A review of Vergil's Empire: Political Thought in the Aeneid, by Eve Adler

From the beginning of the last century until the Vietnam era, British and American scholars generally agreed that Vergil's Aeneid extolled the Rome of Caesar Augustus and encouraged admiration for the martial virtues required to gain, and keep, the Empire. During the '60s critics announced discoveries of other voices within the poem, voices cooler in their estimate of Augustus, doubtful of empire, and unstirred by warriorly exploits. Since then, academic industry has largely occupied itself with producing further evidence that Vergil comes to praise and stays to subvert.

Eve Adler takes a refreshingly novel approach in her recent study of the Aeneid. She proposes to determine where Vergil stands with respect to the aggressively atheistic teachings of the Epicureans, particularly Lucretius. Vergil knew quite intimately Lucretius' philosophical poem De Rerum Natura ("On the Nature of Things") and frequently echoes the thought, and at times the language, of Lucretius. But scholars have disagreed regarding the extent of Vergil's sympathy with his predecessor: Did Vergil intend to advance or oppose Lucretius' project of discrediting traditional religion? On Adler's reading, Vergil opposes the Lucretian project and subjects it to a disabling critique, while at the same time aligning himself with, or at least leaving unchallenged, the materialistic cosmology from which Lucretius had launched his polemic against religion. According to Adler, there is no necessary connection between Lucretian physics and Lucretian political thought; she can therefore absolve Vergil of inconsistency in accepting the one while rejecting the other.

Lucretius had identified the substratum of everything that is with homogeneous atoms too small to be perceived. These atoms aggregate by chance to produce the visible world, and by chance they will eventually disperse, demolishing the cosmos as we know it. There are no permanent beings beneath, within, or above the heavens. There are no gods, and the universe manifests no final cause. Although Lucretius denies the existence of divinities, he blames religion for a great part of the ills besetting mankind. To the afflictions human beings suffer in common with other animals men add sufferings occasioned by their baseless yet powerful opinions about the gods and the afterlife. Though death is in truth a mere extinction of consciousness and need not prompt us to fear, the religious beliefs of men cause them to dread punitive sufferings inflicted by gods on the shades of men who have departed this earth for the underworld. If only men would free themselves of this self-inflicted dread, they might avail themselves more amply of the bodily pleasures common to all animals as well as the intellectual pleasures believed to be unique to mankind.

Lucretius proposes to push back the frontiers of superstition and extend the frontiers of enlightenment by exposing credulity, on the one hand, and, on the other, propagating his science of natural causes. Both efforts serve to liberate men from the unnecessary fear inspired by religion. And there is a moral benefit, as well. Conventional religion, according to Lucretius, not only intensifies fear but stirs up all the passions. The terrifying anticipation of posthumous sorrows provokes extravagant ambitions for immortal fame, and desperate lusts for any pleasure that may afford distraction from the terror. Although Lucretian teachings may appear to give license to every sort of pleasure, Lucretius claims that they will moderate passions and thus should placate moralists. He recognizes, though, that his materialistic hedonism must fend off a further objection: that it undermines heroism and the poetry of heroic deeds. On this score, he defends himself in De Rerum Natura, by enlisting poetic charm in the service of Epicurean doctrine. The poem celebrates a new kind of hero in Lucretius' teacher, Epicurus, who surpasses the heroism of Homer's Achilles and Odysseus by braving priests to enlighten humanity.

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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.

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Adler's understanding of the meaning Vergil attributes to Aeneas' treaty seems right even if actual Roman practice was quite contrary to that with which she credits Rome's legendary founder: Vergil envisions an ideal that may remain as a standard even if Romans had not adhered to it. More problematic are Adler's conclusions regarding Vergil's deepest theological convictions.

The link between the first and third movements of the Aeneid appears in the sixth book where Aeneas famously descends into the realm of the dead. That Vergil depicts the afterlife at all confutes Lucretius, as Adler observes, since Epicureans deny the afterlife. And the juridical character of Vergil's underworld, where rewards and punishments are meted out in accord with the shades' earthly deserts, seems to certify Vergil's defense of piety. But Adler offers several reasons for doubting that Vergil means his description of posthumous sanctions to be taken literally. Here some difficulties are posed by her interpretation.

First, it seems important to specify more precisely than Adler does, just where Vergil directs his reservations. Does he intend merely to suggest that the punishments and rewards Aeneas witnesses should not be understood literally but are exemplary of actual sanctions enforced in some unknown manner by a just divinity? Or does Vergil here imply in guarded fashion a skepticism regarding either the existence of gods or their concern for human conduct, or their interest in settling moral accounts after death? Adler seems to favor the second, more radical alternative: Vergil, she claims, was persuaded that we "live in a godless world." Yet in the episode under consideration—in Anchises' account of an impersonal world spirit evidently more authoritative in Vergil's estimation than the divinities he has dramatized—Vergil offers a philosophically respectable corrective of received theology. To express an unexplained skepticism regarding all he has presented in the underworld would place the poet in the strange position of undermining his corrective.

Second, wherever Vergil's reservations attach, if in depicting such an afterlife Vergil seeks to encourage a salutary belief rather than a belief he holds simply to be true, must he not expect most people to take the account as literally true? If so, then why risk confusing them with disturbing reservations? And then there remains a problem of what one might term critical propriety. Suppose that Vergil thought his account salutary, though not simply true; suppose, as well, that he took pains to make his reservations visible only to the few whose probity does not depend upon belief in the gods' sanction, while keeping them invisible to the many for whom such belief is salutary—on these suppositions, is a commentator acting responsibly in making generally accessible what Vergil thought should be accessible only to select readers?

Since Rome no longer governs the world this last issue might seem unseasonable. Adler understands, however, 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.

Adler's study of Vergil distinguishes itself from most current efforts in literary criticism by commenting upon the poem in a manner that develops a continuous course of thought. That is to say, without lecturing she manages through commentary to discuss the realities with which Vergil and Lucretius are concerned. Adler has succeeded as moderator over a conversation between two philosophic poets. By arranging confrontations between the poems she has elucidated partial agreements and defining differences. Without making explicit applications she thereby allows readers to locate in Vergil's thinking a model for penetrating an issue as critical for our time as for his.