In Creātiōne: A Literary Argument Against Creationism

bibleIf you are one of the three in ten Americans who believes that the Bible must be taken literally (Gallup), I should warn you that this essay will call your conviction into question—but not for the typical reasons. Countless researchers have disproven “strict creationism”—the notion that God created the earth and all its creatures in their present forms in six days—through such techniques as radioactive dating and evolutionary analysis, but often creationists simply reply that those techniques must be flawed; after all, the creation of the universe is laid out clearly and explicitly in the Bible. I will argue on those terms: not that creationism is scientifically invalid, but that it is biblically invalid.

This may sound like an outrageous claim, but read the Judeo-Christian creation narrative closely and one will find not just that it should not be read literally but that it cannot be read literally, that the story is in fact incoherent and unintelligible: the famous first sentence is a hopeless grammatical nightmare; sequencing the creative events is impossible; and there are in fact two distinct creation narratives, one after the other, that prove irreconcilable despite scholars’ greatest efforts. Indeed, the number of days of creation isn’t even certain. If you believe that God created the world, the last thing you should do is pick up a Bible—and to see one reason why, we need look no further than the very first word.

bereishitIt is popularly known that according to Genesis, God created the world “in the beginning” (בְּרֵאשִׁית, b’reishit), but this is not in fact what the first word of the Bible means. “The,” first of all, is nowhere to be found in the text: בְּ (b’) means “in,” but the definite article (הַ) is lacking—b’reishit instead of b’hareishit—and though biblical poetry occasionally omits definite articles, expecting the reader to fill them in, biblical prose never does. This prompts a translation of “In a beginning,” which in turn raises all manner of questions: Are there multiple beginnings to this world? Are there multiple worlds? If so, did our God create those too? But this translation is not quite correct either, for if it were, the text would have read bareishit, changing the vowel underneath the בּ from בְּ to בָּ. With this particular vowel, b’reishit means “in the beginning of,” requiring a noun after it—there are four other places in the Torah where it does so and none where it does not (Genesis, 1.1; Reb Jeff)—but the next word in the sentence, problematically, is not a noun but a verb: בָּרָא (bara), meaning “created.” A literal translation, then, of the first two Hebrew words in Genesis would read, “In a beginning of God created”—in other words, an “ungrammatical mess” (Reb Jeff). Most modern “literal” translations approximate the Hebrew as “In the beginning of God’s creation” or “In the beginning of God creating”; this still proves inadequate since בָּרָא is neither a noun nor a gerund (Goodheart and Osborne), but if a translator seizes this approach, interestingly enough, Genesis 1-3 could be one large sentence, as punctuation was only added by the early Christians. One such translation: “When God began to create the heavens and the earth, the earth being formless and void, darkness upon the face of the deep, and the breath of God hovering upon the face of the waters, God said, ‘Let there be light’: and there was light” (Giere, 18).

in-the-beginningIn the face of such opacity as the first few words of Genesis, what are readers to conclude? We may call that vowel a mistake, but those who believe that God dictated those words and that “Nothing is here by chance” will no doubt resist that interpretation (van Kooten, 5); or, alternately, we can reach for a super-grammatical meaning, such as, “The world was created, but it never stopped being created. The world has a beginning, but it is a beginning that has never ceased” (Reb Jeff). This, of course, is not the literal interpretation three out of ten Americans demand, but those readers fail to realize that “the ambiguity is inherent in the text itself”: no literal exegesis is possible (Giere, 20).

The enigma presented by the rest of the creation story is not that it is ambiguous but that it is quite unambiguous—and yet the two chapters are clearly contradictory. In Genesis 1, creation takes place over six days, and plants are created first, then animals, then man and woman: “male and female He created them” (Genesis, 1.27). Turn the scroll to Genesis 2, however, and suddenly the creation narrative changes. It begins, “These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, in the day that the Lord God made earth and heaven” (Genesis, 2.4). Suddenly all of creation has taken place in one day, not six. Not only that, but the sequence has changed: man is created before plants and animals, and it specifically states that before man “no tree of the field was yet on the earth, neither did any herb of the field yet grow, because…there was no man to work the soil” (Genesis, 2.5). Only after all else is woman created, as an afterthought, and she is formed in a different way from man: while for man God “breathed into his nostrils the soul of life,” God shaped woman from one of man’s ribs (Genesis, 2.7, 2.21-22). These contradictions have profound implications for environmental ethics and gender dynamics, for if the natural world were created for man (if he were created first, if nothing could grow without him, if he named the animals), then at least some level of exploitation must be expected; and if woman were created not only after man but out of man, another step removed from divine breath, gender inequality might be justified in religious terms.

torah-with-yadMany scholars have attempted to reconcile these two competing narratives. Rashi insists that “The listener may think that this is another story, but it is only a detailed account of the former,” which doesn’t at all explain the contradictory orders and number of days (Genesis, 2.8). As for the discrepancy in sequencing, he teaches that “everything was created on the first” day but was “brought forth” on different days: for example, plants were created on the third day as the first version requires, but “they stood at the entrance of the ground until the sixth day,” after man was created (Genesis, 1.24, 2.5). Though this explanation takes the liberty to add midrashically to the text, it is at least plausible, but it nonetheless fails to account for the second version’s claim that creation was only one day long. As for how male and female were created, Rashi suggests, “He originally created [man] with two faces, and afterwards, He divided him” (Genesis, 1.27); other scholars expound: “In the first story of creation (Gen 1:27) an androgyne is made by Elohim. In the second account of creation, YHWH Elohim separates man and woman by creating Eve (Gen 2:18). Now the androgyne is split up into two distinctive creatures, a male and a female” (Luttikhuizen, 4). Dividing a hermaphrodite in half, however, is quite different from creating man and then extracting a single rib to form woman; thus, this interpretation neglects the clarity and specificity of the second account. In the creation story, “inconsistencies and contradictions…come down to us as a single work” (Brichto, viii)—so when someone identifies as a creationist, it begs the question: which version?

galaxyWe have established the incoherency of the beginning of the creation story, and we have established that the main narrative contains serious enough discrepancies to undermine its integrity. None of these phenomena are introduced merely in translation; these contradictions, ambiguities, and grammatical peculiarities are rooted in the original text. The typical argument of “strict creationists” is a simple syllogism: “the Bible cannot be wrong”; “the Bible says the world was created in six days”; thus, “the world was created in six days” (Fitch, 3). The typical counterargument is to contest the former premise with science, but, as this argument has failed to convince 30% of Americans, this essay has taken a different approach by refuting the latter premise: that it is altogether uncertain how the biblical world was created, for the Bible first makes clear that it will not tell us when the beginning was—or perhaps implies that the beginning lasts forever—and then offers two contradictory answers for how long creation took. This is not a scientific argument, but a theological and literary one. If the biblical creation narrative is neither unified nor intelligible, how can it be read literally?

Reading the Bible as literature—concentrating on its language—tells us that Genesis 1-2 does not contain a literal account of creation, but this need not lessen its religious value, nor does it signify that the story has nothing to teach us. No one can explain what the first sentence of Genesis means, or even identify where it ends, but this allows for spiritual interpretations that transcend the literal; no one can reconcile the two creation narratives, but this duality encourages readers to grapple with the issues they raise concerning power dynamics, gender hierarchies, and human relations with the natural world. The “problems” in the Bible need not be problems at all: by unsettling any static interpretation, they prolong debates indefinitely and maintain engagement with important ethical dilemmas, encouraging us to question who we are as human beings and how we got here—but they do suggest that creationism is the one wrong way to read the Bible, for it halts the debates at the heart of religion. Where do we want our story to begin? What do we wish it to entail, in what order, with what end? The choice, says the Bible, is up to us.


Written in the style of Cicero (particularly his style of speeches like “Pro Caelio”)


Work Cited

Brichto, Herbert Chanan. “The Names of God: Poetic Readings in Biblical Beginnings.” (1998): i-481. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Fitch, Walter M. “The Three Failures of Creationism: Logic, Rhetoric, and Science.” (2012): 1-194. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

“Genesis – Parshah Bereishit (show Rashi).” Chabad Lubavitch Media Center, n.d. Web. Dec. 2016.

Giere, S. D. “A New Glimpse of Day One: Intertextuality, History of Interpretation, and Genesis 1.1-5.” (2009): 1-377. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Goldwasser, Jeff. “Bereshit: In the Beginning of What?” Reb Jeff. N.p., 18 Oct. 2011. Web. Dec. 2016.

Goodhart, Sandor, and Monica Osborne. “Introduction: Reading Darkness: The Key, The Letter, and The Beginning.” MFS Modern Fiction Studies 54.1 (2008): 1-19. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

“In U.S., 3 in 10 Say They Take the Bible Literally.” Gallup Inc., 08 July 2011. Web. Dec. 2016.

Luttikhuizen, Gerard P. “Creation of Man and Woman: Interpretations of the Biblical Narratives in Jewish and Christian Traditions.” (2000): 1-228. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

van Kooten, George H. “Creation of Heaven and Earth: Re-interpretations of Genesis 1 in the Context of Judaism, Ancient Philosophy, Christianity, and Modern Physics.” (2004): 1-299. ProQuest. Web. Dec. 2016.

Politics and the Pen: A Subversive Reading of the Aeneid

By Emma Lezberg

aeneidFifth century grammarian Tiberius Claudius Donatus didn’t think highly of his son’s teachers. These instructors, he complained, were barely scratching the surface of the most eminent of Roman classics: Vergil’s Aeneid, the epic poem that chronicles the events leading up to Rome’s founding. So Donatus set out to write the commentary Interpretationes Vergilianae, attempting to prove that every line in the poem praises the emperor Augustus. Aeneas, the epic’s hero, was widely interpreted as the literary embodiment of Augustus. As long as the poem spoke only highly of Aeneas, Donatus’s task would be easy.

Not everything in the epic, however, seems to praise Aeneas. Aeneas climbs a crag? That’s praising his physical fitness. Aeneas seduces a widowed queen? That’s praising his looks and charm. But what about when Aeneas meets his mother Venus, disguised as a huntress, and doesn’t recognize her? “Well, he doesn’t rape her” is the best Donatus can come up with (Starr 164-165).

Donatus’s assertion that everything in the Aeneid praises Aeneas—and, by extension, Augustus—results in a “flattening” of the poem (173). His theory does not allow him to accept the most textually supported interpretations, and it blinds him to many fascinating aspects of the epic. For example, Aeneas’s seduction of the queen may not actually praise our hero, and interesting implications arise if we acknowledge that possibility. Otherwise, this narrowed view forces the commentator to read only “to find an answer he already knows, not an answer he has yet to discover” (162). Instead of reshaping the poem to align with some presumed intent, scholars should allow the epic to sing for itself. For the Aeneid, they will find a poem that does not portray Aeneas and Augustus as perfect, but questions the morality of empire and the divinity of Rome’s leaders.

Donatus was correct about at least one thing: most scholars agree that Aeneas should be read as the literary embodiment of Augustus. Aeneas founded Rome; Augustus was attempting to re-found it. Both Aeneas and Augustus are referred to as “son of a God”, and Augustus is portrayed as a direct descendant of Aeneas. Every other well-known writer in Augustan Rome (e.g. Horace, Livy, Ovid) also used mythological characters as representations for the emperor. There is good reason, then, to entertain the possibility that Aeneas represents Augustus. What many modern scholars do not agree with, however, is that either is portrayed as faultless. Analyzing the poem without presuming intent allows a reader to notice some peculiarities.

First, the demigod Aeneas is not the perfect hero. He breaks down and loses control at times; he remains utterly insensitive at others; he is not always quick to recognize the causes of events unfolding around him; and he does not live up to his epithet pius Aeneas (“dutiful Aeneas”).  Second, the epic depicts Aeneas’s antagonists as worthy of praise and sympathy, more victims than villains. Third, it lauds the contemporary foes of Rome more sincerely than its statesmen. Let’s start with Aeneas’s shortcomings and work our way down the list.

We first meet Aeneas in a moment of crisis. As captain of a ship, he finds himself in a severe storm, and “all things threaten instant death to the men” (I. 91). Our hero responds in a notably non-heroic way:

At once the limbs of Aeneas are relaxed [go limp] with cold; he groans, and, stretching both palms to the stars, says with such a voice: “Oh three and four times blessed, those who chanced to die before the faces of their fathers beneath the high walls of Troy! O Diomedes, bravest of the race of Danaeans! Could I not have fallen on the Trojan plains and poured out this spirit by your right hand, where savage Hector lies by the weapon of Achilles, where huge Sarpedon lies, where so many shields and helmets are snatched up under the waves by the Samois, and brave bodies roll?” (I. 92-101).

aeneas-shipwreckDonatus had asserted that Aeneas was semi-divine and thus “devoid of every fault,” unaffected by the fears and urges of mere mortals (Starr 161). That is not the man we are meeting in this passage. He is not taking pains to reassure his men or lead by example. Instead, he sounds how we humans might feel in such a situation: thoroughly terrified. Aeneas even admits this himself, contrasting the bravery of the soldiers at Troy with his own cowardly comportment in what he thinks will be his last moments. His “woe is me” lament humanizes him, which is exactly what Donatus is combatting; rejecting Aeneas’s measure of divinity exposes him to potential criticism as the epic progresses. Skeptics might point out that Aeneas soon regains control of himself and delivers an encouraging speech to his men, “pretending[ing] hope with his features and push[ing] down the pain deep in his heart” but he does so only after they have safely landed (I. 209). During the most calamitous moments, he is just as paralyzed as most people would be.

aeneas-dido-pyreWhile his bravery disappoints in this case, at other times his judgement and perception are what fail him. When Aeneas escapes the storm and lands in Carthage, he seduces the Carthaginian queen Dido and moves into the palace with her; she believes they are married. Then the gods order him to continue his journey. Aeneas handles the situation terribly, initially hiding his departure from Dido and then justifying himself with the impersonal argument, “It is right for us too to search out a foreign kingdom” (IV. 50). She, despairing, asks him point-blank, “Does my love not hold you, nor my pledge I once gave you, nor the promise that Dido will die a cruel death?” (IV. 307-308, emphasis added). Later, when Aeneas meets her in the Underworld after she has committed suicide, he has the audacity to say, “Alas, was I the cause of your dying?… I did not think my leaving there would ever bring such grief to you” (VI. 457, 462-463). He is either lying through his teeth or had truly been an imperceptive fool. Then, while back on the open ocean, personified Sleep bewitches his helmsman Palinurus and throws him overboard. When Aeneas realizes his helmsman has been lost, he laments, “Oh, far too trusting of the calm sea, and the sky, you’ll lie naked, Palinurus, on an unknown shore” (V. 870-871). Once again, Aeneas has completely misread the situation. His friend had not trusted the sea; he had resisted Sleep, saying, “Do you tell me to trust the sea’s placid face…I whom a clear sky has deceived so often?” (V. 48, 51). Aeneas knows that the gods have been harassing his crew throughout the journey; why, then, is he so quick to blame his helmsman?

The most telling of Aeneas’s failings, of course, comes at the very end of the epic—we’ll get to that soon enough. First, let us put aside our hero for a moment and delve into the antagonists.

While Aeneas at times appears cowardly, unfeeling, or imperceptive, his antagonists are surprisingly sympathetic. His main foe is Turnus, a young warrior from Latium who had been betrothed to the maiden Aeneas is now to marry. Turnus—described as “most handsome” and “of powerful ancestry”—has been cheated out of this marriage through no fault of his own (VII. 56). When he rallies his troops against Aeneas, it is not of his own free will but because of divine meddling. “Brave Turnus,” as is his oft-repeated epithet, leads his men into battle and has earned their respect; his “confidence never wavered,” and his impressive routing of the Trojans is described in detail (IX. 126). His rousing speeches are just as well-crafted and eloquent as Aeneas’s (IX. 123-158; X. 276-282; cf. I. 198-207). Turnus’s one moment of hubris comes when he kills a young warrior named Pallas and steals his engraved belt, but it is not as if Aeneas too doesn’t have his frenzied moments in battle. Besides, Aeneas had promised Pallas’s father that he would protect him from such a fate. To end the bloodshed, Turnus eventually proposes single combat with Aeneas, and it is fate that decides the victor rather than any failing of Turnus’s. At worst, Turnus is a slightly arrogant warrior who picked the wrong fight; at best, he’s a courageous man unjustly robbed of his bride and his people by a cruel divine agreement.

Queen Dido is an even more sympathetic character. The queen is not only “most beautiful in form” but also an excellent leader, “assigning the labor of works in equal parts” among her citizens, “pressing on for the work for the future kingdom” (I. 496; 503-508). She is chaste, having been faithful to her late husband for years. Her relationship with her sister Anna is touching. And she does not fall in love with Aeneas of her own accord but is enchanted by Cupid, thus absolving her from any blame for her irrational actions. A modest shift could have easily spun this into a panegyric of Aeneas: simply portray Dido as another Circes, an attractive but deceptive witch. Instead, “Dido quickly emerges from the role of a temptress designed as a last snare to trap the hero, and becomes a woman who reveals human laws paramount even to divine ordinance” (Frank 182). Dido’s case is compelling and Aeneas’s decision to leave her cruel, even if it stems from divine command.

Here a potential counterpoint must be refuted:

Many modern critics have felt that Virgil’s sympathy for losing sides is so great that it obscures the main issue. So nobly, it is said, are Dido and Turnus portrayed, that the character of Aeneas is insipid in comparison: Dido and Turnus are human, but Aeneas is only the servant of Fate. This is a modern point of view, and it ignores a very different attitude in Virgil’s own day. Aeneas represents the Stoic ideal…of the man who presses on regardless (Grant, 196).

This would be a valid point if Stoicism, a school of philosophy that promoted indifference to pleasure and pain, were the only prominent school in Rome. Just as prominent at the time, however, was Epicureanism, which extolled pleasure as the ultimate good. The Aeneid is “full of Epicurean phrases and notions,” including reminiscences of the Epicurean Lucretius, and Stoic sentiments are few and far between (Frank, 183). One telling example of an Epicurean thread is the representation of the Gods and Fate in the poem. Stoicism requires that Jupiter be equivalent with Fate, whereas Epicureanism dictates that the gods be subordinated to it. The latter is clearly the Aeneid’s interpretation: the gods (Juno, Venus, even Jupiter) are constantly plotting to bend Fate and are frustrated by their inability to do so. The epic’s preference for Epicureanism suggests that Aeneas’s coldness is to be viewed not as a virtue, as Stoicism would see it, but as a vice.

If the text were justifying Aeneas’s actions—and by extension, Augustus’s—as necessary for founding an empire, why make Aeneas anything less than the model hero, and why make the two characters who oppose Aeneas, the two to whom he does the most harm, so sympathetic? The poem’s portrayal of Aeneas’s enemies as victims questions whether Rome’s leadership is really as faultless as it would have its citizens believe, and whether the Roman Empire should really be bought at such a price.

Which brings us, finally, to the end of the epic. When Aeneas is in the Underworld, he receives advice from his father’s shade. In a moment of gravity, his father tells him, “You, Roman, remember to rule the people with power (these will be your arts), to establish the tradition of peace, to spare the defeated, and subdue the proud” (VI. 851-853). Aeneas, the one who carried his father on his shoulders out of burning Troy, is pius Aeneas, loyal to his family and respectful of his elders. It is expected that he will take his father’s advice to heart: teach the arrogant a lesson while also showing restraint.

He leaves the Underworld, however, not through the gate of horn but through the gleaming ivory gate, by which the Shades “send false dreams to the upper world” (VI. 896). Some commentators take this to mean that Aeneas’s dream of a glorious Roman empire, or perhaps all of Aeneas’s actions, are somehow “false” as well.

In the last scene of the epic, Aeneas has defeated Turnus and has him prostrate on the ground, begging for mercy:

[Turnus] lowered his eyes in submission and stretched out his right hand: “I have earned this, I ask no mercy,” he said, “seize your chance. If any concern for a parent’s grief can touch you (you too had such a father, in Anchises), I beg you to pity Daunus’ old age and return me, or if you prefer it my body robbed of life, to my people. You are the victor, and the Ausonians have seen me stretch out my hands in defeat: Lavinia is your wife, don’t extend your hatred further” (XII. 930-938).

aeneas-and-turnusThe text even mentioned Anchises, as if to remind Aeneas of his father’s former advice. Turnus has lowered his eyes “in submission” and stretched out his hands “in defeat”: he is the epitome of a conquered, humbled man. Aeneas, however, does not spare the defeated. He notices his friend Pallas’s belt on Turnus’s waist, and, “blazing with fury,” stabs him to death (XII. 946).

This is not pietas, the sense of duty the hero’s epithet had promised. This is the exact opposite: furor, unrestrained violence. Pius Aeneas, it turns out, cannot control himself, a realization incompatible with Donatus’s depiction of a perfect Roman leader. Rather than portraying Aeneas as flawless, an assumption clearly not supported in the text, the poem is suggesting that power has eroded his moral foundations, resulting in great human suffering. Once that has been established, it doesn’t take a great leap to suggest that Rome itself, and Rome’s current leader, may be flawed as well. Could Augustus, Aeneas’s real-life counterpart, have also gone too far and compromised his own morality?

But all the evidence examined so far is indirect, extrapolating from the notion that Aeneas represents Augustus. It only takes a reader twenty lines, however, to find the first concrete reference to contemporary Roman politics, and its insinuations line up neatly with those described above. The epic opens not in Italy, but in a city on the Libyan coast called Carthage:

There was an ancient city (Tyrian colonists held it), Carthage, long opposite Italy and the mouths of the Tiber, rich in resources and most fierce in the pursuits of war; Juno is said to have cherished this one city more than all lands…here were her arms, here was her chariot; if in any way the fates would allow it, the goddess both hoped and cherished this to be a seat of power for the nations. But indeed she had heard that the offspring was derived from Trojan blood, which, one day, would overturn the Tyrian castles (I.12-20).

aeneas-carthageWhat is so noteworthy about this opening is that Carthage is not just any city, but Rome’s archenemy, its rival in three costly Punic Wars. Rather than vilifying Carthage, however, the city is held up as the goddess’s favored place: she had even chosen to keep her prized possessions there. Romans, on the other hand—“the offspring derived from Trojan blood”—were the conquerors who would despoil a goddess’s most sacred city. This passage does not just demote Rome as unimportant compared to Carthage; it vilifies Rome.

Later on, the epic narrows to discuss Augustus, his uncle Julius Caesar, and other contemporary Romans. Caesar’s bitter enemies are portrayed rather favorably, “though there were many who held it treason in that day to mention rebels with respect” (Frank 174). Cato the Younger is called “great Cato” and said to be worthy of praise; Caesar and his rival Pompey are named together as perpetrators of civil war, with no preference indicated between them (VI. 841; 829-832). When Aeneas hears a description of who had been thrown in Tartarus, pursuing civil war is listed among the top offenses that merit eternal hell—perhaps a subtle jab at Julius Caesar and Augustus, both of whom had waged costly civil wars.

These might be easy to overlook if, when the text finally got to Augustus, the praise were over-the-top. Yet this is not the case. Augustus is mentioned when Aeneas comes across his shade in the Underworld:

This is the man, this is him, whom you so often hear promised you, Augustus Caesar, son of a God, who will make a Golden Age again in the fields where Saturn once reigned, and extend the empire beyond the Libyans and the Indians… Even now the Caspian realms, and Maeotian earth, tremble at divine prophecies of his coming, and the restless mouths of the seven-branched Nile are troubled (VI. 91-100).

The beginning of the panegyric sounds good: Golden Age, extending the empire. But if extending the empire were so glorious, why does the text go on to say that the very earth and the life-giving Nile tremble at Augustus’s approach? The foundations of Roman society lay in agrarianism. In traditional mythology and augury, the earth was calm and productive when the world was at peace. When the earth “trembled,” troubling events were to come.

It is also noteworthy that Augustus is included as only one of a long line of Roman leaders, and is grouped with the kings of the Roman monarchy (Frank 176). Romans in the Republic held an entrenched public fear of monarchy, and Julius Caesar and Augustus were criticized for attempting to consolidate the power of a king (for Augustus, at least, these fears were quite well-founded). Thus, Augustus’s placement amongst kings in the epic plays off these fears and subtly rebukes him even amidst praise. Aeneas, too, is referred to as “king” many times—four just in Book One—underscoring this point (I. 38; 544; 553; 575-578).

All this textual evidence contradicts the message Donatus ascribes to the Aeneid. Not everything in the poem praises Aeneas, Augustus, or the Roman Empire. Much of it suggests the exact opposite, and it is precisely by rejecting any set “intent” beforehand that all these aspects reveal themselves. Otherwise, the poem flattens. In Donatus’s reading, Dido is portrayed as chaste and talented only so that she can be “good enough” for our hero. Turnus is brave and capable only so that defeating him becomes more impressive. The ending of the epic loses much of its depth and its connection to Anchises’s advice, reduced only to a parable of the value of loyalty: if someone kills and robs your friend, you should under no circumstances offer him mercy.

It is also important, however, to note that while many aspects of the text do criticize the Augustan regime, not all do. The depiction of Augustus on Aeneas’s shield in Book Eight is genuine praise (XIII. 671-731). Except for the few cases mentioned, Aeneas is brave, capable, and respectable, but there would be no exceptions if he were truly divine. Precisely by not allowing any set intent—whether praising Augustus or undermining him—to influence our reading, we can notice the layered, somewhat contradictory nature of the poem’s claims.

But, for argument’s sake, what do we know about Vergil’s actual intent? Could Donatus have been right that Vergil was aiming to praise Augustus, even if, as we’ve seen, he didn’t always do so? Or, as some modern scholars have suggested, could Vergil have been secretly subversive, a rebel fighting the injustice of empire with his pen, an apologist undermining his own propaganda?

vergilWe know that Augustus and Vergil were fairly close acquaintances. We know that in Vergil’s Georgics, published ten years before the Aeneid, he had written, “Soon I’ll prepare myself to speak of [Augustus] Caesar’s fiery battles, and take his name forward, famous” (III. 47). We also know that Vergil was watching Augustus amass more and more power during those ten years. Conspiracy theorists point out that in 19 BCE, right after Vergil had finished his draft of the Aeneid, he took a trip to Greece, the place Roman authors went when they wanted to leave town for a while. On the way, he coincidentally ran into Augustus, and Vergil grew ill and died the next day. (Augustus loved to use poison to dispatch his enemies.) Vergil had asked in his will for the Aeneid to be burned: was this because he hadn’t put his finishing touches on the poem or because he could no longer bear to publish a work that would serve as propaganda?

It is impossible to answer these questions with any degree of certainty. Yet fortunately, we need not know Vergil’s intentions to appreciate his epic. Even if we did know them, it would in no way smooth out the intricacy of messages in the Aeneid, some praising but many criticizing the Augustan regime—which, of course, is what makes the poem so realistic and so relevant. There are excellent characteristics of Aeneas’s leadership and there are situations in which he falls short. There are advantageous aspects of empire and there are oppressive aspects. Heroes are not always perfect; enemies are sometimes laudable. Reading through the lens of any specific intent does not allow for such complexity, and it just this multidimensionality that makes the Aeneid a masterpiece.



Frank, Tenney. Vergil, a Biography. New York: Russell & Russell, 1965. (link)

Grant, Michael. Roman Literature. Cambridge: U, 1954. (link)

Starr, Raymond J. “An Epic of Praise: Tiberus Claudius Donatus and Vergil’s ‘Aeneid.’” Classical Antiquity, vol. 11, no. 1, 1992, pp. 159–174. (link)

Vergilius Maro, Publius. Aeneid. 19 BCE. (Translations used included and, though some passages I modified to better reflect the literal Latin.)

The Not-So-Hidden Meanings of Silent Spring

By Emma Lezberg

“Nature is perhaps the most complex word in the language,” said author Raymond Williams, and it has also become one of the most powerful—not despite its multivalence, but because of it.

First, there’s the meaning of essence, as in “the nature of the thing”. Then, there’s that trickier definition, the one that refers vaguely to those yellow leaves falling past my window, to those cows grazing in the field down the hill, and even, perhaps, to the tiny green shoots cracking the pavement in a parking lot across the street. It’s both the environment and the divine breath that infuses it.

This dexterity gives an author incredible leeway. Nature can be powerful or fragile, Eden or “avenging angel”, sublime or artifice—but whatever it is, it is a concept to be manipulated, even created, at the whim of the writer (Cronon, 48). The tornado threatening Dorothy’s home is menacing foreshadowing, the storm sinking Aeneas’ ships divine wrath, the wind whistling by Pocahontas’ ears a kindred spirit. And the connotations that arise from these uses have real-world effects: depending on how one defines nature, native peoples can be embodiments of a lost harmonious age or, conversely, savages marring pristine wilderness.

To environmental writers whose goal is to alter society’s relationships with nature, the flexibility of this concept has been their biggest ally.

Rachel Carson, a twentieth century scientist, set out to write a book detailing the dangers of chemical pesticides. Whether wittingly or not, her book also turned out to concern the Cold War, feminism, and injustice. That’s what you get when you write about such a malleable, hard-to-pin-down topic as nature.


Silent Spring, Carson’s 1962 masterpiece, begins with a fairy tale called “A Fable for Tomorrow”:

There was once a town in the heart of America where all life seemed to live in harmony with its surroundings. The town lay in the midst of a checkerboard of prosperous farms, with fields of grain and hillsides of orchards where, in spring, white clouds of bloom drifted above the green fields….

Then a strange blight crept over the area and everything began to change. Some evil spell had settled on the community: mysterious maladies swept the flocks of chickens; the cattle and sheep sickened and died. Everywhere was a shadow of death. The farmers spoke of much illness among their families….

In the gutters under the eaves and between the shingles of the roofs, a white granular powder still showed a few patches; some weeks before it had fallen like snow upon the roofs and the lawns, the fields and streams.

No witchcraft, no enemy action had silenced the rebirth of new life in this stricken world. The people had done it to themselves. (Carson, 1-3)

At face-value, this introduction is straightforward, a simple lesson in causality. The imagined town is utopian, but quite accurately reflects the American rural ideal. The fields are bountiful, the townspeople content, and “white clouds of bloom” signal the fertility of the landscape. Then, with the suddenness of witchcraft or a biblical plague, the fields turn brown, the livestock fall ill, and people begin to die. Turns out, though, that it was not by a divine decree or evil spell; rather, the “white granular powder” that replaced the spores in the air were the cause of the malady.

Wait a minute, you might be thinking: why begin with a fairytale? Sure, the white powder is pesticides, we get that—but this is no way to begin a scientific work!

Carson’s critics contended just that. They pointed to this fairytale introduction to argue that she wasn’t a true scientist and that her book was too emotional and too idealist to present itself as science (Smith 737-738). The counterargument would be that the main chapters in the book delve deeply into the molecular structure of pesticides, scientific studies, and field research, and that the introduction is her way of making her point accessible to a general audience. Still, one must admit that it’s a strange way to begin a scientific book…

But perhaps we’re missing something here. Perhaps the book opens with biblical imagery rather than chemical jargon because it is asking to be analyzed through a literary, sociopolitical lens in addition to a strictly scientific one.

Let’s start at the beginning, then. We said that the “white clouds of bloom” blowing in the wind were signs of fertility and prosperity. Then, suddenly, some “evil spell” was cast, the landscape was “silenced”, people grew ill, and “everywhere was a shadow of death.” What caused this? No “enemy action”, Carson makes a point of saying, but a “white granular powder” falling from above.


This book was published in September 1962, the month before the Cuban Missile Crisis, and nuclear threat had been escalating for years beforehand. Even topics unrelated to the Cold War were employing Cold War terminology, as that was the language of the day. Likening any threat to nuclear disaster, the most frightening and cataclysmic danger of all, granted it more urgency. Carson does just that, and the powder falling from the sky and the mysterious illnesses are only the beginning. In Ch. 3, Carson describes how little we know about the ultimate effects of pesticides such as DDT, citing that Food and Drug Administration scientists declared that it is “extremely likely the potential hazard of DDT has been underestimated” and adding that “No one yet knows what the ultimate consequences will be” (Carson, 23). Remind you of certain bombs being dropped and how few tests had been done beforehand? Later in that chapter, she likens effects of chemical pesticides to the effects of radiation, to which we are “rightly appalled” (37). Through this introductory fable and throughout her book, Carson is implying that spraying hazardous pesticides everywhere—treating nature as our enemy, as it were—would lead to a self-imposed result as catastrophic as nuclear disaster itself.

How to deescalate the conflict between humans and nature to avoid self-destruction? To put it in historical terms, détente. Turning to Carson’s concluding chapter, “The Other Road”, she states:

We stand now where two roads diverge…. The road we have long been traveling is deceptively easy, a smooth superhighway on which we progress with great speed, but at its end lies disaster. The other fork of the road—the one “less traveled by”—offers our last, our only chance to reach a destination that assures the preservation of our earth. (277)

Of course Carson is overtly discussing pesticide use, but that’s nuclear terminology if I’ve ever seen it. By the time this book was published, the Cold War had been raging for fifteen years; escalation was clearly the road most traveled by. Straying from that path—détente—was the only way to assure the “preservation of our earth”. Carson is not just discussing pesticides; she’s discussing political issues and the stubborn folly of man, in regards to nature and also in regards to other human beings.

Her book ends with this sentiment:

Through all these new, imaginative, and creative approaches to the problem of sharing our earth with other creatures there runs a constant theme, the awareness that we are dealing with life—with living populations…. Only by taking account of such life forces and by cautiously seeking to guide them into channels favorable to ourselves can we hope to achieve a reasonable accommodation between the insect hordes and ourselves….

As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life—a fabric on the one hand delicate and destructible, on the other miraculously tough and resilient, and capable of striking back in unexpected ways…. [The] practitioners of chemical control…have brought to their task no “high-minded orientation”, no humility before the vast forces with which they tamper.

The “control of nature” is a phrase conceived in arrogance, born of the Neanderthal age of biology and philosophy, when it was supposed that nature exists for the convenience of man…. It is our alarming misfortune that so primitive a science has armed itself with the most modern and terrible weapons, and that in turning them against the insects it has also turned them against the earth. (296-297)

Note how little insects are mentioned. Take out those few references and this could easily be a passage arguing against escalation of the Cold War. Politicians, who have “no humility before the forces with which they tamper”, must remember that they “are dealing with life”. They must “cautiously seek to guide” their enemies “into channels favorable” to themselves in order “to achieve a reasonable accommodation”. After all, they are capable of “striking back”. (Mutually assured destruction, anyone?)

What are those “modern and terrible weapons” she mentions: pesticides or nuclear bombs? They could be either, or both.

Although Carson wasn’t an overtly political person or a feminist, many readers ascribe antiwar, ecofeminist viewpoints to her, and it is easy to see why. Throughout her book, Carson argues for an appreciation of the balance of nature—what was considered a feminist ideal—over the harsh “control of nature” that men had championed. Her definition of nature—as both powerful and fragile, but, more importantly, as complex and interconnected—underlies her rhetoric, conceiving a nature that is not to be dominated but to be protected. She calls for humility and recognition of all life, while many politicians and scientists sought only destruction.

The question remains: if we allege that Carson was purposely bringing the Cold War into her book about pesticides, why would she do so? The fact that Cold War terminology was effective in conveying a sense of urgency is not the only reason. Ultimately, the two issues are related. Those who wanted to blow up the Soviet Union would also be blowing up our atmosphere, and as long as the world’s superpowers were focused on one-upping each other, they would not be able to work together to tackle environmental issues. As modern political and environmental activist Van Jones argues, “It takes all of us to save all of us.” Disposability is at the heart of the issue. To Carson, there is no disposable aspect of nature—everything is connected in the “fabric of life”—and there is no disposable human life either. Acting as if there is will only put us in more danger. The fates of man and nature are inextricably linked.


This is an ecofeminist concept: the idea that male domination has harmed both marginalized groups and the environment, and that it will take the nurture of women to heal this rupture between humans and nature. According to Smith, “through her use of metaphors about the balance of nature—precisely the language that so incensed many of her critics—Carson crafted a vision of nature that would resonate well with the philosophy of ecofeminism that began to develop a decade after Silent Spring was published” (734). Although calling Carson an ecofeminist would be anachronistic, her focus on preserving this “balance” and her insistence that all life is connected are right in line with ecofeminist views.

Yes, Silent Spring is anti-pesticides. But, more broadly, it is anti-domination, suggesting that what drives men to harm each other, to harm women, to seek uncompromising control in many spheres is also what drives them to harm the earth.

This is the heart of the argument. And now, as with all arguments like these, we must take a step back and channel our inner skepticism. Hold on, you might be thinking. We can extrapolate as much as we want from this text, but did Carson really mean to include all these sociopolitical messages in Silent Spring? Her first priority must have been to challenge the chemical industry, and she surely anticipated that critics would question her scientific qualifications. After all, she was a female scientist without a Ph.D., best known for her poetic books on marine biology (Smith 735). To be taken most seriously, wouldn’t her most logical course of action have been to focus on the science, to make her case against pesticides as objectively as possible? What if she really did intend to only write about pesticides, and other morals crept in inadvertently?

And that’s just it. I would imagine that she meant to draw this connection, that she recognized the “compromise” thread underlying potential solutions to many societal and environmental problems (why else start with the fairytale?), but here’s the key: it doesn’t matter if this connection were purposefully fashioned. The implications are present in Silent Spring whether or not such political ideas ever crossed Carson’s mind. By employing images like “white granular powder” falling from the sky and using phrases like “enemy action” and “most modern and terrible weapons”, the text is pointing to nuclear threat whether its author intended it or not. By its focus on “sharing our earth” and achieving “accommodation” and balance, the text is championing what would later be called ecofeminism, even if its author weren’t a feminist. And by connecting these two, by arguing against rash “control” and for “high-minded humility”, the text is urging readers to recognize the human arrogance underlying so many sociopolitical issues—even if she really did only aim to discuss pesticides. Language has an autonomy of its own, independent of its purported subject (in this case, pesticides), and sometimes even independent of its author’s intentions.

In fact, the under-the-surface nature of these secondary messages may have done the book a great service. Had Silent Spring made these connections less subtly—like the little-known book Our Synthetic Environment, published a few months prior and on largely the same topic—Carson’s book may not have had the impact that it did (Smith 745). But embedded in the connotations of its words, the text presented these implications to readers without turning them off as being too “political”.  Silent Spring was a bestseller and succeeded in getting the harmful pesticide DDT banned, but it also led to the creation of modern ecological study. It changed the way people viewed the relationship between man and the concept of nature, and connected for perhaps the first time environmental injustice with social injustice. This may have been the book’s most far-reaching legacy.

Not every word has quite the dexterity that “nature” does—not every word can be invoked to argue such a wide variety of stances—but all language, as a cultural invention, always points back to the society that gave it birth. There is no way to describe concepts like disaster or equilibrium without invoking societal implications, just as there is no way to describe nature that is completely neutral and without connotations. That’s how a book about pesticides ends up discussing international politics and equal rights…and how an essay on a book about pesticides ends up discussing language itself.



Carson, Rachel. Silent Spring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962. Print.

Cronon, William. Uncommon Ground: Toward Reinventing Nature. New York: W.W. Norton, 1995. Print.

Jones, Van. “Green Jobs Not Jails.” Confronting Climate Change. Williams College, Williamstown MA. 28 Sept. 2016. Lecture.

Smith, Michael B. “‘Silence, Miss Carson!’ Science, Gender, and the Reception of Silent Spring.” Feminist Studies 27.3 (2001): 733-52. Print.

Thorne, Christian. “Intro to Literary Theory.” Williams College, Williamstown MA. Oct. 2016. Lecture.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society. New York: Oxford UP, 1976. Print.