Ronald Knox called the account of his conversion A Spiritual Aeneid. In an Aeneid you are coming home, but coming home to a place you have never been in before. You must throw yourself upon the guidance of the gods. Nor are there the memories of home to spur you on when you are tempted to turn aside, Knox writes, “it is a mere sense of mission, imperiously insistent, that inflames your discontent: cunctus ob Italiam terrarum clauditur orbis.” And of course, the home to which you are returning is Rome. In a recent paper I have argued that everything about the relation of his book to the Aeneid could be applied to Bl. John Henry Newman’s Apologia. But the Apologia can be called a spiritual Aeneid for a deeper reason than those listed by Knox.
At the beginning of the key chapter of the Apologia Newman refers to Aeneid and thereby shows what is his own intention in writing:
And now that I am about to trace, as far as I can, the course of that great revolution of mind, which led me to leave my own home, to which I was bound by so many strong and tender ties, I feel overcome with the difficulty of satisfying myself in my account of it, and have recoiled from the attempt, till the near approach of the day, on which these lines must be given to the world, forces me to set about the task. For who can know himself, and the multitude of subtle influences which act upon him? And who can recollect, at the distance of twenty-five years, all that he once knew about his thoughts and his deeds, and that, during a portion of his life, when, even at the time his observation, whether of himself or of the external world, was less than before or after, by very reason of the perplexity and dismay which weighed upon him,—when, in spite of the light given to him according to his need amid his darkness, yet a darkness it emphatically was? And who can suddenly gird himself to a new and anxious undertaking, which he might be able indeed to perform well, were full and calm leisure allowed him to look through every thing that he had written, whether in published works or private letters? yet again, granting that calm contemplation of the past, in itself so desirable, who can afford to be leisurely and deliberate, while he practises on himself a cruel operation, the ripping up of old griefs, and the venturing again upon the ‘infandum dolorem’ of years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out? I could not in cool blood, nor except upon the imperious call of duty, attempt what I have set myself to do. It is both to head and heart an extreme trial, thus to analyze what has so long gone by, and to bring out the results of that examination. I have done various bold things in my life: this is the boldest: and, were I not sure I should after all succeed in my object, it would be madness to set about it. (Bl. John Henry Newman, Apologia pro Vita Sua)
“Infandum dolorem” is a quote from the oppening of Book II of the Aeneid:
Infandum, regina, iubes renovare dolorem,
Troianas ut opes et lamentabile regnum
eruerint Danai; quaeque ipse miserrima vidi,
et quorum pars magna fui. Quis talia fando
Myrmidonum Dolopumve aut duri miles Ulixi
temperet a lacrimis? Et iam nox umida caelo
praecipitat, suadentque cadentia sidera somnos.
Sed si tantus amor casus cognoscere nostros
et breviter Troiae supremum audire laborem,
quamquam animus meminisse horret, luctuque refugit,
Too deep for words, O queen, is the grief you bid me renew, how the Greeks overthrew Troy’s wealth and woeful realm – the sights most piteous that I saw myself and wherein I played no small role. What Myrmidon or Dolopian, or soldier of the stern Ulysses, could refrain from tears in telling such a tale? And now dewy night is speeding from the sky and the setting stars counsel sleep. Yet if such is your desire to learn of our disasters, and in few words to hear of Troy’s last agony, though my mind shudders to remember and has recoiled in pain, I will begin.
Newman mirrors Virgil’s passage closely even to chillingly transforming Virgil’s musical line “suadentque cadentia sidera somnos” into “years, in which the stars of this lower heaven were one by one going out.” But the echo in imagery points to what this passage most of all shows is that Newman was following Virgil at a deeper level; he was trying to convey the same vision of the deep sadness in greatness of mortal life in its relation to the divine.
Virgil’s sadness is deeper than that of the other great classical authors because of his hope. Compare the famous line which Aeneas speaks on seeing the images of Troy, “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt,” (1.462) with Lucretius on the pain of birth, “cui tantum in vita restet transire malorum” (De Rerum Natura 5.227). Lucretius does not see any meaning in the pains of birth; his sadness is simply despair at the meaninglessness of life. Virgil sees great meaning in the fall of Troy – it is ordered to the rise of Rome – and this gives his sadness a different quality. There is a paradox here. Lucretius’s sadness is shallow, because he is hopeless, and thus lacks a sense of the nobility of mortal life. Virgil’s sadness is deep because he sees human life as playing out a meaningful and divinely guided destiny, his sadness sees the nobility of mortal existence in its very pain and weariness.
For Virgil mortal things touch the heart because of a nobility which comes from their being ordered to something greater than themselves. The Christian Middle Ages saw Virgil as a prophet because he is practically unique among the pagans in having a linear, teleological view of history. For Virgil the god’s have destined Rome to great things, and the role of the hero is to contribute to that destiny. It is this grand hope that makes Virgil so different from Homer. Homer has an essentially cyclical view of history; the endless quarrels of the gods go round and round.* The role of the hero for Homer is simply to win great honor in a harsh world, to achieve lasting fame. There is no possibility of contributing toward some final goal.
It is Virgil’s view, transformed of course by a far greater hope, that Newman is trying to express. Newman is trying to “touch the heart” by the portrayal of the nobility and sadness of mortal existence played out in the attempt to reach for the divine and strive for the eternal goal. That is where the greatest fascination of the Apologia comes from – the pathos and nobility of the relation to divine Providence.
Those whose hearts have been touched by the Apologia can say to Newman what Dante says to Virgil: “Tu se’ lo mio maestro e ’l mio autore:” “thou art my master, and my author thou!” (Inferno 1.87)
*Some argue that Homer is actually lamenting the end of the Heroic age and showing how it’s demise was necessary for the beginning of the age of the political city-state, thus finding a note of linear teleology in his epics. But, at any rate, that note is much less prominent than in Virgil.