What Exile from Himself can Flee?

Vox Day has just now quoted this line from Horace:

“They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea.” (Epistles I. ix)

It is from the poet’s letter to his friend Bullatius, who was at the time vacationing in the Aegean islands, where he vainly hoped a change of scenery would alleviate his morbid despondency.  It appears that the remedy did not work, and that Horace wrote his letter in answer to one in which his friend had registered disappointment with the transmogrifying power of travel.  It seems Bullatius had discovered the sad truth that misery dogs the miserable man as surely as his shadow, and that no matter how far or fast he travels, it takes the seat beside him wherever he stops to rest.

This is why, in the first part of the sentence in which the quoted passage appears, Horace tells Bullatius:

“What takes away care be reason and prudence, not a place that commands a wide sea-view.”

And why he ends his letter with these lines:

“We work hard at doing nothing: we seek happiness in yachts and four-horse coaches.  What you seek is here [i.e. at home] . . . if an even soul does not fail you.”

By “we,” Horace meant men generally, excepting, naturally, a favored few, such as himself, who were above the vanity of vacations, yachts, and a coach and four.  By an “even soul,” Horace meant what philosophers at that time called ataraxiaAtaraxia denotes serenity, peace of mind, freedom from passionate disturbances and needless fears.  When Jesus told his disciples, “let not your hearts be troubled,” the last word was, in the original Greek, tarasso (John 14:1).  When he spoke of his “peace” later in that same chapter, he was speaking of ataraxia.

When Christians wish each other “the peace of Christ,” they wish each other ataraxia.

Thus, to attain the true happiness of ataraxia, almost all religion and philosophy teaches that a man must transcend the hurly burly of the world, not claw his way to the top of it.  He possesses ataraxia when he look out on the world from atop “the ivory tower,” not from some paneled corner office on the ninety-sixth floor.

As Lucretius put it:

. . . far surpassing everything in bliss it is
To occupy the high, serene, embattled eminence,
The ivory tower,
Whose muniments* are thought and high philosophy,
The wisdom of the wise.
Here you look down and see, like tiny ants,
Men scurry to and fro, wandering here and there
Seeking to find the hidden path of life . . .
(De rerum natura, book II)

And yet, no matter how they “scurry to and fro,” these ant-like men remain “in darkness deep, in peril sore,” because they lack the wisdom to understand that the source of all their troubles is themselves.

Which is what Horace was trying to tell Bullatius when he wrote:

Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt.

* * * * *

This might be taken to suggest that I believe that Vox Day was quoting Horace out of context, since the souls Day says will not be changed by running across the sea are the souls of today’s impoverished immigrants, and you may think the souls of impoverished immigrants are nothing like the soul of a tormented, world-wandering Childe Harold.

“And now Childe Harold was sore sick at heart,
And from his fellow bacchanals would flee;
. . . .
Apart he stalk’d in joyless reverie,
And from his native land resolved to go,
And visit scorching climes beyond the sea;
With pleasure drugg’d, he almost longed for woe,
And e’en for change of scene would seek the shades below.
(Lord Byron, Childe Harold)

But this is not what I believe.  I believe Day is justified in quoting Horace in this context, because I believe that the effect of running across the sea is the same, whether one is an impoverished immigrant or a tormented, world-wandering Bullatius.

The effect is simply to put the same man on the other side of some water.  And this is because, as Horace wrote in another place, no man can leave himself behind.

“Since life is short why aim so high?
Why seek to change our own country
For lands ’neath foreign suns that lie?
What exile from himself can flee?
                                                             (Odes II. xvi)


*) Minuments: titles or deeds to a property.

8 thoughts on “What Exile from Himself can Flee?

  1. Pingback: What Exile from Himself can Flee? | @the_arv

  2. So, at minimum, we must insist that our immigrants reside at the latitude from whence they came. And if that isn’t possible then they must be denied entry. Ha! Works for me.

  3. There’s an old Swedish phrase, which might be translated as follows: “Should melancholy knock at your door, pretend that you’re not at home.” This makes a good corollary, it seems to me, to your Horatian (which my Spellcheck program keeps changing to “Haitian”) principle.

      • I trace my paternal ancestry to Western Saint-Domingue. When the black revolution in Cap Francais ran out of les peuples blancs to massacre, it began to massacre les mulattes, also called les creoles, also called les gens de couleur libres, among whom were the Bertonneaus. Every mulatte family with the resources to do so fled for its life, many going to New Orleans, where the Bertonneaus arrived around 1804 or 05, after detour through Cuba. In Saint-Domingue, nowadays Haiti, the Bertonneaus were wine merchants; that’s what they were again in New Orleans; and that’s what they were yet again when they moved en masse to Southern California in the late 1890s. Attesting JM’s Horatian principle, they brought their character with them. Had an enterprising journalist interviewed my great-great grandmother on her arrival with her family in the Mississippi River Delta, asking what she and hers opined about the place from which they had just escaped ahead of certain rape and slaughter, I am sure that their opinion would have been a strong one. They would have been too polite to use Trump’s (alleged) term, but they would have affirmed the difference between the demonic soul prevailing there and the mercantile soul prevailing in the place where they found refuge.

  4. Pingback: What Exile from Himself can Flee? | Reaction Times

  5. Pingback: “Forget the Alamo!” – The Orthosphere


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