AT TU AUREUS ESTO. Eine Interpretation von Vergils 7. Ekloge

(This book–a revised version of my Heidelberg dissertation written under the supervision of Prof. Viktor Pöschl–contains three chapters.)


In Chapter I (Introduction), the previous literature on the poem is reviewed. Critics have focused almost exclusively on the decision by Meliboeus in lines 69-70, paying little if any attention to the first section of the poem (lines 1-20). On page 17, a diagram of previous views of Meliboeus’ decision is given, showing that they can be partitioned into two main types (Arbitrary and Non-arbitrary). Within the Non-arbitrary type there are two main sub-types (Textual and Extra-textual). Most earlier interpretations fall into the Textual sub-type, of which I isolated the following varieties:Formal, Substantive, and Formal and Substantive. I suggested that centering the interpretation of the poem on Meliboeus’ decision is inadequate: we first must understand the dynamic development of the character Meliboeus in the Eclogue-book as well as the thematic development of Eclogue 7 before we can begin to understand the decision at the end of the poem. I then developed a hermeneutical methodology based on the following assumptions: (1) in the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften), the purpose of hermeneutics is to develop conventions through which positive knowledge can be achieved and recognized; (2) hermeneutics can be descriptive, not (as it usually is) prescriptive, serving the function of defining an empirical taxonomy of all possible forms of interpretation and their interrelationships; (3) different types of interpretation can stand in a dialectically reinforcing position toward one another, differing from each other in a predictable way; (4) a valid interpretation is one that identifies and relates different dialectically related types of interpretation to each other via a process analogous to triangulation. The hermeneutical taxonomy I developed was based on a 2 x 3 matrix. The first dimension is historical time; the second is textual time. Cutting across these two dimensions are three relationships between the interpreter and the object of his interpretation: (1) the synchronic (in which the interpreter considers his object without reference to time); (2) the diachronic (in which the interpreter considers his object with reference to the historical processes, conditions, and concepts that produced it); and (3) the anachronic (in which the interpreter considers his object with reference to historical processes, conditions, and concepts that developed after his object of study). (In the years since proposing this hermeneutic, I have added to the temporal dimensions the dimensions of theme[personal, social, and professional], and tone [sincere, ironic, parodic].) In the next two chapters the methodology was applied.

Chapter II (“Synchronic”) presents a reading of the poem that is synchronic with respect to historical time and diachronic with respect to textual time. Thus, the poem is read from beginning to end, and I try to show how the first section (the Prelude, lines 1-20) anticipates the themes and action of the second part (the Contest, lines 21-68). A “character-ratio”is proposed whereby Daphnis:Meliboeus::Corydon:Thyrsis. The first member of each pair is associated with themes of the Golden Age and the “higher pastoral” world; the second member in each pair is associated with the Iron Age and the “lower pastoral” world. Meliboeus’ decision to prefer Daphnis’ “sport” (i.e., the poetry competition) to his own work anticipates Thyrsis’ decision, in the last poetic exchange, to move from a strategy of contradicting Corydon to one of parallelism. However,since Meliboeus is presented as an unreliable narrator, his simple, clearcut decision at the end of the poem cannot be accepted as authoritative or Virgilian. Rather, we see that he conforms to a pattern of character development seen throughout the Eclogue-book in which characters are presented at moments of crisis, undergoing a painful transition from one way of life and set of values to another. Once this transition has taken place, there is no going back. In the case of Meliboeus, his exile from the world of”higher pastoral” in Eclogue 1 has inalterably made him a man of Iron Age/”lower pastoral” vision and values. Central to his value system is competition, which he projects onto the events Daphnis invites him to watch. For Daphnis, the scene about to unfold is not one of human competition but of natural song in a harmonious landscape. Thus,the decision at the end of the poem has to be understood as Meliboeus’ translation of his experience into terms comprehensible to him. For characters like Daphnis or Corydon, steeped in the cooperative values of the Golden Age,the second (“Contest”) section of the poem is anything but a simple poetic battle between two contestants. In it, we learn that for Thyrsis,too, the chief values are Iron Age virtues of competitiveness and egoism. By singing second, and by choosing the strategy of consistently opposing what Corydon states, Thyrsis is presented as a “lower pastoral”character akin to Meliboeus, whereas Corydon resembles Daphnis. The exchanges in the “Contest” section of the poem explore in an economical way man’s major relationships in life: to the gods (exchanges 1-2), to the beloved (exchange 3), to Nature (exchanges 4-5), and to the gods, the beloved,and to Nature (exchange 6). Thyrsis’ decision in the last exchange to parallel and not oppose what Corydon has said suggests that his encounter with Corydon has transformed him from someone who is bitter and negative into a optimistic,Golden Age figure like Daphnis and Corydon.

In the third Chapter (“Diachronic”) this interpretation is recast in terms historically available to Virgil, and the suggestion is made that the contrasting Golden Age and Iron Age imagery derives from Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura, where the Golden Age motif is used to symbolize Epicurean ataraxia. From this point of view, the action of the poem can be interpreted in the light of the Epicurean theory of motivation: we want to assimilate ourselves to that which gives us pleasure. For humans,the most pleasant things to contemplate are god and the godlike sage. In Eclogue 5 Daphnis has become apotheosized, and his appearance at the beginning of Eclogue 7 appears to shock Meliboeus as something as unexpected as an epiphany. For Meliboeus, Daphnis’ demeanor and the beautiful scene he paints in his invitation overwhelm the natural tendency to work and to struggle. Meliboeus’ decision to tarry and to “prefer sport to work” exemplifies the Epicurean understanding of the interrelated processes of perception, cognition, and motivation. In the “Contest” section of the poem, the action of the Prelude is recapitulated as Corydon breaks down Thyrsis’ defenses with powerfully pleasant images of the life lived in harmony with Nature, the gods, and one’s fellow man. It is important to stress that this diachronic interpretation does not claim that the Seventh Eclogue is a poem designed to convert its readers to Epicureanism. Rather, a weaker claim is made that Epicureanism was within Virgil’s known intellectual horizons and that he could well have used its analysis of human behavior as the underpinning of his presentation of moments of crisis and change, such as those seen in the Seventh Eclogue.