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Word of the Day: PIOUS

Word of the Day: PIOUS

As I said the other day, we’re now beginning to read Virgil’s Aeneid, in the Humanities 2 course at Thomas More College. The kids are freshmen who have taken a previous course in the Greek world, and are now taking a course on the Scriptures, so this course on the Roman world fits in very nicely.

We’ve just finished reading four of Cicero’s works: his oration Against Verres, his second Philippic against Antony, a nice portion of De Officiis (On Moral Duties), and De Senectute (On Old Age). We had read the whole of Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), and substantial selections of Livy, from books 1, 2, and 5, and then from the range of books dealing with the Second Punic War. I have asked the students to consider, as they read the Aeneid, that Virgil has in mind the moral resuscitation of his country, as the other three authors also had, in a variety of ways, and that Virgil will place his best hope for that resuscitation in the virtue of PIETY, broadly defined.

PIETY was perhaps the one virtue that the Romans were supposed to be proudest of possessing: it implies DUTY toward your parents, the household gods (think of figurines or busts of your forebears glaring down on you from the mantel over the hearth, on feast days), your patria or country, and the great gods above. Virgil has decided to make his hero Aeneas unlike the cunning “inventor of frauds,” Ulysses, and the rage-prone army boy Achilles; and he casts an exceedingly wary eye upon the two prime motivators of human action, rage and desire — FUROR and AMOR. Yes, that would be AMOR, LOVE. There is no trace in here of what John calls love. Lucretius the Epicurean himself is deeply suspicious of sexual passion, and says that you should not fall prey to AMOR. If you do, your best cure is to find a whore on the streets and let one nail knock out another, so to speak.

Anyway, Virgil wants to expand the definition of PIETY to include MERCY towards your fellow sufferers in this life. It’s a move toward universality, such as Cicero often makes when he talks not about LEX but IUS: what is righteous, regardless of where you are and what you want, and whom you are dealing with, countrymen or no. What he examines, as I read him, is whether PIETY so defined can allay the heartache of human life, and provide us with a firm foundation for moral action. I am going to argue that the relentlessly honest poet will answer that question in the negative.

What Virgil’s use of the word shows is an ambiguity that survives to this day in Italian. What is PIETA — is it PIETY properly speaking, or compassion, mercy, PITY? Or both at once? When Italians pray the Agnus Dei, they respond — translating the Latin MISERERE — ABBI PIETA DI NOI, HAVE MERCY ON US, HAVE PITY ON US. In English, PITY has a suggestion of condescension that is not so prominent in the Italian, as I hear it, or in French, which is similar in this regard. People will say, “I don’t want your PITY,” but would they say the same in Italian? When PIETA suggests MERCY, COMPASSION?

We don’t know where Latin PIUS comes from … When Jesus in the New Testament is said to feel PITY for the crowds, the Greek word has to do not with DUTY but with a visceral fellow-feeling, a response from the core of your physical and spiritual being: what used, without a sense of impropriety, to be rendered as the BOWELS OF COMPASSION. Jerome rendered that as MISERICORDIA, SUFFERING-HEART; and in Old English it was MILDHEORTNESSE, eventually replaced by the anglicized French, MERCY, PITY.