Ellis Washington
June 21, 2014
On Virgil and the necessity of good language
By Ellis Washington


Gustave Doré, Virgil pushes Filipo Argenti back into the River Styx (1890)

It is easy to go down into Hell; night and day, the gates of dark Death stand wide;

but to climb back again, to retrace one's steps to the upper air – there's the rub, the task.


~ Virgil

Prologue: Biography

Publius Vergilius Maro (October 15, 70 BC – September 21, 19 BC), in English he is usually referred to as Virgil, was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan Era (c. 43 BC – 18 AD). His most noted works of Latin literature include the Eclogues (or Bucolics), the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid. There are many minor poems sometimes credited to him including the Appendix Vergiliana. Virgil is generally regarded as one of Italy's greatest poets. His magnum opus Aeneid is the national epic of ancient Rome from the time of its composition even to this day. Patterned after Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the Aeneid chronicles the Trojan expatriate Aeneas as he fights to seize his destiny by reaching the coasts of Italy – in Roman mythology Aeneid's deeds constitute the founding act of Rome. Virgil's contributions on Western literature, most importantly the Divine Comedy of Dante (1308-21) in which Virgil appears as Dante's guide through hell and purgatory, has had timeless appeal.

Good language = good grammar, rhetoric and logic

The traditional college, liberal arts education had as its foundation grammar, rhetoric, and logic which are all associated with language. Individually these disciplines institutes its own rules for the utilization of language, each by reference to a different paradigm of merit or certitude which defines language as a mechanism of thought or communication. In all three disciplines discourse is regulated in the entirety. Their association to each other represents the relative aspects of each part of language – the emotional, the social, and the intellectual.

The tradition of the great books used to be the tradition of the liberal arts where all substantive disciplines were welcomed to the arena of ideas and using Socratic dialectic rigorously debated to verify the authenticity of ideas. Their range used to involve not only the magnitude of the ideas or problems affecting them, but also in their proper distinction as derivative of liberal art, at least in the idealized, utopian sense I outlined above. Many of the great books are expositions of logic or rhetoric particularly those volumes on Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, Augustine, Hobbes, Montaigne, Gibbon, Tolstoy, Melville, and the subject of this essay, Virgil, to cite some of my favorites on this subject. However, none of the volumes in Great Books represent a treatise on grammar. Why? Although every volume of the canon all basically represent, even where they do not explain, the unusual refinements of the language arts; and most of them, particularly the volumes of science, philosophy, and theology, and even some of the poetical works, evidently express the problems of discourse, and the stratagems that have been established to explain them. In one sense language is the modus operandi of grammar, rhetoric, and logic, and they are deliberately critical in its use.

To Virgil, some aspects of the human condition are inexpressible in human language even as they are powerless of being fully comprehended by human thought. "My vision," Dante says when he arrives at the mystic rose of Paradise with his guide, Virgil, "was greater than our speech." In this sublime, transcendent state such awareness they possessed was of "the highest matters and the first principles of things." Plato thinks that this elevated cognitive state "does not admit of exposition like other branches of knowledge." In Dante's Seventh Letter, he surpasses this singular level of knowledge to say that "no man of intelligence will venture to express his philosophical views in language." Why? Because metaphysics or philosophy integrated with spirituality is beyond this physical, earthly realm, thus beyond language.

David in Psalm 139:6-7 expressed this incomprehensible metaphysical state in this manner: You have enclosed me behind and before, And laid Your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; It is too high, I cannot attain to it. Where can I go from Your Spirit? Or where can I flee from Your presence?..."

Virgil in antiquity

The literary works of Virgil virtually at the moment of publication revolutionized Latin poetry in a similar way that Dante's works would revolutionize Italian poetry 1300 years later. The Eclogues, Georgics, and especially the Aeneid became standard texts in school curricula with which all educated Romans were familiar. Poets subsequent to Virgil frequently refer intertextually to his works to create meaning in their own poetry. For example, the Augustan poet Ovid parodies the opening lines of the Aeneid in Amores 1.1.1–2, and his synopsis of the Aeneas story in Book 14 of the Metamorphoses, referred to as the "mini-Aeneid" has been regarded as a very significant example of post-Virgilian rejoinder to the epic genre. Lucan's epic, the Bellum Civile has been interpreted as an anti-Virgilian epic, absent supernatural references, considering historical events, and deviating radically from Virgilian epic tradition.

Writers down through the ages like Statius, Silius, Augustine, Aquinas, in part as a consequence of his so-called "Messianic" Fourth Eclogue – commonly interpreted later to have predicted the birth of Jesus Christ 40-50 years in advance –
    Now is come the last age of Cumaean song; the great line of the centuries begins anew. Now the Virgin returns, the reign of Saturn returns; now a new generation descends from heaven on high. Only do you, pure Lucina, smile on the birth of the child, under whom the iron brood shall at last cease and a golden race spring up throughout the world! Your own Apollo now is king!

    ~ "Song of the Cumaean Sibyl" from Virgil's Eclogues, IV
Virgil in late antiquity and Middle Ages

During the sixth century when the Western Roman Empire began to collapse, well-educated men recognized that Virgil was a master poet. Gregory of Tours (538-594) read Virgil, whom he quotes favorably in his writings, together with some other Latin poets, though the writer warns that "we ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death." Virgil's Aeneid endured as part of the Latin literary canon of the Middle Ages and retained its prominence as the magnificent epic of the Latin Classics, and of those who considered themselves to be of Roman derivation, such as the English. Preserving religious meaning as it designates the founding of a "Holy City."

Virgil's fourth Eclogue was often interpreted as a prophecy of the coming of Jesus Christ. It has been debated that this view originated in a necessity of medieval scholars to resolve Virgil's pagan background with the extraordinary honor in which they held his works, therefore the idea of Virgil the prophet was solidified throughout the Middle Ages. This understanding is defended by some scholars today, notably Richard Thomas, Robert Fitzgerald, and William Harris among others. Even classical writers like Cicero, Augustine, Aquinas and others too acknowledged Virgil's purity and skillful use of language and his moral worldview as a literary precursor to Christianity.

So inspired and legendary was Virgil that 1300 years later after the master's death Dante made Virgil his guide in Hell and through most of Purgatory in his masterpiece, The Divine Comedy. Dante also references Virgil in De vulgari eloquentia, along with Ovid, Lucan and Statius, as one of the four regulati poetae (ii, vi, 7). The most regarded of the existing manuscripts of Virgil's works include the Vergilius Augusteus (c. 4th century), the Vergilius Vaticanus (c. 400) and the Vergilius Romanus (5th century).

Epilogue: Virgil in Modern Times

How is the ancient Roman poet Virgil relevant in modern times? Virgil's contributions to Western literature and poetry is one of the singular treasures of history. Beyond his sublime use of language to convey heroic ideas and revolutionary ideals like those portrayed in his Aeneid is his virtual prophetic lines particularly from his Song of the Cumaean Sibyl from Virgil's Eclogues, Book IV, perhaps 50 years before the birth of Jesus Christ is to this day one of the milestone examples of Western literature.

Regarding the necessity of language for any society, conservative talk show host Michael Savage has for virtually 30 years championed the idea "Boarders, Language and Culture" as a viable political policy amounting to a wall of protection to maintain American exceptionalism, culture, and our strong Judeo-Christian traditions. For decades he has stood alone, largely mocked and ignored by the socialist and progressive Left, like a modern day John the Baptist – a voice crying out in the wilderness. Yet, in the Age of Progressivism or what I call "the Progressive Revolution" can 2+2=5, is 'Black English,' Ebonics, bi-lingual education, and multi-cultural education a sure and effective pathway to secure the American dream, or is it a Faustian bargain with the devil by Leftists designed to funnel the collective hopes, dreams and aspirations of tens of millions of "minorities" into the abyss of perpetual frustration, miseducation, genocidal life choices and tragic failure?

One primary reason why the literary Classics are so essential for any thinking man, for any person who calls himself truly educated, philosophical, logical, and a possessor of Reason (e.g., a person who can be convinced when their ideas are proven wrong or incomplete) is because the literary Classics are a singular statement of first principles of which language is the principal transmitter of everything that is known or will be known. On this point Virgil wrote: Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas – Happy is the one who is able to know the causes of things (Georgics II, 490).

History records that in the early 1920s another Latin (Italian) used language in the opposite way of Virgil, not to inspire, heal, educate, and teach people to triumph over the vicissitudes of Life, but to pervert, demagogue and ultimately to enslave the masses. This tyrant turned Italy into a fascist State, allied with Hitler launching World War II, and thus assured the annihilation of a once great Roman empire with these words which seem derivative from the pit of Hell – Everything inside the State. Nothing outside the State. Nothing against the State. These were the words and the poison ideas of the fascist state of Mussolini's Italy.

This is also the mantra and the worldview of the Progressive Revolution that exists under the administration of President Barack Obama and has existed since the anti-Christian genocide of the French Revolution (1789-99) which concurrently witnessed the advent of liberalism, socialism, the modern Left, the death of Reason and truth and origin of a demonic worldview that is perpetually at war against God and biblical principles. If Reason is to prevail and a pure, incorruptible language be propagated the world must forsake the demagogue Mussolini and like Elisha did with Elijah, take up the mantle of the true Prophet Virgil.

*N.B.: This essay is based in part on ideas from Great Books of the Western World, Robert Maynard Hutchins, Editor-in-Chief (University of Chicago, 1952), Vol. 2, chap. 45 – Language and Vol. 13 – Virgil.


Book Notice

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Invitation for manuscripts

I am starting a new a program on my blog dedicated to giving young conservatives (ages 14-35) a regular place to display and publish their ideas called Socrates Corner. If you know of any young person who wants to publish their ideas on any subject, have them send their essay manuscripts to my email at ewashington@wnd.com.

© Ellis Washington

 

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Ellis Washington

Ellis Washington is a former staff editor of the Michigan Law Review and law clerk at the Rutherford Institute. He is an adjunct professor at the National Paralegal College where he teaches Constitutional Law, Legal Ethics, Contracts and Advanced Legal Writing... (more)

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