Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1998.12.04

Sabine MacCormack, Shadows of Poetry. Vergil in the Mind of Augustine. "The Transformation of the Classical Heritage" vol. XXVI.   Berkeley:  University of California Press, 1998.  Pp. xx, 258; 16 ills.  ISBN 0-520-21187-1.  $40.00/£30.00.  

Reviewed by Karin Schlapbach, Klassisch-Philologisches Seminar, Zürich (
Word count: 1810 words

One of the many readers of Vergil cited by Sabine MacCormack is Macrobius, in whose Saturnalia Vettius Agorius Praetextatus, the central figure in this dialogue, says that when poets speak of the gods, "they often borrow the seeds of their stories from the shrine of philosophy" (MacCormack p. 172). Praetextatus's statement concerning the procedure of poets is at the same time the premise and explanation for a basic reading strategy of his own time, which could be put as follows: 'readers often borrow the keys for their interpretations of poetry from philosophy.' This is especially true for the period covered by MacCormack's study and in particular for the reception of Vergil. The relation between poetry and philosophy, as well as that beween poetry and history, is the background against which MacCormack asks the more specific question about the importance of Vergil for Augustine, the teacher of rhetoric, philosopher and bishop. As the illustrations from the famous Vergilius Romanus and Vergilius Vaticanus suggest -- as well as the motto taken from Dante (p. i: "In honor of beloved Virgil -- 'O degli altri poeti onore e lume'") -- this is a work about Vergil in the first place, but about Vergil in the eyes of another author, the Christian Augustine. The book seeks to give "an explanation, perhaps a new explanation, of what was at issue when Augustine became a Christian" (p. xix), and is mainly concerned with the significance of Vergil 'in the mind' of Augustine, not with his physical presence in the works of Augustine. MacCormack's book contains no lists of citations or allusions (a task which has been amply fulfilled by the monumental studies of Schelkle, Hagendahl, and others), but it tries to enliven the 'encounter' and the 'conversation' between the two authors.

In addition to Augustine, MacCormack considers the writings on Vergil of such disparate authors as Servius, Aelius Donatus, Tiberius Claudius Donatus, Macrobius, Probus, and others. She examines the cultural context of Augustine's works in order to elucidate the specific Christian features, all the while never overlooking the differences between the pagan and Christian receptions. Thus, Vergil's theological impact becomes intelligible as well.

The book contains five chapters, each divided into three sections, an epilogue, and also a useful and detailed bibliography, which lists mainly English and French, but also German works. The first chapter ("Their Renowned Poet") sets out Vergil's life, his works and methods, his ambiguity and allusiveness, and his importance for following generations, both pagan and Christian. Whereas Vergil's contemporaries could read "the Aeneid as a commentary on recent history" (p. 14), and historians (Tacitus, Ammianus Marcellinus) would draw on the Aeneid not only for the elegance of its language, but for its poignant 'images and emotions' as well, later readers were much more concerned with the single characters (Dido, Aeneas) and their paradigmatic destinies. One of the book's special interests is the Christian interpretation of Vergil's Fourth eclogue. MacCormack shows ably the contrast between the complete adaption of the poem to Christian beliefs (e.g.the emperor Constantine, who saw in Vergil the "wisest of the poets" and a Christian before his time, see MacCormack p.25s.) and the more moderate view of Lactantius and Augustine that the truths contained in pagan poetry are mixed with falsehood and are therefore only limited truths.

Chapter II ("The Scent of a Rose") deals with the nature of language and signs, and with the relation between sense perception and reason. It gives a valid introduction to Augustine's ideas on the subject, especially as expounded in De dialectica, De magistro, De musica, and De doctrina christiana, showing developments as well between the different works. So, while discussing Vergil at Cassiciacum, Augustine agrees with Varro's view in assigning poets some importance (insofar as they produce 'reasonable lies', cf. De ordine II.14.40), whereas later on (De doctrina christiana II.16.26-17.27), he refutes this possibility (pp. 53s. and 63s.).

A discussion of language is at the same time a discussion of truth and understanding. For Augustine, language is an arbitrary and inadequate means of communication. True understanding is 'inner understanding', and is, in the last resort, independent from language. MacCormack highlights these central points, contrasting them with the views of Varro and others.

Notwithstanding its richness and interest, the chapter is not without its difficulties. See for instance p. 70: "[M]eaning in language was conveyed much more by signs than by correct usage because, in the last resort, usage was manmade, but signs were inherent in the God-given nature of things" (my italics). Unfortunately, although MacCormack refers to Augustine's concept of signum, she does not expound it anywhere in its full complexity, and so the relation between the arbitrary and manmade nature of language and the infallible signs remains obscure (also on p. 87). -- At the end of the chapter, where MacCormack speaks about the "far-reaching results" of viewing language as arbitrary, she writes (p. 88): "For Augustine, reason could not capture the scent of a rose..." (with De ordine II.11.32: the scent of a rose is not rationabile, cf. p. 51 n. 25). Here, MacCormack lost me: I can't understand her argument concerning the connection between language, sense perception and reason. -- The last note of the chapter (p. 88, n. 176) quotes Augustine, De libero arbitrio II.9.37, but this passage is taken from a different context (concerning the sensus interior) and does not support the chapter's argument.

In Chapter III ("The Tears Run Down in Vain") MacCormack turns to passages in the Confessions which elucidate Augustine's understanding of emotions and the relation between body and soul. Again, it is Vergil who "continued providing Augustine with expressions that helped to articulate his own feelings" (p. 94). Augustine's reflections on the nature of emotion concentrate on Dido, Aeneas and other characters full of pathos.

But the mixed truths of fiction turn Augustine away from the study of literature (p. 95). He focusses (with Cicero) on the concept of voluntas, the instance which in his opinion directs and dominates the libidines (pp. 102 and 116). Thus, the libidines are not a matter of body alone, for body and soul are a unit, and the body is revaluated against the Platonic tradition (p. 105s.). At the same time, the tranquillity of the stoic wise man "does not appear to be a desirable or even a possible end" to Augustine (p. 118, cf. also 123). Instead, the end of all desire and longing can be found only in the heavenly city and in God, whose nature is utterly other and unchanging. Put differently, the human being has found in God an antipode after which he strives.

Chapter IV ("Gods of Our Homeland") discusses the worship of the pagan gods. Augustine sought to understand pagan religion in relation to human thought and imagination, explaining the Roman gods as demons whose existence he did not deny (pp. 152 and 161), whereas he did not attribute divine power to cosmic phenomena like stars (pp. 150s.).

In matters of Roman religion, Vergil is always a "tone-giving spokesman" for Augustine (p. 159, cf. also p. 180). MacCormack may be going too far though, when she writes at the end of the chapter that the stories of the poets about the gods "became, in Augustine's City of God, part of an authoritative historical narrative, something that they had not been before" (p. 174, with De civitate dei XVIII.16, about the companions of Diomedes whose metamorphosis into birds non fabuloso poeticoque mendacio sed historica adtestatione confirmant; cf. also p. 211). Wouldn't it be more accurate to say that these stories were authoritative historical accounts (cf. historica adtestatione) more for Augustine's contemporaries than for Augustine himself, and that he takes them as such only in order to refute their authority and to modify their meaning and weight? However, it is certainly due to Augustine that "these stories could and did now figure in the context of philosophical and theological reflection, which helped to narrow or even close the gulf between poets and philosophers that had held these two groups apart ever since Plato, if not before" (p. 174). His treatment draws of course on a long tradition of allegorical and euhemerical interpretation of epos. Chapter V ("The High Walls of Rome") continues to focus on Vergil as a historical source, concentrating now on Augustine's exposition of the idea of Rome and its destiny, especially in De civitate dei. While Augustine did not hesitate to use Vergil in order to explain historical matters that had been mentioned in Scripture (p. 205), he disagreed of course with Vergil on the main issues concerning the history of humankind. For Augustine, the two central themes which dominate the history of the terrestrial city are the invention of false gods and the lust for power (p. 209). Again, the chapter sheds light on the completely different and new organization of space and time in Christian belief: In fact, Christians "could derive orientation and consolation from the very existence of the heavenly city" (p. 222).

The short epilogue concludes that "Augustine's approaches to Vergil ... are thus of a piece with the approaches taken by other late antique readers of the poet" (p. 226). What separates Augustine from his contemporaries and from Vergil is that "his social thought was not predicated on Rome" (p. 229). Vergil is important for Augustine exactly because he "had described the fundamental human and social realities" (p. 207, cf. also p. 228). But the essential divide is that Augustine contrasts the transitory terrestrial city with the eternal heavenly city. And so, "in the City of God, Vergil's Rome could be no more than a shadow" (p. 227).

Sometimes the reader perceives a certain regret expressed in this book, as though, according to MacCormack, Augustine's understanding of Vergil 'could be no more than a shadow'. In fact, MacCormack's references to 'loss' almost amount to a leitmotiv of her discourse. See for instance p. xix: "[O]ne can also see in it (scil. Augustine's conversion) a story of losses, in particular the loss of Vergil's engagement with nature and with the immediacy and poignancy, and often the simple joys, sadnesses, and sorrows of human experience", or p. 38: "But there was also a loss, a rupture of continuity and of understanding, when Vergil's verses were integrated into Christian argument," and ibid.: "What such redeployments of Vergil's ideas were prone to miss, however, was the context of these ideas within the poet's work as a whole" (cf. also p. 43). This inaccuracy is of course the natural consequence of the later writer's different context and intentions, as MacCormack herself says (p. 37). It is difficult to imagine a creative answer to one author by another, without the former's views being changed profoundly. In fact, MacCormack's great service is to demonstrate how Augustine borrows the seeds of his valuation of Vergil and of his view of history from Christian religion.

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