The Wisdom of a Former Slave

Seven Words That Inspired Marx, Montaigne, and Maya Angelou

Claire Pavlides
Apr 20, 2018 · 4 min read
The frontispiece of the famous Codex Vaticanus Latinus 3868, with an image of Publius Terentius Afer.

[Editor’s Note: This was one of two prizewinning essays in the 2018 Paideia Institute High School Essay contest. We are pleased to publish here the essay of the Latin winner, Claire Pavlides. Claire won a trip to Rome for Living Latin in Rome High School 2018.]

Homo sum: humani nihil a me alienum puto. — Terence (Publius Terentius Afer), Heauton Timorumenos, Act 1, scene 1, line 77

I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.

The quotation I have chosen is by the Roman playwright Terence (Publius Terentius Afer). It is a line from his play The Self-Tormentor, which was written in 165 B.C.

There were a few other quotes that I had strongly considered, including phrases by Horace, Seneca the Younger, and Cicero. I had found these in a book that collected famous Latin sayings by a number of great philosophers, politicians and poets, as well as some witty quotes from anonymous sources.

But the quote by Terence was especially interesting because I had seen a reference to it in English literature. We read a story by Flannery O’Connor in English class in the fall and when I learned more about her, I found Terence’s quote. It was supposedly a very important quote to Maya Angelou, as well.

It turns out that the quote has been mistakenly attributed to a handful of authors over the years, including Maya Angelou, John Donne, Karl Marx, and, perhaps most often, Michel de Montaigne, a French philosopher who lived in the 16th century. Montaigne liked Terence’s line so much that it was engraved in the roof beam of his study. Maybe that’s where the confusion began.

It is a phrase that still means a lot to some individuals. A writer named Leslie Jamison had it tattooed on her left arm and later published an essay about it in The New York Times.

Now when I read about Terence’s life, I discovered some interesting things. For instance, he was born outside of Rome, perhaps in Carthage, and came to Rome as a slave. His intellect greatly impressed his master (Terentius Lucanus), who freed him as a result. He wrote six comic plays, all of which have survived. One way he contributed to Latin was by creating a literary style that reflected everyday conversation.

But one thing that I found especially interesting was that a number of his works were adaptations of works by an earlier Greek playwright named Menander (344? — 292? B.C.). In fact, it is still debated how much of Terence’s works were his own creation and how much came from Menander. It is possible that Menander was the original source of the phrase. While Menander wrote over 100 plays, unlike Terence, very few of his works have survived. Most of what we have are fragments.

To me, the phrase “I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me” has multiple meanings. Since many writers have seemed to adopt the phrase, it makes me think it could relate to the role of a writer or artist who attempts to capture life as he or she sees it. This could mean that we should try to look at others and try to understand their motives and behaviors, even when they differ greatly from our own.

It could also mean that by observing people closely, it can help us understand how we can be better. We can learn from both the successes and failures of others. There is a phrase I’ve heard in history class, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Another interpretation would be that it is about being empathetic — that we should be able to consider and try to understand ideas and lifestyles that are different from our own. Because we are part of humanity and our similarities may be greater than our differences.

This could be important because of the way our world is today. Many people seek to find ways we are different (including race, religion, politics, gender, skin color, class, and level of education). But one way of interpreting Terence’s influential line is that while we are all unique, we also share many of the qualities that make us human. Maybe in a polarized world where there are great political divisions and people don’t listen to each other, it would be useful to remember Terence’s words.

One of the reasons we should study the classics is because many of the great thoughts that have survived the centuries are universal and have inspired great thinkers down through the ages. Many sayings that have survived are well-written and well-reasoned. They are often statements expressed clearly and succinctly, and have stood the test of time.

Going to Latin class is like going to a seance (but one that could actually work!). You’re able to hear from the ghosts who have been dead for 2,000 years but only if you can hear them. Unless we take the time to learn Latin, we can never really hope to fully understand the Romans and their way of life. Learning about the Romans is a way we can learn about ourselves for we are they.

Sources:

Who’s Who In The Classical World edited by Simon Hornblower and Tony Spawforth, Oxford University Press, 2000

Latin Quips At Your Fingertips by Rose Williams, Barnes and Noble Books, 2001

Mark My Words. Maybe. Leslie Jamison, The New York Times, April 12, 2014

Claire Pavlides is a student at Bard High School Early College Queens, and a winner of the Paideia Institute High School Essay contest.

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