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Adam Smith’s Views on Virgil’s Aeneid Essay

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Updated: Apr 17th, 2020

Sympathy is a many-sided, deep feeling able to influence one’s world-view, behavior and actions; sympathy often becomes the ground for reviewing attitudes and relations. Being a very important component of our everyday communication, sympathy can be also considered an issue that works of literature and art often appeal to. This appeal to a reader’s sympathy is one of the strongest devices used in literature: when a reader/viewer is able to sympathize with a character, he/she is able to “grasp” the message that an author sends to him/her.

In this work, the Book IV (passages 593-630, 631-670 and 670-705) of Virgil’s Aeneid (Virgil and Lind) are discussed from the perspective of ideas expressed by Adam Smith in his The Theory of Moral Sentiments (Smith and Hanley). In Virgil’s work, the devices of awakening a reader’s sympathy and emotions correspond to the mechanisms of agreeable emotion, identification et al outlined by Smith and influence a reader’s judgments, attitudes and world-view.

In Aeneid, the story of Dido and Aeneas (Book IV, 593-630, 631-670 and 670-705), sympathy is not just our modern “pity” but also a “feeling together” of any emotion; this is consonant with Smith’s “theory of moral sentiments” which declares that we feel sympathy for each other by imagining ourselves in the condition of others. “Grief and joy, for example, strongly expressed in the book and gestures of anyone, at once affect the spectator with some degree of like painful or agreeable emotions”, says Smith (43).

It is also true that this feeling of emotional affinity can be awakened by works of literature when a reader gets familiarized with the theme, plot and the characters. This can be witnessed in the feeling of regret and vengeance that gnaws at Dido’s mind. She regrets having not torched her enemies’ camp and not killed the whole Trojan’s lineage: the son, the father, “it might have been. Yet whom had I on the brink of death?

I might have flung torches in their camp; I might have filled their holds sweet fire and destroyed both son and father, with their entire race” (Virgil 593 – 630). This inference of the emotional side of sympathy can be felt through the imagery technique the writer has chosen to apply, “I pour these last words forth with my blood” (Virgil 593). The figures of speech used by the writer connect a reader to the emotional experience of the character.

The feeling of dire need and desperation brought out by this imagery pricks the reader’s heart. “You who are howled at as Hecate by midnight” is a simile that expresses emotions. “Her blood shot eyes, burst into the inner court of the palace where pyre stands; she climbs onto the high pyre and unsheathes the sword, gift of Aeneas: she looked at the ‘Iliacs Eustis’ another gift Aeneas, throw herself on bed, and uttering her last words, falls on the sword” (Virgil 637).

The used rhetoric familiarize a reader with the emotional torment that the character is going through, “What am I saying? Where am I? What madness moves my mind? Poor Dido, do impious deeds now touch you? Why did you not think of them when you offered him power?” (Virgil 593). This rhetorical soliloquy calls for a reader’s sympathy for Dido’s emotional regret: she does not know where she is, what she is saying, what is happening to her, and she regrets her impious actions.

The action of her sister when she learns about Dido’s suicidal attempt sends an emotional appeal through the mind of the reader, “Her sister’s heard. She was frightened, trembling, half-dead, she ran while she scratched her cheeks and beat on her chest, through the crowd and called out the name of her who was dying” (Virgil 705); this appeals to a reader’s emotions and makes him feel anxiety. Analogically, the words “the nurse quickened her aged step in eagerness” (Virgil 631) express worry and eagerness.

Though the nurse was old, she moved with haste so that she would know what her mistress was up to. The course of events after the nurse leaves awakens a feeling of surprise and sympathy for Dido.

Hardly has the nurse left when Dido unveils the heinous plan she has, “Dido, atremble, insane with the monstrous plan she was making, turned round her blood shot eyes while her quivering cheeks were flecked with red spots amidst the pallor of death to come. She burst through the door of the inner house and raging, ascending the pyre, and unsheathed the sword of Aeneas, a gift never meant for such use as this” (Virgil 631).

“This is the right-hand pledge of a man they say has carried his house hold goods with him, this is the man who bore on his shoulders apparent far gone in age! Why did I not scatter his mangled corpse on the waves and slaughter his comrade?” (Virgil 593), this is a flashback which rekindles a reader’s memory to what had happened earlier in the story.

This flashback awakens thoughts about the circumstances under which the suffering/persecution was occasioned; we recollect the cause of the grief, which invokes our sympathy to the character. The above cited part is also a true picture of the kindled fantasy. Dido is fantasizing on what she would have done: how she would have killed Juno and his comrades, and how she would have served Ascanius as a main dish for banquet to his father’s table.

Another fantasy visits Dido just before she takes her own life away. These desperate fantasies give a reader opportunity to feel sadness and pity that Dido is displaying, which is in accordance with Smith’s statement, “The idea of that dreary and endless melancholy, which the fancy naturally ascribe to their condition, arises altogether from our joining to the change which has been produced upon them, our own consciousness of that change, from our putting ourselves in their situation” (Smith 16).

However, not only emotional side is touched by sympathy awakened by a work of literature; the sympathetic relation constructed between text and reader affects the epic’s political and social project. The role played by Dido in the epic’s political projects places a woman in a precarious situation. The reader feels sympathy for the woman, as she treads the dangerous grounds of politics. After the death of her husband, Dido as a queen assumes his role, led to her suffering and miseries.

She was deceived, and her brother became her enemy, “I avenged my husband and punished the brother who was my enemy” (Virgil 670). I sympathize with Dido because in her aspiration for vengeance and love, she is “accompanied” by miscarry and suffering, “Oh what shall I do!

Shall I suffer once more the cruel jibes of my former suitors and beg for a nomad marriage with husbands I have so often disdained before” (Virgil 515). Being affected by her miseries, she is invaded with sudden insanity, which drove her into a monster under extreme pressure of regret and anger.

Besides, my sympathy advances my judgment of other characters of the epics. For instance, at the moment of her emotional crisis, Dido opened up to Anna, her sister, and told her about the emotional distress she was going through, “Anna, sister, how sleeplessness frightens and worries me now!”. When Dido sends for her sister on her deathbed, we feel how strong the connection between them is.

However, when she is taking her own life away, she emotionally crucifies her sister Anna; she pricks her heart with the death, “So this was it, sister? You tried to deceive me. This pyre, these fires and alters were readied for this? You forsake me: of what shall I first complain? Did you not scorn your sister, your comrade, in dying? Would you have called me with you to share the same fate?” (Virgil 631).

Her laments make me empathize with her, because I consider this action improper. This episode makes us allude to Smith’s idea, “How are the unfortunate relieved when they have found out a person to whom they can communicate the cause of their sorrow?… He not only feels sorrow of the same kind with what they feel” (Smith18).

Dido wants someone to express her emotional constraints to, and that person was her sister Anna. As I read the story, this connects my feeling to hers; my judgment therefore would be that Dido feels distress and needs immediate attention. I sympathized with her loneliness, her worry that that her sister had left her.

I feel that she was betrayed, how could Dido kill herself on the pyre she helped erect with her own hands? My sympathy interrupts my judgment of the epic’s plot in the sense that there should have been a moment of reunion and happiness but not mourning considering the painful threshold Dido had been through. “What madness moves my mind?” (Virgil’s 630), her emotional weakness has numbed her mental muscles. Dido needed consolation more than anything else; she needed assurance that it was not all over.

The main theme of the epics in Book IV as illustrated in the scenes is love and war; however, the vice of hatred and the feeling of regret have been felt through the sympathy developed between the reader and the text thus advancing my judgment of the epic’s theme. The pity running through the text influences readers’ feelings about the story. My sympathy though interlaces with the thoughts about justice and fairness: the injustices brandished on Dido and her tribesmen by Juno and his men are intolerable.

“Exercise hate towards his race and posterity, let there be no love, no treaty between his people and ours” (Virgil 630), this outlines our limit in sympathy. I fail to sympathize with Dido when she decided to terminate her own life. “The furious behavior of an angry man is more likely to exasperate us against himself than against his enemies. As we are unacquainted with his provocation, we cannot bring his case home to ourselves… (Smith 19), and this is what I feel concerning the behavior and the final action of Dido.

Nevertheless, I sympathized with Dido’s sister. She died an undeserved death, an unnatural death driven by personal choice, “Because she was dying a death undeserved and unnatural, poor pitiful woman, untimely, burned with sudden madness” (Virgil 705). The sympathy experienced in these passages affects a reader’s emotions. It connects the reader with the story, the ideas, the characters and the theme.

It helps a reader internalize the plot and project the events onto his day-to-day life experiences, and this is the way complicated ideas could be communicated. “Then harassed my people audaciously in war and exiled from his lands and torn away from Iulus” (Virgil 630), we imagine how this actually destabilizes the development of a region in the real life, despite in this case Dido’s region is discussed. I sympathize with Dido and the tribesmen thus denoting my disapprobation to the actions of her enemies.

When our emotional sympathy attributes to another person’s mental condition and feelings in social, civic and political contexts, then it assists us in identifying with others. The pages of Virgil’s Aeneid make me understand Dido in her aspiration for love. I learn that the feeding of resentment needs a healing consolation of sympathy.

When there is love and joy, then there is mutual understanding, “The agreeable passions of love and joy can satisfy and support and support the heart without any auxiliary pleasure” (Smith 18); “The bitter and painful emotions of grief and resentment more strongly require the healing consolation of sympathy”(Smith 19).

Virgil though manages to chuckle with a reader’s emotions: he addresses the emotion of regret when Dido also regrets having not wiped her enemies, “I might have filled their holds with fire and destroyed both son and father, with their entire race” (Virgil 593). This awakens bitterness in the heart of a reader. I can also identify with Anna, Dido’s sister, in her emotional abyss of loneliness and sadness when she mourns the demise of the sister.

The news about her sister’s death becomes shock for her; she desperately tries to resuscitate her, but all in vain, “With these hands I even helped build your pyre, I called ancestral gods, yet when you lay down to die I was cruelly absent! You have destroyed yourself, my sister and me, and your people” (Virgil 705).

These curses she is throwing on herself show the bitterness tearing her heart apart. This experience of sympathy helps a reader identify with the character and thus with his comrades in whatever situation they are going through. A reader puts himself into the situation of the characters to internalize the circumstance of emotional decry that Dido and Ann are going through. He tries to present a vitally possible alleviation of this distressful situation based on sympathy he develops.

On the other hand, the emotional connection we have with each other sharpens our moral judgment towards them. The episode between Ann and the dying sister helps the reader analyze and synthesize an act before rushing into drawing unrealistic conclusion. When sympathy takes place, one will ask the question: why did it have to happen? I consent with Smith, “Every faculty in one man is the measure by which he judges of the like faculty in another.

I judge your sight by my sight, of your ear by my ear, of your reason by my reason, of your resentment by my resentment, of your love by my love; I neither have nor can have, any other way of judging them” (Smith 23). This emotion impacts my judgment of others, because I imagine myself in this situation.

The laments presented by the epic in the soliloquy of Ann, “So this was it, sister? You tried to deceive me? This pyre these fires and alters were readied for this? You forsake me: of what shall I first complain? Did you not scorn your sister, your comrade, in dying?” (Virgil 670), creates an emotional puzzle of posing moral judgment: “why did you do that?”

However, the influence of sympathy to literature characters extends beyond our emotions and even judgments about separate issues to our world outlook: the experience of sympathy provided to us by works of literature impacts the way we see the world.

“What goes around comes around”: Dido was atrocious and wicked, and that is why her life ended wretchedly and miserably, which makes us think about analogous situations in the real life and make conclusions. Feeling sympathy to the characters, a reader projects the events from works of literature onto the real life and develops his own world-view, own system of values.

Based on the above elucidated points, I strongly support Adam Smith’s argument in the theory of moral sentiments that we feel sympathy for each other by imagining ourselves in the condition of others. We have corroborated his ideas having analyzed Aeneid of Virgil, The Book IV. Sympathy for characters of works of literature is connected with our ability to identify with them and other people around us; it impacts our judgments, attitudes towards people and events, as well as our world-view in whole.

Works Cited

Smith, Adam, and Ryan Patrick Hanley. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 2009. Print.

Virgil, and Levi Robert Lind. The Aeneid, an Epic Poem of Rome. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1963. Print.

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IvyPanda. 2020. "Adam Smith’s Views on Virgil’s Aeneid." April 17, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/adam-smiths-views-on-virgils-aeneid/.


IvyPanda. (2020) 'Adam Smith’s Views on Virgil’s Aeneid'. 17 April.

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