I woke this morning and checked my twitter account (@williamblumberg) to find that a major earthquake occurred near Japan and that a tsunami had already impacted some coastal areas in Japan. My heart goes out to all those affected by this natural disaster. One place for information is the American Red Cross Disaster Online newsroom. You can also make donations there too. Having volunteered with the American Red Cross for five years, I am happy to support them but please know that there are many good places to donate if you so wish.
This brings me to my topic today: taking action as a means of piety for Pagans. The Pagan Blog at Patheos has offered “Praying for the Pacific.” Thanks Star Foster for offering an Homeric Hymn to Poseidon (I think it was the Hugh G. Evelyn-White Hesiod, The Hymns and Homerica, translation from the Loeb Classical Library). Star took an action that I think constitutes a pious act. Let’s look at one of the most famous explorations of piety in Plato’s Euthyphro.
Plato has Socrates and Euthyphro try five definitions of piety, including the reworking of some. They are what Euthyphro is doing now (5d), is that which is dear to the gods (6e); what the gods approve (9e); Socrates’ definition which is a rework of the last one where what the gods love is pious and hate impious or (12d); looking after the gods (13b); or form of commerce (14e). See Thomas C. Brickhouse and Nicholas D. Smith’s Plato’s Socrates and Mark L. McPherran’s The Religion of Socrates for a robust development of piety for Socrates and Plato.
So when we offer a hymn or prayer to the gods, is it because that is what we should be doing; the gods holds dear, what they love, are we looking after the gods, or engaging in a form of commerce by giving the gods what they want and getting what we want from them? Here is my very Pagan Humanist view: I do not know because I do not understand the nature of the gods (this idea will need to wait for another blog posting). I think there is much hubris in claims about knowing the gods. What I am left with is understanding piety in human terms. So is making an offering to the gods being pious? Yes, it is about creating right relations and that include the gods even if I am unsure about their nature. Nor would I want to limit what are right relations are because of its complexity. To provide simple one line definition to any complex human interaction, such as piety, is subject to difficulty. Socrates (well the way Plato tells the story) attempted this and ending up with wanting to return to the very beginning of the conversation with Euthyphro by the end of the dialog to begin again this search for what is piety. Philosophers often offer good questions but not always good answers because the world is often more complex than one answer.
In my study of piety and Paganism, I still do not have nor do I think I will come across a simple answer to specifically what is piety. As best as I can, right now, I will hold to this general sense that piety is building right relationships with deity, nature, people, and one’s self.