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 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 several passages from the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius (121-180 AD), written over 200 years later:
Are you affected by pain or pleasure? Your senses must look to that. Did something stand in the way of your impulse? If you exercised your impulse without reservation the hindrance will be detrimental to you as a rational being, but if you anticipated the obstacle, you are not yet harmed or hindered. As to the operations of your intellect, no other person is in a position to hinder them; for neither fire, nor steel, nor a tyrant, nor abuse, can affect the mind in any way. When it has become a ‘well-rounded sphere’, it always remains so. (8.41)
He repeats this metaphor of the sphere again, attributing it to the presocratic philosopher Empedocles:
There are three things of which you are composed: body, breath, and mind. Of these, the first two are your own in so far as it is your duty to take care of them; but only the third is your own in the full sense. So if you will put away from yourself—that is to say, from your mind—all that others do or say, and all that you yourself have done or said, and all that troubles you with regard to the future, and all that belongs to the body which envelops you, and to the breath conjoined with it, or is attached to you independently of your will, and all that the vortex whirling around outside you sweeps in its wake, so that the power of your mind, thus delivered from the bonds of fate, may live a pure and unfettered life alone with itself doing what is just, desiring what comes to pass, and saying what is true—if, I say, you will put away from your ruling centre all that accretes to it from the affections of the body, and all that lies in the future or in time gone by, and make yourself, in Empedocles’ words, ‘a well-rounded sphere rejoicing in the solitude around it’, and strive to live only the life that is your own, that is to say, your present life, then you will be able to pass at least the time that is left to you until you die in calm and kindliness, and as one who is at peace with the guardian-spirit that dwells within him. (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!
The Stoic Handbook
Sign up today for our free email course on the Stoic Handbook. You'll receive weekly emails with my commentary on passages from Epictetus.