In Smith Palmer Bovie’s translation of the Satires and Epistles of Horace there is this wonderful gem in the introduction:
“Horace’s first satire dwells on the folly of excess, on the spectacle, played over day after day, of men carried beyond themselves by the acquisition instinct. It leads into the main doctrine with some crisp words on the “Concept of Interchangeability” (as Thomas Mann ironically labels it in his comic novel on a similar theme, The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man). How is it, Horace asks Maecenas, that no one can see his way through the delusion but keeps hankering to be otherwise? Because, he explains, everyone who illustrates this delusion passes beyond the point of no return in the use of his moral energies and beyond the boundary lines of his material needs. Men can drive themselves, or be driven, beyond their limits and Horace makes the point with his cases of inconsistency and greed.” (1)
Fifteen pages into Horace’s satires, I put the book down and went and found The Confessions of Thomas Krull, Confidence Man, welcoming any delay in the actual reading of Horace, which seemed like an insurmountable task.
Reading Thomas Mann may or may not have helped. Then I found the Cambridge Greek and Latin Companion to the First Book of Satires edited by Emily Gowers and I found this:
“Christopher Wieland (1804: 14) once wrote that reading Horace’s satires was like going for a walk with him: always stopping for little detours and arriving exactly where you want to be or else right back where you started. My own extended stroll has been as zigzagging and stop-start as any Horatian ramble, spanning two continents, three departments and fifteen years, while the card index gave way to the memory stick and the son who was an infant when the books as commissioned reached adulthood. I find it as hard to know where Horace is going now as when I first encountered him (which is nothing but a compliment.)” (2)
I find the above to be extremely comforting. If Emily Gowers can devote fifteen years of her life to the study and still find him bewildering, I think it’s reasonable to set the bar very low for myself. So with that disclaimer in place let’s proceed.
Like Horace, Felix Krull was nothing short of loquacious. His words tumbled out of him, tripping over themselves to escape the recesses of his mind. When he learns he will be forced to conscript into military service he stops at a bookshop and picks up a book about nervous disorders; slowly and carefully constructing his escape.
The next chapter begins and Felix is a different character. As he waits in line for his physical exam at the hospital he has calculated observations about his peers. When his time finally comes to stand before the panel of health commissioners it is his cue to begin. The curtains seem to raise and he steps into the circle of light, Felix playing the part of a young man with a nervous disorder and stress induced epileptic seizures. He is aching to join the military as a chance to explore the world, learn better posture and hopefully have a curative effect on the weakness of his mind. For effect he throws in a seizure and a smattering of situational dementia.
His plan is flawless. He is met with looks of shock and disgust and shooed out the door into a life of freedom and irresponsibility.
Reading Horace is like being on the board of health commissioners, trying to determine whether or not the recruit in front of us is insane or brilliant without the backstory. He is chatty and familiar but to the point of mania. In Satire I:1 although he is talking to Maecenas, not once does he pause long enough for a response. It is not a discussion but rather a monologue on the benefits of Epicurean moderation. Or at least that’s what it seems at first glance.
Horace provides anecdotes of miserable men driven to madness because of their unfettered desire. He argues that through careful study and moderation one can learn to train oneself to desire only those things that are necessary. The result of this training would be a life of ‘pure joy of being’ having fully comprehended how pleasurable it is just to exist. (3)
As a study in contrast, in Satire II:5 he offers Ulysses reimagined as an avaricious miser:
Ulysses: Tell me one thing more, Tiresias, in addition to all you’ve told me about: what tricks and what means should I use to recoup my losses? Why laugh?
Tiresias: Isn’t it enough for the man of many wiles to be borne back safe to Ithaca and see his house and his home and his household gods?
Ulysses: Oh, you, who have never lied to a soul, don’t you see me returning home nude as a number, resourceless, as you foretold? And at home, my cellar and herd raided and stripped by the suitors? Upper-class birth and good character are worth even less than seaweed if there’s no real money to draw on.
Tiresias ponders what his friend should do and comes up with a solution: why not befriend an old man without an heir? The older and sicker the better- then firmly established as the old man’s friend and benefactor, Ulysses will be the sole proprietor? Granted, he may have to go through this process a few times before he is the proud owner of substantial wealth, and he may have to fend off the occasional relative, but it’s essentially a foolproof scheme.
Tiresias: …But what prevails first and foremost is to storm the fortress itself Will the poor fool insist on writing bad verse? Praise them! Will he go in for women? Don’t let him even have to ask you: hand over your wife, give Penelope to lover number one. Be obliging!
Rather than shock and horror at the mere suggestion of offering the classic example of heroine fidelity, Ulysses ponders this. He wonders if he could really convince her to be led astray after all she put up with at the hands of the suitors. Tiresias is not dissuaded. Sure she was virtuous, but once she “tastes the gain that is to be made from an oldster” in partnership with Ulysses, she’ll be “no more kept from it than a dog can be frightened away from a piece of skin that has pieces of fat still on it.”
Horace doesn’t just praise the benefits of moderation though, rather he offers a philosophical medley from all different perspectives. It’s not Epicureanism vs Stoicism but rather ‘all for one and one for all’.
I came across a description of Horace as the Jerry Seinfeld of the classic satirists. I think that helps. To use the “going for a walk” analogy once more: Reading Horace is like going for a walk when all of a sudden you are accosted by a man wearing a sweater vest, who immediately begins a discussion with you mid sentence. He is a self-deprecating, everyman’s man who offers tidbits of wisdom, unprompted and seemingly without end. The first book of Satires begins with the following:
“Why is it, Maecenas, that no one is ever quite happy
With the life he has chosen or stumbled upon, and never
Abides by it happily, but loves to praise instead
All who do something else?”
[Satire I: 1-4]
But beneath the everyman’s sweater vest is a different story. Horace is strolling alongside Maecenas, the millionaire patron of the arts and the ad hoc deputy of Octavian. It is 35 B.C. and just ten years ago life was very different for our hero. Horace had thrown his lot in with the wrong faction and had backed the conspiracy of Brutus. Horace, along with many other young angry Romans enthusiastically threw in their lot with the assassin and made their way to Philippi where they “shared in the final rout of the republican army by the forces of Antony and Octavian at the second battle. (4)
After Philippi, Horace abandons the cause of the republicans and makes his way back to Rome, where he is granted a pardon for his indiscretions. He has shape shifted from student to soldier, rebel to patriot and managed to survive unscathed (a fate Cicero’s son did not share). His father’s estate was confiscated by the Caesarians, but somehow he still has enough money to purchase a good administrative post where he quietly bides his time and begins to write. By age twenty-six he as survived the wiles of youthful passion and has secured himself the position of an official scribe.
In a letter to Julius Florus, Horace sums up the trajectory of his life by saying that “poverty drove him to literature.” Whether or not we can clearly ascertain what he meant by this, poverty and literature both drove him into the arms of Maecenas. Maecenas already had a reputation as the father of the arts, and after an introduction from Virgil, Horace was assured for the rest of his life “of the recognition and support of an influential patron.” (5)
After his fist book of satires was published Maecenas gave Horace a Sabine farm as a gift and he was able to make the full circle back to the countryside where he could sit quietly and write in peace. The political climate was settling after years of turmoil, and backed by the right patron, Horace seamlessly maneuvered from one emperor to the next and took his place as the poet laureate of the Augustinian Age.
So reading between the lines, in the first Satire we can see a loose trajectory of the artists life.
“Suppose some god were to say:
“I shall grant whatever you wish. You, now a soldier-
Be a businessman. You, now a lawyer, are free to become
The rural type. You’ve changed your roles: you can go now,
And you two, too. Well! What are you waiting for?”
When they could be happy, they wouldn’t take the chance.”
While it seems like Horace is preaching moderation, the real evil is not in being unsatisfied with what you have, but in being too afraid to change.
This is where we circle back to Felix Krull and the concept of interchangeability, which loosely states that people behave differently according to the different social context in which they find themselves. Whether you find yourself a neurotic attempting to dodge military service or a rabid military enthusiast that has backed the wrong rebellion, you play your part to the fullest and don’t waste time wondering if you’re disingenuous one minute to the next. As Horace claims, the gods won’t offer a second chance.
Further on Horace brings up the Aesopian ant, “who works like a giant, drags up whatever he can in his mouth to add to the heap he is busily building, by no means unconscious of or out of touch with the future.” At first it seems like this is the creature we should all aspire to, but later on the ant will be the gateway drug into a discussion on miserliness. The ant rather than being industrious is a hoarder, stopping at nothing to creep out and bring back one unnecessary supply after another.
“But nothing will stand in your way,
Not blistering summer, not winter, not fire, flood, or sword,
So long as someone remains even richer than you.”
“Mankind for the most part, fooled by it’s own false desires,
Says, “There’s no such thing as enough. You are worth
Only as much as you have.”
So mankind is trapped in a whirlpool of desire to conspicuously consume, engendered by the fear of poverty. Or perhaps the fear of being powerless, the social equivalent of flotsam riding the inexorable tidal waves of fate.
“Wealth has become the deciding factor determining one’s identity, but this factor is based on ‘pure chance’ and can easily change.” (6) If wealth and identity become interchangeable what follows is a superficial notion of identity. Felix Krull looks around him at the hotel and observes a culture that esteems wealth above all else, willing to take a costume at face value. When he dons the attire of a bellhop, he becomes one with little questioning and no resistance. When the bellhop costume is exchanged for that of the leisure classes again he is embraced with little opposition. With the right costume a person’s identity can become chimerical, in flux based on the social constructs it finds itself a part of.
Meanwhile, Horace is strolling through the palatial gardens arm in arm with a renowned millionaire lamenting conspicuous consumption. Instead of Juvenal misanthropically shouting a tirade against all that is evil, Horace has worked his way inside and delicately balances between a myriad of inconsistencies. At the end what we are left with is “an individual view of one man’s formation and emergence on the cusp between republic and empire,” (7) and I am left with the sinking realization that I must do a lot more research.
1: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 15
2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. vii
4: Bovie, Smith Palmer. Satires and Epistles of Horace. 1959, pg. 4
5: Ibid. pg.5
7: 2: Gowers, Emily. Horace Satire: Book 1, Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics. 2012, pg. 1