This line, spoken by a character in one of the Roman playwright Terence’s (d. 159 BCE?) plays, goes like this in Latin: “Homo sum, humani a me nihil alienum est.” With three degrees in English, a humanities field, I consider this line my motto, even my mission statement. I remember Huck Finn saying, early in his book, that he had been interested in the story of Moses in the “Bullrushers” until he found out that the hero of Exodus had been dead upwards of two thousand years. At that point he lost interest since, as he put it, “I don’t take no stock in dead people,” or words to that effect. Well, unlike Huck, we Humanists consider anything anywhere at any time that concerns fellow human beings interesting to us. And that’s why we can read the works of peoples from any time, place, background, or culture and (potentially) find not only meaning but lessons for us in the here-and-now. The whole world is our workshop. Therefore, with Harold Taylor (d. 1993), the Canadian-born former president of the then-radical Sarah Lawrence College, I consider the world as teacher, the title of his 1969 book.
To be sure, our indigenous sisters and brothers go beyond even the Humanist point of view. When passing a pipe in a circle, North American native persons will say “All my relations.” By that they mean everything, period—from rocks and plants, weeds and flowers, water and trees, the inhabitants of the animal kingdom, ourselves as homo-sapiens, and all our past and future fellow humans. The late astronomer Carl Sagan, a self-confessed agnostic, was convinced that humanity is not the only evolved species in the universe, nor even the most evolved one. He based his assumption on probability theory. In short, given the “billions and billions” of galaxies, not to mention stars out there, with more and more of the latter being found to have planets orbiting around them, Dr. Sagan felt it highly improbable that we earthlings would be the only sapient life-form in existence. Yet our circling-the-wagons instincts remain strong. The Latin adjective alienus -a, -um gives us the root for the English aliens, alienate, and alienation. So if even human beings who look, sound, and/or act differently from us are ripe candidates for othering, how would we treat actual E.T.s if they had the temerity to land their UFO in a populated area? If you and I responded, “with fear and defensiveness,” I’m pretty sure we would be right.
So at this point let me create a new Latin proverb: Universi pars sum, ergo nihil in universo mihi alienum est; I am part of the universe, therefore nothing in the universe is foreign to me. As the Australian aboriginal author Tyson Yunkaporta writes at the end of his 2020 book Sand Talk—How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, “We’d like everybody to look up at the stars and see the same stories there once more. And stop asking the question, “Are we alone?” Of course we’re not! Everything in the universe is alive and full of knowledge.