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The Daemon Grows: Some Offshoots of Empedocles in Horace’s Ars Poetica

Justin Hudak

University of California, Berkeley

In this paper, I propose a new answer to a question first raised by Horace himself: To what one form can both the head and the foot of the Ars Poetica be related? Some (e.g., Oliensis (1998)) have argued that the opening and close of Horace’s epistle cannot, in fact, be related to a single form, and that the end of the Ars simply repeats the trajectory of the painting at its beginning. More recently, others (e.g., Hardie (2018) and Hunter (forthcoming)) have suggested that it is Empedocles who links the poem’s beginning to its end. Inspired by each of these two approaches, I propose that the idea which relates the head of the Ars to its foot is the Empedoclean notion of Love and Strife as the dual and dueling forces which enable mixture and separation in the physical universe. This dynamic duo appears twice in the Horatian corpus: once as concordia discors (Ep. 1.12), once as symphonia discors (Ars 374). Less obvious, perhaps, but no less evocative of these same forces, are the phrases iungere si uelit (Ars 2) and ualuit si frangere (Ars 473). Behind this opposition between juncture and fracture lies the contrast between Love-driven mixture and Strife-powered separation (μίξις and διάλλαξίς, B8). Caught between these divergent impulses, the whole of the Ars becomes a sort of discordant symphony, a performance of Empedoclean wisdom.

My argument about the Ars Poetica’s pervasive Empedocleanism unfolds in two stages. Attending first to the poem’s opening, I reveal allusions hitherto unappreciated, suggesting, for example, that Horace’s incipit (Humano capiti) derives from a particular phrase in his precursor’s description of godhead (ἀνδρομέῃ κεφαλῇ, B134). Accepting Hardie’s recent assertion that Horace begins his poem with an illustration of how not to put together a poetic cosmos, in the second section of my paper I show how he ends in an altogether different fashion: by actually putting together such a cosmos. When scholars discuss the Ars, they tend to view Empedocles as just one of several figures in its grand finale. In doing so, they miss what I take to be the main thrust of its tropological transmigration: rather than paint Empedocles as one figure among many, Horace in fact depicts this singular fellow—apparently a believer in metempsychosis (B137)—in several ridiculous reincarnations. And yet, conspicuously absent from Horace’s list of new prison-houses is the one which the pre-Socratic himself so ardently desired: that of long-lived daemon. But Horace deprives Empedocles of more than just godhood: nec . . . fiet homo (468–69), he declares, thereby denying to the sublime aspirant even his humanity. Although Horace mocks his precursor by, as it were, giving him a taste of his own metempsychotic medicine, his poem’s final figure (the leech) is in fact deeply embedded in Empedocles’ conception of blood as both the seat of understanding (B105) and the substance in which the elements are most harmoniously blended (B98). If, as Brink (1969) avers, Horace was familiar with his precursor’s pronouncements about blood as understanding, then the man-turned-leech of the Ars may be said to pursue the same nourishment as did the Acragantine philosopher-poet.

I conclude by considering how the Empedocles-evoking leech at the foot of the Ars relates to the no less Empedoclean monster depicted at its head. In stark contrast to the painter’s discordant hybrid, the leech is simplex et unum par excellence: it has suckers on both ends, so there is no need to make heads or tails of it; and unlike the painter’s centauric-scylla, it is also an amphibian and a hermaphrodite. What is remarkable, then, about this ultimately concordant composition, is just how steadfastly it resists our attempts to understand its Empedoclean idea of order. Not until the Ars Poetica’s last word—hirudo—does Horace, leech-like himself for 476 long lines, finally release his hold on our hitherto-unbalanced understanding.

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Allusion and Intertext

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