Virgil, God and nature

Virgil, the Roman poet most famous for the Aeneid, composed his first major work in 42 BC called the Eclogues. These are  interesting from an environmental perspective since here already we see a nostalgic, if not romantic, depiction of life in the countryside and the pastoral life. From the busy city of Rome, Virgil depicts the wonders of working the land and being close to nature. Nature itself, being a word as such, invented by the Romans (not the Greeks). More on this later, but in Eclogue IV, the Messianic Eclogue, we come across a puzzling passage:

“But for you, child, the earth untilled will pour forth its first pretty gifts, gadding ivy with foxglove everywhere, and the Egyptian bean blended with the laughing briar; unbidden it will pour forth for you a cradle of smiling flowers. Unbidden, the goats will bring home their udders swollen with milk, and the cattle will not fear huge lions. The serpent, too, will perish, and perish will the plant that hides its poison; Assyrian spice will spring up on every soil.” (4, 18-25)

And how it reminds us of this, in Isaiah:

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb: and the leopard shall lie down with the kid: the calf and the lion, and the sheep shall abide together, and a little child shall lead them. [7][8] And the sucking child shall play on the hole of the asp: and the weaned child shall thrust his hand into the den of the basilisk. The calf and the bear shall feed: their young ones shall rest together: and the lion shall eat straw like the ox”(Is 11, 6-9)

Sound similar? Coincidence? Virgil was not in contact with the Jewish tradition and the Old Testament. Many have debated about this passage, whether it is a coincidence of pagan inspiration, or the anthropological experience of anyone expecting a Messiah ( Virgil is writing of the Golden Age of Augustus, a political messianism…) , or if Virgil was lead to write this inspired by God. One thing is important to keep in mind:

“The encounter between the Biblical message and Greek thought did not happen by chance. The vision of Saint Paul, who saw the roads to Asia barred and in a dream saw a Macedonian man plead with him: Come over to Macedonia and help us! (cf. Acts 16:6-10)– this vision can be interpreted as a distillation of the intrinsic necessity of a rapprochement between Biblical faith and Greek inquiry”. (Pope Benedict XVI, Regensburg lecture)

2 thoughts on “Virgil, God and nature

  1. The similarity between Virgil’s Eclogue and Isaiah’s prophecy is striking! I think that when humans connect both with their inmost being and nature, and search for meaning and truth with rectitude, they become fertile soil for the “seeds of the Word”. I had no idea that the concept of nature was developed by the Romans. I always thought that “nature” was the continuation of the Greek concept of “physis”. I wonder if this concept of nature had to do with the development of urban life in the Roman civilzation; that is, if even then, with small urban centers, some felt disconnected with nature, or felt like living in an artificial environment.

    1. Thanks for the comment. So you think the similarity of Isaiah revealed prophecy to Virgil’s poetry is more about an anthropological longing ‘built in’ to the human heart, rather than a inspiration from God?

      About the physis and natura question, the difference mainly lies in that nature becomes an entity in itself. Physis was always connected to a being, as in it was part of an entity, not ever acting in autonomy as a seprerate entity itself. So an acorn had its own physis which would make it into a tree, and a person had its own physis which would mature into an adult. But natura is independent of being and is a higher law that explains behavior and pehnomena. This can be seen clearly in Lucretius for example, ‘The nature of the universe’. As to why this came about with the Romans, I am still perplexed…

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