No Comment — September 13, 2007, 12:10 am

Novus Ordo Seclorum

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.

Share
Single Page

More from Scott Horton:

Six Questions October 18, 2014, 8:00 pm

The APA Grapples with Its Torture Demons: Six Questions for Nathaniel Raymond

Nathaniel Raymond on CIA interrogation techniques.

No Comment, Six Questions June 4, 2014, 8:00 am

Uncovering the Cover Ups: Death Camp in Delta

Mark Denbeaux on the NCIS cover-up of three “suicides” at Guantánamo Bay Detention Camp

From the June 2014 issue

The Guantánamo “Suicides,” Revisited

A missing document suggests a possible CIA cover-up

Get access to 164 years of
Harper’s for only $39.99

United States Canada

  • antijuno

    Hey Scott. Fuck you.

  • Mark Williford

    Voltaire, a revolutionary who held liberal religious views, had written in a
    letter to King Frederick II, (“the Great”) and said:

    “Lastly, when the whole body
    of the Church should be sufficiently weakened and infidelity strong enough, the
    final blow (is) to be dealt by the sword of open, relentless persecution. A
    reign of terror (is) to be spread over the whole earth, and…continue while any
    Christian should be found obstinate enough to adhere to Christianity.”

    Adam Weishaupt, a student of Voltaire, took to heart this concept and created the Order of the Illuminati. George Washington, after Weishaupt’s arrest by the Bavarian Government, was warned of the organization’s existence. ( historical records exist confirming this global plot.) Weishaupt and his followers considered themselves to be the cream of the intelligentsia – the only people with the mental capacity, the knowledge, the insight and understanding necessary to govern the world and bring it peace.
    Their avowed purpose and goal was the establishment of a “Novus Ordo Seclorum” –
    a New World Order, or One World Government. So to call people “nuts” is absurd. It was Roosevelt who inserted the pyramid and seal onto the dollar. I suugest you read Dr. Carol Qugley’s book, Tragedy and Hope and Gary Allen’s 1971 NY Times Best Seller, “None Dare Call it Conspiracy”

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

March 2015

A Sage in Harlem

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Man Stopped

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Spy Who Fired Me

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Giving Up the Ghost

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Invisible and Insidious

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

[Browsings]
William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971. He spent the next four decades fighting to take it out of print.
“The book has hovered like an awkward question on the rim of my consciousness for years.”
© JP Laffont/Sygma/Corbis
Article
The Fourth Branch·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Both the United States and the Soviet Union saw student politics as a proxy battleground for their rivalry.”
Photograph © Gerald R. Brimacombe/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images
Article
Giving Up the Ghost·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Stories about past lives help explain this life — they promise a root structure beneath the inexplicable soil of what we see and live and know, what we offer one another.”
Illustration by Steven Dana
Article
The Spy Who Fired Me·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“In industry after industry, this data collection is part of an expensive, high-tech effort to squeeze every last drop of productivity from corporate workforces.”
Illustration by John Ritter
Article
Invisible and Insidious·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

“Wherever we are, radiation finds and damages us, at best imperceptibly.”
Photograph © 2011 Massimo Mastrorillo and Donald Weber/VII

Number of U.S. congressional districts in which trade with China has produced more jobs than it has cost:

Young bilingual children who learned one language first are likelier than monolingual children and bilingual children who learned languages simultaneously to say that a dog adopted by owls will hoot.

An Oklahoma legislative committee voted to defund Advanced Placement U.S. History courses, accusing the curriculum of portraying the United States as “a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Driving Mr. Albert

By

He could be one of a million beach-bound, black-socked Florida retirees, not the man who, by some odd happenstance of life, possesses the brain of Albert Einstein — literally cut it out of the dead scientist's head.

Subscribe Today