The Ant and the River: Horace on Virtue and Natural Law

There’s a game Christian intellectuals sometimes play regarding ancient philosophers. “If he had lived 400 years later,” the question goes, “would Plato (or Aristotle, or Euripides, or Cicero, or Confucius, or whoever) have been a Christian?” Good existentialist that I am, I suspect that people hold their religious beliefs for reasons that have more to do with deep-seated spiritual need than with being logically convinced–and thus that questions like this one are fundamentally unanswerable. A better question: “What does Plato (or whoever) say that echoes strangely and unexpectedly with the Gospel?” One need not agree with C.S. Lewis’s assertion that Christ fulfills all religions to think that Mencius or Homer found some fragment of truth that the death and resurrection of Christ put into a larger context.

It’s a bigoted way to read the great works of the past, and I understand that. But I still can’t escape it, which is why Thomas Aquinas kept coming to mind this morning as I read Horace’s distinctively non-Catholic Satires. I don’t know Thomas’s work well, but I doubt seriously that he spent much time reading Horace, whose poems are dirty, crude, and scatological–and yet deeply concerned with virtue. (In this they also prefigure the novels of John Updike, which depict human sexuality in nauseous detail but which are ultimately concerned with what goodness looks like in the modern world.) But Thomas meets Horace in their common intellectual ancestor, Aristotle, who is both the most important secular influence on Thomas and the foundation of Horace’s system of virtue.

Aristotle’s ethical system is most famous for its articulation of the so-called “Golden Mean,” which he develops in the Nicomachean Ethics and implicitly uses in most of his other works. “Excellence,” says Aristotle,

is a state concerned with choice, lying in a mean relative to us, this being determined by reason and in the way in which the man of practical wisdom would determine it. Now it is a mean between two vices, that which depends on excess and that which depends on defect; and again it is a mean because the vices respectively fall short of or exceed what is right in both passions and actions, while excellence both finds and chooses that which is intermediate. (1106b-1107a)

For example, we can look at various reactions to fear. A soldier who is afraid to die is scheduled to go into battle. The virtue associated with this scenario, of course, is bravery. The soldier with not enough bravery turns tail and runs, an action that most of us would condemn. But Aristotle also condemns the soldier with a surfeit of bravery, the soldier who lacks the instinct for self-preservation. The proper response to fear is to acknowledge it but to do what has to be done. This is the virtue of bravery, as distinguished from the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness.

Incidentally, we should be careful not to give Aristotle too much credit for the Golden Mean; countless other thinkers from the East and the West alike came up with versions of it. But Aristotle’s is the foundational formulation of the principle–at least for Westerners.

I am not sure of the degree to which Horace was aware of Aristotle’s philosophy, but it’s clear that, even if he didn’t know the text itself, the content had filtered down through the centuries. The Golden Mean is an unspoken force behind many of the satires, but it’s especially clear in the first poem of Book I. Here Horace addresses the working man, the man who slaves away at a job he can’t stand but who dreams of doing something more stimulating. The problem, of course, is that this description applies to nearly everyone who works, a universality that intrigues Horace:

How is it, Maecenas, that no one is content with his own lot–
whether he has got it by an act of choice or taken it up
by chance–but instead envies people in other occupations?
“It’s well for the merchant!” says the soldier, feeling the weight of his years
and physically broken down by long weary service.
The merchant, however, when his ship is pitching in southern gale,
cries “Soldiering’s better than this!” (1.1.1-7)

This is a remarkable opening for at least two reasons. First, we in the modern world are apt to think of occupational ennui as the invention of the Industrial Revolution; many of us sit amid the throb and hum of our various machines and dream of simpler times. To see that laborers in Horace’s day–unbound to cubicles, fluorescent lights, and TS reports–were as unsatisfied with their jobs as we are with ours is to be struck by the absolute universality of Horace’s anthropological observation. Second, Horace (who seems to be utterly content in his own occupation) clearly has great sympathy for the dissatisfied workers whom he describes; he fully understands why they’d want to leave their chosen or fated fields.

But he doesn’t excuse them. Instead, he notes slyly that, were they given the opportunity to change occupations, “they’d refuse, even though they could have their heart’s desire (1.1.19). Why this absurdity? he asks, exasperated and amused. The workers, he says, “maintain that their only object / in enduring hardship is to make their pile, so when they are old / they can then retire with an easy mind” (1.1.30-32). This is not, let us admit, a ridiculous answer, nor is it without its analogues in the natural world:

In the same way
the tiny ant with immense industry . . .
hauls whatever he can with his mouth and adds it to the heap
he is building, thus making conscious and careful provision for the future. (1.1.32-35)

But the example of the ant, says Horace, condemns the workaholic and the striver rather than justifying them. After all, even the ant works only for a season and “Then, as the year wheels round into dismal Aquarius, the ant / never sets foot out of doors but, very sensibly, lives / on what he has amassed” (1.1.36-38). Not so the unhappy worker, whose labor never ends and who pushes himself to the limit out of greed and envy. Why work to build a pile on which to retire, Horace asks, when half a pile would be plenty?

To make his point, he turns to another image from the natural world. Sensible people, when they are thirsty, get a glass of water. But the striver has bigger plans; he says,

“I’d sooner draw it from a big river than from this
piddling stream, although the amount would be just the same.”
That’s how people who like more than their fair share
get swept away, bank and all, by the raging Aufidus,
while the man who wants only what he needs doesn’t draw water
clouded with mud, nor does he lose his life in the torrent. (1.1.55-60)

Horace is not arguing that we should live the life of the carefree hobo, you’ll notice–the satires are not the Roman version of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, and that his metaphor for money is water suggests that slacking off is an equally bad idea. The point is to get the money one needs and then to enjoy it; after all, in Horace’s view, that’s what money is for.

There are two ways to go wrong once you’ve got money: You can either toss it around like a Rockefeller with a brain tumor, or you can hold onto it so tightly that Caesar’s face is burned into your palm. Further, recoil from either tends to lead to its opposite:

When I urge you not to be a miser
I’m not saying you should be a rake and a wastrel. There is
a stage between the frigid midget and the massive vassal.
Things have a certain proportion. In short, there are definite limits;
if you step beyond them on this side or that you can’t be right. (1.1.103-107)

Reading Horace, I realized something that made the connection between Aristotle and Aquinas crystal clear.  The Golden Mean is not merely a guide to ethical behavior, and the Nicomachean Ethics is not properly classed among the humanities. Rather, Aristotle is acting in his capacity as a scientist, describing a natural phenomenon that human beings ignore at their peril. After all, one does not avoid stepping off a ledge because it’s ethically wrong to do so; one avoids stepping off a ledge because gravity is a natural force.

Thus, proper behavior is written into the fabric of the world itself, a phenomenon Catholic theologians call natural law. I’m not sure I believe them, incidentally–the Fall seems to have sufficiently mucked things up to make going against “nature” the more ethical decision sometimes–but I see now where the idea comes from, and it was the ribald ethical poet of Rome who showed me. I’m not sure what Aquinas would think.

3 thoughts on “The Ant and the River: Horace on Virtue and Natural Law

  1. Haha. Charles, it’s the Penguin edition of the Satires of Horace and Persius. The translator is Niall Rudd. His language gets away from him at times, but I prefer that to a drier translation, like the Penguin “Odes and Epodes” by W.G. Shepherd.

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