Next to the Bible, over the last two thousand years no book has been read more than Virgil’s Aeneid (though Boethius’s Consolation of Philosophy is a close second). The Aeneid is a story about the work and sacrifice that are required to do something great (in this case, found Rome). Time and again Aeneas is forced to choose between doing what he wants to do and what he ought to do; time and again he faithfully fulfills his duty.
The most interesting example of this occurs in Book IV. At this point in the story Aeneas has taken refuge in Carthage and become romantically involved with Queen Dido. Up until this point Dido has been a great queen, but her love for Aeneas distracts her and she begins to neglect her duties to her people. As a result her people suffer. For his part, Aeneas loves Dido and hopes to stay with her and become king of Carthage. But when the gods tell him that he must return to the seas, that he must once again take on the role of wanderer and foreigner and journey to an unknown land and found a people that will bless the nations, he does not hesitate to do his duty. In response, Dido curses him and takes her own life.
It may come as no surprise, but modern readers tend to identify and sympathize with Dido far more than they do with Aeneas. She is a person that values love above all and that is a good thing, is it not? We tend to view romantic love as an unqualified good—think about the plot of many romantic comedies. A nice girl meets a guy with some major defect. They fall in love, but he in some way blows it. Then they reconcile and he becomes a better person in some way. Indeed, in every modern story I can think of it is always the villain that chooses career over love. And yet in The Aeneid the hero Aeneas rejects romantic love to fulfill his calling and romantic love is portrayed, on the whole, negatively. Our ancestors were people just like us, how could they view things so differently?
To answer this question, let’s consider two things. First, after falling in love with Aeneas, Dido becomes so taken with him that she fails to fulfill her other duties and the people under her care suffer. At first glance this doesn’t seem all that applicable as few of us have the same type of high level duties as a queen. But on deeper reflection, we see this all the time! How often does a single person with children find a new romantic interest, devote him- or herself to that person, and as a result the children suffer? How often do the interests of children come second to those of a new boyfriend or girlfriend? It seems, indeed, that romantic love can in fact distract us from legitimate duties.
Second, while we tend to view romantic love as ennobling (again, think of our romantic comedies), there is a dark side to the way we pursue romantic love. Think of all the self-loathing, depression, fear, and anxiety that go along with breakups and rejection—and a culture that idealizes serial romantic attachments and relationships will produce a lot of breakups and rejection and tons of accompanying pain. Dido’s pain and desperation may at first glance seem extreme, but they are all too common. “American suicide rates increased by 33 percent between 1999 and 2019. The percentage of Americans who say they have no close friends has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life. Fifty-four percent of Americans report sometimes or always feeling that no one knows them well, according to a 2018 Ipsos survey.” This is not to say that all of our maladies are a result of the way we approach romantic love, but there does seem to be a strong correlation between the breakdown of families and an overall deterioration of mental health and well-being.
The Aeneid is a great example of the value of old books. At first glance old books often seem foreign and repulsive—romantic love can be destructive to ourselves and others? We should value duty above romantic fulfillment? But when we press into them we find that the authors often recognize things we have lost sight of or they point out things we would rather not be confronted with. For, as bad as it sounds, is it not true that we indeed ought to value duty above romantic love? Would any marriage stand if either spouse preferred to seek romantic fulfillment over keeping their vows to their spouse? Are not all flourishing marriages comprised of two people that value their duty to the institution of marriage and their duty to obey God’s commands over and above following their hearts? This is not to say that Aeneas is a perfect model; he is not. Rather, it is worth noting that the things that confuse us or repel us in old books are often things that can instruct us if we will take the time to consider them with a healthy open mind.
This concludes “Virtue in Literature.” I hope you have found this series edifying.