If you don’t have an agreed-upon national narrative, you cannot accomplish great things in a democracy. One indication of America’s current confusion and disillusionment is that we no longer agree on our national identity, our origin story or our mission. We can chart how we got to this abyss, but it is much harder to imagine how we can lift ourselves to a new, more comprehensive, nuanced, and generous story of America.
Our editor at large Clay Jenkinson finds insight in the national epic of Rome, Virgil’s “Aeneid.” He asks, can the classics help us forge a new national narrative?
I’ve been teaching an online course about the Latin poet Virgil’s epic the “Aeneid.” It is the among the most significant work of literature in the Latin language. Virgil (70-19 BCE) wrote the “Aeneid” at the end of the tumultuous first century BCE, a time of seemingly unending constitutional crisis and protracted civil wars, including the most famous of them all, when Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon River on Jan.10, 49 BCE, declaring “the die is cast” — in other words, that the only way out of his colossal troubles was to invade Rome with his famous and exceedingly loyal legions of Roman troops.
From Republic to Empire
Virgil wrote the “Aeneid” after civic order had been restored by Caesar’s great-nephew, Octavius, known to us, and all readers of the New Testament as Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first and he turned out to be perhaps the greatest emperor of Rome. The Roman Republic was dead and gone and never coming back, but Augustus had the political savvy to pretend (and let the people pretend) that he had restored the Republic while at the same time bringing desperately needed order and stability to a chaos-weary people.
Now Rome needed a new master narrative, an ambitious book (an epic) that would make sense of all that had happened in the course of Roman history and prove that the reign of Augustus was the appropriate culmination of Rome’s aspirations and struggles.
What was the meaning of Rome? What was its purpose, its place in the world and in world history? How was Rome unique? What did it offer humanity that would not have been possible if Rome had never been founded?
The “Aeneid” is a magnificent, complex, difficult poem, but its message is relatively simple: Creating Rome was a long agonizing process (wasn’t built in a day!), with tons of bloodshed and struggle, intense class conflict, defensive and offensive wars, periods of mass unrest, visitations of famine. Rome’s triumph could only be accomplished thanks to the dedication, drive and sacrifice of great leaders (most of whose names mean nothing to us now), who transformed an insignificant city state on the River Tiber into the greatest empire the world had ever known. “So heavy was the cost of founding the Roman race,” Virgil writes at the end of the epic’s prologue. But he also assures his readers, “Then (thanks to Augustus) wars will be laid aside and the years of bitterness will be over.”
So Heavy is the Price
Perhaps the most famous passage in the “Aeneid ” comes in Book Six, when Aeneas descends into the underworld to consult the ghost of his father, Anchises, about his destiny. At the end of his long response, Anchises provides the mission statement of Rome: “Others, I doubt it not, will beat bronze into figures that breathe more softly. Others will draw living likenesses out of marble. Others will plead cases better or describe with their rod the courses of the stars across the sky and predict their risings. ≈.” In other words, other societies (Greece, for example), will be superior to Rome in the arts, in the humanities, in legal oratory, in such sciences as astronomy, but Rome will excel in government, and it will rule the world.
And so, Rome got its national narrative thanks to a court poet who had a genius for historical synthesis, who approved of the settlement that Augustus made possible and who understood the staggering toll that Rome’s triumph took on individuals. If the “Aeneid” had been a merely self-congratulatory epic, a Pollyanna account of the founding and development of Rome, it would not have achieved its status as one of the most important works of Western Civilization. An atmosphere of melancholy, loss and bewilderment pervades the epic. “So heavy was the cost of founding the Roman race.”
Flash forward 2,000 years to the civilization that Europeans planted on the Hudson, on the James, at the ports of Boston, Philadelphia and Charleston — Rome’s postmodern doppelganger, the United States of America. We are living in a period of bewilderment and disruption: global climate change, widespread public disillusionment, factionalism, class conflict, race tensions, a paralytic national government, one presidential legitimacy crisis after the next and a small-scale sacking of the U.S. Capitol (with its Roman name and classical architecture) on Jan. 6, 2021.
The American Origin Story Doesn’t Hold Together Anymore
The United States no longer has an agreed-upon national narrative. A great nation needs a consensus national identity, an origin story, an accounting of its progress and development. We used to have one —o ne agreed-upon by the dominant white community, at least.
We all know its main lines. Europeans discovered the New World in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Anglo-American colonies became restive in the 18th century and declared independence from Great Britain. Highly educated revolutionary idealists like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine and George Washington crafted the Roman-derived Enlightenment documents that served as the “software” for an experimental republic and emerging democracy. Some groups were left out of that settlement, but it was clear that the U.S. would widen its human rights embrace over time. The nation moved west from one frontier line to the next until it finally reached the Pacific Ocean.
In the mid-19th century a journalist coined, and most white Americans embraced, the term “manifest destiny,” suggesting that the aggressive, land-hungry Americans were fulfilling an unmistakable divine mission to move the indigenous people aside — or just kill them — and write American civilization on what we could regard as a blank continent that had been waiting for our arrival. Think of the California Gold Rush, the Oregon Trail, the flight of the Mormons to the deserts of Utah, the mountain men, the transcontinental railroads, steamboats chugging up the Mississippi and the Missouri filled with settler’s rakes and plows.
We fought a catastrophic civil war, but it ended in the emancipation of nearly 4 million slaves, 35 percent of the American population. Millions of immigrants from Europe and Asia found their way to Emma Lazarus’ America — “give us your tired, your poor …” — and somehow, we found it possible to absorb them into the great American mix.
In the 20th century, led and sometimes dragged by that hectic charismatic Theodore Roosevelt, we strode into the world arena, intervened decisively in two world wars and emerged as the world’s principal superpower. Through strength and determination, we triumphed in the “long twilight struggle” against Soviet and Chinese communism. And we managed to hold radical Islam at bay, albeit at a staggering cost.
That narrative still has its advocates and in its main lines it is still taught in America’s schools. But it is not holding up very well in the 21st century.
The two narratives could not be more sharply different. It’s “Ozzie and Harriet“ versus “Apocalypse Now,” “High Noon“ versus “Dances with Wolves.” Neither of these narrative lines is fully satisfying, even to their advocates, for they each sense that the other faction has a point. Neither one embraces the richness and complexity of the American experiment. The former paradigm is triumphalist, Euro-centric and (however much we hate to admit it) racist. The more recent paradigm is so critical of America’s historical behavior and even its purposes that it sometimes argues that the whole apparatus of the Enlightenment — due process, trial by jury, Constitutional checks and balances, then Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, — is a sham, a kind of glittering screen behind which the U.S. has hidden its real mania for power, wealth, greed and exploitation.
America’s Culture Wars Continue
The current iteration of America’s Culture Wars is being fought over the two narratives. You hear it coded in such terms as “cancel culture,” “wokeness,” “critical race theory,” the “me, too, movement,” “snowflakes,” and “political correctness.” Republican leaders in a number of states have attempted to forbid critical race theory and other “offensive” and “anti-American” disciplines from state-funded colleges and universities. School board meetings are being loudly disrupted by angry patriots who don’t want their children being taught to “hate America.”
The implications of this culture war reach far beyond 24-hour cable TV and America’s universities. To do big things, a democratic civilization needs to forge and maintain a national identity and master narrative that can bring a large population (in our case a third of a billion people) into a working consensus on what infrastructure reform should look like and accomplish, what sort of reasonable border and immigration policy finds the balance between the welcoming of new citizens from around the world but also protects the American identity, economy and national security. An autocratic nation can do whatever the governing elite decides to undertake and can force millions of workers to perform. A democracy requires a working consensus. When a nation loses its sense of itself, when it fissures into several subnations that not only do not respect each other but regard the other as un-American, alien or the enemy, the energy of a people is shunted away from achievement and national problem solving into an endless shouting match of mutual recrimination, grievance, and outrage.
In Search of a National Epic
We do not have a national epic of the United States. Some people regard the Lewis and Clark Expedition as that epic, others the westering of America. In some literary circles, “Huckleberry Finn“ has been regarded as the closest thing we have to a national epic, or Melville’s “Moby Dick.” But no single American text has had the capacity to serve that purpose. Perhaps in a vast country of immigrants from every quarter of the globe, on a national landscape that is so diverse, no comprehensive epic has been possible. What do Seattle and Dallas have in common besides Starbucks and Costco? Nor is it likely that in our own rattled time a written epic could find a reading public. If we were to forge such a narrative, it would be more likely to be a Netflix miniseries than a poem in iambic pentameter. We may need a new, more nuanced, more generous national narrative, but if the medium is the message, Tweets and Instagram posts are not going to be able to serve it up.
So where does that leave us? Like most cultural commentators at this juncture in our long and fascinating national journey, I find myself fighting back despair. The problem seems overwhelming and the fix both elusive and exceedingly unlikely.
I do believe that Virgil’s “Aeneid” can help us here. He could not have written an epic that would make sense of the Roman experience to the Roman people if he had not emphasized “the staggering cost of Rome.” The “Aeneid” articulates the hard-won triumph of Octavius Caesar and the Augustan Age. It promises a new order of things — novus ordo seclorum — and we, too, made that promise too as we separated from Britain and began our own national experiment.
I believe we must come together and hammer out a new national narrative. We know in advance that not everybody will accept it, and it is unclear how that narrative is to be delivered to the American people at a time when our national attention span is measured in seconds rather than minutes.
But with Virgil’s genius hovering over my head, I see the new narrative as looking something like this. We are a great experimental nation that began at the high-water mark of the Enlightenment and made noble and heroic claims to what we could accomplish in the quest for human dignity and happiness. Some of the people who articulated that great vision were sexists, slaveholders and hypocrites, but their vision was the right one and we must not discard it merely because they turn out to have been highly imperfect human beings. The Declaration of Independence is infinitely more important that its author Thomas Jefferson. Abraham Lincoln was not nearly so enlightened as his Second Inaugural Address and the Emancipation Proclamation. The “cost of America” has been great, especially to people of color, to Native Americans, to the working poor, to new immigrants, to women, to other species and to the landscapes and natural resources of America. We must not attempt to paper over that cost or minimize it in any way.
That’s the essential first step. But we must not get stuck there, either. Winston Churchill was right when he said America usually winds up doing the right thing after trying all the wrong things first. We have made important progress over time — the trajectory does truly seem to tend toward justice — and though there has always been a gap between American pretentions and the facts on the ground, the story is on balance an uneven but successful striving for reform and “ more perfect union.” Some things that seem perfectly obvious and should have been accomplished long since have been left unaddressed, but on the whole. America lurches awkwardly toward something closer to its own loudly declared ideals. We must not despair, but we must not lose what Martin Luther King, jr., called “the fierce urgency of now.”
“Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”
But here’s where we can move beyond Virgil’s essential insight that great national achievements come at great cost. If we take this dire moment — the withdrawal from Afghanistan, the death of George Floyd and its aftermath, the seemingly endless allegations of sexual misconduct from Jeffery Epstein to the Catholic priesthood, the ransacking of the Capitol on Jan. 6, the ravings of “Mr. Mypillow” and the ravings of those who would demolish the Jefferson Memorial in the Tidal Basin — and recommit ourselves to the task of creating “a more perfect union,” we not only can solve together a number of America’s core problems, but in doing so — and this is what is most important — we can vindicate the Enlightenment and the lofty principles of the American Republic. In other words, we need to acknowledge our failings as a nation with unprecedented candor, but at the same time prove to ourselves and the world that our system is both self-critical and self-correcting. If we now rise to the challenge of getting ourselves finally over the hump on “universal” human rights and color-blind justice, and something like a guaranteed living wage for all able-bodied Americans who are willing to work hard; and reach a higher standard of policing, and refuse to let our urban centers decline into apocalyptic landscapes, then the world will say, with Churchill, America takes its time, but they really do seem to get it done in the end. And thus America continues to be the standard against which enlightened nationhood is measured.
You may be excused for being skeptical. I am, too. But if we duck this moment and somehow just bandage the republic enough so that it can limp along with so much unfinished business, so many fundamental inequities at its core, then maybe the postmodernists are right that we have been humbug all along. Abraham Lincoln put it exactly right at Gettysburg: “that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain,—,that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
You can hear more of Clay Jenkinson’s views on American history and the humanities on his long-running nationally syndicated public radio program and podcast, “The Thomas Jefferson Hour,” and the new Governing podcast, “Listening to America.” Clay’s new book, “The Language of Cottonwoods: Essays on the Future of North Dakota,” is available through Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local independent book seller.