Tuesday, January 3, 2012

In Search of Rome, In Search of Virtue

For reading the Aeneid this time, I chose the verse translation by Edward Fairfax Taylor. The introduction to the book says that Taylor started the translation at 16 (!) and completed it while working as a clerk in the House of Lords. He used the nine-line form of Spenser’s Faerie Queene, which seems well suited to the lofty theme of the epic panorama: the irregular rhyme scheme lends a unity without sounding sing-songy, and the periodic weight of the extra foot in the ninth line tolls a stately cadence.

Starting the poem brought to my mind the Iliad, not only because Virgil’s story tells the sequel but also because of the similar tone. In a post from 2010, I said that Homer’s characters try to make good in spite of the gods they are forced to worship. The opening lines of the Aeneid reflect this same tension:
I .Of arms I sing, and of the man, whom Fate
First drove from Troy to the Lavinian shore.
Full many an evil, through the mindful hate
Of cruel Juno, from the gods he bore,
Much tost on earth and ocean, yea, and more
In war enduring, ere he built a home,
And his loved household-deities brought o'er
To Latium, whence the Latin people come,
Whence rose the Alban sires, and walls of lofty Rome.

II .O Muse, assist me and inspire my song,
The various causes and the crimes relate,
For what affronted majesty, what wrong
To injured Godhead, what offence so great
Heaven's Queen resenting, with remorseless hate,
Could one renowned for piety compel
To brave such troubles, and endure the weight
Of toils so many and so huge. O tell
How can in heavenly minds such fierce resentment dwell?
Virgil calls Juno cruel and questions her resentment as if it were not only inscrutable but totally irrational. And still he immediately sanctions Aeneas’ mission by noting his goal of bringing “loved household-deities” to the Italian peninsula. In his moving tale of the Trojan horse and the fall of his city, Aeneas says that he and his comrades fought back “elate, but not with Heaven our friend.” While explaining how the last battle turned against the Trojans, he says:
Next, Rhipeus dies, the justest, but in vain,
The noblest soul of all the Trojan train.
Heaven deemed him otherwise.
Do Virgil and Aeneas truly think that Rhipeus’ justice was all in vain? Do they believe that the gods are so unjust that they have no reward for Rhipeus in the afterlife? Apparently not, since his death indicates to Aeneas Heaven’s disapproval. Yet Aeneas doesn’t say that he only thought Rhipeus was the justest and noblest; Aeneas speaks as if he knows a truth that the gods are not privy to. And thus the tyranny of the ancient gods is revealed: they have more power than their subjects but less moral virtue and knowledge. If Virgil judges the gods by the standards of justice and nobility, doesn’t that make virtues the real gods? Or better yet, doesn’t it suggest a God Who sets the standards?

I once had a Wiccan student who wanted to talk with me about our religions. She told me that all believers worshiped the same God, but each saw Her/Him from a different, limited angle. I was much more interested in hearing her talk about Wicca than she was in hearing me talk about Christianity, so I asked her to elaborate. She said that the Goddess had four aspects, of which one was dark and evil. If I remember this right, she thought I as a Christian saw an aspect of the same Deity that looked masculine and benign. I asked her to explain her goal in life (or lives), and she said it was to become fully good. At that point I jumped in and said it sounded like she wanted to be greater than her goddess. Stunned, she asked me what I meant. “You said your Goddess had an evil aspect, but your goal is to remove all evil from yourself. So your goal is to be better and greater than your Goddess.” “I’d never thought of it that way.” “Well, when you think about it, remember that our Gods are not the same and that I know that I will never, ever be greater than Mine.”

I don’t know if that student represented Wiccans well. Wicca is a religion with a long history and may make more sense than it made to me that day. But I thought of her yesterday as I read about Aeneas, always wary of the evil in his gods and sure of his understanding of virtue, but too blind to look for the God that provides the standard of virtue.

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