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“Here We Have No Lasting City”

Consider this an exercise in the the analysis of the evolution of the heroic temper.

Lewis and Vergil

In his chapter on Vergil in A Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis speaks of Aeneas’ “reluctant yet unfaltering search for the abiding city (mansuram urbem)” (emph. orig.). The passage in question comes from the “all-important” Book 3:

Templa dei saxo venerabar structa vetusto:

“da propriam, Thymbraee, domum; da moenia fessis               85

et genus et mansuram urbem; serva altera Troiae

Pergama, reliquias Danaum atque immitis Achilli.

quem sequimur? quoue ire iubes? ubi ponere sedes?

da, pater, augurium atque animis inlabere nostris.”

 

There I paid homage at Phoebus’ ancient temple of hewn stone.

“Give us a home of our own, god of Thymbra, give walls to the weary,

Give us a future, a city that lasts. Preserve, for a new Troy,

Pergamum’s remnants missed by the Greeks and ungentle Achilles.

Whom do we follow? Or where do you tell us to go or to settle?

Give us a sign to interpret, slip into our minds and inspire us!” (Tr. F. Ahl here and throughout)

Lewis refers to this passage in his discussion of Aeneas as a hero of vocation–a conception, he says, that sets his hero radically apart from the heroes of Homer, in comparison to whom Aeneas is “a man, an adult” where “Achilles had been little more than a passionate boy.”

The road Aeneas is to walk in fulfilling his mission is the road of pietas, a word that conjures a cluster of duties to gods, family, and country. Aeneas has a role to play, a destination to reach; this is his officium, his office, and he must discharge it however partial his knowledge, however difficult his circumstances, however much he might desire to do otherwise.

He has divine aid, to be sure: aid that comes in the form of dreams and visions, ghosts and spirits, thunders and tremors. Yet his course is often bleak, and in that bleakness the gods remain paradoxically near and distant simultaneously: one only need think here of Aeneas’ meeting with the disguised Venus in Book 1, at the conclusion of which he exclaims at his departing divine mother:

“You’re cruel too! Oh how often you toy with me, crafting illusions!

Why? I’m your son! Why can’t we ever link our right hands together,

Why are we never allowed to hear genuine questions and answers?”

Such were the charges he made while directing his steps to the city.

Aeneas receives no answer, gets no comfort from his heavenly mother, even while he obtains her aid in the form of a concealing cloud by which he and Achates can enter Carthage in safety.

An Abiding City?

But Lewis’ phrasing above is suggestive of something else, while remaining an accurate rendering of the Latin for all that. For the “search for an abiding city” calls to mind a similar phrase from the letter to the Hebrews, though Lewis does not pursue the connection. (In that respect, it is a pity not to be able to see what he would have done with the rest of the passage from Book 3. But, alas, Lewis’ translation of the Aeneid was, like Vergil’s original, left unfinished.) The unknown author of Hebrews writes: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb. 13.14). Though it is impossible to say whether Lewis had the Vulgate version of that text in the back of his mind when reading Aen. 3.86, a connection is plausible and difficult to ignore: non enim habemus hic manentem civitatem sed futuram inquirimus.

Where Vergil makes the “abiding city” future and yet immanent in the historical process (for it is Rome), the writers of the New Testament make it future and eschatological (for it is the city that is to come), and yet one that has broken into the immanent historical process in the coming, suffering, and rising of the Messiah. This Christ, though exalted above all of creation from eternity past, overcomes divine distance in a real Incarnation that makes epiphanies like that of Venus seem only cheap and off-brand knock-offs. The Apostle Paul gives what is perhaps the most memorable description of what that entailed in his letter to the church at Philippi:1

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2.5-8, ESV here and throughout)

This overcoming of distance for the sake of sinful men is a gift of God’s grace. It is a grace that is costly to Christ, but we should mark what else it entails: it is costly to us as well. Hence, just before this, Paul says:

For it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake, engaged in the same conflict that you saw I had and now hear that I still have. (Phil. 1.29-30)

The word Paul uses for “granted,” ἐχαρίσθη, tells his readers that suffering for the sake of Christ is a gift of grace–a thought completely alien to the world of the Aeneid. How can it be so? Because it shows one’s union with the savior who suffered for him. That is, it is a function of the divine closeness that comes with the Incarnation and a repetition of the basic pattern of the Christian life–which is to say, of the baptismal pattern: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his” (Romans 6.5).

This costly grace is thus actually and at the same time gain: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds” (James 1.2); “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (Matt. 5.11); “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” (Phil. 3.8).

What is required in the Christian life, then, is the heroism of humility, a virtue to which Paul refers in Phil. 2.3. In his commentary on this verse, Marvin R. Vincent notes its difference from the classical conception of being lowly: to be such for the Greeks “usually implies meanness of condition; lowness of ranik; abjectness. At best the classical conception is only modesty, absence of assumption, an element of worldly wisdom, and in no sense opposed to self-righteousness.” Humility, in contrast, “is an outgrowth of the gospel.”

The Christian search for the lasting city, then, involves the renouncing of immanent, earthly glory. The conjunction “for” at the beginning of Heb. 13.14 is significant (For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come”). To what does it connect? To this: “So Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through his own blood. Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” Jesus acts first; Jesus saves, as the bumper stickers and billboards rightly tell us. We then echo that movement in our own lives: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp. For here we have no lasting city.” The heroism of Aeneas maintains its connection with vocation in the Christian conception, but in the New Testament witness it is humbled, transfigured, made eschatological. There is not in fact “[o]ne equal temper of heroic hearts,” as Tennyson puts it in a very different context. To attempt to turn back the clock to a purely Aenean heroism would be disastrous; that way lies the deified state and the horrors of the twentieth century. The heroic temper must undergo its own tempering and its own modification.

But so tempered it is not without glory, provided that the proper order is observed. First, the  Son’s glory, then ours in him:

Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed [ἐχαρίσατο again] on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2.9-11)

Then:

But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. (Phil. 3.20-1)

Again, Paul:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. (Rom. 8.18)

For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor. 4.17)

Conclusion

The “empire without end,” imperium sine fine, prophesied by Jupiter in Aen. 1 can be no earthly city; it is “the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God” (Rev. 21.10). Though it is not yet seen in its eschatological fullness, it is inaugurated in the presence of the Kingdom of the Son, who “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15.25). In the meantime, he who would be a reborn Aeneas must go outside the camp and bear the reproach Christ endured. But when we do so, we must do so remembering that we do not go in the first instance to a city, a country, an empire, as Aeneas did. We go, as the author of Hebrews puts it, “to him”–to him who is both the way of our journey, and its end.

  1. Cf. this series on “imitating the Incarnation”: here, here, and here.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.