FFA2PX HORACE (65-8 B.C.). /nFull name Quintus Horatius Flaccus. Roman poet and satirist.

The humanity of Horace

The wisdom of someone who has lived a little is at the heart of the verse of the ancient poet who was adopted as the mascot of the Enlightenment


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

If I told you that a collection of poems written 2,000 years ago was sent by his wife to a man serving in the trenches of the First World War, and he replied to her that he was devoting five minutes a day amid the fighting to reading them, you might wonder what kind of poetry could possibly speak to the circumstances which that soldier, Raymond Asquith, was facing. The answer is the work of that most humane of ancient poets, Quintus Horatius Flaccus, better known as Horace.

The Thames at Twickenham in the early eighteenth century could hardly be a more different environment from the Somme in the Great War, but they have Horace in common. It was in Twickenham, at a safe remove in those days from London, that the poet Alexander Pope built a villa for himself with extensive gardens and a celebrated grotto in the basement where he used to sit and write. 

Over the entrance to the grotto — which occasionally still welcomes visitors — Pope put the words: SECRETVM ITER ET FALLENTIS SEMITA VITAE (“a concealed route and the byway of a life unseen”). The words are from Horace’s collection of letter-poems, the Epistles (20 to 14 BC), and were in Antiquity an important principle of Epicurean philosophy. What Pope liked about them was that, while they perfectly suited a concealed entrance to a garden, they also expressed the ideal that had brought Pope to Twickenham.

Horace was for Raymond Asquith a source of wisdom and humanity more than adequate to conditions on the Western Front. But if Horace has stood for anything in the two millennia since his lifetime, it is as the model of what one could call enlightened retirement, a philosophically therapeutic withdrawal from the stress and distraction of active life, in Pope’s case a life of the mind pursued at a safe remove from the City. In his Epistles Horace had presented himself as an older, contemplative man outside Rome looking in, offering to ambitious young men the hard-won advice proper to someone who had seen more of life. 

The philosopher David Hume, having accepted in older age a diplomatic posting to Paris (in 1763), took just four books with him: Virgil, Horace, Tasso and Tacitus (three Romans and an Italian). But of Horace he remarked, “I own that in common decency, I ought to have left my Horace behind me, and that I ought to be ashamed to look him in the face. For I am sensible that at my years no temptation would have seduced him from his retreat.” In similar fashion, just a century after Horace, the Latin poet Statius could signal his own retirement from Rome to the Bay of Naples by the simple expedient of lending his own collection of poems a persistently Horatian feel.

Pope’s Horatian “retirement” from public life had in fact been forced upon him as a Catholic. But if a poet to whom stepping away from things has given a detached perspective on life can be a model for someone excluded by religion, he suits also an intelligent and educated woman like Elizabeth Tollett (1694–1754), excluded by virtue of her sex from the opportunities available to men in public life. In The Portrait Tollett offers a sketch of her ideal life, rounding it off with a quotation from Horace:

Friends that in any Dress would come;

To whom I’d always be at home:

My Table still shou’d cover’d be,

On this Side Books, on that Bohea;

While we sip on, and ne’er debate

Matters of Scandal, or of State.

For Horace tells us, as you know,

‘Tis sweet to fool it a propos.

“Bohea” is black tea, and this restrained party avoids unseemly topics of conversation. The Latin of Horace that Tollett translates in the last line is dulce est desipere in loco — “It is sweet to be foolish when the occasion demands it” is my infinitely less crisp translation — which is from Horace’s Odes rather than his Epistles. 

But in that earlier collection Horace had also projected the character of a mature, detached source of ethical guidance, a step back again from the hurly-burly of public life. Horace has been a ready source of quotations (he has more entries in the Oxford Book of Quotations than any other non-English author), and pithy gems of life-advice come thick and fast in both works: carpe diem (“Pluck the day”), nil desperandum (“There is no need to despair”), aurea mediocritas (“The Golden Mean”) from the Odes; and from the Epistles, Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt (“They change the sky, not their state of mind, who rush across the sea”), sedit qui timuit ne non succederet (“He who feared he might not win stayed seated”), nam tua res agitur, paries cum proximus ardet,/et neglecta solent incendia sumere vires (“For it’s your concern too when the neighbour’s walls on fire,/and fires unaddressed have a habit of running riot”). 

Dulce est desipere in loco was rattling around my head as I queued through the night, not in itself a sensible thing, to pay my respects to the late Queen in Westminster Hall last year. Sperat infestis, metuit secundis/alteram sortem bene praeparatum/pectus (“A mind properly trained hopes for in bad times, and fears in good, a change in fortune”), lines also from the Odes, and from the same poem as “The Golden Mean”, have been with me throughout my experience of parenting.

So the wisdom of someone who has lived a bit is at the heart of Horace’s poetry, though it is crucially allied with a surpassing talent for succinct, memorable expression (within a language, Latin, which is itself naturally concise). 

A remarkable development in Horace’s afterlife comes when he is adopted as the mascot of the Enlightenment, the intellectual and cultural movement toward individual freedom which has so profoundly shaped our modern world. The motto of the Royal Society, Nullius in verba (“On the word of no one”), is an abbreviated version of Horace’s claim of philosophical independence in the first of his Epistles, nullius addictus in verba magistri (“In thrall to no master”); Denis Diderot claimed the same words as an encapsulation of the Enlightenment project. 

Meanwhile Immanuel Kant proposed as the motto of the Enlightenment Sapere aude, also from the Epistles: “Have the courage to be wise”. Horace here in fact (in his second Epistle) characteristically manages two bon mots in a single line, since the first half of the line is Dimidium facti qui coepit habet (“Well begun is half done”).

Now all these apophthegms may make Horace sound rather austere, judgmental or just plain irritating, dishing out moral advice whether welcome or not. Wisdom, maybe, but where’s the humanity? Crucial to becoming the most quoted of ancient poets, however, is the warmth that Horace manages to communicate, the humour that tempers his ethical pronouncements and, when (as so often) directed at himself, punctures any self-importance, and the deep awareness of his own as well as others’ fallibilities. 

In Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man James Joyce talks of the “human pages” of Stephen Dedalus’s “timeworn Horace” that “never felt cold to the touch even when his own fingers were cold”. Many other readers have discovered in Horace’s poetry an intimate friend in the shape of a book. David Hume couldn’t look this friend in the eye when he was failing so abjectly to follow his advice.

Someone who was deeply convinced of the therapeutic and consolatory power of Horace’s verse, and indeed never knowingly without a copy of Horace upon his person, was Aurel Stein (1862–1943), an archaeologist and explorer who in a series of expeditions brought to light the Buddhist cultures of Central Asia. 

The first edition of the Loeb Classical Library Horace: Odes and Epodes (1912) that Stein carried with him in on his travels in 1913–16 survives in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest. Before a careless librarian threw out its dustjacket, it bore two Latin inscriptions in Stein’s hand: In ripis Hydaspis MDCCCCXIII (“On the banks of the Hydaspes 1913”: Horace mentions the Hydaspes, the river Vyath or Jhelum which runs through Srinagar in Kashmir, India, in one of his Odes), and Gravi vulnere aegrotantis solatium fuit iste libellus in montibus Sericis Nan-shan (“This little book was a comfort when suffering from a serious injury in the Chinese Nan-shan mountains”). His horse had reared and fallen on him, and he spent a fortnight recovering in camp. 

That Stein, like Asquith, turned to Horace for consolation in this moment of vulnerability is very true to a poet with a superlative capacity to capture in words what we as humans need to know about ourselves. Here in one of his Odes he asks us to attach proper value to the life we are living at this very moment:

ille potens sui

laetusque deget cui licet in diem

dixisse “vixi”. cras vel atra

nube polum pater occupato

vel sole puro; non tamen inritum

quodcumque retro est efficiet neque

diffinget infectumque reddet

quod fugiens semel hora vexit.

That man will be in command

of his life, and happy, who can say

at each day’s end, “I have lived”. Tomorrow let

the Father fill the sky with black cloud

or clear sunlight, but he will not render

null and void whatever is behind us, nor

misshape or make unmade

what once the fleeing hour has brought. 

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