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The Epicurean Calculus of Pleasure and Pain in Horace Satires 2.6

Benjamin Vines Hicks

This paper argues that recent additions to our understanding of Roman Epicureanism enhance our appreciation for how Horace presents the tensions between public duties in the city and private pursuit of ataraxia in Satires 2.6.  The most significant treatments of Satires 2.6 accurately describe the poetic effects, rhetorical devices, the carefully balanced structure of the poem, and identify some of the Epicurean intertexts such as Lucretius 3.1060-67 and Philodemus’ dinner invitation to his patron Piso, AP 11.44 (Bond, Brink, Gigante, Muecke, West).  West, in particular, emphasizes the Epicurean qualities of both mice as parts of the personality of Horace that have been separated for dramatic effect and that mirror the structure earlier in the poem where Horace presents his activities in the city (23-57) before describing his desire for the countryside (58ff).  Yet recent explorations into the nature of Roman Epicureanism situate Horace’s satiric meditation within a larger framework of Epicurean discourse on the dilemma of how to balance duties to the state with an Epicurean ideal of ataraxia that would seem to preclude such public activities.

I begin by tracing the philosophical ideas throughout the text of Satires 2.6.  Philosophy appears most prominently in lines 71-76 where the conversation that Horace desires at the Sabine farm focuses on central philosophical questions:  Are men blessed by virtue or wealth?  Does friendship come through utility or rectitude?   What is the nature of the highest good?  (Cf. Muecke).  The fable of the city and country mouse is presented as an extension of this philosophical conversation directly bearing upon yet another philosophical question introduced in line 79 on whether wealth is worth its attendant anxieties.   From here, I turn to the fable itself and show both mice as distinctively Epicurean.   The city mouse evokes Epicurean themes in lines 90-96, though he seems particularly stuck on the pleasures of the stomach, an emphasis among the followers of Epicurus.  Since this emphasis could easily slide out of balance and since critics of Epicureanism were quick to seize upon it, it becomes an excellent caricature for use in satire.   The country mouse, on the other hand, privileges the ataraxia of the countryside in his concluding remarks (115-117) and provides a distinctively Epicurean rationale for rejecting the banquet in the city (the dogs threaten his inner quietude too much).  Yet he too is a caricature of another version of Epicureanism.  I then note subtle Epicurean flavoring in Horace’s characterization of his respective appraisals of the city and countryside.

In the second part of my paper, I show that the significance of these repeated Epicurean ideas is enhanced by recent additions to our understanding of the thoughts and practices of Roman Epicurean communities.  The famous maxim, “Live Unnoticed” would seem to suggest that good Epicureans should withdraw entirely from politics.  Roman manifestations of Epicureanism, then, struggle with the question of how to balance one’s public duties as a good Roman while simultaneously pursuing the Epicurean ideal of ataraxia.  Epicureans were not monolithic; it seems that they could answer this question in several ways that were acceptable and consistent with the tenets of Epicurus, as Sedley, Fish, Armstrong, and Tsouna have noted.  Most significantly, Roskam has recently proposed that Roman Epicureans “conditionally qualified” their political involvement based on Epicurus’ principle of rational calculus expounded in the Letter to Menoeceus 130.  A maxim like “live unnoticed” is not a moral absolute, but a guideline to be evaluated according to the situation.  In Satires 2.6 then, Horace maximizes his Epicurean pleasures by recognizing that some pains are necessary in order to experience greater pleasures.  The intellectual backdrop of Roman Epicureanism, especially Philodemus, illuminates how Horace structures Satires 2.6 as an Epicurean introspective examination of the tensions inherent in maintaining and enjoying the pleasures of friendship with Maecenas.

Session/Panel Title

Epicurean Philosophy in Roman Poetry

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