Friday, December 01, 2006

The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis


The Tragedy of Dido: An Unresolved Epistemological Crisis

Virgil’s account of the suicide of Dido in his Aeneid describes one of the most ironic tragedies in literary history. It is the story of a woman who is content and secure in her position, yet is drawn irresistibly into the world of intrigue between gods and men, a world that ultimately leads to her destruction. Unlike many tragically flawed characters in mythology, Dido does not bring disaster on herself by defying the gods. She is quite simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. A perfect tool for Juno’s plan, used to perfection by Venus, Dido succeeds in distracting Aeneas from his destiny, but only temporarily. A message from Jupiter is all that it takes to wake Aeneas from his complacency. Before she knows what is happening Aeneas is gone and Dido plunges down a path of self-destruction.

It is easy to lay the blame for Dido’s death at the feet of Aeneas. After all, before he arrives on the scene, Dido is content with building Carthage and remaining faithful to Sychaeus, her dead husband. It could be said that her epistemological footing is based on these two pillars. Unfortunately, under the power of Cupid’s poison, Dido falls in love with the hero, and this footing undergoes a change. Aeneas is only too willing to go along with her. Though he later claims to have harbored feelings which reciprocated hers, it is fairly obvious that for him, this is a relationship of convenience. In the meantime, however, his complicity in the love affair further reinforces Dido’s view of life. Anna, her sister, is impressed with Aeneas’ valor and lineage and encourages her to follow her heart. With this advice Dido’s last inhibitions fall away and she gives herself over wholly to her love of the hero. She has grudgingly let go of her past and is now dedicated to her new life with Aeneas, even to the detriment of her civic duties. Dido’s belief system, or epistemology, is now resting solely on what her relationship with Aeneas seems to be: a complete and permanent union. Her new base of understanding is firmly cemented. That is, as firmly cemented as is possible when the gods are involved.

Then the blow falls. Jupiter sends a message to Aeneas that he must continue on to Italy in fulfillment of his destiny. In his essay, “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and the Philosophy of Science,” Alisdaire MacIntyre describes an experience like what Dido goes through when Aeneas is called away. What he calls an “Epistemological Crisis” basically means that one’s way of understanding the world, or how things seem, is suddenly shown to be out of accordance with the way things are. As he says about persons undergoing such a crisis, “. . . The relationship of seems to is becomes crucial” (MacIntyre 24). Dido has no doubt gone through such crises before and weathered them. This time, however, the crisis is too great. The queen is unable to reconcile the new evidence of how things are, namely Aeneas’ apparent willingness to throw her over in pursuit of Destiny, with how things have seemed to be up until now, namely that she and Aeneas were permanently attached. The crisis goes unresolved, with madness and suicide as a result.

But what is really behind Dido’s suicide? Certainly Aeneas’ actions seem cold-hearted in light of what the lovers have shared, but it seems naive to think that a woman as strong as Dido would fall apart so completely by a simple jilting. Not only has she gone through seeing her first husband murdered through the treachery of her own brother, but has been able to escape and found another city. Suicide is an act of utter desperation, and Dido is just not the desperate type. What is it, then, that drives such a strong woman to suicide? What prevents her from resolving her epistemological crisis?

The answer can be found in the fact that her love for Aeneas is not a natural one, but has been formulated by the gods, and is thereby beyond her control. Juno, who hates all Trojans for, among other things, Paris’ “ . . . unjust slight to her beauty . . .” (Aeneid 28), has made it her mission to destroy Aeneas. As Dido is queen of Juno’s favorite city, Carthage, it seems likely that goddess will try to use her to harm Aeneas. Sensing this, Venus comes up with the following: “I plan to forestall her [Juno] by a trick of my own and enclose the queen in such a girdle of flames that no act of divine power may divert her from submitting . . . to a fierce love for Aeneas” (Aeneid 48). Juno seizes on this opportunity to rob Aeneas of his destiny, and conspires with Venus to marry him to Dido, thereby diverting him from Italy. At this point it is clear that Dido is not in control. Once Cupid infects her with his poison, we are told that she is, “ . . . condemned now to sure destruction” (Aeneid 49).

Further evidence that Dido is not acting on a natural impulse can be seen in her own initial reaction to her sudden love for the hero. “But I could pray,” Dido says to Anna in reference to her vow of faithfulness to Sychaeus, “that the earth should yawn deep to engulf me, or the Father Almighty blast me to the Shades with a stroke of his thunder . . . before ever I violate my honor or break its laws” (Aeneid 97). Yet she does break the laws of her honor, and as a result of the conniving of Juno and Venus, consummates her desire for the hero. Further evidence that Dido’s attraction to Aeneas is beyond the ordinary can be seen in her actions after they are finally brought together in the cave, “Henceforward Dido cared no more for appearances or her good name, and ceased to take any thought for secrecy in her love” (Aeneid 102).

The deliberate meddling of the gods and Dido’s loss of self-control are indicators that Dido no longer has the means to make the adjustment from a life with Aeneas to a life without him. According to MacIntyre, in order to resolve an epistemological crisis such as this one must, “ . . . [construct] a new narrative which enables the agent to understand both how he or she could intelligibly have held his or her beliefs and how he or she could have been so drastically misled by them” (MacIntyre 25). Dido’s condition, that of being under the direct control of the divinities, makes it impossible for her to construct such a narrative. She is basically locked into her current narrative by the power of the gods.

This is what makes Dido’s story so tragic. She had no real part in her own destruction. She was not being punished, as she was not guilty of any sin against gods or humans. Nor was she struck down for hubris as many of her contemporaries were. In fact, she never had the option of choosing her course as they did. Venus and Juno, each for their own purpose, conspired to push Dido into the path of oncoming Destiny, and Cupid tied her to the tracks. “. . . [M]adness or death,” says MacIntyre, “may always be the outcomes which prevent the resolution of an epistemological crisis . . .” (p. 25). Dido’s fate is sealed. She goes mad with grief and longs for death. There can be no resolution for her among the living. Used and discarded by the divinities and by Aeneas, and stripped of her honor, she must find her peace in the underworld.


Works Cited

Virgil. The Aeneid. Baltimore: Penguin, 1963.

MacIntyre, Alisdaire. “Epistemological Crises, Dramatic Narrative and The Philosophy of Science,” Comp. Lit. 300 Course Packet W96: 24-34.

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