Friday, May 29, 2009

Nuclear Family, Cosmic Family (Filial Piety part 1)

If there is any idea fundamental to modern Paganism, it is that the ideas, values, and religious expressions of the ancient, pre-Christian world have something valuable to contribute to the present day.

I am not alone in seeing the virtue ethics of Aristotle as a profoundly important contribution to the world. Even if the precise virtues important in Aristotle's day turn out not to be quite as relevant, the framework itself is extremely useful. Today, when a panoply of seductive choices are presented to us, many of them very bad for us, hardly anything could be more important than cultivating a character which tends toward making better choices.

While I cannot speak for anyone else, I believe that pursuing the virtues is an essential part of my religion. How can I adequately honor the gods if I cannot keep my own life on the right path? What is my veneration worth if I show myself unable to choose the good over the bad in the other areas of my life? And furthermore, I believe that as we become more virtuous, we will be more inclined to religious observances. (Which is not, of course, to say that as we become more inclined to religious observance, we become more virtuous. There are countless counter-examples.)

To show what I mean, I would like to use the example of a much under-appreciated virtue in modern life: filial piety.

I realize that the application of the term to the ancient Mediterranean whence so much of Paganism derives is not entirely historically proper. The term "filial piety" entered the English lexicon not from the writings of the Greek philosophers, but from translations of Confucian texts. Nonetheless, I think it is perfectly appropriate. Archaeological and textual evidence shows that it was an essential part of both Roman and Athenian society. Veneration of one's ancestors was an essential part of the household religious ceremonies. One of the great defenses of traditional religion in the ancient world against skepticism (and against Christianity) was that it had been passed down from ancient times by the ancestors. In Latin, the word "maiores"--literally, the greater ones--was a common term for one's ancestors. And the Greek terms for "piety" and "impiety" are from time to time used to refer to proper and improper treatment of one's fathers, as in Plato's Euthyphro.

It would be very easy to disregard filial piety as unimportant for modern life. Many people would laugh at the idea that it should be given greater focus in the modern age, and many others would consider the idea to be dangerously authoritarian, the sort of thing that perpetuated slavery and continues to perpetuate racism. There is some justice to these claims. Whatever a modern filial piety might look like, it cannot look like ancient piety; in today's society, such a thing would be difficult at best, and damaging at worst. And it is indeed important to gain discernment not to perpetuate the harmful attitudes and behaviors of one's parents.

But on the other side of the coin, the lack of filial piety in America is a significant problem. Far too many Americans tuck the elderly away in nursing homes, where they will cease to be an inconvenience (though I understand that in today's work world, the time and money to care for an elderly mother or father is sadly becoming a luxury). And the mother complaining about how her children never even give her a phone call is an image so common as to be a pop culture trope.

I find these trends rather disturbing. There is something deeply ungrateful about such an attitude. Our parents gave us life, if nothing else. I myself have been fortunate enough to have wonderful parents who have bent over backwards to provide for their children and raise them well. (And I'm sure this colors my attitude to the subject; I may not be quite as happy with the idea had I been poorly raised or even abused as a child.)

Gratitude, I think, is the underpinning of filial piety. The gift of life is the greatest gift anyone could give. It is the gift that makes receiving any other gifts possible. Without my parents, I wouldn't be able to enjoy a breezy spring afternoon or pore over an interesting book. Had they not raised me around books and ensured I paid attention to my schoolwork, I might not have graduated with academic distinctions from a good college.

It is the same sort of gratitude that, in the ancient world, motivated sacrifices and festivals in honor of the gods. The gods were honored as responsible for the continued health and prosperity of the people, as founders or patrons of the city, and for some families in Rome as actual ancestors themselves. In the Greek myths, later appropriated by the Romans, the gods created humans. Plato drew upon this widespread belief in the creation myth of the Timaeus.

To honor the gods, then, is in a sense to take one's rightful place as the descendant of the gods in the cosmic family, which includes not just the gods but worthy ancestors. While this is not the only way to approach religion, I think it's a good and useful one.

In my next post, I'll take a closer look at the questions that arise in applying the concept of filial piety to life in the modern world, especially for Pagans.


  1. so what happens if the parents abuse the children what is a child to do then

  2. I believe in the Euthyphro piety is only used in relation to the gods, not to one's family. If you can explain with evidence how you are interpreting it, I would be interested to know.