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Horace’s Philosophical Upbringing in Satires 1.4

Sergio Yona

Panelist #3

Horace’s description of his upbringing in Satires 1.4.103-129 is one of the most important scenes in the entire collection, particularly because it establishes the poet’s ethical credentials and justifies his role as professional critic.  It is also one of the most complex and multifaceted passages, for in the process of constructing his persona Horace synthesizes various literary and philosophical influences in a sophisticated and yet often parodic manner.  Scholars have repeatedly shown the role of Roman comedy, especially Terence’s portrayal of Demea in the Adelphoe, in Horace’s serio-comic depiction of his father’s training.  One of the least explored facets of his pedagogical method, however, is the role of Epicureanism, which offers much to a satiric poet concerned both with practical ethics and moral correction through the observation of vicious individuals’ defects.  This paper provides a new interpretation of this scene by considering the role of Epicurean philosophy vis-à-vis Horace’s father’s emphasis on sense perception as the foundation for a useful education, the use of conventional language for the sake of clarity, the application of the pleasure calculus within the context of moral deliberation, and the employment of frank criticism as a preventative, pedagogical technique.

Previous considerations of Horace’s description his father’s method have emphasized this scene’s literary and philosophical background.  Leach (1971), Hunter (1985) and Freudenburg (1993, 2001) have interpreted parallels between the satiric father and the pater rusticus of Roman comedy as a programmatic characterization of Horace’s own persona as indoctus and therefore comically inept.  Closely related to this reading is the assertion, maintained by Fiske (1971) and Freudenburg (1993), that Horace’s moral training incorporates the concerns and methods of popular philosophy as expressed by the flamboyant and roughshod Cynics, who, like the poets of Old Comedy, branded vicious individuals by employing the finger-pointing method alluded to in 1.4.106: exemplis vitiorum quaeque notando (“by branding each of the vices through examples”).  Others have appreciated these influences but detected a more serious engagement with the philosophical tradition in general (Schlegel 2000), especially through connections between Horace’s father’s method and Plato’s pedagogical concerns (Marchetti 2004).  What is lacking in these examinations of Horace’s self-portrait is a serious examination of Epicureanism, which, in addition to enriching the ethical content of the Satires in general, adds depth to the poet’s presentation and analysis of the foibles of contemporary Roman society.  

Although Horace’s father does not deny the importance of abstract doctrines, the fact that his pedagogical concerns are essentially practical is communicated by his casual depreciation of theoretical instruction (1.4.116: causas).  Indeed, Horace’s upbringing relies on practical sense-perceptions of everyday life, which, in addition to resembling the Cynics’ emphasis on logoi chrēstoi and informal reliance on empirical observation (Fiske 1971), also expresses the Epicurean doctrine of sensation as the starting point of all knowledge (cf. 1.4.109-110: nonne vides . . . magnum documentum).  In order to qualify examples of vicious behavior, moreover, his father uses universally accepted ethical terms such as turpis and inhonestus, which is consistent with the principles of Panaetian sermo as described by Cicero (Off. 1.134-37) but likewise recalls Epicurus’ insistence on the use of conventional language in ethical disquisitions in his Letter to Herodotus (Asmis 1984).  As a result of his exposure to the terrible consequences of economic and sexual vice (1.4.114-19), Horace reveals that he learned to calculate the potential outcomes of ethical decisions in terms of foreseeable pleasures (ibid. 134-35: rectius hoc . . . hoc faciens vivam melius), thus alluding to the hedonic calculus as seen elsewhere in the Satires (cf. 1.2.39, 1.2.75 and 1.6.99-104).  Finally, it may be observed that these lessons are communicated to Horace not in the spirit of overly harsh criticism or invective typical of Stoic and Cynic diatribes; instead, they are motivated by the genuine concern of a loving teacher, whose frankness, in accordance with Epicurean practice, is preventative and intended for the sake of correction.

Session/Panel Title

New Frontiers in the Study of Roman Epicureanism

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