Fathers, Let Us Shoulder Our Share of Piety
COMMENTARY: Lessons From ‘The Aeneid’ and St. Joseph
This Father’s Day is a day to reflect on fatherhood, but it is also a day to reflect on the mission we as fathers have been given as sons of our own fathers. One way to enter into such a reflection is by considering a work of literature written a few decades before Christ’s birth.
The ancient Roman poet Virgil (70-19 B.C.) wrote his greatest work, The Aeneid, to provide, in 12 “books” or chapters, a kind of backstory to the Roman Empire. The epic poem relates the story of Aeneas, a soldier fighting for the Trojans against the Greeks during the Trojan War; with defeat imminent, he is instructed by his mother, Venus — the Roman goddess of love — to flee Troy and to found a great city in a land across the Mediterranean Sea. That city is Rome. But instead of dashing off a bit of propaganda — an infomercial for empire — Virgil executed one of the crowning achievements of Western literature. Like all Great Books, The Aeneid is not exhausted after a single read. Again and again, readers return to it to discover more about what it means to be human.
For Catholic men, in particular, The Aeneid helps us understand what it means to be a father, a son and a man.
(In fact, this Father’s Day, Catholic men could do worse than ask for a copy of the poem as a gift. Three English translations from the original Latin — that of Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles* and Allen Mandelbaum — are each highly recommended.)
For among the questions that the poem raises, one in particular recurs throughout: In Aeneas’ travels and travails to found the city of Rome, why is the virtue of piety so necessary for his success?
The Aeneid has been more or less justly criticized as a derivative poem — Virgil makes no bones about borrowing many tropes and plot points from The Iliad and The Odyssey of Homer, his Greek predecessor in epic poetry. But Virgil’s poem survives, not because it is an ancient example of “fan fiction,” but because the poet was attempting to tell a different kind of story from that which Homer relates in his two epics.
It is a story that rings familiar to us when we read in the Gospels about that greatest of all earthly fathers, St. Joseph.
Consider: Both Aeneas and St. Joseph were instructed by the divine to flee home for parts unknown; in Aeneas’ case, Italy; in St. Joseph’s, Egypt. Both men were fierce protectors of their family and their faith — carrying family and faith with them into these strange and foreign lands. Both men also served as the means by which a kingdom was to be founded: In Aeneas’ case, that kingdom was the Roman Empire; for St. Joseph, it was the Kingdom of God, embodied in the Christ Child, of whom he served as guardian. They, too, took up their work and succeeded in their tasks because they each possessed the manly virtue of piety.
We may think of piety as a virtue for old women saying their beads after Mass or youngsters preparing to receive first Holy Communion.
But as Virgil shows us and the Church teaches, piety is a virtue essential for men to be fully men because it involves us, as men, in striving to honor those to whom we owe all we are and all we have.
As St. Thomas Aquinas notes, piety “pays duty and homage to our parents and our country, and to those who are related thereto,” adding that the virtue of religion is closely related to piety “as a protestation of faith, hope and charity, whereby man is primarily directed to God,” as “piety is a protestation of the charity we bear toward our parents and country.”
These two virtues, which the ancient Romans would consider under the single term pietas, are essential for fatherhood. For inherent in any understanding of the virtue is a sense of sacrifice — the understanding that no matter how hard we strive we will never receive a full return on our investment, at least in this world.
And, as any father can attest, to learn sacrifice is to learn fatherhood and learn it well. Indeed, as Joseph Pieper notes, piety “depends on something being due a person which of its very nature cannot be fully repaid. Piety, likewise, is a tendency of the soul which can be fully realized only if man sees himself as the partner in an obligation which can never be truly and fully acquitted, no matter how great the counterservice rendered.”
While we may look to St. Joseph as a premier example of this virtue among Christian saints, we can also benefit from examining how Aeneas, as a righteous man, helps us understand this virtue (while also enjoying a terrific adventure story).
At the end of Book II of the poem, Aeneas is making his way out of the burning city of Troy — now overrun with enraged Greeks seeking their revenge at the end of the nasty 10-year Trojan War.
In one of the most memorable passages in the poem, Aeneas looks back on his burning homeland, holding his son, Ascanius, by the hand and bearing on his shoulders his aged father, Anichises, who cradles in his own hands “the hearth-gods … our fathers’ sacred vessels.”
In this one passage, we see Aeneas bearing his father, his son and the holy spirits who have blessed his home and rescuing them all from destruction. But pious Aeneas knows his duty, and he is determined to do it. “This labor of love/will never wear me down,” he proclaims to his father as he prepares for a voyage to the new land that the gods have promised will become the greatest kingdom on earth:
And I launch out in tears and desert our native land,
the old safe haven, the plains where Troy once stood.
So I take to the open sea, an exile outward bound
with son and comrades, gods of hearth and home
and the great gods themselves.
In each generation, like Aeneas, sons must be prepared to carry their fathers on their shoulders and with them, God, out of the burning cities of this world and, quite literally, into kingdom come.
In Aeneas’ case, that kingdom was Rome, which was the whole point of Virgil’s poem — that only a man of piety, recognizing the need to shoulder the burden of family and tradition, could so found an eternal city. For Catholic men, as adopted sons of God, the task is the same — and yet more so. For we, too, must be ready to establish in our own homes an eternal city — not Rome, but the kingdom of God — so that we, too, may fulfill our ultimate duty as fathers by bringing our families with us to that same eternal city. Thomas Aquinas notes that the title “father” first and foremost belongs to God — and to men in a less perfect sense, “since all imperfect things are taken from perfect things. Hence this name ‘lion’ is applied first to the animal containing the whole nature of a lion, and which is properly so called, before it is applied to a man who shows something of a lion’s nature, as courage, or strength, or the like; and of whom it is said by way of similitude.”
So, as Thomas indicates, it is no platitude to say that fathers, especially Catholic fathers, must be Godlike — both through our baptism and through our fatherhood. In particular, according to Father Lawrence Lovasik, quoting Thomas Aquinas, in his book on Catholic parenting, our fatherhood is expressed in three ways: “The father according to the flesh has in a particular way a share in that principle which is in a manner universal found in God. … The father is the principle of generation, of education and discipline.” Our current culture seeks to undermine fatherhood as extraneous to all three of these principles. Fathers are seen, at best, as material donors but otherwise accidental to the family unit and, at worst, as a manifestation of “toxic masculinity” who in any case have no business serving as models of virtue to their children. But as men, this Father’s Day, let us, like Aeneas, hoist our fathers and our God (and the cross he promises each of us) upon our shoulders, take our children by the hand, and continue the work that Christ first began — work which was first asked of him by his own Father.
(* All quotations from
The Aeneid are taken from the Robert Fagles translation.)