In Book 2 of Vergil’s Aeneid, the poet relates the story of the Trojan Horse and the sack of Troy in vivid and horrifying detail. The Trojans are standing on the beach which was recently deserted by the Greeks and debating whether or not to bring the massive wooden horse they find into their city. Laocoön, a priest of Apollo, warns the Trojans about accepting any gift from the Greeks and utters one of Vergil’s most famous lines:
equo ne credite, Teucri.
Quidquid id est, timeo Danaos et dona ferentis.
Do not put your trust in the horse, Trojans.
Whatever it is, I fear Greeks even when they are bearing gifts.*
After Laocoön warns the Trojans about the dangers of the horse and launches his spear at the monstrous structure, two deadly serpents slither out of the sea and grab not only Laocoön but also his two sons that are standing nearby. The Trojans assume that Laocoön is being punished by the Gods for defiling the horse. But the opposite is true: Laocoön is right in his fears about the horse and the gods are trying to silence him with this horrific punishment. The Trojans stand on the beach in terror as they watch Laocoön and his sons being swallowed up by the sea serpents:
Tum vero tremefacta novus per pectora cunctis
insinuat pavor, et scelus expendisse merentem
Laocoonta ferunt, sacrum qui cuspide robur
laeserit et tergo sceleratam intorserit hastam.
Then indeed a new terror made the hearts of all the Trojans
tremble and they say that Laocoon had paid the price for
his deserved crime, Laocoon who struck the sacred wood
with his spear and hurled his wicked weapon against
the horse’s back.
John Kaag, author of the book American Philosophy: A Love Story stumbles upon the library of Ernest Hocking in New Hampshire, a priceless collection of over 10,000 books, many of which are rare first editions. When Kaag finds Hocking’s library, he is in the midst of a personal crisis as his first marriage is crumbling and has been for many years. As Kaag takes on the task of attempting to catalog and to save some of Hocking’s most valuable books, he finds a large bronze bust in Hocking’s library that was a replica of the famous Laocoön and His Sons statue from the Vatican Museum. Kaag reflects on the story of Laocoön and the tragedy of being punished for attempting to do the right thing:
This is what happens to people who have the bad luck of being painfully honest. Maybe being less honest and alive was better than being self-righteously dead, I thought. My recent experiment with honesty had been rather brutal. I’d harbored secret doubts about my marriage for years, but as I edged toward thirty, it had become harder and harder to remain silent.
Days before his birthday Kaag sold his wedding ring and this resulted in an epic fight during his birthday party which their families and friends witnessed. Kaag remarks that in the end he didn’t die, but there were many occasions during the dissolution of his marriage that he wished he had died..
Kaag concludes about the Laocoön story: “Being punished for telling a lie made sense, but being sacrificed on the altar of truth seemed cruel.”
To learn more about Kaag’s journey from hell to redemption in his personal life, his discovery and cataloguing of Hocking’s collection, and his reflection on American philosophy read my full review in the December issue of Numero Cinq.
*All translations of Latin in this post are my own. My translation style is very literal which can be viewed by some as awkward and clunky, but that’s how I roll with my Latin.