December 3, 2005


Politics and Piety: A review of a Vergil's Empire: Political Thought in the Aeneid, by Eve Adler (John E. Alvis, Fall 2004, Claremont Review of Books)

Adler's reading of the Aeneid gives us a Vergil whose hero Aeneas has been so conceived as to surpass Epicurus as well as Achilles and Odysseus. In the process, Adler's Vergil brings to sight what he finds unpersuasive in the teaching of Epicurus-Lucretius and suggests a corrective that is partly political and partly religious. Adler sees the Aeneid as a foundational poem written to provide philosophical justification for the Roman Empire under Augustus. Rome achieves the best of Lucretian ends—peace, proliferation of practical and liberal arts, leisure and freedom for philosophers—by rejecting Lucretian means. The empire assures its universality by imposing its religion upon subject nations. That ecumenic religion, in turn, contributes to the moderation of those unhappy passions which Lucretius had mistakenly thought to be exacerbated by religion.

Adler perceives a regime founded on Lucretian principles in Vergil's portrayal of Carthage and its founder, Queen Dido. Adler's highly original interpretation of the first third of the Aeneid collects evidence to support her contention that Carthage offers an atheistic alternative to Rome. Vergil's Carthaginians rely on their own efforts to cultivate the arts and conduct commerce. They acknowledge no gods and maintain a court poet whose poetic account of the cosmos resembles Lucretius' famous poem. Rome's great rival for universal empire lacks adequate provisions for war, however, and the sad fate of its queen makes a case against Lucretius' assumption that skepticism of religion will moderate passions. Dido's skepticism, abetted by her sister's indifference to piety, removes every check upon her love for Aeneas while it blinds her to the inevitable separation from him, which she could have foreseen in his several references to the divine mission awaiting him in Italy. On such grounds, Adler concludes that the first movement of the Aeneid conveys Vergil's doubt that Lucretius had appreciated the strength of passions in the absence of piety; to this doubt Vergil adds a demonstration that irreligion obviously fails to induce moderation.

In the final movement of the poem Adler discovers Vergil's positive corrective to the Lucretian defects exposed in the first movement. Aeneas' victory over the native Italians results in a political settlement emblematic of the settlements Rome will subsequently arrange with the nations it brings under its imperial rule. The distinctive feature of the peace Aeneas accomplishes is his combining a prudent regard for local civil life with firm insistence upon a universal principle of union: native tribes will retain their particular laws and customs while submitting to the religion Aeneas professes. The practical superiority of Aeneas' religion to that of the native Italians lies in the supremacy attributed to Jupiter in the Trojan pantheon. Vergil's Jupiter exerts his providence on behalf of law, whereas the aboriginal Italians believe they live under the care of Saturn and owe their virtue not to law but to their own spontaneous sense of justice. Rome will extend Aeneas' law-favoring universal religion simultaneously with its empire, thereby justifying its empire on grounds precisely the opposite of those that underlie the Lucretian project. [...]

Adler understands...that she is concerned with a perennial question of political philosophy: whether religion is indispensable to civil society. As she remarks,

[Vergil's] questions are alive for us too because we too live in a world in which materialist or atheistic science claims to offer a general improvement of human life…in the reformation of the human spirit, the dismantling of religious fears and comforts in favor of human autonomy, human courage and prudence in the face of our unprotectedness.

Post-revolutionary France and the post-revolutionary Soviet Union were confident that enlightenment required attacks upon religion. J. S. Mill acknowledged that public and private morality could find sustenance in traditional religion but gave the credit to tradition rather than religion. The American Revolution justified itself by a double appeal to "laws of Nature and Nature's God." But Americans today divide over the question whether their political morality requires a foundation in religious belief, or, for that matter, in nature. American students of the same philosophers Cicero and Vergil studied now divide over the question whether nature may suffice and religion be dispensable, or if indispensable, whether this is because it is true or simply because it is salutary for the non-philosophic. Within this same school one finds disagreement over the foundation of inalienable rights. Are rights to be respected because they derive from man's nature or because they are endowments conferred by God? Americans acknowledge no foundational poem, but their founding Declaration speaks of a "Creator" who has "endowed" us with "rights." Adler rightly has perceived that Vergil's contention with Lucretius anticipates our own contentions.

It's a marvelous book.

[originally Posted in BrothersJudd Blog on September 8, 2004]

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 3, 2005 11:59 PM

>Post-revolutionary France and the post-
>revolutionary Soviet Union were confident that
>enlightenment required attacks upon religion.

I'd like to know how the dogma got started that the two were mutually exclusive.

And howcum a lot of Christians bought into the same dogma completely, but from the other end? I've run into a lot of "Holy Nincompoops" in my day.

Posted by: Ken at September 9, 2004 12:33 PM

"Are rights to be respected because they derive from man's nature or because they are endowments conferred by God? "

If the rights are founded on an appeal to "laws of Nature and Nature's God", then aren't the two considerations the same? Man's nature is the work of Nature. So the appeal to God is redundant, and thus unnecessary. Only if the endowment by God were revealed in an extra-natural way, and went against those rights that would be derived from a consideration of man's nature (ie. they were unnatural) would the appeal to God be necessary.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 9, 2004 5:53 PM

Nature is the work of God.

Posted by: oj at September 9, 2004 6:20 PM

So you agree with me?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 9, 2004 11:56 PM

That Natural Law derives from God, yes.

Posted by: oj at September 10, 2004 12:00 AM

So I can just listen to Nature and disregard anything that is said by religious people, because they either confirm what Nature tells me, and are merely redundant, or contradict what Nature tells me, and are wrong. Right?

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 11, 2004 11:42 AM

Yes, Natural Law will suffice. It is, of course, religion:

Posted by: oj at September 11, 2004 11:50 AM

Yes, but the problem with Budziszewski's formulation of Natural Law based on the Ten Commandments is that Commandment's 1-3 are not of natural origin, but based on supernatural revelation. So is

"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment."

The rest of the Commandments can be said to be "a universal possession, an emblem of mind, an heirloom of the family of man", but not the first three.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 11, 2004 10:00 PM

How's that a problem? Nature is by definition of supernatural origin.

Posted by: oj at September 12, 2004 12:32 AM

No, Nature is by definition natural.

Posted by: Robert Duquette at September 12, 2004 3:10 AM


Posted by: oj at December 4, 2005 8:54 AM