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Virgilian Enargeia: Hellenistic Epistemology and Rhetoric in Aeneas’ Gaze

Robert Hedrick

Panelist #5

While scholars have often noted the role of vision (Reed 2007, Smith 2005, Johnson 1976) and imagery in Virgil’s poetics (for ekphrasis, Putnam 1998, Barchiesi 1997, Boyd 1995), the role of enargeia (vividness), an important concept in Hellenistic rhetoric and philosophy, in the Aeneid has largely been underexplored. Enargeia has a threefold nature, referring to: 1) clarity of perception—especially visual—and verbal expression (Otto 2009, Scholz 1999, Walker 1993, Zanker 1981); 2) evidence of truth both sensory and indirectly through signs, reports, and reasoning (Plett 2012, Morel 2008); and 3) the epistemological basis for knowledge from a “criterion of truth” according to Epicureans and Stoics (Ierodiakonou 2011, Striker 1996b, c, d, Long and Sedley 1987). Unlike ekphrasis or “[s]et-piece description”, which Fowler notes “is regularly seen by narratologists as the paradigm example of narrative pause” (2000: 66), poets employ enargeia for both narrative and description. By including realistic details, they invite readers not simply to listen, but rather to see the subject as if before their eyes (ante oculos; see Zanker 1981: 298-9 on enargeia as sub oculos subiectio). Because enargeia has several distinct, albeit related, forms, scholars have mostly limited their studies by separating literary (Walker 1993, Zanker 1981) from philosophical applications (Ierodiakonou 2011) while glossing over their connections. In this paper, I read the Aeneid through the lens of enargeia, arguing that Virgil employs this concept according to the models of Hellenistic rhetoric, and Epicurean and Stoic epistemology by linking seeing with knowing in his characterization of Aeneas and in the poem’s imagery.

Regarding imagery, Heinze notes that Virgil “achiev[es] the maximum ἐνάργεια… by portraying the effect of an event on those who witness it, a technique derived from drama” (1993: 131). I argue, instead, that Virgil utilizes enargeia based on Hellenistic theories in rhetoric and philosophy popular in the Zeitgeist, with which he was acquainted. While Virgil’s philosophical views seem eclectic (Braund 1997) and several scholars have even read Aeneas as a Stoic sapiens (Heinze 1993 and Bowra 1933), he nevertheless clearly had a close relationship with Philodemus (note Virgil as a dedicatee of “On Virtues and Vices”) and Epicurean intellectual circles (Armstrong et al. 2004, Adler 2003, Gigante 1995, Cairns 1989, Tait 1941). Nevertheless, the links between Epicureanism and the Aeneid have received far less scrutiny.

After outlining the usage of enargeia in Hellenistic philosophy and rhetoric, I illustrate Virgilian enargeia through a close reading of the Aeneid’s finale where Aeneas looks around (volvens oculos, 12.939) and gazes upon Pallas’ shield (oculis postquam saevi monimenta doloris/exuviasque hausit, 12.945-6) (Hardie 1997, Putnam 1995, Galinsky 1994, 1988, and Erler 1992). I argue that Aeneas’ knowledge and actions recall his earlier visions, including the ekphrases of the underworld in Book 6 (culminating in Anchises’ pedagogical lesson: tu regere imperio populous, Romane, memento…/parcere subiectis et debellare superbos, 6.851-3) and the shield in Book 8 (West 1990 and Hardie 1986). I demonstrate that as in the epistemologies of Epicureanism and Stoicism visual evidence provides Aeneas with clear knowledge of both his own and Rome’s destinies, as well as a self-evident guarantee of true reality—a knowledge which inspires his ira (12.946). The vividness of the senses compels him towards his telos, towards knowledge, and ultimately to assent to the necessity of slaying Turnus. Virgilian enargeia reaches its zenith—both rhetorically and philosophically—in the final scene, where the sight of Pallas’ baldric becomes a sort of objective correlative, compelling Aeneas to kill Turnus. Thus, Virgil utilizes enargeia in a distinctly Hellenistic manner, privileging the sense of sight and linking it with knowledge for both Aeneas and the reader. Only by viewing with our mind can we as readers witness the poem’s actions through Virgil’s rhetorical enargeia and, likewise, according to Epicurus only through clear visual evidence (enargeia) can Aeneas gain true knowledge of the world and act accordingly.

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New Frontiers in the Study of Roman Epicureanism

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