The Platonic Soul in the Aeneid
While many scholars are of the belief that Vergil penned the Aeneid to provide the Roman people with a propagandized epic glamorizing their own history, there is great evidence for Vergil’s intending the Aeneid to be something vastly more valuable: a parable on the powers of the Platonic soul. In his Republic, Plato outlines the different elements of the soul: appetitive, spirited, and rational. As the lowest part of man’s soul, appetite desires temporal things, lowest according to the hierarchy of being. The spiritedness of the soul is that from which the soul derives its energy in struggling to overcome challenges. Intellect governs man and is served by appetite and spiritedness according to its place of primacy among the powers of the soul. Throughout the Aeneid, Vergil endows the epic’s significant characters with the task of portraying the powers of the Platonic soul and revealing how such powers are ordered toward the virtue of justice.
Before examining exactly how the Aeneid’s characters portray the different powers of the soul, it is necessary to discuss the nature of the soul according to Plato. In his Republic, Plato writes on the kallipolis, the ideal city comprised of three major classes: the producers, the guardians, and the rulers, all of whom depict a particular power of the soul. Each class, along with its correlative power, finds its perfection in a virtue peculiar to its operation. It is for the producers, those who aid the city in acquiring resources necessary for survival, to exercise the virtue of moderation in declaring a ruler. It is for the guardians, who embody the spiritedness of the empire, to cast aside the false allures of foolhardiness and put on courage in their defense of the kallipolis. The rulers of the city cultivate wisdom that they may rationally govern the city. All of the classes of the city fulfilling their societal obligations, rendering to each class its respective due realizes justice, that virtue paramount throughout antiquity. Just as Plato describes the rulers of the city as necessarily aiming to promote justice among themselves, so does Vergil endow Aeneas with a growth toward justice throughout the whole of the Aeneid. Despite Aeneas’ efforts in such growth, the lower powers of his soul often hinder him and cause him to falter.
In her embodiment of the soul’s appetitive power tragic Dido, queen of Carthage, plays a critical role in Aeneas’ falling short of justice. Vergil shows that the relationship Aeneas shares with Dido does not promote justice, but selfish immoderation. Concerning Dido’s unmitigated passion Vergil writes, “She thought no longer of a secret love but called it marriage. / Thus, under that name, She hid her fault.” Just as Dido leads Aeneas into serious fault, so does the appetite, when operating in a manner wholly unchecked by the intellect, lead the individual toward unbridled pleasure. In falling relentlessly into such imprudent pleasure, Dido loses her reputation among neighboring rulers. Lamenting her tarnished character, Dido exclaims to Aeneas:
Because of you, Libyans and nomad kings
Detest me, my own Tyrians are hostile;
Because of your, I lost my integrity
And that admired name by which alone
I made my way once toward the stars. (4.290-342)
Such immoderation, such carelessness with regard to integrity, instigates in both Dido and Aeneas an attitude focused principally on taking from, rather contributing to their respective governances. Dido neglects her duties toward Carthage, where Aeneas remains throughout the winter, having lost sight of his mission to found a new kingdom. On Dido’s negligence, Vergil writes:
How Dido in her beauty graced his company,
Then how they reveled all winter long
Unmindful of the realm, prisoners of lust. (4.175-234)
Appetite dominates such behavior, totally disregarding one’s duties toward society and embracing disordered indulgence.
Like appetite, spiritedness when in total domination of the soul, leads to disorder. Turnus, Aeneas’ rival in taking control of Italy and winning the hand of the beautiful Lavinia, embodies spiritedness, and the unfortunate consequences of his rash decisions illustrate how, when a soul is under the reign of spiritedness, disorder arises. In his essay “War and Peace” K.W. Grandsen writes on Turnus’ overarching tendency toward spiritedness, “He is prepared to take risks.” Such is certainly true, for Turnus’ imprudent judgements are often based solely on his desire for war: his bloodlust. When describing Turnus’ character, Vergil writes, “lust of steel raged in him, brute insanity of war, and wrath above all” (7.634-636). Through the sorry consequences of his vainglorious actions, the character of Turnus symbolizes the necessity of channeling the spiritedness of the soul and holding fast to the virtue of courage: courage that seeks to defend the rights of others, rather than amass worthless glory for oneself. One particular incident in which Turnus distinguishes his foolishness is that in which he mindlessly ceases the wrong weapon before making for battle, such is his thirst for the conquests of battle. The scene during which Turnus brutally kills Aeneas’ comrade, Pallas, also signifies spiritedness, poorly controlled — an outburst which consequently causes Aeneas to allow his own spiritedness to rise above the authority of his intellect. From Turnus’ ill-judged actions in battle, especially his inhuman killings, emerge a great lack of justice. Such is displayed when Turnus, locked alone within the gates of the Trojan encampment and consumed in his own pursuit of glory, thrashes his sword about wildly rather than open the gate and enable his comrades to enter. That Turnus experiences an intense temptation toward suicide points the reader to the ultimate deprivation of such justice: robbing oneself of one’s own life.
Just as Aeneas must conquer Turnus in order to take control of the barbarism that so pervades primitive Latin society, so also must the intellect take control of spiritedness and appetite. Yet unlike Dido and Turnus, who portray their corresponding powers of the soul so flawlessly, Aeneas’ portrayal of the intellectual power of the soul seems at first to be riddled with imperfection. Frequently in the Aeneid does the epic’s hero fail to tame his appetite and spiritedness. His behavior with Dido and disproportionate course of action in response to Turnus’ killing of Pallas reveals his weakness in governing his lower faculties. Yet the lack of order in Aeneas’ soul points toward growth in the power which ought to be present in all of his actions: intellect. Just as the whole of the Aeneid is a gradual journey towards establishing the land fated to become the Roman Empire, so is Aeneas’ interior growth a process which encompasses the whole of the epic, and Aeneas, like Vergil’s readers, has yet to discover how this process will end. As Harold Bloom writes, “Virgil’s Aeneas is a man set apart by a destiny of which he himself seems uncertain.” Aeneas actualizes his potential for interior growth in intellectual control over his appetite upon making the decision to leave Dido. Aeneas, though wishing to remain with Dido, understands his duty to establish a place of settlement for his people. Concerning Aeneas’ struggle to leave Dido, Vergil writes:
Aeneas, though he struggled with desire
To calm and comfort her in all her pain,
To speak to her and turn her mind from grief,
And though he sighed his heart out, shaken still
With love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him
And went back to the fleet. (4.545-551)
Thus does Aeneas accept the difficult duty given him, and in doing so achieves rule over his appetite. Aeneas’ wrestling his spiritedness into submission to his intellect is shown vividly when he defeats Turnus in battle. The Aeneid’s last scene, in which Aeneas addresses Turnus before dispatching him in battle, portrays Aeneas’ spiritedness at last in submission to his intellect. Aeneas addresses Turnus before administering the deathblow:
You in your plunder, torn from one of mind,
Shall I be robbed of you? This wound will come
From Pallas: Pallas makes this offering
And from your criminal blood exacts his due. (12.1291-124)
Aeneas’ final words in the epic direct the reader to the justice he is about to render on behalf of his dead friend. Such justice reveals the proper ordering of his soul, at long last achieved. The culmination of the Aeneid in the virtue of justice, the crowning virtue in Roman society, shows the corollary ordering of the soul of the Empire’s first ruler: Aeneas, who portrays the importance of the intellect’s predominance and correlative wisdom in every individual soul.
Vergil, in outlining the organization of the Platonic soul’s powers in the Aeneid, illustrates such powers as embodied in the work’s key characters: Dido, Turnus, and, of course, the poem’s hero, Aeneas. Vergil directs the reader’s gaze to the virtues emerging from the different powers of the properly ordered soul: moderation, courage, and wisdom. In the soul perfected by its appropriate virtues is realized the virtue of justice, the outward manifestation of which denotes order in the soul. The lack of such justice is clear in the consequences of Dido’s actions and the madness which ensues from her allowing appetite to surpass the intellect in control of her being. Similarly, Turnus’ spiritedness eventually leads to his own rightly warranted demise at the hand of Aeneas, who in administering justice executes the power of the soul corresponding to his role in the Aeneid: the intellect. In the demise of the characters representing and dominated by the lower natures of the soul, Vergil points his reader toward the primacy of intellect, and its necessary function in governing the soul. Yet Aeneas’ movement toward interior order and its parallel justice represents the right operation of the intellect in the human soul. Aeneas’ gradually conquering the lower parts of his soul lays out the journey fated for every human soul and the decisions necessary in traveling upon it well. Man has either to allow his appetite and spiritedness to rule him or to use his intellect in exercising his actions aright. Vergil presents man with this universal choice, reminding him that it is only through proper ordering of the powers soul that justice can be achieved.
Feldherr, Andrew. “Viewing Myth and History on the Shield of Aeneas.” Classical Antiquity vol., 33, no. 2 (2014): 281-318.
Grandsen, K.W. “War and Peace.” In Modern Critical Interpretations of Vergil’s Aeneid, edited by Harold Bloom (New York, NY: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987), 127-147.
Plato. Republic. Translated by G.M.A. Grube. Revised by C.D.C. Reeve. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1992.
Vergil. The Aeneid. Translated by Robert. Fitzgerald. New York: Vintage Books, 1984.
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