Last time we began our investigation of the thoughts of the ancient Roman poet, Horace, on contentment by addressing internal and behavioral adjustments he advocates to bring it about. Today we consider three special areas Horace believes influence personal tranquility. The first is friendship which Horace, following Epicurus, believes is advantageous to lasting contentment as long as it is based on character and virtue, not social status. Friends offer relief from public pressures, an environment for relaxation, a positive influence on happiness, and service in consoling one another. They also form the community of peaceful retirement. Consider this poem by written by Horace to a friend:
When Jupiter grants a lengthy spring
And warm mid-winters, and the Aulon valley,
Friend to fertile Bacchus, need feel no envy of
The grapes of Falerii.
That is the place that calls you and me
With its happy citadels: there you will scatter
With due tears the still-warm ashes of
Your friend the poet.7
In contrast to friendship, romantic love is, for Horace, an impediment to contentment. Peace of mind and psychological balance are disturbed by the erotic passion of Eros. Romantic love is, for him, a stage for youthful excess and emotional highs and lows which are “tempered in time by the moderation of middle-aged wisdom.”8 Add to this the destructiveness of jealousy, the folly of petulant protest, and the brevity of intense love and one recognizes that moderate monogamy is more conducive to the imperturbability of the truly virtuous and wise person. Love is like the sea, appearing calm from a distance, but stormy when riding its waves.
The last special consideration is death; Horace counsels us not to foster long term desires, but to live each day as if it is the last because “Sweet is the hour that comes unexpected…”9 Since life is brief and death inevitable the content person will wisely face death with equilibrium. And suicide, when reasoned, remains an honorable choice for the contented. Consider this ode:
Be sure to keep a level mind in steep times
And likewise on that is restrained
From excessive joys in good times,
Dellius, doomed to die,
It makes no odds if you are rich and spring
From Inachus of old, or whether you are poor
And of humble family in your stay under the sky,
You victim of Hades who has no pity:
We are all herded the same way, for all of us
Our lot is shaken in the urn, destined to leap out
Sooner or later to load us
On the boat to eternal exile.10
Much of what we hear from Horace sounds clichéd, even trite, but then we must remember he was first or among the first to compile these simple thoughts and tips for our benefit. Perhaps if Horace were here he might compose a rhyme to remind us that we make contentment far too complex and difficult. At the end of the day, this particular facet of the good life is ours for simply for the taking.
8Harrison, Stephen (editor/translator), How To Be Content – Horace. Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2020. ISBN 978-0-691-18252-0, page 145.
9Ibid., page 85.
10Ibid., pages 199-202.