On Piety—Part I

On Piety—Part I

By Travis Copeland

Classical piety needs to be recovered by Christians, and by all people who seek to lead lives of true, enduring, and robust virtue.


In 1867, a certain James Hoeg published Quiet Times: A Handbook. The book was a hit. Fame spread rapidly for the young Union chaplain after serving in the Civil War. Although not highly lettered, Hoeg described the book as something of a muse-inspired work: it came to him during and after the Battle of Shiloh in 1862. During one of the bloodiest events of the Civil War, Hoeg began composing his small treatise to encourage walking with God in a set-aside time of devotional allegiance. However, Hoeg’s contribution and its sudden, extreme fame in the United States exemplifies a religious shift that had taken place in modernity. Traditional piety had been replaced by a thin, devotional religious practice that had lost the complexity and density of traditional virtue. As Kevin Clark and Ravi Jain note in their solid work, The Liberal Arts Tradition, “this attitude” of a rejection of piety stands “in sharp distinction to the wisdom of traditional cultures.” For this reason classical piety needs to be recovered both by Christians seeking to practice their faith, and by all people in pursuit of a true, enduring, and robust virtuous character in the modern age.

Defining Piety

The Latin word pietas, normally rendered in English as “piety,” is rich and complex in its definition. It was part of the mos majorum or ancestral customs of the Romans, which included a substantial list of virtues. Some of the important ones were: religio, or religious and ritual propriety; gravitas, a virtue which included gravity in the sense of “seriousness,” but also implied self-control; simplicitas, literally “one-fold-ness”—i.e. directness, honesty, or candor; and dignitas, which meant something between “prestige” and “credibility.” (Greek cultural values were not identical with Roman ones, but there was a great deal of overlap.)

Pietas in particular is duty, loyalty, or allegiance to one’s household, the gods, and by extension the local political and social community. A Greco-Roman man had a compacted and weighty understanding of his loyalty in life. Leading a household in times of peace or going off in times of war were alike laden with a strong sense of responsibility, one that has become distant from modern man.

Ancient Greek Piety

The Homeric epics, particularly the Odyssey, explore both good and bad examples of piety. Indeed, one could argue that the epics are long explorations of piety, seen especially through Achilles, Hector, and Odysseus. The later philosophers, such Aristotle and Plato, have the Homeric works in mind when exploring piety in their dialogues and treatises; they are the basis for Greco-Roman thought on the subject, especially when Virgil’s Aeneid is added to Homer.

The Homeric kings stake their lives on their piety in battle on the plains of Troy. The kings of Homer’s tales are men of glory. Sacred responsibility governs their interactions, even in war. In Book IX of the Iliad, Achilles shows a flash of anger toward Odysseus, who is trying to draw him back into battle. Achilles declares, “any decent man … a man with sense, loves his own, cares for his own as deeply as I.” He continues, raging that Agamemmnon, leader of the Achaean forces attacking Troy, “has torn my honor from my hands.” Achilles sulks in his tent because his honor (i.e., his piety) has been desecrated. For the Greco-Roman world, the essence of a man of good standing was set upon this pietistic honor.

This piety that governed the battlefield also accompanied Odysseus on his return travels back to Ithaca. Piety and wit are essential to Odysseus’ character as he navigates the anger of Poseidon; the Odyssey strikes again and again the classical note. No example stands out better than Odysseus’ burial of his companion Elpenor. Elpenor falls from the witch Circe’s palace rooftop, and dies. Odysseus later encounters his spirit in the underworld: Elpenor asks Odysseus to return and bury his body, despite the troubles that have occurred on Circe’s island, so that he might rest for eternity. Odysseus agrees to return, raise a funeral pyre, and give Elpenor eternal rest. Much like the burial-rest that is shown to Patroclus in the Iliad, Odysseus demonstrates that this is a sacred duty.

A return to reverence is the first prerequisite for a revival of wisdom, for the discovery of the world as an allusion to God.

Plato (writing much later than Homer) speaks about piety’s truest form as existing with the gods. In the Platonic dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates questions the title character at length about its characteristics, and he concludes that the pious is “what is dear to the gods.” In contrast to Plato, Aristotle locates transcendence within the material world; piety is incarnated by members of the state, heads of household, and community leaders. Characters from the epics, protagonists in Greek plays, and noble statements should embody piety. While Plato and Aristotle have distinct perspectives, both uphold the necessity of the pursuit of piety in one’s life. Aristotle, in Book VII of Politics, writes that the “good man” is “he to whom, because he is virtuous, the absolute good is his good.” Aristotle is thinking of the state, but his comments go beyond into the lives of individual Greek citizens in every polis in the ancient world. Every man could become classically virtuous.

While possibly enfolded into the four cardinal virtues, piety is arguably a fifth virtue. Certainly temperance, prudence, wisdom, and fortitude could contain piety. However, piety has aspects, such as loyalty, that are distinct. This should set it apart and give it a noteworthy place amongst the classical virtues. (Indeed, Medieval Christendom would consider piety an essential and distinguishable Christian virtue, not to be enfolded into the cardinal four or the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.)

Ancient Roman Piety

Rome began as a monarchy. Its second king, Numa Pompilius, codified many of the rituals that the Romans held dear, and was a revered figure even at the height of the Republic, when the idea of kingship was anathema to the Roman people; the all-important institutions of the Vestal Virgins and the pontifex maximus were both supposed to be of his creation.

From the driving out of the seventh king, Tarquinius Superbus, down to the Christianization of the Empire, Roman writers, orators, and military leaders continued to be heavily concerned with piety. Many in the Roman leadership failed to be pious, but that did not stop them from upholding piety as the finest virtue. In De Inventione, Cicero “admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.” When the Republic was falling apart, he noted that “piety is the foundation of all other virtues.” Even after the transition from republic to empire, piety “was the central virtue of Augustus Cæsar’s Rome.”*

The most notable exploration of piety builds on the Greek epics. Virgil’s Aeneid, written for Augustus, follows Aeneas from Troy to Italy. Offering an additional founding story to the tale of Romulus and Remus, Aeneas in the opening lines is the pius vir, or pious man, “battered on and land and by sea.” With his father, Anchises, and son, Ascanius, Aeneas muses on piety past and present, especially in the forthcoming Roman race. More than twenty times, Virgil applies the term pious directly to Aeneas. To be a good Roman is to be pious, especially to the Roman state. Roman piety held the nature of authority to be closely connected to the household and state.

Classical Paideia

Classical piety was not caught but taught; although present in the ideals of classical culture, it was transferred most directly through education, in places like Plato’s Academy or Seneca’s private tutoring. (Roman education drew directly from the Greeks, making the classical notions of education more homogenous than heterogenous.)

There were no grades; neither parchment nor papyrus stood for much in the education of the classical world. Instead, the incarnation of the four classical virtues—wisdom, courage, moderation, and justice—exhibited an educated man. These were cultivated through a set curriculum, embracing gymnasium,** grammar, rhetoric, philosophy, and the arts. To transfer piety to the young was not merely to transfer a set of facts, but a way of knowing, a mindset. The essence of piety was the transfer of a dutiful and religious (even if pagan) culture. The education of the Greeks and Romans sought to position a man in his society, help him understand his duty, place him in the hierarchy of authority, and set him up for a life of devotion to the gods, the state, and the home.

Unlike modern education, classical paideia did not conceive of an education that was merely training for work. Education was a training in loyalty to the proper authorities, both local and state. As Christianity came onto the scene in the first century, it began to lay hold of and fulfill the good aims of classical education in the name of Christ; the system was fully baptized by Medieval Christianity after the collapse of the West Roman Empire.

To be continued …

*Quotations in this paragraph come from Clark and Jain’s The Liberal Arts Tradition.
**I.e., athletics. Aside from foot-racing and wrestling, most of the sports in classical antiquity differed from those of today, but to have it as a “subject” at school is in fact exceedingly ancient.


Travis Copeland holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history, and teaches humanities at Covenant Classical in Charlotte, NC. When not writing and teaching, Travis aspires to a “Hobbit” lifestyle of poetry, gardening, baking, and conversation with good company around good food.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might enjoy some of our other content here at the Journal as well. Mr. Copeland also authored our profiles of the Magna Carta, founding father James Madison, and political philosopher Henry David Thoreau; we also have profiles of many other key figures in the history of political and ethical thought, such as Confucius, Æschylus, Bartolomé de Las Casas, Charles Montesquieu, Mary Wollstonecraft, and Ida B. Wells.

Published on 18th October, 2023. Page image of the remains of the House of the Vestal Virgins in Rome; these priestesses of Vesta, goddess of the hearth (equivalent in portfolio and related in name to the Greek Hestia, though the Roman Vesta was of more exalted importance), were among the most sacred functionaries in the city, and had powers unparalleled by anyone in Roman law, including the right to give property to women and the right to deliver condemned prisoners from execution with a touch.

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