Sunday, April 27, 2014

Impietas II: Misericordia

To the Romans pietas and patriarchy walked hand in hand. For most of Roman history the paterfamilias (oldest living male in the family) held absolute power over the family's financial affairs and could punish or even kill other family members without fear of legal sanction. But while the paterfamilias held an autocrat's power over his clan, he was expected to rule with love and compassion.  Tradition and public opinion, powerful forces in conservative and status-conscious Rome, defined the paterfamilias' role and delimited his power.  In those cases where that was not enough, the Emperor might step in to restore right order. Hadrian, who ruled from 117-138, banished a father who had killed his son.  Although the son's crime was great -- he had committed adultery with his stepmother -- Hadrian ruled against the murderous patriarch, declaring "patria potestas in pietate debet non in atrocitate consistere" (a father's power must rest in pietas, not cruelty).

This same beneficence was expected of the one entrusted with the absolute power of the toga purpura. Writing to Nero in the winter of 55 CE, Seneca the Younger explained:
To "the Father of his Country" we have given the name in order that he way know that he has been entrusted with a father's power, which is most forbearing in its care for the interests of his children and subordinates his own to theirs. Slow would a father be to sever his own flesh and blood; aye, after severing he would yearn to restore them, and while severing he would moan aloud, hesitating often and long; for he comes near to condemning gladly who condemns swiftly, and to punishing unjustly who punishes unduly. 
Given Roman history Seneca's advice might seem a bit idealistic. (It certainly appears to have had little impact on Nero's behavior).  But it was rooted not in wooly-headed lovingkindness but in shrewd political calculation.  Seneca saw clementia as a tool which a ruler used to mollify one's enemies and ensure the love and loyalty of one's subjects.  As Galina Krasskova notes in a currently unpublished paper entitled "The Paradoxical Ambivalence of Giving: Seneca and the Virtue of Clemency," clementia incurs an obligation in its recipient.  
Ultimately, clementia is something of a situational virtue. As an oblique form of gift giving it may, at times, have been an uncomfortable trait for Romans, particularly the Roman elite. At the same time, it was not necessarily a negative one. Gift-giving, the exchange of items and/or favors, inevitably carries with it certain tensions.  It is an ambivalent exchange.  As a means of navigating social hierarchy, the cycle of exchange was also a means whereby “face” might be gained or lost. As such, clementia, an aspect of gift-giving intimately connected to imperium was dangerous virtue, an ambivalent trait, fraught with the potential for abuse.
Although the word "pity" derives from pietas, its closest Latin cognate would be misericordia.  Most often translated into English as "pity," "mercy," or "compassion" misericordia comes from miser (wretched) + cor (heart) and describes an empathic sharing in the sufferings of the afflicted.  From its earliest days Christianity has held misericordia in high esteem.  Notre Dame della Misericordia (Our Lady of Mercy) is one of the Virgin Mary's most popular praise names.  Fr. Thomas Ryan has noted that for St. Thomas Aquinas:

[C]ompassion reveals the other-oriented and inter-personal character of human existence.  Its necessary condition is a healthy love of self.  In that sense it is, with shame, a 'defining' emotion and a virtue.  The worth of the 'other' as a person is revealed through an affectively resonant responsiveness to them.  Second, compassion as To be sad at another's gifts and success or to take pleasure in another's plight indicates defective self-esteem. One's moral character is flawed. Finally, Aquinas sees any deeper realization of compassion in the context of friendship and devoted love through identification with the plight of the other... The divine image made for creative self-direction is gradually realized through responsiveness to others and to God.

By contrast, Stoics like Seneca saw misericordia as a dangerous flaw, especially in a ruler.  Clementia was based in logic and reason.  It was extended to those who deserved mercy when upholding the letter of the law would violate its spirit.  It was offered to the vanquished when they no longer posed a threat to the Empire.  It stayed the Emperor's hand when punishment would serve no purpose.  Krasskova points out how Seneca compares Nero to a surgeon and says "if there is ever a need to let blood, you should restrain the blade to stop it cutting more deeply than necessary."  By contrast, he says
[U]nder the guise of strictness we fall into cruelty, under the guise of mercy into pity. (per speciem enim severitatis in crudelitatem incidimus, per speciem clementiae in misericordiam). In the latter case a lighter risk is involved, it is true, but the error is equal in both, since in both we fall short of what is right. Consequently, just as religion does honor to the gods, while superstition wrongs them, so good men will all display mercy and gentleness, but pity they will avoid; for it is the failing of a weak nature that succumbs to the sight of others' ills. And so it is most often seen in the poorest types of persons; there are old women and wretched females who are moved by the tears of the worst criminals, who, if they could, would break open their prison. Pity regards the plight, not the cause of it; mercy is combined with reason. 
An emperor who acts out of misericordia extends an olive branch or grants a pardon without first considering the consequences.  Although his acts may seem laudable they are rooted in selfishness.  Feeling the pangs of sorrow at some wretch's plight, he seeks to eradicate that pain.  The prisoner in chains is freed to return to his brigandry; the siege is lifted and the enemy left to regain strength; hospitality is extended to strangers at the expense of friends and the needy are succored while the worthy are ignored.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Impietas I: Pietas

In the tale of Verginia, an assault upon a woman’s chastity exemplifies the threat of a corrupt government to Rome’s traditional sense of honor and hard-won freedom. The central Roman virtue of pietas, and by extension the regard for law and order, respect for a father’s rights, the insistence on honor and liberty even at the cost of death, and the suppression of personal desires in order to promote the public good, are all in evidence of the actions of the story’s noble characters. Conversely, Livy displays Appius Claudius as the epitome of immorality: he is lust-driven, power-mad, and lacks pietas
Jennifer Hutchinson, "Livy, Virgil, and the Traditional Values of Rome"
From our human experience and history, at least as far as I am informed, I know that everything essential and great has only emerged when human beings had a home and were rooted in a tradition... Only a god can still save us. I think the only possibility of salvation left to us is to prepare readiness, through thinking and poetry, for the appearance of the god or for the absence of the god during the decline; so that we do not, simply put, die meaningless deaths, but that when we decline, we decline in the face of the absent god. 
Martin Heidegger, Der Spiegel Interview, 1966
Today "pious" is most frequently used as an insult:  to be pious is to be a repressed bluestocking who equates fun with sin.  "Pieties" are sanctimonious finger-wagging condemnations of someone else's lifestyle, or meaningless pablum offered in response to difficult questions.  At best piety is a matter of personal belief, of spending the appropriate amount of time in prayer, meditation and Godly contemplation.  It's a virtue connected entirely to the spiritual world, one which has little relevance in our daily lives on this material plane.  

Yet to the Romans pietas, the root of our "piety" and "pity,"  was foremost among the social virtues.  Among the multiple definitions given in the Oxford English Dictionary, "faithfulness to the duties naturally owed to one's relatives, superiors, etc.; affectionate loyalty and respect, esp. to parents; faithfulness, dutifulness" comes closest to pietas.  Over the centuries this usage has drifted out of fashion.  By the 19th century, English translators of Confucius could only convey this meaning by the term "filial piety"-- a phrase which would have been as redundant to the Romans as "brotherly brotherhood." 

Pietas called for a right relationship with one's family and with one's community.  In fulfilling those responsibilities, one would be in right relationship with the Gods.  Because the Gods were the keepers of the traditions which made your community a community.  Honoring the ancestors and your fellows, "taking pity" on those in need and offering them the help due to a brother, fulfilling your responsibilities -- all those things were ways in which you ensured those traditions would continue.

Pietas was a religious virtue, yes.  But it was a religious virtue which called adherents to action, not contemplation. In the ancient world praxis was more important than belief.  It didn't matter whether or not you believed in the Gods.  Indeed, the idea the Gods needed our individual attention was somewhere between blasphemous and simply laughable.  What mattered was that you behaved respectfully toward Them.   Those who defiled Their temples and profaned Their rites attacked the axle around which your identity revolved.

Wars, migrations and trade brought Gods to new lands. Sometimes They became part of the local pantheon; sometimes They subsumed it entirely; sometimes They drew the boundaries within which a minority community could form. But throughout that world it was implicitly understood that the desecration of sacred space was a serious violation. Guests were expected to treat your Gods respectfully in your land and you in theirs. 

Above all,  those entrusted with the service of your Gods were expected to observe the holy laws and rituals. Priests who betrayed this trust put the community at tremendous risk.   The ancients believed their blasphemies might be punished with war, famine, or other spectacular sorts of divine retribution. But they also realized the greatest danger of impietas -- the community's decay and ultimate destruction. 

We are animals who learn by mimicry: we take on the mannerisms and attitudes of those around us. Not only are we what we eat, we are who we break bread with. And if we entrust our Gods and our traditions to those who take them lightly, in time we will come to take them lightly as well. They will become a trivial thing, nothing that will sustain us in times of trial or provide us models by which we can give our lives meaning. We will forget Them and They will forget us. And in that process we will forget ourselves.