Aeneas’s response is really rather remarkable, though some would say unfeeling and cruel. Virgil is clearly at pains to portray a pious response to this divine intervention. With promptness and conviction, Aeneas pulls ups stakes and moves on. His seeming cruelty is in fact not only a pious response to the gods, but also for Dido’s own good. But understandably, Dido is anything but sympathetic, and she is near the top of the list of fearsome women scorned.
This famous story raises several problems, and Aeneas is certainly not the patron saint of men in love. What a man owes a woman with whom he has had a romantic relationship — and this as conditioned by how he has acted, and what has come of those actions — and other such issues must be addressed. At the same time, I think we can glean a foundational insight by focusing on Aeneas’s rejection, even if belated, of eros.
After Dido has discovered Aeneas’s plan to leave her, she confronts him in a rage. Aeneas, far from being stonily unmoved, is deeply affected. But Virgil writes:
And fought down the emotion in his heart” (IV, 456-57).
Often when a reasonable assessment of the situation demands that Cupid be set aside, a real struggle against one’s own emotions is required. A particular challenge here is in the fact that romantic emotions are experienced as coming from our core. It seems that to say ‘no’ to them would be inauthentic, and that it would amount to a denial of our very selves. (As one song says, “It can’t be wrong when it feels so right.”) But, as experience makes clear, reason’s proper assessment of a situation often does not bring about, at least not immediately, a corresponding alignment of feelings. So it can indeed be wrong, even though it feels so right. And being true to ourselves, our loved one, and to our faith demands that we align our actions — even when feelings are recalcitrant — with reason’s judgment.
Often in such a situation, what is hardest and most important is turning back to one’s first commitment: the one from which a romantic attraction threatens to, or already has distracted or removed us. After another encounter with Dido, for whom he still feels love, we read the following remarkably, dare I say, realistic words:
Aeneas, though he struggled with desire
To calm and comfort her in all her pain,
To speak to her and turn her mind from grief,
And though he sighed his heart out, shaken still
With love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him
And went back to the fleet” (IV, 545-551).
Shaken still, he went back to the fleet — the fleet that is his calling, his fundamental commitment. Sometimes the judgment of reason, which can be reinforced by divine encouragement, requires setting aside very real emotions. It was neither out of hardness of heart, nor in hardness of heart, but with fidelity that he acted.
I have a friend of about sixty years of age who just the other day shared something with me. As a young man, he and a young lady fell in love, but her parents did not approve and wouldn’t let them see one another. They each eventually married someone else, though my friend’s wife has now passed away. Just recently, in a remarkable coincidence, he happened upon his old lady friend in a restaurant, and her husband was not with her. It was a poignant moment as my friend, who in fact has never stopped loving her, realized that she too still feels the same. Having given me the account, he earnestly said to me: “What do you think I should do? I wonder if her husband really loves her; he wasn’t even with her…”