Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with we who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Virgil: On Courage
Courage is found in unexpected places. It is not the sole province of soldiers, nor does it find its only fulfillment in the vanquishing of enemies. Indeed, courage manifests itself most powerfully, not in a single deed of valor, but in a lifetime of endurance.
It is the soldier who stays at his post, not the one who rushes into battle in a fit of suicidal rage, who is the most courageous. It is the parent or the teacher or the doctor who stands beside those entrusted to his care, no matter the cost or the danger, who embodies the essence of courage. The courageous stand firm and true when everything around them is crumbling. They are often afraid, but they do not give in to their fear; they are often confused, but they work through that confusion to fulfill the duty assigned to them.
My Aeneas showed greater courage in fleeing from Troy than he would have shown had he stayed and fought to the death for his lost city. In leaving, he followed the harder path, the one that called for him to accept a new and radically different goal and to adopt radically new strategies for achieving that goal.
Growing up as a soldier in Troy, Aeneas, like Hector, had been taught that courage meant facing one’s foe and defending one’s city. When the ghost of Hector appeared to him and told him to leave Troy, Aeneas was forced to learn a new kind of courage. It was a lesson he did not want to learn.
Again and again, he rushed back into the fray, hoping to die, as Hector had done, for Troy. But that was no longer his commission, no longer the way he was to express and live out the virtue of courage. His courage now would consist in a single-minded focus on reaching a far off, misty land he knew nothing about—and reaching that land with most of his crew intact. To arrive alone on the shore of Italy, as Ulysses did on the shore of Ithaca, would be to fail his mission and show himself unworthy of his calling.
The courage Aeneas would have to nurture within himself would be even more selfless than that of Hector. There would be no heroic death for bards to praise in their songs; there would be only long sea miles, the loss of friends and family members, and the continual rejection of personal pleasure.
Self-glorification would not be the end of Aeneas’s courage, but self-emptying. He would not be the strength and bulwark of his army, as Hector had been for Troy, but the bridge that would allow others to cross over from the past to the future.
Could you, citizens of the twenty-first century, do what Aeneas did? Could you not only learn his courage, but put it into practice? Does your age even understand what such courage means?
When his wife died in the conflagration of Troy, my Aeneas was given no time to grieve. It was his duty to lead the survivors to safety, and, from there, to Italy—not to mourn for the loss of his wife, his home, and his way of life. It took courage to do that, courage to wrench his heart away from the past and point it toward the future.
When his father died, Aeneas again found the courage to trade in a lost, but concrete past for a promised, yet insubstantial future.
When he was forced to abandon his lover, Dido, and sail on alone to Italy, he found, yet again, the courage to trust in the things that had been promised to him. He let go the pleasure of the moment for the burden of the future, and he bore that burden, despite the pain in his heart.
When Palinurus, pilot of his ship and dearest of his friends, was washed overboard as a sacrifice to enable Aeneas’s journey to the underworld, Aeneas did not give up his assigned task. Rather, he took the abandoned tiller in his hand and, though his eyes were blinded by tears, steered his ship to safety.
Even in the underworld itself, my Aeneas was forced to learn a new kind of courage. As he made his way into the depths of Pluto, he was met by horrific creatures that filled his heart with terror. Instinctively, Hector-like, he reached for his sword to fight the beasts, but his guide, the mysterious Sybil, only laughed at his folly. The monsters were shadows, impervious to all human weapons. To face them, Aeneas would need a different kind of courage: one grounded in faith and able to endure.
What then is the message and what the lesson for your age? I hope that none of you will ever be given a task as difficult and painful as that given to my poor Aeneas. Still, all of you, at one time in your life, will be called upon to learn a new strategy and seek a different goal than you have sought before. When that moment comes, it will take all the courage you can muster to live up to the call.
Some of you seem to think that my fellow Romans were firm believers in suicide, in death before dishonor. But that is a misunderstanding. To take your own life is to shirk the duty given you by the gods. All of us have been set at a post, and we must stick to that post no matter what life throws at us.
Suicide is not an act of courage but of despair. When Aeneas visited his father in the underworld, he would have preferred to remain there with him. But his father sent him back to finish his mission.
So press on, my friends, toward the goal that has been set before you. If you lose heart, then think back upon my Aeneas and what history would have looked like had Aeneas not found the courage to stick to his post and complete his task.
Apart from the courage and endurance of Aeneas, there would have been no Rome, and without Rome, you, my friends, would be living in a very different world.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Fight between Aeneas and King Turnus” (c. 1700) by Giacomo del Po (1652-1726), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.