It took an act of the emperor to publish the Aeneid. The poet Virgil, before his untimely death, had given orders to burn the draft of his epic poem if he was to die before he edited it. Instead, the emperor Caesar Augustus ordered it to be published in its current form, without edits.
What Virgil would have changed is unclear. What he left was a masterpiece. Virgil had compiled the various Aeneas myths into a single coherent story that told the history of Rome’s founding with an emphasis on moral virtue. The timing was perfect: Rome had just undergone a massive amount of change and political restructuring, going from a Republic to an Empire. The Aeneid provided a founding myth for the citizens to believe in and a template of a noble life that they could pattern themselves after.
One particular image from the Aeneid has endured: the hero Aeneas carrying his father Anchises on his back while leading his son Ascanius out of the burning city of Troy. Aeneas represents the present, Anchises the past, and Ascanius the future. All three are together at once. Aeneas both carries the past with him (despite the wreckage of his city) and shows the next generation the path forward. Throughout the story, he is the noble hero precisely because he balances his own desires with his duty—to his father first, then also to his people.
Over the centuries, many groups have wrestled with this balance, trying to figure out how to make people choose a good when it’s not necessarily in their best interests. Few have succeeded. The wish of “on earth as it is in heaven” from the Lord’s Prayer is forever a struggle to translate ideals into practice.
And yet that is what we try to do every June here at American Legion Jersey Boys State.
ALJBS is a place where the ideals can be taught, demonstrated, and practiced. Throughout this year’s session, your statesmen practiced democracy, debating ideas amongst themselves and together with each other. They solved problems large and small, whether it was coordinating the attendance at each sports game or passing legislation to solve the issues facing their county. They practiced civic duty, understanding their roles as part of a larger group even if they weren’t the leader. And they practiced patriotism, respecting their state, country, flag, and the military who serve to protect it. The week of Boys State is a place to become accustomed to the rhythms of civic virtue.
We heard a lot this week about the need for unity, the system being broken, and the lack of bipartisanship in national politics. Statesmen, staff, and speakers alike were talking about it and encouraging each other to do better. This week, we all got a chance to do this. It went pretty well. The point isn’t that it wasn’t perfect; rather, it’s that this week was a chance to practice doing good, which we can then apply in other spots.
All of us have returned home now. Boys State 2022 is no more. Although we (the program) will return again in 2023, it will be different. The statesmen will be all new. Our job now is to take what we have learned, what we have demonstrated, and what we have begun to practice into our communities. We must continue to learn by doing, tackling more and more challenging issues in the way we have learned. Through our practice, we will become better formed. Through our virtue, we will become an example to others.
We’ve already heard that some of this year’s statesmen were buzzing on the way home, talking about what they’d learned and how much fun they’ve had. These are the things that keep us going. They’re wonderful to hear, and they remind us of the value of what we do. But this is a week that shapes the future—just a week and no more. It’s a small window that we aim to make the most of. But the future is ahead of us, and that’s where we must all focus now. We are Aeneas, carrying the lessons of the past that we’ve learned at Boys State, venturing forth into the present and guiding the future. We move forward to settle new cities, found new companies, build better neighborhoods, and become better citizens. Each of us has our own place to do this in, and that means the week of Boys State has ripple effects everywhere. It’s not just a week that shapes the future of the statesmen but indirectly shapes the communities they’re part of.
If you’d like to continue being a part of our program next year as we shape the future again, fill out an application to come back on staff. It’s a different perspective, but it’s a great experience. And if not, if this was the sum total of your Boys State experience, we hope you take these lessons with you and put them into practice. Become your own Aeneas, training your own Ascanius. Continue shaping the future.
“You have to carry the fire.”
I don’t know how to.”
Yes, you do.”
Is the fire real? The fire?”
Yes it is.”
Where is it? I don’t know where it is.”
Yes you do. It’s inside you. It always was there. I can see it.”
The Road, Cormac McCarthy
originally posted June 27, 2022 0915