Horace uses satire in a gently amused (and bemused) way to point out the foibles of human nature. He’s not so much wanting to tear people a new one for being the way they are as he is interested in a thoughtful, even academic way in why we do the foolish things we do to ourselves.
This second essay on the Works of Horace in the Christopher Smart prose translation looks at the great poet’s satires. Horace wrote two books of satires, a total of 18 poems. These satires were his first great successes as a poet and signaled that Horace was one of the great poets of the Augustan Age. on His influence on this genre of literature was so great that his style of handling the genre is known in literary/scholarly circles as Horatian satire.
Before we dig into the works themselves, however, it might be good to make clear what’s meant by “Horatian.” Horace’s greatest rival as a satirist is a Roman poet named Juvenal who lived roughly 100 years after Horace. Where Horace is gentle and good natured in his criticisms of the foibles of his fellow Romans, Juvenal is biting, even bitter in his attacks on human frailties. Where Horace hopes to see better from people, Juvenal demands that people should behave more acceptably.
Since the focus of both satirists, Horace and Juvenal, is to critique through humor, it might be helpful to think of the two in comparison to contemporary social commentators such as, say, stand-up comedians. Jerry Seinfeld’s gentle poking fun at the poor quality of airline food is Horatian; Lewis Black’s encouraging those who think Britney Spears is a talented songstress to shoot themselves is Juvenalian. Clear enough, methinks….
Now to Horace’s satires.
Horace satirizes a number of human behaviors in these works, primarily focusing on our inability to be satisfied with our lots in life. For some, the poet notes, the lust for power leads to folly; for others, greed or gluttony or lust or miserliness is the source of self-inflicted woe. Always Horace tries to point the way to what he considers true happiness: being happy with what one has and enjoying life as fully as one’s circumstances allow.
Here in Satire III from Book II he warns that following any mania is a sign of madness – and that almost all of us, therefore, are mad:
For every thing, virtue, fame, glory, divine and human affairs, are subservient to the attraction of riches: which whoever shall have accumulated, shall be illustrious, brave, just – What, wise, too…? If any person were to buy lyres, and (when he he had bought them) to stow them in one place, though neither addicted to the lyre nor to any one muse whatsoever…[or] paring knives and lasts and were no shoemaker…sails fit for navigating and were averse to merchandising; he would everywhere deservedly be styled delirious and out of his senses. How does he differ from these who hoard up silver and gold [and] knows not how to use them when accumulated, and is afraid to touch them as if they were consecrated? …he would seem mad, belike, but to few persons, because the greatest part of mankind labors under the same malady.
Satire VI of Book II quotes from Aesop’s fable of the country mouse and city mouse as Horace rejects the “drive to power” of political ambition that some of his friends seem caught by – and which he neglects in preference to meaningful talk about ideas:
Then conversation arises, not concerning other people’s villas or houses…but we debate on what is more to our purpose, and what it is pernicious not to know – whether men are made happy by riches or by virtue; or what leads us into intimacies, interest or moral rectitude; and what is the nature of good, and what its perfection.
Satire IX in Book I addresses the worst enemy of the person who has accomplished anything in life: the wannabe. In an entertaining dialogue, Horace pokes fun at those who seek to ingratiate themselves to the accomplished by offering panegyrics to themselves:
Wannabe: “If I am tolerably acquainted with myself, you will not esteem Viscus or Varius (others of Horace’s circle) more than me; for who can write more verses, or in a shorter time than I?”
Horace: “Have you a mother [or any] relations that are interested in your welfare?”
Wannabe: “Not one have I; I have buried them all.”
Horace: “Happy they….”
As always, Horace is most interested in giving us useful precepts. His on writing well. from Satire X of Book I offer a good close for this discussion:
You that intend to write what is worthy to be read more than once, blot [revise] frequently: and take no pains to make the multitude admire you, content with a few [judicious] readers.
Given the advice being passed off as wisdom these days about how to be a “creative entrepreneur” or that we should simply accept that we are all “Google sharecroppers,” one suspects that Horace may resonate with those who, however foolish they may seem, want to look past the current all-consuming cultural drive to make every human endeavor about economics.