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PHILOSOPHICAL ISSUES: Moral virtue, Machiavellian ethics

CHARACTERS: William Hundert (Kevin Kline; classics teacher), Sedgewick Bell (disruptive student), Senator Bell (Sedgewick’s father), Elizabeth (married teacher), James Ellerby (student in competition), Deepak Mehta (student in competition), Martin Blythe (student bumped out of competition)

OTHER FILMS BY DIRECTOR MICHAEL HOFFMAN: Soapdish (1991), Restoration (1995), One Fine Day (1996), A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1999)

SYNOPSIS: The Emperor’s Club is based on the short story "The Palace Thief" by Ethan Canin. Set in the 1970s, William Hundert is a classics teacher at St. Benedictus School for Boys, and he uses his subject matter as a means for instilling moral character on his students. His class becomes disrupted by a new student, Sedgewick Bell, son of an influential U.S. Senator, who lures other students into breaking school rules. William sees Sedgewick’s potential, but swayed by Sedgewick’s charisma, he bends the rules to allow him to compete in the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest – a trivia game of the Roman world. William sees Sedgewick cheating; he doesn’t expose him, but thwarts his victory. Twenty years later, Sedgewick is a business tycoon and offers to make a sizeable donation to Benedictus School if William hosts a rematch of the “Mr. Julius Caesar” contest, with the original contestants. Once again William sees Sedgewick cheating and thwarts his victory. Deleted scenes from the film portray William as more morally ambiguous and Sedgewick as more Machiavellian; Sedgewick also succeeds in his run for the Senate.


1. William states “However much we stumble, it is a teacher’s burden to always hope that with learning a boy’s character might be changed, and so the destiny of a man.” In a documentary on the film, Roberta Ann Johnson (author of “Whistleblowing: When it Works – and Why”) states the following: “This film asks us to examine the classroom as a very important piece of American society, one that might affect the future Enrons, and the future Worldcoms. This asks us to look at the classroom as a place where character is built.” In the same documentary, director Michael Hoffman states, “There’s been initiated a kind of national debate about ethics, how we teach them, if teaching them is even possible. How do we mold someone’s character?” Is it too late for classes to build moral character at either the high school or college level? If not, how might character-building best be incorporated into the classroom experience?

2. The film stresses the importance of classics in teaching virtues. Speaking with Senator Bell, William states “The Greeks and the 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, 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, character, conviction.” In a documentary on the film, Roberta Ann Johnson states “The William Hunderts of the world remind us of the core values of ancient Greece and Rome, remind us of virtue and civic responsibility. They remind us of that in the classroom, and that alone makes them worth knowing and worth having in society.” We don’t teach the classics much in high schools or colleges. Have we lost an important tool for teaching virtue?

3. William quotes Aristophanes: “Youth ages, immaturity is outgrown, ignorance can be educated, drunkenness sobered, but stupid lasts forever.” Does any of this seem correct?

4. The movie highlights several virtues, including courage, discipline, honesty, justice. What does William do to teach these virtues?

5. One theme in virtue theory concerns whether there some virtues are more important than the others, and might even underpin all virtuous conduct. Does any particular virtue hold this place in the movies?

6. William is a morally flawed character himself, who, lured by Sedgewick’s charisma, bends the rules to help Sedgewick. As Ethan Canin states it in a documentary on the film, William “is a moralist in the story who makes a slip, and one slip leads to the next and it is a slippery slope.” What feature of William’s character set him on this course?

7. What techniques does William use when attempting to mold Sedgewick’s character?

8. In the director’s commentary, Michael Hoffman states that William lacked a “pragmatist gift for dealing with reality” and was completely naive in the ways of realpolitik. Is that a character flaw in William?

9. William and his married colleague Elizabeth are romantically attracted to each other (the original short story does not have this component). In a scene deleted from the film, William and Elizabeth are cradling each other on William’s porch swing, suggesting that they’re having an affair. In the final version of the film, the extent of their relationship is ambiguous. If the scene was left it, would this have made William a bad man on balance – and even a hypocrite?

10. The school Headmaster encourages William to ignore the fact that Sedgewick was cheating – largely because of the financial benefit that the school receives through Sedgewick’s father. As one of the actors states it in a documentary on the film, “A practical decision might not appear to be the best choice from an ethics perspective, but may be necessary. There’s realpolitik and then there’s romantic politics.” Was the Headmaster correct in letting the issue go?

11. William states that we can’t really know who we are if we don’t know what happened before we were born. This parallels the view of virtue theorist Alasdair MacIntyre who argued that virtues arise within the contexts of specific social traditions. The KKK is steeped in tradition, but clearly is one which teaches the worst vices, not virtues. Which histories or traditions might best foster virtues in our present society?

12. The film explores a tension between traditional moral virtues and Machiavellian ethics (i.e., compromising moral convictions for some overriding interest). At the close of the film William confronts the grown Sedgewick: “All of us, at some point, are forced to look at ourselves in the mirror and see who we really are. When that day comes for you, Sedgewick, you will be confronted with a life lived without virtue, with principle, and for that I pity you.” Sedgewick responds: “Who out there gives a s**t about your principles and your virtues? I mean, look at you. What do you have to show for yourself? I live in the real world where people do what they need to do to get what they want. If it’s lying and if it’s cheating, then so be it.” As producer Andrew Karsch states the conflict in a documentary on the film, “Do we want to live a good life, and examined life, or do we want to be successful at any cost?” Does the film resolve this tension?

13. The moral indiscretions in the film seem comparatively minor – Hardwick bending the rules to help Sedgewick , and Sedgewick cheating in a competition. The filmmakers, though, construe these as life-defining character traits. Is this an overreaction?

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