A Passing Storm or Coming Shipwreck?
The always-amiable Father Andrew Gilligan, who for many years taught Latin at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco, wanted his students to remember some of the great passages from Virgil's "The Aeneid" long after they had forgotten the arcane rules of Latin grammar.
The always-amiable Father Andrew Gilligan, who for many years taught Latin at St. Ignatius High School in San Francisco, wanted his students to remember some of the great passages from Virgil’s “The Aeneid” long after they had forgotten the arcane rules of Latin grammar.
So, he gave us some to memorize.
One was: “Forsan et haec olim meminisse juvabit.”
His colloquial translation of this was: “Someday you may look back on even these things and laugh.”
That is what Aeneas told his men after they sailed through a horrendous storm.
They had escaped from Troy after the Greeks captured it. But they were destined to lay the foundation of the Roman Empire in Italy.
The vengeful goddess Juno, seeking to stop them, ordered Aeolus, the god of the winds, to hit them as hard as he could. Neptune, the god of the sea, stopped the storm and spared Aeneas — and, according to Virgil’s story, the future of Rome.
This line from Virgil occurred to me aboard a cruise ship, as we peacefully sailed from a port near Rome, past Sicily, toward Greece and Turkey — heading in exactly the opposite direction as Aeneas.
The seas were calm. The skies were blue. It was hard to imagine what Aeneas went through.
As pantheistic as “The Aeneid” is, Virgil wrote it only decades before the birth of Christ — the same century during which another great Roman, Cicero, wrote his “Treatise on the Commonwealth,” which has been quoted in this column.
“There is a true law, a right reason, conformable to nature, universal, unchangeable, eternal, whose commands urge us to duty, and whose prohibitions restrain us from evil,” Cicero wrote. “Whether it enjoins or forbids, the good respect its injunctions, and the wicked treat them with indifference. This law cannot be contradicted by any other law and is not liable either to derogation or abrogation.”
“Neither the senate nor the people can give us any dispensation for not obeying this universal law of justice,” Cicero said.
“It is not one thing at Rome and another at Athens; one thing today and another tomorrow; but in all times and nations this universal law must forever reign, eternal and imperishable,” he wrote.
“It is the sovereign master and emperor of all beings,” said Cicero. “God himself is its author, its promulgator, its enforcer. He who obeys it not, flies from himself, and does violence to the very nature of man.”
As these lines demonstrate, Cicero was not a pantheist. He wrote of one God, whose universal law applied to all human beings in all times and all places.
In Rome, the ruins of the Colosseum, built in the first century after the birth of Christ, are within walking distance of St. Peter’s Basilica, whose dome was designed by Michelangelo in the 16th century and whose piazza was designed by Bernini in the 17th century.
The interior of the Colosseum may have witnessed hideous things, but its classical beauty is rooted in the same immutable rules of harmony and proportion that guided the designs of the Renaissance.
A little more than a century after Bernini designed the Piazza San Pietro, our Founding Fathers declared the United States an independent nation, appealing as they did so to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” and stating that all men “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights.”
Thomas Jefferson later described the Declaration of Independence as “an expression of the American mind” and cited the writings of Cicero as one of its inspirations.
That new nation, which embraced the immutable principles articulated by Cicero, soon built a beautiful capital city, whose major structures, such as the Capitol and the White House, reflected the same basic architectural principles as classical — and Renaissance — Rome.
Based on that same principle Cicero articulated two thousand years ago, America became the freest and greatest nation on Earth.
In 1969, two American astronauts, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, planted our flag on the moon — a profoundly symbolic moment for a nation that had reached higher than any other both morally and physically.
Since Apollo 17 in 1972, we have not returned to the moon.
But we have aborted many millions of babies, declared it a “right” for two people of the same sex to marry and begun a national debate about whether a young man can declare himself a young woman and begin using the ladies’ room.
At the same time, our federal government has run up a debt of more than $22 trillion.
The advice Aeneas gave to his men in the wake of that fictional storm that Virgil put into verse more than two thousand years ago could never be applied to the cultural challenge America faces today.
We will never look back on these conflicts with any sort of mirth.
But, hopefully, someday soon we will look back and know that we not only weathered the storm but also turned the ship back in the right direction.
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