Stamps Scholar Spotlight: Leah Alpern '18

I study philosophy and ancient Greek language and literature, and I am most interested in comparing ancient and modern ethics. I've never seen ancient philosophy as "dead history," but as a comparative example of how culture and worldview influence one's conception of what a "good" society and individual are, and especially how to get there. I see how fundamental parts of worldview have changed since 500BC, especially ideas related to what a political community is, what responsibilities educated individuals have and what is accepted as knowledge. Studying ethics in ancient Greek literature and philosophy shows me what human life was like, but also what it could be.

That said, my project looks at the ancient social practice of "benefit" or "gift exchange," the practical knowledge of which the ancient Stoic philosopher Seneca called philosophy's greatest lesson for its impact on both individual moral development and social health. The first part of my project is a traditional research paper, in which I'll connect the feelings associated with benefit exchange--gratitude and intent--to parts of the formal doctrine of Stoic ethics like the structure of the emotions and the psychology of action, to get a clearer picture of the philosophical and practical importance of benefits in ancient Rome.

Second, I'll choose a few exemplary anecdotes of benefit-exchange (gone well and poorly) that Seneca uses in his treatise On Benefits, and re-imagine and translate them based on how they would play out in a modern relationship, keeping the same emotional structure of "gratitude" and "intent" from the original Stoic ethics. I plan to write the translation as a script or dialogue, and in the springtime cast two actors and have a public reading of the translation followed by a discussion of both the research themes and method. My research method in the second phase is relatively creative--a kind of translation of philosophy through time--and I am curious to see how people react, what parts of it "work" or not, and consequently what we can learn about how to study and communicate about the past in a way that adds meaning to the present.

More from Leah.