Saturday, February 18, 2006

“I too am a man, but almost everything that concerns other men I happily deem a matter of utter indifference to me.”

I shall forbear to inflict my Latin version of this emendatio upon you, but you can trust my scholarship. I had thought to entitle this post “Chremes the busybody, or what Menedemus ought to have said”, but even fans of the African’s plays might miss that allusion.

We are talking about “homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.” Cicero lauds it in De Officiis. Augustine tells us it was one of the most recognized and applauded lines in the Roman theatre. But how did Terence mean us to take this heavy dose of moralizing? I know about 2000 years of criticism is solidly against me on this one, but I think we should read it as the posing of a busybody.

Let’s recall the scene. It is early in the Self Tormentor. Two old men are talking, Chremes pestering Menedemus with questions. Why you are wearing yourself out at your age doing heavy farm work? A man of 60 should be directing his workers, not outworking them. Menedemus replies, “Have you so much free time that you can ignore your own business and mettle instead in the affairs of others, matters that do not concern you?” Chremes draws himself at that point and gives his little speech beginning “Homo sum.” He says he wants to understand what Menedemus is doing and why, so that he may either join him or try to dissuade him. His neighbor’s business is his business sub specie humanitatis.

At this point Menedemus fails to grasp that he is in the grasp of a moralizing busybody. He makes a flustered reply ( “I must do as I do. Do you as it is necessary for you to do.” ) Not a bad piece of writing, I concede, but Terence misses the chance for an immortal retort with the line I have suggested:

“I too am a man, Chremes, but just about everything that concerns other men I happily regard as not my business. Now go away, you boorish busybody, and leave me to my labors.”

What do you think? Great theatre? A curmudgeonly Stoic rewrite of Terence. [ My serious point, if I have one, will have to remain obscure until a later post.]


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