In Search of Epic Hope in a Sorry Age
“Saying there were no other options remaining and that continued intervention would only prolong the nation’s suffering,” the article begins, “experts concluded Tuesday that the best course of action is to keep the United States as comfortable as possible until the end.” Since we’re doomed anyway, palliative care is the best choice.
If you haven’t guessed, the “article” is from The Onion. It’s over the top, but like all good satire contains truth. Is it possible to solve the problems we face, or will our children inherit a nation well beyond its peak? Many have lost hope. I don’t mean hope in the sense of “I hope it doesn’t rain over the weekend,” but what Dr. Glenn Arbery of Wyoming Catholic College calls “epic hope.”
In an online lecture about Virgil’s Aeneid, Arbery uses the epic’s protagonist, Aeneas, to illustrate what he means by the term. Aeneas is a Trojan warrior who, fleeing the destruction of his homeland, is called by the gods to journey to Italy and found Rome. Aeneas would rather do something else. He’d rather go back to Troy to rebuild or live in peace and ease with his lover, Queen Dido, helping her build the great city of Carthage. But he doesn’t.
Instead, like Moses, says Dr. Arbery, he “leads a whole people into a new place, promised, but as yet unseen. Far from choosing his mission Aeneas, like Moses, finds himself singled out for it.” Why, Arbery asks. Because like Moses, Aeneas is a man of great magnanimity, that is, he possesses the greatness of soul necessary to lead a people to a new place and a new beginning.
“Epic hope like theological hope,” says Arbery, “demands the virtue of self-sacrifice. The noble future good necessarily comes at the expense of the ease and pleasure of the present moment.”
If you’ve never read The Aeneid, let me encourage you to take it on. If, however, you’ve read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, you’ve read about epic hope. Aragorn, Gandalf, Faramir, the King of Rohan, Frodo, and Sam all model epic hope. Each is a self-sacrificing hero who demonstrates both greatness of soul and humility while pursuing a difficult, uncertain, but longed-for future.
We see it in Frodo at the counsel of Elrond. Despite the fact that “an overwhelming longing to rest and remain at peace by Bilbo’s side in Rivendell filled all his heart,” he volunteers to take the Ring into the heart of evil to destroy it. “I will take the Ring though I do not know the way,” he says.
This epic hope is not merely fictional. Think of the American Founders. The signers of the Declaration of Independence were leading a diverse people toward an uncertain, novus ordo seclorum, the new order of the ages. In doing so they declared that “with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
Pledging lives, fortunes and sacred honor in pursuit of a glorious future is precisely what men and women of epic hope do. And that, of course, turns our attention to the question of epic heroes today. Who are they?
Too often they are epic anti-heroes. We are in the position William Butler Yeats described in 1919 in his poem “The Second Coming”: “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” Those leading ISIS come to mind. These self-sacrificing men believe in heaven’s call and blessing as they inspire others with hope of a new order. And they act while the West appears to languish, resting on its laurels while consuming entertainments, amusements and ease. “We just need to remember all the good times we had,” counsels The Onion, “Like the moon landing — that was really nice, wasn’t it?”
While epic hope has goals far larger than any corresponding hero, and while the responsibility is thrust upon the hero, epic hope, Dr. Arbery comments, “is grounded in extraordinary magnanimity, greatness of soul that merits divine profiting and guidance. It is restrained by the hero’s humility in recognizing the limits of man before the gods.”
That is, while epic hope may be beyond our grasp without grace, we need not wait for divine visitation in order to live heroically. We begin by practicing magnanimity and humility in the service of others right here, right now. That means rejecting the small-mindedness and self-centeredness of our era in order to pursue a vision of the good, the true and the beautiful for the benefit of all.
In a world short on heroes, the call goes out to us all.