It was 2,032 years ago today that the Roman poet Virgil died. His epitaph, according to early biographers, was
Mantua me genuit, Calabri rapuere, tenet nunc
Parthenope: cecini pascua, rura, duces.
Mantua bore me, Calabria took me; now Naples holds
me; I sang of pastures, fields, and kings.
From Dante’s Purgatorio, the embodiment of Reason warns against the folly of believing Reason discloses all truth:
‘The Power that fits bodies like ours
to suffer torments, heat, and cold
does not reveal the secret of its working.
‘Foolish is he who hopes that with our reason
we can trace the infinite path
taken by one Substance in three Persons.
‘Be content, then, all you mortals, with the quia,
for could you, on your own, have understood,
there was no need for Mary to give birth,
‘and you have seen the fruitless hope of some,
whose very longing, unfulfilled,
now serves them with eternal grief –
‘I speak of Aristotle and of Plato
and of many other.’ And here he lowered his brow,
said nothing more, and seemed perturbed.
– Dante, Purgatorio III (Hollander, trans.)
Robert Hollander, the co-translator, explains that the “quia” is a Scholastic term meaning to accept things as they are. He adds that these verses in Purgatorio convey like no other the tragedy (from Dante’s point of view) of Virgil’s life. As great as he was, he missed the mark; he famously prophesied a virgin who would give birth to a great king — but he meant Caesar Augustus, not Jesus of Nazareth. In the Dantean world, Virgil is among the greatest of virtuous unbelievers, honored in Hell by being given rest in a comfortable Limbo, with Aristotle, Plato, Homer, and the others — but still damned, denied the Beatific Vision. For Dante, as for Virgil (in the Divine Comedy), this is an unspeakable tragedy.
I have never read Virgil. After I work through The Divine Comedy, I will turn to the Aeneid. I never could have imagined that through homeschooling my children (in this program), I would give myself the education I never had.