Virtue ≠ Piety / by AB Mann

Morality does not require religion. Morality is not dependent on sort of spiritual belief. Morality is not piety, or a devotion to goodness, as a method to acquire salvation. Much of the rason I'm doing this - living by Franklin's 13 virtues - has nohing to do with attaining religious salvation. I am attempting to increase my own happiness in life and society.

I don’t believe in salvation insofar as I do not believe a benevolent creator would make a thing just to tell it its not good enough and has to prove its love. And if a deity exists that created the universe and requires me to jump through hoops to get into the good afterlife? Fuck that guy.

The word piety has its roots in the Latin pietas which is translated variously as “duty”, “religiosity”, “devotion” and others with various levels of denotative religious fervor. Usage for “piety” was likely less religious at the time and considered more like duty to ones’s country and family. It was not, however, part of the “Cardinal” virtues in Roman society.

The first four virtues were enumerated by Plato in The Republic in the mid 4th century BCE - wisdom, temperance, fortitude, and justice - where each were considered integral characteristics of a healthy society. Though members of each class were expected to display all virtues, fortitude was the primary virtue of the warrior class, wisdom primary for the ruling class, and temperance primary for working/craft classes. Justice was the expectation for interaction between the classes where Plato considered that no class was necessarily better than another and should respect the rights of each individual as an individual. The intent was to increase over-all happiness or the State ratherthan allow devolutioninto hedonism (vice).

The interesting thing about the definition of the virtues is the timeline. Protagoras is believed to be one of Plato’s early works - somewhere in the 390-380 BCE range; whereas The Republic which outlined classical Roman virtue was written 380-360 BCE. Though he attempted to define Piety and considered it virtuous, it was not critical to proper function of society.

It wasn’t until Christians came along and tried to instill reverence and fear of an all-powerful deity that Piety became an essential virtue to people and place. St. Paul of Tarsus is credited with describe the three religious virtues- faith, hope, and love (charity) which eventually were added to the Roman virtues to describe the 7 virtues in Christianity.

That first happened in the epic Psychomachia in the 5th century CE where the author, Aurelius ClemensPrudentia described the efforts humans must make to live a life of faith. It outlines the struggle between virtue adn vice. The popularity of the poem helped spread the ideas widely which eventually was incorporated into biblical scripture. An example passage of Charity fighting Greed:

The valiant Virtue gripped the trembling Vice in her hard motted muscles and broke her neck and rent her dry, bloodless throat. Charity's arms, like binding chains, tightened under her chin and wrenched from her strangled throat the life which perished not in sounds but in convulsions.

(No wonder it was so popular.)

At its root, morality is not religious devotion. A person can be virtuous by understanding their relationship between what is good for them and good for society. I would argue that it is a better good to conduct ourselves in a way that generates more goodness now rather than some ill-defined life after death. That religion seeks to frighten you to live a moral life feels fundamentally self defeating. Acting out of fear is an instinct to preserve ourselves rather than act in an externally aware manner.

Glaucon: Then if the good and just man be thus superior in pleasure to the evil and unjust, his superiority will be infinitely greater in propriety of life and in beauty and virtue?

Socrates: Immeasurably greater.

  • Plato, The Republic, Book II