Virgil As Our Guide

I was recently asked in a radio interview about my children’s book series: what exactly is Catholic about the world you have created in the books? I had just given the elevator pitch for the series, explaining that my Kingdom of Patria was founded by refugees from the Trojan War some 3,000 years ago and still exists, via a most unusual treaty with the United States, in present-day Indiana.

Since nothing in this synopsis suggested anything particularly Catholic, my interviewer pressed his question: But what is Catholic about my books? My answer was that the books are connected to the Catholic tradition in a literary sense. Just as Dante, in the Divine Comedy, takes the pagan poet Virgil as his guide, so I, too, in my children’s series – though with tongue planted firmly in cheek – take Virgil as my guide.

For example, while writing the first book, I remembered that Virgil imagines Rome being founded by Aeneas and other Trojan refugees. I thought, “That’s something I can steal – I should say, make imaginative use of. The kingdom in my stories will have a similarly Trojan pedigree. The Roman Empire will have nothing on Patria.”

As I was explaining all this to my interviewer, I sensed that perhaps it wasn’t quite the answer he expected, or desired. Maybe you’re feeling the same way. A playful literary indebtedness to a pagan poet is not the kind of Catholic connection most Catholics are looking for when sizing up the work of a Catholic author.

Now I could go on, as I actually tried to do on the show before the bumper music overwhelmed me, to explain that in Patria there is a monastery of Irish monks who found their way to the New World in the fifth-century A.D. (playing upon the legend of the Voyage of Saint Brendan). I could also proudly declare that I’ve always envisioned Patria as a Catholic kingdom, although this is not something I come out and say explicitly in the books.

But to be perfectly honest, I’m glad I didn’t mention these things. For I think it’s important to recognize that one of the chief ways a literary or other work of art can pay its debt to the Catholic tradition is by honoring the non-Catholic, even non-Christian, elements of the Catholic inheritance.

“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell” by Gustave Doré (1861)
“Dante and Virgil in the Ninth Circle of Hell” by Gustave Doré (1861)

A related point was driven home to me recently in talking with my son about a monthly party he attends featuring films about the saints. Although the spiritual motivation for these gatherings is unquestionably admirable, what my son and his friends have come to learn from them is that most films about saints are, unfortunately, pretty bad.

It occurred to me that it would be more worthwhile for my son and his friends to spend a monthly evening watching a great film, saint-related or not, than watching a bad film about a saint. A great film on whatever topic is always morally uplifting, because Beauty itself is transcendental – of a piece with Goodness. The bad film about a saint, however, has a dispiriting effect that isn’t made up for by the good intentions of the filmmakers. It makes our faith appear sentimental and incompetent.

Talking with my son, as in the radio interview, I became aware of a disturbing devaluation among my fellow Catholics of the natural order in regard to the arts, whether that order be represented by the masterwork of a pagan poet or the demands of cinematic craft. The great Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain, analyzing the elements of art, made a similar plea for what he called recta ratio factibilium (roughly: “the right way to make things”).

A work of art, in other words, cannot be valuable to us as Catholics simply because it makes use of explicitly Catholic narrative and imagery. As a people who reverence the way in which grace completes, and does not destroy, nature, we should be prepared to criticize works of art that are well intentioned, but fail to meet the natural demands of their craft.

Likewise, we should be prepared to celebrate the ways in which Catholic artists throughout the ages have been inspired by non-Catholic and non-Christian artists who have intuited something of the Beautiful through the natural light of reason. As Dr. Johnson said about the enduring popularity of Shakespeare: “Nothing can please many, and please long, but just representations of general nature.”

I fear that the critical habits of Catholics will atrophy and that eventually we will lose all ability to see the worth in works of art, even those made by Catholics, which do not wear their Catholicism on their sleeve. How many people today, for instance, can read Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies and recognize that, while not in any obvious sense a “Catholic novel,” it is nonetheless still deeply Catholic – in the sense of being attuned to the absurdities of a life lived outside the bounds of natural reason.

Catholics should refuse to settle for anything less than excellence in any art. Of course, our journey toward the Beautiful can only be completed by the action of grace and under the direction of guides of a supernatural order. But this should not cause us to despise the helps we receive from nature, and from those guides who, like Dante’s Virgil, are able to lead us to heights that, while limited, even the saints must admire.

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Daniel McInerny

Daniel McInerny is a philosopher and author of fiction for both children and adults. You can find out more about him and his work at danielmcinerny.com.



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