New Year’s Resolution For Men: Read Virgil
The Roman poet's epic of piety and destiny in exile and in war offers lessons in manhood for the lost generation of the 2020s.
I see a lot of arms and men who believe themselves in exile. Though, unlike the hero Aeneas who must traverse “far and pathless” ways to find a new home in distant Italy after the destruction of his native Troy, these men feel exiled within their own country. They march in full battle rattle with Rhodesian chest rigs and long guns to defend a democracy from which they find themselves increasingly disenfranchised. They spout their testosterone-infused rhetoric with swagger as a form of rebellion against a dominant woke culture they perceive (admittedly, accurately) as increasingly anti-male. Yet for all their bluster, what will all of this amount to for this generation of young America men? Virgil’s Aeneid offers helpful guidance and correctives for a generation of men lost at sea in search of a home.
Great were the sufferings of Aeneas, Virgil tells us at the beginning of his epic poem, as he and his people fled not only the blood-thirsty Greeks who had ravaged Troy, but pounding storms unleashed by the vengeful goddess Juno. “Why did she drive a man famous for his piety to such endless hardship and such suffering? Can there be so much anger in the hearts of the heavenly gods?” asks Virgil. It is a question we too might ask, battered not only by a pandemic incompetently handled by our federal and state governments, but a year marked by an unending churn of racial strife, political animus, and cultural upheaval.
Though Virgil was not a Christian (he died a few decades before Christ’s birth), he implicitly answers the problem of pain when he writes: “so heavy was the cost of founding the Roman race.” Good things, and especially the best things, typically cost us something. That is part of what makes them good. Moreover, in our suffering we experience a “refiner’s fire” that forms and shapes us into men of strength and virtue better able to overcome the evils that confront us. You cannot demonstrate courage without facing fear; you cannot possess patience without enduring difficulty; you cannot develop temperance without being tested. Aeneas also orients us towards the transcendent dimension of suffering when he tells his tired fellow Trojans: “We have suffered worse before, and this too will pass. God will see to it.” Pain is part of the divine plan.
Virgil presents Aeneas as a man of unparalleled virtue. The Trojan leader, “had no equal for his piety and his care for justice, and no equal in the field of battle.” Nevertheless, even the bold Aeneas sometimes fails to exemplify manly integrity; this, too, can be instructive. We see this perhaps most saliently in his romantic tryst with the Carthaginian princess Dido, a love engineered by the gods to distract Aeneas from his divinely ordained mission to lead his people to found a new nation. The two “indulged themselves and kept each other warm the whole winter through, forgetting about their kingdoms and becoming the slaves of lust.”
The god Mercury arrives to remind Aeneas of his duties, asking “Have you entirely forgotten your own kingdom and your own destiny?” He urges Aeneas to consider not only his calling, but his son and future descendants. “What do you hope to achieve by idling your time away in the land of Libya? If the glory of such a destiny does not fire your heart, spare a thought for Ascanius as he grows to manhood, for the hopes of this Iulus who is your heir. You owe him the land of Rome and the kingdom of Italy.” Aeneas comes to his senses and determines to leave Carthage, though there are unforeseen consequences for his sexual sins. Dido descends into the madness of a spurned lover, killing herself, while issuing a Carthaginian curse that will come to haunt Rome: “Let there be war between the nations and between their sons forever.”
Aeneas’s neglect of his responsibility to his people likely devastated Trojan morale and elicited bitterness among the ranks. Driven to Sicily by a storm, Aeneas decides to hold funeral games to honor the one-year anniversary of the death of his father, Anchises, and restore that wavering esprit de corps. During the games, Aeneas plays the role of the cheerful, inspiring, and statesmanlike leader, urging on the Trojans to feats of excellence, defusing squabbles over prizes, and even joking with subordinates. He is shrewd, knowing that even the least of his troupe must feel valued, and thus is generous with awards of recognition, declaring “no man of you will leave without winning a prize from my hand.”
Aeneas soon leads the Trojan people into central Italy, where he meets both friends and enemies, particularly the Rutuli tribe, led by Turnus, who is incensed that another local tribe, the Latins, have promised one of their princesses to Aeneas rather than to him. War is thus thrust upon Aeneas. While the Trojan exhibits piety and prudence, two younger, impetuous warriors who fail to show the proper deference to the gods plan a daring midnight raid on the enemy Rutuli camp. Though they manage to slaughter many of the sleeping Rutuli, they foolishly plunder their enemies, are recognized by a patrolling enemy cavalry unit, and die on the battlefield. Their youthful lack of judgment, discipline, and piety is their undoing.
Though Aeneas manifests comparable levels of bloodlust, his violence is tempered by compassion and loyalty. After mortally wounding one enemy, his heart groans with pity as he is reminded of his own father. He holds out his hand and asks the dying foe: “What will the devout Aeneas now give to match such merit? What gift can he give that will be worthy of a heart like yours?” He contemplates mercy again even for Turnus, though he determines to kill him when he sees his foe wears the belt of a boy whose body Turnus had recently plundered.
One of the constant themes of the Aeneid is that there is nowhere else to run. When Virgil writes of the fall of Troy, he observes: “The one safety for the defeated is to have no hope of safety.” During one battle, a Trojan officer rallies his retreating soldiers by exhorting them: “Where are you running to now, citizens? Where is there to go? What other walls have you? What other defences when you leave these?” Pallas, an ally of the Trojans, similarly shouts to his own soldiers: “There is no more land to run to. Shall we take to the sea?”
Such sentiments well describe this American moment for conservatives, and certainly for young men. Males feel the pressure of a culture that warns of “toxic masculinity” and seeks to subvert testosterone. Young men comprise a declining percentage of undergraduate students and suffer increased rates of unemployment. They are encouraged to find escape and release in video games, pornography, and forms of hyper-masculinity that seem overreactive and performative. Yet these are a cheap substitute for the authentic manly qualities taught by the Aeneid.
Lust distracted and almost ruined Aeneas. We must reject pornography and blasé, noncommittal serial monogamy in favor of the stability and security of faithful married life. Aeneas’s consciousness of his legacy sobered him and informed his actions. We must raise children whom we love and to whom we impart truth—as Mary Eberstadt has noted, fatherlessness explains much of the distemper of 2020. Devotion to the divine enabled Aeneas’s success—we must be men of faith, humility, and sanctity, whose personal lives are defined by self-restraint and self-sacrifice. Cunning and wisdom preserved Aeneas through his many trials—we must find ways to achieve professional success in a culture that sees us as contrary, rather than constitutive, to its own success.
In other words, we must be men. We must be strong, quiet, patient, persevering, and principled. These are qualities that have served men well since the time of Aeneas. They can do the same now, if we hearken to Virgil’s words, as have so many generations of young men who preceded us. Yes, there is nowhere else to run. Yet, as for Aeneas, there is also much glory to be had.
Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.