Understanding who we are is an essential question to culture because the answer we give to that question affects how we understand our history, identity, and the symbolism—sacred and secular—that goes with it. Yet, there are many conservatives who have not the slightest inkling of this phenomenon.
What is culture? “Culture War” has reentered the vocabulary of many people as of late, yet there is little evidence that people who openly embrace the concept of culture or “culture war” know what they are speaking of. Most reflections on the culture wars focus on anti-cultural things, namely, purely political ideals and policies. That is not culture.
Culture is etymologically rooted in the Latin word cultus, which means care and praise. In its etymological foundation, culture means that which one praises and cares for and, more importantly, through that care and praise life is nurtured and matured. The caring aspect is the most essential because care implies a sort of tilling of the soil—something to be nurtured and something that is organic, rather than artificially imposed from above. Culture comes from the ground up; it is the property of the commons and not the few.
Claiming the culture war as being related to political issues, like free speech, individualism, or collectivism, harm or non-harm, has nothing to do with cultus and everything to do with polis. Given that culture is something to tend and till, the real root of the culture war is the issue of consciousness and memory rooted in history, identity, and symbol. Understanding who we are is an essential question to culture because the answer we give to that question affects how we understand our history, identity, and the symbolism—sacred and secular—that goes with it.
One of the great achievements of Roman culture was the grand epic that T.S. Eliot called “our classic.” I am speaking, of course, of Virgil’s Aeneid. Until the early 20th century, Virgil’s Aeneid was the universal epic of Western classical education. Many great poems and operas directly use the story’s narrative, especially the tragic romance of Dido and Aeneas. What made the Aeneid the great achievement of Roman culture is that the work does not base itself on mythos and pathos (as easy and superficially apparent that may be), but the use of historical consciousness and memory that constitute the Aeneid’s grounding and provide its energetic movement to its conclusion.
Roman culture cared and praised the heroic masculine archetype and its contingent value of filial piety. Both are present in the Aeneid and embodied through the titular hero, Aeneas, who is a dashing and courageous warrior yet also a gentle soul who honors his father and the gods. In fact, Aeneas spends more time praying and crying than any other activity in the poem. The most endearing and enduring image of Aeneas that would have struck at the heart of Roman culture is when he carries his father, Anchises, on his back as he departs a burning Troy and begins his journey westward. This, more than anything else, is the greatest heroic deed of Aeneas, worthy of preservation in the culture he birthed.
Sailing from Troy to Lavinian shores is an arduous journey. Before settling in Italy, Aeneas and the pilgrim Trojans make landfall in Carthage, Sicily, and wage a war against Turnus and the Latins. The work is broken up into two halves, separated by the purgatorial descent of Aeneas to the afterlife in the sixth book, which serves as the intermediary bridge between the two. The first half of the Aeneid is an erotic tragedy detailing Aeneas’ escape from the burning fires of Troy, his landfall in Carthage, and his doomed love affair with Dido. The second half of “our classic” is Aeneas’ entry into Italy and war with the Latins culminating in his slaying of Turnus, which will pave the way for the founding of Rome. The entire work is a pilgrim story of civilization as Aeneas, the embodiment of laborem and pietas, confronts the constricting spirit of pathos and thanatos (embodied by Dido and Turnus).
The imagery that Virgil uses to drive the epic onward to its conclusion is based on Roman history. Though Aeneas and Dido were distant from Virgil’s own time, the Punic Wars were not. The Punic Wars were still deeply implanted in the consciousness and memory of the Roman people when Virgil wrote his masterpiece. Even after Virgil’s masterpiece, subsequent poems about the Punic Wars were written.
When Aeneas tells Dido of the burning of Troy and the beheading of Priam, whom Aeneas describes as “the monarch who once had ruled in all his glory / the many lands of Asia, Asia’s many tribes. / A powerful trunk lying on the shore. / The head wrenched from the shoulders. / A corpse without a name,” the Roman audience would have instantly remembered a great warrior king who ruled “the many lands of Asia” and who, in death, was “lying on the shore” decapitated. That great warrior king who once ruled over Asia and whose dead body lay on the shores of Asia beheaded was Pompey the Great.
Furthermore, the romance and divorce of Dido and Aeneas—beyond being the mytho-poetic foundation and justification of the Punic Wars—draws on the very memory and imagery of the Punic Wars more than it does myth. Dido is Carthage personified, the very Carthage ruled over by passion and money which led Cato the Elder to boldly exclaim in the Senate “delendam esse Carthaginem.” The hopeful marriage of Dido and Aeneas entertains the failed hope of a peaceful union between Carthage and Rome, which dissolved into war. Dido’s death, as she erotically and tragically thrusts Aeneas’ blade into her breasts and falls dead atop a burning pyre, recourses to the burning of Carthage by Scipio Africanus the Younger in 146 BC. Dido’s death literally comes at the hand of a Roman blade piercing straight into the pulsating heart of the Punic civilization which is reduced to ash by fire.
After Aeneas makes landfall in Italy and wins the hand of Lavinia, Turnus—the lustful king of the Rutulians and head of the Latin League—wages war against Aeneas and the Trojans to regain the right to Lavinia’s bosom. Turnus is the great achievement of Virgil because he is a synthetic character who represents the great threats to Roman labor and piety: the erotic and cathartic spirit of Greek civilization and the easterly ways of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Turnus is not only the “Achilles of the West” that must be slain for the virtues of laborem and pietas to take root and flourish, he is the very embodiment of the memory of struggle against pathos and thanatos which has defined Roman history up to Virgil’s own life.
The key to understanding Virgil’s Aeneid is the same key to understanding Homer’s Iliad—the shield and the imagery that accompanies it wielded by the heroes of the epic. The “Shield of Aeneas” is adorned with the images of Roman history, “There is the story of Italy, / Rome in all her triumphs.” Virgil goes on to describe the images on the shield, from the she-wolf nurturing Romulus and Remus, the rape of the Sabine Women, to the “bronze ships” at the Battle of Actium and the final triumph of hard labor and piety which brings order to the chaotic world.
That the shield’s culminating image is the Battle of Actium is undeniably revealing. In the imagery of the shield that Aeneas carries into battle he literally carries the preservation of Roman history and memory with him. It is that memory of Rome drives him ensure that the images of the shield are made a reality. The shield that Achilles carries into battle is adorned with the splendid imagery and consciousness of Greek myth. The shield that Aeneas carries into battle is emblazoned with real historical events rooted in historical Roman Dasein.
The Aeneid was only possible because the Romans had the historical memory and love of their history to make it possible. A people deracinated from their own heritage and historical memory, mixed with a (now) scornful hatred of their heritage and history could never have tilled the soil for such a masterwork—and the finest literary work of the Latin language—to have blossomed.
So-called conservatives who reduce culture to mere political principles and ideology show themselves as culturally deracinated. Conservatism is anti-ideological precisely because it is premised on a defense of culture and not the whimsical and fanciful dream of class and social rearrangement. Those who claim conservatism is ideologically centered on principles like free speech, equality, or freedom know not what they’re speaking of. That defense of culture is based on a defense of the history, identity, and mythological symbolism of the people that constitute the core of the culture. Conservatism is rooted in an enchanted aesthetic concerning the past which turns the consciousness of the contemporary generation to gaze fondly on the past and see the present as something beautiful and therefore worth preserving and growing forward.
Those who mock the arts, the humanities, and “candlelight poetry reading” (as I’ve heard on “conservative” talk radio before) have not the slightest inkling of understanding the phenomenon of culture, how it rises and how it dies. No wonder these “conservatives” constantly lose the culture war.
By reducing culture and civilization to a few political principles, like free speech or free enterprise, these self-declared conservatives throw away everything that is necessary for conservatism to flourish: our history, our heroes, and our living tradition known as the humanities. Conservatives have a 4,000-year history stretching back to the Trojan War, Greek settlers, Rome, Christendom, to the Normandy Beaches. American conservatives, whose very existence in this long and enchanted understanding of the world and history depended on the Athenian victory at Salamis to Charles Martel’s victory at Tours and to Christopher Columbus’ fateful voyage, have the richest and deepest conservatism precisely because it is not parochial but expansive and takes in so much history and tradition. American conservatism (and Anglo conservatism more generally) has the roots of Hebraism, Greece and Rome, and Christendom as the base of its garden. Filled with all those heroes, poets, and battles; labors, miracles, and triumphs; it would be shameful to let that richness dry up and blandly talk about how free speech, open debate, and rule of law is all that constitutes culture.
The success of the Left in the culture war shows that the Left understands culture better than most conservatives do. The Left understands culture is rooted in memory and symbolism and so, in order to change a culture, they must make the contemporary generation look upon the past not with fondness but with hatred and revulsion. Because aesthetics is central to culture, those who see the past—the historic and mystic chords of memory—as something beautiful will defend it, nurture it, and pass it on to the next generation. Those who see the past as something ugly, filled with crimes, filled with injustices, will seek to “change” and do away with it. More acutely, they will destroy the past through the destruction of memory and promoting a negative receptivity to history and heroes.
Conservatives who think that going to college campuses to advocate for free speech constitutes a culture war are so behind the game it is almost comical to hear them stylizing themselves as culture warriors. Politics is downstream from culture. That has always been the prevailing wisdom of conservative thinkers. Turning political ideology into culture shows how far one has drifted from culture. To put it simply, “free-markets and free-speech,” however good and noble these things may be, will neither conserve the enchanted chords of memory and historical receptivity that conservatism is predicated on, nor pass on the rich treasure chest of the humanities to the next generation. With those enchanted chords of memory severed, the positive receptivity of our history and heroes turned to hatred and revulsion, the culling of the humanities complete—there is no culture to enjoy or pass on. The task of the conservative is to revive culture; this will be no easy task, but then again, neither was Aeneas’ journey or Virgil’s composition of “our classic.”
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.
The featured image is “Venus and Anchises” and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.