Pursuing the Path Before You in Your Own Aeneid

Venus as Huntress Appears to Aeneas, Oil on canvas Musée du Louvre, Paris

Pursue the path before you.


This too is at the heart of quest literature. The grand journey a hero takes to go find destiny or to save the world nearly always involves facing forward, not looking behind. In fact, this is exactly part of what’s at the heart of The Aeneid. 

Have you ever noticed how the most extreme rhetoric out there always faces backward? Oh, they claim they’re thinking about the future, but notice how often they use the terms like the “right side of history,” “this country was founded on__,” or something to do with “change.” Though the “change” in question is never properly defined.

You can fill in the blanks. So, what’s so wrong about looking back? Aren’t we supposed to be learning from history, anyway? 

Well, if you are always looking over your shoulder at what was, you may just end up missing what is. You may just end up missing the most important about life on this planet: the past was a different world. 

Troy is gone, and you cannot go back. 

Aeneas is always trying to get back to Troy in some sense for most of the poem. He first goes back to seek his wife, lost in the blazing wreckage of the city. Aeneas had taken his aging father on his shoulder, and his son in hand to keep her free and unencumbered, but she was still lost. When he finds her spirit, she tells him that her time is over. Troy is gone. Go, and don’t look back. 

But he’s looks back for the first half of the poem. He tries to rebuild on Crete and meets with disaster. He meets with Helenus—last of Priam’s sons on the eastern shores of the Balkan peninsula and finds Troy rebuilt. He cannot settle there. Over and over again, he mourns Troy and tries to recapture it. But he cannot go back. 

Troy is gone. And he has to learn, and eventually does learn, that it has to stay gone. The way to the future is forward. Never back. 

This is for those of you who keep looking back and thinking about how it was so much better than today. You are probably correct on a few points. And you’re probably horribly wrong on many more. I’m well familiar with this segment because it was the segment predominantly behind the Christian consumerism of the 80s and 90s.

The televangelists, the fundamentalists, the Bob Jones University and A Beka textbook companies, and many more all fed this lie that if we didn’t do x, y, or z we were condemning the world to oppression. That if we didn’t go back to the way things were, we were going to all be damned. 

But what was the way things were? My parents lived through the way things were and my mother had no wish to return. Except perhaps to not have to deal with anything computer-related. Nostalgia is one thing. But forcing everyone to relive the past over and over isn’t a dream come true. It’s a nightmare. 

What happened to Dido was horrible, but Aeneas has to let it go, live with it. 

Perhaps the biggest complaint I have about The Aeneid is the episode with Dido and Aeneas. I detest the fact that he deserted her. I hate it destroyed her and that she felt so abandoned that she couldn’t bear to live anymore. She’d been through so much already, and I hate that this one episode broke her. 

Here’s the thing Aeneas hates it too! He didn’t want to leave her. He didn’t want his leaving to break her either. He wanted her strong, resilient, powerful, and above all, reigning like the true queen she was. In Book 6, when the Cumaean Sibyl leads him through the Underworld, he tries to make amends, not realizing that the smoke he’d seen from his ships was her funeral pyre. 

But it’s too late. She won’t listen, she can’t understand, and she just turns from him. 

He has to accept that what’s done is done and move on. 

There is both a powerful and a painful lesson here, for all of us. At some point, you must allow history to be what it is. No revisions, no reparations, no nothing. It’s done and over. Because otherwise you risk robbing the present and the future to patch something that can’t be patched. 

You can’t undo what’s done, whatever that is. You can’t erase history, you can’t relive your childhood or your young adulthood. So, what’s better? To mourn the past and blame everything you perceive as wrong in your life on what happened? 

I’ve done that, and I can tell you it doesn’t help anything. Ever. 

Or is it better to, like Aeneas, recognize the hurt and learn to live with it? Not all the honeyed words, the reparations, or the marketing can change the past. It can’t. But if you dwell on it too long and for too hard, then you only end up hurting the present. 

And repeating the same horrible cycle all over again. 

It’s when Aeneas finally takes up the armor his mother gives him, and the vision his father shows him and faces the now that he finally comes into his own. Troy is gone. Dido is gone. But Rome still has to be built. The children who grew up wandering deserve a home. The children who were yet to come deserve their own lives and experiences, free from the specter of the past. 

You have to let go in order to become something greater. 

And that means staying in the present and accepting the freedom that comes with the blank page of tomorrow. 

So, do the same as Venus bids Aeneas do: Pursue the path before you. What you accomplish may not, in comparison, seem heroic. But you are not a myth. You are very real, and very much alive. You have work to do, even if it’s not as glorious (or as cool) as founding a great empire. 

Your own Aeneid will have its own problems to overcome, but you have to be like the original Aeneas and learn to pursue the path before you–not mourn the one that’s behind.

Thank you for reading!

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