“…carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero.”1 – Horace, Odes 1.11.
We return now to the topic of contentment which I have asserted is one of the four key components of a meaningful life. We have already analyzed the ancient Eastern and Western understandings of contentment as well as those of some more recent thinkers and explored three portals to tranquility – silence, solitude, and asceticism. Before we conclude, I would like to examine contentment through the eyes of a single individual, the Roman poet, Horace (65 B.C.E. – 8 B.C.E.).
Horace’s counsel seems to fall into two broad categories: (1) internal and behavioral adjustments (which make up today’s post), and (2) special topics (discussed in the next post). His most salient advice is to be content with one’s lot in life, that is to avoid the vice of mempsimoiria, the Greek word for criticism of one’s lot in life and envy of the circumstances of others.2 Each of us must be willing to get by with a small sufficiency of possessions and learn to stop worrying about the future. We must learn to “endure whatever will be”3 and remain in the present since nothing can be known about tomorrow – his formulation of mindfulness or staying focused on the current moment.
He goes on to urge us to avoid stress and excess in an age of anxieties and extremes (like his and ours). He repeatedly recommends living in the country, citing his preference for the quiet residence of his Sabine farm. A rural environment enhances our ability to live in accordance with nature, is quieter and less disruptive to sleep, offers milder weather, and provides an idylic landscape (locus amognus). Horace again: “Avoid great surroundings: in a humble house you can surpass kings and kings’ friends in living.”4 Truth in ethics, rustic meditation, and country life are likewise more conducive to preparation for inevitable changes in fortune. Consider this segment:
“About the way to get through your life without friction:
Whether unfulfilled desire is always to harass and vex you,
And panic and hope for things of modest use,
Whether learning leads to virtue or heredity confers it,
What reduces your cares, what reconciles you to yourself,
What gives you real contentment – office and sweet lucre,
Or the road of retirement and the path of life that passes unknown?”5
Horace believes we should wish only to have what we now possess or even less – for him just books and corn. We should ask only of God life and necessities and acquire for ourselves a steady mind. He is convinced mental steadiness alone is essential to contentment. and that is within one’s own control. It is best to remain indifferent to material circumstances as riches bring bigger burdens. He urges us to be unimpressed by merely material things and daunted by nothing and no one. Even the pursuit of virtue beyond what suffices is madness for Horace. He also tells us to resist the urge to travel: “those who speed across the sea change their climate not their temper…what you seek is here… if your have a sufficient steady mind.”6 He leaves no room for doubt; the mentally disciplined person is content anywhere.
(continued next post)
1“…Harvest the present day; trust minimally in the next.”
2Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 31.
3Ibid., page 35.
4Ibid., pages 44-45.
5Ibid., page 50.
6Ibid., page 72-72