On Piety—Part III

By Travis Copeland

From the history of piety, we now turn to its present and future; and, indeed, the question of whether it has one.

Go here for Part I and Part II.

Piety and the Reformation

The Renaissance inaugurated Modernity, and Modernity remains the age of the individual. As the importance, authority, and autonomy of the individual increased, so too did the decline of piety. Piety and its essential recognition of transcendence waned as authority was wrested from the church; the highest ideals increasingly were left to the individual.

Conceptions of piety began to vary greatly, and they found themselves sometimes at odds with other explanations of the same word. The Reformation’s shattering of Catholicism’s singular control on Christianity in the West helped to differentiate piety across denominations. Likewise, the individuals in those denominations were free to conceive of piety on their own terms. While not the purpose of the Reformation, the unintended consequence was the rapid decline of piety as a coherent, socially-bound term.

John Calvin took a special interest in maintaining piety in the church. Not that piety was unimportant to Martin Luther, but Calvin’s deep classical and medieval education gave him an eye for the peculiar quality of piety. In his seminal work, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin defines piety as, “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.” Calvin’s entire theology is in some ways an exploration of systematic, theological piety. Stepping in on Augustine and other church fathers, Calvin shaped his theology and the Swiss town of Geneva, governed by the church, through the lens of classical piety. Laws and the governing of the town, which was done by the church leadership, were filtered through Calvin’s theology. Scripture and classical piety should govern the church and therefore the town, according to Calvin. However, the Reformation would not permit such a retainment. The seeds were sown and piety was inevitably going to be pulled apart, as Europe increasingly divided down religious and civic lines. The relicts of piety would, societally, decline to something almost unrecognizable.

But before this happened, the English Renaissance and English Reformation bore one more fully-rounded, healthy fruit of piety.

William Shakespeare

There is no more exquisite display of the intricacies of human character than Shakespeare’s plays.  Written in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Shakespeare’s plays were removed enough from the shift of the Reformation to recognize the need to hold on to the tradition surrounding piety going back to the Greeks. In Timon of Athens, Act IV, Timon says,

  Piety and fear,
Religion to the gods, peace, justice, truth,
Domestic awe, night-rest, and neighborhood,
Instruction, manners, mysteries, and trades,
Degrees, observances, customs and laws,
Decline to your confounding contraries
And let confusion live.

The wily Timon understands, as Shakespeare understands, that apart from piety, a beast would be a better friend than man. He leaves the scene fleeing to the woods, declaring virtue is lost.

Although Shakespeare does not always use the word “piety,” his plays continually comment on honor and the pious life. He explores the loss of pietas in every age that precedes his own. Julius Cæsar, Timon of Athens, and Hamlet are a few of the relevant examples. However, Shakespeare is holding onto something that is in broader decline in the West. Assaults against transcendent authority, religion, traditional morals, and civil governments plunges the once prominent idea of a pious life into disarray. The early modern era not only did not value piety, it began to actively seek its death.

It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succor of those years wherein we are set ... so that those who live after may have clean earth to till. What weather they shall have is not ours to rule.

From the Enlightenment to the Twentieth Century

The Enlightenment was an intellectual revolution of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, upholding reason and liberty as the fitting heritage of man. It could not have succeeded without Christianity. Nonetheless, by its assumptions, Enlightenment philosophy began to tear down the structure it was standing on. Christian theology, which asserts that God made the world and therefore it can be understood, quickly became an assumption that tore down the idea of God. The elevation of empirical knowledge against religious knowledge, reordered the obligations of the individual. Classical Liberalism, with its emphasis on autonomy, could find room for nearly every virtue but this one.

The Romantic and Victorian periods might have shown an improvement in this virtue—but, as we saw at the beginning of this series, they in fact did not. The real recollection of the tradition of piety took place in the early twentieth century, at the University of Oxford.

The Inklings and the Recovery of Piety

Attempts to reach back into the classical and medieval works to recover piety have increased as modernity has progressed. C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, professors steeped in the medieval and classical worlds, sought to recover Christian piety. Both Lewis and Tolkien understood the necessity of religion to moral goodness, and sought to recover Christian piety as rooted in the classical tradition. Despite their labors toward recovery, both men were sober about the realities of Western culture and its moral decline.

Tolkien worked the ideal of piety into both the atmosphere and the characters of his fantasy literature. No one in The Lord of the Rings explores piety and nobility more than Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor. “Aragorn’s face was sad and stern because of the doom that was laid on him, and yet hope dwelt ever in the depths of his heart, from which mirth would arise at times like a spring from the rock.” Aragorn recalls both classical and medieval models of piety, particularly Aeneas with his strong sense of vocation.

Lewis wrote about piety more directly than Tolkien. His volumes on classical virtue are too immense to cover adequately here, but his critique of modern anti-sentimentalism in The Abolition of Man is worth pausing to note: “In a sort of ghastly simplicity, we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honor and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.” Modernity, in seeking virtue without piety, has cut itself off from the branch it is sitting on. The other virtues cannot subsist without it. A right sense of sacred responsibility and duty is required for right living. Otherwise we will make men without chests; and classical schools should place piety at the forefront of their stated educational goals. Wise and virtuous students should be pious members of every portion of society, sacred or secular.

Since the two greatest Inklings died (Lewis in 1963, Tolkien a decade later), attempts to recover piety have reoriented themselves toward classical and medieval ideas. The classical education renewal movement and the wave of renewed interest in traditional liturgical forms (even among resolute Protestants) are just two examples amongst many. These are small attempts in the broader cultural cross-winds of the twenty-first century. Nevertheless, the recovery of piety as a central virtue necessary for a good life should be pursued with all intensity if we wish to make men with chests in the West.


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.

We hope you enjoyed this post at the Journal. If you’d like to read more, we can suggest this post on the philosophical concept of quality, this profile of Friedrich Nietzsche, or this student essay on the figure of Mark Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Cæsar.

Published on 1st November, 2023. Page image of the interior of the chapel at Magdalen College, Oxford (source); C. S. Lewis taught at Magdalen College for nearly thirty years.

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