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The Aeneas Option

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T.S. Eliot called Virgil’s Aeneid “our classic.” Read any work of Western literature prior to 1960 and it will be replete with Virgilian themes and references, both implicit or explicit. The Western humanities tradition, as we know, has fallen on hard times in the push to destroy and defund everything Western and replace it with whatever the nihilistic left deems socially and politically relevant.
But Virgil’s masterpiece was socially and political relevant in his days and remains so in our own.
The central theme of the Aeneid is pietas, or piety. While we may think of piety as Christians praying the rosary, in first-century Rome piety meant dutiful sacrifice. In fact, piety means duty. What, then is the duty of Aeneas?
At the macro-cosmic level Aeneas is fated as the dutiful vessel of Roman civilization. Aeneas is the elected vessel of the Roman gods to found the “high walls of Rome” and bring Roman civilization to a pathological world wrought with erotic passion and violence. At the micro level, however, the duty of Aeneas is recognizable and eternal: his duty is to his father, family, and countrymen.
Aeneas is the wayward leader of the Trojan survivors of that terrible war remembered by Homer. He is a great warrior and captain. He is also a great and tender lover — or could have been if not for the intervention of the gods.
But killing and making love are not what define Aeneas in Virgil’s epic. Instead, it is his commitment to patriotic duty that defines Aeneas. Aeneas hauls his elderly father on his back as Troy burns and guides him to the seafaring ships that will depart west to Italy. Aeneas, where he makes landfall, prays to the gods for safe passage and blessing wherever he goes. In fact, the most frequent action of Aeneas throughout his eponymous epic is prayer.
In dutiful dedication to his father and the household gods, Aeneas embodies what Virgil considered the first principle of order in a disorderly world: duty to one’s parents and one’s gods.
Virgil did not discover this notion on his own. He borrowed from Cicero who wrote of the importance of what we now call filial piety in his various discourses and philosophical treatises, most notably De re publica and De Officiis. Virgil, however, masterfully crafted the necessity of piety as the first principle of order in eternal form: poetry.
Debates rage over whether Virgil — along with the other Augustan poets — were sycophantic yes men to the first Roman emperor or subtle critics. To get bogged down in this debate is to miss what all the Augustan poets shared in their praise of Augustus. They did not so much praise Augustus the man per se but praised him because of what he wrought: peaceful order in the midst of chaos.
Virgil grew up in turbulent times not too dissimilar from the times of Aeneas as he recounts to Dido in her palace chambers. Troy, like the Roman Republic, was a mighty civilization. Troy, like the Roman Republic, had fallen. Virgil lived through the decline and fall of the Roman Republic, its many civil wars, and Rome’s movement to empire. Roman history is even reflected in the great shield Aeneas carries into battle to defeat Turnus at the conclusion of the epic.
While Virgil, at the cosmic level, may have theologized Augustus and Roman history in a deterministic fashion that guaranteed the triumph of Augustan civilization, what Augustus helped to recover was the filial piety lost in the fratricidal civil wars that plagued the republic.
In reminding his audience of the first principle of order coming from filial love, and from out of that filial love patriotism blossoms, Virgil’s poetic construction speaks of the eternal virtues of love and respect for parents. Whether Augustus practiced these virtues in person were irrelevant to Virgil and the other Augustan poets. The Augustan project aimed at revivifying this ancient heart of the Roman people and thus the poets, Virgil most prominently, were supportive of this effort.
Given the fact that the Aeneid is also a social and political commentary on the fall of the republic and the civil wars that burned Rome, Virgil’s emphasis on piety as the first principle of order and love remains a social and political commentary for all societies undergoing conflagration, decline, and decadence. To halt the burning and decline, Virgil poetically and mystically sings of the need to return to the very order of love lost: the family and the gods.
One of the reasons why the Roman republic fell — and it is undeniable that Virgil had a preference for the republic instead of the empire — is because it had fallen away from the first principles of love and slipped into the cesspool of hatred and ambition. As Cicero said, rapturously energetic and revolutionary men destroy noble things and bring far more harm than good in doing so. So too does Virgil echo this sentiment by shaming his Roman audience into psychologically probing themselves for having failed to love their parents and the gods.
Aeneas as exemplar of the Roman heart becomes the model for Virgil’s audience to measure themselves against. Here we see Virgil’s message most clearly. A man is the model to follow and emulate; a man of flesh and blood no different than you or I. Aeneas becomes the attainable ideal for all, not just a chosen few.
And what model is that? The virtuous, dutiful, pious man of family, fatherland, and religiosity. Aeneas lifts his ancestral lineage on his back and saves it from extinction when he carries Anchises on his shoulders. Aeneas prays for the blessing and protection of the gods wherever he goes. Aeneas fights for his fellow countrymen against all odds.
In Aeneas we find a model man to emulate. And in our own time we might look to “our classic” once more to find the spirit of restoration needed in a hateful and chaotic world just as Aeneas found himself in so many millennia ago. We might go as far as saying that the restoration of duty to family, fatherland, and religion is the Aeneas Option so sorely needed to restore our cultural and civilizational vitality.
St. Basil the Great once exhorted Christians not to be afraid of classical literature. He argued that we could richly profit from their readings, which is why classical texts have long been part of Christian education. Virgil’s Aeneid remains one of the prime works that can be a model for our own virtue. Love of God, family, and countrymen is what the epic is about.

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