What do I owe?

In The Liberal Arts Tradition, Clark and Jain have chosen the word “piety” to represent the beginning of their classical paradigm. They know this isn’t a popular choice (“Piety is a word nearly lost on our contemporary culture.”), but it represents a vital aspect of the liberal arts tradition that truly underpins all the rest. This is how they define it:

Piety signifies the duty, love, and respect owed to God, parents, and communal authorities past and present.

I know I sound like a broken record (if you remember what that sounded like), but doesn’t that remind you of Charlotte Mason?

Have we then no rights ourselves, and have other people no duties towards us? We have indeed rights, precisely the same rights as other people, and when we learn to think of ourselves as one of the rest, with just the same rights as other people and no more, to whom others owe just such duties as we owe to them and no more, we shall, as it were, get our lives in focus and see things as they are. (Ourselves, Book I, p. 139)

The motto of the PNEU was “I am, I can, I ought, I will.” That word “ought” is the same as the word “owe”— we owe something—duty, respect, obedience, reverence—to our family, friends, country, and God. Charlotte Mason didn’t use the word “piety” often, but never doubt that it was foundational to all that she hoped her educational methods would accomplish. Without it, life becomes a cramped and selfish business.

Why do we not all honour one another? Because our vision is blinded by a graven image of ourselves. We are so taken up with thinking about ourselves that we cannot see the beauty in those about us, though we may be able to admire people removed from us. Conceit and self-absorption are the Dæmons which hinder us from giving that honour to all men which is their due. (Ourselves, p. 147)

When I see that Charlotte Mason criticized her own culture for conceit and self-absorption (which hinder piety/respect toward others) I positively quail. What would she think about ours? Clark and Jain discuss piety at length, and link it to love, which I find very interesting. Linking duty and love reminds me of the way that Charlotte Mason links justice and love, which I believe is a distinctly Augustinian point of view (at least, that’s where I remember encountering that particular pairing—there might be another source).

They write:

If piety shapes who we are and orders our loves, then it clearly affects one’s relationships and actions.

This takes the form of good manners, among other things. Jain and Clark suggest that the “culture” of a school educates a child in these things, as much as any curriculum, which puts me in mind of “education is an atmosphere.” Some things are better “caught” than “taught,” and piety is probably one of them.

Very few educators begin the approach to education with anything like piety. This is a bold and brave thing to put forth in the 21st century. The authors lament that, “Modern civilization, having lost all sense of obligation, is brought up against the fact that it does not know what is due to anything.”

If you’re a Charlotte Mason educator or if the classical tradition is important to you, you won’t be letting your students continue in that ignorance. Piety. Duty. Reverence. We have to walk in that path ourselves if we expect our students to find the way.

Charlotte Mason said that man who knows his duty and does it has integrity—that is, he is integrated—he is a whole man. A man with piety?

He has said to himself, ‘I owe it to my parents’—or my teachers, or my employers—‘to do this thing as well and as quickly as I can; what is more, I owe it to myself.’ (Ourselves, p. 170)

If you want to know more about piety in The Liberal Arts Tradition, you won’t want to miss Brandy’s thoughts about it at Afterthoughts.

5 thoughts on “What do I owe?

  1. Appreciate that you are narrating through this. I saw your post on Schole forum and thought to just comment here. One thought on piety as the “beginning of the classical paradigm”is the contrast with what we see in Genesis 3:6 where Eve sees “a tree to be desired to make one wise.”

    1. What exactly is the contrast here? I’m not being altogether thorough in my blogging–just touching on what catches my interest. I haven’t mentioned their acronym “PGMAPT” which stands for piety, gymnastic, music, arts, philosophy, and theology, which is described as “the context for the classical curriculum.” My words are “the beginning of the classical paradigm” but I’m at a loss to see the contrast with the tree of knowledge. Although bringing in Genesis makes me think of Milton’s contention that the end of learning is to “repair the ruins of our first parents by regaining to know God aright and out of that knowledge to love him, to imitate him, to be like him.”

      1. It was past my bedtime when I posted that last night, so contrast is probably the wrong word. That was merely the thought that came to my mind when I read the part about piety as pertaining to learning. Also, I am still trying to process what I’ve read in the book so far.

        In my own thoughts, Eve seeing the tree as a way to knowledge was not “pious” in the sense of what my Oxford dictionary defines it in the 1. devoutly religious. When the authors speak of piety, I take that they mean this first definition rather than 2 and 3. So, when the authors call us to piety first, it is, to me, a call to first have a reverent, spiritual, God seeking attitude in our quest. Not to be as Eve seeking a self- centred fast track to knowledge. If that makes sense.

        I thought I should probably elaborate on that last night, but was too tired.

        1. If it makes you feel any better, my husband understood your point. He said “Eve wasn’t pious.” And then I figured it out. 😀 But yes–having that right attitude toward authority (what I mean by humility, more or less, in Consider This) is a better starting place than “I want to know everything!” So, my Milton quote is actually on-point. 🙂

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