After decades obsessed by Homer, I’ve been dipping into Virgil’s Aeneid and recently came across a wonderfully evocative phrase: sunt lacrimae rerum. Because of the peculiarities of the Latin genitive form rerum (which can be either objective or subjective) applied to the word res – things – we’ll never know whether Virgil was talking about “tears for things” or “tears of things.”
If the former, perhaps he was referring to our sorrow at the state of the world. If the latter, perhaps to a kind of sorrow experienced by the world itself. Subtle poet that he was, he may have meant the phrase to imply both. I like to think so. Why would a rose not weep at the beauty of its own passing; why would a forest not wail when a great tree falls; why would an ocean not cry salt tears when it is emptied of fish? Why would the planet not feel grief at the atrocities inflicted upon it in the name of human prosperity, profit, and growth?
“Because this isn’t Disneyland,” you might say. “Flowers, trees, oceans and rocks do not have human consciousness and cannot possibly experience human emotions.” But my purpose is not to subsume them within our particular form of sentience, it is to acknowledge, respect and wonder at the extraordinary (or perhaps cosmologically very ordinary) variety of life on Earth and all that inter-exists with it.
Virgil himself would almost certainly have sympathised with this point of view. The Greeks and Romans understood that their Gods might as easily inhabit a tree as visit a person: their shared religion derived from earlier beliefs that Nature was both the source and expression of divinity. Human souls shared in the soul of the world.
In succeeding centuries, the monotheistic religions of the book – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – sequestered the divine into a single entity, abstracted from the world, accessible only to human believers. Capable of soaring spiritual achievements, their preoccupation with eternal verities discounted human participation in Nature, leaving much of humankind believing itself to be quite separate from and innately superior to “brute existence.”
Of course, this is a gross over-simplification (though I think it reflects broad historical trends). In any case, I am less interested in intellectual and religious arguments than I am in posing a simple question: what would be the consequences of seeking to live as if the more-than-human world wept and sighed; laughed and gasped with joy; delighted in its own being and welcomed us as fellow souls?
What if we were to collude with Nature to re-enchant this disenchanted world? Might we find a greater respect for each other and for ourselves? Would we experience more fully the wonder and mystery of our embodied existence? Could we even learn to forgo our centuries-old preoccupation with the hereafter and come back joyfully to the miracle of our life – here and now – on Earth?
As Wendell Berry puts it in his well-known poem, The Peace of Wild Things:
When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.