The Primacy of Vision in Virgil's Aeneid

By Riggs Alden Smith | Go to book overview
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During the early to middle Augustan age when Virgil was writing the Aeneid, Rome was in the midst of a generally positive period. Civil wars had ended, and the emperor's extensive building program was well underway. Romans were seeing the tangible symbols of a new order, and the sights they beheld underscored the constructive aspects of the pax Augusta. The doors of the temple of Janus were closed, old structures were being refurbished while new were being built, and there was an aura of security and optimism. The first emperor used monuments to reach the widest possible audience, for the Augustan settlement was confirmed by what was visible.

The optimism that this visible message generated can be fruitfully considered in the light of Merleau-Ponty's ontology of vision, which gives sight the primary place in humankind's construction of reality. Such primacy of vision contrasts with the negative gaze that in Merleau-Ponty's own time stemmed from his contemporary Sartre, later to be adopted and enhanced by Lacan.1 Merleau-Ponty's understanding of vision, by contrast, is certainly more positive and perhaps even more natural.

My use of the word "natural" when referring to Merleau-Ponty's views is based on a loose connection between his phenomenological theory and the natural philosophy of the ancient atomists such as Democritus, Philodemus, or Lucretius. Yet this connection is, perhaps, not so tenuous as one might guess, for Merleau-Ponty himself saw it:

One has to admit a sort of truth in the naïve descriptions of perception:

or simulacra, etc. the thing of itself giving perspectives, etc.
But all this takes place in an order that is no longer that of objective
Being, that is the order of the lived or the phenomenal which is


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