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Pietas - foundations of counterculture

By Sarah Flynn-O'Dea - posted Tuesday, 12 July 2022

As we began our study of The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark and Ravi Scott Jain last month it became clear from the first chapter that what was being suggested as a precursor to classical education was a principle that is fundamentally countercultural.

It is my second reading of the book and I must admit that the first time around I was far more interested in getting to what I considered the 'meat' of the 7 liberal arts than pondering on these opening chapters. They were unexpected and somewhat of an inconvenience to my preconceived notions of what the book was supposed to be about, the trivium and quadrivium.

However, a closer reading this time around led me to some rather illuminating insights that go a long way to answering some of my concerns about how Classical education can be promoted successfully, or more importantly what cultural barriers may impede it.


Of course the most glaring difficulty is the pre-eminence of scientific rationalism, that has tended to write the importance of narrative, imagination, emotion and transcendental truths out of human culture. Within this context Clark and Jain introduce the principal of piety or pietas in the latin as a foundational cultural force that provided a fertile soil in which the liberal arts tradition was able to flourish.

Current understandings of the term 'piety' have connotations of moralistic superiority and dare I say a 'Handmaid's Tale' image to be feared and avoided. However, for the pre-Christian Greek and Romans, from whom the term is passed, it was a cultural glue that pointed one's attention away from service of self toward service of family, community, country and gods.

In the book authors Clark and Jain quote author Russell Kirk in his discussion of Roman statesman Cicero:

A man was pious who gave the gods their due, through worship and sacrifice; who honoured his father and mother, and indeed all his ancestors; who stood by his friends; who was ready to die, if need be for his country. A pious man, that is, submitted himself t things sacred, and believed unflinchingly that it was better to perish than to fail in his sacred duties. A society held together by such a cementing belief would offer strong resistance to forces of disintegration.

For anyone who is paying attention, the forces of disintegration are well underway in the modern West. Education is one particular manifestation of this in terms of rising school disengagement, mental health issues and declining academic standards (PISA report 2019 notes Australian 15yo reading comprehension is around a year behind compared to 2000). Interest in Classical education is growing in Australia as a potential response to this crisis and it is vital to consider the cultural context, the atmosphere, not merely the mechanics, of this paradigm.

Character and moral formation are often viewed as centrally important aspects of Christian schooling and provide one context for conceptualising the correct cultural atmosphere for Classical education. Pietas is this but more. Clark and Jain sum up the principle in Christ's words in Matthew 22:37-39, "love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul and all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself." Simple to say, hard to realise.


The call for educators then is the imperative that all that we do must be done with a deep sense of love and service; the glue that binds communities together and restrains selfish ambition. Love then, as the crowning theological virtue, is key to moral formation, community formation and the pursuit of pietas. The ordering of principles in Clark and Jain's book that places pietas first clearly signals that we are called first to the establishment of a culture of Christian love in our professional communities and households in order to model this type of community to our young people.

In this way, the principle of pietas, provides the opportunity to contemplate and prioritise a sense of the sacred in our relationships and communities. It points us toward, rhythms of practice that welcome God moments into our days and our work, regardless of our curriculum goals, best practices, our reading lists and meeting agendas.

Pietas may well be the key to avoiding what has been labelled 'neo-classical' mistakes in the U.S. Where there is a form of classical education that has failed to embrace Christ's call to love. A form of Godliness without recognising the true source of that power (logos). Some so-called neo-classical models have become classical in name but in reality are more of a 'classical wash' over a progressive worldview.

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This article was first published on Logos Australis.

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About the Author

Sarah Flynn-O'Dea is a Queensland teacher and the founder of Logos Australis.

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All articles by Sarah Flynn-O'Dea

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