Learning From Students in the Classroom

Brandeis University Commencement is today. We say farewell to our graduating students. And now is a time for my confession….

Solon, fr. 18

“I grow old, always learning many things.”

γηράσκω δ’ αἰεὶ πολλὰ διδασκόμενος·

Kim Stanley Robinson The Years of Rice and Salt (2003: 758)

“Over time, Bao came to understand that teaching too was a kind of reincarnation, in that years passed and students came and went, new young people all the time, but always the same age, taking the same class; the class under the oak trees, reincarnated. He began to enjoy that aspect of it. He would start the first class by saying, “Look, here we are again.” They never knew what to make of it; same response, every time.

He learned, among other things, that teaching was the most rigorous form of learning. He learned to learn more from his students than they did from him; like so many other things, it was the reverse from what it seemed to be, and colleges existed to bring together groups of young people to teach some chosen few of their elders the things that they knew about life, that the old teachers had been in danger of forgetting.”

Seneca, Moral Epistles 76.3-5

“People of every age enter this classroom. “Do we grow old only to follow the young?” When I go into the theater as an old man and I am drawn to the racetrack and no fight is finished without me, shall I be embarrassed to go to a philosopher?

You must learn as long as you are ignorant—if we may trust the proverb, as long as you live. And nothing is more fit to the present than this: as long as you live you must learn how to live. Nevertheless, there is still something which I teach there. You ask, what may I teach? That an old man must learn too.”

Omnis aetatis homines haec schola admittit. “In hoc senescamus, ut iuvenes sequamur?” In theatrum senex ibo et in circum deferar et nullum par sine me depugnabit ad philosophum ire erubescam?

Tamdiu discendum est, quamdiu nescias; si proverbio credimus, quamdiu vivas. Nec ulli hoc rei magis convenit quam huic: tamdiu discendum est, quemadmodum vivas, quamdiu vivas. Ego tamen illic aliquid et doceo. Quaeris, quid doceam? Etiam seni esse discendum.

Seneca, Moral Epistles 7.8-9

“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”

Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.

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The Annoying Liberal Arts, Or: Seneca Goes Full-on Bauerlain

Seneca, Moral Epistle 88

“But, truly, the knowledge of many disciplines is pleasurable”. Ok, then, let’s keep only what is necessary from these arts. Do you think that the person who considers superficial matters equal to useful ones and for this reason makes his home a museum of expensive products is reprehensible but not the man who is obsessed with the superfluous aspects of academia? To want to know more than is enough is a kind of excessive delusion.

Why? Well, this extreme pursuit of the liberal arts makes people annoying, wordy, bad-mannered, and overly self-satisfied, even though they have not learned the basics because they pursue the useless.

The scholar Didymus wrote four thousand books. I would pity him if had only read that many useless works. In these books he searched for Homer’s homeland, the real mother of Aeneas, whether Anacreon is more licentious or just drunk, whether Sappho was promiscuous and other various questions which, if you learned them, would have been necessarily forgotten. Go on, don’t say life is long. No, when you turn to your own people too, I will show you many things which should be pruned back with an ax.”

“At enim delectat artium notitia multarum.” Tantum itaque ex illis retineamus, quantum necessarium est. An tu existimas reprendendum, qui supervacua usibus conparat et pretiosarum rerum pompam in domo explicat, non putas eum, qui occupatus est in supervacua litterarum supellectile? Plus scire velle quam sit satis, intemperantiae genus est.

Quid? Quod ista liberalium artium consectatio molestos, verbosos, intempestivos, sibi placentes facit et ideo non discentes necessaria, quia supervacua didicerunt. Quattuor milia librorum Didymus grammaticus scripsit. Misererer, si tam multa supervacua legisset. In his libris de patria Homeri quaeritur, in his de Aeneae matre vera, in his libidinosior Anacreon an ebriosior vixerit, in his an Sappho publica fuerit, et alia, quae erant dediscenda, si scires. I nunc et longam esse vitam nega. Sed ad nostros quoque cum perveneris, ostendam multa securibus recidenda.

These are themes close to the old man’s heart, elsewhere too:

Seneca, De Brevitate Vitae 13

“This sickness used to just afflict the Greeks, to discover the number of oars Odysseus possessed, whether the Iliad was written before the Odyssey, whether the poems belong to the same author, and other matters like this which, if you keep them to yourself, cannot please your private mind; but if you publish them, you seem less learned than annoying.”

Graecorum iste morbus fuit quaerere, quem numerum Ulixes remigum habuisset, prior scripta esset Ilias an Odyssia, praeterea an eiusdem essent auctoris, alia deinceps huius notae, quae sive contineas, nihil tacitam conscientiam iuvant sive proferas, non doctior videaris sed molestior.

Seneca, Moral Epistle 108

“But some error comes thanks to our teachers who instruct us how to argue but not how to live; some error too comes from students, who bring themselves to teachers not for the nourishing of the soul, but the cultivation of our wit. Thus what was philosophy has been turned into philology.”

Sed aliquid praecipientium vitio peccatur, qui nos docent disputare, non vivere, aliquid discentium, qui propositum adferunt ad praeceptores suos non animum excolendi, sed ingenium. Itaque quae philosophia fuit, facta philologia est.

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 ca. 1350 | The Morgan Library & Museum

Evil Words Lead to Evil Deeds

Basil the Great, to Young Men 5

“For growing comfortable with wicked words is a kind of path towards wicked deeds. For this reason, we must defend the soul with all care, just in case we overlook something of the worse nature in accepting pleasure from words, as those who receive poisons with honey.

Therefore, we will not praise the poets when they slander, mock, or show people lusting or drunk, or when they characterize happiness with a full table or corrupting songs. And we shall pay the least attention to their words about he gods, especially when they describe them as being many in number and in discord with each other. For in their poems, brothers war with brothers, parents fight with children, and the children have war without truce against their parents. We will leave to the stage performers those adulterous acts of the gods, their lusts and sex out in the open, and especially those of the highest and best of all, Zeus, how they tell it, those stories someone would blush even if they were telling them about animals!”

ἡ γὰρ πρὸς τοὺς φαύλους τῶν λόγων συνήθεια, ὁδός τίς ἐστιν ἐπὶ τὰ πράγματα. διὸ δὴ πάσῃ φυλακῇ τὴν ψυχὴν τηρητέον, μὴ διὰ τῆς τῶν λόγων ἡδονῆς παραδεξάμενοί τι λάθωμεν τῶν χειρόνων, ὥσπερ οἱ τὰ δηλητήρια μετὰ τοῦ μέλιτος προσιέμενοι, οὐ τοίνυν ἐπαινεσόμεθα τοὺς ποιητὰς οὐ λοιδορουμένους, οὐ σκώπτοντας, οὐκ ἐρῶντας ἢ μεθύοντας μιμουμένους, οὐχ ὅταν τραπέζῃ πληθούσῃ καὶ ᾠδαῖς ἀνειμέναις τὴν εὐδαιμονίαν ὁρίζωνται.πάντων δὲ ἥκιστα περὶ θεῶν τι διαλεγομένοις προσέξομεν, καὶ μάλισθ᾿ ὅταν ὡς περὶ πολλῶν τε αὐτῶν διεξίωσι καὶ τούτων οὐδὲ ὁμονοούντων. ἀδελφὸς γὰρ δὴ παρ᾿ ἐκείνοις διαστασιάζει πρὸς ἀδελφὸν καὶ γονεὺς πρὸς παῖδας καὶ τούτοις αὖθις πρὸς τοὺς τεκόντας πόλεμός ἐστιν ἀκήρυκτος. μοιχείας δὲ θεῶν καὶ ἔρωτας καὶ μίξεις ἀναφανδόν, καὶ ταῦτάς γε μάλιστα τοῦ κορυφαίου πάντων καὶ ὑπάτου Διός, ὡς αὐτοὶ λέγουσιν, ἃ κἂν περὶ βοσκημάτων τις λέγων ἐρυθριάσειε, τοῖς ἐπὶ σκηνῆς καταλείψομεν.

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Select Only What You Like from The Ancients

St. Basil may have set some patterns that persist to this day.

Basil the Great, To Young Men 4

“Don’t be surprised if I have discovered something pretty profitable for those of you who go each day to teachers and the sayings of ancient men in the works they have left behind them. This is the very thing I have come for the purpose of telling you, that it is not necessary that you give up to these men for good the rudders of your understanding, the way you would a ship, to follow them wherever they lead. No, accept from them only as much as is useful and recognize what should be overlooked.”

Μὴ θαυμάζετε δὲ εἰ καὶ καθ᾿ ἑκάστην ἡμέραν εἰς διδασκάλους φοιτῶσι, καὶ τοῖς ἐλλογίμοις τῶν παλαιῶν ἀνδρῶν, δι᾿ ὧν καταλελοίπασι λόγων, συγγινομένοις ὑμῖν αὐτός τι παρ᾿ ἐμαυτοῦ λυσιτελέστερον ἐξευρηκέναι φημί. τοῦτο μὲν οὖν αὐτὸ καὶ ξυμβουλεύσων ἥκω, τὸ μὴ δεῖν εἰς ἅπαξ τοῖς ἀνδράσι τούτοις, ὥσπερ πλοίου, τὰ πηδάλια τῆς διανοίας ὑμῶν παραδόντας, ᾗπερ ἂν ἄγωσι, ταύτῃ συνέπεσθαι· ἀλλ᾿ ὅσον ἐστὶ χρήσιμον αὐτῶν δεχομένους, εἰδέναι τί χρὴ καὶ παριδεῖν.

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The Skills of the Lover of Wisdom

Philo, On Dreams 205

“I certainly feel wonder at the lover of wisdom since, when he practices his art, he brings together and integrates many different things from different sources. For he takes from the children’s grammar the first two subjects—writing and reading—and then from the more mature education knowledge of poets and the learning of ancient history, from arithmetic and geometry precision in topics needing proportion and calculation, from music rhythm and meter, harmonic melodies, as well as chromatic, diatonic, concordant and discordant; from rhetoric, topic, diction, composition, efficiency, memory, and performance; and from philosophy however much has been left out from these other subjects and the rest of things which make a person’s life whole. The lover of wisdom fits all these into the most decorous work, combining great knowledge with the ability to learn even more.”

θαυμάζω μέντοι καὶ | τὸν σοφίας ἐραστήν, ὅτι τὴν αὐτὴν τέχνην ἐπιτετήδευκε, πολλὰ καὶ διαφέροντα ἐκ διαφερόντων εἰς ταὐτὸ συνάγειν καὶ συνυφαίνειν ἀξιῶν. λαβὼν γὰρ ἀπὸ μὲν τῆς παιδικῆς γραμματικῆς δύο τὰ πρῶτα, τό τε γράφειν καὶ τὸ ἀναγινώσκειν, ἀπὸ δὲ τῆς τελειοτέρας τήν τε παρὰ ποιηταῖς ἐμπειρίαν καὶ τὴν ἀρχαίας ἱστορίας ἀνάληψιν, παρὰ δὲ ἀριθμητικῆς καὶ γεωμετρίας τὸ ἀνεξαπάτητον ἐν οἷς ἀναλογίας καὶ λογισμῶν ἐστι χρεία, παρὰ δὲ μουσικῆς ῥυθμοὺς καὶ μέτρα, τά τε ἐναρμόνια καὶ χρωματικὰ καὶ διατονικὰ συνημμένα τε αὖ καὶ διεζευγμένα μέλη, παρὰ δὲ ῥητορικῆς εὕρεσιν, φράσιν, τάξιν, οἰκονομίαν, μνήμην, ὑπόκρισιν, παρὰ δὲ φιλοσοφίας ὅσα τε ἐν ταύταις παραλέλειπται καὶ ἄλλα ἐξ ὧν ἅπας ὁ ἀνθρώπων βίος συνέστηκεν, ἓν ἔργον εὐανθέστατον ἡρμόσατο, εὐμάθειαν πολυμαθείᾳ μίξας.

Wellcome MS 55, f.93., Johann Linder (from here)

How To Be, from Seneca

Seneca, Moral Epistles 7.8-9

“Both habits, moreover, should be avoided. Don’t imitate bad people, because there are many of them, nor hate the many, because you aren’t like them. Take shelter in yourself, whenever you can. Spend time with people who will make you a better person. Embrace those whom you can make better. Such improvement is a partnership, for people learn while they teach.”

Utrumque autem devitandum est; neve similis malis fias, quia multi sunt, neve inimicus multis, quia dissimiles sunt. Recede in te ipsum, quantum potes. Cum his versare, qui te meliorem facturi sunt. Illos admitte, quos tu potes facere meliores. Mutuo ista fiunt, et homines, dum docent, discunt.

Seneca, De Beata Vita 17-18

“ ‘This is enough for me: to each day lose one of my vices and recognize my mistakes. I have not perfected my health, nor certainly will I. I hope to relieve my gout rather than cure it, happy if it comes less frequently and cause less pain. But when I compare myself to your feet, I am a sprinter even though crippled.’

I do not say these things for myself—since I am deep in every kind of vice—but for the person who has done something.

You say, “You talk one way but you live another.” This insult, most shameful and hateful friend, was thrown at Plato, tossed at Epicurus, and dropped on Zeno. For all these people were talking not about how they were living themselves but about how they should live. When it comes to virtue, I do not talk about myself, and my fight is with vices, but chiefly my own. When I can, I will live as I should.”

Hoc mihi satis est, cotidie aliquid ex vitiis meis demere et errores meos obiurgare. Non perveni ad sanitatem, ne perveniam quidem; delenimenta magis quam remedia podagrae meae compono, contentus, si rarius accedit et si minus verminatur; vestris quidem pedibus comparatus, debilis1 cursor sum.” Haec non pro me loquor—ego enim in alto vitiorum omnium sum—, sed pro illo, cui aliquid acti est.

 “Aliter,” inquis, “loqueris, aliter vivis.” Hoc, malignissima capita et optimo cuique inimicissima, Platoni obiectum est, obiectum Epicuro, obiectum Zenoni; omnes enim isti dicebant non quemadmodum ipsi viverent, sed quemadmodum esset ipsis vivendum. De virtute, non de me loquor, et cum vitiis convicium facio, in primis meis facio. 2Cum potuero, vivam quomodo oportet.

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Verdun, Bibl. mun., ms. 0070, f. 42v.

Obsessed with Literature: Humanizing and Enlightening the Mind

Cicero, Pro Archia 13

“I confess indeed that I am obsessed with studying literature. Let this fact shame others who do not know how to make use of their books so that they can’t provide anything from their reading to common profit or to make their benefit clear in sight.

Why, moreover, should I be ashamed when I have lived so many years in such a way that my hobby never prevented me from being useful to anyone at any time and its pleasure or sleepiness never distracted me or slowed me down? In what way, then, can anyone criticize me or censure me if if I am discovered to have spent that very same amount of time in pursuing these studies as others do without blame in pursuing profit, or in celebrating festivals or games, in seeking the pleasure and rest of the body and mind, or dragging out hours in dining, gambling or ballgames?”

Ego vero fateor me his studiis esse deditum: ceteros pudeat, si qui se ita litteris abdiderunt, ut nihil possint ex his neque ad communem adferre fructum neque in aspectum lucemque proferre: me autem quid pudeat, qui tot annos ita vivo, iudices, ut a nullius umquam me tempore aut commodo aut otium meum abstraxerit aut voluptas avocarit aut denique somnus retardarit? Qua re quis tandem me reprehendat aut quis mihi iure suscenseat, si, quantum ceteris ad suas res obeundas, quantum ad festos dies ludorum celebrandos, quantum ad alias voluptates et ad ipsam requiem animi et corporis conceditur temporum, quantum alii tribuunt tempestivis conviviis, quantum denique alveolo, quantum pilae, tantum mihi egomet ad haec studia recolenda sumpsero?

Cicero, Pro Archia 16

“But if this clear profit [of studying literature] is not clear and if entertainment alone should be sought from these pursuits, I still believe that you would judge them the most humanizing and enlightening exercise of the mind.

For other activities do not partake in all times, all ages, and all places—reading literature sharpens us in youth and comforts us in old age. It brings adornment to our successes and solace to our failures. It delights when we are at home and creates no obstacle for us out in the world. It is our companion through long nights, long journeys, and months in rural retreats.”

Quod si non hic tantus fructus ostenderetur et si ex his studiis delectatio sola peteretur, tamen, ut opinor, hanc animi adversionem humanissimam ac liberalissimam iudicaretis. Nam ceterae neque temporum sunt neque aetatum omnium neque locorum: haec studia adolescentiam acuunt,1 senectutem oblectant, secundas res ornant, adversis perfugium ac solacium praebent, delectant domi, non impediunt foris, pernoctant nobiscum, peregrinantur, rusticantur.

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BDLSS, MS 264, 14th c.