Sense and Nonsense: On Horace

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Don’t ask me why, but on Thanksgiving morning, before going over to friends for dinner, I was looking through L’Osservatore Romano. On the back page, I noticed that the Vatican Post Office had issued two postcards on “Bimillenary of Horace’s Death.” Quintus Horatius Flaccus, the great Latin poet, was born in Venosa, Lucania, near the heel in Southern Italy, in 65 B.C. He died in Rome on November 17 (some say 27) in the year 8 B.C.

The postcards, reproductions of scenes from a fifteenth-century Codex (#3173) in the Vatican Library, contain two different reproductions of Horace climbing Mount Helicon. On the back of one of the cards, from another fifteenth-century Codex, is a page print from Enea Silvio Piccolomini’s edition of Porphyry’s commentary on Horace. Piccolomini was to become Pope Pius II (1458-64).

I tried to recall what I have on Horace on my book shelves. I have a wonderful chapter on Horace by Gilbert Highet in his Poets in a Landscape: Great Latin Ports in the Italy of Today which someone had given to me in Rome, a lovely book. “Alone and thoughtful, Horace wrote letters to his friends,” Highet reflected:

Lonely people write letters, so that they can communicate even with those whose eyes are turned elsewhere. Often such letters are merely negative, calls for sympathy, cries of despair. Often they are dreary personal reports. . . . But Horace was one of the great letter-writers—as, we may judge from his other poems, he had been one of the great talkers and charmers. He gave positive and winning advice. He sketches, in these poetic Letters, both his own character and the personalities of his correspondents. He gossiped without rambling. And into some of his Letters, he distilled the thought of a lifetime—on ethics, on literature, on social life.

As I am a great lover of letters, I find this ancient writer of them of great fascination.

I went over to Lauinger Library, which has a fine collection on Horace. The book I could not resist on the library shelves was a two-volume collection of The Works of Horace. It would be impossible for me to resist citing the title page of this collection:

The Works of Horace, Translated into English Prose, as Near as the Propriety of the Two Languages Will Admit, together with the Original Latin, from the Best Editions. Wherein the Words of the Latin Text Are Ranged in their Grammatical Order; the Ellipses Carefully Supplied; the Observations of the Most Valuable Commentators, both Ancient and Modern, Represented; and the Author’s Design and Beautiful Descriptions Fully Set Forth in a Key Annexed to Each Poem, with Notes Geographical and Historical; also the Various Readings of Dr. Bentley, the Whole Adapted to the Capacities of Youth at School, as well as of Private Gentlemen.

Horace, no doubt, was the most delightful and witty of the Latin poets. He wrote epodes, odes, satires, and letters, all in verse. Horace studied in Athens and was caught in the civil war that resulted from the murder of Julius Caesar. Indeed, he joined the forces of Brutus in the Battle of Phillipi. He later became a friend of Augustus Caesar, and indeed was invited to become his general secretary, something he refused to do. The fact that he could reject this appointment and get by with it is looked upon by most authors as a remarkable act of courage on Horace’s part and a sign of Octavian’s esteem for him.

Horace’s father seems to have been a slave who was eventually freed to become an assistant auctioneer. He sought to give his son a good education both in Rome and in Athens. At first sight, moreover, Horace’s writings contain rather a good deal of personal information.

On the other hand, it is sometimes difficult to know, when Horace was writing about himself, whether he was really writing about something he actually did. He often imitated Greek poets and in fact considered the effort to translate Greek forms into Latin to be among his most important contributions to Roman literature. Daniel Garrison in his book Horace (University of Oklahoma Press, 1991) observes to this point:

Though as a rule Horace tells the truth, it is not always the whole truth. No other major poet in antiquity tells us more about himself and his life than Horace, but everything he says is calculated to fit the occasion. Horace’s overall public image, sometimes . . . is mellow, good-humored, philosophic, detached, and rational. . . . We enjoy the personality Horace puts before us, we even feel affection for it, but we need not confuse it with historical fact. Horace’s wit, for which we can forgive him much, can be biting, but it is also in the service of a natural rightness that sees in our foibles precisely the exaggeration of a norm against which we measure our acts.

Horace found a patron in Maecenas, who eventually enabled him to live in Tivoli and then on a small farm in the Sabine hills. Horace displayed that distrust of public life, its dangers and inconveniences, that we associate with the Epicureans and early Stoics. Everyone has heard Horace’s expression carpe diem, which means roughly that we should “enjoy the day,” not worry about things beyond us since we can know nothing about them, so that we should not be unsettled by the gods or the idols or our attempts to fathom the future. In context, this famous passage reads (Odes, I, 11):

Sapias, vina liques, et spatio brevi Spem longam reseces; dum loquimur, fugerit invidia Aetas; carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.

(“Be wise, drink your wine, and cut off for a brief period your distant hope; while we speak, envious time flees away from us, so seize the day, trust as little as possible in the future”).

The context of this passage has to do with certain ladies interested in fortune tellers, in failing to do what we can in the time given to us. If we do what we can and what is right today, the future will take care of itself.

During my Roman years, when I was teaching at the Gregorian University, I recall one Sunday my friend Charles Lowe, invited me to climb Mount Soracte with him. Soracte is north of Rome, not too far; it rises to about 3,000 feet. On the top of Soracte used to be a Temple of Jupiter and more recently a convent. One of Horace’s most famous odes (I, 9) is about this mountain which, in winter, stands white in deep snow against the sky—Vides ut alta stet nive candidum Soracte. . .

But what struck me most about Horace was the poignancy that we find in him about a civilization and its disorders, those that arise from disorders of our own souls and manners. In the Second Satire, Horace asks:

Nonne cupidinibus statuit natura modum; quem—Quid latura sibi, quid fit dolitura negatum—Quaerere plus prodest, et inane abscindere soldo?

(“Does not nature itself establish some limit to our desires, which limit we ought to seek out in order to know what can profit and what can be denied and by this means to separate the inane and the solid?”)

This passage and other similar ones in Horace in which he seemed to want to do what is right and yet realized his difficulty in so doing caused me to pause over the remark of the editor on this Satire:

As Horace, through the whole of this Satire, talks like a libertine, I have endeavoured to soften it in the translation, and flatter myself, I have rendered his sentiments in language that will not offend the chastest ear. It abounds with many excellent precepts, and such as may be very serviceable to the present age, in which men seem to have thrown off all restraint, and acknowledge no other rule of action but blind appetite. As to the excess before mentioned, this can only serve to convince us of the insufficiency of human reason, when left to itself, and the superior merit of that religion, which enables us to correct those errors, that some of the greatest men among the ancients blindly gave into. I once intended to have omitted the translation of the latter part of this Satire, but reflecting that it might only serve to excite a hurtful curiosity, and that by not pointing out to youth the mistakes they were to guard against, they were exposed to the greater danger afterwards, I chose to render it in the manner I have done.

No doubt, nothing could be more quaint than the end of this marvelous paragraph. But not even moralists in our time have the courage of this eighteenth-century editor to state the truth about our capacity to do what is right by our own efforts. John Paul II, however, has often said almost exactly the same thing.

This reflection, then, is why the classics remain so important for Christianity. Not merely does it suggest how reason by itself, with its attempts to live properly, reaches certain impasses, but it also implies that these very impasses are precisely what opens our minds and souls to revelation. The more we cease to study the classics, the less we are able to understand even ourselves, even with the aid of Christianity. Thus, we owe a debt to the Vatican Library for its reminder of the two-thousandth year of Horace’s death, and to those who, in the eighteenth century, read him so charmingly and profoundly.

In the last of the twentieth century, from Horace himself, we can ponder what he wrote to the Romans (Odes, III, 6):

Foecunda culpce secula nuptias

Primum inquinavere, et genus, et domos,

Hoc fonte derivata clades

In patriam populumque fluxit.

(“This age, full of vice, has first polluted marriage, then families, then homes: from this source came the corruption of our land and our people.”)

Two thousand years after his death, as we increasingly reject revelation, Horace, it seems, becomes ever more pertinent.


The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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