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The Piety of Pagans: What We Can Learn

Peter Eimon

John Cuddeback - published on 01/22/14 - updated on 06/08/17

Pagans tend to have a bad name, but are they really all that bad?

“I am Aeneas, duty-bound…”

Paganism tends to have a bad name, and surely there is reason for this. At the same time, there is a tradition, especially among Christians, of honoring and imitating the greatness of pagans.

For one thing, many pagans were profoundly religious, even pious people. We seriously misjudge at least some of our ancient forebears if we do not see the extent to which their life centered on the divine.

Robert Fitzgerald, the great translator of Virgil’s Aeneid, renders as ‘duty-bound’ the sonorous Latin ‘pius Aeneas’ — pious Aeneas. Virgil presents Aeneas as above all a pious man. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates speaks of piety as a kind of justice — the kind that has to do with serving the gods. Piety concerns giving what is due to the gods, and it for this reason that the Latin pius can be rendered ‘duty-bound,’ as duty carries with it the connotation of something that is owed or due.

While among pagans there are notably divergent accounts of the divine, and just how gods stands in relation to mortals, pagan piety tends to be rooted in a fundamental conviction: since the gods are above and in some sense at the origin of human life, men are bound to live according to divine judgments. Human lives are judged against a divine standard.

We might consider these words from The Aeneid:

“I am Aeneas, duty-bound, and known

Above high air of heaven by my fame,

Carrying with me in my ships our gods

Of hearth and home, saved from the enemy.

I look for Italy to be my fatherland,

And my descent is from all-highest Jove.

With twenty ships I mounted the Phrygian sea,

As my immortal mother showed the way.

I followed the given fates. Now barely seven

Ships are left, battered by wind and sea…”

Descent from the gods does not prompt Aeneas to judge himself their equal. Rather, it is reason for fidelity to their plan. He takes Italy as his goal in leaving Troy precisely because such has been enjoined upon him by the gods. Nor does piety guarantee ease or immediate success in his endeavors: having started with twenty ships, Aeneas is not dismayed at having only seven — though, unbeknownst to him, the others were in fact spared. Thus piety carries a note of trust in adversity: the divine plan is to be followed come what may.

Later, when Aeneas is thanking Queen Dido for her gracious reception of the Trojans, he says:

“May the gods —

And surely there are powers that care for goodness,

Surely somewhere justice counts — may they

And your own consciousness of acting well

Reward you as they should.”

Piety is not slavish; it is not honor rendered to tyrants that have no care for human affairs. Doing well by the gods is in reality both good in itself, and rewarded. And doing well by the gods goes hand in hand with doing well by men. “Surely somewhere justice counts…” For some reason, the gods — at least some of them! — are concerned that we do good to fellow men. Doing good to other men is itself a matter of piety, as it is owed to, and rewarded by, the gods.

Piety as practiced by pagans is a complicated and at times problematic affair. Perhaps it is so with all religions. Nevertheless, surely we can learn from the piety of Aeneas.

It seems to me that a (perhaps the) fundamental drama in life is this: whose plan will I put first? Is my life fundamentally about acting according to my own judgments, or is it fundamentally about bringing my judgments into conformity with the judgments of someone above me? Piety is the disposition that chooses the second option. Indeed, the pious man — pagan or otherwise — takes as his duty not only to offer fitting sacrifices and prayers, but also to conform his whole life to a divine plan. Such conformity provides the focal point — the point of reference for all decisions, all actions.

And thus the pious man embodies what is perhaps the greatest of all human paradoxes: the true freedom of being bound to the divine. In being duty-bound, the pious man is freed to become something much greater than he alone — than he free of such a tie — could ever have conceived or achieved.

Dr. John Cuddeback, professor of philosophy at Christendom College, is a member of the Aleteia board of experts and author of one of the most exciting new blogs on the digital horizon, Bacon from Acorns, devoted to the oft-neglected "philosophy of household." He is also the author of True Friendship: Where Virtue Becomes Happiness. John has a gift for making classical wisdom relevant to all the small, and not so small, details of daily life in the contemporary world.

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