Stoicism in Horace’s Satires

Excerpt from a Satire by the Roman poet Horace, in which he portrays his slave delivering a speech based on Stoic philosophy.

Stoicism in Horace’s Satires

The Roman poet Horace (65- 8 BC) explicitly refers to Stoicism several times in his Satires and Epistles, and there appear to be many more Stoic influences scattered throughout his work.  Horace studied philosophy in Athens but scholars disagree as to whether he was himself primarily a Stoic, an Epicurean, or an eclectic.

One of the Satires (2.7) describes a speech delivered to Horace during the festival of Saturnalia by his own slave, called Davus, who had learned Stoicism from a servant of the (perhaps fictional) Stoic philosopher and poet Crispinus.

Who then is free?  The wise man who is master of himself,
who remains undaunted in the face of poverty, chains and death,
who stubbornly defies his passions and despises positions of power,
a man complete in himself, smooth and round, who prevents
extraneous elements clinging to his polished surface, who is such
that when Fortune attacks him she maims only herself.  Can you
lay claim to a single one of these qualities?  A woman demands
a small fortune, bullies you, slams the door, saturates you
with cold water – and invites you back.  Tear that degrading yoke from your neck!  Come on, say you are free!  You can’t.
For a cruel master is riding your soul, jabbing the spurs
in your weary flanks, and hauling round your head when you shy. […]

Moreover, you can’t stand so much as an hour of your own company
or spend your leisure properly; you avoid yourself like a truant
or fugitive, hoping by drink or sleep to elude Angst.
But it’s no good, for that dark companion stays on your heels.

The first excerpt above resembles a passage from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), written over 200 years later:

You are formed of three things in combination – body, vital breath, intelligence [nous].  Of these the first two are indeed yours, in so far as you must have them in your keeping, but the third alone is in any true sense yours.  Hence, if you cut off from yourself, that is from your mind, all that others do or say and all that you have done or said, and all that harasses you in the future, or whatever you are involved in independently of your will by the body which envelopes you and the breath that is twinned with it, and whatever the circumambient rotation outside of you sweeps along, so that your intellectual faculty delivered from the contingencies of destiny, may live pure and undetached by itself, doing what is just, desiring what befalls it, speaking the truth – if, I say, you strip from this ruling faculty all that cleaves to it from the bodily influences and the things that lie beyond in time and  the things that are past, and if you fashion yourself like Empedocles’:

“Sphere perfectly round, rejoicing in its well-rounded poise,”

and school yourself to live that life only which is yours, namely the present, so shalt you be able to pass through the remnant of your days free from disturbance, graciously, and at peace with your own inner daemon. (Meditations, 12.3)

Elsewhere, Marcus appears to refer once more to this Empedoclean “sphere”:

The soul is “a sphere truly shaped”, when it neither projects itself towards anything outside nor shrinks together inwardly, neither expands nor contracts, but irradiates a light whereby it sees the reality of all things and the reality that is in itself. (Meditations, 11.12)

Empedocles was a very ancient Pythagorean-influenced philosopher.  The Stoics in general make many references to Pythagorean theories and practices, which this should probably be grouped alongside.  It’s possible that Marcus had read this passage from Horace and was influenced by it.  However, it may be more likely that they are both drawing upon a third, older, unnamed Stoic source, that makes use of this concept from Empedocles.

The second excerpt from Horace above, about “that dark companion”, also resembles a Pythagorean text called The Golden Verses, which is cited by both Epictetus and Seneca, and clearly played an important role in Stoicism:

Men shall you find whose sorrows themselves have created,
Wretches who see not the Good, that is too near, nothing they hear;
Few know how to help themselves in misfortune.
That is the Fate that blinds humanity; in circles,
Hither and yon they run in endless sorrows;
For they are followed by a grim companion, disunion within themselves;
Unnoticed; never rouse him, and fly from before him!
Father Zeus, O free them all from sufferings so great,
Or show unto each the daemon, who is their guide!

Leave a Reply