The true turning point, however, was the twentieth century, with its massive upheavals of everything from literature to technology. Many of these were driven by the horrors of World War I, the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and Vietnam. As historian Paul Fussell notes, these events “reversed the idea of progress.” Philip Gibbs, World War I journalist and correspondent, puts it another way: “[We] had been taught to believe that the whole object of life was to reach out to beauty and love, and that mankind, in its progress to perfection, had killed the beast instinct, cruelty, blood-lust, the primitive savage law of survival by tooth and claw and club and ax. All poetry, all art, all religion had preached this gospel and this promise. Now that ideal had broken like a china vase dashed to hard ground.”
In these tragedies, the world saw triumphant empire after empire broken to pieces. Leaders that had once been followed with near-religious fidelity were unmasked as self-serving, incompetent, or fallibly human. The sheer scale of our ability to destroy each other—with mustard gas, nuclear weapons, machine guns, napalm—was staggering and unabsorbable. In the trenches of World War I, in Dachau, there was no glory, no drums and trumpets. The dream of a golden age was gone.
And with it went the old traditions of Virgilian scholarship. As the great classics scholar Bernard Knox tells it, he rediscovered Virgil as an Allied soldier serving in Italy during World War II. He was taking shelter in an abandoned building when he saw a copy of the poet’s works amid the rubble and flipped it open. His eye fell upon a passage that read, “A world in ruins For right and wrong change places; everywhere/So many wars, so many shapes of crime.” Knox was not part of the original Harvard school, but he was emblematic of a new engagement with Virgil—a sudden ability to see him fresh, wiped clean of his obscuring traditions.
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