Tag Archives: latin epistolography

Loving Horace

Horace’s Odes by William Morris

I recently finished teaching Horace, Epistles, Book 1, to my fourth-year Latin poetry class. One of the things I like about my current position is that I get to teach texts that have no direct bearing on my research. I research late antique Latin prose letters written by bishops of Rome. The fact that they are letters in Latin is the strongest link these texts have to Horace.

I get to teach literature that I simply like with no wider vision in mind. I even got to choose — Horace’s Epistles, Ovid’s Letters from Pontus, one of Ovid’s Heroides, and some of Ausonius’ verse letters (I couldn’t keep Late Antiquity out!).

Not all of my students enjoy Horace. For some, it’s simply that, compared with Ovid, Heroides 1, Horace’s Epistles are more difficult, both in terms of Latin grammar and vocabulary and in terms of grasping what he means. Horace is harder to interpret, at least here. Some dislike the moralist attitude he often adopts in the Epistles, others aren’t enamoured with his love of the countryside.

I, on the other hand, really enjoy Horace’s Epistles. In fact, I like Horace at large, even with ‘dulce et decorum est pro patria mori’ (it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s fatherland) and ‘odi profanum uulgus et arceo’ (I hate and shun the profane mob). I also have to admit that I don’t always agree with Horace’s philosophy.

The basic principles of Horace’s philosophy as spelled out in the Epistles seem okay to me — live a contented life whatever the circumstances; each man is the measure of his own freedom; indebtedness to others is no true freedom; live in accordance with your own nature, even if that means you differ from other wise men; Homer offers more wisdom than the philosophers.

Nevertheless, his own self gets in the way. Sure — live a contented life wherever you are. But wouldn’t you rather live in the country like me? Isn’t it better to avoid the City (Rome) in August and September? I can see how some people, reading always with suspicion — especially with suspicion of wealthy aristocrats — would dislike Horace for this, let alone his two famous phrases above.

Nonetheless, I did see students coming around. One student loved how beautiful his verse is. This is a statement that cannot be borne out by an English blog post. Read it yourself. It is beautiful. Horace is a consummate poet. We could also balance out some of his hard edges with his fables that always surprise the reader used to different modes of poetic voice — suddenly, as if out of nowhere, he tells the story of the horse and the stag doing battle …

But for an individual reader, balancing the positive and negative will not always work. Can we love Horace without having to like him?

Well, we can theoretically love our neighbours and enemies without always liking them.

Perhaps we begin with the balance — the fables, the beauty, the philosophy, the syntax, the morals. Uneven. Unequal. Human. Rather than trying to allow the good to outweigh the bad, simply acknowledge this situation.

Maybe then seek empathy. His inconsistencies in philosophy, for example, merely make him human, not a bad poet. Consider why he loves the country. Consider the strengths and weaknesses of his philosophical and moral statements. Then read the Latin aloud for its sonorous beauty. Parse a sentence and see his art, grammar, syntax, all at work at once.

Read Horace as high art, beautiful poetry, created by a flawed human, as weak and feeble as all of us.

Maybe then the resistant reader can come to love him.

Finally — loving Horace is different from loving Ovid, and different again from loving Virgil, let alone from loving Shakespeare or T S Eliot. And that’s okay.

But I think you could try this with any author.

Full disclosure: The inspiration for this post was Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love.

The Letters of Seneca

As part of the grandeur of my PhD, I’m reading a vast swath of Latin letters, as this post and this other post on Cicero’s letters attest, not to mention this brief discussion of a passage from Pliny’s letters. My adventures have taken me as late as St Boniface (d. 754), as far from Rome as Severus of Antioch (who wrote in Greek, not Latin, and is only preserved in Syriac, mind you), and as Carthaginian as St Cyprian. Today, I polished off Selected Letters by Lucius Annaeus Seneca, selected and translated with introduction and notes by the intrepid Elaine Fantham.

My fondness for Professor Fantham stretches back five years when she, in discussing U of T’s Classics department’s new locale, told my MA Latin Poetry class that one could observe the stained glass of bare-breasted women ‘with an Edwardian sensibility.’ Also, one day while discussing Ovid’s Metamorphoses, she sagely said, ‘There is nothing better than reading the ancient texts themselves.’ This was my first encounter with her scholarship outside the classroom, and I am impressed.

Fantham’s selection is lucidly and intelligibly translated in a modern yet philosophical idiom. This, combined with the fact that here we have the largest selection of Seneca’s letters yet translated into English, is reason alone to purchase this particular volume. Nevertheless, Prof. Fantham gives the reader a brief introduction to each letter, usually a couple of sentences or a small paragraph that outlines the contents, making the structure clear and thus the text easier to follow. When helpful, these introductions to individual letters give references to secondary literature for those interested in pursuing a matter further, whether a question of philosophy or philology.

Mind you, I was already very pleased with the scholarship by reading the main introduction to the volume. Some scholarly introductions are boring. Others, while helpful and interesting, can be excessively long, such as Dorothy L Sayers’ 67-page introduction to Dante’s Inferno. And sometimes introductions to popular-level translations are not scholarly at all and leave the reader wanting more. Fantham’s is a good length, covers all the necessary bases of history, philosophy, and philology, and is readable. If you are looking for a brief introduction to Seneca and his world, look no further. Elaine Fantham proves herself well-versed in early imperial Roman history, the Latin literature of that period, and the ins and outs of Stoic philosophy and its milieu.

If you were planning on reading Seneca’s letters anyway, this is the translation I would recommend.

But why read Seneca’s letters?

I have to admit that sometimes L Annaeus Seneca talks about death too much. There is really only so much on the subject of the Stoic despisal (is that a word?) of death that a person can stand to read. Nonetheless, this repetition of the theme is part of the collection as a whole. The letters to Lucilius have chosen moral philosophy and personal growth in virtue as their theme. I, personally, believe they represent one end of a real correspondence; yet even if they represent a fictive correspondence in which Lucilius was never a real participant, the form and genre of the letter collection is present.

What this means is that the reader takes the place of Lucilius in receiving Seneca’s epistles, epistles that were (alleged to have been) sent over a period of years, as Lucilius grew in his strength of virtue and knowledge of the Stoic way of life. It is, at a certain level, a programme of training in moral philosophy. And repetition is a key element in the instilling of ideas in the mind, for it helps forge pathways in the brain. This is the background behind the Greek philosophical concept of the maxim, wherein one simply repeats a short, memorable phrase often and in certain situations and that transforms one’s thinking in the direction one wishes.

So Seneca talks about death a lot. This is because the noble death is an important aspect of Stoicism — this is a philosophy that approves of suicide when necessary. Yet it is selfless enough that Stoics will put off their own deaths when they see that dying would put undue strain upon their loved ones. However, when the time comes, Seneca is willing to die at the command of Nero.

But death is not the only Stoic subject at hand. Seneca discusses the liberal arts and literary style, he discusses contentment and luxury and food and sport and exercise and fear and endurance and duty and leisure (otium) and friendship and so forth. Part of what the epistolary form allows Seneca to do is provide shorter discourses on these subjects that a larger treatise does not — although Seneca’s moral essays tend also to be short.

What the letter also allows Seneca to do is shift between subjects at will. Any thought or occasion is opportunity to go off on a philosophical tangent. The tight structure of the essay or logical framing of the dialogue does not as easily allow for this, although Plato’s Symposium makes the different interlocutors opportunities for different subjects — but even they stay on theme to an extent. Seneca can discuss morality and style in the same breath.

Finally, the epistolary genre allows Seneca to begin conversationally and easily weave into the discourse incidental matters and anecdotes. ‘Just the other day I was visiting my old villa …’ and then he goes on to give a philosophical discussion of old age.

Today’s era may not be overfond of moralising, but Seneca does it well. Sometimes the text can be heavy reading, but I did not find myself kicking back against the Stoic too hard for the moralising, although I had a constant, lively engagement with him in my mind. This ‘moralising’ is better termed exhortation, and so I shall close this post with Professor Fantham’s words from the close of her introduction:

We have lost the art of exhortation and, worse, the willingness to learn from exhortation. But at least these letters represent encouragement to good behaviour without the bribe of either human or divine approval; if their power consists in denying the reader easy comfort, they are also fascinating in the variety of their topics and illustrations, and often brilliant in their compelling and immediate personal voice. (p. xxxiv)

PS: This post here is also about Seneca’s letters.