would have vehemently opposed it. The man really cared about the means; the entire function of The Prince was to advise rulers on how best to maintain their rule! With brutally practical, but intelligent ways. Thus Machiavelli’s defining teachings are perceived by modern audiences in the opposite way he intended.

Let that one sink in for a while.

Oh, and one last thing. “It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.” Yeah…try reading the rest of the chapter. Machiavelli states that it’s very important to avoid hatred. You know, by not always achieving your goals via blatantly dubious and tyrannical means? Just saying.

…I’m going back to my video game.