Monday, January 16, 2012

Redeeming a Flawed Classic

The first time I read the Aeneid, I found the battles of the last four books wearisome after the more interesting adventures of the first two-thirds of the epic. This time through, these last books seem richer but still unsatisfying. I can sympathize with the Romans’ admiration of courage. But to what end do all the young men in Virgil’s battles make their courageous last stands? I can’t get over these lines:
Henceforth, beneath his [Romulus’] auspices, shall rise
That Rome, whose glories through the world shall shine;
Far as wide earth's remotest boundary lies,
Her empire shall extend her genius to the skies.
Virgil wrote the poem in honor of his patron, Caesar Augustus, and therefore has to hold up the Imperator’s empire as the goal of his history. But I can’t buy into that view, so I can’t fully enjoy the Aeneid’s story.

Do-or-die declarations like this one of the Italian Turnus can’t help but stir the soul of a fan of Rooster Cogburn:
Or [i.e., either] I, while Latins sit and see the show,
Will hurl to Hell this Dardan thief abhorred,
This Asian runaway, and on the foe
Refute the common slander with the sword,
Or he, as victor, reign and be Lavinia's lord.
One of us is going down, he says, and if I am the one to die, at least I’m going down swinging. But see what prize Turnus fights for: the fair Lavinia. Not that he knows anything about Lavinia except that she’s beautiful and the daughter of a king. Turnus is motivated entirely by mad passions, and his passion for Lavinia doesn’t even sit at the height of his madness:
He, wild with love, upon Lavinia fed
His constant gaze, but maddening with unrest,
Burned for the fight still more.
I’m not the only one who can’t fully embrace Roman wars of empire; Virgil himself seems ambivalent about the belligerent Roman outlook. The beauty of his verses glorifies scenes of squirting blood and trampled gore, and surely this aspect of the poem pleased the Dictator of a society that feasted on gladiator games. But Virgil reveals the flaws of the philosophy in some moving scenes involving fathers. Mezentius, for instance, mourns his dead son, Lausus, and gets no solace from the idea that Lausus has died to save his father’s homeland:
Shalt thou, my son, expire,
And I live on, my darling in the tomb,
Saved by thy wounds, and living by thy doom?
The squire of the dead Pallas weighs the costs of war by looking at his lord’s death through the eyes of Evander, Pallas’ father:
Poor boy; hath Fortune, in her hour of pride,
To me thy triumph and return denied?
Not such my promise to thy sire; not so
My pledge to him, who, ere I left his side
In quest of empire, clasped me, boding woe,
And warned the race was fierce, and terrible the foe.
He haply now, by empty hope betrayed,
With prayer and presents doth the gods constrain.
We to the dead, whose debt to Heaven is paid,
The rites of mourners render, but in vain.
Unhappy! doomed to see thy darling slain.
Is this the triumph? this the promise sworn?
This the return? Yet never thine the pain
A coward's flight, a coward's scars to mourn.
Again we see the “quest of empire” as the war’s original purpose, and yet on the day of reckoning that purpose crumbles for the squire. He knows that Evander’s only solace is the knowledge that Pallas didn’t die running from a fight.

The quest for empire -- knowing that the empire in question will survive on slavery, enjoy the spectacle of lions mauling and eating Christians and other outcasts, and keep the “peace” only by the point of the legionnaire’s lance -- leaves me totally cold. And yet I don’t want to dismiss a classic that survives today thanks to the care of medieval Christian scholar-monks. So I look for what good I can. I enjoy the poetic language, of course. (Based on my meager ability for and experience in reading portions of Virgil in Latin, Taylor’s translation seems to preserve the sophistication and music of the original.) But what of the Aeneid’s message? While I don’t see any more benefit in Pallas’ death than his squire does, I have to say that some things are worth fighting, dying, and killing for. There’s a reason I enjoy seeing Rooster gallop across that field with the reins in his teeth and a gun in each hand. So I try to put myself in the shoes of a Roman, put Empire in that space of my mind where worthy causes reside, and find beauty and inspiration in the resolve shown by Virgil’s characters. I don’t agree with the premise, but given the premise, the conclusion follows.

Once several years ago I shared a flight with twenty or thirty Christian college students on the last leg of their return from Southeast Asia. One of them explained to me that they had been on a mission trip when a revolution broke out and that, fearing for their lives, they came home. Naturally, their departure from the troubled country was not easy, and this flight constituted the final stage in an ordeal that had lasted several days: when the plane landed, the exhausted, relieved group burst into cheering. That scene has haunted me ever since. Was their return truly a cause for celebration? I had to ask myself, Do they think they should share the gospel only until their lives are in danger? Aren’t we supposed to preach even when our lives are in danger – especially when our lives are in danger? I don’t know all the circumstances and can’t judge anyone in particular; I don’t know what I would do had I been in their situation, although I hope I would have asked God to give me the courage to do his good pleasure. But I have often imagined how I would react if one of my children had been on that trip and had stayed behind to make the ultimate sacrifice. I don’t know exactly how I would deal with the loss, but I know I would have more comfort than Evander, knowing that my child had lived to die for the worthiest cause.

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