Seneca’s Epistulae Morales show one side of a dialectic.  We hear the words of the teacher, but we know little of the student, Lucilius. Despite this lack of an interlocutor, the epistles demand active engagement from the reader, in a manner consistent with early Platonic dialectic.[1]  I will argue that Seneca uses intellectual puzzles and complex imagery to stimulate in his reader, Lucilius or any other, an active effort to complete arguments which may otherwise remain unclear or inadequate.  I will first establish a base line for reader engagement by considering the Euthyphro of Plato as an example of the invitation to active engagement which draws a reader to offer extensions for incomplete arguments.  A brief consideration of Ciceronian dialectic in the Tusculanae Disputationes contrasts Plato’s technique to one in which the reader remains more passive, with doctrine being passed from teacher to student through declamation.  Turning to the Epistulae Morales, I will give attention to Seneca’s quotations from other authors, called mercedulae, showing how these place an onus for understanding upon the reader, in the manner of early Platonic dialectic, and contrary to the style employed by Ciceronean dialectic.  Metaphors of gift exchange and debt reveal Seneca’s careful construction of an obligation for interpretation incumbant upon Lucilius, and by extension, upon all other readers. Economic metaphors of debt and obligation bind Seneca’s readers to the role of active participant in an on-going and dynamic dialectic process.

Early Platonic dialogues are famously incomplete, since the interlocutor, as in the Euthyphro, fails to offer an adequate definition of the term under consideration.[2]  As readers observe the collapse of the interlocutor, we have an opportunity to enter the dialectic ourselves and to respond to Socrates’ questions.  Euthyphro makes several attempts at a definition of the term τὸ ὅσιον, “the pious” or “that which is pious.”  His first response is to say that prosecuting the unjust is what is pious (5e).  Socrates points out that this is but one example of what is pious, and that he is seeking to learn the essence of what is pious (6d).  This quite reasonably sends Euthyphro to his second attempt, the assertion that what is dear to the gods is pious (7a).  Socrates brings Euthyphro to see the polytheistic problem with this (8b), and Euthyphro offers as his third attempt the claim that what is dear to all the gods is what is pious (9e).  It is at this point that Socrates delivers his most challenging question in asking if the pious is pious because it is dear to the gods, or if it is dear to the gods because of some intrinsic attribute (10a).  Euthyphro is soon reduced to the condition of admitting that he doesn’t know what he means, the condition of ἀπορία, aporia (11b).  Now Socrates can become more active, and he leads Euthyphro to see that piety is a sub-type of justice (11e).  Armed with this insight, Euthyphro offers his fourth attempt at a definition, claiming that the pious is that part of the just which is concerned with the care of the gods (12e).  This is a crucial move by Euthyphro, but it is important to remember that Socrates introduced the idea that piety was a sub-type of justice.  In distinguishing a part of justice concerned with the care of the gods from the remaining part, that concerned with the care of humans, Euthyphro is offering something of his own, but he is also following a lead introduced by Socrates.  Socrates fixes upon the term θεραπεία, “care,” and attempts to get Euthyphro to specify this more closely.  Socrates appears to have accepted Euthyphro’s claim that piety is a sub-type of justice concerned with a “care” of the gods.  To specify “care” more closely, Socrates asks Euthyphro to tell him what is the purpose of a “care” of the gods (13d).  If Euthyphro can answer this question adequately, without introducing any new unexplained terms, the dialogue might be said to have reached an adequate definition of “piety.”

Euthyphro’s failure to explain the purpose of a “care” for the gods creates the essential puzzle for the reader of the Euthyphro.  Early Platonic dialectic often creates puzzles for readers.  Since these are models for Senecan puzzles in his Epistulae Morales, I will treat the puzzle of the Euthyphro in detail.

When Euthyphro offers his definition of piety as that part of the just which is concerned with the care of the gods, Socrates signals that this definition is very close to the goal of the dialogue: ἀλλὰ σμικροῦ τινος ἔτι ἐνδεής εἰμι, “…but I am in need still of a certain small thing” (13α).[3] Socrates specifies the missing ingredient as a fuller account of “care,” οὐ γάρ που λέγεις γε, οἵαίπερ καὶ αἱ περὶ τὰ ἄλλα θεραπεῖαί εἰσιν, τοιαύτην καὶ περὶ θεούς, “For you are not saying what sorts of cares there are with regards to other things, nor, indeed, what sort of care exists with regards to the gods,” (13a).  For a clarification of θεραπεία, “care,” Socrates offers as models horse care, dog care, and cattle care.[4]  Since Euthyphro accepts these models, Socrates goes on to ask about the purpose of such care, and to suggest that some good or some benefit for the entity cared for is a purpose of care.  Euthyphro did not introduce the idea of a good or a benefit; that was Socrates’ suggestion.  However, when Socrates tries to apply this to piety, suggesting that the gods might be benefited by Euthyphro’s possible acts of piety, the priest is horrified, rejecting the notion that gods could be benefited (13c).  An engaged reader might, at this point, question Euthyphro’s rather conventional rejection of the idea that gods might be benefited by acts of piety.  We might want to think anew about benefits which gods might enjoy, or about what sorts of things might benefit the gods.  When Socrates returns to the question of the nature of the care, Euthyphro offers the care slaves offer masters as his own model replacing Socrates’s prior model of the care taken for horses, dogs, and cattle (13c).  In doing so, Euthyphro has inverted the power hierarchy between caretaker and entity cared for.  Euthyphro’s conventional piety is on display here.  Socrates confirms Euthyphro’s move by calling this new kind of care ὑπηρετική, “suited for serving” (13d). The metaphor in this adjective is drawn from rowing, so Euthyphro’s understanding of “care” is being likened to the work an oarsman performs for the movement of a ship.  Introducing metaphors from medicine and shipbuilding, Socrates now asks “for the completion of what task” (εἰς τίνος ἔργου ἀπεργασίαν) is the serving care of doctors employed, and Socrates even provides the final element in this new model by offering health as the goal of medical care.  Again, the model Socrates provides is very nearly complete.  If Euthyphro can simply plug in a goal for the serving care of the gods performed by the pious, he may have an excellent response to the question under consideration in the dialogue.  To make an answer even easier, Socrates adds ship construction and house construction to the model, letting Euthyphro have tangible objects like ships and houses as appropriate examples of goals of care.  Health, as a state of being, is unlike a ship or a house, so Socrates may be said to have confused Euthyphro with this plethora of proper objects of care.  Guiding Euthyphro even more explicitly, Socrates says, τί ποτέ ἐστιν ἐκεῖνο τὸ πάγκαλον ἔργον ὃ οἱ θεοὶ ἀπεργάζονται ἡμῖν ὑπηρέταις χρώμενοι; “What is that entirely good action which the gods complete using us humans as assistants?” (13e).  In the cases of doctors, architects, and shipwrights, the products generated by the actions of these professionals are health, houses, and ships.  The servants for the professionals might be the physician’s assistants and craftsfolk who help in creating the products.  We now know that it is the gods who generate the unnamed product, assisted by us humans through our serving care of their divine efforts.  Again helping Euthyphro toward an answer, Socrates offers a military metaphor, affirming that victory in war is the goal of military service, and an agricultural metaphor, affirming that food is the goal of cultivation (14a). Just before Euthyphro’s utter failure to offer an object produced by the serving care of the gods, Socrates reaffirms that this product is generated by the gods, not by humans, though the gods do generate this product with human assistance.

Euthyphro does not offer any product generated by gods with the assistance of human care in reply to Socrates’ closely specified query.  His failure marks the final phase of the Euthyphro, for the dialogue quickly descends to the level of particulars, which appeared to have been abandoned back at 7a.  But the failure of the interlocutor need not indicate the failure of the inquiry.[5] A reader of the dialogue who has been following the dialectic closely through the section treated above might well be able to offer some suggestions for the missing product.  Consider some hints which have been dropped earlier in the dialogue to assist us in supplying the missing product.  We know from 13b that the product must be a good or a benefit.   We know from 13e that the product is made by the gods with human assistance.  We also know from 12e that the nature of the assistance is connected to the pious, and that the pious is a part of the just.  Since justice has been left out of Euthyphro’s final efforts to specify the product, we might try to plug it back in.  That could yield a claim that the pious is that serving care of the gods which assists them in the production of justice.  This is by no means the only possible response to these final arguments of the Euthyphro.  There may well be no fully adequate answer to Socrates’ query, but I have tried to show that the absence of an answer, and the abundance of pointers toward possible answers, shows that the dialogue, at its climax, is offering its readers a riddle to work upon.  The interlocutor has failed to respond appropriately to  Socrates’ suggestions and directions, but that failure opens up a space for the reader to fulfil the task which Euthyphro has left incomplete.[6]

I have presented the dialectic of the Euthyphro as a model of what happens in several of Plato’s early dialogues.  A challenging question is raised.  Socrates’ interlocutor makes a series of increasingly successful attempts to answer the question.  The issues at stake get clarified.  We get closer to an adequate understanding.  But at the last moment, the interlocutor’s intellectual failure leaves the matter unresolved at the end of the dialogue.  It is the reader who is enabled and invited, even seduced, into attempting to answer the question at hand by using the intellectual resources which have already been offered.  This version of Platonic dialectic is thus performative; it makes something happen in the mind of the reader, rather than epideictic, merely articulating doctrine.  In fact, Plato moved away from this form of interaction with his reader.  The later Platonic dialogues include much more explicit doctrine and much less performative engagement of the reader.  In the early dialogues, such as the Euthyphro, the reader gets to become Socrates’ interlocutor at the moment when the fictional interlocutor fails to respond adequately to a Socratic question.  For Plato this mode of dialectic has serious epistemological implications.  The knower is an active agent who works toward what is actually the case by being guided by what is actually the case.  There really is a right answer, and we can figure it out, though the interlocutors of the Platonic dialogues usually fail in the undertaking.  Early Platonic dialectic often operates through puzzles to which the reader can respond, though the interlocutor does not.  My maieutic reading, a reading assuming that Socrates is acting as a midwife for the ideas of others, does not argue that there is a specific doctrine to be inculcated, but it does argue that the incompleteness of the argument is a device to encourage readers’ active engagement with the question.[7]

As a comparandum, consider a Ciceronian dialectic style. In Ciceronean dialogue there is very little of the rapid exchange we find in early Platonic dialogues.  The Tusculanae Disputationes are a good example.  Cicero opens the with a direct address to his dedicatee, Brutus, and an explanation of the form of the document.  Each of the five books will address a proposition.  Cicero explains that he is trying to write in the manner of the Greeks and to bring Greek philosophic thought to Rome: “Fiebat autem ita ut, cum is qui audire vellet dixisset, quid sibi videretur, tum ego contra dicerem. Haec est enim, ut scis, vetus et Socratica ratio contra alterius opinionem disserendi. nam ita facillime, quid veri simillimum esset, inveniri posse Socrates arbitrabatur.”  “It happened thus that when he who wished to hear had said what seemed to him to be the case, then I would speak in opposition.  This is, as you know, the ancient and Socratic method of speaking in opposition to another’s opinion.  For thus did Socrates judge that it would be most easily possible to discover what was most likely to be true.” (Tusc. Disp. 1. 4. 8).  Notice that Cicero understands this activity to be fundamentally adversarial, “contra alterius opinionem.”  Though there may be conflict in early Platonic dialogues, Socrates and his interlocutor are mostly presented as sharing an interest in discovering what might be the case, rather than in winning a competition between competing views.  A reader of a Ciceronian dialogue might agree with one or another speaker, but that reader is not being invited to develop an original understanding.

As the dialogue of the Tusculanae Disputationes begins, the speakers are described in our manuscripts as “A.” and “M.”  We don’t quite know what these letters might signify, but a reasonable guess is that “A.” stands for “Auditor,” “listener,” and that M. stands for “Magister,” “teacher.”  In this dialogue we always know who has the better answer.  The reader is in the condition of the listener, who defers to the superior understanding of the teacher.  Indeed, the dialogue proceeds upon the presupposition that whatever the listener proposes must be wrong and will be opposed by the teacher as a way of reaching the truth.  Cicero understands this to be essential to the Socratic method.  The passivity of the reader means that the teacher is like a sapiens, a wise man, on a mountaintop dispensing wisdom.  The mysterious letter “M.” might even stand for the name Marcus in Marcus Tullius Cicero.  The great Roman orator certainly performed a significant service in publishing Greek philosophy in the Latin language at Rome, but he calls this work a form of declamation, so we can see that he is concerned with the intellectual action of the speaker rather than of the listener or reader.[8]

With the awareness of an early Platonic dialectic style favoring the active engagement of the reader, and with our knowledge of Cicero’s Roman dialectic style largely disregarding such engagement, let’s turn to the object of my inquiry, Senecan dialectic style in the Epistulae Morales.

In 27 of the first 29 epistles Seneca includes a brief quotation from a Greek philosopher.  Seneca typically discusses the quotation, commenting upon its meaning or significance, but not explicitly relating the quotation and its theme to the topic presented earlier in the letter.  He describes these quotations with a variety of expressions drawn from the vocabulary of debt.  The term mercedula appears twice (Ep. Mor. 6. 7 and 15. 9) and serves nicely to describe the literary device, for the diminutive termination, “-ula” shows that these small quotations are “little payments.”  After the 29th epistle, Seneca ceases to include these mercedulae.

In epistle 118 Seneca offers an illuminating discussion of the nature of his correspondence with Lucilius, which sheds light on his earlier use of mercedulae.  Using an economic metaphor, Seneca writes, “Exigis a me frequentiores epistulas.  Rationes conferamus: solvendo non eris.  Convenerat quidem ut tua priora essent: tu scriberes, ego rescriberem.  Sed non ero difficilis: bene credi tibi scio.  Itaque in anticessum dabo.”  “You demand more frequent epistles from me.  Let’s compare our account books;  you will not be able to pay your debt.  It had been agreed that your letters would be prior, that you would write, and I would respond.  But I won’t be difficult.  I know that your credit is good, so I will pay first.” (Ep. Mor. 118. 1).  Notice the formal arrangements for this correspondence.  Just as Cicero intended for the listener to propose a question to which he would respond, so has Seneca given to Lucilius the obligation to compose an initial letter to which he, as the master, will respond.  These epistles, however, are not a private correspondence to which we readers have accidentally become privy; these are essays intended for publication.  The procedures outlined in epistle 118 do not suggest an active engagement by Lucilius or the reader; Lucilius is to pose an issue, and Seneca is to respond to that.  Insofar as these epistles are intended for publication, however, we must think about the role of the reader as well.  If readers are understood to be in the position of Lucilius, they are obligated only to absorb the wisdom of the master.

In epistle 33 Seneca addresses the mercedulae specifically, explaining how they might operate in philosophic study.  He fears that a student might become excessively dependent upon a pithy saying and encourages a follower of philosophy to play a more active role in inquiry.  Seneca urges the student of philosophy to be intellectually independent of masters. “Turpe est … ex commentario sapere. ‘Hoc Zenon dixit’: tu quid? ‘Hoc Cleanthes’: tu quid? Quousque sub alio moveris? impera et dic quod memoriae tradatur, aliquid et de tuo profer.”  “It is disgraceful to be wise from a commentary.  ‘Zeno said this.’  But what do you say?  ‘Cleanthes said that.’ But what do you say?  How far can you advance under another?  Command and say what should be committed to memory, and say something of your own.” (Ep. Mor. 33. 7).  Seneca goads Lucilius to sieze an active role.  The student is to know the sayings of the early Stoics, but he is to generate his own statements and perspectives.

Consider the movement from Plato through Cicero to Seneca.  In early Platonic dialogue Socrates poses a question to which an interlocutor responds, but it is Socrates who holds all the intellectual power, and who directs the conversation.  Ciceronean dialogue has done away with the Socratic pretense of ignorance and lets the teacher do the responding to the question of the student, just as Seneca describes in epistle 118.  Socrates’ pose of humility makes it appear that he is the debtor to his interlocutor, that Socrates is profiting from an understanding he may receive as a benefit from another.  Cicero’s assumption of the role of the teacher responding to the student reverses the economics of the dialectic and puts the teacher in the role of one dispensing a benefit to the student.  The student is indebted to the teacher for wisdom.  In Ep. Mor. 33 Seneca praises intellectual growth performed by the student and disparages a dependence upon the teacher.  I have argued that the Euthyphro creates an opportunity for the reader to respond actively to puzzles imbedded within the dialogue.  This creates an active dialectic between Plato and the reader, which corrects the failed dialectic between Socrates and Euthyphro.  I have offered the example of Ciceronean dialectic as one which does not make the demands upon the reader found in the Platonic literary form.

Seneca’s mercedulae are payments on a debt, but what does Seneca owe to his student, Lucilius?  Seneca often addresses the theme of friendship explicitly in the Epistulae Morales, and his language with Lucilius is full of affection and reciprocity.  Perhaps we are to understand that Lucilius included quotations of his own in his letters to Seneca, and it is these which construct Seneca’s obligation to reciprocate.  Whether or not this is the case, Seneca presents himself as indebted to Lucilius, as returning in amity a benefit responding to a benefit conferred previously upon him.  The relationship is constructed as one of reciprocal friendship.  These are debts of a gracious exchange of favors, an exchange of ideas.  In epistle 118 Seneca describes both Lucilius and himself as indebted to the other, suggesting an equality and reciprocity not evident in early Platonic dialogues.  In epistle 33 Seneca encourages Lucilius to develop his own ideas, rather than to be reliant upon a master.  In neither epistle 118 nor in 33 do we learn about the role of the reader.  An examination of the mercedulae themselves can help us understand how Seneca is conforming in his epistles to a Ciceronian model of readers’ passivity, and how Seneca is following a Platonic model which seeks to engage the active intellectual processes of the reader.

The second epistle contains the first mercedula in the corpus and demonstrates how such a concluding quotation can serve the reader by creating an occasion for a personal reflection upon the prior explicit doctrine.  Seneca begins this second epistle with an admonition “Certis ingeniis inmorari et innutriri oportet, si velis aliquid trahere quod in animo fideliter sedeat.” “It is appropriate to linger with genuine intelligences and to be nourished by them, if you hope to draw anything which might remain faithfully in your mind.” (Ep. Mor. 2. 2).  Lucilius (or any other reader for that matter) is being taught how to learn and is being warned against a facile dabbling with ideas.  This will not be a rapid education, and it will require conscious and sustained attention from the student, if he is to acquire anything of permanent value for his own mind.  Seneca illuminates this claim with three metaphors: the digestion of food, the healing of a wound, and the growth of a potted plant; all of these require patience.  The food must undergo a process of transformation from alien to assimilated substance.  The wound must be allowed to close up and recreate the integrity of the compromised body.  The plant must find how it can fit and flourish in its pot.  All three metaphors address integrity or wholeness and the relations of the subject to that which lies outside itself.  The letter which Lucilius (and the reader) is now reading lies outside of his mind, and Seneca’s metaphors explain the processes by which that alien substance may be assimilated to the mind.  At this point in the epistle, Seneca has advanced positive claims; he has affirmed that one ought to act in a certain way, and he has illuminated that with three quick and simple metaphors.  Now he turns to the negative claim, explaining what the learner should avoid.  One ought not to read too many books, and one ought not to spend time on books of dubious quality.  Seneca offers a specific recommendation for a daily practice which can help his reader enact the mode of learning Seneca recommends.  One must seek out something of genuine merit and spend enough time with it to secure its substance fully, “unum excerpe quod illo die concoquas,” “select one for that day which you fully digest.” (Ep. Mor. 2. 5).  Again, the metaphor of digestion reveals that Seneca is interested in the process of making something alien one’s own.  The final section of the letter turns to the teacher as a model.  As proof that he actually dwells with an idea long enough to digest it, Seneca reports that he happened to be reading Epicurus today and quotes the line, “Honesta res est laeta paupertas.” “Poverty with a good attitude is a noble thing.” (Ep. Mor. 2. 6).  Seneca maintains a pretense that this quotation from Epicurus merely happened to be the idea which Seneca was digesting on this particular day.  There is no explicit claim that the content of this quotation has any bearing upon the content of the current epistle.  Seneca offers an analysis of the Epicurus quotation, explaining that the disposition of the possessor toward property is more important than the quantity of property.  Stoicism so frequently offers admonitions against too great an evaluation of material wealth that we might easily let this argument wash over us as excessively familiar rhetoric, something we hear but do not really process because we believe we already understand it.  But there is more going on here than a merely conventional aphoristic closure to this letter.  Lucilius or the reader might reasonably wonder what the passage from Epicurus on poverty has to do with the topic of learning.  Seneca’s silence on the relations between poverty and learning drive the reader toward a speculation upon poverty and learning.  Seneca has argued early in the letter that one should dwell with a small thing, take the time to determine its value and then make it one’s own.  At the end of the letter, when he has turned to an analysis of the comment by Epicurus on poverty, he says, “non qui parum habet, sed qui plus cupit, pauper est.” “The poor man is not the one who has little, but the one who desires much.” (Ep. Mor. 2. 6).  If we put this closing discussion of the dangers of avarice into the intellectual context of the earlier argument, we see that the poor thinker is the one who goes constantly grasping after the next idea or text, the one who fails to take the time to make an idea truly her or his own.  Using the metaphor of wealth to look back upon the process of learning, we see that the learner who has failed to dwell adequately with an idea, who has failed to make it her or his own, is intellectually impoverished.  It is crucial to note that Seneca doesn’t say this.  Seneca doesn’t make the connection between material wealth and learning; he leaves it to the reader to put the elements of the epistle together.  The process of reflection makes the reader do the business of coming to understanding; Seneca’s text has created the possibility for this to happen.  This letter thus has a performative aspect more akin to Platonic dialectic than to Ciceronean epideictic declamation.

Now we can consider further the language of debt and obligation which Seneca adopts in describing his mercedulae.  The first epistle contains no mercedula, and epistles two, three and four describe the quotations offered as: “Hodiernum hoc est quod apud Epicurum nanctus sum.” “Today it is this, which I have acquired from Epicurus” (Ep. Mor. 2. 5),  “hoc quod apud Pomponium legi.” “This thing which I read in Pomponius” (Ep. Mor. 3. 6) and “quod mihi hodierno die placuit” “What pleased me today” (Ep. Mor. 4. 10).  That is, these three quotations closing their epistles are presented as chance sayings for the day, drawn from what Seneca just happened to be reading.  We might want to believe Seneca and simply assume that he actually had drawn his quotations from whatever he happened to be reading, or we might understand that Seneca has artfully constructed his letter by drawing upon whatever material he thought most contributed to the literary integrity of an epistle, but in either case he has presented the closing quotation as a somewhat randomly occurring phenomenon, something drawn from the ideas engaging him, which he now offers to Lucilius out of friendship.  Seneca again introduces an economic metaphor in the fifth epistle, while retaining the idea that the quotation is drawn from what he just happened to be reading, “Sed ut huius quoque diei lucellum tecum communicem, apud Hecatonem nostrum inveni cupiditatum finem etiam ad timoris remedia proficere.” “But so that I might communicate with you a little profit of even this day, I found in our Hecato that the end of desires is useful also as a remedy for fear” (Ep. Mor. 5. 7).  The “little profit” (lucellum) appears to be a profit which has accrued to Seneca from his chance reading, and which he generously shares with Lucilius.  The two correspondents are presented as fellow learners from the wisdom of Hecato.  In the sixth epistle Seneca retains the economic metaphor and first introduces the term mercedula, “little payment,” modifying the noun with the adjective diurna “daily” (Ep. Mor. 6. 7) in retention of the idea that these quotations are drawn from the day’s readings.  But here first Seneca suggests that he has an obligation to Lucilius to provide these passages, “diurnam tibi mercedulam debeo,” “I owe to you the daily little payment.”  Descriptions of the quotations in the subsequent epistles sometimes include the language of a daily activity (Ep. Mor. 8, 9, 14) and often expand upon the metaphor of debt (Ep. Mor. 10, 12, 14-20, 22, 23, 26-29).  Indeed the array of terms suggesting debt becomes vast: mercedula, little payment (Ep. Mor. 6, 15), lucellum, little profit (Ep. Mor. 5), munusculum, little gift (Ep. Mor. 10, 15), peculium, savings (Ep. Mor. 12), stips, gift (Ep. Mor. 14), numeratio, payment (Ep. Mor. 18), tributum, tribute (Ep. Mor. 20), aes alienum, debt (Ep. Mor. 23), quod debeo, what I owe (Ep. Mor. 19, 27), portorium, toll (Ep. Mor. 28), pensio, charge (Ep. Mor. 29).  In all cases it is clear that Seneca has an obligation to Lucilius and that the mercedulae are payments upon that debt.  What is the obligation?

Seneca is the correspondent, friend, and teacher of Lucilius.  The simplest obligation he has to Lucilius is to respond to a letter which Lucilius has written.  We saw in epistle 118 that Lucilius was to act as the prior writer, though this had broken down over the length of correspondence.  If Seneca’s obligation is only that of a correspondent, his mercedulae might not need to perform any specific function.  Their inclusion alone might satisfy the obligation to share his daily thoughts with his friend.  But the mercedulae are consistently deployed toward the ends of their epistles, and they tend to function as I have described they do for the second epistle.  That is, they introduce a new issue which the reader can consider in relation to the ideas advanced previously in the letter.  I propose that these mercedulae consistently fulfill the obligations of a teacher to a student and, in particular, the obligation of a teacher to offer material to which the student can autonomously respond.  Seneca recognizes not merely the obligation of a teacher like Cicero, the obligation to impart doctrine, but the obligation to allow students to create understanding for themselves. The mercedulae are maieutic.

The sixteenth epistle gives us an insight into the role of the reader or student in creating understanding for herself or himself.  The epistle discusses the role of philosophy in leading one toward a good life.  Seneca affirms that no one is able to live well without a zeal for wisdom (Ep. Mor. 16. 1).  Turning to Lucilius’ personal progress in philosophy, Seneca enjoins his correspondent to dedicate himself more deeply and fully to philosophy, perseverandum est, “one must persevere.”  Seneca offers a frank assessment of Lucilius’ progress in philosophy,  “iam de te spem habeo, nondum fiduciam.” “Concerning you I now have hope but not yet confidence.” (Ep. Mor. 16. 2).  Lucilius still has some work to do on his own to bring himself further along on the path of philosophy.  Seneca advises that Lucilius not be too confident of his own progress and invites him to self-examination, “Excute te et varie scrutare et observa” “Examine yourself and scrutinize and observe yourself in various ways” (Ep. Mor. 16. 2).   Notice, in particular, the first imperative verb, which I have rendered as “examine yourself.”  The verb excutere “to shake out” suggests the metaphor of a sieve, a winnowing device, or a technique for separating and evaluating some substance.  Seneca asks Lucilius to perform this act of critical analysis upon himself, even while Seneca is offering his own estimation of Lucilius’s current state of progress toward philosophic wisdom.[9]

The central section of the sixteenth epistle explains the utility of philosophy, especially in light of the caprice of chance.  Seneca affirms that philosophy can guide our responses to forces which are beyond our control and encourages Lucilius to embrace philosophy to this end.  The substance of the argument appears to be complete.  Seneca has offered forceful and explicit claims on the utility of philosophy, and there seems little to add.  The third and final section of the epistle introduces the mercedula, “Iam ab initio, si te bene novi, circumspicies quid haec epistula munusculi attulerit: excute illam, et invenies.” “If I know you, you’ve been wondering from the start what of a little benefit this epistle had to offer you.  Examine it carefully and you will figure it out.” (Ep. Mor. 16. 7).  The imperative verb used here, “examine,” is, again, excutere, but with the direct object now changed from “examine yourself” to “examine it [the letter].”  The letter does not, therefore, explicitly say all that needs to be understood for the reader’s profit.  To extract the munusculum, “little benefit,” the reader will have to set to work in a manner similar to how one might look into one’s own soul in self-evaluation.  The quotation from Epicurus which follows appears to address, once again, the theme of wealth and poverty rather of philosophy or chance, “si ad naturam vives, numquam eris pauper; si ad opiniones, numquam eris dives.“ “If you live in accord with nature, you will never be poor; if you live in accord with the opinions of others you will never be rich.” (Ep. Mor. 16. 7).  In epistle two Seneca allowed the reader, without explicit instruction, to see the quotation on poverty as germane to a discussion of the life of the mind.  In the sixteenth epistle Seneca has encouraged us, by use of the verb excutere, to purposefully perform the analysis of the metaphor which will allow us to see the quotation as apposite.  Just as poverty of mind was the topic which arose from the juxtaposition of the quotation from Epicurus and Seneca’s topic in epistle two, so in epistle sixteen do we learn that living in accord with nature prevents poverty of mind, and living in accord with the opinions of others prevents richness of mind.  Seneca’s admonitions to Lucilius to devote himself to philosophy can now be seen as admonitions to live in a manner which is in accord with nature.  Central to Stoic thought is the idea that the nature of a human being is to be devoted to reason.  To act otherwise is to fail to act according to one’s human nature and is, instead, to be excessively devoted to the opinions of others.[10]  Again, Seneca has avoided offering an apodeictic proposition, and he has included his mercedula, which bestows upon his pupil and friend the benefit of an opportunity to determine for himself the value of a dedication to philosophy.

Seneca’s construction of opportunities for the readers’ and pupil’s autonomous reflection owes much to the Stoic doctrine of οἰκείωσις (oikeiôsis).[11] As the Stoic moves toward understanding, he comes to see as his own (οἰκεία, oikeia) matters which previously appeared to be alien.  In making progress toward wisdom, the Stoic must actively perform an intellectual analysis which, according to the universal structure of λόγος (logos), will bring his personal understanding into conformity with the rational structure of the universe (ὁμολογία, homologia).  It is this active performance of an intellectual reorientation which determines Senecan literary techniques, for the Stoic teacher cannot succeed in calling the student into action merely by the exposition of doctrine; he must create an intellectual puzzle which will give the student an occasion for an active insight leading, as it must, according to the concept of ὁμολογία (homologia), to true Stoic wisdom.

Epistle 84 contains no mercedula, but its argument and literary structure invite the performance of a process of intellectual οἰκείωσις (oikeiôsis) and thus show Seneca’s interest in this intellectual experience apart from his employment of mercedulae in the early letters.  The central image of this epistle is the bee’s production of honey (3-5), which develops seamlessly into the analysis of the processes of digestion (6-7).  This central material is preceded, however, by a presentation of the benefits of travel (1) and is followed by a sequence of complexly related metaphors of calculation (7) and modes of similarity (8), leading to a more extended treatment of the image of a chorus (9-10).  The problem of unity for this letter is significant.  How can the various themes be parts of a single whole?  Most challenging in terms of unity is the concluding section (11-13).  Recall that the mercedulae consistently appear in the concluding section of a letter.  The earlier portions of this epistle have invited Lucilius to work toward the unification and appropriation (oikeiôsis) of varied intellectual sources.  The concluding section purports to answer the question of how this may be performed but turns quickly to standard Stoic themes of the rejection of worldly concerns, themes which do not appear to answer the question about the means for the performance of oikeiôsis.

Consider the opening section on travel.  In explaining why travel benefits his health, Seneca asserts, “cum pigrum me et neglegentem corporis litterarum amor faciat, aliena opera exerceor.” “since love of literature makes me sluggish and neglectful of my body, I am also exercised by an activity outside of myself.” (Ep. Mor. 84. 1).  He presents reading as a vice, though one which draws him away from a duty only to his own body.  His “love of literature,” however, is something familiar and dear to Seneca; it is what he already recognizes as properly his own.  Through travel, he claims, he is exercised by an activity outside of himself.  Seneca gets physical (and intellectual) exercise by means of an activity which is outside of his normal sphere of understanding or experience.  As he goes on to describe how travel is of benefit to his study, he explains that he does not abandon his reading during travel, but that reading and travel confer the same benefit, “ne sim me uno contentus” “that I not be content with myself alone.” (Ep. Mor. 84. 1) As a second benefit of reading (and of travel) Seneca introduces the thesis of the epistle, “deinde ut, cum ab aliis quaesita cognovero, tum et de inventis iudicem et cogitem de inveniendis.” “then, when I have recognized something discovered by others, I evaluate what has been discovered, and I think about what remains to be discovered.” (Ep. Mor. 84. 1). One encounters something foreign, and engages intellectual faculties first for evaluation, but finally and most importantly for a contemplation of one’s own contribution to the matter at hand.  In this passage Seneca offers a version of oikeiôsis as an appropriation of another’s ideas and the initiation of an ongoing employment of this alien material for one’s own intellectual processes.

The dominating central section of epistle 84 is a scientific inquiry into the processes by which bees produce honey.  Seneca presents the question as somewhat unsettled, reporting the various opinions of those who believe the bees merely collect the honey from the sweet parts of plant, and of those who believe that the bees do add something of their own to make the honey.  Seneca pretends at first to take no position upon this question but merely to report the opinions of naturalists.  Despite this pose of objectivity, Seneca quickly argues that we humans should imitate the bees “adhibita ingenii nostri cura” “with the concern of our own intelligence applied” (Ep. Mor. 84. 5).  Why did Seneca include the theories of those who argue against the bees’ contribution to the honey?  Herodotus sometimes offers alternate explanations for perplexing phenomena, such as the famous analysis of theories of the summer flooding of the Nile (Herodotus, Histories 2. 19).  Is Seneca similarly reporting the variety of scientific opinion as evidence for the seriousness of his inquiry?  Comparing this device to the use of mercedulae in the early epistles, we might wonder if Seneca is enacting a similar intellectual stimulus for the reader.  He has left an issue somewhat unresolved and unexplained, creating an opening for the reader’s active engagement.  If the bees contribute nothing of their own to the honey, the reader might be thought to contribute nothing to an idea gleaned from reading.  Seneca’s epistle is an exhortation to do as he affirms the bees do, “Concoquamus illa” “Let’s cook those things up together!” (Ep. Mor. 84. 7).  Epistle 84 discusses the bees’ use of material from outside of themselves for the production of something that is their own, including an admonition to the reader for a similarly autonomous intellectual process.

Seneca’s Epistulae Morales lack an active interlocutor.  Since we read only one half of the hypothetical correspondence, the words of the master to his student, we may see these documents as a variety of Roman epideictic exposition, with the reader invited only to absorb the ideas offered by an expert.  I hope to have shown that Seneca’s use of mercedulae in the early epistles, his explicit descriptions of this literary technique in epistles 33 and 118, and his inclusion of a scientific puzzle in epistle 84, show his interest in the readers’ active engagement in the process of coming to an understanding.  In this Seneca owes much to an early Platonic dialectic style, in which some intellectual work remains incomplete, with the expectation that a thoughtful reader will continue and complete the arguments.

Botticelli’s Mars, July 2018

Works Cited

Douglas, A.E. “Form and Content in the Tusculan Disputations.” Powell, J.G.F. Cicero the Philosopher. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. 197-218.

Edwards, Catharine. “Self-Scrutiny and Self-Transformation in Seneca’s Letters.” Greece and Rome 44.1 (1997): 23-38.

Engberg-Pedersen, Troels. The Stoic Theory of Oikeiosis: Moral Development and Interaction in Early Stoic Philosophy. Aarhus: Aarhus University Press, 1990.

Fendt, Gene. “Five Readings of Euthyphro.” Philosophy and Literature 38.2 (2014): 495-509.

Gill, Christopher. “Dialectic and the Dialogue Form.” Annas, Julia and Christopher Rowe. New Perspectives on Plato, Modern and Ancient. Washington: Harvard University Press, 2002. 145-171.

Mann, William E. “Piety: Lending a Hand to Euthyphro.” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 58.1 (1998): 123-142.

Motto, Anna Lydia. “The Idea of Progress in Senecan Thought.” The Classical Journal 79.3 (1984): 225-240.

Pembroke, S.G. “Oikeiōsis.” Long, A.A. Problems in Stoicism. London: Athlone Press, 1996. 115-149.

Rudebusch, George. Socrates, Pleasure, and Value. Oxford, New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Szlezák, Thomas A. Reading Plato. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.


[1]  Szlezák 4, identifies Friedrich Schleiermacher (d. 1834) as the first to reflect on the active role of the reader for Plato.

[2] Rudebusch 9-17, addresses the controversy on early Platonic dialectic as “maieutic,” meaning intended to elicit an interlocutor’s or reader’s ideas, or “non-maieutic,” meaning simply illustrating the absence of a conclusion.

[3] All translation from Greek and Latin in this essay are my own.

[4]  Fendt 498, considers the various ways in which Euthyphro may understand “care.”

[5]  Mann 134, argues, on quite different terms from my own, that the dialogue here creates a crucial intellectual space for the reader’s completion of the interlocutor’s inadequate responses.

[6] Gill 148, discusses the reader’s role in the Euthyphro, especially with regard to the “maieutic” reading of the dialogue.  The midwifery of Socrates, in this case, seeks to assist the reader, rather than the interlocutor, in giving birth to understandings.  Gill 162, also draws attention to the “maieutic” understandings of the Symposium and the Meno.

[7] The term “maieutic” arises from Socrates’ discussion of his role as an intellectual midwife, helping others give birth to understandings; Theaetetus 149a.  Early Platonic dialogues are sometimes described as aporetic, but that term merely indicates that an interlocutor experiences aporia, the absence of an understanding.  An interlocutor, including Euthyphro, may experience aporia withouth giving birth to an understanding.  An interlocutor’s aporia may be the occasion for a reader’s new understanding.

[8]  Douglas 203, treats the term disputationes and Cicero’s response to Greek philosophic literary forms.

[9]  Edwards 28, considers how Seneca describes an obligation for self-scrutiny incumbent upon Lucilius.

[10]  Motto 236, shows Seneca’s dedication to the moral and intellectual progress of the individual as part of a social responsibility.

[11]  Pembroke 115, offers a convenient treatment of this Stoic ethical doctrine. Engberg-Pedersen, offers a fuller consideration.



There is a classic “death spiral” for a liberal-arts college. Enrollments decline a bit, so programs or services must be cut. That makes the school a little less appealing, so the college puts more money toward financial aid to attract the entering class. In the biz, this is known as “raising the discount rate,” that is, maintaining the tuition rate, but raising the number or size of financial aid grants. But applications keep declining, so the college cuts programs and services more; the quality declines further; more money goes to financial aid. That’s the death spiral.

Putting money toward financial aid, making college more accessible for folks of limited means, sounds like a very good thing. Financial aid can be seen as enacting social justice, like progressive taxation; the rich pay the full tuition, and the not-rich get financial aid appropriate for their needs. It’s impossible to argue against financial aid. One institution might target its financial aid to help it get the most well prepared students. Another institution might target its financial aid to help it get strong student athletes. Another might use its financial aid to help it build the ethnic diversity of its student body. Whatever the values of any particular liberal-arts college, reduction in programs or services to raise the discount rate drives the death spiral.

Enrollment in classical languages is way down all over, and classical antiquity has lost much prestige as an object for scholarly inquiry. Liberal-arts colleges looking to cut programs to help financial aid naturally think to trim low-enrollment courses, especially when those subjects no longer lend prestige. STEM subjects are the most reliable draws for applicants, so those can’t be cut, even though the institutional costs for STEM instruction, labs and equipment, are much higher than for, e.g. Philosophy. The arts have high instructional costs, but liberal-arts colleges are expected to provide experiences in art, though the number of majors tends to be low. The Social Sciences are a mixed bag; some disciplines are doing well with enrollment, others not. But the Humanities are hurting at many liberal-arts colleges, though that’s the broad area most associated with the liberal arts. Languages are difficult for liberal-arts colleges, for they require lots of resources for staffing. If a college offers the beginning level of a language, it is obligated to keep offering that language through all four years. Language instruction is also labor intensive, with many language classes meeting more frequently in a week than other subjects. Dead languages are an especially hard sell, for they don’t directly help with communication in the global marketplace, and they are just plain difficult.

There’s a liberal-arts college that is expanding its STEM curriculum dramatically and cutting its humanities offerings, all in an effort to resist the pull of the death spiral. It makes sense. Insofar as colleges must cater to the educational preferences of their clientele, building STEM and diminishing Humanities may be the best way to go. I wonder if that will be enough to resist the death spiral. I wonder if diminution of the Humanities will make a liberal-arts college more desirable or less desirable to applicants. I’ll be curious to see whether this particular liberal-arts college will go down the drain of the death spiral or transform into a successful technical college.

Pre-Christian Greek writers use the term λόγος (logos) in a startling variety of ways.  It can mean something as simple as a word uttered by a voice, or it can mean the reason that underlies the uttering of that word.  It can mean a story told, or a rumor heard.  It can mean the capacity for reason, or it can mean the orderly structure of the universe.  Even someone with a Ph.D. in ancient Greek, one who has read the word λόγος countless times in Greek literature, must sometimes pause to consider what the word might mean in a given context. Sometimes classicists will get it wrong, for we often need to adapt our own understandings of the word to a particular literary context.  That’s half the fun of classics.  It is illuminating to have one’s preconceptions challenged.  It’s good to have to think about what a given word might mean in a given passage.  The old name for classics was Philology.  Philia is Greek for a certain kind of love (that’s a tricky word too!), and the last part of that word is λόγος, so Philology is a love of words.  This is a discipline which has often been mocked as nit-picky, myopic, and pedantic.  Philologists try to figure out what words mean.

Consider the first lines of the Gospel of John, ἐν ἀρχῇ ἦν ὁ λόγος, καὶ ὁ λόγος ἦν πρὸς τὸν θεόν, καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος.  οὖτος ἦν ἐν ἀρχῇ πρὸς τὸν θεόν, “In the beginning was the logos, and the logos was in the presence of God.  And the logos was God.  This was in the beginning in the presence of God.”  God gets second billing to the λόγος, or maybe the λόγος is God.  Or maybe God is the λόγος.  What does John mean?  The λόγος appears to be something that exists in the universe prior to God, but is also identified with God.  That suggests that the λόγος might be atemporal or transtemporal; it must be something untouched by the flux of history and events.  The λόγος must be somehow transcendent, bound to the limitations of matter or space no more than to the limitations of time.  Later in his gospel (1:14) John says that this λόγος “became flesh” at the incarnation of Christ, but before that happened, the λόγος was not flesh.  That is consistent with the idea that the λόγος is to be understood as unbounded by matter, space, or time.

The Greek word for hatred is mîsos, so the term Misology refers to the hatred of the λόγος.  In this case, λόγος means something rather different than a word appearing in a work of literature.  Misology usually means a hatred for reason. (Misology was first coined in German by Kant in 1781, as he simply translated the cognate Greek term.)  Notice the inconsistency between the two etymologically cognate terms: Misology is a hatred for reason; Philology is a love for language.

I won’t here rehearse the Misology of the current moment, neither from the political right nor from the political left.  The λόγος is not thriving.  So what’s a philologist to do?  Shouting and sputtering about the merits of reason is surely a fool’s errand, and it only shows the philologist to be a lover of reason rather than a lover of language.  In the context of a contempt for reason philology can offer, at best, a pleasing haven.  Parsing Aeschylus may now be more valuable than calling for evidence-based arguments in Senate hearings.  Nearly no one cares what anyone thinks of the syntax of a line of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, but that’s the beauty of it.  We can think about that line and come to a richer understanding of it without running afoul of the misologists, for they have no interest in the pursuit.  Here, let’s see.

Aeschylus, Agamemnon, line 181, contains the phrase χάρις βίαιος (charis biaios).  The second word is easier than the first.  The word βίαιος is an adjective made from a noun that  means force or violence, so Aeschylus’s word means violent or forceful.  The first word in our phrase, χάρις, is very difficult.  It is used in the Christian bible to refer to God’s free gift to humans, and then it is translated as grace.  In classical Greek it can refer to the beneficence of a giver and to the gratitude of a recipient.  It can operate on both sides of a transaction of goodwill.  Indeed, it can mean the goodwill which underlies a transaction or gift exchange.  In our passage, Aeschylus is pushing hard on the complexity of this word, for his “violent grace” is said to come from the gods and to exercise a kind of control over humans.  Something outside of this world gives us a gift which serves to regulate, but that gift is violent, coercive.

Notice that the analysis above has not resolved Aeschylus’s two-word phrase into a perfectly simple meaning.  We still don’t quite know what he means by the phrase, but we do know more than if we hadn’t thought about it, and we see more depth and ambiguity in the phrase, even as we see its meaning a little more clearly.  Philology doesn’t work by syllogism; it labors under no quod erat demonstrandum, no QED.  Philology pokes under rocks and stares at sunsets; it doesn’t claim to offer truth or justice, but it does find beauty, and there’s a certain calm it offers amidst the din of those claiming to know truth or justice.

In the crowded lunchroom of a Sri Lankan university, an older visiting American professor, wearing a white, collared shirt and black pants, is looking for a seat. He sees a group of young Buddhist monks, wearing saffron robes and with heads shaved. He asks if he can sit at their table. In a tone of indignation, a monk says, “No!” and waves him off. Surprised, since sharing tables is the norm in this lunchroom, the professor looks around for a place. At another table sits a group of young Muslim women, identifiable by headscarves, and engaged in animated conversation. Worried that this group might be uncomfortable about a request to sit down on their bench, the professor keeps looking for a spot, now seriously considering leaving the staff room of the cafeteria to go sit with undergraduates in their larger hall. Deference to rank means that students would certainly not deny a request to be seated at their table, so this seems the best option. The professor finds a spot and enjoys his lunch, smiling at the students of his table, but not really joining in their conversation.

Intercultural communication requires imagination. As I thought about approaching the group of Muslim women, I had to imagine their response, even though I didn’t really know what that might be. Perhaps they would have welcomed an opportunity to chat with a visiting American, but I thought their religion might make them uncomfortable having a male so closely in their midst. I used my limited understanding about gender separation in Islam to guess what might be the right move. Maybe I missed a chance to have a lively conversation; maybe I was courteous. Either way, I had to use my imagination.

The monks just pissed me off. Who do they think they are haughtily dismissing someone twice their age and higher in academic rank? Calming down a little later and putting my ego on the shelf, I tried to use my imagination, coupled with some cultural inquiry. I learned that monks in Sri Lanka normally don’t eat with laypeople, and that they are traditionally limited to two meals a day, which in ideal circumstances come from begging. These monks hadn’t begged for their lunch, but those cultural details lay in the background. I needed to use my imagination to understand why I’d been waved off. I needed to see things through the eyes of the monks, for whom my request must have seemed transgressive.

It’s hard to see things through someone else’s eyes, especially when that other person comes from a world that’s far, far away. The pressures of living abroad, of never quite knowing if we’re doing the right thing, help us develop a habit of trying to use our imagination to figure out what someone else might be thinking. But imagination alone isn’t quite adequate. For the Muslim women, I used some of my limited knowledge about Islam; for the Buddhist monks, I had to inquire about their perspective. That is, I had to have good will, but I also had to have some information.

My intercultural communication in the Sri Lankan lunchroom is defined by the spatial distance between my normal home and a university on the other side of the world. As a professional classicist, my most customary form of intercultural communication is defined more by time than by space. To read Euripides thoughtfully, I need to imagine the perspective of a world very far from my own. I don’t always do that very well; sometimes I think I know what Euripides is saying when I really don’t. Libraries are full of volumes written by scholars arguing about what he might actually be saying. Classicists are professionally obligated to use historical imagination for intercultural communication. Sometimes we do that pretty well; sometimes not so much.

To use historical imagination we need information (hence the volumes in the library), but we also need good will. Thomas Jefferson has been in the press on and off in recent years. The author of the Declaration of Independence held slaves and fathered children on at least one of his slaves, Sally Hemings. That makes for a confluence of racism and sexism that invites our condemnation. As moral folk of the 21st century, we should certainly reject the racism and sexism, but extending the condemnation to Jefferson himself, appealing as it may be, shows a lack of historical imagination, arising from a lack of good will and a lack of information. Moral perspectives have changed radically over the centuries. It was once considered morally obligatory for men of a certain class to engage in duels with pistols in cases of verbal insult; now that just seems silly. To impose the moral perspectives of the present upon prior centuries may be soothing to our sense of superiority, but it is a sign of a lack of historical imagination. Can’t I condemn Jefferson’s racism and sexism even as I admire his defense of liberty and his elegant prose style?

The book of Leviticus notoriously describes homosexuality as an “abomination” (18:22), and those who utterly lack historical imagination adduce this text as an argument for 21st-century discrimination against homosexuals. Some defenders of gay rights point to other opinions in Leviticus, like the statement that one who curses a parent should be killed (20:9). Such draconian laws, which few today would actually defend, might be taken as evidence that all the moral perspectives of Leviticus should be summarily dismissed. But that argument also shows a deficit of historical imagination. The book of Leviticus gives us a window into an ancient perspective. If we too readily embrace or reject that perspective, we miss an opportunity to understand the perspective itself. Leviticus is mostly a legal document showing the views of a priestly caste of Jews living in a multi-cultural world they see as threatening to their own cultural integrity. Modern readers might use this text to better understand the virtues and vices of preserving cultural identity in a world of diversity.

The students in the lunchroom eat with their hand. They have a sheet of paper, or a plate, with rice and several kinds of curry, each with its own sauce. They like to massage the rice into the various curries, creating a little cone of rice with many flavors, before lifting that to their mouths. Several students often eat from the same packet of lunch, or several students with different curries in their own packets will share, either distributing their own lunch to their friends, or reaching from another’s lunch to get a piece of tasty stewed fish or maybe a bit of cooked mango curry. There are several sinks in the lunchroom, and when you’re done eating, you take your curry-covered right hand to the sink to wash it clean. I’ve learned how to eat with my hand. At first, I was a little timid and thought that massaging the rice and curry into a mound was indecorous. But I learned that it makes for a tasty morsel that can be more easily transported to the mouth. I don’t reach for someone else’s curry, nor do I invite others to take some lunch from my plate. I’m not about to give up my own perspectives entirely; I am, after all, an older visiting American professor. Sometimes I get things wrong and offend my hosts. But I’ve learned some things about eating with the hand, and that required a little bit of good will and a little bit of information.

Should justice be sought for its own sake, or is it a means to other goods? Mr. Spock, dying in one of the Star Trek movies, when saving him means endangering the crew, says, “The good of the many outweighs the good of the one.” That’s a consequentialist perspective, in which an action, allowing the death of Spock, is chosen as a means to other goods, in this case the survival of the crew of the Enterprise. Most of us have a pretty easy time seeing how that works. The other perspective, seeing justice as a good to be sought for its own sake, is harder to understand. When I’ve taught this in the States, I’ve sometimes used the story of the Dutchman hiding Jews in his basement. A Nazi officer knocks on the door and says, “Are you hiding Jews in your basement?” If the Dutchman says, “yes,” the Jews all get killed, so the consequentialist would argue that the Dutchman should lie. But if he lies, he’s doing something immoral, so the hard and fast defender of the idea that justice is a good which should be sought for its own sake, a deontologist, would argue that the Dutchman should tell the truth. This perspective is hard to present persuasively, but it’s associated with some big names in moral theory, like Kant, and some big names in religious thought, like Jesus of Nazareth.

This semester I’m teaching in Sri Lanka, a largely Buddhist country, and I thought my students here might have some interesting perspectives on this distinction. One student, using common sense, affirmed a strongly consequentialist perspective when I shared the Jews in the basement story, and that’s what my American students usually do. It’s hard to imagine that the Dutchman has any moral duty to an SS officer, and Kant’s idea that he has a duty to the moral law itself is a stretch. As we struggled to see why anyone would argue that the Dutchman shouldn’t lie, another student said that she knew a similar story from the Buddhist tradition. A monk was friends with a butcher, whom he visited often. One day, the butcher handled a precious gem with bloody hands and left the soiled stone on the counter in front of the monk to go into the back room. In the butcher’s absence, his pet bird devoured the gem, thinking it to be a piece of bloody meat. The monk observed this. When the butcher returned, he saw that the gem was gone and accused the monk of theft. The monk, however, did not tell the butcher of his pet bird’s meal, for he feared that the butcher would kill the bird to retrieve the stone. The monk preferred to be thought a thief, even by his friend the butcher, than to cause the death of the bird. As it turned out, the butcher had occasion to kill the bird anyway. He discovered the stone in the bird’s gullet and realized that the monk had accepted the guilt for a crime he did not commit, rather than be the cause of the bird’s death.

The tale of the monk and the butcher’s bird strikes me as wonderfully deontological. It shows a moral agent refusing to perform an action which would have a consequence favorable to himself, and it has him doing so for the sake of an apparently insignificant creature. If it is hard to see the Dutchman having a moral duty to the SS officer, it is equally hard to see the monk having a moral duty to the bird. Partly, this Buddhist tale depends upon the notion of a moral duty toward non-human beings, and it gets its zing from the monk’s surprising respect for avian life.

This all took place in a class on Plato’s Republic. At my home institution in the States some students, but not many, read ancient texts from the Pali canon of Buddhist literature, and some of those students have read Plato. In an American class on Plato, however, I can’t assume a broad knowledge of Buddhist literature, and I don’t possess such knowledge myself. Here in Sri Lanka, I can assume a knowledge of Buddhist literature. So teaching Plato in Sri Lanka puts me in the enviable position of learning from my students. I often learn from my students in the States. One knows about musical theory and makes a comparison between poetic meter and musical rhythm; another knows about African history and draws a connection between Rhodesia and the Roman Civil Wars. But such moments are unsystematic; maybe they happen, maybe they don’t. Teaching outside my accustomed culture, in a land where most everyone is familiar with a set of ideas different from those I know, lets me be a learner in a more vivid and consistent way.

I’m not sure who’s getting the better deal here, me or my students. They need to develop skills of critical thinking and of composition in English; I can help with that. For my part, I want to get new ways of thinking about things I’ve been teaching for thirty years; they can give me that. All in all, it seems beneficial for both parties.

Last week I stayed in a rural village in Sri Lanka, at the home of a Sri Lankan I’d gotten to know in the States. My experiences are worth reporting because I got an exceptional opportunity to live intimately in a culture far different from anything I’ve known. A friend, colleague and neighbor of mine has traveled to Sri Lanka repeatedly, and for extended periods, over the last 25 years or so. He’s an American scholar of South Asia; he and his American, teenaged nephew brought me to the village.

They called my friend Sudumaama. Sudu means “white” in Sinhala, and maama is “uncle.” He consistently referred to his nephew as puta, which means “son” in Sinhala. The villagers called the nephew Suduputa. Familial relationships are everything in the village, so people often refer to others by relationship rather than proper name. There were about five houses in the immediate area, and all residents were related either by blood or marriage. It was quite a challenge for me to keep the relationships straight. All the doors were always open, and folks moved freely among the various houses. When parents went to work, grandparents or others took care of the little ones.  I noticed how the kids played together and were included in the adult activities. There seemed to be far less separation of the generations than in the States. The littlest kids were usually being held by someone, a parent, an uncle or aunt, or an older child. I can’t imagine these kids ever being bored; they were certainly never neglected. No one lacked for company.

Life was constantly communal. I’ve traveled enough in Latin America to have expected that, but this village was far more communal than anything I’ve experienced. I found it tiring, for I’m not used to being in a group of people all day and night, but it was also inspiring. Folks really care about one another, and anything that happens to one is known to all immediately. One evening I stumbled into a ditch and scraped my elbow and shin. Everyone expressed genuine concern, and word spread that I’d hurt myself. Folks came to see my wounds and recommend treatments. It’s hard for me to imagine this environment creating the lonely mass killers now so typical of American culture. These folks can’t become alienated. Sudumaama reported that young couples sometimes complain they can’t get a private moment to make a baby; there’s always someone else in the room.

As soon as it was light, I could hear the women working in the kitchen next to my room. All three meals were the same, but every meal was different. There was a bowl of rice, grown by my host, and three or four bowls of curries, with an additional bowl of fried chilies and papadam. The food was consistently outstanding, with each curry centering around some vegetable flavored in a special way. I love spicy food, but I found it difficult to eat chilies three times a day; still, it was hard to say “no” to such tasty food. We held our bowl in one hand and ate with the other. You’re done eating when you take your bowl back to the kitchen and wash your curry-covered right hand.

What goes in must come out. The latrine was a small shack with a squat toilet, a water tap, and a bucket. These facilities can only be used wearing a sarong. You hike up your sarong, squat over the hole in the floor and do your business. Then you fill the bucket from the tap and pour the water over your genitals while splashing it onto the soiled region. There’s no toilet paper. You wash your hands, stand up, and your sarong falls back to its normal position drying your wet butt. From this description, it sounds unclean and/or unpleasant, but I found it to be a most satisfactory form of defecation, and it showed me how this basic act is a cultural construct. All the parts fit together. There’s no need for toilet paper or towel, and the only waste product is the fecal matter gone down the hole. The floor of the latrine is wet, but clean. You are barefoot in the latrine, but you come out feeling clean and satisfied. I became convinced that the squat position makes everything come out gracefully, easily, and completely.

Since Sri Lanka is near the equator, the sun rises and sets at the same time every day of the year. It was very hot and humid in the village, so I was usually miserable by about 5 pm. But the best part of every day came around 5:30, when folks went to the nearby lake to bathe. Everybody does this every day. There are small man-made lakes, called tanks, dotting the countryside. The water is used for irrigation, but also for bathing. There is a sloping section with sand extending out into the lake, so you can stand comfortably on the sand and keep your feet away from mud. You bring a bar of soap, a towel, and a fresh sarong. Men and women are somewhat separate, but not by more than a few yards. Everyone is clothed during bathing, but it’s easy to soap up, rinse and get changed without any immodest revelation. Maybe it’s because people live so communally; folks have learned how to be modest, even in company. The architecture of the sarong helps enormously.

It would be very easy for a feminist such as myself to reject this culture as sexist. The women do all the cooking. Men eat first, with other men, and the women clean up afterwards. But the men aren’t getting a free ride; my host went to his paddy fields often, to irrigate or fertilize, and he had plenty of duties with childcare. Both my host and his wife worked in an agricultural development office. They got dressed up for office work in the mornings, she in a saree and he in black pants and white shirt. When they got off work, he switched to a sarong and she to a shirt and wide skirt. He wore his sarong to go to the paddy fields. The family’s income depended on both the office work and the agriculture. My host showed me a back room of their house with thousands of pounds of rice he’d grown. Next to that room was the kitchen, where only the women worked.

Sudumaama gets well taken care of. The women of the village compete for opportunities to feed him, and everyone was eager to offer hospitality to Suduputa and me. When Sudumaama walks through the village, his passage is very slow; he stops at most houses and is invited in for conversation and tea. On our first day, Suduputa and I accompanied Sudumaama, and we stopped in at the house of an elderly ayurvedic healer. The old man was very frail, but he happily roused himself to greet his guests. He offered us drinks and sweets, followed by betel nut. I’d never chewed betel, so Sudumaama had to show me how to do it. The taste wasn’t bad at all, and I definitely got a head buzz that lasted about an hour. The old man had been chewing betel all his life and scarcely had a tooth left in his head. Dental problems aside, this seemed a pretty appealing drug for daily use; it is a mild stimulant. When we took our leave of the old healer, Sudumaama worshipped him. This had happened to me when I’d been teaching at the university in the city, but it somehow carried more weight in the village. My friend knelt before the old healer and touched his forehead to the ground. The elder stroked my friend’s head in blessing. Worshipping like this is done by younger folks to show respect to elders.

Sudumaama has a gaggle of age mate friends in the village. One afternoon a friend came by on a motorbike and announced that a herd of elephants had come to a tank down the road. We all piled onto motorbikes and drove down the road to see the wild elephants. The herd was reported to be 60, but we only saw about fifteen. We humans were about the same number, and we walked out onto an embankment above the tank to get a good look at the huge beasts. Everyone said that this was some of the best elephant viewing they’d had in years, for we had a body of water between the elephants and us. That allowed the elephants to feel less nervous about our presence and vice versa. Villagers talk about the elephants nearly daily, for they are a danger and an economic problem. They come to the paddy fields and eat the crops, and they come into the gardens of the houses and eat the fruits and vegetables. An uncle of the family had been killed by an elephant several years ago, causing much heartache. On two of my nights in the village, an elephant came into the yard and did some damage. But our viewing across the tank was outstanding. Water buffalo wallowed among the lotus flowers; ibis birds waded and soared; and four of the elephants came right to the water, including two babies. They drank and splashed, and we got to watch from very close by.

The group of us watching were sharing an experience. We were quiet, to avoid scaring the elephants, and we’d point out individuals to one another. It felt good to be a part of that group, especially because I often felt alienated by my cultural cluelessness and my lack of Sinhala. For hours every day I’d sit and listen as Sudumaama chatted in Sinhala with his friends. On the last evening, we dined at a different house, and I felt more included. Three of this family’s daughters were teens or young adults, and they had studied English in school. It wasn’t easy to communicate, but we did so anyway, driven in large part by a charismatic young woman who was eager to take advantage of a rare chance to actually speak in the language she’d learned mostly as a book subject. Trying to give her opportunities to speak, I asked her if she had any hobbies. She said that she liked to sing, so we asked her to do so. After much blushing and hesitation, she sang a song of exceptional beauty. I’m not accustomed to this form of music, so it sounded wonderfully exotic, with vocal modulations not used in western music. But most of the charm came from the generous performance and the lovely moment of sharing. We all applauded when the song was finished, and the singer announced that her younger sisters were good at dancing. So four six-to-ten year olds sang a little song to accompany themselves while dancing. They had synchronized gestures for parts of the song, and they loved being the center of attention. After the dancing and dinner we chatted more, until I was nodding off. The younger dancers had already gone to bed. I rose to leave, and the three older girls offered me the worshiping I’d seen earlier in the visit. I was most touched to be so honored.

Sudumaama has a special relationship with this little bit of paradise. I couldn’t possibly live like these people live. I need my space, as they say; but I admire how richly these people live together and care about one another. All that togetherness also means that they cared about a visitor from far away. Their hospitality and generosity were outstanding and showed me some of the benefits of living as a village.

English is hated as a foreign tongue imposed by colonialists but is loved as a means to status and power in Sri Lanka and abroad. This love/hate relation to English exists all over the world (I saw it clearly while teaching in Costa Rica), but the situation in Sri Lanka is far more complex than in Latin America.

Sri Lankans speak one of two languages as a native tongue, Tamil or Sinhala, and nearly all Sri Lankans learn some English in school. Since Tamil, a Dravidian language, and Sinhala, an Indo-European language, are not mutually intelligible, citizens depend upon English as the lingua franca for communication between the two groups. In Latin America, Portuguese speakers and Spanish speakers can achieve some degree of communication through the similarities of the two languages, but that’s not possible for the two languages of Sri Lanka. Tamil is the minority language, and the Sinhala majority has defeated a Tamil faction in a protracted civil war. Two Tamil speakers at lunch the other day affirmed that there are more Tamils who speak some Sinhala than Sinhalese who speak some Tamil. I have no idea if that is true or not, but my lunch companions’ assertion reveals something of the tensions between the two language groups.

Sinhala is not spoken outside of Sri Lanka, and Tamil is spoken only in southern sections of India. In contrast, Spanish is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world. Since neither Sinhala nor Tamil is a global language, Sri Lankans are also dependent upon English for participation in a worldwide discourse community.

During the last weeks, I’ve been doing two distinct kinds of teaching here. I’ve been teaching my normal subject area, Ancient Greek Literature, in English, and I’ve been teaching English as a Second Language to a group of undergraduate Law students. All my teaching has taken place at the same large, public university, mostly in the same building, but the English language ability of students in the two groups is quite different. With the Classics students I’m working on academic writing and literary analysis. It’s not that different from what I do back in the States, though I need to avoid American slang and very rapid speech, and I need to make slightly shorter reading assignments. For the Law students, however, I’m working on basics of pronunciation and grammar. The strongest English speakers among the Law students are not as strong as the Classics students, and the weakest are very weak indeed.

English, Tamil and Sinhala are the three languages of subject-area instruction for Sri Lankan universities, with some programs, including Law, offering instruction only in English. My Law students need to bring their English up considerably, if they are to follow the lectures in their subject-area. A separate unit of the university is responsible for English language instruction. All students are required to take courses from this unit, or to place out of the requirement by testing, but academic credit is not awarded for English language study. The English language teaching unit is huge and is staffed largely by recent graduates on short-term contracts. Working with very limited resources these young instructors are also tasked with teaching some basic academic skills, such as note taking. A heavy instructional burden falls upon an inexperienced and largely temporary cadre of instructors. They report that student absenteeism and plagiarism are both high.

My understanding of the issues is surely distorted by the limited information I’ve gotten, by my own cultural misunderstandings, and by the interests of my informants. I know how complex academic institutional politics can be, so I am confident that there are more factors at play than I can possibly imagine. But I can report what I’ve heard, and that reveals something of the tensions and struggles surrounding English.

I have heard tales of regular faculty members looking down upon the English language instructors, even when those regular faculty members have a weak English language speaking ability. I have noticed that many regular members of the faculty speak graceful English, though I have had serious difficulty understanding some. That may be my problem rather than theirs; the language of importance here is Sri Lankan English, not a North American or British dialect I would find easy to understand. Still, I have little doubt that there is some significant variation in the comprehensibility of professors’ spoken English. I have no doubt that language instructors are looked down upon; they hold a lower academic rank and have short-term contracts. Academic status comes from subject-area expertise, so mere language teachers everywhere are often given scant resources and respect. The English language teaching unit here has been given a massive task, so it may then be blamed, justly or unjustly, when that remains unaccomplished.

On several occasions I’ve been told that English is sometimes called the “sword,” and that it is a tool for humiliation. English language ability in Sri Lanka seems to map fairly closely to socio-economic status. The stronger speakers of English use that superiority as a “sword” against their lower-class neighbors. In my class of Law students I have noticed more anxiety about speaking from the weaker students than I would have expected. The stronger students in any language class often lord it over the weaker, but there is more going on here than simply a pride in language ability. Here the weaker students are far more embarrassed, and the stronger students far more proud, than in Costa Rica. The “sword” appears to remain in play.

Hazing is a vile practice at any educational institution. Here it has a special connection to English. The university wisely sets aside the first two weeks of the students’ first academic year for intensive instruction in English. The language instructors get an opportunity to bring the new students into a university-level English discourse community. Unfortunately, those same two weeks also include a vigorous dose of hazing, including sleep-deprivation and various forms of abuse. The English language instructors report that part of this hazing includes inculcating a contempt for English language instruction. I don’t know how much of this is true, but, again, the fact that it is being reported shows that there are serious issues involving the status of English at the university and in the culture.

These stories show some of the problems for English language instruction in Sri Lanka, but there is also much goodwill and serious intellectual effort. During teaching workshops for instructors, I’ve seen sophisticated familiarity with contemporary issues in language pedagogy; I’ve met young instructors who are interested in pursuing doctoral study in Applied Linguistics; I’ve talked with more advanced instructors who have shared subtle analyses of the social and political forces affecting English language teaching at the university. The language instructors know that they are in a difficult situation, to be sure, but they work hard and recognize how much is at stake for their students, who need this “medium” for success in their own country. In Latin America students need English for success in fields related to North America or to a global economy. In Sri Lanka students need English simply to follow the lectures in their chosen area of study. I admire the instructors and students who are working well under these challenging circumstances.