Classically Inclined

January 26, 2012

Seneca and the impossibility of purchasing knowledge

Filed under: Teaching — lizgloyn @ 11:16 am
Tags: , , , ,

I feel I should be saying something interesting about the news that the government is apparently planning to shelve its proposed HE bill for the time being, and the changes that will be held off and the changes that have already been made, and that sort of thing. Unfortunately, I am currently under a particularly tall pile of marking and lecture prep, and any spare brain power I have is going into job applications and trying to get the Harryhausen article into shape for the end of the month.

However, I have just finished translating Seneca’s Epistulae Morales 27 in preparation for teaching it to the Latin IV class (who, I am glad to report, appear to be finding Seneca quite good fun, thus reinforcing my firm belief that he’s a brilliant author and more people should read him earlier). Letter 27 is about the the process of improving oneself and attempting to acknowledge and cure the faults in one’s character; Seneca tells his addressee, Lucilius, to think of him as a patient in the same ward rather than as a doctor with the infallible cure. However, the second half of the letter is about the impossibility of getting someone else to do this sort of work for you.

With typical Senecan verve, the letter recounts the story of the freedman Calvisius Sabinus, who had a lot of money but not much sense; he got Achilles, Odysseus and Priam mixed up, he couldn’t remember his literary references, and generally had a really rotten memory. (In a nice touch of class snobbishness, Seneca comments that he is “not like us, who knew these names along with those of our school-slaves” – ignoring the fact that Sabinus might well have been a school-slave himself, never mind that he would not have had the educational opportunities afforded to the sons of Roman knights and senators). Seneca’s disdain, however, truly comes to the fore when he reports Sabinus’ solution. Rather than put in the time and effort to actually read Homer and get to grips with the basics, Sabinus used some of his extraordinary wealth to order some very specialised slaves – one who knew Homer, one who knew Hesiod, and one for each of the nine lyric poets. Having the slaves in the house, Sabinus claimed, was as good as knowing the material himself, since anything a member of his household knew, he knew too.

As Seneca dryly observes, there are no shortcuts to learning. Sabinus still got his quotations mixed up despite having his human library on hand, since he would ask for a quote and then forget it as he repeated it. Attempts to create short-cuts to knowledge and true mastery of a subject simply don’t work. Some of you may have spotted why I thought this was a particularly good letter to give to my undergraduates to translate (a timely moral as well as a good story) – but I think the point goes a bit wider than that in the current conversation about what the higher education sector is going to face in the future. One of the big concerns raised about the White Paper, the basis for the bill, was the entry of for-profit providers into the higher education market, and the problems that could cause in terms of regulation and quality of teaching provision. I am, of course, not saying that money isn’t important to higher education – lecturers need their wages paid, buildings need to be heated and maintained, new equipment and books need to be bought. But I do wonder what the story of Calvisius Sabinus might say about a higher ed environment in which money, rather than the individual’s own pursuit of intellectual development, becomes the primary driver.


  1. multas gratias tibi ago. antequam epistulam tuam recepi, epistularum Senecae ignarus eram. Nunc tamen illas statim legere volebam.

    Comment by Francis FitzGibbon QC — January 26, 2012 @ 11:57 am | Reply

    • Cave – sunt CXXIV Epistulae Morales! eligas diligenter ut belissimas ante alias legas. placet mihi communicare quid novi tibi.

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 26, 2012 @ 4:06 pm | Reply

  2. Sounds like this guy may have partially inspired Trimalchio from the Satyricon!

    Comment by Juliette — January 26, 2012 @ 12:05 pm | Reply

    • There a lot of freedmen in the Epistulae who bear a suspicious resemblance to Trimalchio – Letter 12 has the guy who celebrates his own funeral every day, for instance, which Trimalchio does (although on a much larger scale) at the end of his dinner party. There’s a bit of debate about whether Seneca and Petronius are both writing about the same people, or whether Petronius is parodying Seneca’s letters, but whatever’s going on, it tells you a lot about social constructions of freedmen.

      Comment by lizgloyn — January 26, 2012 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  3. There are fewer lessons in this, in a first reading, than we would hope; were Sabinus a latter-day millionaire or Cabinet minister, he would’ve hired management consultants as auxiliary repositories of knowledge.

    The result is that they would become richer and he would be *thought* wiser, for a time; his shareholders would become slightly poorer for a time; his employees would become fewer and much poorer, for a time; and he would become vastly richer, in a very short time.

    In the fullness of time, his shareholders would become more-than-slightly poorer; his employees would all be fired and vastly poorer; his management consultants would become slightly richer, yet again; and Sabinus himself would walk away, unpunished due to purchasing virtue – or such influence as can make a man virtually above all punishment – from the very patricians who mocked his origins.

    And he would be, at worst, slightly poorer than vastly rich; but not so much that anyone would notice.

    If you want a bitter irony for modern purchasers of education, picture Sabinus as the very school-slave Seneca forgot about: in this latter-day parable of purchased wisdom, Sabinus would surely have mastered the letter of his subjects to such a degree that he would make his first fortune and his manumission writing essays and doubling-up in the examinations for his socially-superior patrician classmates; and nobody involved in all of this would benefit – not even slightly! – from the moral lessons in the ancient wisdom they are trading in, but never actually learning.

    Can you tell I’m in a cynical and bitter mood today?

    Comment by Nile H (@Hairyears) — January 26, 2012 @ 9:13 pm | Reply

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