Posts filed under ‘Books/Book Reviews’
I’ve been reading Josephus’ Jewish Wars and Antiquities of the Jews in recent months, and I came across this delightful story set around 500 BC in Persia – giving an interesting twist to the decree to rebuild Jerusalem as told in the Bible.
Now, in the first year of the king’s reign, Darius feasted those that were about him, and those born in his house, with the rulers of the Medes, and princes of the Persians, and the toparchs of India and Ethiopia, and the generals of the armies of his hundred and twenty-seven provinces. But when they had eaten and drunk to satiety, and abundantly, they every one departed to go to bed at their own houses, and Darius the king went to bed; but after he had rested a little part of the night, he awaked, and not being able to sleep any more, he fell into conversation with the three guards of his body, and promised, that to him who should make an oration about points that he should inquire of, such as should be most agreeable to truth, and to the dictates of wisdom, he would grant it as a reward of his victory, to put on a purple garment, and to drink in cups of gold, and to sleep upon gold, and to have a chariot with bridles of gold, and a head tire of fine linen, and a chain of gold about his neck, and to sit next to himself, on account of his wisdom; “and,” says he, “he shall be called my cousin.” Now when he had promised to give them these gifts, he asked the first of them, “Whether wine was not the strongest?”—the second, “Whether kings were not such?”—and the third, “Whether women were not such? or whether truth was not the strongest of all?” When he had proposed that they should make their inquiries about these problems, he went to rest; but in the morning he sent for his great men, his princes, and toparchs of Persia and Media, and set himself down in the place where he used to give audience, and bid each of the guards of his body to declare what they thought proper concerning the proposed questions, in the hearing of them all.
Accordingly, the first of them began to speak of the strength of wine, and demonstrated it thus: “When,” said he, “I am to give my opinion of wine, O you men, I find that it exceeds every thing, by the following indications: It deceives the mind of those that drink it, and reduces that of the king to the same state with that of the orphan, and he who stands in need of a tutor; and erects that of the slave to the boldness of him that is free; and that of the needy becomes like that of the rich man, for it changes and renews the souls of men when it gets into them; and it quenches the sorrow of those that are under calamities, and makes men forget the debts they owe to others, and makes them think themselves to be of all men the richest; it makes them talk of no small things, but of talents, and such other names as become wealthy men only; nay more, it makes them insensible of their commanders, and of their kings, and takes away the remembrance of their friends and companions, for it arms men even against those that are dearest to them, and makes them appear the greatest strangers to them; and when they are become sober, and they have slept out their wine in the night, they arise without knowing any thing they have done in their cups. I take these for signs of power, and by them discover that wine is the strongest and most insuperable of all things.”
As soon as the first had given the forementioned demonstrations of the strength of wine, he left off; and the next to him began to speak about the strength of a king, and demonstrated that it was the strongest of all, and more powerful than any thing else that appears to have any force or wisdom. He began his demonstration after the following manner; and said, “They are men who govern all things; they force the earth and the sea to become profitable to them in what they desire, and over these men do kings rule, and over them they have authority. Now those who rule over that animal which is of all the strongest and most powerful, must needs deserve to be esteemed insuperable in power and force. For example, when these kings command their subjects to make wars, and undergo dangers, they are hearkened to; and when they send them against their enemies, their power is so great that they are obeyed. They command men to level mountains, and to pull down walls and towers; nay, when they are commanded to be killed and to kill, they submit to it, that they may not appear to transgress the king’s commands; and when they have conquered, they bring what they have gained in the war to the king. Those also who are not soldiers, but cultivate the ground, and plough it, and when, after they have endured the labor and all the inconveniences of such works of husbandry, they have reaped and gathered in their fruits, they bring tributes to the king; and whatsoever it is which the king says or commands, it is done of necessity, and that without any delay, while he in the mean time is satiated with all sorts of food and pleasures, and sleeps in quiet. He is guarded by such as watch, and such as are, as it were, fixed down to the place through fear; for no one dares leave him, even when he is asleep, nor does any one go away and take care of his own affairs; but he esteems this one thing the only work of necessity, to guard the king, and accordingly to this he wholly addicts himself. How then can it be otherwise, but that it must appear that the king exceeds all in strength, while so great a multitude obeys his injunctions?”
Now when this man had held his peace, the third of them, who was Zorobabel, began to instruct them about women, and about truth, who said thus: “Wine is strong, as is the king also, whom all men obey, but women are superior to them in power; for it was a woman that brought the king into the world; and for those that plant the vines and make the wine, they are women who bear them, and bring them up: nor indeed is there any thing which we do not receive from them; for these women weave garments for us, and our household affairs are by their means taken care of, and preserved in safety; nor can we live separate from women. And when we have gotten a great deal of gold and silver, and any other thing that is of great value, and deserving regard, and see a beautiful woman, we leave all these things, and with open mouth fix our eyes upon her countenance, and are willing to forsake what we have, that we may enjoy her beauty, and procure it to ourselves. We also leave father, and mother, and the earth that nourishes us, and frequently forget our dearest friends, for the sake of women; nay, we are so hardy as to lay down our lives for them. But what will chiefly make you take notice of the strength of women is this that follows: Do not we take pains, and endure a great deal of trouble, and that both by land and sea, and when we have procured somewhat as the fruit of our labors, do not we bring them to the women, as to our mistresses, and bestow them upon them? Nay, I once saw the king, who is lord of so many people, smitten on the face by Apame, the daughter of Rabsases Themasius, his concubine, and his diadem taken away from him, and put upon her own head, while he bore it patiently; and when she smiled he smiled, and when she was angry he was sad; and according to the change of her passions, he flattered his wife, and drew her to reconciliation by the great humiliation of himself to her, if at my time he saw her displeased at him.”
And when the princes and rulers looked one upon another, he began to speak about truth; and he said, “I have already demonstrated how powerful women are; but both these women themselves, and the king himself, are weaker than truth; for although the earth be large, and the heaven high, and the course of the sun swift, yet are all these moved according to the will of God, who is true and righteous, for which cause we also ought to esteem truth to be the strongest of all things, and that what is unrighteous is of no force against it. Moreover, all things else that have any strength are mortal and short-lived, but truth is a thing that is immortal and eternal. It affords us not indeed such a beauty as will wither away by time, nor such riches as may be taken away by fortune, but righteous rules and laws. It distinguishes them from injustice, and puts what is unrighteous to rebuke.”
So when Zorobabel had left off his discourse about truth, and the multitude had cried out aloud that he had spoken the most wisely, and that it was truth alone that had immutable strength, and such as never would wax old, the king commanded that he should ask for somewhat over and above what he had promised, for that he would give it him because of his wisdom, and that prudence wherein he exceeded the rest; “and thou shalt sit with me,” said the king, “and shalt be called my cousin.” When he had said this, Zorobabel put him in mind of the vow he had made in case he should ever have the kingdom. Now this vow was, “to rebuild Jerusalem, and to build therein the temple of God; as also to restore the vessels which Nebuchadnezzar had pillaged, and carried to Babylon. And this,” said he, “is that request which thou now permittest me to make, on account that I have been judged to be wise and understanding.’”
I currently live on the North-Western coast of Ireland. One of the most well-known writers who grew up here is the poet W.B. Yeats, and one of his most well-known pieces is “The Second Coming,” composed in the aftermath of World War I and reflecting the feeling of that time. It also provided Chinua Achebe with the title for his novel Things Fall Apart.
Here is the poem, and below are some photos, one of a statue of Yeats in Sligo and a few more of his burial site between Sligo and Donegal.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.
In a book discussion group I’m a part of, someone asked today about the structure of Dante’s Divine Comedy, that epic late-medieval poem about a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. The person in the discussion group wondered why Dante’s narrator was first traveling down into hell, before traveling up to purgatory and the heavenly spheres. Since it is a comedy (in the traditional sense of the word), it has a happy ending. One might therefore expect the journey to start out bad and get successively better. But in Dante’s Commedia, it first gets worse before it gets better, starting, in the first third of the book, with the least serious sins (such as sexual misconduct) and ending with the devil.
One reason, I think, is that this structure builds to a climax of evil, just
like the ascend on the seven-storey mountain of purgatory and the spheres of
heaven build to a climax of good. That’s good story-telling. You don’t want to
start with a climax and then gradually get less and less exciting.
But another reason has to do with the “geography” of the Middle Ages. Hell was
by many believed to be literally in the center of the (globe-shaped) earth, and
so Dante travels down there much like Jules Vernes’ characters did in the 19th
century. And, of course, you have to start at the surface of the earth, because
that is where we live.
In the same way as he travels literally to the center of the earth, Dante
literally travels through the spheres beyond the moon, similar to later
science-fiction characters who travel through space, because Dante had the
Aristotelian notion that the heavens consisted of different stuff than the
earth. The earth consisted of perishable stuff; the planets and the stars of
imperishable. Therefore, Dante’s journey through the heavenly spheres was both
meant as a literal journey through space as well as a journey through the
heavenly realm in a spiritual sense, because the two were closely connected in
the medieval mind.
By the way, Dan Brown has a new novel coming out this month that centers around Dante’s Commedia, or at least around the first third of it, the “Inferno.” If The DaVinci Code is anything to go by, Brown will probably again play fast and loose with history and dish up some unlikely conspiracy theory, but it might be an entertaining read. And who knows? Maybe a few people will actually read the Commedia as a result of it.
This week, I listened to a course on the Italian Renaissance, and the professor read Machiavelli’s famous letter to Francesco Vettori, in which he describes a typical day during a particular stage in his life. I’ve read it before, but it merits re-reading, particularly the last of the three paragraphs I’ll quote below. It’s a prime example of the Renaissance mentality to reading Graeco-Roman texts. This is Machiavelli:
I get up in the morning with the sun and go into a grove I am having cut down, where I remain two hours to look over the work of the past day and kill some time with the cutters, who have always some bad-luck story ready, about either themselves or their neighbors. And as to this grove I could tell you a thousand fine things that have happened to me, in dealing with Frosino da Panzano and others who wanted some of this firewood. And Frosino especially sent for a number of cords without saying a thing to me, and on payment he wanted to keep back from me ten lire, which he says he should have had from me four years ago, when he beat me at cricca at Antonio Guicciardini’s. I raised the devil, and was going to prosecute as a thief the waggoner who came for the wood, but Giovanni Machiavelli came between us and got us to agree. Batista Guicciardini, Filippo Ginori, Tommaso del Bene and some other citizens, when that north wind was blowing, each ordered a cord from me. I made promises to all and sent one to Tommaso, which at Florence changed to half a cord, because it was piled up again by himself, his wife, his servant, his children, so that he looked like Gabburra when on Thursday with all his servants he cudgels an ox. Hence, having seen for whom there was profit, I told the others I had no more wood, and all of them were angry about it, and especially Batista, who counts this along with his misfortunes at Prato.
Leaving the grove, I go to a spring, and thence to my aviary. I have a book in my pocket, either Dante or Petrarch, or one of the lesser poets, such as Tibullus, Ovid, and the like. I read of their tender passions and their loves, remember mine, enjoy myself a while in that sort of dreaming. Then I move along the road to the inn; I speak with those who pass, ask news of their villages, learn various things, and note the various tastes and different fancies of men. In the course of these things comes the hour for dinner, where with my family I eat such food as this poor farm of mine and my tiny property allow. Having eaten, I go back to the inn; there is the host, usually a butcher, a miller, two furnace tenders. With these I sink into vulgarity for the whole day, playing at cricca and at trich-trach, and then these games bring on a thousand disputes and countless insults with offensive words, and usually we are fighting over a penny, and nevertheless we are heard shouting as far as San Casciano. So, involved in these trifles, I keep my brain from growing mouldy, and satisfy the malice of this fate of mine, being glad to have her drive me along this road, to see if she will be ashamed of it.
On the coming of evening, I return to my house and enter my study; and at the door I take off the day’s clothing, covered with mud and dust, and put on garments regal and courtly; and reclothed appropriately, I enter the ancient courts of ancient men, where, received by them with affection, I feed on that food which only is mine and which I was born for, where I am not ashamed to speak with them and to ask them the reason for their actions; and they in their kindness answer me; and for four hours of time I do not feel boredom, I forget every trouble, I do not dread poverty, I am not frightened by death; entirely I give myself over to them.
This is going to be my third and last post about the concept of the “second naïveté” (click here and here to read the first two posts). As I mentioned in the first post, my findings are based on a little research I did in my e-library.
One idea I came across during my reading was to put the concept of the second naïveté within the context of mystical religious experience in relation to analytical critique. The Modern West was marked by privileging the mind as distinct from the body, and ultimately divorcing it from religious language and experience. The Encyclopedia of Millennialism and Millennial Movements points out that Ricoeur’s concept of the second naïveté makes the believer re-appropriate religious language and experience, even while he or she acknowledges critical understanding alongside these more subjective forms of being.
“The sheer diversity and seeming ubiquity of mysticism in a variety of societies and times,” says the Encyclopedia, “testifies at least to family resemblances among different cultures and systems of belief, including indigenous tribal communities, Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. The tendency in the Western world to privilege the mind as distinct from the body and the West’s insistence on doctrinal formulations as essential to religious experience are frequently repudiated in mystical accounts, where the experience is as much somatic as intellectual. As a result, many Westerners living in the disenchanted world of modern technology have sought out romanticized versions of Eastern or tribal mysticism to compensate for and to remedy the dualism typical of some Judeo-Christian religious sensibilities.” In this context, the second naïveté could be seen as a counter balance to the extreme mind-centeredness of European religion in the Modern age.
An even more general way of looking at the concept of the second naïveté, one not bound to religion, is the way we read any text, not just religious texts. Victor Nell, a South-African psychologist, sees four stages in reading: (1) attention, (2) modest comprehension, (3) absorption, which then can, for some readers, conclude in (4) entrancement. Stephen Happel compares this to “Ricoeur’s understanding of reading as an interpretive spiral that begins with a guess, develops through validation and explanation, and issues in comprehension and appropriation. In turn, therefore, the reader moves from a naive appreciation of symbols and metaphors through criticism to a second naiveté. See Ricoeur, Interpretation Theory, 71–88” (Metaphors for God’s Time in Science and Religion).
But though my little digging in my e-library has clearly shown Ricoeur to be the main propagator of the “second naïveté,” he is not the only one who uses this concept. The Encyclopedia for Social Theory, for instance, summarizes part of the philosophy of the German thinker Wilhelm Dilthey (1833-1911) in this way: “If we cannot live the lives of others with the original experience of them, we can, through interpretation, attain a second naïveté. It is through interpretation that we can see and hear again, that we can come to understand others and, thence, ourselves.”
And, according to the Blackwell’s Companion to Pragmatism, Hilary Putman characterized the evolution of his own thinking also in terms of a second naïveté: “Ideas like this seem to put significant distance between Putnam and the historical pragmatists, and in the 1990s he announced that he was giving up his ‘internal’ or ‘pragmatic realism’ in favor of a ‘natural realism’ or a ‘second naïveté’ that better acknowledged the distinctness of the world, or many parts of it, anyway, from our beliefs and the experiences we use to verify them.”
But the main other author whom I found to repeatedly use the term “second naïveté” is Theodor Adorno. In fact, in a biography about Adorno, Detlev Claussen says that the “second naïveté” is the kind of philosophy that Adorno aspired to: “Adorno generated distance as if he needed the space between himself and others as a protective cloak. He could charm people with his voice and his look, in which melancholy and loneliness could often be read, as well as an interest that suddenly flared up or curiosity, an infinite astonishment as well as a kind of naïveté about which one could never be sure whether it was a hangover from childhood or the ‘second naïveté’ he aspired to that was supposed to become manifest after all reflection had been completed.”
Hence, Adorno writes about Marcel Proust that his “naïveté is a second naïveté. At every stage of consciousness a new and broader immediacy arises. Whereas Valéry’s conservative belief in culture as a pure thing in itself affords incisive criticism of a culture which tends by its very historical nature to destroy everything self-subsistent, Proust’s most characteristic mode of perception, his extraordinary sensitivity to changes in modes of experience, has as its paradoxical result the ability to perceive history as landscape” (Adorno, Prisms).
In the same book, Adorno mentions the “second naïveté in Hofmannsthal’s poetry,” by which he means Hofmannsthal’s ability to portray innocence, but not naive innocence, rather “deliberate, cultivated innocence about which there can be no mistake, which goes directly to the heart and enthralls with all the power with which perfection is endowed.”
However, Adorno did not see the attempt of a second naïveté as always successful. He writes about the composer Richard Strauss that “his consciousness denied itself the critical self-reflection of which it was unquestionably capable; he stuffed his ears with cotton and relied on himself. His attitude may have suited his innate disposition, not wholly formed by musical culture. But the sacrifice, a second naïveté, definitely did not turn out for the best. His refusal to listen critically to his innovations deprived them of their own consequence. He combined them with whatever in the traditional stock in trade happened to please him by means of links which were either flimsy or nonexistent” (taken from an essay by Adorno on Strauss).
All right, enough digging in my e-library for now.
I’m currently reading The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Czech author Milan Kundera. Though it is a novel, the beginning reads more like a non-fiction philosophy book and delivers some of the best paragraphs I’ve ever read on the idea of the eternal return, made famous by Nietzsche. (Not that I’ve read so many treatments on the eternal return, but you get the point.)
This is Kundera:
The idea of eternal return is a mysterious one, and Nietzsche has often perplexed other philosophers with it: to think that everything recurs as we once experienced it, and that the recurrence itself recurs ad infinitum! What does this mad myth signify?
Putting it negatively, the myth of eternal return states that a life which disappears once and for all, which does not return, is like a shadow, without weight, dead in advance, and whether it was horrible, beautiful, or sublime, its horror, sublimity, and beauty mean nothing. We need take no more note of it than of a war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century, a war that altered nothing in the destiny of the world, even if a hundred thousand blacks perished in excruciating torment.
Will the war between two African kingdoms in the fourteenth century itself be altered if it recurs again and again, in eternal return? It will: it will become a solid mass, permanently protuberant, its inanity irreparable.
If the French Revolution were to recur eternally, French historians would be less proud of Robespierre. But because they deal with something that will not return, the bloody years of the Revolution have turned into mere words, theories, and discussions, have become lighter than feathers, frightening no one. There is an infinite difference between a Robespierre who occurs only once in history and a Robespierre who eternally returns, chopping off French heads.
Let us therefore agree that the idea of eternal return implies a perspective from which things appear other than as we know them: they appear without the mitigating circumstance of their transitory nature. This mitigating circumstance prevents us from coming to a verdict. For how can we condemn something that is ephemeral, in transit? In the sunset of dissolution, everything is illuminated by the aura of nostalgia, even the guillotine.
Not long ago, I caught myself experiencing a most incredible sensation. Leafing through a book on Hitler, I was touched by some of his portraits: they reminded me of my childhood. I grew up during the war; several members of my family perished in Hitler’s concentration camps; but what were their deaths compared with the memories of a lost period in my life, a period that would never return?
This reconciliation with Hitler reveals the profound moral perversity of a world that rests essentially on the nonexistence of return, for in this world everything is pardoned in advance and therefore everything cynically permitted.
A few days ago, I quoted Shakespeare’s famous “Band of Brothers” speech put in the mouth of Henry V. I also mentioned that I had started reading Chris Hedges’ book War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. I’m finished with the book now, and there was actually a passage where Hedges refers to Shakespeare’s Henry V and compares it to another Shakespearean character, Sir John Falstaff, a comic knight who loves wine, women, and his own safety.
This is what Hedges has to say about the two characters in relation to war and the soldiers of today:
“Just remember,” a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel told me as he strapped his pistol belt under his arm before we crossed into Kuwait, “that none of these boys is fighting for home, for the flag, for all that crap the politicians feed the public. They are fighting for each other, just for each other.”
It may be that Falstaff, rather than Henry V, is a much more accurate picture of the common soldier, who finds little in the rhetoric of officers who urge him into danger. The average soldier probably sympathizes more than we might suspect with Falstaff’s stratagems to save his own hide. Falstaff embodies the carnal yearnings we all have for food, drink, companionship, a few sexual adventures, and safety.
He may lack the essential comradeship of soldiering, but he clings to life in a way a soldier under fire can sympathize with. It is the pubs and taverns, not to the grand palaces, that these soldiers return to when the war is done. And Falstaff’s selfish lust for pleasure hurts few. Henry’s lust for power leaves corpses strewn across muddy battlefields.
In the last few days, my mind has turned (as it sometimes does) to some of the great passages and speeches in Shakespeare, and one that came to mind was the “Band of Brothers” speech delivered by Henry V to his troops in the play of the same name.
I must say that I have mixed feelings about such battle-cry speeches. On the one hand, the bravery and emotion expressed in them can be quite moving. On the other hand, I find it chilling how easily men (mostly men) are moved to slaughter others and let themselves be slaughtered.
The possible reasons for this human propensity to war and violence have been treated by many authors from many different angles. A recent one is Chris Hedges’ War Is a Force that Gives us Meaning, which I just started reading today.
But whatever your own feelings on war, the “Band of Brothers” speech is still a great piece of literature. Here it is:
If we are mark’d to die, we are enow
To do our country loss; and if to live,
The fewer men, the greater share of honour.
God’s will! I pray thee, wish not one man more.
By Jove, I am not covetous for gold,
Nor care I who doth feed upon my cost;
It yearns me not if men my garments wear;
Such outward things dwell not in my desires.
But if it be a sin to covet honour,
I am the most offending soul alive.
No, faith, my coz, wish not a man from England.
God’s peace! I would not lose so great an honour
As one man more methinks would share from me
For the best hope I have. O, do not wish one more!
Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made,
And crowns for convoy put into his purse;
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian.’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.’
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.
The other day, I revisited Virgil’s Aeneid, that great epic poem that tells of the legendary Aeneas, who flees from Troy when the city is burned by the Greeks and ends up in Italy, where he becomes the ancestor of the Romans.
Although I do not wish to draw unwarranted parallels between the founding of Rome and the founding of the United States, I think there is an important point to be made about the Aeneid in relation to the Founding Fathers of the United States.
In spite of not being an American, I find the Founding Fathers utterly fascinating, and I have sometimes asked myself why. Why is it that I feel like I know Washington, Jefferson, and Franklin better than, say, Otto von Bismarck? Why am I more drawn to these figures than I am to many figures of my own European background? I don’t think the reason is primarily that I am married to an American, but that I live in the American age. In the course of the 20th century, the US arguably became the most influential nation in the world, and I think what fascinates me so about the Founding Fathers is their retrospective significance.
If the United States had never reached such a height of influence, if it were ranked as—to use a random number—the 58th most influential country in the world, I doubt that I would be drawn to the Founding Fathers as much as I am. It is precisely the significance of the United States now that lends such significance to the ideas and actions of the Founding Fathers back in the late 18th century. We can look back and read their words, we can look back and study their lives, with the sense that they had purpose, that there was a gravitas on everything they did, that great things were to come out of their small beginnings.
I think this is a similar feeling that Virgil wanted to evoke in the reader. All of Aeneas’ deeds feel significant because the reader knows what would come of them. Aeneas’ time in Carthage is so significant only because the reader knows of the later Punic wars between Carthage and Rome, and that the defeat of Carthage would mark the rise of Roman dominance in the Mediterranean. The Roman reader of the Aeneid would have surely asked, "What would have happened if Aeneas had given in to Dido’s pleading and made Carthage his home? Wouldn’t Carthage then still be the dominant power in the Mediterranean and Rome be insignificant or, worse, would have never been founded?"
So, what might appear as simply a tragic love story between Dido and Aeneas becomes much more than that through the retrospective eyes of Virgil and his readers. There was much more at stake than Dido’s and Aeneas’ personal happiness; there was a fate of nations to be decided. I think we get the same sense when reading about the various decisions of the Founding Fathers.
This writing technique of evoking a sense of purpose through seeing significance retrospectively is also sometimes used in the Bible. For instance, when Abraham was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac on Mount Moriah, and then God intervened and said He would provide a sacrifice later on, the significance of the story is not only (or perhaps not even primarily) Abraham’s obedience, but that, according to 2. Chronicles 3:1, Mount Moriah was the exact place where Solomon’s temple would be built several hundred years later and where daily sacrifices would be made to the LORD.
Since Genesis as we now have it was likely written after the building of the first temple, it seems to me that the author of this passage wants to evoke the same kind of feeling in his Israelite/Jewish readers that Virgil wanted to evoke in his Roman readers. It is a sense of purpose, a deep fascination that comes from seeing significance retrospectively.
I once stayed at a hostel in Madrid right around the corner from the monument erected in honor of Spain’s national—albeit fictitious—anti-hero, Don Quixote (whom I mentioned yesterday), and his faithful squire Sancho. (Click here for my take on the book.) Toward evening, while the low sun was shining on part of the monument and a tall building behind it, I grabbed my camera and shot this (in my opinion) beautiful picture. I find it fascinating how the monument seems to merge with the building, almost creating a kind of step pyramid.