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Pagan Despair Ends with the Hope & Charity of God in Christ
by Anthony Esolen
I was standing before a hundred or so people, parents and students, giving a special Family Day lecture, to show what sorts of things we talk about in our Development of Western Civilization program and, more than that, to show just a bit of what can happen in a school whose classrooms are all marked with a crucifix.
“Where is hope to be found?” I asked, remarking that at the end of Rome’s civil war, with the accession of Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil had attempted to resuscitate in epic poetry the old Roman virtue of pietas. That virtue had embraced one’s duty to one’s father, to the patria or fatherland, to the household gods (tutelary ancestral shades), and to the great gods. But in Virgil’s vision it seems also to embrace what the Italian language, centuries later, would mean by pieta: mercy for weak and suffering mankind.
Virgil at times suggests that if there is any hope for us in this world of labor and tears, it is in the practice of pietas. So in the Aeneid he defines his hero Aeneas not by the implacable wrath of Achilles, nor by the cunning of Odysseus, but by piety. “ Sum pius Aeneas,” says the hero, without any trace of pride—“I am pious Aeneas.” He fights when he needs to, and not for the delight of battle. He gives up his desire to die with the fall of his native Troy, and instead follows the will of the gods to lead his refugee people to a new land. He does not concoct fine plans for the defeat of his enemies, but consults with his aged father Anchises, both on earth and even in the underworld, for advice on where he should sail, or whom he should seek for an ally in Italy, where the Trojans have disembarked.
Bernini sculpted Aeneas in his emblematic moment of piety: leading his father and young son safely out of Troy. He carries his crippled father, having thrown a lionskin over his shoulders for the old man’s comfort, while the father carries the holy figurines of the household gods. Ascanius, Aeneas’s son, follows closely behind, carrying a small lamp.
A Difficult & Unhappy Life
Aeneas has defined his life by piety. What has he gotten for it? He watches as the flames devour Troy. From the ramparts of the palace he sees the son of the now dead Achilles battering down the king’s door, to rape and pollute with blood the penetralia, the sacred womb of the house, its hearth and shrine. He loses his wife in the chaos as they flee the city. He loses his father before they reach Italy. He falls in love with the Carthaginian widow, Queen Dido, only to be told by the gods that he must leave her; she, driven mad by desire and wrath, pronounces a curse of unending enmity between his people and hers, and takes her own life.
He visits his father in the underworld, and attempts to embrace him, but his arms pass through the shadow as through air. He strikes a marriage agreement with the daughter of the Italian king, Latinus, but that provokes a war between the Trojans and Turnus, the daughter’s former betrothed. He allies himself with a Greek émigré named Evander, “Good Man” in Greek, and promises to bring his son Pallas back safe from the battlefield; it is a promise he proves unable to keep, as Turnus kills the lad in battle and strips him of his belt.
Time and again, Aeneas loses those he loves the most. His life is difficult and unhappy, and it is prophesied that it will also be short. On the morning before he is to decide the war with Turnus by single combat, he utters these words of a loyal but weary father:
True work and manhood learn from me, my son;
Good fortune you can learn from someone else.
The Impossible Conflict
When, after a breach of the truce and a general bloodbath, Aeneas and Turnus finally face one another, it is, alas, a terrible replay of the duel between the hated Achilles and the Trojan Hector in Homer’s Iliad, only now Virgil has placed Aeneas in the unwitting role of Achilles, the Greek, and the father of the impious destroyer of the Trojan palace.
In that earlier duel, Achilles delivered Hector a mortal blow in the throat, just missing the windpipe, allowing Hector to breathe out a final plea that Achilles return his body to his father and mother in Troy. “No,” says the impious Achilles, “you will be meat for the birds and dogs!” And when Hector dies, Achilles bores a hole through his ankles, straps him to his chariot, and drags his body backwards three times around the city, in full sight of his wailing parents, his wife, and his comrades.
Now Virgil could have had Aeneas simply slay Turnus, but instead Aeneas wounds him—not fatally. Turnus, ironically placed in the role of the Trojan Hector, then looks to the older man looming above him, and concedes. He grants to Aeneas the hand of the king’s daughter. And he begs for his life, in words that must strike deep into the pious man’s heart. He asks, in the name of Aeneas’ own father Anchises, that he be allowed to go home to his father.
All kinds of considerations are in his favor. Turnus is young. He was betrothed first to the princess. He is a noble warrior. He has given in. But Aeneas, wavering, sees the belt of the young Pallas on Turnus’s waist, and is torn between piety and piety. He should spare the young Turnus. He should avenge Pallas’s death. He should take pity on Turnus’s father. He should take pity on Pallas’s father. Finally he breaks the impasse, the impossible conflict, and shows the failure of the virtue whereby he has ever lived:
Aeneas raged at the relic of his anguish
Worn by this man as trophy. Blazing up
And terrible in his anger, he called out:
“You in your plunder, torn from one of mine,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due.” (tr. Robert Fitzgerald)
Aeneas plunges his sword into Turnus’s chest, and the young man’s soul goes groaning to the shades below. So the poem ends.
No Hope in Paganism
“Where, then, is the hope?” I asked my audience. “It’s simple. There is no hope. What did you think? All paganism ends in despair.”
Where they should turn, if they wish for hope, I will tell soon. But I would like first to repeat that dictum, that all paganism ends in despair. For there is no virtue that paganism can put forth that will satisfy the longings of man, not simply for transcendent goodness and beauty, but even for true peace among men on earth. It is not just that paganism will not lead to the city of God. It is not even a sure basis for the city of man.
Consider the candidates among pagans today—candidates far beneath the nobility of Virgil’s pietas. Take freedom, for one. The modern pagan, having no clear idea what freedom is for, or indeed that it is for anything at all, must define it in terms that make the very notion of the common good incoherent, and its pursuit impossible. For my freedom is the capacity to do what I choose, as against the attempts by others to keep me from doing it. It comprehends those things that others cannot forbid me to do.
But a glance at this freedom shows that it rests upon a conception of society that pits one person or one group against another. There is no sense that my freedom is for others, or that I am most free when I give myself magnanimously to what my neighbor needs. This modern view of freedom cannot unite a people; it is detached from virtue; it encloses man within the solitude of his private desires. Its paradigmatic practitioner may well be a man alone at his computer, viewing pornography on the Internet, trapped in a lust that does not even satisfy itself in the seedy adventure of a whorehouse or a hayloft.
Or consider the modern pagan “virtue” of making something of oneself: keeping one’s record clean, so that one may procure a good job, stay in good physical shape, and have exactly two children, who will themselves go on to college to procure a good job, one that allows them the money and the spare time to keep in good shape, and have exactly two children in turn, world without end, amen.
What is the point of it? And when one of the children finds the ideal unsatisfactory—a kind of trammeled-up life of the conventional, without a single glance at a transcendent and eternal good, a life against which the more honest pagan Nietzsche recoiled in disgust—what counsel can the parents give?
And when the flesh begins to sag, and the wrinkles multiply, and the hair grows silver and thin, and the end that all human beings must meet approaches, of what great comfort will it be to say, “I was a well-paid lawyer for forty years, and handled hundreds of mortgage agreements”? Of what great comfort is it, even in the salad days, when the work separates you from your neighbors, whom you do not know, and from your spouse, whom you see only at odd times, and from your children, whom you no longer serve as principal educator?
Then there is the interminable list of “correct” positions to take, positions arrived at not by deductions from the first principles of moral philosophy, but from social fads. One must recycle. One must not turn away in embarrassment from a parade of nearly naked men celebrating their failure to negotiate the straits of puberty. One must not think ill, or really think anything at all, of a man and woman shacking up, producing children out of wedlock, often with other children begotten by other fathers sharing the same roof. One must believe that the earth is growing warmer, that that is a bad thing, that it is caused by man’s activities, and that radical action must be taken (action, be it specified, by other people) to put it to a stop. One must work to efface all differences between man and woman, against the obvious claims of nature.
What is there in all this that lifts the heart? What is there in this snooping over the political shoulder that makes for a genuine community life? Add to all these annoying points of political etiquette the pathetically naïve trust that we are all to place in science and scientists, as if scientists were not men, moved by the same passions as we are, and flawed with the same proneness to arrogance and folly. We are to trust in the ever-advancing conquests of technology, and not trouble to notice that we become subordinate to our tools, and that we reduce the human to the mechanical.
What is the end of life like, in this newly pagan world? An old person, worn out, long unable to enjoy the physical gratifications that are considered the only real spice in life, lies on a bed in a nursing home. Hours and hours of no event pass by; the television blares overhead; family members confer about what treatment will be given in case of emergency and, more important, what treatment will not be given, for the fear of death is often less acute than the fear of an inhuman existence attached to a machine.
That assumes, of course, that there are family members to come and visit, when in reality the family will probably have been flung to the four corners of the earth, each member pursuing his vision of the good life, apart from any consideration for all the others. As for neighbors dropping by, forget it. For the person who lives two doors away might as well dwell on a planet revolving around Alpha Centauri.
In short, if the piety about which Virgil wrote so movingly cannot, of itself, make for human happiness, then certainly none of these paltry substitutes can come close. What, then, can? Where lies our hope?
Mystery & Joy
When Jesus was asked which was the greatest of the commandments, he replied that one shall love the Lord God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength; and he added a second commandment, which he said was like unto the first, that one should love his neighbor as himself. “Upon these,” he said, “depend the whole Law and the prophets.”
It is the virtue of charity, which Aquinas, taking the Aristotelian ideal of friendship far beyond bounds which the pagan philosopher could have recognized, defined as “friendship with God.” And because charity binds us in friendship with God, it binds us also to one another, made in the image and likeness of God.
Christian poetry of the Middle Ages often explores the mystery of this virtue—its capacity to transcend what the world would understand as a good to be pursued. When, for example, the pilgrim Dante is traversing the ring of envy in Purgatory, one of the souls decries man’s tendency to set his heart on “things that are impossible to share,” as, for instance, wealth and prestige and power. Dante does not at first understand what the soul means, whereupon his guide Virgil has to explain that, in Paradise, joy is made all the more joyful by the greater number of souls to share it; it is like light magnified in brightness by reflection in a multitude of mirrors.
In charity we rejoice in the good of another, even if that good is greater than our own. In charity we grow the greater in heart and soul precisely to the extent that we look with delight upon the gifts that God has given to others, gifts that he may well have withheld from us.
The point is made most beautifully when Dante rises to the lowest stair of heavenly blessedness, symbolized by the sphere of the moon. There he asks the soul of the blessed Piccarda whether she and her fellows desire a higher place in heaven. Piccarda replies in poetry of unparalleled beauty, theological acumen, and human understanding:
“Brother, the virtue of our charity
brings quiet to our wills, so we desire
but what we have, and thirst for nothing else.
If we should feel a yearning to be higher,
such a desire would strike disharmony
against His will who knows, and wills us here.
That cannot catch these wheels, as you shall see:
recall love’s nature, recall that Heaven is
to live in loving, necessarily.
For it is of the essence of this bliss
to hold one’s dwelling in the divine Will,
who makes our single wills the same, and His,
So that, although we dwell from sill to sill
throughout this kingdom, that is as we please,
as it delights the King in whose desire
We find our own. In His will is our peace:
that is the sea whereto all creatures fare,
fashioned by Nature or the hand of God.”
( Par. 3.70–87)
Impelled by Charity
Charity is the virtue that moved one Joseph de Veuster to connive passage on a ship from Belgium to the island of Molokai, where he determined to live among the lepers and serve their physical and spiritual needs. When he arrived he found them living in chaos and squalor; his charity bound them together in community.
Charity moved a diminutive Albanian nun to leave her beloved work at a comfortable school for girls in India, to live among the destitute of Calcutta, among children and the aged and the untouchable, among lepers, victims of cholera, and people dying in their own filth. It was the refuse of a people that Mother Teresa served, and she brought them into houses for their care, into communities of love.
Above them both, and above all the Christians who have gone forth like saintly madmen to love God and neighbor, stands Jesus Christ, who shed his blood for his enemies, to make them his friends.
Only Hope & True Friend
Only in Christ is there hope. So I said to the assembled audience. “Let me show you where hope is to be found,” I said, and took out my Bible. I turned to the twenty-first chapter of Revelation. Hardly had I gotten the first word out, when, to my surprise, bells began to peal from the church across the street. This is what I read:
And I saw a new heaven and a new earth: for the first heaven and the first earth were passed away; and there was no more sea. And I John saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a great voice out of heaven saying, Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men, and he will dwell with them, and they shall be his people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. And God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.
And he that sat upon the throne said, “Behold, I make all things new.” (Rev. 21:1–5)
That was all. And at the word “new,” the bells ceased, and a murmur rippled through the people. “You planned that!” a man shouted, and we all laughed.
It was a rich laughter. I will wager that even those among the audience who had strayed from the church must have confessed the force of the point. Jesus is the friend whom Virgil did not know, and whom the world, weak in heart and nerve, longs to forget. But he is seated upon the throne nonetheless, and whether the world likes it or not, he will save that world from itself, by love.
The world wants to remain old, old in sin. Too bad for the world! “Behold,” he declares, “I make all things new.”
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.