The Academy 2014

The Academy was founded by the Academy of Ideas in 2011 and came under the auspices of the Battle of Ideas charity in 2019. 

The Academy 2014 – which was held on Saturday 19 and Sunday 20 July, with a special Scholars’ day on Friday 18 July – featured parallel-track lecture series over the course of three days – on History, Literature, Classics -­ and a plenary series on moral thought.

The theme of the Academy in 2014 was morality. Systems of morality (ethics) distinguish between actions and intentions as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’. And moral thought often distinguishes between what is wrong for a given culture or moral code (descriptive ethics) and what is actually right or wrong (normative ethics). Through history there have been many types of morality: aristocratic, religious, conservative, socialist, scientific, therapeutic, to name a few. Some make ahistorical claims: for example the view of Aristotle and Aquinas that the good is what all things strive for. Some, like Burke, find what is right in historical tradition. Enlightenment thinkers, Kant for example, allowed room for both universal morality (the categorical imperative given by our nature as rational agents) and the specific duties demanded by particular groups or societies. Since then there has arguably been an increasing trend towards seeing morality as determined by either external factors (society, culture, evolution) or by the individual himself (existentialism, moral relativism, self-realisation).

Both approaches tend to share a common assumption, however, which is expressed by the idea of a death of God: both aim to be moral systems suitable to a secular age. This assumption is that expressed by Schiller’s phrase ‘the disenchantment of the world’: the idea that goodness is no longer to be found in the human world. Weber of course took on Schiller’s phrase to describe life in modern, bureaucratic, secular Western society: dominated by science rather than faith, by pragmatism not idealism, and by rational process rather than tradition and intuition. In short, life in what Weber called an ‘iron cage’ or a ‘shell as hard as steel’ (Stahlhartes Gehäuse) is one dominated by a tension between the individual and society but a tension unresolvable by any system of morality outside society: as expressed by the metaphorical death of God.

The Academy looked at the unfolding of moral thinking through history: from its origin in Western thought with Socrates who, in his determination to pursue his individual sense of what is right, can be seen as a prefigurement of Christ. The second lecture on the struggle of the Jews against Roman might in the first century A.D. discussed the Great Revolt in terms of the birth of Christianity in a struggle for religious freedom and the acceptance, through defeat, of its postponement until the Kingdom of God. Two plenary lectures on key Enlightenment thinkers – Edmund Burke and Adam Smith – developed the tension found in morality between freedom as an ideal and freedom as a material reality while tracing the growing separation of morality from religion and its resulting politicisation. The two final lectures on the French Revolution and the First World War looked at the failed idealism of the former and the bloody realities of the latter and discuss what remains of a morality seeming to lack foundations.

Through literature: from chivalry to realism in Don Quixote, the end of tradition as seen in the historical novel, the possibilities and challenges of freedom for women as seen in fiction and the falling away of all moral sureties in the fiction of the early twentieth century.

And in the classics: in the might-is-right doctrines found in Thucydides, the clash between the choices of men and the will of the gods in the plays of Euripides and, hundreds of years later, in the struggle between duty and passion in Virgil’s Aeneid. A separate lecture examined the way in which aesthetics and morality have been considered: from Plato’s expulsion of the arts from his ideal Republic to Kant’s view that beauty is the symbol of morality.

With the addition of short lectures on related themes, the Academy as a whole looked at the question whether or not man can live a good life without God or only with God or if looking at the question that way at all is itself merely an excuse for the failure to be morally human.


A selection of sessions were filmed and are available as a YouTube playlist.

Programme of lectures

You can listen to the lectures and discussions below, where a recording is available.

Scholars’ Day

CSR: doing the right thing? (Phil Mullan)

Political Myth and Religious Pluralism: a European Problem? (Professor James Conroy)

Freedom and moral responsibility: (Dr James Panton)

Day one

Plenary: An introduction to morality (Angus Kennedy)

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Plenary: Aristotle’s ethics: on what constitutes the good life (Professor Joe Friggieri)

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Classics: Might and right in Thucydides’ Peloponnesian Wars (Professor Neville Morley)

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History: The death of Socrates and the birth of individual morality (Josie Appleton)

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Literature: Inns, Castles and Chateaux in Don Quixote: shifting values in changing times (Professor Barry Ife)

Plenary: The moral foundations of Thomism (Professor John Haldane)

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Day two

Classics: Morality, Politics and Religion in Euripidean Tragedy (Hippolytus, Bacchae and Suppliant Women) (Dr Jon Hesk)

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History: Josephus, the Great Revolt and the birth of Christianity (Dolan Cummings)

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Literature: Learning from the past? The rise of the historical novel (Stuart Kelly)

History: Adam Smith: value, or price? The morality of commercial society  (Professor Frank Furedi)

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Sunday Shorts

Suicide: a short history (Dr Kevin Yuill)

Chivalry from Roland to Quixote (Richard Swan)

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Revolutionary morality (Bruno Waterfield)

The law and morality (Luke Gittos)

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Plenary: Edmund Burke: the moral tradition (Professor Frank Furedi)

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Day Three

Classics: What is the truth about Love? Learning from Plato’s Symposium (Dr Armand D’Angour)

History: French Revolution: terror, virtue and necessity (Bruno Waterfield)

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Literature: Fallen women: moral tensions (Claire Fox)

Classics: Aeneas: pious son; man of war (Angus Kennedy)

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History: The First World War: a quest for meaning? (Professor Frank Furedi)

Literature: Men without qualities? Morality without religion? (Alan Hudson)

Plenary: The Death of God and the Fall of Man (Kenan Malik)