Making my own adventure at Cambridge

After I had finished touring the gorgeous King’s College chapel in Cambridge, I found Dasheng, and we walked outside, not knowing where the rest of my classmates had gone. I discovered that they had all decided to go home. However, I didn’t feel satisfied with my adventure quite yet. Had I really traveled nearly two hours on public transit to one of the world’s finest colleges just to leave after a brief walking tour, a view of a chapel, and a delicious street gyro? No chance. I felt like I hadn’t really seen Cambridge at all yet.

First, Dasheng and I took a walk around King’s College–we were allowed to do this because Professor Carter had purchased us access to the college grounds in order for us to see the church. We enjoyed the picturesque scenery, and marveled at this elite college campus. Then, it was souvenir time. We stopped in at Cambridge University Press, where I intended to pick up one book, but ended up with two (a Shakespeare play and a book on the Information Age). Then, I went on a search for the perfect cheap T-shirt, which I eventually found. Resigned to leave, I walked over to the bus stop.


I was sitting at the bus stop when I had an epiphany. I still didn’t want to leave Cambridge. I wanted to see the library! I love libraries, and I’ve even considered studying library science in the future. I figured Cambridge would have an incredible library. However, after walking 20 minutes, I discovered that entry to the library was blocked due to an emergency.


Time for plan B. I continued walking down the road that had led me to the library, walking away from the bus stop, to explore more of campus. Then, I happened on a chainlink fence that was being used as a bulletin board of events. I scanned the events, and eventually, my eyes happened upon this poster:


Now, that poster wouldn’t be exciting to everybody. But I study both philosophy and journalism, so it was extremely exciting to me. Here was a chance to hear a philosophy lecture at Cambridge University, absolutely free! I quickly looked up the website and registered for the event.

But it was only 4pm, and the event didn’t start until 6. So I walked back to the library, which was now open. Members of the public are usually only allowed to enter Cambridge Library by paying a membership fee. However, a one-week membership is absolutely free, so I excitedly signed myself up. I even got a free Cambridge library card.


After exploring the library–even walking into a room with rare manuscripts–I made my way out. I walked around for a bit, on the lookout for an iPhone charger, but I couldn’t find one. Soon, it was time for the lecture! I walked over to Clare College’s Riley Auditorium  building, just across the street from the library.

The Ashby Lecture, which is an annual lecture covering the humanities and social sciences, was given by George van Kooten. He’s a Dutch professor who is about to transfer from a university in the Netherlands to Cambridge, where he will take on the oldest professorship at the university: the Lady Margaret professorship in Divinity. This professorship, which dates back to 1540, is named after Lady Margaret Beaufort, a noblewoman who was famous as King Henry VII’s mother. The position is so important that it has its own Wikipedia page. van Kooten is an expert in theology and ancient Roman philosophy. In the speech I saw, he used the ancient Roman philosophers Cicero, Seneca, and Paul the Apostle to show why he believes religion, sports, and culture have an important role to play in today’s society. He believes religion, sports, and culture act as NGOs (non-governmental organizations) that offer a social sphere that works alongside, but seperately from, politics. He believes it is vitally important for a modern society to have social spheres that are apolitical.

van Kooten made his case for this philosophy through four points: Justice, Law, Citizenship, and Community. He used Cicero’s work to argue that a non-cynical look at society requires an idea of natural justice. Cicero offered a rebuttal to a cynical Greek philosopher, who said that there is no such thing as justice, and that laws are just based on fear of punishment. Cicero said that laws are ideally a vehicle for natural justice–i.e. what is right and wrong. This moved him to his second point: Law. He argued that Paul and Seneca both pointed out two sets of laws: civic laws, the ones that are on the books, and natural laws, the ones that meet the standards of natural justice. But Paul and Seneca disagreed on how accessible these natural laws were. Seneca, a stoicist philosopher, believed these laws were only accessible by the finest members of society. Paul believed that they were accessible by everyone through Jesus Christ.

This brings us to van Kooten’s third point: Citizenship. This is where he believes Paul the Apostle made an innovation that changed political philosophy forever: the idea of two forms of citizenship, which align with the two forms of law. These are civic citizenship and cosmopolitan citizenship. van Kooten compared these two forms of citizenship with the way that the ancient Olympics were described during that time period, using a word that also roughly translates to “cosmopolitan”. Paul envisioned cosmopolitan citizenship as citizenship within the church, and he expressed that civic considerations like ethnicity and gender did not matter for cosmopolitan citizenship. He also did not intend cosmopolitan citizenship to work against civic citizenship. This brings us to van Kooten’s final point, Community. With his two forms of citizenship, van Kooten feels Paul outlined the separation of church and state that would become so important to modern liberal democracies. He feels that today, the NGOs of sports, religion, and the arts should offer apolitical communities which work alongside, not against, the political system. At the beginning of the lecture, van Kooten offered examples of these NGOs working with the political system: for example, the recent brokering of a more peaceful relationship between North Korea and South Korea at the Winter Olympics.

van Kooten’s argument was compelling, but my mind immediately went to times when modern “NGOs”, by his definition, work in the same sphere as politics. I wondered whether his NGOs could ever truly offer an apolitical sphere, when there are several issues that cause members of specific religions, for example, to feel that they have a religious duty to hold a certain political position.

A few audience members raised strong objections to van Kooten’s compelling argument. One audience member asked about the times when civic laws and natural laws conflict with each other. Another wondered if conceptualizing religion as an NGO was appropriate, since religions often advocate separating their members from the rest of society, which NGOs as we conceive of them today do not usually do. Both were interesting objections.

In all, this was a fascinating lecture that offered a lot of food for thought for me on the long commute home. After walking all over campus, visiting the library, and attending this, I finally felt satisfied that I had seen the real Cambridge University.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s