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Open Symposium Series
12.40PM every third Saturday of the month

The ancient Greeks were known for their love of getting together in a relaxed environment, breaking bread and arguing about philosophy, politics and the meaning of life. Inspired by these ancient symposia, Visitor Voices invites you to explore some of life's age-old questions from a modern perspective, in a casual group environment.

On the third Saturday of every month, Museum staff will guide a Socratic-style discussion among a small group, unleashing your inner philosopher and creating a dialogue between institution and visitor. In 2024 we will explore four major themes – Conflict + Humanity, Law + Freedom, Childhood and Getting Social – with each theme explored over 2–3 sessions, and every session centred around a different question. No prior knowledge required, just a sense of curiosity!


Tickets include Museum general admission before or after the session. Please note, due to the discussion of mature themes, this program is recommended for ages 15 and older.

Jump to Theme/Session

What is a Socratic discussion?

The Socratic method of discussion places emphasis on shared dialogue between teacher and students, or in this case, Museum and visitor. Each session staff will present thought-provoking, open-ended questions for participants to discuss and ask questions of their own in return. There is no prior knowledge required, and the session is designed to be open, casual and inquisitive. There are no wrong answers — only opportunities to learn.

While Visitor Voices does not shy away from difficult conversations, respect is a must. Participants should bring a spirit of thoughtfulness and friendly inquiry to their interactions.

Explore Themes & Sessions

Theme 1 — Conflict + Humanity


Session One • Sat 17 Feb
Is conflict a natural state for humans? 

Despite humanity's efforts to prevent or minimise conflict, it has never successfully been brought to a close. From Athens breaking the 30-year peace during the Peloponnesian War, to the failure of the League of Nations to prevent World War II, our impatience for conflict has made itself manifest. Humanity has also shown great inventiveness in finding causes for war – from religion and economic power, to ideology, and the kidnapping of Helen to name but a few. This is just one way to approach the question that will be at the core of this symposium, where we will draw on the knowledge of the ancients as well as our own perspectives to ask, is conflict a natural state for humans?

Special Feature: This symposium discussion will be conducted by employing the use of inner and outer Socratic circles, a common and insightful technique used in modern Socratic discussions.

Session Two • Sat 16 Mar
Can war be just?

While the 'usefulness' of war is more easily attested by political commentators and historians, in what instances can war be considered just? We have come a long way since the ancients who believed their battlefield victories to be signs of divine support, validating the justness of their cause. However, the modern Laws of War (concerned with outlining just practices for waging war) do not prevent opportunities to myth-make about whose war should run its course. Too often, arguments for the justness of wars have been skewed by the agenda of parties involved. Join us as we discuss the changing faces of war and justice, and how states and individuals shape the ethical realities of war.


Session Three • Sat 20 Apr
Are states that pursue ‘hard power’ more successful than states that pursue ‘soft power’? What kind of power would a stateless world pursue?

The third and final symposium in the 'Conflict and Humanity' series. 'Hard power' used by states entails physical expressions of power to influence its own or other people, through military action and violence. 'Soft power' involves using methods that spread a state’s influence, such as through media control or cultural influence. It is the difference between coercion and persuasion. From the merciless military incursion of Athens into Melos (416 BCE) and the United States into Iraq (2003–2011) to the propaganda models of Hellenistic rulers and Nazi Germany, this symposium will explore the evolving nature and uses of 'hard' and 'soft' power across the millennia, and even into the future, as we enter the possibility of an increasingly stateless world.

Theme 2 — Law + Freedom

Session One • Sat 18 May
Is a just person happier than an unjust person? 

While some ancient thinkers like Heraclitus proposed that justice is strife, others like Plato suggested that a just person is inherently a happy and good person, while in Christian traditions justice became equated with the height of moral virtue and love. However, do the concepts of happiness and justice, and unhappiness and injustice, truly correlate? Is justice necessarily the outcome of overcoming injustice? Join us in this symposium to ponder the origins of justice, how it arises, and the quality of life that can be achieved through it.


Session Two • Sat 15 Jun
Is it better to be ruled by the best person, or the best laws?

The ancient Greeks put a famously high value on their civic processes, which they recognised to be a delicate negotiation between elected leaders, ‘the people’ and the conceptual framework of the law. Join us in this symposium to discuss the central question posed by Aristotle in his text The Laws – are we safer in the motivated yet fallible hands of our leaders, or should we instead put our trust in the static, ‘undying’ wisdom of the laws that govern our lives? If the choice is between mortal leaders or eternal laws, which would you choose? 

Session Three • Sat 20 Jul
Can we ever be free as people living in societies where rules apply?

The Western idea of a citizen living within a state, and therefore sharing in the benefits that the state offers, is founded on ancient Greek Stoic philosophy and Roman canon law. This system requires giving up certain personal freedoms to create the possibility for collective social and political order. During this symposium participants will have the chance to ponder, at what cost do we surrender personal freedoms to partake in society, and is it worth it? Perhaps we need to reassess the narrative and consider whether the governance of a state is more important than the rule of individuals. 

Special Feature: Parts of this symposium will be conducted through the Socratic Elenchus dialectical argumentative technique, involving questions and answers between the inquisitor (host) and interlocutor (participant) to develop a better understanding of the topic. 


Theme 3 — Childhood


Session One • Sat 17 Aug
Is childhood a modern invention? 

French historian Philippe Aries asserted that before the 17th century, children were thought of as miniature adults. What, then, was childhood like in the ancient world and how does it compare to our experiences today? In ancient times, surviving childhood was no small feat. Infant mortality was so high that Greek parents did not name a child until it had survived beyond ten days, natural dangers were plentiful, and child abandonment and slavery were common. There were rules to govern proper child rearing but, just as there are a breadth of modern parenting approaches today, there was no single experience of childhood. This symposium session will discuss the social concept of childhood, its evolution through time, and how we should create the conditions for children to experience their youth.

Session Two • Sat 21 Sep
Do children contribute to society?

Children have always occupied a unique place in society. They may sometimes be referred to as a ‘burden’, but they also represent the ‘future’ of the family, community and world. Today children are major consumers with markets aligned specifically to address their tastes and needs. But do they contribute anything? What is their role in society, and how have expectations of children changed from the ancient to the modern world? Indeed, what expectations should we have of children today, and should they contribute to the common welfare?


Session Three • Sat 19 Oct
How should young people be prepared to enter adulthood?

In both ancient and modern society, ‘coming of age’ has been a highly gendered, ritualistic, spiritual and often challenging experience. The importance of this concept has been underscored by the longevity of the ‘coming of age’ story capturing the tribulations of protagonists as they assume their full rights, responsibilities, ethical understanding and purpose as members of society. The process of ‘coming of age’ has been the grounds for contesting personal identity, shaped by the forces around us including family and friends. Join us to discuss what kinds of upbringing, mentors, education and conditions are needed to prepare young people to make this transition into adulthood, both in the ancient past and today.

Theme 4 — Getting Social

Session One • Sat 16 Nov
Does a multicultural society inspire social cohesion or serve as an impediment to it? 

While we can admire ancient Greece’s openness towards new ideas encountered through foreigners, we can also find several examples where the foreigner is equated with civil factionalism and unrest – so much so that Aristotle argued against cultural diversity, suggesting it would undermine democracy and social cohesion. This thinking is increasingly echoed in modern liberal democracies such as Germany and the Netherlands, which are retreating from multicultural policy and criticising it for creating more division than unity. Like their modern equivalents, ancient societies struggled with the daily realities of a multicultural population, including how to manage the status of immigrants and the process of ‘assimilation’. Join us to discuss modern and ancient concepts of social cohesion, and ponder how Australia can build its future in a globalising world where others are retreating from a policy of multiculturalism.


Session Two • Sat 14 Dec
What does it mean to be 'social' in antiquity and modernity?

What did it mean to be social in the ancient world compared to today, and how have codes and expectations of ‘sociability’ changed over time? As we amp up to the festive season, join us to discuss ancient Greek and Roman tips for your end-of-year parties (which, back then, were often closer to orgies!) We'll explore everything from dormouse dinners – popular with ancient Romans and modern mafioso – to skeleton mosaic decor and the ancient Greek custom of Xenia (inviting people off the street and giving them food and drink before even asking their name). Come with your own party or hosting stories to share, and let's explore how we've been social for centuries.

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