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Persius 4 & 5: Pedagogy and the failure of philosophy

Kate Meng Brassel

The presence of Stoic thought in the Satires of Persius has been scrupulously documented. The primacy of ethics for the Roman Stoics, particularly the notions of individual freedom and progress, has been shown, many times, to have provided “themes” to the satirist. The particularity of Persius’ relationship to philosophical discourse, however, has been less well considered. This paper reassesses Persius’ use of philosophical themes in Satires 4 & 5. I argue that in these pieces Persius’ poetics, both broadly and narrowly conceived, significantly problematizes the discourse of ethical progress and the utility of a philosophical education. The fourth satire is a short piece that imagines a confrontation between Socrates and Alcibiades and proceeds into an excoriation of greed and primping, fixating on attentive grooming of the groin. Satire 4 prepares us for the confluence of graphic body parts, pedagogy, and ethics that is developed with strange virtuosity in Satire 5. The latter, a complex and dynamically disjointed piece, demonstrates (and even salivates over) the Stoic method of exposing the slavishness of life in Rome; along the way, it is interrupted by an excursive encomium to Persius’ teacher, the influential Stoic Cornutus. The infamously problematic student-teacher relationship of Alcibiades and Socrates as showcased in Satire 4, a relationship riddled with eroticism and failure, authorizes a reading of Satire 5 that distrusts Persius’ relationship with Cornutus and which thereby undermines the content of Persius-as-pupil’s own learning and progress.

The development of Satire 5 displays what I suggest is a concretization of metaphor that serves two functions. Persius’ poetics flattens elevated style into grotesque realities. A principal example of this tendency is his reversal of the poetic abstractions of vox, os, and lingua back into mundane, bodily realities: the abstract becomes concrete. Through this mechanism (and its accompanying apparatus), Persius’ denuding of metaphor supports his objectification of philosophy, undoing its positivist constructions. A further effect of this concretization, I suggest, is that the play on the bodily in both of these satires—the juxtaposition of morals and genitals in Satire 4; Satire 5’s oral fixation—exposes a feature of these poems underexplored in previous scholarship: humor. The torture that Persius applies to metaphor, allied with his remarkable exploitation of body parts, places this poet within long established traditions of humor that run from Greek comedy to Roman iambic. Humorous discourse is tapped through the graphic body in both satires and, in the fifth satire, through a consequent thematization of parrhesia and aphasia. The satirist’s play with the oral wrestles with the pose of stifled and private speech often invoked as his trademark.

On this foundation, I subsequently address the broader question of Persius’ stance as a satirist. Persius’ frequently cited “programmatic” assertions that he writes in seclusion from society have created a nearly fabulous, biographical interpretation of his poetry. That scholarly exegesis of the satires, overly reliant on the Vita, finds a satirist whose work must be slavishly reliant on Horace, merely a product of extreme study, and divorced from the ordinary realities Roman life. I argue that the Persius’ generic self-positioning allows us to question the professed privacy of the satirist from a refreshingly different perspective. Satire often presupposes an audience particularly attuned to contemporary discourse, and therefore highly sensitive to locating the satirical target; like oratory, it is a particularly public genre. Given this tendency, how to understand the strange proclamation in the oft cited secrete loquimur (5.21), where “we” are Persius and his teacher Cornutus? The idea that Persius cannot speak publicly (nec clam? Sat. 1. 119) consciously plays with the publicity of the satiric genre. Persius cries outrage but dissimulates his voice of outrage; this “split” technique demands an inquiry into the object of Persius’ satires. I suggest that this object is the very notion of separateness, both of the individual and of the community of philosophers imagined by writers such as Seneca: Persius’ philosophy is his satire.

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Philosophical Poetics

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