3 More Ways Dante Influenced Lewis

3 Ways Dante Influenced CS LewisIf you read my last post and are ready for more specifics on the ways in which C.S. Lewis was influenced by Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy in the writing of his Ransom Trilogy, you have come to the right place. The first part of this post can be found here and I do recommend reading that first by way of introduction. And off we go!

1 | Devils in Disguise: Hell on Malacandra

As I said in part 1 of this post, there is a sense in which the trajectory of the Ransom Trilogy both parallels and contrasts that of Dante’s Comedy. Heaven and Hell each get thicker as you go through the Trilogy until they meet, at last, on the Silent Planet in the third book, That Hideous Strength. In this part, however, I am focusing on the parallels between the “Inferno,” “Purgatorio,” and “Paradisio” that exist with each book of Lewis’ trilogy.

out-of-the-silent-planetThe word “Hell” only occurs once in Out of the Silent Planet, but where it is found is significant. After Ransom is taken to the Oyarsa, Weston and Devine are brought before him as well. Weston tries and fails to communicate with the Oyarsa. But he is so “bent” that he only sees through the lens of his preconceived notions of a “savage” people full of unlearned and uncultivated ignorance. While the sorns, the hrossa, the pfifltriggi, and even the eldila are actually laughing at Weston’s outrageous behavior, he interprets the laughter as roarings and terrible noises that frighten him, and he realizes that his approach isn’t working. Devine, in an outburst of frustration and fear, exclaims “Oh, Hell!” There are a few things we can note about this, but most important is the context in which the exclamation appears. Weston is so bent and stuck in his own mind, glued to his dead philosophies, that he is willing to die for them. Devine, on the other hand, knows nothing but his own greed. He will say anything just to save his own skin. Where Weston will die for a philosophy he loves and a humanity that he hates, Devine’s only love is himself and thus he cannot die for it—to die would be antithetical to the self-preservation which is the driving force behind his self-love. In this scene Lewis paints a Hell out of which neither Devine nor Weston can be rescued, but especially Devine. The Oyarsa specifically says that “this Thin One [Devine] who sits on the ground he [the Bent One] has broken, for he has left him nothing but greed. He is now only a talking animal and in my world he could do no more evil than an animal. If he were mine I would unmake his body for the hnau in it is already dead.” Devine has become so broken, that he is past repair. He is trapped in his fear and deluded by his greed. He has made a Hell for himself and there is no escape.

2 | Purgatory for the Prophet: Directed Love

Judging by the setting of Perelandra–a world uncorrupted by sin– we would expect a parallel with Dante’s Paradiso. But when analyzed with a character-driven perspective, focusing on Ransom in particular, the parallels soon point rather to the second of Dante’s realms—Purgatory.  Ransom, while at first feeling as though he has arrived in Paradise, soon learns the real reason that he has been sent to Perelandra.

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Dante’s Mount Purgatory

After Weston arrives in his space ship, a second Lucifer falling from the sky like a shooting star out of heaven, Ransom confronts him and witnesses his subsequent “possession” by a devil (likely Satan himself). From there, Ransom is put through the intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and finally physical wringer. He goes through his own personal “purgatory.” His fight with the Un-Man takes him from the lowest, deepest parts of earth, up through the center of the great mountain (a not-so-subtle image of Mount Purgatory). Ransom fights the Un-Man in the deeps until finally he crushes the devil’s head in a fiery chamber and throws his body into the pit. From there Ransom passes from glory to glory until he arrives at the Holy Mountain (another Edenic image). Ransom’s purging has tested his entire being.

november-2013-venus

The planet Venus, seen in its “half-moon” phase.

The imagery used in Perelandra mirrors that of Purgatorio more closely than it seems at first glance. The Pilgrim crosses an ocean in order to reach Mount Purgatory, which is found within the “earthly paradise.” And, perhaps most intriguing of all, one of the first sights that Dante’s Pilgrim sees after he and his guide emerge from the depths of Hell is the planet Venus: “The lovely planet kindling love in man/made all the eastern sky smile with her light,/veiling the Fish that shimmered in her train” (Purgatorio, I.19-21). How much do we read into or out of this? What you cannot deny is that the image of Venus is just that—an image. There are layers of meaning communicated by that image. Dante, like Lewis himself, is not simplistic in his use of symbolism or imagery. Dante uses this sighting of Venus on one level as a beacon of hope. The Pilgrim is encouraged by the sight of the sky after so long in the dark and by the light of Venus in particular as that planet which “kindles love in man.” But that love itself is an image, pointing to the even greater Love that the whole poem is leading towards. Love is the driving force behind Purgatory, as well as its end. Through the purging of all other loves and fears, one learns to love and fear the Author of all, the “Love that moves the sun and other stars” (Paradiso, XXXIII.145). It is fitting that Ransom’s purging should occur on the Morning Star herself, the Lady of Love.

3 | Pulling Down Deep Heaven: Paradise on the Silent Planet

In the last book of the Trilogy, the conflict reaches a climax and Heaven and Hell meet face to face on the Silent Planet itself. In a final battle that combines imagery of the tower of Babel, Samson’s defeat of the Philistines in the temple of Dagon, and a sort of inverted Noah’s ark, creatures from every realm of the medieval cosmos join together to defeat evil. The Silent Planet is silent no longer—it echoes with grunts and roars and chirps and howls. And after the battle is over, Venus is the one to remain. The winds and scents of Perelandra, the Lady of Love, weave themselves around St. Anne’s and Paradise reigns. Heaven and Hell clashed in battle and Heaven had the victory. Now Perelandra, no longer acting as Purgatory but as Eden itself, lingers on after the battle. Ransom completed his Jovial task. We don’t see him return to Perelandra, and that’s the way he wanted it. No drawn out goodbyes, no tears and sorrow—because he did not take the hope with him, but left it on Thulcandra, with Mark and Jane Studdock, now re-united. Once more moved by proper love, Mark and Jane become husband and wife as they were meant to be. The Trilogy ends with an outburst of love between birds and beasts as well as men. Mr. Bultitude the bear finds his Missus. The Dimbles depart together; Ivy is reunited with her husband; all of the beasts are pairing off. This is the work of Venus but it is also a final tie to Dante. It is an echo of the last words of The Divine Comedy, amplified and magnified by a link to all mankind through Ransom’s Jovial mission:

At this point power failed high fantasy
But, like a wheel in perfect balance turning,
I felt my will and my desire impelled
By the Love that moves the sun and other stars.
(Paradiso, XXXIII.142-145).

Ransom’s task is complete. Mars and Venus have been re-united, moved back into proper Love, and hope springs from their union.

The divine dance driven by Love in Dante's Paradisio

The divine dance driven by Love in Dante’s Paradisio.

I hope you enjoyed this blog series. Obviously, this is just barely scratching the surface of this topic, one which I have come to love dearly. There is much more that can (and has!) been said. But I hope that it inspired you, if nothing else, to pick up Lewis’s Ransom Trilogy again with a new perspective and, at the very least, renewed interest.

Christiana HaleChristiana Hale graduated Cum Laude from New Saint Andrew’s College with a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Culture, and plans to return in order to pursue a master’s degree studying what she loves most: C.S. Lewis, Theology and Letters. Her undergraduate thesis dissertation, “The Jovial Pilgrim,” expands at length on the ideas in this article, and was recognized as an “Outstanding Thesis” by New Saint Andrews College.

For Further Reading:

  • Downing, David C. Planets in Peril. Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press,   1992.
  • Lewis, C.S. The Allegory of Love: A Study in Medieval Tradition. London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1936.
  • ———. The Collected Letters of C.S. Lewis. Ed. Walter Hooper. 3 vols. San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2004.
  • ———. The Discarded Image. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1964.
  • ———. Of Other Worlds: Essays and Stories. Florida: Harcourt, Brace, & Company, 1966.
  • ———. Studies in Medieval and Renaissance Literature. Ed. Walter Hooper. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1966.
  • Ward, Michael. Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

 

3 Ways Dante Influenced C.S. Lewis | Part I

Three Ways Dante Influenced CS LewisCS LewisC.S. Lewis’s love for Dante Alighieri and The Divine Comedy was no great secret. Lewis first read Dante’s Inferno in the original Italian when he was in his teens and later read Purgatorio while he was in the hospital recovering from wounds received in World War I. He finally read Paradiso for the first time in 1930, before he became a Christian, but after he had reluctantly decided that there was a God. At this point, he was still very much conflicted as to the nature of God and whether or not there was an afterlife.

After finishing Paradiso, he told a dear friend, Arthur Greeves, that “it reaches heights of poetry which you get nowhere else; an ether almost too fine to breathe.Paradiso_Canto_31 It is a pity I can give you no notion what it is like. Can you imagine Shelley at his most ecstatic combined with Milton at his most solemn & rigid? It sounds impossible I know, but that is what Dante has done.” He thought that it felt “more important” than any poetry he had ever read. The year after reading Paradiso, Lewis became a believing Christian. While we might never know just how large a role Dante played in his actual conversion, it is clear that Dante had an incredible effect on Lewis’s life and writings.

The influence of The Divine Comedy can be clearly seen in one of Lewis’s finest, and yet frequently overlooked, works—the Ransom Trilogy (commonly but erroneously called the Space Trilogy). In this post I will outline three ways in which Dante’s influence can be seen in the Ransom Trilogy.

The cosmos as a “vast lighted concavity”

1. The first influence is not to be credited to Dante exclusively but to the medieval and renaissance writers and their worldview in general. Although Lewis held the chair of medieval and renaissance studies at Oxford, the influences of this worldview are frequently overlooked by Lewis scholars. And the greatest of these influences is that of the Medieval Model of the cosmos, a Model that Lewis outlines extensively in The cosmos-artDiscarded Image, the last book of his life that was published posthumously. In this book, Lewis encourages his readers to go out and take a look at the night sky. “You must go out on a starry night and walk about for half an hour trying to see the sky in terms of the old cosmology.” In order to understand the medieval conception of the cosmos, we have to imagine and feel; it is an imaginative and emotional exercise reaching beyond the purely intellectual. This is difficult for the modern mind to grasp because, as Lewis says, “nothing is more deeply impressed on the cosmic imaginings of a modern than the idea that the heavenly bodies move in a pitch-black and dead-cold vacuity.” But if we could see the cosmos as a medieval man would have, we would see a “vast lighted concavity,” a ceaseless dance moved by insatiable love. Reawakening the idea of the “heavens” that the medieval men had in their minds as opposed to our modern conception of “space” was one of the prime motivations that Lewis had in writing the Ransom Trilogy, and the effect that Dante himself had in implementing this model is not to be overlooked.

Ransom as the Pilgrim

2. The direct influence of Dante’s Divine Comedy on the Ransom Trilogy is perhaps nowhere more clearly seen than in the opening scene of Out of the Silent Planet, the first book of Lewis’s Trilogy. The book opens with a Pedestrian in a dark wood. Any student well-versed in medieval and renaissance literature feels at once on familiar il_fullxfull.227194853ground. The setting is eerily familiar: a Pilgrim in a dark wood, “midway along the journey of life” (Inferno, I.1), and a light that appears over the hill. Lewis subtly and deftly recreates the opening scene of Dante’s Inferno. The similarity immediately invites his readers to begin a comparison of Elwin Ransom and Dante’s Pilgrim and the journeys that they both take. We can legitimately expect, even without knowing that we are reading a “space-travel story,” that Ransom is about to set out on a journey that is very different from the one he is currently on. Lewis hints at this in his introduction: “The Pedestrian wasted no time on the landscape but set out at once with the determined stride of a good walker who has lately realized that he will have to walk farther than he intended.” If Ransom only knew…

Journey through the Divine Comedy

3. The third influence perhaps takes more time to see clearly, so forgive the brief space that I have to give to it. This is Dante’s influence on the structure of the Trilogy itself. Part 2 of this blog post will go into a bit more detail, but the structure of the Pilgrim’s journey through Hell, Purgatory, and then to Paradise that Dante built his poem around is mirrored in Ransom’s journey throughout Lewis’s Trilogy. There is a sense in which the trajectory of the entire Ransom Trilogy both parallels and contrasts that of Dante’s Comedy. Ransom, as we see by the last book, brings Paradise to earth. But at the same time, readers often find each book feeling more hellish. There isn’t a cut and dried parallel between Out of the Silent Planet and Inferno, between Perelandra and Purgatorio, or between That Hideous Strength and Paradiso. The relationship is much more complex, like a dance. Ransom’s movement is both opposite of Dante’s and the same. He is moving towards both Heaven and Hell. They each get thicker as Ransom comes closer to earth until they finally meet in the last book. And yet, as we will see in next week’s post, there are some very decided parallels between the three books of the Ransom Trilogy and the three realms of Dante’s Divine Comedy that are not only hard to ignore, but are even discussed by Lewis himself in both his writings and correspondence.

Lewis’s love for medievalism, and medieval cosmology in particular, played a huge role in all of his writings. This love especially sheds light on some of the stranger aspects of what I consider to be his greatest work – the Ransom Trilogy. Hopefully, this first post was enough to whet your appetite! There’s more to come next week.

Christiana HaleChristiana Hale graduated Cum Laude from New Saint Andrew’s College with a B.A. in Liberal Arts and Culture, and plans to return in order to pursue a master’s degree studying what she loves most: C.S. Lewis, Theology and Letters. Her undergraduate thesis dissertation, “The Jovial Pilgrim,” expands at length on the ideas in this article, and was recognized as an “Outstanding Thesis” by New Saint Andrews College.

Literature Done Right!

Old Western Culture - Literature Done Right! How is Old Western Culture  “Literature done right”?
—It is a CHRISTIAN approach to Literature; it integrates the story of History, Theology, and Philosophy, into THE GREAT STORY.
—It is a CLASSICAL approach to Literature, spanning the literary and ideological traditions that have shaped the fabric of our cultural heritage.
—It is a HOMESCHOOL approach to Literature: cost effective, structured, flexible, and just as much for parents as for students!

Learn the story of Western Civilization from a master storyteller!

Old Western Culture: A Christian Approach to the Great Books! Find out MORE.

A Defense of French as a Classical Language | By Luke Dickson

The importance of Latin as part of a classical education has been well-established. Latin is the language that built the West. It was the language of the Church. It was the language of philosophy, rhetoric, and science. It was how cultures communicated with each other for hundreds of years. What many don’t know is that French filled many of those same roles. In the last 300 years, the role of the French language has largely paralleled the role of Latin of the last 2,000 years. Here are four reasons why the study of French should be considered as part of a well-rounded classical education.

1. Our linguistic heritage was shaped by French.

Battle of Hastings. Norman Knights and archers, by Bayeux

Battle of Hastings. Norman Knights and archers, by Bayeux

Much of our Latin vocabulary actually comes to us through French. When the Norman French invaded England in the 11th Century, they brought with them a 300-year reign of the French language in England. As a matter of fact, Henry IV, who reigned at the turn of the fifteenth century, was the first English king to speak English rather than French as his mother tongue. His successor, Henry V, was the first English king to make official documents in English. Because of the prevalence of the French in England, the English language took much of its vocabulary from French. Anywhere from one quarter to one half of English vocabulary came to us through French. But since many of these borrowed words are dubbed “latinate,” people tend to assume that they were borrowed directly from Latin. Though ultimately a word’s root may be in Latin, it was the influence of the French language in England that gave our language the Latin that it has today. What’s more, because of this, studying French makes it that much easier for a student to effectively learn Latin, and vice-versa. Our linguistic heritage was shaped by French.

2. Our political heritage was shaped by French.

Treaty of Paris

Treaty of Paris

French was the diplomatic language of Europe from 1600s to the 1900s. Almost every treaty in Europe was written in Latin until 1678. But when the Austrians, who were in control of the defeated Holy Roman Empire, claimed that they would write treaties exclusively in Latin, they unwittingly tied Latin too closely to their own national identity. To us this seems strange, but to Europeans at that time Austria’s open defense of Latin was a claim to control Latin. But if the Austrians were the keepers of Latin, what would people who were not Austrians use as an official language? French filled this void. French was an established and regulated language, which meant that its meaning would stay constant and that the meanings of words in treaties and laws would not quickly change. By the 1600’s treaties were being written in French. In 1678, the Treaty of Nijmegen (which ended the Dutch War) was written in both Latin and French. Then in 1717, the Treaty of Rastatt, one of the three that ended the War of the Spanish Succession, was written entirely in French—even though the French lost. Starting with the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Europeans began negotiating and writing treaties almost exclusively in French. After that, most European countries wrote all diplomatic notes in French rather than their own language. Even though the French people did not control these nations, their language was still used to govern them. Our political heritage was shaped by French.

3. Our intellectual heritage was shaped by French.

René Descartes

René Descartes, by Frans Hals

In the 1700s French became the language of philosophy and science. Wealthy French women began hosting groups of up-and-coming thinkers, writers, and activists in their homes. These gatherings came to be known as salons, and hundreds sprung up, first in France and then throughout Europe. They were centers of thought and learning, and became a primary means of communicating new ideas. Interestingly, when salons appeared in cities like Berlin, Amsterdam, and London, the participants always spoke French. This is because French had become the language of the intellectuals. A hundred years prior, René Descartes published his incredibly influential philosophical work, Discourse on the Method, in French. As a matter of fact, his famous cogito ergo sum idea was originally expressed in French. In doing this, he showed that French was strong and regulated enough to fill the role that Latin previously had. France was experiencing tremendous intellectual growth, from chemistry to medicine to physics to philosophy to theology. As more and more discoveries were being made by French-speaking people, French became increasingly important as a means of communication between European intellectuals. It was no longer necessary to send letters and write books in Latin in order to communicate new thoughts and discoveries; they used French for that. Classical curricula (rightly) teach students Latin in part due to the fact that Rome shaped Western culture. For the same reasons, a classical student should learn French. We cannot understand the last 300 years of Western science, philosophy, and politics without studying the works of French-speakers. Our intellectual heritage was shaped by French.

4. French does not depend upon France

ParisThis last point is important because it sets French apart from the other Latin-based languages. The French language is so useful to learn because it is firmly fixed in the Western scene. In its heyday, Spain’s empire was magnificent and spread its language throughout five continents. It was much the same story with Portugal. Italy, too, was an important cultural center. But none of their languages retained an exceptional influence. Of course, Portuguese is still spoken in Brazil, and Spanish is spoken widely throughout North and South America, but they do not hold the same clout as French. They were never the languages of academia or diplomacy. By contrast, the French language is inseparable from the Western cultural canon. It continues to be essential on the international scene today, holding its place as the most useful western business language after English. Our modern heritage continues to be shaped by French.

French is not simply practical to learn, but enlightening. It helps tell the story of how we came to be who we are, because it helped make the West what it is today. From the Protestant Reformation to the birth of modern philosophy and science, French was the language of both progress and unity. The 300 years of French dominance are, like our classical roots, often forgotten, but that doesn’t make them any less important when it comes to understanding our cultural heritage.

If you’d like any more information on the development, history, and importance of the French language, I highly recommend The Story of French by Jean-Benoît Nadeau and Julie Barlow.

Luke DicksonLuke Dickson is a student at New Saint Andrews College, where he studies Classical Liberal Arts and Culture. When he’s not studying for school, he can be found in local coffee shops, studying everything else under the sun.

Educating Royalty | by Dr. Roy Atwood

We must teach our children to be Kingdom heirs—not just laborers in the marketplace

“Who are you?” a university student once asked me.

Artist's depiction of Solomon's court (Ingobertus, c. 880)

Solomon’s court, by Ingobertus, c. AD 880

Odd question, I thought. I’d handled countless student questions, but this one caught me unprepared.

“Uh . . . I’m a professor,” I answered weakly.

“No!” he shot back. “I don’t mean what do you do, but who are you?”

His question unsettled me. Like most North Americans, I’d been carefully, though not intentionally, catechized since a lad at my parents’ side that the first and most important question we ask adults at first meeting (after getting their name) is, “What do you do?”

I’d learned that catechism lesson well, repeating it literally hundreds of times in all kinds of social settings over the years. But that catechism had left me quite unprepared to answer this more fundamental question about my personal identity separate from my place in the market.

That grieved me because, as a Christian, I had been better versed in the catechism of secular pragmatism than in Lord’s Days 12 and 13 or the Scriptures. And I knew I wasn’t the only one.

The answer that changes everything

The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ…. – Romans 8:16-17a

As I have reflected on that encounter over the years, I’ve realized that the biblical and covenantal answer to the question, “Who are you?” is a glorious one that stands in stark contrast to the secular myth that our employment or “career” defines us. Of course, our work and callings as Christians in the marketplace are important. Providing for our families is a great privilege and responsibility. But the priority of work in both our lives and the education of our children is almost certainly misplaced and overemphasized today in Reformed circles. Continue reading

The Goal of Education: Peripheral Vision

Dr. Roy Atwood, in an article called Recovering Peripheral Vision, speaks first of the failure of the current academia of this age as they seek practical jobs and vocational training while mocking the “useless” liberal arts. He then talks about the real goal of education, which is to see both broadly (or peripherally) and how one thing connects to another. It turns out that these are the skills we end up actually using, even if usefulness was not the point!
Roy Atwood quote

Dr. Roy Atwood and his wife BevDr. Roy Atwood is one of the founders of New Saint Andrews College and served as its President from 2004-2014. He currently serves as the Abraham Kuyper Distinguished Professor of Classics at Morthland College. He received a B.A. in Philosophy from Dordt College (Iowa), a Master of Arts in Religion from Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, and a Ph.D. in Mass Communication from the University of Iowa.

Socrates Searched for Jesus | by Steven Hunter

In Plato’s Meno, Socrates and Meno were conversing about the meaning of virtue and how one obtained it. Meno believed that virtue was relative to a person’s age, sex, and station in life (e.g. slave or free). He, then, posited that virtue was the ability to govern humanity, believing that justice was a virtue. As the conversation progressed, the meaning changed several times, but the turn came when the talk of obtaining virtue began to revolve around if one could learn virtue. Socrates asked

But if the good are not by nature good, are they made good by instruction?

Based on this question, we can see why education became a hallmark of Plato in the Republic. From here, though, Meno and Socrates opined over whether virtue could be taught, but Socrates didn’t believe it could be taught. He reasoned thus

And did those gentlemen [teachers of virtue] grow of themselves; and without having been taught by any one, were they nevertheless able to teach others that which they had never learned themselves? (92)

As soon as I read this line, Jesus immediately popped in my head. Christ grew from himself through the incarnation, and he was taught by no one, but Himself, God (cf. Heb. 5.8). Socrates concluded

…if we are at all right in our view, that virtue is neither natural nor acquired, but an instinct given by God to the virtuous….Then, Meno, the conclusion is that virtue comes to the virtuous by the gift of God.

School of Athens - Plato and AristotleMy mind began spinning. I actually like Socrates’ definition of virtue and how it’s obtained. We who are Christians know that there is nothing inherently good in us save for the image that we bear of God in our persons. Nevertheless, as a sin-ridden, fallen human being, we become good because of what Jesus has done for us. He, however, and contrary to what Socrates posited, is the Teacher of virtue (cf. Matt. 23.8). As a matter of fact, Clement of Alexandria’s work Paedagogus is an early Christian treatise on ethics that presents the Logos (Christ) as the real instructor.

Paul put’s it this way

Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come. But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Rom. 5.14-19)

Socrates didn’t believe a man could be a teacher of virtue, but Christ was. Virtue originated and emanated from Christ, and, yes, we are made virtuous (righteous) because of Christ.

Originally published on Steven’s Blog, Veritas Venator. Republished with permission. 

stevenhunterSteven Hunter is a Christian, family man, minister, educator, and academic. He is married to Stephanie and has three children. He hold an MA in theological studies from Liberty Baptist Theological Seminary, and is pursuing a PhD with Faulkner University’s Great Books Honors College. He enjoys reading books, wearing bow-ties (despite not wearing one in the picture) and wacky socks, and he also practices Japanese jujutsu.

The Greatest Roman | By Wes Callihan

The Meeting of Dido and AeneasVergil’s Aeneid, the epic poem which tells the story of the wanderings of Aeneas on his way to becoming the founder of Rome, is propaganda. But such a statement would not have bothered Vergil a bit. “Propaganda” in Latin simply means “things which ought to be propagated,” and Vergil certainly believed that the values espoused in his story needed to be spread about a bit.

Aeneas was the ultimate Roman, primarily because he revered the gods. “Pious Aeneas” is the epithet used of him throughout the poem, and if anyone missed the point, they were asleep during the reading. Aeneas modeled for the Romans what they all ought to have been, and if Caesar Augustus, who was Vergil’s great patron, dropped less than subtle hints about the duties of poets in influencing culture, Vergil was not reluctant in agreeing. Rome had not been long out of decades of civil war, and Rome desperately needed, and was getting under Augustus, stability and safety, prosperity and peace. Most of all Rome needed a moral compass, and that is what Vergil hoped to provide. He would write an epic poem following Homer’s pattern and, in his hero, would praise the greatness of Rome, glorify Augustus Caesar, and extol the virtues of patriotism, conservatism, devotion to duty, and reverence for the gods of Rome, of whom Augustus was soon to become.

All this he accomplished, and his poem became the benchmark of literature for nearly a millennia and a half. He did not keep Rome from falling into the quagmire of corruption that he and Augustus foresaw, but his work endured like no other.

The Fight Between Aeneas and King TurnusThe Aeneid “propagates” other things besides Roman ethics. It carries embedded in it presuppositions about the nature of history and man’s response to it that are radically different from those of the Greeks and especially Homer, whose works so influenced the Aeneid’s form. Behind Achilleus’ glory-seeking, Hektor’s devotion to his city and people, and Odysseus’s drive to return home is the pervasive assumption that the passage of time is essentially meaningless. At the end of the Iliad , when old king Priam has come to Achilleus to plead for the return of Hektor’s body,Achilleus commiserates with his suffering, reminding him that Zeus hands out good and evil mixed, or sometimes just evil, and men can but endure what he deals out, while only the gods live happily. For men like these, lives are lived for the short-term, and what will happen has happened before. All things change, but the change is fundamentally meaningless, and consequently all things stay the same. History is but “meaningless flux.” Fate is what the gods do to a man, and his response therefore is simply to do what he pleases and suffer his fate. Fate will happen, no matter what he does; there is no question of obedience.

Aeneas Relating to Dido the Disasters of TroyOn the other hand, Aeneas’ drive to fulfill his destiny implies at least two changes in the way we are asked to view history. First, man must respond to his destiny, when the gods reveal it, by obeying. His fate may not be fulfilled, it seems, if he simply does what he pleases, and so he must subordinate his immediate desires to the higher duty to the future, a future he may never see himself. At one point in his wanderings over the Mediterranean, Aeneas finds himself falling in love with Queen Dido of Carthage and is tempted to stay with her rather than continue seeking for the land where he is destined to found the nation of Rome. The gods remind him not only of his destiny, but of the necessity of his obedience, and he goes. Odysseus, who also got sidetracked with women, would not have understood this response to fate. Odysseus moved on simply because he could, not because he had any idea of helping fate.

Second, history is teleological. It has a purpose, a goal; time has meaning. It is not cyclical, but it progresses upward, and things become greater and higher. The gods drive man onward, and as he obeys, he becomes a great people. Achilleus did not fight, nor Hektor defend, because of any potential progress in the future; Achilleus fought because he had always fought and because that was how men gained glory. Hektor fought because he had a wife and child whom he loved. But Aeneas struggled on against the obstacles Juno constantly threw in his way because the gods had told him that, if he succeeded, a great nation would come from him, with countless descendants and glorious ones. He subordinated himself to the greater glory of future Rome, knowing he would never see it, and so Rome was founded.

Because Vergil’s poem was so important during the rest of the Empire’s history and throughout the Middle Ages, the structure of his poem standardized the epic form embodied in Homer. Vergil was the vehicle by which Homer’s peculiarities became literary conventions. After Vergil, everyone who wrote an epic began it with an invocation to the muse of epic poetry, launched the story in medias res , included epic similes, had his hero journey to the underworld, had a catalog of nations or men, had funeral games, and so on. These elements exist because Homer did them, but they are characteristics of epic poetry because Vergil carried them on.

Vergil was called the Magus by medievals because he was so learned and they were so ignorant; by comparison he seemed to them to be a man of supernatural wisdom and power. It has been some time since anyone felt that way about him; nevertheless, he is still deservedly recognized as one of the four or five greatest poets in our western tradition.

Learn more about the Aeneid from Wesley Callihan in the unit The Aeneid in the Old Western Culture curriculum.

Wes Callihan reading John of Damascus during Hill AbbeyWesley Callihan grew up on a farm in Idaho and graduated with a degree in history from the University of Idaho. He has taught at Logos School, New Saint Andrews College, and Veritas Academy. In 1997 he founded Schola Classical Tutorials where he teaches online classes on the Great Books, Astronomy, Church History, Greek, and Latin.
He is now working with Roman Roads Media to produce Old Western Culture, a 4-year integrated humanities curriculum designed to equip homeschoolers and their families with the tools to tackle the Great Books that shaped Western Civilization.

This article originally appeared in Credenda Agenda, Volume 7, Issue 6: Poetics. Republished with permission.

John Chrysostom on the temptations to both rich and poor

St. John Chrysostom talks about the temptations to both rich and poor. He points out that while the sins of the rich tend to be obvious, the sins of the poor are just as egregious, and are not as evident. Chrysostom was the archbishop of Constantinople in the late 300s AD, and is a very influential Church Father, often quoted by Reformers like John Calvin who appreciated his pastoral teaching. This is from a collection of his homilies called On Living Simply: The Golden Voice of John Chrysostom.

Students of Old Western Culture will learn about Chrysostom in Romans: Nicene Christianity.

The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.

The sins of the rich, such as greed and selfishness, are obvious for all to see. The sins of the poor are less conspicuous, yet equally corrosive of the soul. Some poor people are tempted to envy the rich; indeed this is a form of vicarious greed, because the poor person wanting great wealth is in spirit no different from the rich person amassing great wealth. Many poor people are gripped by fear: their hearts are caught in a chain of anxiety, worrying whether they will have food on their plates tomorrow or clothes on their backs. Some poor people are constantly formulating in their minds devious plans to cheat the rich to obtain their Wealth; this is no different in spirit from the rich making plans to exploit the poor by paying low wages. The art of being poor is to trust in God for everything, to demand nothing-and to be grateful for all that is given.