Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise.

—W. H. Auden

The words “piety” and “pious” have an archaic ring; moderns find them hard to use without irony or a sneer. Pejorative senses of the words predominate, such as those the Oxford English Dictionary gives for “piety” (“a sanctimonious statement, a commonplace”) and for “pious” (“hypocritically virtuous; self-righteous; sanctimonious”). The words conjure in the profane mind the image of superstitious old women kneeling before statues in church, clutching their rosaries and holy cards. Only readers of old literature are aware of the richer and nobler senses of the words in the premodern West, as in the Confucian East, where the virtue of piety (禮 or li is the Chinese correlative) was regarded as the lynchpin of the social and political virtues. As Cicero wrote, “In all probability, the disappearance of piety toward the gods will entail the disappearance of loyalty and social union among men as well, and of justice itself, the queen of all the virtues.” Today, his prediction threatens to become reality.

A virtue is a settled disposition of character, a capacity to act well rooted in human nature but strengthened by custom, good mores, education, and (above all) good examples. Piety is the virtue that enables us to do what is right in relation to our family, friends, benefactors, country, and God. It supports the general virtue of justice, because it disposes us to render to each what is its due. “Piety underlies the virtue of justice,” says Cicero. “It is that by which we reverence our parents and other elders, our relatives, friends, benefactors, and likewise our country, which is another parent, and likewise God.” This reverence or regard is closely allied with notions of love, charity, devotion, holiness.

In uncorrupt societies, children grow up with a sense of gratitude for the unearned benefits they have received. If we have normal moral responses, we feel grateful for all the things we have been given that we have done nothing to deserve: the love and nurture of parents and family; the kindness of friends and benefactors; the benefits of a well-ordered society; the freedoms we enjoy thanks to the sacrifices of our countrymen; the beauty and bounty of nature, which God pours down upon us every day. We have to admit, if we are honest, that we have done little to deserve what we have been given. We have, indeed, done many things that would justify our being stripped of what we have been given. If we have any decency—if we know what is decens, what is fitting—our only response can be gratitude and love for family, country, and God. We have obligations we can never repay, and that fact imposes on us an obligation of loyalty to the sources of those benefits. The proper human response to all the unearned blessings we have received is pietas.

But human beings decline all too easily into the shameful condition of ingratitude. We willfully forget what we owe to others and to God. We like to take personal credit for what others have given us. In the moral language we have lost, this once was called vainglory, and it was regarded by decent people as a fault deserving ridicule. In the premodern West, and in the America of our fathers, society took care to subdue the moral ugliness of ingratitude and to cultivate pietas. Good manners, family customs, civic rituals, and public holidays all supported it. In America, we still celebrate Presidents’ Day, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Veteran’s Day, Thanksgiving—all holidays that remind us to be grateful. Schools teach, or used to teach, American history in order to inculcate patriotism, which is the form of pietas most familiar to moderns, though despised now by many. Our cities display, or used to display, statues of our great leaders to remind us of what we owe them and to encourage us to similar virtue. Pietas is cultivated, or used to be cultivated, in civil religion: public prayers, oaths, the Pledge of Allegiance, sacred symbols on our coinage and inscriptions, buildings such as the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. To speak of our “Founding Fathers” exemplifies the virtue of piety in civic life, fusing the due reverence we give our natural parents with the proper gratitude we have for those who labored on battlefields and in legislative chambers to give birth to our nation.

Even when we imagine it ardent, however, our patriotic devotion pales beside that of the ancients. The Romans so valued pietas that they made her a goddess and built a temple to her in the heart of Rome. The greatest Roman hero in the greatest Roman epic, taught in every school, was Aeneas, whose principal claim to glory was his piety: Vergil calls him pius Aeneas. In the Confucian tradition it was believed that an emperor or magistrate who did not properly observe public rites of piety would end up destroying the state and himself. In his essay on the rites that inculcate and express piety, one of the founders of Confucianism, Xunzi, wrote, “[When the rites are observed], those below are compliant, those above are enlightened; myriad things change but do not become chaotic. One who turns his back upon rites will be lost.” Imperial China, lacking the tradition of civil law that knits Western societies together, relied all the more on the virtue and humanity of magistrates, reinforced by strict observance of pious rites, in order to maintain order and due hierarchy in the Middle Kingdom.

Since the late seventeenth century, the idea has grown in the West that the state should tolerate ­impiety, especially toward God, in the interest of freedom of thought. Such an attitude was hardly conceivable in earlier times; in the premodern world it was considered obvious that piety must be upheld by the state. In the tenth book of his Laws, the most profound discussion of piety in ancient Greek philosophy, Plato argued that the state must protect piety (eusebeia) in its laws.

Plato held that a good society should root out ­impiety in two ways: by philosophical argument and by punishment. If the wise men of the city do not make a public case in favor of the divine, materialism, in both its ontological and moral forms, will win out. If the people become materialists, they will come to believe that the laws are not rooted in nature but are man-made. This sends public opinion down a slippery slope that ends in the belief (expressed by Thrasymachus in the Republic) that laws encode simply the will of the stronger; that the struggle for justice is nothing but a struggle for power. Against this view, in the Laws Plato presents the first arguments in Western philosophy for the existence of God (ho theos, in the abstract Greek sense, meaning what is perfect, unchanging, eternal, and therefore divine).

He also proposes laws to punish those who do not accept the philosophical beliefs that support piety. Citizens who express impious beliefs should be first admonished, then tried. If found guilty, they should be punished. Those with sincere atheistical beliefs but good character should be isolated, cut off from contact with the rest of the city; those whose ­impious beliefs have ruined their character and corrupted others should be put to death. Those who might be persuaded to change their minds should be placed in a “reformatory” for five years. For Plato, maintaining eusebeia in the polity is so important that he devises laws and institutions that verge on tyranny to preserve it. Though we may rightly reject his dire methods to protect piety, we are foolish to ignore his insights into the perils of impiety. It erodes social bonds and undermines the authority of law.

As is the case with all the virtues, cultivating piety requires making judgments informed by practical wisdom or prudence. In the premodern world, debates about piety often turned on how to rank our unchosen obligations, and how to resolve conflicts among them. Valerius Maximus’s work Memorable Deeds and Sayings is one of our best sources for Roman understandings of pietas. In it a chief question is whether a good Roman should rank his obligations to family above those to his country, or vice versa. Valerius does not immediately give an answer but offers remarkable examples of piety, both toward parents and toward the patria. In one case, a certain Lucius Manlius was put on trial for exceeding his term of office as dictator, even though as dictator he had saved the republic. His son, the more famous ­Titus Manlius Torquatus, whom Lucius had wronged, was called to testify against him. But instead of bearing witness against his father, Titus threatened the prosecutor with violence unless he dropped the case. Valerius regards this challenge to the republic’s authority as an exemplary act of filial piety, the more admirable as there was no love lost between father and son.

But as his examples unfold, it becomes clear that in general Valerius admires much more those Romans who put country ahead of family. They do so “with the best of reason, because when a household is overturned the state of the commonwealth may remain intact, but the downfall of a city necessarily drags the household gods of all its inhabitants down with it.” Valerius celebrates Romans like Brutus, the founder of the Roman republic, who condemned his own sons to death when they betrayed their country, as well as the Roman men and women who sacrificed their families and fortunes to defeat Hannibal after the Roman defeat at Cannae. But filial piety could also save the republic, as when Coriolanus, alienated from Rome, was prevented from destroying his country by his sense of pietas toward his mother Veturia.

The most famous example in Roman history of a conflict among pieties was the decision by the younger Brutus to assassinate his benefactor ­Caesar. ­Brutus chose the republic over the man who had spared his life and backed him for high office. When the heirs of Caesar became emperors over what was still called the respublica Romana, Brutus’s choice was not an easy one to condemn. No wonder the emperors had declared themselves gods. Piety to the gods always outranked pious devotion to country, keeping latter-day republicans from following in the footsteps of Brutus.

Confucian tradition, by contrast, ranks family above country on grounds the inverse of those expressed by Valerius Maximus: No state can survive without a bedrock commitment to filial piety. Confucius himself, in a famous anecdote, was appalled by the behavior of “the Upright Gong,” who reported his father to the authorities for stealing a sheep. Confucius declared that the son should have covered up for his father. The anecdote became a standard topic of controversy in the Chinese philosophical tradition, with Mohists (followers of the philosopher Mozi) and Legalists (or statecraft theorists) arguing that the universal justice of the state should always overrule private affections. Later Confucians explained that filial piety is the root of virtue, and that virtue, not the rule of law, is the primary tool for ordering a state. Hence, if the law requires a magistrate to punish his father, he should resign his post rather than perform an unfilial act.

Christianity offered a challenge to the way the ancients ranked their pious obligations. Christianity teaches that devotion to God is not genuine unless it fundamentally reorders our affections. Jesus put this in typically provocative form, saying, “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea and his own life also, he cannot be my ­disciple” (Luke 14:26). Earlier in Luke’s Gospel, Christ encounters a potential disciple who wants to follow him but says he must go home and bury his father first—the supreme duty of filial piety. Jesus’s response is meant to shock: “Leave the dead to bury their dead; it is for you to go out and proclaim God’s kingdom” (9:59–60). In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (10:37).

Christ is not saying that obeying God entails hating our family or failing in our duties to them. He is stating in the most dramatic possible way that our paramount duty is to obey the call of holiness. The supreme impiety is to reject the voice of God, and the performance of other pious duties cannot be an excuse. Aquinas, who considered these and similar passages in the Bible and the Church Fathers, concludes, “If the worship (cultus) of one’s parents take[s] one away from the worship of God, it would no longer be an act of piety to pay worship to one’s parents to the prejudice of God.” For St. Thomas, who had defied his own family’s wishes in order to become a Dominican friar, this was no abstract doctrine.

Augustine spends much of City of God explaining to his Roman readers that their vaunted pietas is disordered and therefore vice masquerading as virtue. True piety is the worship of God, and the old Romans had worshipped false gods. Their storied willingness to put the good of the republic ahead of their private advantage was not the reason for the success of the Roman empire. It was God who had allowed Rome to triumph, for reasons hidden in his Providence. And in any event, worldly dominion is of no consequence for those who reside in the heavenly city. The most important thing is to have a proper order in one’s loves, an ordo caritatis established in us by God’s grace. God must come first. He is the only eternal object of our love, and once the love of God reigns in our hearts, our other duties and affections toward family, friends, and country assume their proper proportion.

Pope St. Gregory the Great (d. 604) in his vast commentary on the Book of Job, the Moralia in Job, identified pietas as one of the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, along with wisdom, understanding, judgment, fortitude, knowledge, and the fear of God. The seven gifts are mutually interdependent. For example, knowledge is useless without piety, since the goods (bona) known through knowledge are neglected without it; but piety without knowledge lacks the capacity for discernment. The spiritual gift of piety, as it develops into a virtue through the exercise of our free will, acts as the moral regulator of our spiritual powers of mind, directing them toward righteousness (rectitudo).

Aquinas and the scholastics of the thirteenth century reconnected the virtue of piety with the veneration and deference (reverentia et obsequium) due to our parents and kinfolk as well as to our country. Like Cicero, Aquinas thinks of pietas as a special virtue ­associated with justice. Our parents and our country, as connatural principles of our being, are owed a special debt beyond what justice alone demands. But our debt to God, who is the metaphysical source of our being and of the law that governs us, immeasurably exceeds what is owed to family and country.

The Christian humanists of the Renaissance developed positions sketched out by Aquinas, though in a quite different, classicizing mode. Like the Confucian scholars of imperial China, they presented themselves as advisors of princes and magistrates, and they looked to antiquity—including Christian antiquity—for precepts and examples to cure the evils of their time. Their governing assumption was that the ancient world, above all the Roman world, contained more virtue and wisdom, and better principles of government, than did the corrupt ­contemporary world.

The greatest scholar of fifteenth-century Italy was the papal secretary Biondo Flavio. In his analysis of the means by which ancient Rome achieved greatness—found in the massive treatise Rome in Triumph—he credited Rome’s achievements to the virtues of its citizens, its wise institutions, and its willingness to entrust rule to the virtuous, whatever their social or ethnic origins. Yet in explaining the greatness of the Romans, he gave pride of place to piety. He quotes a speech of Cicero:

However well we think of ourselves, senators, we have not yet surpassed Spain in numbers, nor Gaul in vigor, nor Carthage in cleverness, nor Greece in the arts, nor indeed Italy itself and Latium in the innate moral sense characteristic of this land and its people. Where we have surpassed all other nations and peoples is in piety and religious devotion and in this unique piece of wisdom: for we have discerned that the universe is guided and ruled by the sway of the immortal gods.

The greatest and most popular political theorist among the Christian humanists of the Renaissance, the too-little-known Francesco Patrizi of Siena, bishop of Gaeta, also understood that the best republics were founded upon pietas. Statesmen and magistrates should uphold the three civil duties of pietas: to maintain divine worship and ceremonies; to encourage a sense of obligation to our country, under God; and to show zeal and gratitude not only to parents, children, and spouses but also to our fellow citizens, “whom we should treat with wondrous good will.”

In his treatise On Kingship, quoting Cicero, ­Aristotle, and the Platonists, Patrizi held that civil ­piety is rooted in the law of God and in a lively awareness of our obligations to him and to others. Christian sovereigns are instructed by the supernatural truths of revelation. But all nations, whatever their religion, share a natural knowledge of the divine and therefore a pious recognition of what they owe the gods. That is why the ancients, who often were models of piety, can be our guides in the present, even though they lacked the light of revelation. Their example teaches us above all how to be fully human, how we can best develop our potential for human excellence, or virtue. In their exemplary piety we learn that someone who doesn’t know God lacks fundamental self-knowledge and cannot follow the Delphic maxim, “know thyself,” γνῶθι σεαυτόν. Without piety, which Lactantius defined as notio Dei, intimacy with God, we lose our humanity, sinking to the level of mere animals.

In Patrizi’s understanding, pietas is thus closely linked to humanitas. God’s goodness to us requires us to be humane to others, and this fundamental humanity and care for our neighbors is what binds communities together and builds trust and a sense of common purpose. All states, whatever religion they embrace, have an obligation to punish the impious and sacrilegious. Kings and princes who preserve piety and religion will have greater rewards in the afterlife, far above those accorded private citizens, however pious. Impious rulers, such as Cambyses, king of the Persians—who attacked the fine temples of the Egyptians, filled with beautiful paintings and statuary, with more ferocity than he fought the Egyptian armies—would receive at last the full weight of God’s punishment.

Ours is a different time and place. Our inheritance encourages tolerance and guards against state-imposed orthodoxies. But we are wrong to imagine that these liberal qualities are based solely in modern political theories and concepts of natural right. The fuller humanity that flows from pietas is why we respect the buildings and works of art created by the devotion of our fellow human beings, even if we do not share their religious beliefs. We no more expect a Hindu to renounce his heritage (even if we regard it as religiously limited) than we think a child should denounce his father (even if we see that he is a less-than-exemplary man). Christian faith perfects the natural virtue of piety. It should lead us to acknowledge and honor the beauty, truth, and goodness we find in other ages and other cultures, not deride or destroy them.

It is worth asking what has happened in our country to dry up the natural springs of piety. Why is it that so many highly educated persons in positions of influence today fail to repudiate unjust accusations leveled against America by a passionate and ignorant mob? How can we explain why so few political leaders are willing to defend our country when shameful calumnies are hurled at our greatest statesmen and our most venerable institutions? Why are so many of our leading cultural and educational institutions now bent on requiring ­impiety of their members, forcing them to renounce their loyalty to America’s past in a manner all too reminiscent of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution?

Perhaps the simplest answer is that we have become small, narrow, and parochial, as the vain­glorious who imagine themselves oracles of “progress” ­invariably become. Han Yu, a Confucian poet and official of the Tang dynasty, once wrote, “People who live at the bottom of a well will think that Heaven is small.” Western culture now lies at the bottom of a very deep well. We need to climb out of the well we have dug, escape from the cave of falsehood and delusion, and see the stars again, as Dante says at the end of the Inferno: E quindi uscimmo per riveder le stelle—“and then we came forth to see again the stars.”

We should begin by recovering a proper patriotic disposition and encourage it in the young. We need to recognize how the modern ideologies embraced by so many of our fellow citizens have ruined civil ­piety and blind us to our own ingratitude. One feature common to them is the conditionality of modern loyalty to country. The utopian revolutionary will serve his country only on condition that it moves toward his idea of justice and equality. He may even fight on the side of another country if his own resists his preferred future. The liberal individualist loves his country the way he loves his country club: only on the condition that it enables him to satisfy his desires and ambitions; if it does not, he is happy to move to another club, or another country, that suits him better.

The globalist feels himself to be free of any conditions at all that would bind him to a place. His loyalties, such as they are, are given to everything in the world, indifferently. He cannot have piety because he owes nothing to that corner of the world into which he has been cast. Raised to think “critically,” he can find no reason to be grateful. As a product of a meritocratic system, he is inclined to think he has fully earned his position in life. As a globalist, he has no ancestors, no Founding Fathers. The countries where he alights, wafting like a ghost from one to another, may have fought against one another once upon a time, but they did not fight for him. No one fought to secure his liberties; no nation provided him with noble examples of self-sacrifice. His cost-free religion of human rights has done nothing to improve his character, but it has given him every reason to attack and undermine the moral traditions of countries that do not share his beliefs. In the men who ventured their lives to found his country, he can see only slaveholders. Bereft of piety, he lacks humanitas. Those who can cancel the past with such cavalier moral self-congratulation will go on to cancel their neighbors should they fail to live up to the latest ­ideological ukases.

Sadly, in our time pietas has become a weapon of factionalism rather than a source of civic unity. In American civic culture now, one party uncritically celebrates our history and traditions while another does its best to tear them down. A healthy love of country, one characterized by pietas, takes pride in its great achievements, shows gratitude for what it has given us, feels shame at its faults, and commits with fierce resolve to amend and uphold its highest ideals. But few can practice this noble patriotism any longer; it has become high-risk, inviting hatred and retaliation from angry partisans.

How to climb out of the deep well in which we have placed ourselves is a question with no easy answer. One clear imperative is that our government must no longer adopt a pose of indifference to the many things of value we have inherited from our forebears. It must celebrate them, protect them, and reward those who embody our best traditions. It should not allow our history to be forgotten or twisted to partisan advantage. Civil authorities must recognize that the virtue of piety transcends the narrow ­nationalism that brags and blusters. It respects the piety that foreign peoples show toward their own countries. And inculcating piety requires support for the family, civil society, and sound religion. They are the best allies of patriotism, deepening our capacity for civic gratitude and ensuring that it is placed within a proper order of love.

Toppled statues, an educational culture bent on repudiation of the past, media awash with anti-American propaganda, and more, are bringing one truth hideously into view: The old authors were right when they said that a country without pietas will soon disintegrate. Only by recovering that forgotten virtue can we hope to rebuild the edifice of love and loyalty that shelters our common life. 

James Hankins is professor of history at Harvard University.

This is the first of your three free articles for the month.