Lest you think I’m going through a voluntary Ancient Classics phase, this is another paper I wrote for school. I’ve enjoyed going through Greek literature, especially seeing the development of various themes. The Aeneid is, of course, Roman literature, but it shares much with Greek culture. This paper picks up on some of the themes of my paper on time and eternity in The Iliad.
Flannery O’Connor once said that, “redemption is meaningless unless there is a cause for it in the actual life we live, and for the last few centuries there has been operating in our culture the secular belief that there is no such cause.” The Biblical story, and indeed many stories throughout history, have viewed redemption of one kind or another as necessary because the world is not the way it ought to be. For example, Marxist revolutionaries believe the world needs redemption, though to them “redemption” is revolution. But the reason they believe this is necessary is a perceived flaw in the world. There are classes, and in Marxism there ought not be.
If there is nothing wrong with the world then there can be no redemption, for what is being redeemed? What is being set right? The Aeneid by Virgil and The Iliad by Homer approach the world in two different ways. Both grant that the world is full of tragedy, but Homer views this tragedy as natural. It is sad but it is not wrong. Virgil views tragedy as pervasive but unnatural. It is everywhere, but it is wrong.
Homer’s philosophy can be most clearly seen when great tragedies occur. When Achilles and Priam are mourning the deaths of friend and son Achilles declares, “the Immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men/live on to bear such torments–the gods live free of sorrows. (24.613–24.614)” Such fatalism is prevalent throughout the story. Indeed, the entire poem is set in light of “the will of Zeus…moving toward its end. (1.6)”
From this there are a few implications that could be drawn. It’s obvious that the Homeric worldview is fatalistic, but note the response of the characters within the Iliad. Achilles declares determinism, but he doesn’t decry this as fundamentally wrong, unfair, or unnatural. To put it simply, it’s just this way.
When Hector bids goodbye to wife and son he expresses his certainty that Troy will fall, but there is nothing wrong with this. It is tragic, but it is not wrong. But on further examination, of course this is the way it is. The Homeric mythos tells us that the Fates have predetermined everything from the beginning. What they decree is reality. Everything that happens must ultimately be natural because there is nothing else. There is no transcendent standard of “natural,” no Edenic paradise to appeal to. There is nothing to compare this world with.
Virgil paints a different picture, again most evident in tragedy. Take, for example, the story of Nisus’ and Euryalus’ slaughter of Turnus’ troops. These two young soldiers venture out, seized with courage, to slaughter the Latian troops while they lie drunk. After killing many soldiers they are themselves seen and killed. Turnus plants their heads on stakes as they attack Aeneas’ troops the next day. What is the reaction of the Trojans? Think, for a moment, what the reaction would be in Homer’s world. The Trojans would be saddened. They would weep, perhaps they would swear revenge. But they would not be shocked, and they would feel no deep-seeded “wrongness” in the event.
“On the rampart’s left wing–the river flanks the right–
the hardened troops of Aeneas group in battle order,
Facing enemy lines and manning the broad trench
Or stationed up on the towers–wrung with sorrow,
Men stunned by the sight of men they know too well. (9.536–9.541)”
This is not the Homeric response. There is shock and horror here. A similar reaction occurs when Aeneas encounters Dido in Hades. For the first time he realizes her demise and responds with nothing less than agony, declaring that he never intended to hurt her in this way (6.521–553). Virgil even describes her death as an “unjust fate (6.552).”
To put it simply, something is wrong in Virgil’s world. Aeneas shouldn’t be searching for a home, Creusa shouldn’t be killed, Dido shouldn’t be wracked with suicidal grief. This is not the way the world ought to be.
This leads to a large difference between the Homeric and Virgillian approaches to tragedy. Homer views it as natural, Virgil as unnatural. Homer views it as amoral, Virgil as immoral. Homer’s characters expect it, Virgil’s are shocked by it. Both writers recognize that tragedy is, in fact, tragic, but only one recognizes that tragedy is wrong.
But this is far more than a simple philosophical difference. Why does The Iliad have no happy ending? Why is injustice not avenged? Why does the war continue? Perhaps it’s because Homer simply decided against ending the war. But, might there be no happy ending because there can’t be? After all, if there were true peace then there would be an ideal with which to compare the horror of war. Tragedy would be tried and found wanting–peace would be declared “right” and war “wrong.” Homer can’t write a happy ending in The Iliad because the Iliad’s worldview doesn’t allow for happy endings. Or, to put it differently, The Iliad has the happiest ending possible within its worldview.
Why can Virgil end his story with the restoration of justice? Because there is injustice. Aberrations can be remedied, errors can be fixed, wrongs can be righted. But if there is no aberration, no error, and no wrong then there can be no solution. Justice can’t be restored because injustice never occurred.
In terms that O’Connor might like, the beauty of redemption is possible because of the horror of the fall. There has to be a need for redemption or the term is meaningless. Virgil’s world has that need, Homer’s does not. Or, to put it another way, Virgil can hope for restoration, Homer cannot.