August 18, 2004

Terence in the Global Lunchroom

Bill Poser's post on the Persons Case echoes, by accident, Chris Waigl's 8/15/2004 post at serendipity on how to translate the Latin word homo in Terence's famous line "Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto". That in turn reminds me of Naomi Chana's 10/15/2003 post at Baraita, which takes on the question of how to translate alienum:

Terence said it first, Cicero quoted him, then the late medieval humanist tradition picked it up and ran with it into the Enlightement: "Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto." That second clause is usually translated as "nothing human is foreign to me," but I'm not sure I buy that as a translation of puto alienum. The verb puto, putare is mostly used in a figurative sense: "to judge, suppose, account, suspect, believe, think, imagine." And the form is, of course, the first-person singular present active indicative. If I had to translate Terence, I'd go with "I consider nothing human to be foreign" -- or, more loosely, "I like to think everything's my business." It's a theory, not an established fact.

Still, I like the theory. It underlies the suspicion I inherited -- from my father the history teacher, but ultimately from the Enlightenment -- that one can learn more by hearing about an issue from as many informed perspectives as possible. I certainly don't think that "nothing human is foreign to me" ought to be an unexamined assumption in academic work, but it's not a bad way to build a blogroll, and for anyone who considers it too idealistic there's always "know your enemy," which amounts to the same thing in practice.

As a believer in Extreme Pluralism, I like this perspective (which I read last year, and found again today, via a characteristically quirky link in Desbladet). Naomi's post is mainly about the politics of academia, and the tension between informed commentary and anonymity, which is not the point here. But she also observes that Terence's line, generally quoted in support of non-judgmental disinterest, is originally a defense of meddling and gossip:

In the Terentian original, the assertion "I consider nothing human to be foreign" comes in answer to the question: "Chremus, can you take time from your own affairs to take care of someone else's, things that are completely foreign to you?"*** Or, more loosely: "Why are you poking your nose into someone else's business?" ... And Terence's exchange appears in a play called Heauton Timoroumenos, "The Self-Tormentor."

One of the things that I like about weblogs is that they add a new dimension to the virtual conversation that began when people started keeping a record, in cultural memory and then in shared texts, of their otherwise-ephemeral observations. Without the blogging medium, Bill and Chris and Naomi might have mentioned some of this stuff in a letter or a lunchtime conversation, but I never would have heard about it, and neither would you. And just as I can butt in with my own observation, so can you.

With millions of weblogs out there -- "3,547,057 weblogs watched", says Technorati -- no one is going to be even a passive part of all of these conversational strands at once. However, we each get to pick where to sit in the Global Lunchroom, and if we're bored or annoyed with the conversation at our virtual table, we can always assemble a new one. It's not a substitute for face-to-face interaction, or even for one-to-one exchanges by phone or mail, but it enriches one's life all the same.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 18, 2004 09:43 AM