EPICUREAN ETHICS IN HORACE:  The Psychology of Satire

Sergio Yona

Oxford (2018) h/b 348 £70 (ISBN 9780198786559)

Horace famously claimed (Epistles 1.1.14) to be nullius addictus iurare in verba magistri—but he also mocked himself (Epistles 4.16) as Epicuri de grege porcum.   This book helps to uncover and analyse this contradiction—one of several—at the heart of Horace’s early work. 

Satire is not perhaps the obvious genre for Epicurean writers, as satirical indignatio which fumes with a mixture of bile and disgust at the world around us is not conducive to the pursuit of ataraxia. It has often been noted that Horace’s Satires are gentler and more self-deprecating than other Roman verse satirists, and that his stance of ridentem dicere verum is closer to the smiling philosopher figure of a Democritus than to the snarling bile of (say) early Juvenal.  Epicurus advocated the unseen life and withdrawal from active politics, and his hedonic calculus of pleasure over effort would have probably declared that trying to rid the city of its ills by mockery and anger was not really worth the trouble. The classic Epicurean answer to the corrupt world—rise above it and retire to the garden—would leave little room for satire except as grist to the mill, good reason for seeking happiness in one’s immediate company, and ‘proof’ that the happy life is only possible in λάθε βιώσας seclusion.  So how can Horace be both an Epicurean and a satirist?  Epicurus was also hostile to poetry—so how can Horace be both an Epicurean and a poet? 

The originality of this book lies mostly in the examination of the influence of Philodemus, a Greek Epicurean (and poet) and associate of rich Romans in the period when Horace was cutting his own poetic teeth.  He is (Y. claims) a writer whose work can serve ‘as a road-map that can guide readers through the many twists, turns and apparent dead-ends of Horace’s two books of Satires’ (p. 302).  Y. shows how Philodemus developed Epicurean thinking to fit the social world of the late Roman republic.  The victus tenuis is still there, for example, but Philodemus modified the parvum quod satis est economics of the master into a more liberal attitude towards wealth—more SW1 than south west Athens.  The philosopher can pimp out his ideas to rich men for money (p. 78) and may even be a ‘house sage’—but he does so with friendly advice and not flattery, with one-to-one personal life-coaching rather than barking at people on street corners like Bion and the Cynics.  Affluence is now good, if it allows us to enjoy pleasant surroundings without working for them and thus passes the ‘hedonic calculus’ test.  Y. uses two key texts of Philodemus—on wealth and on free-spech—as organising principles for much of this book and applies both constantly to close readings of Horace’s Satires. 

The wise Philodeman needs to make provision for the future and not beg like the cynics, but neither should he be a professional moneymaker (p. 90), just as Horace’s wise ant (Sat.1.1.32-8) stores up enough food for the winter (while the imprudent grasshoppper has to go scrounging), but is not addicted to amassing wealth per se.  Good Epicureans must above all manage their desires and fears (p. 93) or else find that wealth becomes poverty when we have to have lobster to be satisfied. Horace (and Philodemus) seem to have drawn something of an Aristotelian middle way here between fatuous miserliness and foolish profligacy.  Satires 1.2 similarly can be read as based on the Epicurean hedonic calculus, arguing for moderation in sex and the wisdom to maximise the pleasure by reducing the risks of subsequent pain.

Y.’s other main focus in this book is in the area of ‘frank speaking’ (παρρησία) and friendship (something of enormous importance to Epicurus).  He gives us some fascinating discussion of the figure of the κόλαξ (a word with no English equivalent [see Diggle on Theophrastus Characters p. 181] but here called ‘flatterer’) with its obvious significance (and risks) in the world of Roman patronage: this is a theme Y returns to in an especially effective and lucid discussion (pp. 190-201) of Horace and his patron Maecenas, while analysing the ‘Toady’ in Satires 1.9.  Maecenas was an intriguing figure in the Roman world and as an eques he was a prime candidate for the sort of comfortable Epicurean lifestyle which Philodemus advocated (a lifestyle nicely termed an ἀναχώρησις εὔσχολος; see pp. 175-7).  Y. discusses (pp. 44-7, 158-61) the utilitarian nature of Epicurean friendship, and could have perhaps added more on the ‘friends with benefits’ aspect of Satires 1.2.  Epicureans, it is clear, praised friendship as it allowed them to avoid the Scylla of emotional attachment and also the Charybdis of social isolation and (again) Horace’s views are pragmatic in this area.

‘Frank speaking’ is obviously a vital aspect of satire, and Horace’s poetry can be alarmingly frank while also recognising the risks attendant on speaking one’s mind.  Satires 1.3, for instance, deals heavily with the need to offer and receive criticism in a spirit of positive and self-deprecating honesty. This sort of criticism is motivated by kindness rather than viciousness and is ‘the opposite of cynical asperitas’ (p. 157)—and was all (Horace tells us in Sat. 1.4) learned from his father. Philodemus allowed for such outspoken criticism as has therapeutic value (pp. 59, 74), and there are wonderful aperçus here on the medical writers’ use of Epicurean arguments of sign-inference (pp. 65-6) which takes us into the problem of ‘other minds’ (p. 69): the list of ethical issues linked to this simple theme is extensive and this book ranges widely on this topic to good effect.  Horace also applies ‘frank speaking’ against himself of course—at least in some of his many personae.  There are some vivid self-caricatures by the poet in (e.g.) Epistles 1.14 as he makes pathetic attempts at living the country life while the bailiff does all the work, or in the infamous lampoon of his sexual habits in Satires 1.5: and all this helps to make the ‘corrective criticism’ of the satirist part of the ‘sharing’ aspect of friendship—which Y brings out (pp. 262-3) in connection with wealth but which also nicely applies to frankness.

There are some weaker aspects to this otherwise fine book:  Y. brings in (p. 143) epistemology but fails to explain adequately the meaning of terms such as προλήψις (his translation ‘anticipation’ is not clear: ‘preconception’ would be better, and the term should be explained fully).  In this connection he needs to establish stronger links between epistemology and ethics—perhaps by bringing out the Epicurean aesthetic pleasure of seeing the world and even (especially for a satirist) the joy of enjoying the view for its comic value.  It is also too easy to point out places where the poet is not—or not simply—an Epicurean. Horace’s father gave him the habit of looking (nonne vides?) and learning from what he saw in the people around him, but this is also the stock in trade of the Cynics—more so perhaps than the Epicureans.   Y. accepts that Plato and Aristotle (pp. 148-50) had already analysed human motivation in terms of pleasure and knowledge, and both of these thinkers also inform a Horace who can make (Satires 1.1.106) remarks like est modus in rebus: and similar views can be found in Juvenal who eludes categorisation in any school.  Y. does (to be fair) acknowledge (p. 302) that ‘Philodemus’ ethical treatises obviously cannot on their own address every aspect of Horatian satire’:  but Horace’s eclectic magpie approach to ideas can still be a problem for this thesis.

All quotations are rendered into English, but some of the translations are quaint and less vivid than the originals demand.  To render Sat.1.2.78-9 (p. 107) 

desine matronas sectarier, unde laboris

plus haurire mali est quam ex re decerpere fructus

as ‘cease to court matrons, for thence one may derive pain and misery rather than reap enjoyment in the reality’ is to sell Horace seriously short.

The secondary literature referred to shows that Y. is well acquainted with a lot of powerful modern scholarship (David Armstrong in particular is quoted a great deal) but also has some gaps.  He does not seem to have encountered some other work which could have balanced and broadened his views:  there is no reference, for instance, to the work of Don Fowler on Epicurean ethics.  It would be good one day to see what Y. would say about Epicureanism in the Epodes and Odes, where the poet also plays with similar themes but in a more lyrical and less discursive manner.  non omnia possumus omnes, of course, and Y. has in this attractively presented and well-argued book given us a highly 

charged and concentrated account of Philodemus and Horace which breaks new ground and will inspire further research into this poetry. 

The book is well edited and proof-read—I spotted only a tiny number of typos—and has a useful index locorum as well as a general index.

John Godwin

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