For better than a decade, I have found myself drawn more to Virgil’s Aeneid and the titular character’s sense of exile and searching—derivative, imitative, precise—than to the great epics of Homer. Voicing this opinion often raises eyebrows, especially those on classicists’ faces. After a meditation upon the insightful conversation of John Senior and Dennis Quinn, of the Integrated Humanities Program once offered at Kansas University, however, I have finally understood my own preference.
Namely: the Aeneid is a poem of maturity. The titular character loses everything. He wanders in homeless exile. But he persists. Virgil, as poet, may be exciting and dashing from time to time, but never, as Senior and Quinn say, could he be called “bombastic”. He crafted his masterpiece over a decade: every phrase and word pruned and ripened by countless hours of care.
But exile—like that faced by Aeneas—more rapidly ages any man or woman, and, today, we are all wandering in exile. We want for a home… many seem not to possess even the sense of what “home” is. This deprivation seems especially true of my own generation (millennials) and younger. Not only are we geographically uprooted, but culturally and spiritually, too. I think therefore that Virgil can teach us more than Homer—Aeneas, as someone facing a situation more alike to our own, more than Achilles or Hector, Odysseus or Telemachus or Penelope.
How are we to deal with our exile?
As I travelled to visit family for Christmas, I read the excellent collection of short stories by Joshua Hren, This Our Exile. Not coincidentally (there are few, if any, coincidences in the stimulation of our minds), we recently concluded our Lectio Commedia: Dante, Poet of Hope reading. Dante, of course, begins his poem in exile: lost in the dark wood of doubt and confusion. Dante the poet appoints Virgil as the guide for Dante the pilgrim. Hren identifies our contemporary lostness. Virgil gives us a tale of human virtue by which we may endure the trials and tribulations of a hostile world. Dante points us toward a divine resolution to our lives.
Late Modern Exile
It is no reach to say that exile has been a theme, of late. It is also no reach to say that this exile is a theme viewed not only from a distance, but one felt.
Our exile is not the same as that faced by Aeneas. We have not been thrown from our land nor had our homes destroyed. Rather, we possess nothing truly ours from which we can be thrown. No foreign invader truly threatens us. We might live in our childhood homes or towns and go off to college, never to return but for visits. But what were the homes which we left?
Speaking for myself, I have long been displaced—uprooted, living in one place after another, moving from apartment to apartment, and only of late have I “settled” in a place I might obliquely call my home. Still, the long habit of living without a place in which I seem to belong leaves me with a feeling of the temporary. But… is it merely the lack of sameness in place that leaves us feeling always stranded in a place we do not quite belong, even when in our houses? Doubtless, geographical uprootedness has something to do with that—but can it alone be accused as the cause?
No: we are homeless because of a cultural decay, a rot from the inside-out.
What makes a house into a home? What makes a land our father or mother? Not a contract, but indeed a belonging—a fittingness in place which constitutes much more than merely “feeling accepted”. To belong is “to go along with”. We belong with that which goes along with us (something much more than merely a psychological subjectivity) toward our end. A home cannot be a place of mere idle rest (more on that momentarily), but must fit what we are as humans. Does one have that, in a modern apartment? In a faceless suburb? In a digital world of communication without community?
Confusing Anesthetic for Genuine Comfort
Late modernity—in the nadir of which I hope we find ourselves, that is, that it may not get any darker than we see now—strives still for the goal of modernity’s founders, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) and René Descartes (1596–1650): namely, the mechanical domination of all nature. Martin Heidegger (1889–1976) rightly asserted that the final hurdle for this intended domination was the human being. The late modern seeks to dominate both others and himself. He is not, therefore, at home either among others or in himself. This exile, into which all of us have been thrown whether willing it or not (relationally-constituted as we are), may last some time. It may outlast all who are now living. How can we rediscover a sense of home?
First, we need to recognize that much of what we take as comfort or comforting in our daily lives, in fact, serves only to numb us. To draw upon another epic poem of antiquity, we have become lotus-eaters. Today we see a proliferation of marijuana dispensaries, smoke shops (many advertising kratom in their windows), and, generally, a culture of using alcohol for numbing our pains or escaping the doldrum rather than in festive celebration of friendship and achievement of the good.
Even apart from use of anesthetizing substances, however, we subject ourselves to anesthetizing habits. We binge watch television on streaming services. Video games suck away hours of one’s life. The doomscroll keeps us numb to our own thoughts. We do not—cannot—think deeply about what we see or hear when something new displaces the old every other second. We thereby become lazy and self-indulgent. Striving for the good appears painful; we expect to be handed it. We outsource difficult, tedious, and unpleasant tasks—caring for the elderly, for young children, educating the youth, caring for our property—to paid professionals. We segment and fragment our lives.
Meditation upon Home
Recognizing our anesthetized condition proves far easier than remedying it. Providing that remedy requires more than breaking the spell of the lotus, as it were. We need a positive purpose. Starved of such purpose, we go hungrily in search of our preferred anesthetics.
But, shocked from our anesthetized insensibility, we may recognize ourselves as lost—therein the chief intellectual merit to Hren’s stories. We know that we lack a home. Let us conceive how to build one.
As aforementioned, a home consists in the fittingness of place. Arguably, nothing in this world ever gives us a perfect sense of fittingness, itself an argument for belief in an afterlife. But we may nevertheless benefit from an imperfect-and-perfecting fittingness. That is, some imperfections are means to greater perfections. Our terrestrial homes ought to fall into this category.
We could do far worse than looking to Aeneas and Dante to re-discover how. In Dante the pilgrim, we discover the correction of will through deepened understanding of error and, especially, the peeling back of our self-deception. In Aeneas we discover firmness of character. Through both, we experience a journey in search of a place where one belongs. Neither choice nor “feeling” dictates this belonging. Neither stumbles into his home by fortuitous accident. Rather, they follow aims handed down from on-high.
Their journeys are unpleasant. They undergo many trials. Aeneas, in particular, finds himself enmeshed in an easy and pleasant distraction—the anesthetizing embrace of Dido. But Carthage is not where he belongs. He matures most of all in leaving her behind: for maturity consists, principally, in doing what we would rather not but know we ought.
We want today for such maturity just as we want for a sense of home. Aeneas and Dante alike must discover who they are in order to discover where they belong. Each, subsequently, matures through undertaking the unpleasant challenges that stand between them and those homes.
So, too, must we.