I am proud to teach at a university that is committed to bringing together the Greco-Roman legacy of Athens and the Judeo-Christian faith of Jerusalem. What that means in practice is that we believe that true wisdom can be learned from such pre-Christian writers as Homer, Sophocles, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, and Virgil. Why is that the case?
Although, as a Baptist, I hold a very high view of the Bible as the inspired and inerrant Word of God, I also know that Christ, not the Bible, is the ultimate source of Truth. The Bible is but the most perfect and reliable embodiment of that Truth which resides in Christ alone. The distinction here is vital. If it is the Living Messiah, and not a single book, that is the source of Truth, then it is possible for that Truth, albeit in a lesser, fragmented form, to appear throughout the imaginative literature of man.
“From one man,” Paul teaches the Athenians, God “made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘we are his offspring’” (Acts 17:26-8).
We have all—pre-Christians, Christians, and post- Christians alike—been programmed by our Creator with a desire to seek and yearn after the God who is Truth. If it is true that we were made in his image, that he is not far from us, that it is in him that we live and move and have our being, then it must also be true that those Great Books that record the musings of man’s greatest seekers and yearners will contain traces, remnants and intimations of that Wisdom which made us.
Truth is not limited to the Scriptures; the Bible, though it tells us all we need to know to find salvation in and through Jesus Christ, does not attempt or purport to be an encyclopedia of all knowledge and wisdom. It can lead us to Christ and can instruct us in the rudiments of our faith, but it cannot answer all our questions nor can it satisfy all of our deepest desires and yearnings for truth, beauty, and goodness.
God speaks to us in many other ways and through many other mediums, and, though Christ and the Scriptures (both the Word of God) must ever act as the touchstone against which all such communications are to be measured, we must not allow any “puritan” suspicions of the moral value and doctrinal status of humanistic pursuits to prevent us from accessing these encoded messages from our Creator. We must not reject the teachings of Plato or the symbols of classical mythology as pagan deceptions, but learn to discern within them a seed of truth whose final source is the Triune God. We must learn that though Plato did not see as clearly as Ezekiel or Paul, he did see, and what he saw merits close and loving study.
Despite the fact that our world and our humanity are fallen, God’s hand can still be discerned in the laws and the wisdom that keep the former in motion and the latter in check. Each nation has its Torah and its Book of Proverbs, and, though only the biblical manifestations of these essential elements of human life carry complete authority, traces of God’s truth and presence are to be found in all of them. All our works and our ideals are blackened over by the stain of sin, and yet, now and again throughout the history of mankind, the Light of Christ has broken through in the lines of a poem or the maxims of a philosopher or the decisions of a lawgiver (Cyrus, Augustus).
Wherever man has sought with his entire being to perceive the truths of his Creator, God is there. He does not always approve, but he is always present. And, at times, he will speak through the mouth of the pagan: to present a new kind of hero who must move beyond the physical prowess of Achilles and the craftiness of Odysseus to learn the (proto-) Christian virtues of patience, faith, and hope (the Aeneas of Virgil’s Aeneid); to denounce injustice and cycles of vengeance (the Antigone of Sophocles and the Oresteia of Aeschylus); to attest to the hidden nature of sin and the need for a scapegoat (the Oedipus of Sophocles); to prepare the heart for the arrival of a God-Man who will suffer and who will expose the legalism of the Pharisee (the Bacchae of Euripides); and to warn us against wrath and instruct us in what it means to be human (Iliad and Odyssey of Homer).
Any of the works listed in the above paragraph could be used to illustrate how the highest pagan literature contains glimpses and intimations of the greater revelation to come; however, I would like to focus instead on a single poem from the end of the classical age that was hailed by early and medieval Christians alike as proof that the God of the Bible intentionally prepared the Greco-Roman world for the coming of the gospel (praeparatio evangelica was the pregnant phrase used by the fathers of the church). I speak of a lyric poem that Virgil wrote about 40 BC (over a decade before he began the Aeneid) that seems to prophecy the Jewish Messiah.
Sometime after defeating, with the help of Marc Antony, the senators who had assassinated his adopted father, Julius Caesar, the young Octavian (later to become Caesar Augustus) began to pester his favorite poet, Virgil, about writing a Roman epic that could compare with those of Homer. Not feeling sufficient for the task, Virgil turned instead to the less lofty genre of pastoral poetry. Invented, or at least perfected, by the Alexandrian poet Theocritus, pastoral poetry calls its urban readers back to an innocent Golden Age when man lived a simple life close to nature.
Most of the ten poems that make up Virgil’s Eclogues (or Bucolics) depict the life of carefree shepherds who pastor their flocks and play songs on their pipes. But then something happens in the Fourth Eclogue. Unexpectedly, wonderfully, Virgil waxes prophetic, announcing to his readers that he will now sing of somewhat higher things. Here are some selected lines from the poem in the magisterial translation of the former poet laureate of England, C. Day Lewis:
Sicilian Muse, I would try now a somewhat grander theme. . . .
Ours is the crowning era foretold in prophecy:
Born of Time, a great new cycle of centuries
Begins. Justice returns to earth, the Golden Age Returns, and its first-born comes down from heaven above. . . .
This child shall enter into the life of the gods . . . And rule a world made peaceful by his father’s virtuous acts. . . .
Goats shall walk home, their udders taut with milk, and nobody
Herding them: the ox will have no fear of the lion .
Come soon, dear child of the gods, Jupiter’s great viceroy!
Come soon—the time is near—to begin your life illustrious!
Look how the round and ponderous globe bows to salute you,
The lands, the stretching leagues of sea, the unplumbed sky!
Look how the whole creation exults in the age to come!
Though critics still debate the identity of the divine child extolled in the poem, Virgil almost surely had the young Octavian in mind. Indeed, it is likely that the Fourth Eclogue was inspired by the Treaty of Brundisium which temporarily ended the civil war between Octavian and Marc Antony, in part by brokering a marriage between Antony and Octavian’s sister. As such, the treaty promised future days of peace, prosperity, and propagation.
Still, whatever the exact historical impetus was that inspired Virgil, it cannot be denied that the poem, when shorn of its references to Jupiter and the gods, reads like a passage out of Isaiah, Jeremiah, or the Psalms. Though Greco-Roman mythology abounds with stories of demigods—Achilles, Hercules, Perseus, Aeneas—Virgil’s “dear child of the gods” stands in a category of his own. He will be more than a hero, more even than a slayer of beasts. He will bridge heaven and earth and bring Peace and Justice to the world. He will bring to consummation the crisscrossing strands of history and to fulfillment the desires of the nations. Under his rule, the prophecy spoken 700 years earlier by Isaiah will at last come to pass: “The wolf also shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together; and a little child shall lead them” (11:6).
Well, not exactly. It is important to remember that Virgil did not write out of a biblical tradition, but out of a pagan one. He did not have access to Genesis, but he was steeped in the Greco-Roman belief that mankind had fallen, in successive stages, from a pastoral Golden Age, to an impious Silver Age, to a martial Bronze Age, to the present, degenerate Age of Iron. Virgil’s divine child will bring about the return of the Golden Age, even as he will oversee the creation of something far grander: a pagan New Jerusalem superseding a lost pagan Eden. That glorious dawn will arrive at the end of a grand cosmic cycle that would be glimpsed, a half century later, by a group of pagan Magi following their own rich, extra-biblical astrological tradition, Though I firmly believe that it was, ultimately, Yahweh who breathed on Virgil, it must not be forgotten that Virgil’s pagan prophecy has its roots in the gentile soil of Homer, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Plato, Theocritus, and Cicero. Though every true light finds its origin in the Father of Lights, Virgil draws into his prophetic eclogue the lesser lights of his predecessors. Yes, Virgil saw dimly in a mirror, but what he saw bore the outline of the Incarnate Truth that would enter the world a generation later.
Christian educators who feel called to keep alive the Western tradition would do well to start with Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue. Every time I read it, I am reminded of two lovely lines from my favorite Christmas carol: “the hopes and fears of all the years / are met in thee tonight.” The thee, of course, is Bethlehem, the city where a long-anticipated child came down from the heavens above and began a process that would eventually reclaim all of creation.
Granted, a Christian can celebrate the fullness of Christmas without having read the Fourth Eclogue, but how much fuller that fullness can be when it includes the knowledge—both spiritual and aesthetic, theological and literary—that the Jews were not the only people in the world who yearned for One who would make all things new. The Medievals understood this well, and that is why they would begin their Annunciation plays, not only with the words of such Old Testament figures as Moses, David, Isaiah, and Daniel, but with that very sibyl who led Aeneas on his journey through the underworld (Aeneid VI): a sibyl who also appears on the Sistine chapel alongside the great prophets of Israel. Indeed, there are some medieval plays in which Virgil himself takes the stage and reads lines from his Fourth Eclogue.
In closing, I would encourage classical Christian educators to supplement their reading of Virgil with a well-known essay by a man who, though he lived and died in the fourteenth century, is widely heralded as the first man of the Renaissance: Petrarch. In “The Ascent of Mount Ventoux,” Petrarch shares with his father confessor his experience of climbing to the peak of a mountain, not for any practical purpose, but simply to accomplish the deed.
As he climbs, he contemplates the parallels between his physical journey up the precipice and the spiritual journey of his soul toward God and laments how inattentive he has been to the latter. In a sudden moment of shame, he is struck by the realization that the pagan philosophers knew better than he the inestimable worth of the soul. If Plato and Aristotle and Cicero knew, with their limited knowledge, the value of the soul, should not he, a man gifted with the full revelation of the Scriptures, be all the more diligent in his spiritual pilgrimage?
Significantly, this realization comes to Petrarch after he opens randomly his copy of Augustine’s Confessions and comes upon a passage in which Augustine rebukes his fellow mortals for expending so much energy on surveying the mountains and oceans and stars and so little on exploring themselves. That Petrarch should be convicted by a random sentence from the Confessions should come as no surprise, for Augustine himself records in that very book how he was finally converted when he took up a Bible and read the first passage on which his eyes fell. Petrarch himself makes this connection in his essay; what he does not mention, but certainly knew, was that many Medievals, seeking divine guidance, would flip open the Aeneid and read the first verse of Latin that caught their eye (a practice known as the Sortes Virgilianae).
Indeed, Petrarch likely has the sortes in mind, for he ends his essay, not with a quote from the Bible or Augustine, but with a series of four lines from Virgil’s Georgics, a mini-epic on the art of farming which he wrote in between the Eclogues and the Aeneid. For Petrarch, the wisdom he found in the Scriptures, in the church fathers, and the higher pagans was all of a piece. When read properly, they pointed together up the steep ascent of virtue.