Piety? Who Needs Piety?

“What do you think you’re doing!” cried the great scientist to the soldier, as he leaned over his tracings in the sand. The soldier — who had no idea who the man was, and how much his commander wanted him alive — slew him on the spot.
Had his world needed the works of his restless mind, the great Archimedes might now be hailed as the inventor of modern science, and the industrial revolution might have taken place 2,000 years ago. He came within an eyelash, in The Sand Reckoner, of inventing the calculus. He needed only the intellectual fiction of Newton’s infinitesimal, and the convenient bookkeeping of Arabic numerals.
The Greek states succeeding Alexander the Great were constantly embroiled in wars with one another, so the rulers of Syracuse sought assistance from technology, and Archimedes was available to invent machines for ballistics — literally, for hurling things around, like rocks from cranked-up catapults. The Mediterranean peoples always needed ways to get at scarce supplies of fresh water, so Archimedes perfected an idea of the Egyptians: a drill or screw whose inclined planes “pull” the water up as the levers of the screw are turned roundabout.
It is to Archimedes, too, that we owe our exclamation, “Eureka!” Plutarch tells the story of how the law of displacement of fluids came to Archimedes in his bath, whereupon he ran out into the streets naked and shouting in triumph. The law explains why a maple log might sink, but a ship made out of the same logs can float. Though Mediterranean man had long been sailing the sea, even unto farthest Britain, Archimedes must have suspected that his discovery could yet be put to practical use.
But he didn’t invent the calculus, and there was no technological revolution. Indeed, during the Hellenistic period and then during the age of the Roman Empire, technological development was slow. A few bright spots there were, unquestionably. Since the Romans had large and thirsty cities, they built aqueducts, perfecting the arch as a weight-distributing device both practical and handsome. They built roads across which their armies, their merchants, and their well-to-do citizens could ride with ease. They invented various recipes for concrete, depending on what you needed to do with it — including one most useful form that would set up under water, for the piers of bridges. Then, for those same piers, you would need equipment to move earth that no number of men together could budge. Hence that still-necessary monster, the pile driver.
Still, there was no revolution — because there was no need for it. Slavery retarded it. That’s not because ancient slavery was unjust. It was unjust — even though some slaves were old and beloved family retainers, and others, particularly learned Greeks, rose to positions of great influence in imperial affairs. It was simply because slavery removed the immediate necessity for invention. Why ply your wits to discover how to shuck corn with a rotary blade and a crank — tools that the Romans certainly had the wherewithal to fashion — when a cheap slave can do it right away, without the start-up cost of intellectual labor? Only much later, after the Christian monks had removed the stigma against manual work and had established self-sufficient outposts of culture — intellectual culture, and the older kind that requires digging — in heavy-soiled Germany and rainy Ireland, did technological development return, slowly and steadily.
Meanwhile, in areas ravaged by Viking raiders and pagan inroads from the north and east, the old culture was so disrupted that some areas lost the know-how they had preserved for many generations. I am told that in at least one European backwater, the people literally had to reinvent the wheel.
One thing that slavery did, at least in Greece, was to give the male citizen a great deal of free time. I don’t mean idle time; the Greek youth was expected to spend his days at the gymnasium, in training for strength of body and mind. He was to be prepared to take his place in the army and the assembly, and given Greek quarrelsomeness, there was always going to be something to fight or argue about. Unless he wanted to be rejected as worthless and effeminate, he had to enter fully into the Greek civic life, and that meant, in Athens and in many other cities, the vigorous investigation of what a truly just city looks like, and how the laws can be devised in harmony with the nature of man. In other words, with the cities of the Peloponnese and Thessaly and Ionia all vying for preeminence and all aware of and communicating with one another, philosophical investigation and artistic creation became felt necessities. Pericles wasn’t simply being a booster for Athens when he boasted that only there could a man fully appreciate the glory of being a man, and free.
It is one of the silliest errors of modernity to suppose that technological, intellectual, and moral progress all move forward as inevitably as the hands of a clock. Call it Darwin’s Revenge. A glance at history shows it isn’t so. Even technological advances can be and have been lost, nor do we need to return to the rough centuries of early serfdom to see it. Why do pieces of antique furniture demand so high a premium? Think of the intricate dovetailing of a Mennonite chair. What unnamed artisans everywhere in the Western world made for their neighbors, now only a few craftsmen who specialize in old tools and old techniques can replicate. 
One small town in Italy was responsible for fashioning the finest violins in the history of the world. The techniques for their manufacture — and I mean that literally; they were made by hand and hand-held tool — were passed from one generation to the next. To this day, if you are a virtuoso violinist, you need a Stradivarius. The best we can do now is to analyze and replicate, but not really duplicate, the old violins.
Old tools are often replaced by better tools, but not always. If, then, the history of tools, of those good earthy things you can see and grasp and swing and hammer, is not one of uninterrupted progress, then certainly the history of the intellect and of culture, of ideas you can barely glimpse and fumble for and struggle to apply and keep nailed in place, or of habits that require the uninterrupted handing-on through the generations, admits of some breathtaking collapses. The necessity or capacity to preserve them, and the genuinely free time to consider them and deepen them, may be lacking.{mospagebreak}
Let me give a couple of examples. In the Middle Ages, poets believed that their linguistic creations were to reflect, in their architectonic organization, the beauty and harmony of the universe of space and time fashioned by the Word, for God created “in measure, weight, and number.” They developed the habit — a cultural idea, we may say, or a poetic technology — of dividing and subdividing their works in angelically clever ways. So Dante builds his trinitarian Comedy in three-line blocks of poetry, organized into three canticles, with the perfect square of 100 cantos in all. That’s just for starters. It would require a dissertation to analyze Dante’s poetic mathematics, but the point is that everybody after Dante noticed what he was doing and went and did likewise. Petrarch’s Canzoniere is made up of 366 poems of various sorts, organized both biographically and according to the major feasts of the Church year, particularly Easter and Christmas. Boccaccio’s Decameron is a comic reprise and riposte to Dante, made up of 100 stories, or, if one counts them differently, 101, told by ten young people: seven women and three men. 

Even in the Renaissance, after the artists and architects had forgotten the numerology of the Medieval cathedrals — now for the first time called “Gothic,” meaning “fit for barbarians from the north” — the poets did not forget. Edmund Spenser’s Epithalamion, for instance, invites the reader and all the rest of creation to help him celebrate, in 24 stanzas, his wedding day on the summer solstice in Ireland, in a poem with 365 long lines and 68 short lines (corresponding to 52 weeks plus 12 months plus 4 seasons). And at exactly the point at which, at that latitude, the sun sets on Saint Barnabas’s day, Spenser writes that the day is done — and the poem shifts from merrymaking to the solemn joys of the couple in their room, alone with one another, yet watched over by angels and saints.
Spenser was not the last person to write “mathematically.” But some time after the upheavals of the Thirty Years’ War, and the revolution of Cromwell and the Restoration of the monarchy, English poets lost that habit. Let me be clear as to how utterly it was lost. It wasn’t that the poets thought it old-fashioned and turned to other techniques. It wasn’t even that they could no longer write in such a way. It was more: They had forgotten that anyone ever had done it, and had forgotten it so utterly, that only the research of modern scholars has unearthed it again.
A similar wave of oblivion has washed over English poetry in the last century. Poetry used to include any number of genres: epic, narrative, conversation, dramatic monologue, ode, and lyric. For the most part, with a few scattered exceptions, only the lyric now survives. The older poems might be written in any number of meters, reflecting poetry’s birth in ritual song; but finally the printed word, cheaply available, made the musical element in poetry seem not worth the trouble, and so free verse has won the field. True, there are poets who still write in English’s signature meter, iambic pentameter, but the fine details of the craft of that meter have fallen out of memory. Nor is there any pressing necessity to remember. Free verse is too easy to write badly, and, when everybody else is “sculpting” shapeless masses of iron, even an indifferently realized nude will appear to have come from the chisel of Donatello.
Etienne Gilson has argued that the concept of an “act of being” and its relation to God’s existence was so difficult for the human mind to arrive at and to hold that the decline from Thomas Aquinas was, though most unfortunate for the development of philosophy and theology, almost inevitable. For wisdom, unlike technology, does not produce a tool that can lie in a closet and be taken in hand years later. Its “products” are insights that dwell within the mind and heart; they must be won again and again, by each fresh mind coming to climb the summit of contemplation, and only then can they be commented upon or perfected or deepened.
Too rarefied an example? Then descend to the grit and mire of politics, for that too depends upon insights into human nature (these, though, revealed by close observation and study of history) that must be arrived at again and again to be genuinely understood. It is astonishing to read the public, open-air debates of Lincoln and Douglas, not only for what those pioneers in Illinois apparently could understand and demanded from their candidates, but for what our ever-working, ever-idling generations cannot understand. For if anyone were to come calling for our vote, speaking like Lincoln or Douglas — or Madison or Jefferson or any of the Adamses from Samuel to Henry — we would shut our doors upon him in suspicion and incomprehension.
The art of political rhetoric is lost, as the art of the self-governing town is lost. We don’t need it — we are fat enough and rich enough without it, and no hailstorms or Indian uprisings are going to threaten that fatness. We have the forms (mayor, town council, and constabulary) but without the substance, the deep and subtle cultural habits, that sustained the forms in the first place.
If that is still too elevated an example, consider then the vacant lot. It is now at last truly vacant. The children who once teemed (and teamed!) there lack both the opportunity and the need to do so. They are herded like sheep into school, and the video game gives them their quick gratification otherwise. I do not simply mean that children no longer play baseball. I mean much more: they have in large part forgotten how to play, baseball or anything else. The games that children invented in their free but hardly idle time, without encouragement from adults, and passed along unbroken from one generation to the next, have vanished. The whip has been cracked. If you can remember only five or six ways to play baseball, or two or three things to do with a ball and bat when you don’t have enough men to play a genuine game — if “pepper” is just something you sprinkle on your French fries — then you are on the downslope of the age of forgetting.
Whether we are still in a time of technological advancement, and how far and how dangerously our tools may be outstripping our moral advancement, if there be any net moral advancement, I am not certain. We don’t keep slaves anymore, but we do suffer the false benefits of slavery: the tawdry and the cheap everywhere, along with the devastating shift from art to mass entertainment, causing us to forget not only what our own popular culture once was like — the many thousands of people, for example, who played their own music untaught, even crafting their own musical instruments, bestowing upon us the cultural heritage that came to full flower in ragtime and swing and jazz — but what any truly popular culture is like. So I have heard people say that video games are part of the popular culture. By that definition, so is McDonald’s.
Instead, I should like to ask what lessons these sporadic flourishings and declines suggest about popular piety. For piety is practical wisdom for the people. It may well not attain the rare mountaintop scaled by Augustine or Bernard, but it benefits from those conquests; and, as wisdom, it too must be attained again and again, by each generation, to be made vital. It too, then, may be forgotten. Nor do I simply mean that a generation may leave off fasting. I mean that they will forget how to fast;they will lose the use of that tool of piety, forgetting why anyone would ever have wanted to fast in the first place.
I hold no brief in the doctrinal and ecclesiological controversies surrounding the Latin Mass. I am neither a cheerleader for, nor a hardened opponent of, the documents produced by the Second Vatican Council. I merely wish to observe, from an anthropological point of view, that if the task of the council was to enliven popular piety by recalling its substance, by reaching behind the forms, then even its supporters must concede that the success was spotty. {mospagebreak}
For the fathers of the council did not see that they could not have undertaken their task in a less promising time. They mistook the signs of that time. They thought that they had to scale again the promontory of wisdom, to renew for the people of their day the insights into a truth that is from everlasting. But they could not see that those same people were rapidly forgetting what it means to remember; the age was not replacing one culture with another, but culture itself with nothing, with the anarchy of individual choice, which becomes little more than the managed chaos of mass entertainment and humanly pointless work. For we were finally rich enough to afford the ceaseless idleness of a hamster on his wheel.
In such a time, the task was not to enculturate the Church, because there would in fact be no culture for the Church to leaven. It was to preserve, by and in the Church, the precious memory of culture itself.
It should be clear that, even with the most generous construction of events, the Church did no such thing. As often as not, she joined the corrosive anti-culture about her in a faddish primitivism and infantilism — Kumbaya, anyone? — and for every genuine “tool” of piety she uncovered for glorious display, like the fire at the Easter Vigil and the Exsultet, she threw away ten.
Gone, then, are not only the great marble altars of the sanctuary, but the very idea of a sanctuary, the insight into what it means to be a holy place, and why people would ever build such magnificent altars to bless it in the first place. Gone, too, are not only the calendars denoting with red letters and fish-symbols and strange Latin titles the stately march of the Church year, but also the very idea that liturgical and sacred time is the true time, to which the secular time must conform. Gone are not only the saints in their striking peculiarity, the happy popular homeliness of a saint for every malady from a sore throat to cancer, and for every good from the finding of a key to a happy death, but the very idea of personal and peculiar sanctity, and the call of every Christian to become not just a saint, but this saint, so ordained in the providence of God.
We have not forgotten entirely how to pray. We could never forget that, so long as we remain human, and so long as we retain the traces of the word of God, still visible beneath the fog of bad translation. But we are like artisans who can carve wood with a knife, but not with a chisel. We have fewer tools than we should have, and we have forgotten what can be done with them. The new “prayers” composed by the liturginators of our day read like office notes, or like points in a political commercial: “Memo to God: more vocations needed.”
It is not simply that the prayers are banal, but that we are banal. Were we to encounter the full-hearted prayers composed by men of old, we would be as incomprehending as the first barbarian Gauls were when they stumbled into Rome, or as the native Americans were when they first saw the English ink-marks that spoke, or as we would be if we were to stand over the shoulder of Daniel Webster and read his classically modulated prose in defense of the Union. Our knees are creaky, and we don’t bend them as often as we should. But we would bend them more often, if only we could remember how and why.
There is a craftsmanship in the practice of the faith, an art in popular piety. In this sphere, as in almost all other endeavors in our time, the art has been largely lost. Why cook when McDonald’s is down the road? Why learn to play Bach, or even to listen to Bach, when Britney Spears is, in more than one sense of the word, so easy? Why hunt down a field and the equipment and the boys to play ball, and why invent rules to adapt the game to the lie of the land, when a cheap thrill is a click of the finger away?
So then, why endure the spiritual ascesis of the early Church, when you can buy your spiritual high on the cheap at a local bookstore? Why master the art of solitude? Why aspire to purity? Why struggle to understand “consubstantial with the Father”? Why insist even upon that now difficult and defiant title, “Father”?
The Church snores like a dragon upon her hoard of spiritual riches. The dragons of old, knowing neither art nor culture, did not make the gold rings and silver sword-belts they slept upon, nor did they know how to use them. But no self-respecting dragon would toss a piece of treasure away, and if anyone should steal into her cave and filch one of them, she would breathe fire. It is a kind of respiratory loyalty that I wish the Church — who is not a dragon, and who used to know a little art and culture, not to mention a little about who God is and why we should approach Him with filial fear and love — would remember.
But we will only remember if we are persuaded that the remembering is urgent. And it will not be urgent, so long as we are fat and happy sheep, certain of God’s good pleasure no matter how we live. Archimedes and the Syracusans had enemies at the gates. We would have them too, but we’ve invited them inside. I’m not saying that fear of destruction should be the only spur to our piety. But such as we are, we need it.

Anthony Esolen is a professor of English at Providence College and a contributing editor for Touchstone magazine. He has translated and edited Dante’s Divine Comedy, in three volumes, for Modern Library (Random House).

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