Authentic righteousness for a nation of natives, settlers, immigrants, and refugees requires the same whether for America or Vergil’s Rome: pietas. This is devotion to family, community, country, and deity. One so devoted does not fear the sublimation of the self in the fulfillment of these duties, for it is in the pursuit of these obligations that the surest identity and sense of purpose is to be found.
The Aeneid of Vergil is a timeless poem because of its continued applicability to the human condition. The ancient Romans hailed it as a masterpiece of poetic construction, evidenced in the immediacy of its institution as a school text. Statius is no less reverential than Dante in his veneration of Vergil’s Aeneid:
vive, precor; nec tu divinam Aeneida tempta,
sed longe sequere et vestigia semper adora. (Theb. 12.816-817)
(Live, I pray; do not challenge the divine Aeneid
only follow a way’s off and cherish always its imprints.)
Christian thinkers adored him as well, not simply for the aesthetically prophetic impression made in the fourth eclogue, but in the structure of his cosmos and his grasp of the human creature. While Dante does not permit Vergil into Paradise, the entirety of the Divine Comedy bears his influence. Numerous imitations and translations of varying degrees of quality bear witness to the concreteness of his nachleben. This is what constitutes universality, a central characteristic of all the literary canon. It follows that so universal a piece of literature will retain exceptional applicability in years and climes not its own.
What, though, is a viable point of contact between the Aeneid and the United States anno Domini 2020? Acknowledging the potential for several fruitful connections, this moment’s focus must be dehumanization and societal reconstitution through pietas. Among the most inhumane of human proclivities, dehumanization recategorizes an individual or group into a representation of whatever loathsome qualities a maddened accuser requires in a scapegoat. It locks its target into a static position that precludes any chance for moral recovery, leaving the target no less irredeemable than Tolkien’s orcs. Shorn of human sentience and all potential for good, the next step in so infernal a logic is the destruction of the dehumanized. This the accuser will rationalize constitutes a righteous act and confers an absolution of sorts from whatever imagined guilt has gripped the populace and called for a sacrifice. Now to the Aeneid.
After sustaining a ten-year assault, Troy burns. Her citizens, long quarantined by a poorly managed threat that invisibly penetrated their once impregnable borders, now perish before the sword, fire, and despair. Amid the flame and death, Aeneas spies Helen. Vergil has situated her hiding in the space of the Vestal Virgins, incongruency of which situation is the beginning of Aeneas’ solipsistic indictment of her. Here is she, whose sexual indiscretion caused the downfall of Aeneas’ Troy, seeking refuge at the seat of sacral chastity. Such a disparity strikes the hero and momentarily disconnects him from the strictures of civilization. He, now brutish with indignation, proceeds to dehumanize the Spartan Queen. Vergil marks the mental and moral degradation of his hero with descriptive language that shows him as engulfed as Troy: “Exarsere ignes animo” (Flames blazed in his soul). From this intellectual devolution comes Aeneas’ rationale for achieving absolution: Helen, he reasons, is a “nefas,” a raw impiety, a conveniently physical abstraction, the extinguishment of which will win him praise. For, the hero acknowledges, there is “nullum memorabile nomen” (no name worthy of remembrance) in slaughtering a woman, there is no praise in such a “victory.” To exact punishment of some unwomaned and deserving thing, however, will bring praise. Therefore, Helen is no woman. In addition, the ashes of his people, he believes, will achieve an unspecified degree of satisfaction.
Is this not resonant with sundry American communities? Long-restricted mobility resulting in a population rendered incapable of resisting a sudden and imminent danger. Youths, wandering and disconnected, looking for symbols with which to invest their unfocused indignation. Spiritual darkness in high places fused with overspent social and cultural conflicts. Previously unconscionable social theory resurrected and reevaluated as only fair in order to obtain revenge for combatants already lost in battles fought in the past. Is America Troy to wake to flame? No. The Aeneid continues toward reconstitution, from the center out.
In the depth of his frenzy, Aeneas is manually halted by Venus, his goddess mother. Before she speaks, it is her radiance that he recalls, her celestial splendor; she lit his eyes as well as the night. She questions him, expressing incredulity at his mindset. She reminds him that a mind cannot rage and have care at the same time; one will displace the other. What about his aged father, his wife, his son? Their safety is fragile and momentary, surrounded as they are by enemies. Relieving him of the haze of human senses she reveals the real source of Troy’s downfall: the gods. Deities, long slighted by the denizens of the great city, have rallied together to overthrow it.
Now, what is the American corollary? In what manner might the United States suffer divine wrath? One thinks of Nietzsche’s manic presage: Gott ist tot. During his murderous contemplation, Aeneas was in complete command of himself, his senses fired, his reason reshaping logic and dispensing with tradition to suit his will to power. America is a child of the Enlightenment, Nietzsche’s culprit behind the eventual and unavoidable relativization of truth and morality. The enthronement of the human mind in the place of the divine indicates the decline of the former. It was not until Aeneas recovered an awareness of his blindness before the divine that he regained a sounder perspective of the weakness of his and everyone’s humanity. That Helen and Paris were no less hateful and guilty for their sin against the family unit, Venus acknowledged. More important than their wickedness, however, is the centrality of the family which was only further displaced by Aeneas’ attempt at riotous vengeance in the streets in the name of justice. As Vergil depicted, the light of the unaided human mind is darkness against the brilliance of the divine. The abandonment of religion untethers human nature to indulge in the lesser justice of might and appetite in the manner ill-sought by Rousseau and the Romantics, the other cultural forebears of America.
More importantly, there was also deep faith in the founding of this country. Disdain unto indifference has gradually drawn away the American consciousness from the light and discipline of revealed truth, which is truth shown in and through suffering. Without such a light we are, as a nation, adrift without means for accessing the helm, much less understanding the chaotic waters that dwell beneath the hulls of all our very human hearts. Reconnecting oneself with the divine is a pillar at the center of reconstituting society. Another pillar at the center is reestablishing the family as the basic unit of society.
Aeneas returns home. His family, momentarily riven, is unified at the sight of an omen over the head of Iulus his son. Aeneas takes up his father who bears the images of their gods and draws Iulus along. To his wife, Creusa, he gives direction, which inspires the wording of Statius’ veneration: “et longe servet vestigia coniunx” (and may my spouse keep step behind). Upon arrival at the place designated, Aeneas does not see his wife. Following a heart-wrenching plunge alone back into lost Troy, Aeneas meets her disembodied shade.
Just as for Aeneas, renewal through American pietas will involve dreadful loss. Vergil depicts a very human response to the sudden loss of hearth and home: “Quem non incusavi amens hominumque deorumque” (Frantic, whom of men and gods did I not blame). The family is the basic and central unit of civilization and has been heralded as such in writing since Aristotle at least. As Vergil depicts, the consonance of familial unity and continuity with the divine is the only means by which civilization survives. Societies and the families therein suffer when dissolute behavior is sanctioned. Stronger cultures more resolute in discipline arise to displace the bloated and decadent. Troy fell because of adulterous disregard for marriage and slighted gods and goddesses. Her resurrection was predicated upon the recovery of the family and the divine as her center. Even then, loss is inevitable. Indignant rioters and indifferent fire steal away loved ones retreating for safety. From out the depth of such misery the way is the same for America as for Troy; through sanctifying our losses—by shouldering the best of our past and disburdening the worst—and drawing the future we’d have along as if by hand. This is pietas.
While cities burn, a civilization may be reborn. Societal reconstitution can and must follow dehumanization. Like Aeneas looking ahead to Rome, America’s future rests in the unification of disparate communities into a society simultaneously proud of its greatest founders and rawest new members.
Atque hic ingentem comitum adfluxisse novorum
invenio admirans numerum, matresque virosque,
collectam exsilio pubem, miserabile volgus.
Undique convenere, animis opibusque parati,
(And marveling I discover here that a great number of new companions have flowed together, women and men, a people gathered for exile, a wretched mass. From everywhere they have come together, prepared in their minds and means.)
Such a capacity has always been present in the history of the peoples who made the United States; but dehumanization, always the child of spiritual malnourishment, has manifested continuously in various forms as well. Key to the resistance of dehumanization is the recognition of its pretense to righteousness, wherein it simply rebrands man’s inhumanity to man as a prerequisite to freedom. Authentic righteousness for a nation of natives, settlers, immigrants, and refugees requires the same whether for America or Vergil’s Rome: pietas. This is devotion to family, community, country, and deity. One so devoted does not fear the sublimation of the self in the fulfillment of these duties, for it is in the pursuit of these obligations that the surest identity and sense of purpose is to be found.
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The featured image is “Aeneas Fleeing From Troy” (1753) by Pompeo Batoni (1708–1787) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.