|"Lucretia" by Bassano (16th/17th century)|
One sometimes encounters the notion that Christian values are foundational aspects of contemporary Western culture, but if this is so what happens when Westerners stop being Christians in large numbers? I have relatives who believe that within 3-5 generations without Christianity human behaviour will devolve into a hellscape, and fathers will start initiating their daughters into sex. I have total confidence that this will not happen (at least not commonly – such behaviour will continue to be regarded as aberrant and wicked). Not because I have confidence in any other particular moral code prevailing but because I suspect that most people have a gut instinct for what is fundamentally right and wrong, and that where that instinct is absent reason can fill in the gaps – absent other factors which may cause reason to lapse (such as rigid belief systems, psychological scarring, brain damage and general low intelligence – unfortunately all of these things are fairly common). What might ethics in a post-Christian world look like? Looking to European notions of virtue before Christianity prevailed may give us an idea, as may looking deeper into our own selves.
Ancient Roman polytheism was primarily concerned with the proper conduct of ritual rather than personal morality, but meritorious conduct was not entirely divorced from the realm of the religious, as Cicero lets us know in On the Laws. In that work people living in an ideal society are described in the following way:
“Let them worship deities … who have won a place in heaven through their merits, such as Hercules, Liber, Aesculapius, Castor, Pollux and Quirinus; and those qualities through which men may gain access to heaven – Mens <Mind>, Virtus <Virtue>, Pietas <Piety>, Fides <Faith>; of these virtues let there be shrines but none of any of the vices … Let sacrilege committed that cannot be expiated be deemed impious …Except for the servants of the Magna Mater – and they only on their fixed days – let no one beg for contributions. He who steals or takes away what is sacred or in trust in a public place, let him count as a parricide. For perjury the punishment is destruction from the Gods, shame from men. The pontifices [priests] shall punish incest with the capital penalty … Let them fulfil vows scrupulously … Let them treat their dead kinsfolk as divine. Let there be limits to expenditure and mourning for them [cited in Beard, North and Price, Vol 2, at 353-355]”.
From this we see that Cicero condemned begging, stealing, killing family members, lying under oath, incest, and excessive mourning rites. He praised:
- The healthy mind, ie, intelligence and mental courage.
- Piety, ie, unflinching devotion and loyalty to family, friends, country and Gods.
- Faithfulness, ie, trustworthiness and reliability.