Wednesday, June 15, 2011

The Roman virtues: pietas

Pietas has been described as the central Roman virtue. The Encyclopaedia Britannica defines it this way:

a respectful and faithful attachment to gods, country, and relatives, especially parents

Wikipedia has this:

Around the year 70 BC, Cicero defined pietas as the virtue "which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations."

According to the Nova Roma website:

More than religious piety, it is closer to the idea of "Dutifulness", a respect for the natural order socially, politically, and religiously. This includes the ideas of patriotism and devotion to others.

Sondra Steinbrenner writes that:

Pietas is a traditional Roman value which can be defined as duty, honor, and responsibility to others, and the taking of these obligations seriously.

The hero Aeneas was said to embody the virtue of pietas:

Aeneas ... represents "pietas" which to the Romans meant dutifulness, doing what was right for the family, the community, the civilization, and the gods.

The idea of pietas seems to be that it is part of the natural law to demonstrate a loving devotion to your family, to your nation and to the gods and that the duty towards others derived from this should override impetuous acts of selfish emotion.

I think we can learn from the ancient Romans when it comes to this particular virtue.


  1. The Greeks also considered it a part of our biological natures to seek to act according to the principles of virtue. They believed that most virturous principles could be explained to be in accordance with our biological requirements or advantages.

  2. As it happens, I was just reading Froude's Biography of Caesar, and noted the following:

    [The Romans] built temples and offered sacrifices to the highest human excellences, to Valor, to Truth, to Good Faith, to Modesty, to Charity, to Concord. In these qualities lay all that raised man above the animals with which he had so much in common. In them, therefore, were to be found the link which connected him with the divine nature, and moral qualities
    were regarded as divine influences which gave his life its meaning and its worth. The Virtues were elevated into beings to whom disobedience could be punished as a crime, and the superstitious fears which run so often into
    mischievous idolatries were enlisted with, conscience in the
    direct service of right action.
    Morality thus engrained in the national character and grooved into habits of action creates strength, as nothing else creates it. The difficulty of conduct does not lie in knowing what it is right to do, but in doing it when
    known. Intellectual culture does not touch the conscience. It provides no motives to overcome the weakness of the will, and with wider knowledge it brings also
    new temptations. The sense of duty is present in each detail of life; the obligatory "must" which binds the will to the course which right principle has marked out for it
    produces a fibre like the fibre of the oak.
    When all else has passed away,
    when theologies have yielded up their real meaning, and creeds and symbols have become transparent, and man is again in contact with the hard facts of nature, it will be found that the "Virtues" which the Romans made into gods contain in them the essence of true religion, that in them lies the special characteristic which distinguishes human beings from the rest of animated things. Every
    other creature exists for itself, and cares for its own preservation. Nothing larger or better is expected from it or
    possible to it. To man it is said, you do not live for yourself. If you live for yourself you shall come to nothing. Be brave, be just, be pure, be true in word and deed; care not for your enjoyment, care not for your life; care only
    for what is right. So, and not otherwise, it shall be well with you. So the Maker of you has ordered, whom you will disobey at your peril.

    Thus and thus only are nations formed which are destined to endure; and as habits based on such convictions are slow in growing, so when grown to maturity
    they survive extraordinary trials.

    I found myself thinking, if only the Western world today still worshipped the Virtues! If anything, today we worship the Vices: Cowardice, Lies, Immodesty, Greed, Lust, etc. We have exactly what he describes as an intellectual culture that does not touch the conscience, and provides no motives to overcome the weak-
    ness of the will. Consequently we are not "destined to endure" and are I doubt we are capable of surviving the extraordinary trials that are coming.

  3. JP, that's a really interesting quote, thanks for posting it.

    Thoughts that spring to mind:

    a) It's much better to think of the virtues as raising man above the animals, as Froude describes it for the ancient Romans, than the capacity for self-determination, as the modern West has come to believe.

    Holding that the virtues connect man to what is spiritual is also a strength of the Roman world view.

    b) I disagree with the idea that deifying the virtues is the essence of a true religion - though I'm not sure that this is what Froude is endorsing. I also don't believe that duty has to be made so stern as to render care for one's own life unimportant.

    But the strong Roman sense of personal virtue is something we certainly could seek to foster or revive in the modern West.

  4. Slightly off-topic but liberal Christianity is starting to implode bit by bit after it's long-term decline.

    The saddest recent action is how liberals are trying to break the Catholic Church in the USA apart in the midst of implosion and dissapearance of Christian denominations under liberal influence.

    I had to chuckle while reading a news report where the event of the ACC meeting is described as Liberals are discussing in a rational matter and traditional conservatives are railing like maniacs.