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Teaching without text: Didaxis and media in Hor. Serm. 2.3

Alexander Schwennicke

Harvard University

From a formal point of view, Horatian satires, especially his ‘diatribe’ satires, strongly resemble other didactic poetry; and yet they are rarely explicitly studied as such. Even though the complexities of Horatian irony arguably set his Sermones apart from the more ‘serious’ genres of didactic verse and Cynic diatribe, it is the contention of this paper that even Horace’s ironized doctores inepti enter in a productive dialogue with multiple audiences both inside and outside the poem’s narrative frame.

The third poem of Horace’s second book of Sermones, his longest satire, is almost entirely coopted by the Stoic teacher Stertinius, whose sermo is remarkably didactic in its language, structure, and use of examples. This paper treats this unusual monopolization of discourse as an example of ‘embedded didactic’ and investigates this poem’s manipulation of different narrative levels. Slippage and interference between the poem’s different voices construct a range of competing audiences, and play a significant role in Horace’s reflection on the elusive generic nature of sermo, hovering as it does between speech and song, between serious protreptic and comic play, and between monologic lecture and dialogic conversation.

This discussion draws on two complementary approaches in previous scholarship on Serm. 2.3. On the one hand, 2.3 has been read as an extended satirical take on preachy Stoic teaching: the poem’s narrative layering distances the poet from the mad voices of the poem’s speakers, and assert his philosophical and aesthetic superiority (Bond 1998, Shackleton Bailey 1982). On the other hand, scholars have interpreted 2.3 as a self-aware (and self-satiric) commentary on the moralizing didactic mode characteristic of Horatian satire: in such readings, the speaker’s interlocutors are versions of, rather than foils for, the poet (Oliensis 1998, Freudenburg 2001, Sharland 2009). These perspectives on Horace’s poetic technique result from an exclusive focus on certain audiences, but 2.3 seems to acknowledge a plurality: the opening of Stertinius’ lecture, for example, is framed as an address to the neophyte Damasippus, but reaches out to a much larger crowd of philosophical patients, one that clearly includes the speaker within the poem and the reader without.

One dimension of the ambivalence of Horatian sermo that is particularly salient in Serm. 2.3 but has not received the attention it deserves in previous discussions is its ‘inbetweenness’ between spontaneous utterance and consciously crafted literary artifact. Inasmuch as Horace’s Stoic personae address their audiences with frank immediacy, sermo represents off-the-cuff conversation, but literary features point to higher-register philosophical dialogues as generic ancestors (cf. Fraenkel 1957). How we as readers imagine the poem’s mediality conditions our response to its ‘teachings’: the progressive disintegration of Stertinius’ carefully structured lecture, for example, while almost imperceptible to the poem’s internal audiences, represents a striking failure in a written treatise.

The material writtenness of the poem, and its corollary, literariness, demarcate a privileged channel of communication between the poet and his extra-textual audience. Specific instances of intertextuality, as for example the wanderer simile that draws on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura and Varro’s Eumenides (2.3.48-53), assert the poet’s authority over intra-textual speakers, thereby ‘speaking’ directly to the reader through (and despite) their complex discursive framing.

Instances of embedded teaching such as Horace Serm. 2.3 are often sidelined in discussions of didactic poetry. With this paper, I hope both to reveal the value of extending the scholarly discourse surrounding the audiences of didactic poetry to an understudied poem, and to expand our conceptual framework for studying addressive literature. Horace’s reproduction of a volatile student’s retelling of a mad Stoic’s lecture Serm. 2.3 may be unusual in the degrees of distance it posits, but it demonstrates in nuce the complex mechanics involved in the construction and separation of different didactic audiences; it also shows how central the question of mediality is to what is arguably the most important distinction, that between listeners within the text and readers without.

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Creating Audiences in Didactic Poetry

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