Tag Archives: best quotes from The Emperor’s Club

What Will Your Contribution Be? How Will History Remember You?

alex atkins bookshelf educationIt is the beginning of the semester at St. Benedict’s, a classic boys prep school. Professor William Hundert places the textbook Civilizations of the Ancient Mediterranean in the center of each of the neatly lined desks. The classroom resembles a museum, filled with historical artifacts that reflect Greek and Roman culture, as well as busts and drawings of the great thinkers of that era, like Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, and Augustus. Behind the teacher’s time-worn wooden desk is a scale reproduction of “The Death of Socrates” by Jacques-Louis David. As former students can attest, Hundert is very fond of quoting Socrates: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” “It is not living that is important but living rightly.”

Twenty young students enthusiastically pour into the classroom and take their place at the desks. Hundert asks them to introduce themselves. He then selects one to read a plaque that hangs above the door. Martin Blythe stands up and turns to face the plaque and reads nervously: “I am Shutruk-Nahhunte, King of Ansham and Susa, sovereign of the land of Elam. By the command of Inshunshinak, I destroyed Sippar and took the stele of Naram-Sin, and brought it back to Elam, where I erected it as an offering to my god, Inshunshinak.  Shutruk-Nahhunte, 1158 B.C.”

The professor begins his lesson: “Shutruk-Nahhunte. Is anyone familiar with this fellow? Texts are permissible.” The students frantically open their textbooks, scanning the pages and the index — but to no avail. A sea of baffled faces look up at the teacher in unison. He takes a moment to register their bewilderment and exclaims, “Shutruk-Nahhunte! King! Sovereign of the land of Elam! Destroyer of Sipper! Behold, his accomplishments cannot be found in any history book. Why? Because great ambition and conquest without contribution is without significance. What will your contribution be? How will history remember you?

He lets this lesson sink in. After a moment’s pause, he continues: “Shutruk-Nahhunte is utterly forgotten — and he is not alone — vanished from history. Unlike the men around you — Aristotle, Caesar, Augustus, Socrates, Plato, Cicero, Horace, Virgil, Ovid. Giants of history. Men of profound character. Men whose contributions surpassed their own lifetimes, and survive into our own. ‘De nobis fabula narratur.’ Their story is our story.”

A few days later, Hundert explains to a cynical, corrupt senator why he teaches what he teaches: “Well, Senator, the Greeks and Romans provided a model of democracy, which, I don’t need to tell you, the framers of our own Constitution used as their inspiration. But more to the point, I think when the boys read Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Julius Caesar even, they’re put in direct contact with men who, in their own age, exemplified the highest standards of statesmanship, of civic virtue, of character, conviction.

Class dismissed.

Now let’s imagine for a moment, what our government would be like, if the people who govern America had the benefit of William Hubert’s lessons?

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Excerpts from the film, The Emperor’s Club (2002) written by Neil Tolkin (based on short story The Palace Thief  by Ethan Canin) and directed by Michael Hoffman.


A Life Lived Without Principle and Virtue is Empty

alex atkins bookshelf moviesThe Emperor’s Club (2002) is a powerful, inspirational movie written by Neil Tolkin based on the short story “The Palace Thief” by Ethan Canin. The film presents us with two diametrically opposed characters: William Hundert, a disciplined and very principled classics professor and Sedgwick Bell, an iconoclastic, arrogant, and ambitious student who will stop at nothing to win. While the first character values integrity and virtue (Hundert is fond of quoting Socrates: “It is not living that is important… but living rightly.”), the other disdains it. At the end of the film, which occurs decades after graduation when the characters are in their 30s, Hundert catches Sedgwick cheating to win a history trivia competition. They run into one another in the bathroom; Hundert confronts Sedgwick in one of the film’s most memorable scenes — so relevant to what we are witnessing in America’s current leadership (simply substitute Trump and his henchmen for Sedgwick): 

“I have no doubt you’re more clever than I am and would find some way to discredit me. ‘We live in an age’ as Seneca said, ‘where successful and fortunate crime is called virtue.’ But as a student of history, I know there will come a moment after the noise and the parties, not tonight but sometime when you will be forced like all men to look at yourself, really look at yourself, Sedgwick. And in that moment you will be confronted by the emptiness of a life lived without principle and without virtue. And for that, I pity you.”

Sedgwick looks at his former history teacher with scorn, and snarls “Can I say, Mr. Hundert, who gives a shit. Who out there gives a shit.. honestly… about your principles and your Seneca and your virtues. I mean, look at you. What do you have to show for it all?… I live in the real world. Where people lie and cheat and scratch to get what they want. And I’m okay with that, so… I’m going to go out there and win that election. I’ll worry about my contribution later.”

SHARE THE LOVE: If you enjoyed this post, please help expand the Bookshelf community by sharing with a friend or with your readers. Cheers.

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For further reading: The Emperor’s Club: The Shooting Script by Neil Tolkin

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