Seneca on Generosity, Horace on Contentment

In the latest selections from the classics, we receive advice from the ancients regarding perennial subjects, published in Princeton’s attractive pocket-sized volumes.

Seneca the Younger (4 BC-65 AD) wrote De Beneficiis (On Benefits) around 59 AD. Stoicism can sometimes be presented as justification for aloofness and indifference. The mantra of self-reliance and resistance to the sway of emotion aligns with anti-social tendencies. These are not entirely accurate readings but easy assumptions to make. Therefore, the issue of altruism is important in Stoic ethics. Beneficiis means benefits, gifts, favour or good turn, so Romm has varied his translation of the word dependent on context, also using “giving” as a gerund when talking about the practice of bestowing benefits. This edition is extracts of the original Latin facing the English translation.

Seneca believes true giving is not transactional. Reciprocity or gratitude – although they may be forthcoming – can neither be expected or demanded. Giving is a matter of character and ethics. “Here’s the mark of great and good hearts: To seek good deeds for their own sake, and to look for good people even after meeting bad ones.” Thus knowing how to give is congruent with having a balance of outlook. Seneca recommends mindful giving, describing profligate or thoughtless giving as a loss. He warns that slights and ingratitude leave more of a mark than gratitude. Seneca is too generous in encouraging the reader to give regardless of the reception afforded the gifts. He lays the reader open to exploitation by the cynical and the political. His advice displays a certain want of discernment.  

According to Seneca’s code, generosity must be accompanied by a lack of chiding or account keeping. A gift given grudgingly is like a loaf of bread laced with stone grit. He describes instances of giving: “Alexander the Great […] was about to give a city to someone. When the man to whom he was giving it took his own measure and rejected the gift on the grounds that it would spur envy, saying it did not consort with his station, Alexander replied: “I’m not asking what’s fitting for you to get, but what’s fitting for me to give.””  

Seneca condemns ingratitude, seeing it as a moral lapse on the part of the recipient and disrespectful towards the giver. From his perspective, ingratitude is akin to sin because God gives us gifts great and small in abundance and failing to appreciate them is a failure to acknowledge our good fortune. Failure to acknowledge a worldly gift is a reflection of similar poor judgement. Giving and gratitude are marks of fellowship, a connection that separates man from the beasts and therefore an indication of man’s unique moral nature. Seneca ties giving and gratitude into a conception of cosmic order at the end of his treatise.

Romm’s moral wrangling over Seneca’s use of male pronouns is entirely redundant. Readers of good faith understand that societal expectations of ancient Rome are not those of today. In one passage, Seneca writes of deducing the correct gift for a recipient and of making errors. “We’ll at least be careful not to send any useless gifts, such as hunting gear to woman […]” Romm steps in with a footnote admonishing Seneca’s sexism. It is not a sexist statement. Worldwide, the majority of those who hunt due to necessity or pleasure are men. Seneca is correct whereas his translator is only politically correct. This book reminds us why we revere on the sages of Rome not the sagacity of Romm.

Horace (65-8 BC) was a highly esteemed poet from the court of Emperor Augustus. His poetry ranges from the lyric to satirical. He composed lyrics for state events, commissioned by Augustus, who counted Horace as a friend. This selection of odes and satires has been chosen and translated by Stephen Harrison. The original Latin texts are provided with English translation and surrounded by commentary that is generally informative, brisk and well judged. There are sections on contentment, friendship, love and death.  

How does it come about, Maecenas, that none of us can live

Content with the lot that choice has accorded or chance has cast in our way,

But rather praise those who follow different paths?

Criticism of envy was a staple of Horace, as was contentment at one’s station in life. This is a pointed counter to the entitled ingrates who defile cities and burn businesses. Carpe diem is a refrain for Horace. “Endure whatever will be! […] Harvest the present day, trust minimally in the next.” “Sweet is the hour that comes that’s not expected.”

Horace wrote a panegyric to the country life, implicitly contrasting the delights of his country villa with the heat, smell and cramped conditions of Rome. “Is the water that on city blocks strains to burst the lead piping | Purer than that which hurries along in a downward stream?” Horace advises modesty and appreciation of the simple essential pleasures of life. It is usually a person’s nature that determines their contentment rather than their material circumstances. Acquisition of riches does not lead to contentment. However, Horace was aware of criticisms that could be made against himself. He calls himself “a hog from Epicurus’s herd.”

Many poems concern Horace’s patron Maecenas, an important political advisor to the Emperor. In one poem addressed to Maecenas, Horace writes

If some force were to steal you away earlier than me,

You, one half of my soul, why should I hold back the other,

Equally dear to no one else and destined not to be whole

Should I survive you?

As it happened, Horace did die a mere two months after Maecenas’s death. On Cleopatra’s death, Horace wrote she grasped “serpents | Rough to touch, so as to drink deep | The dark venom with her body.”

As with the previous volume, the translator feels he has to excuse his subject’s ideas. “[Horace’s] commendations of Roman racial exceptionalism and Rome’s aspiration to world domination, like those of his friend Vergil, are hard to read in our times, though they were much more congenial to readers of past colonial eras.” They are not “hard to read”. What sort of trembling emotionally labile readers does Harrison expect to be shocked by discovering than that an inhabitant of ancient Rome had different views to some people today? Again, leave us to decide what it is in Horace’s writing with which we agree or disagree.

Perhaps editors at Princeton University Press should have a word with their translators and ask them to dial down their political commentary. The readership is quite informed enough to draw their own conclusions about parallels and disparities between Rome and our societies. In their quest for relevance, these translators achieve merely topicality. While their translations are robust, the commentary is sometimes partisan. It would be a shame if this overwhelmingly admirable series from Princeton were to be tainted by the label of the “politically correct classics”.

Seneca, James S. Romm (trans./intro.), How to Give, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 288pp, English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 19209 3

Horace, Stephen Harrison (trans./intro.), How to be Content, Princeton University Press, 2020, hardback (cloth spine), 256pp, 2 mono illus., English/Latin, $16.95/£13.99, ISBN 978 0 691 18252 0

© 2020 Alexander Adams

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