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Though it is not Ms Adler's intent, this is one of those books that makes you bitter about the decline of classical education in America. Never mind that we're no longer taught Latin and Greek, how many of us were ever assigned the Aeneid or the Homerian epics in school, never mind studying the Epicurianism of Lucretius? So a close reading of these three sources will necessarily draw upon details that seem obscure to the casual reader and it's hard to know what experts will make of some of the author's assertions, but the core argument here is compelling and Ms Adler argues it gracefully. She states her thesis right off the bat in the Introduction:
[V]ergil's poem is a "foundation poem" not because its subject matter is the Aenean first foundation or the Augustinian refoundation of Rome, but because it itself claims to be the foundation of an altogether new and greater order of things, maior rerum ordo (Aeneid 7.44). The political problem that animates Vergil's founding ambitions is the conflict between scientific enlightenment and religion. The specific form in which this problem was given to Vergil was the form of Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura, in the theoretical argument of the poem on the one hand, and in the literary or political fact of its publication on the other.

Lucretius teaches that we human beings are accidental, mortal, and alone without gods--without gods to provide for us, to protect morality, to reward and punish us, to govern nature or guide the government of cities, to preserve our country, our posterity, our world itself from inexorable dissolution and oblivion. According to Lucretius, full knowledge of our unprotected situation in the universe, bitter or frightening as it may appear at first, is the source of the highest and most secure happiness attainable by a human being. Lucretius' astonishing project, his presentation in beautiful poetry of the comprehensive Epicurean doctrine, not only presents the argument for the truth of Epicureanism but also aims to make this argument accessible to a far wider audience than Epicurus himself, or Epicurus' followers, had ever thought good to address. Thus while the argument of De Rerum Natura is theoretical, its literary form--its presentation as beautiful and ingratiating poetry--is a practical or political deed of the greatest moment [...]

In this study I have argued that Vergil is indeed persuaded by Lucretius' argument that we live in a godless world, but is also persuaded that the propagation of this truth is harmful to human life. That the truth is harmful to human life is somehow a sad teaching, which goes far towards illuminating the famous melancholy of Vergil's Aeneid. In Vergil's view, all of human natural sociability, human laws, human force, and human education are insufficient, without widespread belief in provident and punishing gods, to sustain human life at all, not to speak of cultivating the good life or enabling the few, like Lucretius, to philosophize. Lucretius' deed, his public propagation of Epicurean doctrine in poetry, reflects according to Vergil a grave error in Lucretius' understanding of human nature, and thus a grave defect in Lucretius' account of the whole nature of things. Vergil's own project may be described as the public rectification of Lucretius' error in such a way as to lay the foundation for his own "greater order of things." As Lucretius' poem has both a theoretical argument and a practical effect, so Vergil aims to both correct Lucretius' theory--thereby perfecting the true doctrine of the whole nature of things--and undo the harmful practical effect of Lucretius' poem by outshining it utterly and forever with the brilliant attractions of his own.
What Vergil serves up then is a pious hero, in the form of Aeneas, to counteract the scientifically enlightened godlessness of Lucretius.

Political aficionados will be struck by the Straussian nature of Ms Adler's argument--indeed, in this account Vergil seems an earlier version of Leo Strauss (whose work Ms Adler has previously translated). Here's how Robert Locke describes the Straussian project:
The key Straussian concept is the Straussian text, which is a piece of philosophical writing that is deliberately written so that the average reader will understand it as saying one ("exoteric") thing but the special few for whom it is intended will grasp its real ("esoteric") meaning. The reason for this is that philosophy is dangerous. Philosophy calls into question the conventional morality upon which civil order in society depends; it also reveals ugly truths that weaken menÕs attachment to their societies. Ideally, it then offers an alternative based on reason, but understanding the reasoning is difficult and many people who read it will only understand the "calling into question" part and not the latter part that reconstructs ethics. Worse, it is unclear whether philosophy really can construct a rational basis for ethics. Therefore philosophy has a tendency to promote nihilism in mediocre minds, and they must be prevented from being exposed to it. The civil authorities are frequently aware of this, and therefore they persecute and seek to silence philosophers. Strauss shockingly admits, contrary to generations of liberal professors who have taught him as a martyr to the First Amendment, that the prosecution of Socrates was not entirely without point. This honesty about the dangers of philosophy gives Straussian thought a seriousness lacking in much contemporary philosophy; it is also a sign of the conviction that philosophy, contrary to the mythology of our "practical" (though sodden with ideology and quick to take offense at ideas) age, matters.

Strauss not only believed that the great thinkers of the past wrote Straussian texts, he approved of this. It is a kind of class system of the intellect, which mirrors the class systems of rulers and ruled, owners and workers, creators and audiences, which exist in politics, economics, and culture. He views the founding corruption of modern political philosophy, which hundreds of years later bears poisonous fruit in the form of liberal nihilism, to be the attempt to abolish this distinction. It is a kind of Bolshevism of the mind.
Doesn't Ms Adler's reading of Vergil suggest that he was warning the Epicureans that even though their insight was right it should be hidden from the mass of men and reserved for the few who could deal with it?

That religious piety is a necessary counterbalance to scientific rationalism has certainly been proven by the precipitous decline of secularized Europe. It has fallen prey to liberal nihilism even as an almost primitively religious America has continued to rise. The interesting question to contemplate here though is: why if a full understanding of the true nature of things requires supernatural faith on the part of the many must the philosophers believe that such faith is false? If recognizing the need for piety perfects our view of the world, why not accept that God indeed exists? What sense does a world make that requires belief in God but contains no God?

Towards the end of the book Ms Adler sums up Vergil's achievement as follows:
The opening words of the first book of the Aeneid, arma virumque cano, pit Aeneas against Achilles and Odysseus, as its conclusion with the song of Iopas pits him against Epicurus. Vergil proposes a hero superior not only to both Homeric heroes but also to that hero whom Lucretius has already proposed as surpassing both Homeric heroes. The superiority of Aeneas to Achilles and Odysseus lies in his combining the spheres of both of them in one. Such a combination would suggest that the human incompletion of each of the Homeric heroes is not necessary after all, that Homer was mistaken in presenting man as compelled in the best case to choose between tragic devotion to immortality and comic devotion to his own. Aeneas' superiority to Epicurus is surely not superiority in Epicurus' own sphere; in no sense is Aeneas a philosopher. On the contrary, Aeneas outranks Epicurus as a hero by making it manifest that the philosopher as such is defective as a model for the emulation of men as such. Lucretius had poetically represented Epicurus as a hero in order to make Epicurus' way of life attractive to men whose taste was formed by heroic poetry. But his poetic way of speaking is false, and Lucretius employed it not for the wise reasons for which the poets (like Vergil) employ poetic falsehoods but because he was in error about the nature of things, and particularly about human nature. From the truth that the philosophic life is the supreme peak of human happiness he erroneously concluded that human happiness could be promoted by turning the generality of men to emulation of the philosopher. The true conclusion, however, is that only through emulation of the pious founder can the generality of men achieve such happiness as they are capable of, and only through a previous provision for the general happiness of men can the special happiness of the philosopher be secured.
Within modern science, despite its putative atheism, has developed the concept of an Anthropic Principle, which basically holds that the sheer number of qualities of the universe that have to be precisely tuned in order for Man to have arisen, and the utter unlikelihood of them all so occurring, suggests that our existence may be the point. Not only does this conveniently explain why so many things are the way they are but the idea that the Universe is here to Create us obviously implies that there is a Creator. Perhaps it's time for the Straussian heirs of Vergil to apply the Anthropic Principle to their philosophy and face the possibility that the requirement of faith in God to complete humankind implies God?

At any rate, the book is marvelous, not least because it demonstrates how little the argument between the rationalists and the faithful have changed in two thousand years.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Eve Adler Links:

    -BOOK SITE: Vergil's Empire (Rowman & Littlefield)
    -REVIEW: of Vergil's Empire by Eve Adler (Robert Royal, Weekly Standard)
    -REVIEW: of Vergil's Empire by Eve Adler (John E. Alvis, Claremont Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of Philosophy and Law. By Leo Strauss. Translated by Eve Adler (David Novak, First Things)

Book-related and General Links:
    -Vergilius (70 B.C.E. - 19 B.C.E.) - in English Virgil or Vergil, Latin in full Publius Vergilius Maro (kirjasto)
    -Virgil (1911 Encyclopedia Britannica)
    -The Vergil Project (The University of Pennsylvania)
    -Vergil's Home Page (The University of Pennsylvania)
    -The Virgil Home Page (vergil resources)
    -The Internet Classics Archive | The Aeneid by Virgil (translated by John Dryden)
    -Virgil and the Aeneid (Rambligs of a Philosophe)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Virgil the Great (Bernard Knox, November 18, 1999, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of VIRGIL: His Life and Times By Peter Levi (James Shapiro, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Joseph Farrell, Vergil's Georgics and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History (Sara Myers, Bryn Mawr Classical Review)
    -REVIEW: of Farrell, Joseph, Vergil's 'Georgics' and the Traditions of Ancient Epic: The Art of Allusion in Literary History (Peter Toohey, Electronic Antiquities)