A Clash of Pieties
By Ammon Corpron
Can pagan and Christian conceptions of the virtues be fully fused?
In his timeless epic, the Æneid, Virgil portrays Roman piety through the character of Æneas. To Virgil, piety was exemplified by devotion to country and to family; Æneas is the very picture of how a Roman should conduct himself, and serves as a model citizen for those in Virgil’s own time. However, the example of Æneas as a pious figure extends far beyond the Pax Romana. One of the greatest writers of the Middle Ages, Dante Alighieri, chooses Virgil as the very symbol of human reason and the greatest poet to ever live; a great Christian thinker, Dante respected Virgil’s ideas on piety, which are epitomized in the character of Æneas. Æneas has been an enduring model of Roman piety, but should he be held up as a model of Christian piety?
Cicero defined piety as the virtue “which admonishes us to do our duty to our country or our parents or other blood relations.” In the Æneid, Virgil demonstrates how his hero has all of the qualities that make a Roman pious. While Troy burns at the hands of the Greeks, Æneas sits with his father, Anchises, who is refusing to flee his home; Æneas pleads with his father to leave as the situation gets more and more precarious, risking his life to fulfill his duty to his father, until a miraculous sign finally convinces Anchises to leave. Æneas leaves the city carrying his father, who is too weak to walk, on his back, and leading his son Iulus with one hand. This scene perfectly demonstrates both aspects of Roman piety: devotion to country (represented by Iulus, who is said to be the ancestor of Julius Cæsar and therefore the future of Rome), and devotion to family (represented by Anchises). It is no coincidence that Æneas’ other hand cradles the Lares and Penates, the traditional household idols every Roman would possess.
In contrast to Virgil’s conception of Roman piety, John Calvin offered an excellent definition of specifically Christian piety: “I call ‘piety’ that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until [people] recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him—they will never yield him willing service.” Calvin describes piety as a type of thankfulness to God, and the natural response that comes from that, namely devotion to Him and obedience to His commandments. Contrasting the definitions of piety proposed by Cicero and Calvin reveals stark differences, which will be highlighted by examining three areas: duty to God, country and family.
The greatest difference in the two viewpoints on piety is their beliefs about duty to God, a difference rooted in incompatible conceptions of divinity. In the Æneid, Virgil portrays several of the gods as petty and sometimes enemies of Æneas, who only turns to them for an occasional supernatural favor. For the Romans, the gods’ value rests upon their ability to supernaturally grant human desires, or at most because they are “his,” as with the Lares and Penates. Christians, however, worship God because of His deity alone, not merely because of the bestowal of temporal favors. Reverence and love for God is the essence of Christian piety. A person opposed to God could never be considered pious, because Christian piety means giving honor to God alone.
A related distinction between Christian and Roman piety is their beliefs on duty to family. They both rank family the second most important of the three, but for different reasons. Romans value duty to their country over everything else, while Christians value duty to God above all. For instance, Luke 8:20-21 says “And [Jesus] was told, ‘Your mother and your brothers are standing outside, desiring to see you.’ But he answered them, ‘My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it.’” While Christians do value family, their duty to God is vastly more important, as exemplified in the life of Christ. In fact, Jesus says that His real family is those who follow God, not those related to Him by blood. This is a clear statement of priorities, where Jesus makes following God a higher priority than duty to family. For the Romans, however, the only thing more important than family was duty to their country, as demonstrated in the story of Æneas. When he was fleeing Troy, he was separated from his wife, but he had to press on for Iulus’ survival and ultimately for the creation of Rome, leaving her behind. A Roman’s duty to family came second to his duty to Rome, whereas a Christian’s duty to family comes second to his duty to God.
The main focus of Roman piety is duty to one’s country. In contrast, Christian piety does not necessitate a duty to one’s country simply for the country’s sake. Christians do value patriotism and loyalty to one’s governing bodies, because submission to governing authorities is commanded in passages such as Romans 13; Christians do not, however, believe in absolute loyalty to one’s country. If a country is ruling in accordance with God’s law, then of course Christians should obey. However, if a situation arises pitting the commands of a nation against those of God, Christians should follow God. This was not true for the Romans; a hostile deity might need to be placated, but that was for the good of the city. The fact that there were many gods whose wishes might conflict also made the Roman idea of piety fundamentally different from the Christian. Many times the founding of Rome would have been halted if Æneas had obeyed the wishes of the hostile goddess Juno, but he chose his country over her—and in Roman eyes, that was the very reason he was pious.
Virgil was an incredible poet; however, his ideas on piety, while superficially similar, are fundamentally different from Christian piety, containing some similar values but essentially different priorities. While Æneas at first glance may appear to be a role model, he is not an exemplar of Christian piety, because he puts country before all else, while a Christian gives the highest place to God.
Ammon Corpron is a seventeen year old junior in high school at Paideia Classical Christian School. He lives in Clackamas, OR, and plans to pursue a liberal arts degree at a private Christian university before attending law school. In his spare time, Ammon enjoys competing in debate, playing basketball, and building robots.
Every time the CLT is administered, the forty highest-scoring students are invited to make a contribution to the Journal. Congratulations to Mr. Corpron on his excellent score! If you liked this piece, take a look at some of our other posts here at the Journal, like these author profiles of Desiderius Erasmus and Søren Kierkegaard, or these essays on definitions and the concept of wealth. And be sure to tune in to our podcast, Anchored.
Published on 25th March, 2022. Page image of Æneas Flees Burning Troy by Federico Barocci, 1598.