Stoicism in the Poetry of Persius

Excerpts from the fifth Satire of the poet Persius, a contemporary of Seneca, which deals with his own Stoic education.

Stoicism in the Poetry of Persius

Aulus-Persius-FlaccusPersius was a Roman poet and satirist (34-62 AD), who was apparently schooled in Stoic philosophy from adolescence and explicitly refers to it in his surviving writings.  He was a contemporary of the philosopher Seneca, whom he apparently met, and was friends with Seneca’s nephew, the Stoic epic-poet Lucan, although his own mentor was Lucius Annaeus Cornutus, also a Stoic.

Persius’ fifth Satire is actually dedicated to Cornutus, focuses on Stoic philosophy, and expresses his gratitude to the man who taught him “the Stoic way of life”.  Some excerpts that address relevant themes are as follows:

Has philosophy taught you to live
a good upstanding life?  Can you tell the true from the specious,
alert for the false chink of copper beneath the gold?
Have you settled what to aim for and also what to avoid,
marking the former list with chalk and the other with charcoal?
Are your wants modest, your housekeeping thrifty?  Are you nice to your friends?
Do you know when to shut your barns and throw them open? […]

Well then, two hooks are pulling on opposite ways.
Which will you follow, this or that?  Your loyalty is bound
to vacillate, obeying and desecrating each master in turn.
Even if you once succeed in making a stand and defying
their incessant orders, you can’t say ‘I’ve broken my bonds!’
For a dog may snap its fastening after a struggle, but still
as it runs away a length of chain trails from its neck.

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