America’s founding generation absorbed Virgil (70–19 b.c.) and the lessons of Rome. They admired the story of Aeneas, the man who led a tiny group of intrepid refugees across the sea to create a great nation in a hostile world. Like Rome, the American republic would inaugurate a new social and political order. Indeed, the motto on the Great Seal of the United States, a novus ordo seclorum — a new order for the ages — was borrowed fromVirgil’s book of poems, The Eclogues. Unlike Rome, however, this political order would be based on the concepts of human equality and human freedom.
It thus comes as no surprise that the progressive assault on America as a racist and imperialist juggernaut has drawn into its wake a raft of revisionist views of Virgil’s work. Awash in woke assumptions about the West, critics don’t have much to say about some of the key elements of the story, such as virtue, sacrifice, and faith. “Two thousand years after its appearance,” writes Daniel Mendelsohn in The New Yorker, “we still can’t decide if his masterpiece is a regressive celebration of power as a means of political domination or a craftily coded critique of imperial ideology.”
It does not occur to the leftist literati that there are other, legitimate ways of appreciating Virgil’s achievement that avoid these crude tropes. The English classicist Bernard Knox, for example, identified three major virtues on display in the work. All of them, it turns out, are essential for republican government.
There is the concept of auctoritas, the respect that is earned by those who lead and govern wisely and bravely, whether in war or peacetime. It suggests an intangible yet widely acknowledged moral authority. There is the idea of gravitas, a deep seriousness about political and religious matters.