Epicurean Ethics in Horace: The Psychology of Satire by Sergio Yona
In this volume Sergio Yona argues that Horace's two books of Sermones present a consistent moral philosophy that coheres with Epicurean discourses of the Augustan period. Through close reference to the writings of Philodemus of Gadara, Yona shows how Epicurean theories of wealth, flattery, patronage, and frankness, as well as the pleasure calculus, operate across a sample of about two thirds of the Sermones. Impressive in its detailed approach, Epicurean Ethics in Horace contributes meaningfully to the ongoing work of incorporating the discoveries of Philodemus' library into the intellectual history of the period. A closer look at the philosopher and the satirist together provides a nuanced view of intergeneric (and even interdisciplinary) play in the period. This book should therefore draw the interest of scholars working on Philodemus as much as those working on Horatian satire. [End Page 230]
Yona uses Philodemus to show that, in spite of his apparent contradictions and self-subversions, Horace the satirist does not wander eclectically from one critical pose to another, but rather stays rooted in specific Epicurean conversations. The major work of the first chapter establishes the range of themes in Philodemus' On Frank Criticism, On Property Management, and On Wealth, with which, Yona proposes, the satires are more or less directly engaged. Yona also reviews Philodemus' broader influence, a productive avenue of inquiry in volumes such as D. Armstrong et al. (eds.), Vergil, Philodemus, and the Augustans (Austin 2004). Yona goes further by arguing in greater detail that the Epicurean ethical underpinning found in Philodemus' writings provides a full and coherent interpretive index for the satires' moral and social criticism.
The second chapter argues broadly for methodological resemblances of the programmatic satires 1.1–3 to texts of Philodemus (and Lucretius). Like them, Horace uses diatribe persuasively while avoiding being overcome by his own rhetoric in the manner of their Stoic and Cynic competitors. In satire 1.1, the most important example, Horace executes an "expression" (78) of the type of advice that Philodemus provides in On Property Management in his presentation of the satire as an intimate discussion with Maecenas. The ongoing (because it is discomfiting) question of Horace's dependence on his patron is thus resolved by Epicurean approval of patronage in exchange for advice from a discerning friend. Chapter 3 argues that Horace next pauses to establish the credentials behind those diatribes. It is his Epicurean moral formation (1.4) that will further allow him to give ethical advice to Maecenas (1.6). The fourth chapter examines satires that deal with the question of flattery and candor (1.9 and 10; 2.1 and 5) through the lens of Philodemus' On Flattery. Horace's economic dependence on Maecenas through the gift of the Sabine farm is justified because it enables Horace's Epicurean withdrawal (2.6). Finally, chapter 5 interprets Damasippus (2.3) and Davus (2.7) as negative examples of what happens when the critic strays too far from proper Philodeman frankness and errs on the side of Stoic invective. Their missteps only throw into relief Horace's philosophically sounder character (and that of his stand-in Ofellus in 2.2).
Yona successfully argues for Philodeman resonances throughout the Horatian satirical corpora. However, in making Horace so philosophically consistent, Yona runs the risk of rendering his satires somewhat humorless. For example, for Yona, satire 1.9 shows off Horace's character as straightforwardly superior to that of the "boor;" but such a reading might have the adverse effect of depriving the piece of what humor it does possess. It may not really be possible to present Horace's sense of humor while thoroughly demonstrating his philosophical coherence. Instead, Yona's work is a response to his observation that the Sermones' ethical core has fallen to the wayside of scholarly interest: scholarship of the 1990s and early 2000s so relied on persona theory that virtually nothing of the poet and his corpus remained. He therefore seeks to repair the view that the Sermones are disconnected, lacking conviction, and "even schizophrenic" (2). Rather than abandoning persona theory, however, Yona argues that Horace crafted a persona "consistently and competently engaged with Epicurean ethics" across his satirical corpus. Yet "persona" remains a point of awkwardness throughout the book. For example, one doubts that after hearing the opening diatribes, Horace's readers "must have wondered exactly how the poet planned to justify his persona's moral superiority" (128, emphasis added). Similarly, in an otherwise persuasive argument that Horace's famously involved father educated his son towards Epicurean virtus and discernment, Yona refers to "Horace's [End Page 231] persona's exposure to everyday life" and to the memory of his "philosophical persona" (144). Yona's work on the satires helps to complete an Augustan literary and philosophical history. In that sense, Yona might have liberated himself from the constraints of literary constructedness and simply asserted—as he seems to believe—that the real Horace wrote these satires in an Epicurean context and for an audience with Epicurean sympathies with the real purpose of practicing Epicurean moral criticism.