“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” The opening words to Homer’s Odyssey are among the most famous and recognizable in Western literature. That beginning stanza captures so much of the human condition and experience.
What is not captured in that opening of Homer? In a single sentence, Homer managed to capture the very heart of the human condition; it is the same heart of St. Augustine’s Confessions, wrapped in its own sadness, trial, conflict, pilgrimage, and desire to sing praise and find that happy rest.
The story of love, trial, and the struggle to find a home is the most universal and recognizable of all stories. As seen in Homer, Virgil, or the Chinese Book of Odes, the longing, searching, and journeying to a home is very much at the center of all stories and all cultures. The sojourning aspect of life is a reflection of existential angst; it is the residue of the Christian Fall manifested in our lives. Exiled from home and condemned to labor until the end of days, humanity’s sojourning existential condition is the most pristine manifestation of the opening of Augustine’s famous classic.
The Human Heart Yearns for Family and Homeland
Something that unites all the great epics is desire. Achilles ventures away from his mother and homeland with the desire to win the glory and honor that is promised in the greatest war the world would ever know. But the weaving of Achilles and Odysseus together in the Iliad and Odyssey points to what Homer believes should be the aim of human desire: not the glory or honor to be won in conquest and war but the contentment and happiness found in family and fatherland.
When Odysseus meets Achilles in the underworld, Achilles reprimands Odysseus for showering him with praise. “I would rather serve another man, be a poor peasant without land, and be alive on Earth, than be lord of all the dead,” he says. It is also important to recognize that only in the underworld does Achilles realize the tremendous love he had for his son. Achilles’s only concern is to hear news of the son from whom he was forever separated.
By comparison Odysseus’s journey is to his homeland. It is a journey to reunite with his wife, Penelope, his family, and the land of his ancestors. The life that the deceased Achilles wishes to have had is the life that Odysseus and his men so desperately long for. It is the desire that drives Odysseus onward to brave the storms of Poseidon, the dangers of beasts and men, and the abode of the dead—and it is in the realm of the dead that Homer discloses the desire of the dead to know of their sons and daughters. Like Achilles, Agamemnon asks Odysseus whether he knows anything of his son Orestes.
It is a different Agamemnon who, in setting sail for Troy, sacrificed his own daughter and did not depart with a warm farewell or any inkling of remorse for past deeds. Only the glory and honor to be won at the beaches and walls of Troy were in his mind. What possessed Agamemnon? Euripides captured the madness of Agamemnon—for on Iphigenia’s arrival at camp,there to be sacrificed, Menelaus pleads with him to abandon the venture so as to save his daughter. But die she must to procure them safe passage and assure them the laurels of praise in conquest.
The glory and honor of conquest which Agamemnon, Achilles, and the other heroes sought were not found in what they thought would satisfy their restless hearts. Only in death, after betrayal and murder, did the great heroes of the Iliad recognize that the desire they had truly longed for was not to be found at the beaches or in the burnt ashes of Troy. Thus, it is only Odysseus who reunites with his family to live that happy life. But Odysseus’s pilgrimage was one in which he had to risk all.
Homer understood the human heart as attached to family and homeland with the mediation of love as the binding element that connected people with people and people with a land. And Homer was not wrong in expressing the immense love which the heroes exude for their wives, children, ancestors, and homeland—whether after arriving in the underworld or by visiting the underworld. Home, for Odysseus, is where his family is.
Virgil Comes Closest to the Meaning of Christian Love
Among the ancient poets Virgil, was always dearest to the hearts of early Christians, especially Augustine. It was Virgil who, in their minds, had come closest to the Christian revelation of love as the highest and most exalted force in one’s life.
Virgil’s Aeneid, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, is a grand epic of desire and family: it is the story of a pilgrim father and pilgrim people leaving their dispossessed homeland to embark on a journey to a new homeland—their eternal homeland. One of the most common Virgilian themes that run replete throughout Virgil’s work is love. The power of love is all-consuming and all-desiring, and Virgil’s advice is to give oneself over to the desire and power of love.
After escaping the destruction of Troy, and, with the help of Neptune, overcoming Juno’s attempt to derail Aeneas from his journey, Aeneas manages to make safe passage to Carthage. In Carthage he is received by Queen Dido. Dido openly welcomes the Trojans and asks Aeneas to retell his story to her; and so began their love affair. Dido’s husband has recently died but this doesn’t prevent her from falling violently in love with Aeneas. And just as she falls violently in love with Aeneas, she will meet an equally violent demise because of her desire to be in union with him.
In many ways it is a love story with which we are all familiar. Like the first crush one has, it is lasting and memorable. Desire draws people closer together just as God had always intended. Holy matrimony is the most visible example of desire leading to the mutual intention of union. Dido’s heart is consumed by a devouring desire for Aeneas, and Aeneas is very much at home on Dido’s shores after a long and arduous journey. But as we all know, their marriage was not meant to be.
The sad irony of Dido having Aeneas, for all intents and purpose, kill her is made all the more poignant when she thrusts Aeneas’s sword through her heart and dies atop all the belongings Aeneas had given her during their stay. Just as Aeneas entered Dido’s world and transformed it, Dido leaves the world surrounded by many of Aeneas’s possessions as a sign that she could not live without him. In Confessions, Augustine even tells us how he wept bitterly for Dido’s death.
The tale of Aeneas is one wrapped, nevertheless, in a sort of fatalistic tragedy. Aeneas loved Dido and Dido loved Aeneas. Had it been up to Aeneas he would have stayed in Carthage. But the gods had other plans for him. Nevertheless, “pious” Aeneas is dedicated to his father, his son, and his countrymen. His love is for his family, first and foremost, and for his fellow patriots where he directs his labors and sacrifices.
True Love Sets Dante on the Right Path
The crystallization of the epic of desire is found most poignantly in Dante’s Divine Comedy. Love permeates every sentence of Dante’s great Christian epic. It is Dante’s lack of properly ordered love that has led him astray from the straight and true. And it takes the love of Virgil, Beatrice, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and, of course, the love of God to reorder Dante to the straight and true which result in ultimate felicity.
Dante’s construction of hell is founded on disordered love (on levels two through five) and the rejection of love and truth (inside the walls of the city of Dis). After leaving Limbo to begin his journey down to the frozen and cold—i.e., loveless—abyss of Satan’s domain, the first levels of hell that Dante passes through are places where its human inhabitants had expressed a disordered love, i.e., a love aimed at carnal and ephemeral things which could not provide the loving happiness that humans seek. By the time Dante crosses over the River Styx and enters the walls of the city of Dis, the disordered love becomes the rejection of love, goodness, and being which dominates the lower rungs of hell. It is no surprise that the further Dante and Virgil journey into hell the darker and colder it becomes—the warmth and light of love are not found in a loveless place, which is what hell is.
While Dante and Virgil journey into darkness, it is the growing love of Dante and Virgil that helps both of them on this pilgrimage. The relationship between Dante and Virgil is, at first, somewhat standoffish and cold—as if Dante is a burden that Virgil doesn’t want to put up with. Lack of trust, a reflection of lack of love, also stains their early relationship as seen when Virgil doesn’t trust Dante not to look at Medusa when entering Dis. However, as the two need each other to journey through hell their love for each other grows.
Virgil is transformed into a fatherly figure who is willing to make sacrifices to help Dante make it through hell and purgatory. Moreover, Virgil opens up to Dante and discusses his home—a transformative moment of love and trust between the two. The only light and warmth—the only love—that descends through the dark crevices of hell is the light, warmth, and love that Dante and Virgil grow to have for each other. It is necessary that there is love in a loveless world.
Hell is not a family place either. It is anti-family. After all, the final circles of hell are reserved for those who betrayed their benefactors, family, and fatherland. The loss of love, for Dante and Christianity, leads to the loss of the family and with the family the homeland and friendships that the pagan poets extolled as the summit of life itself.
The journey through purgatory and arrival in heaven, by contrast, is the journey through growing love; it is the journey to becoming a member of the heavenly and eternal family that all humans desire. Heaven is filled with light and warmth. Heaven is social and filial, a place of relationships, and most importantly a relationship with the light and love of the world. Dante’s journey from a place of death to a place of life is also the journey from a loveless cesspool to a loving paradise. Dante’s journey through hell to heaven takes him from a place of broken families to the divine and universal family.
Modernity Fears Love
Modernity speaks incessantly in the language of “love” but most moderns do not know love. The sad reality is that we are afraid of love. And unlike that of the ancient poets, or Christianity, the love of modernity is directed only to the self rather than to the family—the cornerstone of love.
Why are we afraid of love? Simply put, we are afraid of the consequences of love. We live with the dream of a consequence-free life—a life of non-harm such as the modern philosophers hoped to consummate. Love, however, requires the possibility of heartache and temptation—in other words, consequences and sacrifice. Consequences and sacrifice are precisely what the modern world wishes to discard.
The consummation of a non-harm society requires the negation of love since love entails the possibility of harm in the form of anguish or heartbrokenness. The word “love” remains even as we stride further and further away from the power of love. A world of non-harm would be a world without love or the possibility of love, a world bereft of real attachments, commitments, and relationships as such things require sacrifice. And that is what the love of Christianity entails: attachment, commitment, and relationship that require sacrifice for the beloved.
What songs and what stories do moderns know today? Stories are the most personal, intimate, and loving of human constructions. Stories bring people together because stories exist, and unfold, in the plane of love which surrounds us and is the heart of all the immortal stories. This requires attachment and commitment tenfold—something that Achilles and Agamemnon learned only in death, something that drove Dido to her death, and something that brought Tristan and Isolde together even in death.
Humans still understand that love is a story—a story that we can become part of only if we are willing to become part of the never-ending story of human love, the story told by a thousand poets, and the story that will continue to be told by a thousand more. The story of longing for love is eternal because it brings that desiring heart to the face of everlasting Truth. The desiring love for others, manifested most visibly in the family, is the wellspring from which all else flows. The ancient wisdom of the poets and the Truth affirmed by Catholicism is that love is where the family is.
Republished with gracious permission from Crisis Magazine (November 2018).
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Editor’s note: the featured image is “El retorno de Odiseo” (1508-09) by Pinturicchio, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.