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Horace's Unified, Epicurean Persona in the "Diatribe Satires" (1.1-3)

Sergio Yona

        For over a decade scholars have read Horace’s so-called “diatribe satires” within the context of the poet’s disparate personas (Martindale 1993; Oliensis 1998), which, in hindsight, ought to strike readers as the equivalent of a diagnosis of literary schizophrenia.  The only thing these poems seem to have in common is their helplessly lackadaisical, quasi-Cynic approach to moral vice (Oltramare 1926; Fiske 1971; Freudenburg 1993), which has been described in terms of incompetence (Rudd 1966; Fiske 1971), utter confusion (Fraenkel 1954; Rudd 1966) and even moral bankruptcy (Baldwin 1970; Turpin 2009).  On the other hand, given the apparent consensus among scholars that Horatian satire, though witty, lacks any coherent or systematic approach to ethics, perhaps such conclusions are unsurprising or even inevitable.  To counterbalance this trend and inject a sense of unity into Horace’s satiric portraits, this paper will introduce evidence from the Epicurean philosopher Philodemus of Gadara’s ethical treatises, which, like the Satires, communicate moral advice in a frank manner and within a closely knit circle of friends.  It will attempt to show how, by means of offering a moral standard based on the pleasure calculus as well as sensible guidelines for the communication of frank criticism, Epicurean ethics furnishes Horace with a stable moral foundation for his satirical attacks and therefore with a persona that is overall consistent, unified and sane.

        Previous considerations of Horace’s moral criticism in these introductory satires have generally been defined too narrowly by the influence of comedy and popular philosophy.  Scholars like Freudenburg (1993) and Fiske (1971), for instance, have demonstrated the importance and also prevalence of such influences, which account for the poet’s overly informal, street-preaching style and ethical platitudes in Satires 1.1.  It is Horace’s careless Cynic persona, moreover, that explains his inclusion of predictable straw men like the miser and his artless but entertaining criticisms of avarice.  This oversimplification extends into scholars’ treatment of Satires 1.2, which is often read as a potty-mouthed poet’s vulgar attempt to apply Aristotle’s mean to sexual vice (Freudenburg 1993; Mayer 2005).  The result is a “hackneyed theme” (Fraenkel 1957) that is bewildering (Rudd 1966), particularly because scholars cannot reconcile the mean with Horace’s refusal to condemn adultery or prostitution per se (Levèvre 1975).  This omission has, quite understandably, led some to conclude that the poem is entirely satirical and “innocent of any moral message” (Baldwin, 1970).  Similar problems arise in Satires. 1.3, where the condemnation of Stoic perfection and—hilariously—the irascibility it entails has been overshadowed by focus on Horace as a ridiculous parasite (Turpin 2009) or an inept, self-destructive Epicurean (Freudenburg 1993).

        In contrast to this view of Horace as a philosophical buffoon, an interpretation that is more sensitive to contemporary Epicureanism can produce an internally consistent and ultimately more satisfying reading of Satires 1.1-3.  In all three of these character portraits, for instance, he carefully applies the Epicurean rule as expressed by Philodemus, namely, that people “suffer the worst evils because of the most alien desires which they regard as most necessary” (On choices and avoidances col. 5, 7-14): the miser’s obsession with wealth in 1.1 results in universal abandonment (80-85); the sex fiend in 1.2 ruins his reputation because of his decision to “court matrons” (78-79; the point is not to observe a golden mean but to enjoy pleasure without greater pain, which is expressed perfectly by the Philodemean epigram Horace quotes at 120-123); the nameless Stoic’s outbursts are disproportionate and incur ridicule (1.3.76-79), which, as Philodemus explains, is characteristic of irascible dispositions (On anger col. 37, 32-39).  Finally, in order to motivate change Horace’s portraits involve a form of therapeutic criticism advocated by Philodemus and called “placing before the eyes” (On anger col. 3, 13-18): the miser is invited to envision himself bedridden and alone (1.1.80-85), the sex addict is caught in the act (1.2.127-131) and the Stoic is surrounded by beard-plucking youths while he explodes with rage (1.3.133-136).

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Running Down Rome: Lyric, Iambic, and Satire

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