Self-mastery As The Ultimate Virtue In “The Aeneid”
Self-control is not the first thought that comes to people’s minds when they think of virtue. This is because in the modern age, self-control is not valued as much as other virtues. It seems as though everyone has problems with self-control in the present day, whether through social-media addiction or people not being able to go to bed on time, or do anything on time. However, people who could exercise self-control used to be held in high regard. Cultures have changed and adapted as time goes on, and some civilizations, such as the Roman, valued self-control quite a bit because at the time it was needed. In The Aeneid, Virgil demonstrates how the Romans valued the virtue of self-control through the negative example of Dido and the positive foil of Aeneas. Virgil demonstrates Dido’s deteriorating impulse self-control throughout the epic by portraying her use of logic and reasoning as waning. Impulse self-control is the ability to reason through decisions and not rush head-long into situations, essentially combining the ability to exercise self-control and use logic or reason at the same time. At first, Dido is shown to be quite proficient at curbing her impulsive desires: “Dido plans her escape, collects her followers / . . . and they bear it overseas / and a women leads them all”.
Rather than running away as soon as she is told that her brother is evil, Dido makes a plan and reasons through what she needs to accomplish in order to be successful in her escape. Esteemed critic Patrick J. Halloran writes that heroes from Romans epics “must be not only courageous, strong, and daring; they must unite these qualities with reason and restraint”. Being able to reason while under great stress and come up with a solution that benefits everyone is the goal, and Dido is shown to do that quite well. However, when she is poisoned by Cupid, her reasoning skills seem to disappear; “she fears everything now, / even with all secure. Rumor, vicious as ever, / brings her word . . . / she rages in helpless frenzy, blazing through / the entire city”. Dido chases after Aeneas based on a rumor, with no plan of what she will do to convince him to stay. She is shown to be paranoid, unable to think or reason for herself and is just generally impulsive in all her actions, a drastic difference from the way she is portrayed at the beginning. Dido is shown to have two extremes of impulse self-control, encapsulating qualities or virtues that the Romans admired as well as those they disapproved of. In contrast, Aeneas is shown to be able to resist being impulsive by using his logic and reasoning.
When escaping Troy, Aeneas loses his wife in the city. After dropping his father and son off to relative safety, he heads back into the city, his “mind steeled to relive the whole disaster, / retrace his route through the whole city now / and put his life in danger one more time”. Though he is willingly putting his life at stake, Aeneas is calm and collected. He has a thought-out plan and does not panic. Critic Therese Fuhrer comments that Aeneas is “an already matured man, a man with much responsibility, including the duties of a leader and a ‘pater familias’, a wise decision-maker”. This description of Aeneas is supported by Aeneas’s actions and characterization throughout the epic; he demonstrates impulse self-control. When Aeneas is told by Mercury to continue on his quest and leave Carthage, instead of fleeing right away Aeneas is described as “thoughts racing, / here, there, probing his options, turning / to this plan, that plan”. Though Aeneas wants to run out of the city, he takes the time to collect his thoughts and make a plan so he is not stumbling around blind once he and his soldiers leave, thereby demonstrating how he curbing his impulsive side.
Aeneas demonstrates self-control and his command of logic by making plans and reasoning through situations. Dido exemplifies how a lack of self-control can lead to giving in to emotions and is viewed as lacking virtue. When Aeneas is trying to explain to Dido why he is leaving Carthage, she is described as “in the midst of outbursts, desperate, flinging herself / from the light of day”. Her emotions are out of control, preventing her from thinking clearly. The Roman culture stresses controlling one’s actions and looks down on losing control due to emotions, thus the character of Dido serves as a negative example within the epic. Critic Halloran comments that “there is waged the conflict of opposing principles of duty and pleasure, of patriotism and selfishness”. Dido is forced to choose between pleasure and duty, and her choice is clouded by her emotions. Since she chooses herself over her country, Dido loses her battle of virtue and is a prime example of a person fallen from virtue and grace. Later, Dido is described negatively again as “driven by madness, beaten down by anguish, / Dido is fixed on dying, working out in her mind / the means, the moment”. She is shown to be so overwhelmed with feelings that she cannot ignore that she turns to suicide. This is incredibly shameful and disgraceful to the Romans as their culture views suicide as a form of giving up, so again, she is portrayed as lacking the virtue of self-control.
Dido is shown to have little control over her emotions and to react very unpredictably in grave situations. Within Roman culture her character serves to underscore the importance of self-control and discipline in the face of difficult circumstances. Aeneas displays incredible self-control of the emotional aspect and is an example of how to be virtuous to the Romans. When some of his ships are separated from him by a storm, Aeneas is “sick with mounting care he assumes a look of hope / and keeps his anguish buried in his heart”. Rather than allowing his emotions to affect how he commands his men, he soldiers on and gives direction to his underlings to safely get them to land. This demonstrates his grasp of control on his emotions, that he can ignore negative or overwhelming feelings and still perform his duty well. Later in the epic, Aeneas is described as “moaning deeply, heart shattered by his great love, / in spite of all he obeys the gods’ commands / and goes back to his ship”. Aeneas is shown to be able to ignore and push aside his emotional well-being in order to fulfill his duty. He is a positive example within Roman culture of the value and virtue of self-control.
Acclaimed critic Therese Fuhrer notes that Aeneas is “able to resist the temptations of personal happiness”, which explains why his sacrifice is so tremendous and why he is subsequently immortalized for his shining example of the virtue of self-mastery. Through his emotional strength and ability to perform well under extreme emotional duress, Aeneas serves as a foil to Dido’s example. The characters of Aeneas and Dido exemplify many virtues, but self-control is the overriding one. Virgil intends Dido and Aeneas to serve as examples of virtue: how to exercise self-control, and how losing control to emotions can lead to disaster and even death. As Critic Fuhrer observes, “if one attempts to be objective, Virgil’s intentions seem to be to show his readers just what true heroism and greatness can be”. He intends for everyone to read his epic and come away with the knowledge that self-control is a vital virtue. The Aeneid presents contrasting characters, Aeneas and Dido, both of whom are placed in extreme circumstances, and shows how self-mastery is the ultimate virtue.
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