Monday, January 30, 2017


Stephanie McCarter, Horace between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of 'Epistles'. Wisconsin Studies in Classics. Madison; London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xi, 359. ISBN 9780299305703. $65.00.

Reviewed by Chrysanthe Tsitsiou-Chelidoni, Aristotle University of Thessaloniki (

Version at BMCR home site


In this handsomely printed book Stephanie McCarter discusses one of the most (self)-contemplative and interpretatively demanding poetry collections preserved from classical antiquity. This is a bold endeavour and one which, irrespective of the outcome, does great credit to its author.

McCarter is not the first person to recognize the concept of freedom as being one of the core themes in Epistles. In fact, she is admirably meticulous in recording her debts to others. Via close readings of the poems, her contribution lies principally in maintaining that the poet acts not simply as a teacher — a role long recognized — but also as a student. In the latter guise, the poet imparts to his readers what he gradually comes to learn: anyone seeking prominence and public distinction without losing his autonomy, i.e. the ideal degree of freedom on various levels of everyday life, should opt for the middle way between the extremes of unlimited freedom on the one hand and slavish compliance on the other. Moderate freedom means displaying adaptability to circumstances as they arise. Almost all the poems in the collection are interpreted through the prism of this ideological standpoint, whether as direct or indirect declarations of it, or as compositions highlighting the state from which the poet could attain the desired solution if he were to adopt the proposed modus vivendi. McCarter's monograph thus reduces what is an ideologically diverse and at bottom emotionally unsettled poetic work centering, among other things, on recte vivere, to a collection conveying a somewhat simple moral message. This, we are to suppose, the poet decides to implement over the course of the collection and in the immediate aftermath of a grave spiritual crisis, in the belief that it will lead him to equanimity.

In McCarter's view, Horace owes this 'life principle' to Aristippus. As the author herself acknowledges, she is not breaking new ground in identifying the poet's overall philosophical mood in Epistles I, or his particular affinity with the Cyrenaic philosopher. The originality of her contribution lies in her attempt to reduce almost all the poems in the first book of Epistles directly or indirectly to Aristippean ideas, and to interpret them accordingly. Indeed, it is only in the conclusion that McCarter curiously notes that the Epistles 'have no clear model, either poetic or philosophical' (p. 261).

Even in the very first Epistle, the poet confesses he is occasionally captivated by the Aristippean principle et mihi res, non me rebus, subiungere conor ('and I try to make things subject to myself, not myself to things', Epist. 1.1.19).1 'What Horace stresses about Aristippus', notes ΜcCarter, 'is not his hedonism, but his extraordinary ability to adapt and to make every circumstance suitable to himself without becoming enslaved to it' (p. 37). Besides, in McCarter's opinion the confession deferor hospes ('I am a guest (wherever the storm takes me)', Epist. 1.1.15) is a reference to the philosopher: in an incident recounted by Xenophon in the Memorabilia, Aristippus appears to state that 'I do not shut myself up in a regime but am a guest everywhere' (Mem. 2.1.13). The intertextual relationship has long been recognized, as McCarter points out, but she sees Xenophon's account as enabling us to comprehend the kind of freedom proposed and laid claim to in the first book of Epistles. In the story, Aristippus appears to have no wish to belong either to rulers or to their subjects; indeed, he chooses to tread what he believes to be the path of freedom, which he defines as the path to bliss and the middle way between the two extremes represented by rulers on the one hand and subjects on the other (Mem. 2.1.8-11). 'Horace's challenge', notes McCarter, 'is how to re-embrace his former poetry and Maecenas without letting them shut him into the servile gladiatorial arena, and he will do so by walking the path of freedom between ruling and slavery that Xenophon's Aristippus has proposed' (p. 41). However, Socrates' own reaction to his interlocutor's views is potentially didactic: the 'middle way' is unattainable in a political society, where those not wielding power eventually come to be ruled over (Mem. 2.1.12-16).

In her study, McCarter regards the first book of the Epistles as forming a unified whole. Her book is divided into eight chapters, with an introduction and a conclusion. Despite the author's view that the poet gradually comes to see the way out of his personal crisis, her examination does not follow the epistles sequentially; rather, each chapter is dedicated to a particular topic. The book is rounded off with a strikingly comprehensive bibliography and indices (nominum and locorum).

The freedom that the poet will espouse, notes McCarter in the introduction, 'is designed for a new political age' (p. 5), which is the spirit befitting the transitional era from republic to empire. A clear historical identity is thus attributed to Horace's perception of freedom: an intriguing thought indeed. Yet this position is not as easily compatible, as McCarter believes, with her assessment that the collection affords no access to the 'historical Horace', his biography, and his relations with those he addresses.

The opening chapter focuses on Epistles 1.1. According to McCarter, the poet adopts a moderate stance towards philosophy: he declares his dedication to it, but remains unattached to any particular dogma, thus treading the middle path between the extremes of freedom and slavery. Furthermore, Epist. 1.1.19 (et mihi res, non me rebus, subiungere conor) sums up the Aristippean ideological principle of adaptability, which the poet supposedly adopts throughout. Thus in McCarter's view, the way is shown from the very first Epistle: 'Adaptability, the middle path, true libertas: these will be the central ethical lessons of the Epistles.' (p. 42) Here the author links her two (contradictory) views on the poet via a simplistic thought: his stance towards philosophy is interpreted as Aristippean, since in every case he advocates adaptability and moderation, while at the same time aiming for independence.

In the second chapter, McCarter discusses the poet's role as a student at the beginning of the collection. Here the focus of attention is on Epistles 1.1, 1.8, and 1.15. In 1.8 the poet remains in an impasse, but by 1.15, in McCarter's view, he has decided to follow the Aristippean way to enjoy wealth — he will enjoy it for as long as it is offered to him, without depending on it. The link between Epistles 1.15 and Aristippus has been recognized for some time — here again, McCarter is consistent in acknowledging her debts. Yet her rather extreme position that the poet is being entirely serious and honest in his stance overlooks the epistle's self-deprecating dynamics.

Chapter Three highlights the poet's role as teacher. In Epist. 1.2, Horace credits the Odyssey with superb morally didactic power, thus lending precedence to poetry rather than philosophy as a bearer of moral instruction — the Epistles themselves are the libellus (Epist. 1.1.37) from which one may await salvation. Yet this leaves one wondering how the priority accorded to poetry over philosophy as a cure for spiritual illness can be reconciled with the acknowledgement of Aristippus' philosophical views as a model means of therapy.

The fourth chapter is dedicated to an examination of Epistles 1.4, 1.5, 1.6, and 1.12. In McCarter's view, having recovered from the impasse in Epist. 1.1, Horace here assumes the role of a healthy guide, who advocates moderation and adaptability as a way out of spiritual dead ends. It is nevertheless questionable whether, for instance, the poet asks Albius to show moderation and adaptability when he supposedly behaves immoderately (in Epist. 1.4), as McCarter argues.

Chapter Five examines Epistles 1.7 and 1.16. In the first of these, McCarter maintains that the poet undergoes a regression. Yet in McCarter's view, in the same epistle he proposes an 'Aristippean freedom' as a compromise with Maecenas: the latter must grant the poet some freedom, and he must accept a degree of dependence. McCarter offers a sensitive and considered discussion of relations between the two men and also looks carefully at the letter as an intertext of Serm. 1.6 and 2.6. To her mind, among all of Horace's Epistles, 1.16 is the 'most difficult to decipher' (p. 146). Here the poet places limits on his willingness to compromise.

In the sixth chapter McCarter offers a reading of Epistles 1.10, 1.11, and 1.14. In all cases she identifies a lack of happiness on the poet's part, which could be remedied only if Horace (and/or his interlocutor) were to adopt the principle of Aristippean freedom, i.e. adaptation to circumstances as they arise. The lion's share of the chapter is dedicated to what the poet does not say, but should say if he were on the (supposed) road to redemption. Indeed, in Epist. 1.14, where the poet highlights the positive side of life in the country, far from the city, we read: 'As an Aristippean Horace can go back and forth between city and country and all that each implies. In 1.14, however, he is trying to conform to a perspective that does not in fact fully suit him' (p. 188) — an obvious petitio principii.

In Chapter Seven, McCarter reads Epistles 1.17 and 1.18 as serious and sincere answers to the question of how he can lead a beneficial life close to powerful (political) figures 'without sacrificing his autonomy or consistency of character' (p. 190). In Epist. 1.17 Aristippus explicitly emerges as a role model. Yet contrary to McCarter's contention, one wonders why the Aristippean modus vivendi in the company of the powerful (as proposed to Scaeva by the poet) necessarily concerns the creator's own present and future rather than simply his past alone. Besides, the turn of phrase McCarter uses for the poet's relationship to Lollius, the recipient of Epist. 1.18 — a relationship important to McCarter's argumentation — is awkward: 'I would emphasize … the parallelism between Horace and Lollius, but I would agree there is a contrast between the two' (p. 319, n. 68). And yet, the difference between the two characters is more than evident: the bleak future still awaiting Lollius is described as something which for the poet represents a difficult but now completed past, which he can view from a distance, with a sense of relief.

Chapter Eight is dedicated to an examination of Epistles 1.3 and 1.19. As McCarter argues, the poet has now come to appreciate the middle road and is no longer interested in absolute freedom, avoiding both daring avant-gardism and slavish imitation of literary models. This particular stance, in McCarter's view, marks a distancing from the demand for absolute liberty (Epist. 1.1).

In the conclusion McCarter summarizes the above views and offers a somewhat opaque treatment of Epistles 1.13 and 1.20. Thus Epist. 1.13 allegedly highlights the poet's desire, in the name of the 'mean way', not to fully submit to the princeps, which is why he opts to address a wider public (Epist. 1.20). If nothing else, this position militates against the interpretation of Epist. 1.19, where in McCarter's view the 'middle path' is identified with the poet's turning towards a small, elite readership. To explain these contradictions McCarter claims that Epistles 1.13 and 1.20 'illuminate the two conflicting sides of the Horatian epistolary persona', and that in them the poet merely 'effectively reverses' the stances he had avowed in Epist. 1.1 and 1.19 (pp. 256-7). Whatever the case may be, the reader is left nothing if not bewildered by the claim that: 'the compromise Horace enacts over the course of the book is not without discomfort; no matter how much freedom it allows him, it also requires him to acknowledge the servile, dependent part of himself.' (p. 255).

McCarter divides each chapter up into smaller units, articulating her key positions at the beginning and end (as well as elsewhere), most probably so as to facilitate reading. Almost every page includes excerpts from the bibliography, often discussed with a critical eye. Of particular interest are the views expressed in Chapter Two on the relationship between the Satiresand the Epistles. In the sixth chapter (pp. 179-180) McCarter offers a thought-provoking comparison of Epist. 1.11 with Seneca's 28th Letter to Lucilius, touching on a theme of considerable scope and obvious interest.

The overall undertaking is nonetheless dogged by some methodological weaknesses, not least of which is an almost obsessive attempt to reduce almost all the epistles directly or indirectly to the same philosophical dogma, though not without noting the poet's emotional ups and downs across the collection. At the same time, in order to demarcate the dogma, and chiefly so as to apply it to every poem, the author bases her argument on extremely broad-ranging concepts ('moderation', 'adaptability', 'the middle path'), which are not always well defined. The argumentation is thus often vague, though clearly worded, and sometimes even problematic. Despite the respect one may feel for the effort involved in the book, it is hard to avoid the impression that ultimately, in her own study the author implemented the Aristippean principle et mihi res, non me rebus, subiungere conor.2


1.   McCarter's translations are here used throughout.
2.   Though typographical errors are not the ultimate determinants of a book's quality, I mention the following: Alaeus (pp. 28, 250, for Alcaeus), (sub) corpora (p. 54, for corpore), sit (p. 96, for si), perterbationes (p. 110, for perturbationes), ad (pede) (p. 145, for ac), partier (p. 163, for pariter), verus (p. 168, for versus), οὐκ (p. 170, for οὐχ), (tonsa) cuta (p. 207, for cute), fluetem (p. 224, for fluitem), gemisi (p. 265, for gemis), Il dispiaceri di uno epicuro (p. 337, for I dispiaceri di un epicureo), Holtzberg (p. 339, for Holzberg), Dissociabilies (p. 343, for Dissociabiles).

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