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Vergil / A Biography By Tenney Frank Characters: 11510

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

It has been remarked that Vergil's genius was of slow growth; he was twenty-eight before he wrote any verses that his mature judgment recognized as worthy of publication. A survey of his early life reveals some of the reasons for this tardy development. Born and schooled in a province he was naturally held back by lack of those contacts which stimulate boys of the city to rapid mental growth. The first few years at Rome were in some measure wasted upon a subject for which he had neither taste nor endowment. The banal rhetorical training might indeed have made a Lucan or a Juvenal out of him had he not finally revolted so decisively. However, this work at Rome proved not to be a total loss. His choice of a national theme for an epic and his insight into the true qualities of imperial Rome owe something to the study of political questions that his preparation for a public career had necessitated. He learned something in his Roman days that not even Epicurean scorn for politics could eradicate.

However, his next decision, to devote his life to philosophy, again retarded his poetic development. Certainly it held him in leash during the years of adolescent enthusiasms when he might have become a lyric poet of the neoteric school. A Catullus or a Keats must be caught early. Indeed the very dogmas of the Epicurean school, if taken in all earnestness, were suppressive of lyrical enthusiasm. The Aetna shows perhaps the worst effects of Epicurean doctrine in its scholastic insistence that myths must now give way to facts. Its author was still too absorbed in the microscopic analysis of a petty piece of research to catch the spirit of Lucretius who had found in the visions of the scientific workshop a majesty and beauty that partook of the essence of poetry.

In the end Vergil's poetry, like that of Lucretius, owed more to Epicureanism than modern critics-too often obsessed by a misapplied odium philosophicum-have been inclined to admit. It is all too easy to compare this philosophy with other systems, past and present, and to prove its science inadequate, its implications unethical, and its attitude towards art banal. But that is not a sound historical method of approach. The student of Vergil should rather remember how great was the need of that age for some practical philosophy capable of lifting the mind out of the stupor in which a hybrid mythology had left it, and how, when Platonic idealism had been wrecked by the skeptics, and Stoicism with its hypothetical premises had repelled many students, Epicurean positivism came as a saving gospel of enlightenment.

The system, despite its inadequate first answers, employed a scientific method that gave the Romans faith in many of its results, just at a time when orthodox mythology had yielded before the first critical inspection. As a preliminary system of illumination it proved invaluable. Untrained in metaphysical processes of thought, ignorant of the tools of exact science, the Romans had as yet been granted no answers to their growing curiosity about nature except those offered by a hopelessly na?ve faith. Stoicism had first been brought over by Greek teachers as a possible guide, but the Roman, now trained by his extraordinary career in world politics to think in terms of experience, could have but little patience with a metaphysical system that constantly took refuge in a faith in aprioristic logic which had already been successfully challenged by two centuries of skeptics. The Epicurean at least kept his feet on the ground, appealed to the practical man's faith in his own senses, and plausibly propped his hypotheses with analogous illustrations, oftentimes approaching very close to the cogent methods of a new inductive logic. He rested his case at least on the processes of argumentation that the Roman daily applied in the law-courts and the Senate, and not upon flights of metaphysical reasoning. He came with a gospel of illumination to a race eager for light, opening vistas into an infinity of worlds marvelously created by processes that the average man beheld in his daily walks.

It was this capacity of the Epicurean philosophy to free the imagination, to lift man out of a trivial mythology into a world of infinite visions, and to satisfy man's curiosity regarding the universe with tangible answers[1] that especially attracted Romans of Vergil's day to the new philosophy. Their experience was not unlike that of numberless men of the last generation who first escaped from a puerile cosmology by way of popularized versions of Darwinism which the experts condemned as unscientific.

[Footnote 1: It is not quite accurate to say that the Romans made a dogma

of Epicurus' ipse dixit which destroyed scientific open-mindedness.

Vergil uses Posidonius and Zeno as freely as the Stoic Seneca does


Furthermore, Epicureanism provided a view of nature which was apt in the minds of an imaginative poet to lead toward romanticism. Stoicism indeed pretended to be pantheistic, and Wordsworth has demonstrated the value to romanticism of that attitude. But to the clear of vision Stoicism immediately took from nature with one hand what it had given with the other. Invariably, its rule of "follow nature" had to be defined in terms that proved its distrust of what the world called nature. As a matter of fact the Stoic had only scorn for naturalism. Physical man was to him a creature to be chained. Trust not the "scelerata pulpa; peccat et haec, peccat!" cries Persius in terror.

The earlier na?ve animism of Greece and Rome had contained more of aesthetic value, for it was the very spring from which had flowed all the wealth of ancient myths. But the nymphs of that stream were dead, slain by p

hilosophical questioning. The new poetic myth-making that still showed the influence of an old habit of mind was apt to be rather self-conscious and diffident, ending in something resembling the pathetic fallacy.

Epicureanism on the other hand by employing the theory of evolution was able to unite man and nature once more. And since man is so self-centered that his imagination refuses to extend sympathetic treatment to nature unless he can feel a vital bond of fellowship with it, the poetry of romance became possible only upon the discovery of that unity. This is doubtless why Lucretius, first of all the Romans, could in his prooemium bring back to nature that sensuousness which through the songs of the troubadours has become the central theme of romantic poetry even to our day.

Nam simulac species patefactast verna diei …

A?riae primum volucres te diva tuumque

Significant initum perculsae corda tua vi,

Inde ferae pecudes persultant pabula laeta.

Vergil, convinced by the same philosophy, expresses himself similarly:

Et genus aequoreum, pecudes, pictaeque volucres amor omnibus idem.

And again:

Avia tum resonant avibus virgulta canoris

Et Venerem certis repetunt armenta diebus

Parturit almus ager Zepherique trementibus auris

Laxant arva sinus.

It is, of course, the theme of "Sumer is icumen in." Lucretius feels so strongly the unity of naturally evolved creation that he never hesitates to compare men of various temperaments with animals of sundry natures-the fiery lion, the cool-tempered ox-and explain the differences in both by the same preponderance of some peculiar kind of "soul-atoms."

Obviously this was a system which, by enlarging man's mental horizon and sympathies, could create new values for aesthetic use. Like the crude evolutionistic hypotheses in Rousseau's day, it gave one a more soundly based sympathy for one's fellows-since evolution was not yet "red in tooth and claw." If nature was to be trusted, why not man's nature? Why curse the body, any man's body, as the root-ground of sin? Were not the instincts a part of man? Might not the scientific view prove that the passions so far from being diseases, conditioned the very life and survival of the race? Perhaps the evils of excess, called sin, were after all due to defects in social and political institutions that had applied incorrect regulative principles, or to the selfishly imposed religious fears which had driven the healthy instincts into tantrums. Rid man of these erroneous fears and of a political system begot for purposes of exploitation and see whether by returning to an age of primitive innocence he cannot prove that nature is trustworthy.[2]

[Footnote 2: Lucretius, III, 37-93; II, 23-39; V, 1105-1135.]

There is in this philosophy then a basis for a large humanitarianism, dangerous perhaps in its implications. And yet it could hardly have been more perilous than the Roman orthodox religion which insisted only upon formal correctness, seldom upon ethical decorum, or than Stoicism with its categorical imperative, which could restrain only those who were already convinced. The Stoic pretence of appealing to a natural law could be proved illogical at first examination, when driven to admit that "nature" must be explained by a question-begging definition before its rule could be applied.

Indeed the Romans of Vergil's day had not been accustomed to look for ethical sanctions in religion or creed. Morality had always been for them a matter of family custom, parental teaching of the rules of decorum, legal doctrine regarding the universality of aequitas, and, more than they knew, of puritanic instincts inherited from a well-sifted stock. It probably did not occur to Lucretius and Vergil to ask whether this new philosophy encouraged a higher or a lower ethical standard. Cicero, as statesman, does; but the question had doubtless come to him first out of the literature of the Academy which he was wont to read. Despite their creed, Lucretius and Vergil are indeed Rome's foremost apostles of Righteousness; and if anyone had pressed home the charge of possible moral weakness in their system they might well have pointed to the exemplary life of Epicurus and many of his followers. To the Romans this philosophy brought a creed of wide sympathies with none of the "lust for sensation" that accompanied its return in the days of Rousseau and "Werther." Had not the old Roman stock, sound in marrow and clear of eye, been shattered by wars and thinned out by emigration, only to be displaced by a more nervous and impulsive people that had come in by the slave trade, Roman civilization would hardly have suffered from the application of the doctrines of Epicurus.

Whether or not Vergil remained an Epicurean to the end, we must, to be fair, give credit to that philosophy for much that is most poetical in his later work,-a romantic charm in the treatment of nature, a deep comprehension of man's temper, a broader sympathy with humanity and a clearer understanding of the difference between social virtue and mere ritualistic correctness than was to be expected of a Roman at this time.

It is, however, very probable that Vergil remained on the whole faithful to this creed[3] to the very end. He was forty years of age and only eleven years from his death when he published the Georgics, which are permeated with the Epicurean view of nature; and the restatement of this creed in the first book of the Aeneid ought to warn us that his faith in it did not die.

[Footnote 3: This is, of course, not the view of Sellar, Conington, Glover, and Norden,-to mention but a few of those who hold that Vergil became a Stoic. See chapter XV for a development of this view.]

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