Tuesday, January 24, 2012

From Aeneas to Batman: Myth and History - by Bradley J. Birzer

With stealth and no small amount of cowardice, the Greeks creep out of their strange gift, a large wooden horse, under the cover of night and safely within the locked city walls. Rather than face Aeneas and the Trojans as men in battle, the Greeks unlock the gates, letting their murderous comrades in, and proceed to slaughter women and children wantonly. To almost all present, it seems the end of the Trojan civilization. Even Venus, the goddess of Love, and the mother of the great warrior and leader Aeneas, despairs. In answer to her anguish, Jupiter, the king of all gods, assures her, “And, lest new fears disturb thy happy state/Know, I have search'd the mystic rolls of Fate:/Thy son (nor is th' appointed season far)/In Italy shall wage successful war/Shall tame fierce nations in the bloody field/And sov'reign laws impose, and cities build/Till, after ev'ry foe subdued.” Though destroyed at Troy, the Trojans, fierce but true men, would rebuild elsewhere. The new city, Rome, would become the eternal city. “Of martial tow'rs the founder shall become/The people Romans call, the city Rome,” Jupiter continued. “To them no bounds of empire I assign/Nor term of years to their immortal line.”[1] The Aeneid is, in large part, a story about timeless truths, and the great Stoic mythmaker, Virgil, is telling the ages that truth can not be destroyed. It can be forgotten, ignored, or even perverted, but it could never fully cease to exist. For truth to cease to exist, the world would cease to exist. Instead, almost buried, the truth can be replanted in new soil. And, though the wheat will grow with the tares, the wheat will still grow, waiting to be fed, watered, protected, and, ultimately, harvested.

Almost nineteen centuries after the siege of Troy, Representative John Quincy Adams stood in New York City and praised the first president of the United States, who had earned the reputation of being a new Cato the Younger, a new Aeneas, and a new Cincinnatus.[2] Indeed, at the time of his death in 1799, Washington was the most famous man in the western world. In his 1839 speech, Adams invoked the image of the first president of the United States as the Virgilian hero, but with a vitally important twist.

Would it be an unlicensed trespass of the imagination to conceive that on the night preceding the day of which you now commemorate the fiftieth anniversary—on the night preceding that thirtieth of April, 1789, when from the balcony of your city hall the chancellor of the State of New York administered to George Washington the solemn oath faithfully to execute the office of President of the United States, and to the best of his ability to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution of the United States—that in the visions of the night the guardian angel of the Father of our Country had appeared before him, in the venerated form of his mother, and, to cheer and encourage him in the performance of the momentous and solemn duties that he was about to assume, had delivered to him a suit of celestial armor—a helmet, consisting of the principles of piety, of justice, of honor, of benevolence, with which from his earliest infancy he had hitherto walked through life, in the presence of all his brethren; a spear, studded with the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence; a sword, the same with which he had led the armies of his country through the war of freedom to the summit of the triumphal arch of independence; a corselet and cuishes of long experience and habitual intercourse in peace and war with the world of mankind, his contemporaries of the human race, in all their stages of civilization; and, last of all, the Constitution of the United States, a shield, embossed by heavenly hands with the future history of his country?[3]
With almost perfect harmony, Adams mythologized Washington by combining the Virgilian, Stoic heroism as embodied by The Aeneid with the admonitions of St. Paul to arm oneself with the weaponry of Christ in the fight against evil.[4] Washington took the best of the western tradition and planted it on the banks of the Potomac, just has Aeneas had planted it on the banks of the Tiber. America, of course, then served as the culmination of the best of the western tradition in Adams’ imagination.

Nineteenth and Twentieth-century Myth: The Particular or the Universal?
Driven by the romantic impulse as found most recently in the arguments and writings of Edmund Burke, many in the nineteenth century reacted strongly to the dry, calculated liberalism and utilitarianism of the eighteenth century by embracing myth. Many of these myths proved specifically nationalist, providing a glue for the emerging nation states of that century. One can find the most blatant of the nationalist myths in Finland and in Germany. In Finland, for example, hoping to unify his people, Elias Lönnrot compiled the Finnish Kalevala. While Lönnrot’s vision proved benign, the German project did not. In Germany, both Richard Wagner and Friedrich Nietzsche attempted to create a uniquely German myth by paganizing the origin and character of the emerging nation state. In his diary, Wagner recorded “I am the most German being, I am the German spirit. . . . But what is this German? It must be something wonderful, mustn’t it, for it is humanly finer than all else? Oh heavens! It should have a soil, this German! I should be able to find my people! What glorious people it ought to become.”[5] Seventeen years earlier, Wagner had embraced a form of universalism, socialism for all of mankind.

I [revolution] will destroy every wrong which has power over men. I will destroy the domination of one over the other, of the dead over the living, of the material over the spiritual, I will shatter the power of the mighty, of the law of property. Man’s master shall be his own will, his own desire his only law, his own strength his only property, for only the free man is holy and there is naught higher than he. Let there be an end to the wrong that gives one man power over millions. . . since all are equal I shall destroy all dominion of one over the other.[6]
Wagner successfully combined these two things—universal socialism and a pure German character (according his lights)—in his four-part grand opera, The Ring. Inspired by an era earlier than the then nineteenth-century divide between Lutheran north and Catholic south, Wagner embraced the pre-Judeo-Christian pagan myth of the Ring of the Niebelung and the Scandinavian Poetic Edda and the Volsunga, portraying the gods to be malicious and manipulative fools who deserved death. Wagner, English philosopher Roger Scruton explains, “proposed man as his own redeemer and art as the transfiguring rite of passage to a higher world.”[7] Certainly, the death of Siegfried, leading to the fiery consumption of Valhalla in Wagner’s re-write, strongly suggests the apotheosis of man.


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