We can tell a great deal about a culture based on what they think about Virgil’s Aeneid.
For example, let’s recall Aeneas’ relationship with Dido. When the hero of the story is washed up on the shores of Carthage, a romance blossoms between him and Carthage’s tragic queen. Dido wants for Aeneas to stay, an offer he surely found tempting, but Aeneas is a man on a mission, “duty-bound” by the gods to go to Rome.
So Aeneas leaves Carthage. The queen, heartbroken, kills herself as his ships leave shore.
I’ll never forget the first time someone asked me, “But do you really think Aeneas did the right thing leaving Dido that way?” It was a possibility I had never considered. Of course he did the right thing. He has a mission from the gods that trumped any desires he may have for a woman. I couldn’t imagine the act to be anything but heroic.
I discovered, however, that the argument goes like this: If Aeneas loved Dido, he would have stayed with her, and because he did not stay with her, either he did not love her at all, or he was a hypocrite who used the gods as an excuse to escape the obligations of his love.
Perhaps it was merely my southern-stoic naiveté that foreclosed any such possibilities in my young mind. To me the hero was the hero. I, the reader, was not to supposed to criticize but to learn, and the lesson was clear: If you must choose between your duty and your desire, there really isn’t a choice at all; there is only duty.
New textual criticism of the Dido affair reflects much more than petty arguments about a solitary book, but rather an entire cultural shift in what virtue is. Is it about being true to yourself, or is virtue something more?
In Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, the protagonist’s mother, conspires with his uncle to murder his father so that they might have the throne and each other. When Hamlet confronts his mother, she pleas that she only followed her desires, and that to do otherwise would naturally be hypocritical. Hamlet calls her out, and charges that her act “calls virtue hypocrite.” Instead, he says, she should have tried to “assume a virtue, if you have it not.”
This is not to say that the self is not important. In a very real sense, you cannot find yourself until you deny yourself. After all, who would Aeneas be if the poem ended in the middle of the fourth chapter? If he had stayed—been true to himself—then who would he be? Certainly not the Aeneas that has inspired the Western world for over 2,000 years. That Aeneas, the true Aeneas, is the one we only see when the book and all its trials are complete.