Pietas in the Era of Revolution

Pietas, the most Roman of virtues, referred to the duty owed to one’s country, parents, kin, and ancestors.  It is from pietas that patriotism, not nationalism, springs forth.  It is a virtue once esteemed by Americans, for once upon a time Americans were formed by classical learning, and most especially they were formed in their political and literary imaginations by the old Roman Republic.  This was doubly true for the South.  Well into the twentieth century a student could gain admission into the University of South Carolina by translating selections of works by the ancient Greek and Roman authors.  Education concerned itself not with professional training, but with becoming conversant in the great conversation of western civilization.  Training in the professions followed the completion of one’s education.  Tradition, understood as the handing down of the best that had been thought and said, was deeply embedded in the old classical view of education.  Indeed, the duty to submit to tradition was a grave one.  Such submission was a true act of filial piety toward one’s ancestors whose meticulous labor had preserved and built upon the edifices of the past from which we the living were both ennobled and enriched.  It was once a conservative principle that no one individual or group had a right to judge tradition on their own authority.  A tradition might be adjusted via a slow organic process through time, or some traditional practice might be altered that were in direct conflict with divine revelation or the natural law.  Even then in those cases where tradition was found wanting it might take generations before the conflicts might be resolved.

The erection of monuments is in part an act of pietas, a taking care of the dead.  What the monument celebrates is not the deification or canonization of the person whose likeness it represents.  The monument calls to mind some virtue or three the person exercised in their lifetime, often to a heroic degree, and is a lesson that such virtues are to be imitated by us their actual or figurative progeny. The monuments erected in honor of specific political and military leaders of the Confederacy and of its ordinary soldiers and citizens, are meant to call to mind the fortitude, forbearance, patience in suffering,  and self-sacrifice practiced by these men and women.  When the Great Compromise was still in effect, this truth was understood by all Americans.  One did not have to be a partisan of the Gray or the Blue to appreciate the heroic exercise of virtues by those each side had memorialized in granite or bronze.  Indeed, this should be the working assumption of anyone who comes upon the monument of the other side.  A story from ancient Rome related by Plutarch captures well this attitude. Augustus once found a nephew of his reading a book authored by his enemy Cicero.  Augustus seized the book from his nephew’s hand and upon turning it over slowly handed the book back to his nephew and pronounced judgment upon his enemy, “My child, this was a learned man, and a lover of his country.”

Let us not forget there was once a tradition in America, especially south of Mason and Dixon’s line, where “small r” republicans eschewed all monuments as an exercise in vanity and a violation of republican simplicity. George Washington was of this mind, so too were the Old Republicans Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph of Roanoke.  Macon burned much of his correspondence and personal letters, when Randolph died his marker was fittingly an ancient oak on his property at Roanoke. What would such men think of the republic today where narcissism and vanity have such a tight grip upon everyone from “celebrities” to the ordinary account holders on various social media platforms?  Are such a people worthy or even capable of self-government?

At one time Americans could so pronounce the same judgment upon their enemies, but no more.  Since the 1960s we have been living in the age of the perpetual revolution, perhaps it is more accurate and fitting to say the age of impiety.  The raging mobs of iconoclasts, whose zeal is only exceeded by their ignorance, are more to be pitied than despised.  Given the consequences of original sin, piety is not an innate virtue, it must be learned and acquired.  And who were the teachers of our current crop of revolutionaries? Why ‘twas the burners, rioters, and looters of the 1960s, who opted for the Gramscian long march through the churches, the academy, the corporations and the media.  The generations now in power, who brought to us such blessings as abortion, divorce, the exclusion of Christianity from the public square, and a host of “isms” were only capable of passing on to those youth who have been thoroughly radicalized the Eternal Revolution.  Indeed, so many of our “Conservatives,” our dear American Girondins, have shown themselves to be half-hearted supporters of half-measures in support of the Eternal Revolution.  This support takes the form of pronouncing denunciation and charges of “traitor” and “white supremacist” upon the heroes of the South.  And what pray tell then shall we call Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Henry, the Adams family, Hamilton and the rest who were in the forefront of the effort to win their country’s independence from perfidious Albion?  The mob in their glee hurl the charge that if one agrees that Calhoun mus be canceled, how then does one protect Lincoln given his racial views?  The American Girondin is usually at a disadvantage in effectively answering these questions, he is often as ignorant of history and its complexities as his Jacobin antagonist.

As for our impious Jacobin, he is reduced to a violent and dangerous caricature, a figure whose politics are both ironic and insane.  The Jacobin decries all forms of bias, racism, sexism, and a host of other isms with relish and glee.  He is, however, quick to define the positions of his adversary, protest from the adversary notwithstanding.   Thus, one who is sympathetic to the South is a racist, a defender of traditional marriage or biology is a sexist, transphobe, homophobe, perhaps even an omniphobe as that should cover all of the phobias.  These silly stereotypes used as so many “bullets” in a game of invective are a perfect example of the very behaviors our dear Jacobin purportedly opposes. In defense of the “oppressed,” the Jacobin becomes a nightmarish oppressor. So often the Jacobin’s conclusions in this infantile game of name-calling is counter to reality.  Two examples will suffice.  The American Jacobin (and the American Girondin) insist the Late Unpleasantness was only about slavery, but we know from the very letters and journals of the people who fought and died in that conflict that this is not so.  A host of issues and conditions motivated Billy Yank and Johnny Reb to take up arms. As for the Jacobin charge of “systemic racism,” where exactly is the system?  Jim Crow, the last system of racism in the United States, died an overdue death a long time ago.  And indeed, if systemic racism is so pervasive, how have so many people of African descent risen to such prominent positions of power and influence in politics, entertainment and sports, and the media.  Each of these areas of endeavor are crucial in shaping the culture of contemporary America, at least for the present.

What all this demonstrates is that once the impious destroys the ties to tradition and piety, so to are the virtues that allow for civilization sundered.  The impious, by rejecting the patrimony bequeathed to them, become like the tragic characters so many of William Faulkner’s novels.  Their rejection of tradition leaves them without an identity, without a history, ever seeking utopia, retribution or both.  They are not constrained or masters of themselves, they are enslaved to their emotions and appetites.  Society is not a creation of the here, nor the product of mere appetite, it is built upon the achievements, mores, achievements and customs of past generations.   One can reject the patrimony, but once the house is pulled down and the Jacobin has sown the wind, what then shall he reap?

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