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Vow-Breaking and Mercy in The Aeneid

If you haven’t argued with Andrew Kern over an ancient epic, then I’m sorry to say you haven’t lived.
I managed to get into it with him over The Aeneid at a recent CiRCE Apprenticeship retreat. I had taken the stance that Dido and Aeneas were married (an opinion Andrew does not share), and I was willing to die on that pyre. I also thought that their marriage was a horrible idea, and never should have happened in the first place. Observe.
Unlucky Dido, the poor queen. The poor, hot mess of a queen. She can rule Carthage with power and cunning, but a few words from a literally washed-up Aeneas, and the girl turns into a heart-eyed emoji. Granted, Virgil sets her up like this:
“The manhood of the man, his pride of birth,
Came home to her time and again; his looks,
His words remained with her to haunt her mind,
And desire for him gave her no rest.”

– Book IV, lines 4-7

With one good speech about his bravery and love for his city and his people, she’s mortally enthralled. I can’t help but have compassion for her, for who among us hasn’t been there — aching with desire and unable to function, poring over sacrificial animal viscera for signs from the gods, and mournfully wandering our banquet halls at night in wild need? It’s a common problem.
Dido had another problem, though. She had made a vow to her deceased husband (who was killed by her brother) that she would never remarry, staying true to him forever. And you thought your family life was complicated.
I made an argument in our group discussion that Dido should never have married Aeneas because to do so meant she was breaking her vow. Andrew countered with three reasons in favor of why she should have married the Trojan hero. The first one was this: he said her vow didn’t matter because, in his words, “The dead don’t care.” Dido’s sister, Anna, put it more eloquently when she said, “Do you believe this matters to the dust, to ghosts in tombs?”
After he listed a couple of other reasons, I took the chance to rebut him. I said it doesn’t matter whether the dead care or not, the point was that she made a promise. You don’t break vows. You keep your promises. End of story. Look, Dido, I’m sorry it’s hard, and I’m sorry that in your love-struck heartache, you’re throwing yourself on the couches where Aeneas had reclined, but you made your choice. You’ll have to live with it. This is where my compassion for her ends.
Andrew countered. He said we should let Dido out of her promise for another reason: because it’s the merciful thing to do, and because it was a poorly thought out, hastily made, emotionally charged promise that should never have been made. Keeping your vows may be the right thing to do, but what do we do when a vow made should never have been made in the first place? Is it compassionate or loving to force a person to keep it? Is that right? Or should we show mercy?
I sat back in my chair and conceded his rebuttal to my rebuttal. We should show mercy.
Later in the week, in an unrelated session, Andrew made the point that it’s easy for us as educators and colleagues to desire to look smart in our roles and our interactions, and that to do so misses the point of true education, which is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue. He is always driving this home.
I thought back to my interaction with him during our debate and wondered if that was on my heart and mind — did I desire to look smart? Honestly, I figured all my arguments would go down in spectacular flames against his. I was surprisingly shocked when they didn’t and I was actually able to come up with any coherent rebuttals at all. Mostly, I thought the whole back-and-forth was great fun, and I thoroughly enjoyed it.
But when I turned my mind to his statement about how learning should increase virtue and wisdom in us, I couldn’t help but conclude that the interchange had done this in me. I nearly missed the chance to demonstrate grace, mercy, and forgiveness toward Dido, but the argument allowed me to re-think my position and ultimately show mercy to her.
I was reminded that as Christians, yes, we should keep our promises, but we should also remember that our God is a God who always keeps his promises even when we don’t, and that he is a God of infinite grace, mercy, and forgiveness. We would do well to nestle those attributes into our souls and extend them to those around us in our messy, earthbound lives.


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