In the modern world, the word “piety” has come to be associated with being religious. And while it does have religious application, its original meaning was far wider and richer. The English word “piety” comes from the Latin pietas, which spoke of family love and by extension love for one’s ancestors, one’s country, and surely God. Cicero defined pietas as the virtue “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.”
For the ancient Romans, piety was one of the highest virtues since it knit families and ultimately all society together in love, loyalty, and shared, reciprocal duty. Piety also roots us in our past and gives proper reverence to our ancestors.
I hope you can see how essential piety is and why, if we do not recapture it more fully in the modern world, our culture is likely doomed. Piety is like a glue that holds us together. Without its precious effects, we fall apart into factions, our families dissolve, and the “weave” of our culture tears and gives way to dry rot.
A few years ago over at the Catholic Education Resource Center, Donald Demarco (a professor at Holy Apostles College and Seminary in Cromwell, CT) wrote some helpful reflections on piety. I’d like to share some excerpts; the full article is available HERE.
“Piety,” said Cicero, “is justice toward the gods,” and “the foundation of all virtues.” By extension, piety is the just recognition of all we owe to our ancestors. [Thus], the basis of piety is the sober realization that we owe our existence and our substance to powers beyond ourselves. We are social, communal beings. We are not islands; we are part of the mainland …
“Greatness” is never a purely individual accomplishment. Its roots are always in others and in times past … Our beginning coincides with a debt. Piety requires us to be grateful to those who begot us. It also evokes in us a duty to give what we have so that we can give to our descendents as our ancestors gave to us. [And] Piety, by honoring what poured out from the past to become our own living substance, enlarges and enriches us. It disposes us to give thanks and to live in such a manner that we ourselves may one day become worthy objects for the thanks of others.
Piety was a favorite virtue of Socrates. Far from considering himself a self-made man … [he] gave full credit for whatever civility he enjoyed to those who preceded him. Ralph Waldo Emerson, by contrast, America’s head cheerleader for the man of self-reliance, spoke of “the sovereign individual, free, self-reliant, and alone in his greatness.” Emerson’s belief in the “greatness” of the individual is a dangerous illusion. It is a presumption that naturally leads to pride.
The great enemy of piety is individualism. Individualism is the illusion that we are somehow self-made, self-reliant, and self-sufficient. It is essentially an anti-social form of thinking that belongs to Nietzsche, Rousseau, Sartre, and Ayn Rand rather than to Socrates, St. Augustine, St. Thomas Aquinas, and the Founding Fathers of the American Constitution.
The soul of individualism is unfettered choice. Abortion, for example, is presumed to be a private affair. Magically, as its advocates allege, it affects neither the child, its father, the family, nor society … “Individuality” is the result of a fall from grace. Adam and Eve behaved as persons until sin reduced them to individuals. As individuals, they began lusting after each other. The aprons of fig leaves they fashioned indicated that they were profoundly ashamed of their new identities as self-centered and self-absorbed individuals.
Yes, individualism leaves us largely closed in ourselves and pathetically self-conscious.
So many of our struggles in this modern era center on a loss of piety, a loss of love and duty owed to our families, community, Church, and nation. Our families and our duties to them and the wider community are sacrificed on the “altar” of self-love and self-aggrandizement. Acceptance of widespread divorce and cohabitation stab at the heart of families ties and family loyalty. We indulge our sexual passions and selfishly cling to our supposed right to be happy, at the high cost of a devastated family structure, and a heavily burdened community. Church and nation are somehow supposed to carry the weight of our imprudent and selfish choices. We speak incessantly of rights but almost never of duties. Love of me and what I “owe myself” are alive and well, but love and duty toward family, Church, community, and nation have grown cold. “I gotta be me” results in many very small and competing worlds.
Further, our modern and post-Cartesian era is mired in a “hermeneutic of discontinuity.” That is to say, we have significantly cut our ties with the past. Our ancestors and antiquity have little to say to us since we have closed our eyes and ears to them. The “Democracy of the Dead,” as Chesterton called tradition, has been cut off by the “Berlin Wall” of modern pride. Our love and respect for our ancestors and the duty we have to honor their wisdom is, to a large extent, gone. We see ourselves as having “come of age” and are arrogantly dismissive of past ages. As such, our continuity with our ancestors and with the wisdom they accumulated is ruptured and our mistakes are both predictable and often downright silly. As we indulge our passions and are largely lacking in self-control, we who pride ourselves as having “come of age” look more like silly, immature teenagers than the technical titans we boast of being. It is one thing to go to the moon, but another to wisely accept the need to learn from the past.
Some like to emphasize the errors of the past (such as slavery) in order to dismiss it. But this misses the point that we learn not only from the good things of the past but also from the errors. I learned as much from my parents’ struggles as from their strengths. We do not honor our ancestors because they were perfect. Rather, we honor the collected wisdom they have handed on to us, some of which was discovered in the cauldron of struggle and sin.
Finally, the loss of piety also means the significant loss of learning. Without respecting and honoring our parents, teachers, and ancestors, there can be no learning. If I do not respect you I cannot learn from you. It is no surprise that in our current American culture, which often celebrates youthful rebellion, learning, tradition, and faith are in grave crisis. Teachers in classrooms spend so much time maintaining discipline that there is little left for learning. Parents, whose children are often taught by popular music and television that adults are “stupid” and “out-of-touch,” give little thought to dismissing their parents’ wisdom. Where there is no respect there can be no learning.
It is no surprise that the opening commandment of the second tablet of the Law is “Honor your Father and your Mother that you may have long life in the land.” For God knows well that if a generation lacks piety, it severs itself not only from worldly tradition but also from Sacred Tradition. Without reverence, without piety, there is no learning and there is no faith. We are cut off from the glorious wisdom that God entrusted to our ancestors. It is no wonder that, in these largely impious and individualistic times, faith is considered irrelevant to many and our churches are increasingly empty.
Pray for piety. Pray for the gift of strong and abiding love for family, Church, community, and nation. Pray, too, for a deep love and respect for our ancestors, stretching back into antiquity. We owe a great debt to our family, nation, Church, and ancestors. They have much to teach us, not only by their strengths but also by their struggles. Scripture says, Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith (Heb 13:7).
This song is rooted in Hebrews 12:1-3 and the opening lines say, “We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, looking on, encouraging us to do the will of the Lord! We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. Let us stand worthy and be faithful to God’s call.” The photos in this video are from the clerestory walls of my own parish, showing the saints in the “cloud of witnesses.”