Seneca on the Teacher’s Job

The Heights has always been supportive of the faculty’s professional development — something for which I’m immensely grateful. Whether it was studying in Rome for three weeks to practice spoken Latin and Greek, a backpacking trip in Wyoming with a Great Books emphasis, or my current pursuit of a master’s degree in the Liberal Arts, the school has encouraged and supported all these adventures outside the classroom to improve my teaching. But there is a quotidian side to professional development that we can do from the comfort of our desks: reading. Reading produces immediate and long-term fruit in our classrooms, keeping us inspired and deepening our perspective in our fields of study. In my recent reading of Seneca, I’ve lighted upon a fantastic passage illustrating this two-fold division of immediate inspiration and long-term vision.

Seneca, in his self-imposed exile while Nero tottered on the brink of insanity, wrote a great many Moral Letters to his friend Lucilius. I’ve been reading many of them in English, and mining the Latin when I see a particularly pregnant thought. With pen in hand, I stumbled across the following passage in the English edition of Letters from a Stoic. Seneca is recalling his days as a student and handing down his teacher’s advice to the next generation.

I remember a piece of advice Attalus gave me in the days when I practically laid siege to his lecture hall … He was always readily available to his students, not just accessible. He would say, “A person teaching and a person learning should have the same end in view: the improvement of the latter.”—Epistle CVIII

Seneca paints himself as a zealous student, but I was struck more by his aside about Attalus’ attitude toward his students, so I looked up the Latin. Attalus was not just “accessible,” he was “available.” The Latin draws an even clearer distinction using the words paratum and obvium respectively. More literally rendered, Attalus was not just “prepared” to help his students, he “stood in their way.” This “standing in the way” term comes from the same root that gives us the word “obvious” as in “right in front of you.” It’s a compelling challenge for me as a teacher, and a fantastic image of mentoring as our school envisions it. We pull the students out of their regularly-scheduled classes to walk right next to them — get in their way — and ask them to find and commit to goals of self-improvement, not only as students, but as young men.

The Teacher’s Job

The second sentence also merits closer study of the original Latin text. While it might seem like a truism to say that the teacher ought to have the improvement of the student in mind at all times, Seneca’s Latin gives more nuanced advice:

Idem et docenti et discenti debet esse propositum, ut ille prodesse velit, hic proficere.

That first word, īdem, in the most important position of the sentence, emphasizes that both the one learning and the one teaching have the “same goal” (īdempropositum). Beyond that, though, in the Latin, Attalus gives specific admonitions to the teacher and the student separately. The teacher should want to prodesse the student, which can be translated as “benefit, serve, do good,” and the student should want to proficere — to advance, improve, develop. Yet the translator, in English, rendered this two-way road in a one-way mode: “the improvement of the latter.”

Returning to the Latin illuminates the relationship Seneca wants us to see between the teacher and student, particularly in light of the whole paragraph. On the one hand, it is important that students recognize their obligations and that teachers hold up their end as well. As a teacher, though, I can’t help but reflect on the comment that Attalus made himself obvium to his students and that perhaps I’m being too harsh with the translator in the Penguin edition. If I want to benefit my students, I must align with the kind of improvement or development they’re actually seeking.

This can be a difficult alignment. Human nature being what it is, we often seek the path of least resistance. How can one be sure that the student in his care wants the improvement that the teacher offers? Because education is mandatory, many of our students do not want to attend at all. Not all our students will be “practically besieging” our classrooms as Seneca did to the classroom of Attalus. A teacher, like a good speaker, should begin by knowing his audience: neither hostile nor amenable. Thus, the relationship between teacher and student mirrors the relationship between an orator and his audience. Cicero provides the best advice here:

Optimus est enim orator, qui dicendo animos audientium et docet et delectat et permovet. 
The best orator is the one whose speech instructs, delights and moves the minds of his audience.—De Optimo Genere Oratorum I, 3

I often sum up the Latin of this phrase with the triplet docēre, delectāre, et movēre: to teach, to delight, and to move. The relationship I seek to have with my students must keep their souls (animōs) in mind. This carries us far away from mere information exchange assumed in modern education. The relationship between the teacher and student now begins with information, but moves through delight in truth to a change in the actions, if not also the character, of the student. Teaching (docēre) proves a point or conveys information. Delight (delectāre) is the natural reaction we have to truth, particularly deep truths about the what, how, or why of something. And finally, moving (movēre) the mind of the audience is the closest we come to moving the will of a student, the inviolable and untouchable part of his nature.

I strive for this in my own teaching, but, as Seneca pointed out, my students have obligations too. A student’s obligations will be considered in my next article.

Tom Cox

About the author:

Tom Cox


Born and raised in Southern California, Tom Cox attended Hillsdale College in Michigan. After college, he went on an 18,000 mile road-trip exploring America and, while touring the country with his barbershop quartet, was offered this job at The Heights. Four years, two broken ankles, and one wedding later, he is enjoying life in Northern Virginia with his wife, Nicole, and three daughters. When he isn’t speaking, reading, or writing Greek and Latin, he enjoys reading, hiking, swing dancing, and spending time with family and friends.

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