Stoicism and ‘the view from above’.
Stoicism and “the view
The emperor Augustus commissioned Virgil to write the Aeneid, which came to be regarded as the national epic of Rome, and Virgil’s finest work. The poem tells the story of Aeneas, the son Venus, goddess of love, by the Trojan prince Anchises, as he flees burning Troy and strives to fulfill his destiny, which, as oft foretold, is to reach Italy and sire the line of the Romans, who will come to rule all the known world.
The most Stoicial passage in the Aeneid is the one known as Creusa’s farewell, which has been used for centuries for emotional education. As the concealed Greek soldiers pour out of the wooden horse, Hector, the fallen Trojan hero, appears to Aeneas in a dream and urges him to flee their beloved Troy. When Aeneas awakens, the city is in flames with fighting and looting in every corner. Aeneas gathers a few men and fights as best he can but loses his companions and witnesses the slaughter of King Priam upon his own altar. He sees Helen hiding and resolves to kill her; but his mother Venus appears and stays his hand, telling him that it is not Helen but the gods who are to blame for the war. Echoing Hector, Venus urges him to flee with his family.
Aeneas repairs to his house, but his father Anchises refuses to leave. The head of his son Ascanius briefly catches fire, and this omen is confirmed by a shooting star, which now not even Anchises can ignore. Aeneas carries his father in his back (as we all do) and leads his son by the hand, while Creusa, his wife, follows closely behind. Once outside the city gates, Aeneas finds that Creusa is no longer with them, and turns back in search of her.
But amid the tumult, and after searching in every place, Aeneas finds only Creusa’s ghost, which speaks to him. Creusa, or her ghost, bids Aeneas not to grieve, for it was the will of the gods that she should die. Death is preferable to being raped, or enslaved to ‘some proud Grecian dame’. She foretells that, after many arduous years of wandering, Aeneas will arrive in Latium to a bride and kingdom, and there restore the Trojan line. She bids him farewell and reminds him that she will live on in their ‘common issue’, Ascanius. As it vanishes, Aeneas tries three times, in vain, to grasp at her spectre.
Creusa is completely accepting of fate, and, although she sees it clearly, does not begrudge her husband his kingdom to come or bride to be. Her detachment and perspective, which enable her to empathize with Aeneas and even to help him along his way, rather than grieve for all that she has lost, are an epitome of Stoicism, and especially of ‘the view from above’.
If we are too absorbed in our life and times, our perspective shrinks, and we become fearful and hopeful and prone to upset. Like readers of tabloid newspapers, we panic or rage at every little thing, rather than being alive in our lives. To achieve Creusa’s greatness of soul, we need to distance ourself from the life that we happen to be leading, and what better way to distance ourself than by seeking to adopt the perspective of Zeus on Olympus and look down from on high onto the world? The reason, maybe, why billionaires are so keen to blast themselves up into space.
Cicero’s Republic has largely been lost, but a part of the final book, called the Dream of Scipio, has survived in a commentary by Macrobius, which rose to prominence in the Middle Ages. The passage describes a dream that the Roman general Scipio Aemilianus is supposed to have had at the outset of the Third Punic War, which culminated in the destruction of Carthage.
In this dream, Scipio Aemilianus is visited by his grandfather-by-adoption, Scipio Africanus, who defeated Hannibal at the outcome of the Second Punic War. The Elder Scipio shows him Carthage, the Earth, and the cosmos from the outer heavens, ‘a place on high, full of stars, and bright and shining.’ Scipio is awed by the music of the spheres, and sees that Rome is only a small part of the Earth, and the Earth a small part of the cosmos, and that it is better to fix our mind on this eternal picture, and to seek out wisdom and virtue, than to bleed and sweat for transient fame and fortune.
In the words of Marcus Aurelius, which are all the more remarkable for coming from an emperor:
Keep in mind how fast things pass by and are gone—those that are now, and those to come. Existence flows past us like a river… Nothing is stable, not even what’s right here. The infinity of past and future gapes before us—a chasm whose depths we cannot see. So it would take an idiot to feel self-importance or distress. Or any indignation, either. As if the things that irritate us lasted.Meditations, V, 23.
Neel Burton is author of Stoic Stories.