Father Anthony Giambrone begins his introduction of Theodor Haecker’s Vergil, Father of the West, republished in 2022 by Cluny Media, with a description of the modern West. We are experiencing a period of spiritual and cultural decline, he warns. Like Dante, we find ourselves lost in a dark wood, wandering from the straight path, and forgetting fundamental civilizational truths. The Christian idea of the human person born in God’s image has been replaced with newer, secular ideas that deny that man is a spiritual being. Fortunately, we still have a guide who can inspire those of us devoted to the task of civilizational renewal — a task that requires us to remember old truths passed down from classical: Christian civilization. Just as Vergil led Dante out of a dark wood many centuries ago, so too he can lead us out of our contemporary dark wood.
As author of the Eclogues, the Georgics, and the Aeneid, Vergil is an indispensable poet of Western civilization. Quoting T.S. Eliot, Kevin Michael Saylor recently pointed out that Vergil’s Aeneid is the “classic of all Europe.” Vergil’s Aeneid, Saylor remarks, is “the inescapable poem of the West, casting long shadows over nearly every subsequent poet of note in the European tradition.” The influence of Vergil can be seen in authors like Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dryden, Wordsworth, Keats, Eliot, and Heaney. This is not to mention the numerous English translations of the Aeneid that have emerged in recent decades, all of them trying to introduce Vergil to new audiences. Those familiar with Vergil know that his influence extends far beyond the English-speaking world and is found throughout the Christian world in general. St. Augustine, for instance, read Vergil with great passion before his conversion to Christianity. Dante, too, chose Vergil to lead him in the Divine Comedy. Some writers have even said that Vergil is an “anima naturaliter Christiana,” a soul naturally Christian. Theodor Haecker is one such writer willing to make this claim — a claim worthy of serious consideration, especially given Vergil’s vast influence in the Western world.
Hence, it is a delight that Cluny Media has republished Theodor Haecker’s Vergil, Father of the West, along with the above-mentioned introduction by Father Anthony Giambrone. This new edition also includes the original forward by Haecker along with the essay “On the Foundations of the West.” Finally, giving voice to Vergil himself, this republished edition ends with a translation of Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue. Originally commissioned and edited by Christopher Dawson for his multi-volume series, Essays in Order, Haecker’s Vergil was translated from German into English in 1934. Almost a century later, however, this little book is largely forgotten and has long been out of print. Haecker’s book, once again available to English-speaking readers, explores Vergil as a writer of great philosophical and theological power, who gives voice to old civilizational truths embodied in the culture of the West. Above all, it helps readers rediscover the “unity and continuity” between the Greco-Roman and the Christian world.
Theodor Haecker on Vergil
Theodor Haecker (1879-1945) was a German writer and an opponent of the Nazi regime. He converted to Roman Catholicism shortly after World War I, discerning a call to oppose destructive ideologies and defend the Christian idea of the human person. Inspired particularly by St. John Henry Newman and Kierkegaard, Haecker earned a reputation as a literary, philosophical, and theological writer. An important figure in the Christian resistance to National Socialism, Haecker was eventually put on house arrest by the Nazis and then forced into exile after his house was destroyed in the bombing of Munich. He died on April 9, 1945, leaving behind his Journal in the Night, a posthumously published journal that he kept while on house arrest. The most productive period of his life was the 1930s, the decade when Vergil, Father of the West was first published. Writing it after his conversion, Haecker was influenced by the Catholic faith when penning this little book. As such, he showed in this work that Vergil can be understood in relation to “the near advent of Christianity.” Vergil, in other words, was a man who lived “exactly in the middle and the fullness of times” and should be analyzed as such. Haecker, therefore, showed that Vergil expressed fundamental truths common to the Greco-Roman and Christian West. In this way, he had a unique place in the history of Western civilization, writing at a time of transition from the pre-Christian to the Christian world.
Even if Haecker’s Vergil is mostly forgotten in the English-speaking world, his interpretation of Vergil as a man who lived in the fullness of time was later re-expressed by the poet T.S. Eliot. Giambrone points out in the introduction that T.S. Eliot was influenced by Haecker, using the insights expressed in Vergil throughout many of his own writings on the Roman poet. Vergil’s special relationship to Christianity was pointed out by T.S. Eliot in his famous 1953 article for The Sewanee Review entitled “Vergil and the Christian World,” later reprinted in the 1957 volume On Poetry and Poets. Some readers will be interested to know that, years later, Russell Kirk was influenced by Haecker when writing The Roots of American Order (1974). Within Roots, Kirk describes Eliot as the “best interpreter of the foremost of Latin poets,” and then uses an extensive quotation from Eliot in his own treatment of Vergil. As Kirk would have known, though, T.S. Eliot was mainly developing the thought of Haecker when writing about Vergil.
Haecker writes that three ideas are at the heart of Vergil’s poetry: labor, pietas, and fatum. First, Vergil wrote of labor, especially agricultural labor. In this way, he elevated manual labor to a dignity that many others in the ancient world rejected. In the Georgics, the shepherd cultivates the earth and, in doing so, he finds meaningful work. Centuries later, the Benedictine monks held similar respect for manual labor by incorporating it into their monastic regimens. The monks went into nature and made the land into something beautiful by the sweat of their brow. In doing so, Haecker argues that the monks were not only sons of St. Benedict but also the sons of Vergil. The son of a farmer, Vergil’s admiration for labor was consistent with the later monastic practice of suffusing prayer with manual work. As T.S. Eliot later put it, Vergil “perceived that agriculture is fundamental to civilization, and he affirmed the dignity of manual labor.” Eliot likewise placed Vergil in relation to the Benedictine monks. The dignity of manual labor, defended centuries earlier by Vergil, would later find its way into the daily life of the monks. As Eliot writes, “when the Christian monastic orders came into being, the contemplative life and the life of manual labor were first conjoined.”
Second, Vergil wrote of pietas. Roman piety meant devotion to the father, country, and gods. Out of devotion, Aeneas lifts his father onto his back and carries him to the ships that will sail away and escape the destruction of Troy. Aeneas’ devotion to his father, country and household gods led him to undergo a difficult journey, eventually leaving the woman whom he loved, Dido, to fulfill a higher duty. Vergil is pious because he is the son of a father, and it is out of love for his father that he completes many of his heroic deeds. There is a deep interrelation between father and son in the thought of Vergil, says Haecker, and it is this “primordial ground” that serves as the basis of piety. For Vergil, piety means “dutiful love” or “loving dutifulness,” and it is due to this love that Aeneas is willing to descend into the underworld and endure a life of hardship. It is not for the sake of a woman nor for fame that Aeneas does great deeds. It is instead out of devotion to his father, countrymen, and household gods.
Finally, Vergil wrote of fatum, otherwise called “destiny” or fate. Vergil’s Aeneas is a man who is guided by the decree of fate, which leads him against his own will out of burning Troy and through foreign lands so that he can play a part in the building of the eternal city of Rome. Aeneas does not follow his own will, but he instead obeys a will higher than himself — a “mysterious, unfathomable, higher will” — that promises him a reward that is unknown. Fate tosses Aeneas out of his home and from the land he loves into “the mystery of the incomprehensible and divine.” As a man guided by fate, Haecker maintains that it would be a mistake to compare Aeneas to Odysseus. It is more accurate, says Haecker, to compare Aeneas to Abraham, the father of faith, who left behind his homeland “in obedience to an inscrutable decree.” Abraham becomes father of the great nation of Israel, whereas Aeneas becomes father of the eternal city of Rome. Eventually, in a twist of fate, the sons of Abraham would overtake the sons of Aeneas and the city they founded — not destroying the city of Rome but rather bringing it to fulfillment, elevating it with the supernatural aid of grace so that it can truly “[r]ule without end.”
Some contemporary historians may take issue with some of Haecker’s claims. After reading this republished book, they might assert that Haecker is too influenced by Catholic theology rather than only by empirical documentation. Yet such historians would do well to remember that Haecker writes in Vergil as a different kind of historian. Haecker’s Vergil is, in a way, the work of a “philosophical historian,” a phrase used by Russell Kirk to describe thinkers ranging from Christopher Dawson to Arnold Toynbee to Eric Voegelin. The philosophical historian does not concern himself merely with historical fact and empirical sources, although these remain important to such thinkers. Rather, as the late Gerald J. Russello puts it, the philosophical historian fuses historical fact with a philosophical approach to the past so that he might “plumb the mysteries of the human condition.” In the case of Theodor Haecker, the Incarnation is the central event of history and therefore serves as the most important event surrounding the facts of Vergil’s life. To reduce Vergil’s poetry to a mere “historical approach” — an approach that does not draw from higher wisdom —would strip Vergil of his real significance. While acknowledging the historical events surrounding Vergil’s life as important, Haecker first sees Vergil as related to the world-altering event of the Incarnation.
In this way, Haecker’s view of history mirrors that of Christopher Dawson (1889-1970), one of the great Catholic writers of the twentieth century. Like Dawson, Haecker believed that the events of human history are all related to that one divine event which gives meaning to the entire historical process. Haecker knew that any sufficient treatment of Vergil must consider the event of the Incarnation as the center of history — to repurpose the words of Dawson, as the reference point from which the writer looks backwards and forward as from a fixed center. On the one hand, Christianity teaches eternal truths, the revelation of God Himself, which transcends specific times and places. On the other hand, Christian revelation enters specific times and places, giving history meaning in relation to eternity. “The meaning of history is there from eternity, even before man existed,” writes Haecker. “What man in truth can and should do is, as far as possible, to recognize the meaning of history that it already has and, as well as he can, help to fulfill it.”
As Haecker writes, scholars have remarked that Judaism immediately before Christ was mature, paving the way for the coming of Christianity. Yet he adds that the same can be said of paganism immediately before Christ. Vergil was especially vital in serving as a natural preparation for the coming of grace — a preparation for the Gospel. That Vergil’s paganism was mature in preparing the way for the coming of grace is seen especially in the Fourth Eclogue. Written around 40 BC, Vergil’s poem was interpreted by some early Christians such as Saint Augustine to be about the birth of Jesus. Vergil’s Fourth Eclogue tells the ancient world of the coming birth of a divine child who will rule over the world, ushering in a new era. As T.S. Eliot put it, it becomes clear that the Roman poet “looks both ways, he makes a peculiar liaison between the old world and the new, and of this peculiar station we may take the fourth Eclogue as a symbol.” For Haecker, Vergil was the best of the pagans. He was someone who wrote “without even a single drop of tantalizing poison” that Christians would later need to throw out. He shows the “unity and continuity of the natural and human foundations of the pagan, Greco-Roman as well as the Christian West.”
When Vergil, Father of the West was first published in Europe, it was a success, and it is no wonder why. The West has forgotten many of the fundamental civilizational truths that have, for centuries, been considered time-tested and passed down from the classical, Christian world. The modern West, like Dante, finds itself wandering in the dark — forgetting these truths and consequently experiencing inevitable civilizational decay. This is the case today, and it was also the case in Haecker’s lifetime. Theodor Haecker’s book, again available to the English-speaking world, was a success when first published because it speaks to the heart of a culture in crisis. It reminded readers of old truths that had fallen out of fashion, and it defended the continuity between the classical and Christian world. Without the revival of these old truths, both then and now, there can be no restoration of culture in the West. With Theodor Haecker, then, we should see Vergil as a father of the West, a guide to help us renew our culture. We should pick Vergil’s poetry up once again, restoring it to a place of significance in our classrooms and homes, so that we may plumb the depths of an anima naturaliter Christiana who lived in the middle and fullness of time.
 Anthony Giambrone, “Introduction,” in Vergil, Father of the West (Cluny Media: Providence, Rhode Island, 2022), ii-iii. This Cluny Media edition is a translation of Vergil, Vater des Abendlandes, 3rd ed., published in 1935 by Jakob Hegner, Leipzig, as well as chapter 3 of Was ist der Mensch?, published in 1933 by Jakob Hegner, Leipzig. Father Giambrone, the translator, explains why he uses the spelling “Vergil” rather than “Virgil” in his introduction. For more, see “Introduction,” in Vergil, Father of the West, xl-xli.
 Kevin Michael Saylor, “The Prince of Peace: The Aeneid Today,” Modern Age 63, no. 1 (Winter 2021): 24.
 Ibid., 24-25.
 Haecker, Vergil, 20.
 This information about the origin of Haecker’s book can be found in Bradley J. Birzer, Beyond Tenebrae: Christian Humanism in the Twilight of the West (Brooklyn, New York: Angelico Press, 2019), 103; also see Bradley J. Birzer, “Theodor Haecker, Man of the West,” The Imaginative Conservative, October 15, 2014, accessed online, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2014/10/theodor-haecker-man-west.html.
 Haecker, Vergil, 20.
 Giambrone, “Introduction,” in Vergil, Father of the West, iv-xvii.
 Haecker, Vergil, 11.
 Ibid., 20.
 Birzer, Beyond Tenebrae, 103; also see Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order (1974; repr. Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2003), 115-116.
 Haecker, Vergil, 55-56.
 T.S. Eliot, “Vergil and the Christian World,” The Sewanee Review 61, no. 1 (Winter 1953): 7.
 Haecker, Vergil, 66-68.
 Ibid., 88.
 Ibid., 68.
 Ibid., 82.
 For more, see Gerald Russello, “Russell Kirk’s Historical Imagination,” The Imaginative Conservative, February 6, 2015, accessed online, https://theimaginativeconservative.org/2015/02/russell-kirks-historical-imagination.html.
 Giambrone, “Introduction,” in Vergil, Father of the West, xxii-xxiii.
 Christopher Dawson, “The Christian View of History,” Blackfriars 32, no. 376-7 (July-August 1951): 314-315.
 Haecker, Foundations, 139.
 Haecker, Vergil, 84.
 Eliot, “Vergil and the Christian World,” 5.
 Haecker, Vergil, 17.
 Ibid., 20.
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