Seneca the Younger (4 B.C. – A.D. 65) was a famous Roman statesman and stoic philosopher. As the young Nero’s tutor, he at some point was de facto Rome’s Emperor by all but the title. His Epistulae Morales (‘Moral Letters’) constitute a major part of his philosophical work. The 108th epistle of that collection provides remarkably relevant food for thought for the Higher Education landscape. The following text is my (reasonably faithful) translation of the opening of Seneca’s epistle, without omissions or adaptations; the subtitles, however, are my own.

Reading List Enquiries

The topic, about which you enquire, is one of those, which deal with knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Yet, because it relevant, you rush and do not wish to wait for the books which I am busy to arrange, covering the whole area of moral philosophy. I will send them in due course, but let me write this in advance, how your very desire to learn, which I see burning in you, needs structure, lest it proves to be an obstacle.

Modularisation and Progression Rules

Neither must one gather things randomly, nor should one eagerly attack everything at once: step by step one will arrive at completeness. The workload must be adapted to one’s strength, and it must not tackle more than one can handle. Do not absorb how much you like, but how much you can handle. Just have courage, and you will be able to grasp however much you wish. The more the mind takes in, the more it will become flexible to accommodate.

Ideal Student Meets Ideal Teacher

This is what Attalus taught us, I remember, when we virtually laid siege to his class, arriving first, leaving last, challenging him to some sort of discussion even when he was walking about – while he was not just ready to see the students, but made an effort to meet them half-way. He said: ‘Teacher and student need to follow the same principle: the former must want to be of use, the latter to benefit.’

An Inspirational Environment

Who attends a wise man’s class, should take home something good with him every day: may he go home either sounder, or capable of becoming sounder. But he will return: such is the power of philosophical knowledge, that it helps not only those who study it, but even those who merely get exposed to it. Who walks in the sun, even without the aim to reach it, will get tanned. Who sits in a perfumer’s shop, and even if only dwelling there for a slightly extended period of time, will carry away with him the scent of the place. And thus, too, he who attended to a wise man, must by definition take away something that is useful even to those who do not pay a lot of attention. Mark my words: to those who do not pay a lot of attention, not to those who are obstinate.

Lecture Theatre

‘What then? Do we not know those who sit for many a year with a wise man and still do not manage to let it show?’ Do I not know those? There are some particularly persevering types, zealous, too, whom I call not the wise man’s pupils, but aliens. Some of them attend to listen, not to learn, just as we are led to the theatre for the sake of acustic pleasures, through speech or song or plot. You will see that a large part of the listeners, to whom the lecture hall of a wise man is but a place to spend their leisure time. They are not concerned with addressing their weaknesses, to understand something about a principle of life, to adjust their character accordingly, but they merely enjoy the pleasure of the acoustics.

Note-Taking, Revision, and Intellectual Appropriation

Some, however, come along with their notebooks, not to write down the matter at hand, but the very words, so that they can repeat them just as much to no use to anyone else as they were first perceived by themselves. Some are excited by big words and thus eagerly proceed to mimick the speakers’ emotions in facial expression and gesture, just like those emasculated Cybele-Worshippers when they hear the sound of the flute-player and initiate their frenzy to order. The others, however, are taken by, and driven further by, the beauty of the matter itself, not the sound of empty words.


  • Jeremy Burchardt

    Thanks Peter – amusing and informative. It’s important, I think, to stand back and see the educational wood for the trees – despite acronyms and initiatives, the essential core of what we are (or should be) trying to do is perhaps not so different from in Seneca’s time.

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