(the CL/PL 317 course is taught with a different focus each time. This is one example)

Ancient philosophers regarded themselves as healers of the soul. Ordinary people, they believed, were deluded by false opinions, foolish, insane, out of their minds and utterly unhappy. This they wanted to remedy, and sometimes the result was great literature.

In this course we will look at famous examples of such psychotherapy and moral persuasion, e.g. the drastic gestures of Diogenes the Dog and his Cynic followers; the sublime didactic epic On the Nature of Things by the Roman poet Lucretius, who teaches us how to fight against fear and falling in love; the epistolary conversations and rhetorical lectures of L. Annaeus Seneca, multimillionaire, hobby vintner as well as mentor, co-ruler and finally victim of Emperor Nero; or the Discourses of Epictetus, a crippled ex-slave, who never wrote a word himself and whose diatribes, as reported by his student Arrianus, now strengthen the minds of “officer candidates in all branches of the American armed forces” (R. Dobbin). To set these readings in perspective, we will also engage with the side of the recipients, the “patients”, and study some delicious parodies of ranting philosopher-preachers, in particular by the Roman satirists Horace, Persius and Juvenal.

Imitating and transposing your reading experience into one’s own creative work is a very powerful learning device. For this reason you will be required to accompany your reading of ancient sources with your own creative philosophizing, writing and performances and critically reflect on this creative work.

The course will be divided into four parts:

1. The Message

To begin with, we will engage with the ethical theories to be promoted in our readings and your own creative work. You will acquire the theoretical grounding you need to make sense of Epicurean and Stoic ethical arguments. In this way, by analyzing the arguments of others, you will also gain some understanding of this genre of philosophical writing. In particular you should become able to distinguish rational reasoning designed to prove what the author regards as true from paraenetic speech designed to manipulate and persuade with any means available (including the means that someone makes his manipulations appear as rational reasoning designed to prove what is sincerely believed to be true). In this section you will also have to develop your own message, i.e. a thesis about how people should behave and try to find sound arguments to prove why this behavior should be adopted.

2. The Cynic

In the second part we will look at reports about ancient Cynics and the very few original fragments we have. What is particular about this philosophical movement is (a) a lack of theoretical statements and (b) a very practical mode of communication: you show things through your behavior instead of explaining them. In addition, the Cynics (literally “The Dog-Men”) were famous for their shameless provocations and their aggressive way of barking at all and everyone. In addition to analyzing and discussing what we find in our ancient sources, you will think about ways to promote your message in the Cynic mode and demonstrate your results with creative writings and a Cynic performance.

3. The Preacher

In the third part we will read passages from Lucretius, Seneca and Epictetus that all belong to a class of texts that sometimes is called “diatribe”, “popular philosophy” or “moral preaching”. We will do a close analysis of the stylistic and rhetorical devices employed in these texts and hypothesize about the pragmatic functions these devices may have had (this means that you will also get some introduction to the linguistic discipline of “pragmatics” itself). Again, you will complete the study of these “diatribic” texts with a creative exercise and now promote your message in a little “diatribic” sermon of your own.

4. Parody

A phenomenon is often better understood through the ways it is made fun of. For this reason, we will also look at Roman satires that parody “diatribic” preaching. Apart from enjoying these entertaining reads, we hopefully will be able to fine-tune and either confirm or modify the results of our previous analyses. Of course, you will have to become a satirist too, parodying either your own work from section 3 or, if that is too hard on you, do a parody of a modern-day equivalent to the ‘diatribic’ preacher of old.

A more detailed schedule and reading plan will be set up for you on the Blackboard site that accompanies this course.


  • Acquaintance with Hellenistic and early Roman imperial ethical discourse
  • Acquaintance with different modes and methods of ethical philosophical reasoning, in particular definition, formal argumentation (deontic logic), rhetorical enthymeme, exhortation, invective
  • Acquaintance with specific methods of classical philology, in particular source criticism and an introduction to basic research tools
  • Awareness of problems associated with the use of translations, in particular terminology, normalization, modernization
  • Familiarity with ‘diatribic speech’ and basic knowledge about the ancient literary genres and text types doxography, chreia, didactic epic, Roman satire, epistolography, philosophical treatise and philosophical lecture
  • Enhanced skills of analysis of style and generic features, with a particular emphasis on pragmatics
  • Ability to recognize and then imitate characteristic features of a literary text, an author’s style or a particular genre
  • Ability to actively use literary forms and modes of ethical discourse
  • Ability to critically reflect on others’ and one’s own use of literary forms and modes of discourse
  • Enhanced ability to reflect cultural practices as propaganda



  • Epictetus. Discourses and Selected Writings. Trans. Robert Dobbin. London et al.:Penguin (ISBN978-0-140-44946-4)
  • Seneca. Dialogues and Essays. Trans. John Davies. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics) (ISBN 978-0-19-280714-4)
  • Horace. The Satires of Horace. Trans. A. M. Juster. Philadelphia: The University of Pennsylvania Press (ISBN 978-0-8122-4090-0)


  • Lucretius. On the Nature of the Universe. Trans. Ronald Melville. Oxford: Oxford University Press (Oxford World’s Classics) (ISBN 978-0-19-955514-7)
  • Seneca. Epistles 1-65 (volume IV). Trans. Richard M. Gummere. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library) (ISBN 978-0674990845). Also available as an online resource. Links on Blackboard.
  • Diogenes Laertius. Lives of Eminent Philosophers, Volume II, Books 6-10. Trans. R. D. Hicks. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press (Loeb Classical Library) (ISBN 978-0674992047). Also available as an online resource. Link on Blackboard.