In my last post I quoted Virgil’s observation on love, “Omnia vincit Amor,” (Conquering everything is love), and today I came across another of Virgil’s aphorisms, “Labor Omnia vicit.” Actually the Latin word vicit is past tense, meaning that labor “has conquered,” which creates just a bit of confusion, intentionally or otherwise.
For a long time I struggled with the the myth of Sisyphus. How can there be any satisfaction in repeatedly doing something that brings no desired results? But then it occurred to me that rolling the rock up the mountain so it can roll back down again is related to a Zen concept. “Everything we do is insignificant,” the Buddha might have said. “But it’s essential that we do it.”
Of course I’ve long been attracted to Zen because it’s the only belief system I’ve found that doesn’t take itself that seriously. “If you see the Buddha on the road,” goes a famous saying, “kill him.”
But back to labor. Busy as a bee is a shopworn simile. Back in the first century before the birth of Christ, Virgil contemplated a beehive, and he understood that it stood as a model for society, as well as a reflection of traditional Roman values.
But Virgil finally concluded that bees can’t be a human allegory because of one simple fact: Bees do not reproduce sexually.
Now that's something to think about for a while. What would WE be without sex?
The Cambridge Companion to Virgil
by Charles Martindale
Probably no lines in Virgil have received more commentary per word than the conclusion of the 'Theodicy': 'then came the various artes. Labour conquered everything, damnable labour, and lack pressing on in the midst of hardship.' (1.145-6). Critics have debated whether the labor Virgil imagines is successful (labour conquers all hardships) or has failed (everywhere labour was needed). I suggest lines compose the divergent and discordant being of labor: simultaneously victory and defeat, effort and the need for effort, artifice and the failure of artifice. The Jovian dispensation had promised artes, and artes we got: navigation, astrology, hunting, fishing, and tools. But as the Jovian age moves forward toward the present, labor itself expands its scope and ethical implications: from planting and counting stars (134 and 137) to 'lashing the rivers' (141) and 'dragging the sea' (142).
The delilcate balance and epigrammatic closure of tum variae venere artes.labor omnia vicit (145) comes in the midst of this movement. The form promises gnomic resolution, but omnia is hyperbolic, and the past tense ('has conquered') is false to experience.
The line flirts with our hopes at the vey moment that it undermines its own epigrammatic certainty. It seems to be about arrival, victory, and closure, but we are not arriving. We are already moving on, out of the variety of the artes, back to the intention of Jupiter, back to labor and lack and uncertainity.
Sifted by the Jovian dispensation and the progress of history, labor turns out to be as various as the artes which stand both as memorials of past labor and as promises of future labor. A few victories, inevitable failures; we are left with dangers and hopes. Since we must endure labor, we should not forget the many things it is and our many feelings about it. To gather together this essentially human complexity and then to return to weeding, shooing off birds, pruning overgrowth and prayer is an extraordinary evocation of the human condition, and for the reader, any reader, to be able to do it in the space of these verses is a valuable spiritual achievement. It may be something that we can do only within the confines and luxuries of art. But that makes it no less valuable than the charity we have only in prayer.
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Virgil mediates on bees and community. Virgil's bees have a rich society with home, fatherland, ancestral gods, and so on. They are devoted to law and country; their life is impersonal, collective, motivated by a love of possessions, a love of flowers and the glory of honey making. These 'virtues' have tempted critics to see in the hive a model for human communities or, at least, a reflection of traditional Roman values, and Varro shows that such a view was traditional. But there is another side to the bees: they are a negative value for Romans. They inhabit their finely wrought homes and indulge their fickle spirits in play. They display an Oriental devotion to their king, and this devotion is the very cause of civil destruction, both when there are are two kings and when there is no king.
But the bees never were a human allegory: they do not (according to Virgil) reproduce sexually. Within the economy of the poem, this is the nominal solution to the disruptive power of sexual love, but, as a solutioin, it simultaneously destroys the human analogy and requires the human invention of bougonia.
At the same time, it does not free the bee community of the essential problem inherent in the erotic energies of life: the bees have their loves, 'love of possession', and their glory, 'glory of honey making'.
They also have their bee wars with trembling hearts, sounds in the aiar, and the bursting of gates. In fact, bee wars elucidate the impossibility of a bee model. When the keeper ends the battle with a handful of dust, it may be a poignant reminder that human battles, too, end in a handful of dust, but the problem is that there is no human keeper to cast the dust. Similarly, the beekeeper is told to examine the warring kings and kill the inferior one:...
There is no principle of human governance here. The model fails precisely when it is needed and precisely because the allegory does not work for men. Instead, it recontextualises human problems and imagines human vulnerability without offering an apian solution.
Clearly the bees represent many real virtues, but they also represent the impossibility of projecting our world onto nature. They allow us to contemplate a kind of utopian society, with its admirable qualities, the reality upon which it must exist, the necessary consequences of assumptions like asexual reproduction, as well as the impracticality and impossibility of human stability on those terms.
The allegory does not work, both because the bees are continually becoming or remaining bees and because they are themselves a multiple allegory: of what to be, of what not to be, of what we cannot be.