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It’s there on every dollar bill. Turn it over and read the legend under the pyramid–”novus ordo seclorum”–”a New Order of the Ages.” Hollywood makes it the center of a treasure hunt. Religious nuts who populate the world of cable TV shows like the 700 Club, rail on about Masonic Lodges. But these words had a meaning that would be immediate to all of the Founding Fathers with an education in the classics (which was nearly all of them). Unlike most Americans today, they would have read Virgil’s Aeneid, in which these words play a powerful role (bk vii, 44), and they would know Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, which is reproduced as today’s poem.
In the Middle Ages an effort was made to reconcile Virgil to Christianity. He was made the John the Baptist of Latin literature, the man who foretold the arrival of the Christ—the child of the Fourth Eclogue, whose coming would bring a New Order of the Ages to the world. That was a fanciful interpretation, since literary researchers have since developed the facts of this poem in some detail. It was crafted for Virgil’s patron, the consul Pollio, then in the first year of his office, and at the same time a son had been born to him. It is that rather tedious domestic detail that provides the basis for the work–at one level. But at another, clearly the “father” to whom he refers would be Octavian, to be known as Caesar Augustus, and the “son” the offspring the Empire anticipated in 44 BCE, as this was being written. In any event, these lines are glorious and noble, and they express the aspiration that Virgil had for the times. The battle of Brundisium was over; Octavian was triumphant. The hope was for an end to the strife that marked the death of the Republic and the rise of Empire, and instead for peace, for the pax romana.
Virgil’s lesser works and the Aeneid are arguably the greatest poetical works in the Latin language, but they can and should also be seen as political works. Virgil seeks to create a Foundation myth for Rome–and in the process, he struggles to reconcile the values of the Republic and the Empire. As Hermann Broch showed in his novel Der Tod des Vergil, one of the greatest literary works of the last century (in any event, certainly the best crafted by a professor at Yale), this has immediate relevance to political and social developments in the twentieth century. It parallels in a striking way the debate over liberal democracy and fascism within the Europe of the 1920s and 1930s, a debate that echoes today. In fact, I came back to Virgil recently, led there by Leo Strauss. I have been trying to understand Strauss and his rather problematic relationship with the Neocons, and in the process was reading through Strauss’s works from the period immediately after he left Germany in the early thirties. I found his writings and his correspondence replete with Virgil citations, many of which struck me as odd—this was not the Virgil I learned in school. It was a Virgil crafted in the shape of Wilhelmine Germany: Strauss had conjured up a curiously bellicose Virgil.
In the critical Fourth Eclogue, with its notion of a new-born age, Virgil is marking the transition from the Hellenic/Homeric era to a new Roman one. And in the Aeneid he develops this much further, writing a response to the poet Lucretius, and specifically to Lucretius’s appeal for world peace. The first three words herald this: “arma virumque cano“–”I sing about arms and man.” The Homeric epic focuses on heroes and kings; the role of law in this order is limited, largely set in terms of divine wrath, and often conflicted. There is the law of hospitality writ large; there are some customs of war, but they are minimal and irregularly observed.
But when Virgil writes “arms,” he means not just feats, but customs and rules; he is writing in the wake of Lucretius, who decried the violence and suffering of the Homeric world. Lucretius wanted a new world in which humans achieve a more dignified life through art and philosophy. He sees peace as essential to this vision. Virgil tells us that Lucretius’s aspiration is fair, but his formula will never achieve it. At the core of Virgil’s reply, the essential foundation for a peace, is the concept of novus ordo seclorum, a New Order for the Ages–and this order rests on law, justice and piety. The legal component of the Aeneid is striking and not much commented upon.
No other poet of the Augustan age is so obsessed with law. But not just law. A large part of Virgil’s new order consists of the laws of war. This is a hallmark of the new order. A nation is civilized if it follows the laws of war; otherwise it has descended into barbarity. The new order of the Augustan age included a law of nations and a law of war. These were seen as essential tools to the creation of an Empire and to the assimilation of the newly incorporated peoples. They were seen as the foundation for the pax romana.
When the American Founding Fathers turn to this classical phrase, they are making a proud claim–that the introduction of democracy in America would mark a new age for mankind–just as the Augustan age saw its law-based state as the natural next step in the evolution of humanity from the Homeric world. The Americans stake this claim on the new social and political order they have created, one in which heroes and kings pass into the mist, and the citizen rises as sovereign. And again, a new concept of the laws of war lies at the center of this idea. Their novus ordo seclorum is not only about democracy; it is also about the concept of humanitarian warfare. Indeed, the new order could never be without this. Virgil’s claim is crafted in literature and sustained by history. The Roman dream faded and their Empire fell, as is the invariable fate of all empires.
The claim of the Founding Fathers likewise has withstood the test of time and the American Republic today faces the test of Empires. How will it weather this test. How can anyone say? On the back of the Great Seal of the United States, above the phrase novus ordo seclorum appears an all-seeing eye, and the phrase annuit coeptis, adapted from another work of Virgil’s (Georgics, bk i, l 40: Da facilem cursum, atque audacibus annue cœptis, “Let me take the easy way and favor my audacious efforts”). Thus it is a plea for divine favor, but also a reminder of our accountability before God and our fellow man. The words of the Great Seal reflect a deep vision of the Founding Fathers, an understanding wrestled from Virgil, a faith in a new order that the American Republic would bring the world. But with it rested a conviction that each generation would face a test, simple and profound: of fidelity to foundational values. When I think how we must score in this test today, I fear for my nation and my fellow citizens.
More from Scott Horton:
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Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution
“I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us.”