Are Piety and Religion Necessary for the Health and Stability of Society?

In his New Science, Giambattista Vico concludes his broad and sweeping study of “the ideas, customs, and deeds of humankind” (139) with a puzzling and haunting line: “My new science is indissolubly linked with the study of piety; and unless one is pious, one cannot be truly wise” (491). Even a cursory reading of Vico’s work reveals that piety and humility before the gods or God is one of the primary catalysts of human development and societal formation, at least according to Vico. And without this piety as a motivating factor in the assembling of society, the formation of customs, establishment of laws, and the structuring of civil government would never have come into existence (484-487). Furthermore, if this piety is lost and religion discarded, the society will crumble and come to ruin (487-89). Given that Vico tries to establish this claim by an analysis of how nations develop, with particular focus on Roman society as evidence for his more broad claims about the formation of society, one wonders if a brief study of Livy’s account of early Roman history bears out his thesis, or at least reflects it.

This question becomes particularly interesting, given that Vico frequently notes his disagreement with Polybius’ statement that “if the world had philosophers, it would not need religions” (88). In his Histories, Polybius commends the power of religion and superstition at subduing the people and sustaining the state. But he remarks that “this approach might not have been necessary had it ever been possible to form a state composed of entirely wise men” (349). But Polybius goes on to say that this probably wouldn’t have been possible or likely, given that fickleness of the masses. And thus, even in his age, “the moderns are foolish and take great risks in rejecting [piety]” (349). Thus, while Vico disagrees with Polybius’ belief that wisdom can be separated from piety—at least hypothetically—Polybius affirms the idea that piety is essential even in his own time for the proper governance and unity of the state.

For Vico, divine providence orchestrates the formation of civil society according to a wisdom founded on piety—fear and worship of the gods. He states, “while people were occupied with other matters, [divine providence] instilled in them a fear of divinity, which is the first and most fundamental basis of a commonwealth” (280). Elsewhere, he states that “the world of peoples began everywhere with religion” (87). From this premise, Vico traces the effects of religion and piety, stating that the “great effect of their religion [was] namely the civil world, which is so wisely ordered that it can only be the result of superhuman wisdom” (135). Because mankind feared the gods, they instituted solemn marriage, founded commonwealths, followed customs, fashioned laws, fought for justice and rights of citizenship, and practiced the cardinal virtues (212-214; 484-487). For Vico, then, piety and wisdom go together, and without piety, wisdom could not take effect in the formation and function of human society.

Wisdom, in Vico’s conception, is “the faculty governing all the disciplines that teach the arts and sciences which perfect our humanity” (136). Taking as his basis Plato’s conception of wisdom as “the perfecter of humankind” and people as the conglomeration of “mind and spirit” or “intellect and will,” Vico avers that “true wisdom must teach us the knowledge of divine institutions in order to direct human institutions toward the highest good” (137), for “once the mind is illuminated by a knowledge of what is highest, it will lead the spirit to choose what is best” (136). Thus, wisdom properly used must be founded on a pious reverence toward the gods in order to motivate the human will toward choosing the highest good.

This notion of the necessary basis of wisdom in piety runs contrary to Polybius and Plutarch, both of whom Vico addresses. Plutarch finds fault with early paganism for its superstition and “impiety”—probably referring to its mean, unsophisticated, and often violent religious practices. Thus, Plutarch questions “which is the lesser evil for men, to worship the gods in such an impious manner, or not to believe in them at all?” (216). In essence, Plutarch asserts that atheism leads to less “barbarism” and “impiety” than early religion. Polybius has a slightly different perspective, acknowledging the helpfulness of religion in the formation of society but asserting that if everyone were as wise as philosophers then religion wouldn’t be necessary (490).

To both, Vico responds by asserting that without religion, there could be no society or philosophy. And thus, it is impossible to conceive of a society that can grasp and carry out wisdom from a purely philosophical and non-religious foundation (216; 491). Furthermore, Vico contends that only piety can truly motivate virtue, because it appeals to the senses and feelings, not simply the intellect. Conversely, philosophy can only encourage people to fulfill their moral obligations, but not actually stir them to action (490-491). Vico confirms this assertion by his final statement, that without piety it is impossible to be wise, and thus concludes his work with an implicit challenge to find a wise and successful state that has abandoned her piety and continued to act with wisdom and virtue.

Given this disagreement, one wonders if a brief study ofLivy’s account of early Roman history bears out Vico’s thesis, or whether Plutarch and Polybius are correct that piety is not necessary for wisdom or the success of the state. Livy begins his “Early History of Rome” (or “From the Founding of the City”; “Ab Urbe Condita”) by stating that he is tracing the early events of the “greatest nation in the world” (29), its greatness no doubt owing to its vast territory and magnificent conquests, but also to its virtue and wise organization of the state, it being both “great” and “pure,” rich in “good citizens and noble deeds” (30). Hence, Livy already marks Rome in decline by his own day, even though it was at its zenith under Augustine in terms of territory, power, influence, and culture, stating that it has undergone a “moral decline,” the “foundations of morality” ebbing due to a lapse “of the old teaching,” leading to “the dark dawning of our modern day when we can neither endure our vices nor face the remedies needed to cure them” (30). Livy continues to survey the early history of Rome in a way that seems to cohere, at least in part, to Vico’s thesis that piety is essential to the formation and continuation of a wise state.

The foundation of Rome under Romulus and Numa Pompilius present a complex and fascinating case study. Initially, Rome seems to be founded upon a great act of impiety with little regard for the gods as Romulus slays his brother Remus, both motivated by “jealousy and ambition,” not piety and virtue (36-37). But quickly Romulus realizes that without religious observance, he cannot supply his new city with people or strengthen the city with laws. Accordingly, he adopts the religious rite of Evander and the Pinarii, for “by doing so he showed, even then, his respect for that immortality which is the prize of valour” (39). Livy adds that “having performed with proper ceremony his religious duties, [Romulus] summoned his subjects and gave them laws, without which the creation of a unified body politic would not have been possible” (39). Romulus understood that in order to institute laws that would wisely sustain the state, they needed to be on a foundation of religious observance. Yet Rome’s days under Romulus were far from pious or peaceful. Rather, war, expansion, and theft of the Sabine brides marked his tenure. And while this early barbarism, with shades of religion and piety, did well to secure and expand Rome externally, Rome would need a greater fear of the gods for it to remain internally stable. This was the contribution of Numa Pompilius.

Livy states that Numa “had a great reputation at this time for justice and piety” and was “deeply learned in all the laws of God and man” (51). Numa brought his attention to piety and law into the forefront of his wise administration of the state. As Livy claims, “Rome had originally been founded by force of arms; the new king now prepared to give the community a second beginning, this time on the solid basis of law and religious observance” (52). Now that Rome was at peace and war couldn’t be used as a means of keeping the “rough and ignorant” mob from vice, Numa sought to “inspire them with the fear of the gods” (52-53). He thus established religious rites, appointed priests, created holy days, and created many religious positions, including the pontifex who oversaw all religious observance. In this way, Numa instilled the customs and laws of Rome with a deep sense of piety.

The benefits of this can be seen most clearly in the sacredness of the Roman oath, which provided a greater motivation to virtue than even the law. For, as Livy explains, “they became so much absorbed in the cultivation of religion and so deeply imbued with the sense of their religious duties, that the sanctity of the oath had more power to control their lives than the fear of punishment for law breaking” (54). In many ways, this seems to illustrate Vico’s assertions that piety is essential in the formation of a wise state, if for nothing else that it provides the greatest motivation to virtue and order.

Livy notes how the state descended into war and partial disorder under Tullus (in part because of a plague and a few omens), and accordingly when Ancus Marius was chosen as the next ruler, he acknowledged Tullus’ “neglect or misconduct of religious observance” and sought to restore in Rome a greater attention to religion (69). As Livy’s overview of the early kings continues, he shows how the kingship turned corrupt and unjust, as evidenced by the impiety of the kings. His first example of Tarquin the Proud’s failure as king is in his refusal to give Servius the rite of burial—one of the most fundamental religious observances established by piety according to Vico (90). And instead of respecting the customs of the Romans and ruling by the assent of the Senate and the people, he instead governed “by the mere authority of himself and his household” (90). He furthermore secularized many places of worship (97).

It is not as if Tarquin the Proud abandoned all forms of piety, however. He built a temple to Jupiter, paid attention to augers, and conducted himself with a certain acknowledgment of the gods. Nonetheless, he and his household seems to have divorced piety from virtue and duty, as evidence by the rape of Lucretia and Tarquin’s refusal to punish his son for the most impious of acts. Lucretia, on the other hand, is held up as a figure of virtue and piety, going so far as to kill herself so that she would not “provide a precedent for unchaste women to escape what they deserve” (102). And with this act, she inspired the overthrow of the Tarquins and the establishment of the republic, and with it a renewal of general piety and religious devotion.

While such a brief overview of Livy’s account of the early history of Rome cannot serve as a proof of Vico’s thesis that without piety it is impossible to be wise, it nonetheless seems illustrative of this principle. While the formation of the city was complex, and while piety only functioned as part of what contributed to the wise ordering of Rome, Livy nonetheless illustrates that without piety, there would have been no ordered and virtuous Roman state. And one wonders if this supports Polybius’ concession that “the ancients were by no means acting foolishly or haphazardly when they introduced to the people various notions concerning the gods and belief in the punishments of hades, but rather that the moderns are foolish and take great risks in rejecting them” (349). One wonders if even today the same modern mentality has taken a great risk in rejecting piety and religion for the sake of secular mores.

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