Tag Archives: poetry

In Memory of Horace: Carpe Diem

The poet Horace (First Century BCE) was the son of a freed Roman slave. His father gave him a good education, which included philosophy, and Horace was outspoken in his Epicurean faith. He served in the Roman army under General Brutus and enjoyed the friendship of the poet Virgil and of Maecenas–a wealthy investor in the arts whose name later became synonymous with the tradition of patronizing intellectuals and artists. Although his full name was Quintus Horatius Flaccus (modern-day Spanish uses “flaco” to mean “skinny”), he was ironically and famously short and fat.

Treat every day that dawns for you as the last.
The hour that’s unhoped for will be welcome when it comes.
When you want to smile then visit me: sleek, and fat I’m a hog,
well cared-for, one of Epicurus’ herd.

Some of the Latin adages coined by Horace are still known and used today. The most famous one was the very Epicurean Carpe Diem, or “Seize the day”. Other adages are Nunc est bibendum, “Now we must drink”, and Sapere aude, or “Dare to be wise”.

In reality, Horace was more than a poet. He wrote the epistolary style of literature, as well as satires–many of which are for adults only–which praised Epicurean ideals, and his Ars Poetica is about more than the art and theory of poetry. It includes advise on writing and presenting plays–things like making sure that the emotions, gestures, and words displayed match and are presented in unison. The work was written in the style of an Epistle to the Pisos–the same family that financed the famous Epicurean Library and was taught philosophy by Philodemus in Herculaneum.

This rare constellation of famous names associated with Horace, together with the fact that many (including Maecenas) were believed to be Epicureans by conviction, indicates that here is a moment in history where we can get a unique glimpse into the imprint that our tradition has left, and where we can also juxtapose the ways in which the works and biographies of these personalities may have been informed by Epicurean ideas–as is the case with the time spent by Frances Wright and Thomas Jefferson in Monticello.

In his satires, Horace draws anecdotes from nature. While describing the hard-working tiny ant that “takes in its mouth whatever it can and adds it to the pile” in order to have food in a future season, he also praises the Epicurean virtue of contentment and self-sufficiency.

As if you had occasion for no more than a pitcher or glass of water, and should say, “I had rather draw [so much] from a great river, than the very same quantity from this little fountain.” Hence it comes to pass, that the rapid Aufidus carries away, together with the bank, such men as an abundance more copious than what is just delights. But he who desires only so much as is sufficient, neither drinks water fouled with the mud, nor loses his life in the waves.

But a great majority of mankind, misled by a wrong desire, cry, “No sum is enough; because you are esteemed in proportion to what you possess.”

Please enjoy the literary adventure that is Horace! The works of Horace can be found in poetryintranslation.com, or the Perseus Catalog. Here are some gleanings from his writings:

Be Happy Wherever You Are

Everyone Can Profit from Philosophy

In Praise of Simple Living

Dare to be Wise

Horace’s Epistle to the Pisos

The Miseries of the Wealthy

Miscellaneous Quotes

Further Reading:

Learning the Epistolary Poem: Poems that serve as letters to the world, by Hannah Brooks-Motl

About Philodemus’ The Poems

Like almost every other scroll written by Philodemus, this one was a reaction, summary and commentary on Crates of Mallus, who was himself commenting on theories by other thinkers. The book is mainly written in the negative, contradicting the theories on literary critique posited by other thinkers, but never really proposing a theory of the Epicurean School. The critiques focus mainly on the lack of clear definition of the terms used, and the ideals expressed, by other schools.

The conversation focuses on what is a poet, what is his role, and what constitutes a good poem, poetic excellence, and a good poet.

Among the arguments presented by other thinkers, we find the issue of whether poetry should have educational or character-building content, whether it should give poetic form to traditional content. Is good poetry charming to the ear and useless, as some argue? Or must the words be useful or have educational value? Philodemus argues that nothing prohibits the poet from creating useful content.

Another opponent says that a poet must use current idioms and possess the art of melody, but Philodemus uses the same critique that he uses for most other arguments throughout the text: these ideals are arbitrary. How are these ideals determined, and how are they judged?

Another opponent argues that poetry must be brief and contain evidence whereas for thought, it must have force of conviction and evidence also. He says this last is the art of the poet, but again Philodemus raises the same critique as he did with the previous one; adding that these criteria can also be applied to prose and are not exclusive to poetry.

Other arbitrary criteria are presented: poems must have vigor, richness, gravity, simplicity, refined conception, elaboration of style, and proper words. Philodemus questions what gravity consists of, and how poems that lack intensite are different from the pompous ones; he questions what is precisely meant by many of these criteria, and what Neoptolemus means by “posessing poetic art and power”, or what is meant elsewhere when it is said that poems must be “serious” and where no examples are provided of what this means, although it may be construed that they should contain wise thoughts and be meant to educate. A long portion of the scroll deals with whether poetry should be without value or serious–in other words, whether it’s purely aesthetic, or also didactic.

One Stoic presents the idea of “the principle of the art”, which again is not clearly defined and is derived from Stoic beliefs in how art is a gift of Divine Reason.

One point of controversy deals with how Philodemus differentiates between the faculties of hearing and of reason. He says it’s ridiculous to say that “a serious composition can’t be grasped by reason, only by ear”, as if the ear had judgement powers.

One argument where Philodemus coincides with other thinkers has to do with how there is a difference between a poet and one who creates great works; in other words, just as some musicians create bad music, so with poets. Another agreement has to do with how a vicious composition can damage a poem, even if it’s refined.

In coinciding regarding these points, Philodemus is conceding that “believe it or not” there are no arbitrary rules to judge poetry, yet rules do exist; he later states that only rhythm charms the ear and that only reason can judge composition.

… which brings us to the Canon. Although the scroll does not produce a literary theory that can be applied to judging poetry, based on the Canon it seems like it would be undeniable that a good poem should produce pleasure in the ear and be enjoyable (therefore appealing to the pleasure faculty within the Canon), and that it may or may not have usefulness. By this, we may be referring to educational value (poetry may help to memorize adages and teachings), or therapeutic benefit depending on the content, as we saw in our discussions on music.

Based on the French translation in Les Epicuriens of the original scroll from Herculaneum titled Les Poèmes V.

Back to the Main Page