Empire III: Gustavo Dudamel at the Spanish Riding School; or Virgil and the Horses


Sometimes when sancrucensis is writing a paper he comes to a point where he has to take a break and do something else to take his mind of it, but then that something else becomes a kind of projection screen on which the paper takes new form.

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On May 1st in the midst of writing a paper on Empire in Virgil, Augustine, and Dante (see here), I went to hear the the Berlin Philharmonic under the fiery young Venezuelan conductor Gustavo Dudamel at the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. A friend of mine, whose brother is an oboist with the Berlin, had got some excellent tickets. The Berlin Philharmonic has a so-called “European Concert” every May 1st. Every year its in a different European city, and every year they choose some unusual venue (hence the riding school) and “transform it into a concert hall.” According to the programme notes the reason for the unusual venue is to celebrate “the idea of a unified Europe.” It wasn’t clear to me how having a concert in a horse-riding hall celebrates the idea of the EU, and indeed the notes go on to give a more plausible if less idealistic reason: it is “conceived as a TV concert” – i.e. the unusual venue is supposed to make it more interesting for TV stations, thus increasing revenue. It is sponsored by the auto-manufacturer VW.

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Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s magnificent Winter Riding Hall is perfectly suited to thoughts about empire. Inscriptions and decorations proclaim that the Holy Roman Emperor established this school for instructing noble youth of the empire, and training horses for the art of war.  In learning to direct the spirited stallions, and subordinate them to an elaborate order, the young nobles are supposed to learn how to direct their own high spirits and love of honor to the rational purpose of empire. In his book on Homer and Virgil John Alvis suggests using Plato’s image in the Phaedrus of the soul as a two horsed chariot to interpret Virgil. Reason, the driver of the soul, has two horses one is noble: “a friend of honor joined with temperance and modesty, and a follower of true glory; he needs no whip, but is guided only by the word of command and by reason.” (253d) The other horse is ignoble and hardly responds to the whip. The ignoble horse is sensual desire, the other is thymos, spiritedness, love of praise. Alvis argues that thymos is more suited to an alliance with reason because it depends on a public standard expressed through the “political medium of speech” (p. 173). Reasons makes an alliance with thymos in order to control sensual desire. But the alliance between thymos and reason is always an uneasy one.

In Book I of the Aeneid Juno, jealous of her honor, releases the furious winds which have been locked up in a cave lest they destroy the world. When Neptune quiets the winds Virgil makes the following comparison:

ac veluti magno in populo cum saepe coorta est
seditio saevitque animis ignobile vulgus
iamque faces et saxa volant, furor arma ministrat;
tum, pietate gravem ac meritis si forte virum quem
conspexere, silent arrectisque auribus astant;
ille regit dictis animos et pectora mulcet:
sic cunctus pelagi cecidit fragor, aequora postquam
prospiciens genitor caeloque invectus aperto
flectit equos curruque volans dat lora secundo. (Aen. I,148-156)

As when in mighty commonwealth the rascal crowd
Stirred to rebellion raises oft their voice aloud,
And ready to their mischief find both fire and stone,
If chance  some graver citizen for merits known,
Pass by, they strain to hear him and are silent all,
And at his words, corrected their wild passions fall:
So fell the rage of waters when their father’s eye
Looked forth, And to his horses, under cloudless sky,
Giving loose rein, he roiled along the briny floor. (C.S. Lewis trans.)

This passage is an image of the destiny of Rome: she is to put the entire world under the rule of law (totum sub leges mitteret orbem – IV,231), and thus subdue the wild passions of waring cities that threaten to destroy the world. C.S. Lewis’s otherwise excellent translation of the passage misses the key word: pietas. Virgil is aware of Aristotle’s teaching that ordering the whole world through law would be the work of divine power, and in Roman piety he finds that power.  It is by grave piety that Rome will bring a return of the golden age to man. 

In the Aeneid Virgil makes a correction to the traditional understanding of the golden age. Foolish old Latinus (VII,202ff.) presents the old account of the golden age: the age of Saturn when when men lived without laws and without labor, the earth gave them fruit in abundance. But Evander corrects this account:

haec nemora indigenae Fauni Nymphaeque tenebant
gensque virum truncis et duro robore nata,
quis neque mos neque cultus erat, nec iungere tauros
aut componere opes norant aut parcere parto,
sed rami atque asper victu venatus alebat.
primus ab aetherio venit Saturnus Olympo
arma Iovis fugiens et regnis exsul ademptis.
is genus indocile ac dispersum montibus altis
composuit legesque dedit, Latiumque vocari
maluit, his quoniam latuisset tutus in oris.
aurea quae perhibent illo sub rege fuere
saecula: sic placida populos in pace regebat,
deterior donec paulatim ac decolor aetas
et belli rabies et amor successit habendi. (Aen. VIII, 314-327)

These woods were first the seat of sylvan pow’rs,
Of Nymphs and Fauns, and salvage men, who took
Their birth from trunks of trees and stubborn oak.
Nor laws they knew, nor manners, nor the care
Of lab’ring oxen, or the shining share,
Nor arts of gain, nor what they gain’d to spare.
Their exercise the chase; the running flood
Supplied their thirst, the trees supplied their food.
Then Saturn came, who fled the pow’r of Jove,
Robb’d of his realms, and banish’d from above.
The men, dispers’d on hills, to towns he brought,
And laws ordain’d, and civil customs taught,
And Latium call’d the land where safe he lay
From his unduteous son, and his usurping sway.
With his mild empire, peace and plenty came;
And hence the golden times deriv’d their name.
A more degenerate and discolor’d age
Succeeded this, with avarice and rage. (Drydan trans.)

The golden age was thus not not that first age in which men lived a savage, pre-legal, pre-agricultural life of hardship, but rather the golden age came when Saturn introduced laws and agriculture. Life only became bearable through agriculture which orders the wild power of nature, which sets boundaries and limits, and thus allows for plenty – the great theme of the Georgics. Law is the political counterpart of agriculture, it allows men to live in peace together, by imposing order on the wild forces of passion. But the golden age was flawed; it held the seed of its own destruction within it. Agriculture’s success brought cupidity, which brought envy, which brought war. The iron tools meant to cultivate the soil were turned against men; little by little the golden age passed away and was replaced by an age of iron. Book II of the Aeneid describes the brutality of the iron age: the seige of Troy shows a world in which raging, timocratic envy has unleashed such forces of war that human life itself seems threatened with destruction. Aeneis’s mission of of establishing the limiting power of law is paradoxically realized through founding a limitless empire (imperium sine fine dedi). The universality of the Roman Empire is to banish the violence of envy between different peoples; the love of honor is to be trained through piety to conform to reason and to love above all rerum pulcherrima Roma.

But this universal empire must be centered in Italy. Why? The tragic story of Dido raises this question with great urgency: why could Aeneas and the Trojans not have staid in Carthage, and built a universal empire from there? Eve Adler, in a book which despite its exaggerations is quite ingenious, points to an answer. Carthage represents a false kind of universality, a false model for the relation of reason to the passions. The Carthaginians are not pious. The applaud the Lucretian song of Iopas. Dido mocks Aeneis in Lucretian fashion for thinking that the gods really disturb their everlasting calm to meddle in the affairs of men (IV,380). The Carthaginians are not farmers, the are rich and luxurious merchants. They have no love for their native place which Dido left in anger. Dido’s whole project of building Carthage is ordered to revenging herself on her own brother. Carthage appears to be a reasonable place, (even if Adler’s claim that it replaces ancestral religion with scientific enlightenment is an exaggeration), but reason in Carthage is the slave of the passions. It is the Hedonistic reason of the Epicureans. And the problem with this is demonstraded in the character of Dido, in whom frustrated cupid leads to the unleashing of infernal furor. Hence Jupiter’s insistance that the coming empire must not be Carthaginian but Italian.

Italy is a land of farmers, who love their native soil, who are filled with piety in its original sense toward their ancestors and household gods, and the minor deities of the fields and rivers. The second part of the Aeneid is all about how the civilized Trojan’s become united to the Italian farmers. The climax of the whole epic is the reconciliation of Juno and Jupiter in the final book. In his peace treaty with the Latins Aeneas makes clear that he will allow them to keep their own traditions and even self-rule, but that he will add gods and rites to them (XII, 187-194). The Roman Empire is to operate on the principle of subsidiarity: each place will be bound to the universal through piety toward the local. This is to be achieved through the proper ordering of religion in which all the minor deities receive their due, but are subordinated to the universal god of law and reason: Jupiter. Hence Jupiter can say that the Romans will exceed the gods in piety (XII,839), for it is only through Rome’s pacification of the world that the gods themselves will be reconciled.

And yet the the reconciliation of the gods remains ambiguous till the end. In the great vision of the underworld in Book VI Aeneas sees the apathetic peace of the Elysian fields, and is shocked to find that some of those happy souls will be forced to return to the toils of life. Anchises explains this by the magnificent vision of the future destiny of Rome. The dominant motive of Anchises’s vision is (as Alvis points out, p. 204) the glory of subordinating one’s personal good for the public good of Rome. It appears to be love of the common good that makes the labor improbus of earthly life better than the apathy of Elysium. Human life is more fulfilled in the art of politics than in idle peace:

tu regere imperio populos, Romane, memento
– hae tibi erunt artes -, pacique imponere morem,
parcere subiectis et debellare superbos. (VI,850-853)

But thou, 0 Roman, learn with sovereign sway
To rule the nations. Thy great art shall be
To keep the world in lasting peace, to spare
humbled foe, and crush to earth the proud. (Drydan trans.)

This appears to be a great common good. And yet the motive that Achises seeks to enkindle in Aeneas is above all love of honor:

quae postquam Anchises natum per singula duxit
incenditque animum famae venientis amore,
exim bella viro memorat quae deinde gerenda… (VI,888-890)

After Anchises had led his son over every scene, kindling his soul, (animus=thymos!) with longing for the glory that was to be, he then tells of the wars that the hero next must wage…

This is the point at which Augustine will criticize Rome (cf. Civ. Dei V,12 and XV,5): the love of honor is always a private good, it can never be fully reconciled with the love of the common good. For a true common good is augmented by being shared, but (as the example of Romulus killing Remus shows) honor is diminished by being shared. Virgil is well aware of this difficulty. Turnus, the timocratic man schlechthin  — who is explicitly compared to a horse: tandem liber equus, campoque potitus aperto — illustrates just how hard it is to subordinate the love of honor to reason. In the metaphysical discourse in Book VI Anchises claims that the spiritus intus of the world is trapped in matter and is always trying to impose form on it. The souls in the Elysian fields have supposedly become perfectly purified from matter. But in this mortal world life consists in trying to impose ordering form on the wild chaos of matter. Chaos puts up a never fully eradicable resistance to order. Just as agriculture is always bound up with hard labor, so the debellare superbos empire is always bound up with the lachrimae rerum; noble Turnus must die.

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The Dudamel concert was excellent. They first did Brahms Variations on a theme by Hayden, then a Hayden ‘cello concerto (with the virtuosic if somewhat cold Gautier Capuçon), and then Beethoven 5. The Beethoven was particularly magnificent: such powerful passion subordinated to such imperial order! It represented exactly the imperial mission of Rome, but with more triumphalism than Virgil. But the VW logos reminded us that the “idea of European unification” that the concert was supposedly glorifying is a very Carthaginian enterprise. In the post-Reformation age peace is expected not from piety, but from commerce. We spoke with my friend’s oboist brother after the concert. He said that he had the impression that Dudamel was getting burnt-out by the exploitive way in which his agency was trying to make money out of him. In our Carthaginian age the noble thymos of youth is subordinated not to grave and pious reason, but to cupidity. Reason herself is degraded to an instrument of greed.

3 thoughts on “Empire III: Gustavo Dudamel at the Spanish Riding School; or Virgil and the Horses

  1. The EU as the Ape of Christendom? The love of money daring to supplant what once the love of God and Truth supplied?

    Of late I have been thinking more and more that “Modern Civilisation” is but a banal edifice being built over and atop the corpse of Christendom; that is, we live in the graveyard of Christian civilisation, which is to moderns but a Mausoleum marked-off and rendered what honours are due to the dead.

    Like

  2. Pingback: World Government is Required by Natural Law | The Josias

  3. Pingback: French Nationalism, The Karlskirche, the Empire, and the Meaning of Europe | Sancrucensis

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