Horace’s Cosmos


Horace’s Roman Odes have always been held in high esteem. Sometimes–as during the early 1900s in England– they were in such regard that they became an instrument by which to indoctrinate young men into unquestioning patriotism. The fact that they were abused pedagogically should not detract from their literary merit. After all, Horace did not write odes so that they might be perverted 2000 years after his death.

The Romans Odes set forth Horace’s conception of the cosmos as ruled by two contrasting forces– Necessitas (3.1) and Virtus (3.2).  One might remember that centuries earlier Empedocles had constructed a universe held together by the competing forces of Love and Strife.  So this kind of a dichotomy was nothing new. Horace, however, is a poet not a philosopher. And his cosmology fits into the entire poetic design of his Carmina, the first three books published collectively in 23 BCE.  In fact, the Roman Odes are a development at the universal level of what he has documented in the poems of the first two books as his own personal ethic. Suffice it to say that the ethical counterpart to a cosmos governed by Necessitas and Virtus is the Mediocritas Aurea (the Golden Mean) according to which when in the throes of one extreme, one makes a beeline for the other, hoping to fall somewhere in the middle. Necessitas is the force which limits human endeavors while Virtus is the force which seeks to break all boundaries and limitations. The former makes nobodies of kings while the latter makes lionine predators out of young boys.

At 3.1 Horace describes the political hierarchy as Jupiter, kings, and everyone else.  His word for kings is the normal reges, while his word for the masses is greges meaning herds.  Note how he cleverly puts the kings into the herds. The force that equalizes everyone is Necessitas:

aequa lege Necessitas/ sortitur insignis et imos,/ omne capax movet urna nomen.

Necessitas with equal law draws the high and the low by lots, a roomy urn moves every name.

The reasonable response to this law of   Necessity would be to do little if anything to distinguish oneself. Necessitas does not recognize human ambition or initiative.
Horace’s personal response is to be satisfied with what he’s got:

cur invidendis postibus et novo/ sublime ritu moliar atrium?/ Cur valle permutem Sabina/  divitias operosiores?

Why should I construct an expensive atrium in the new style with columns that make people envious?  Why would I exchange my Sabine villa for greater wealth?

In 3.2, however, we find that there may be reasons why we can’t stop trying to be more, make more, and do more. The other universal force is Virtus:

Virtus, recludens inmeritis mori, /caelum negata temptat iter via/  coetusque volgaris et udam/ spernit humum fugiente pinna.

Courage, opening up heaven for those undeserving of death attempts a path when the path is denied and spurns both the common assemblies and the damp earth on fleeing wing.

Human nature is built to act as though it is immortal.

The secret is to know when to yield and when to charge

It is noteworthy that the poet who ends 3.1 as a satisfied homeowner ends 3.2 in the elevated position of a priest who refuses to reveal holy secrets or even to associate with people who do. There are times to be satisfied and times not to be; times to recognize your position as one of many and times to distinguish yourself from the many.

Tomorrow we will see how he gives us allegories: in 3.3 of Virtus tempered by Necessitas; in 3.4 of Necessitas tempered by Virtus.


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