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In Stature and Wisdom: Aeneas and Jesus

In Luke 2:52, just after Jesus gave dining-room-table material that would probably serve his parents for decades to come–“You DO remember that time when you stayed in the temple in Jerusalem when we headed back to Nazareth, right?”–the gospel tells us that “Jesus grew in stature and wisdom, and in favor with God and men.” At the risk of kicking into a theological hornets’ nest, I would point out the clear English (and largely the clear Greek) of the verse. As I read this, Jesus did not arrive in this world with absolute wisdom. His wisdom, and presumably the understanding that follows wisdom, increased over time. Similarly, Jesus’ favor with God did not remain static throughout his life. That’s not to say that Jesus displeased God early on. Instead, it suggests that God became more pleased with–perhaps, took increased pleasure in–Jesus as the latter matured.

How similar is this development in Jesus from potential redeemer to accomplished redeemer to the development of Aeneas from potential hope of a redeemer of Troy’s fortunes to the actual founder of what would become the Roman Republic and Empire? Unlike Jesus, Aeneas does not seem to develop in stature over the course of Virgil’s twelve books of the Aeneid. As the assault on Troy begins, Aeneas is an old married man, father to a son sufficiently old to be left in nominal command of the Trojan beachhead in Italy just a few years later. But like the twelve-year-old Jesus, Aeneas has plenty of growing up to do in the wisdom department. Waken in the middle of the fateful night of Troy’s destruction by the ghost of Hector, who tells him to pack up the family and the household gods and head out to provide the restart that Troy so clearly needs, Aeneas does precisely the opposite, abandoning family and gods to go engage in a futile last-ditch defense of the city. He seems completely aware of the pointlessness of this fighting, yet he plunges in nonetheless, putting the entire escape and restart project in peril and perhaps causing his wife’s death in the bargain. Only when his goddess mother whacks him alongside the head–figuratively, of course–does Aeneas get his mind back onto the future that Fate has prepared for him.

Once leaving Asia Minor, Aeneas does not immediately emerge as the mature and potent leader that the group needs. Until his death, Anchises, Aeneas’ father, provides the bulk of the mental leadership for the group. Almost as soon as Anchises dies, Aeneas abandons his mission and indulges in a not-so-secret tryst with Dido of Carthage. Only after leaving Carthage and marking the anniversary of his father’s death with athletic contests does Aeneas seem ready to take his place at the head of the expedition. And even then, it requires a lengthy trip to Hades where he encounters various figures from the past, most significantly Anchises, and receives his marching orders in their clearest form. To his credit, Aeneas appears more noble than the kinsmen of the dead rich man from Luke 16, who after finding himself on the wrong side of great gulf in the afterlife, pleads to have his family warned:

 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

“Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

“‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

“He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’”

Once book six with its trip to Hades is complete, Aeneas has apparently completed his growth in wisdom. He immediately leads the Trojans to the area of their new home. He attempts to establish his new home peacefully and, when met with adversity in the person of Turnus and divine opposition, he never wavers in his resolve.

Just as Dante understood, Virgil is no crypto-Christian, yet the story of Aeneas is one that naturally attracts Christian attention. The self sacrifice and devotion of Aeneas in the second half of the poem reminds us of Christ, yet his double-mindedness in the first half reminds us of, perhaps, ourselves, or, thinking biblically, Peter.

Posted in Classical, Classical Literature, Latin Literature.

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