Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Virgil’s Remembrance of Things Past

In reading through the Aeneid this time, I’m struck by its constant references to tradition and heritage. The whole poem celebrates Virgil’s patron, Caesar Augustus, by providing him with a divine pedigree. But Virgil also provides stories to explain many other aspects of Roman culture. The practice of closing the doors of the temple of Janus in times of peace, he says, comes from King Latinus. He justifies Rome’s utter annihilation of Carthage with the story of Punic Queen Dido, who tempts Aeneas to abandon his mission. And Virgil traces many Roman clan names back to specific Trojan heroes. Two stories explain Rome’s ambivalent attitude toward Greece. First, Rome’s right to subjugate Greece follows of course since, as the story tells, Roman culture goes back to Troy, which the Greeks destroyed. But the Greek Evander’s willingness to forget all enmity and aid Aeneas sanctions Rome’s respect for Greek art, philosophy, and rhetoric.

But Roman heritage goes back even beyond the time of the story, as Virgil shows by using the Homerian practice of calling each person and tribe by a variety of names that trace lineage. The Trojans are sometimes called Dardans after an earlier king, for instance, and the Carthaginians are sometimes called Phoenicians to reflect their geographical origins. Virgil sometimes refers to individuals through parents’ names, calling Aeneas, for instance, the son of Venus, Achilles the son of Peleus, and Agamemnon and Menelaus the Atridae (sons of Atreus).

This atmosphere of tradition seems to send a message: We are where we come from. The Bible shares Virgil's respect for the past. God reveals Himself to Moses as the God of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, and a blind man once showed both his faith and his knowledge of Scripture by calling Jesus the Son of David. Twenty-first century Americans, on the other hand, seldom use references to heritage, perhaps surprisingly. Why don’t we call the President the Heir of Washington? Why do we speak of amendments to the Constitution and never of amendments to the Madisonian Canon? It could be that an arbitrary, quirky practice of ancient Mediterranean cultures has simply died. But maybe we’ve lost the message.

Now I shouldn’t say that we Americans never remember our past. It's just that we generally save our remembrances for holidays and centenniels, and we usually celebrate these memorial days by buying appliances at sale prices. We also remember so-called self-made men like Ford and Edison in the names of some products. But we don’t have a habit of consciously honoring the past for its glorious self. And if Virgil’s message – we are where we come from – is true, what does that say about us? That we come from nowhere? Maybe the U.S. can’t pretend to have self-made men if her people constantly remind each other of the past that has shaped us. Or maybe we’re just bad students of history.

A short follow-up on Ajax. A few days ago, after reading half the play, I reported that Athena made Ajax mad only to protect him from himself. As it turns out, Athena was in fact toying with Ajax to punish him. But then we discover that Ajax has refused the help of the gods, claiming to be all-sufficient. It seems Henry Ford was not the first self-made man. He should be called the Son of Ajax.

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