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Reverence is an ancient virtue that survives among us in halfforgotten patterns of civility, in moments of inarticulateawe, and in nostalgia for the lost ways of traditional cultures. Wehave the word "reverence" in our language, but we scarcely knowhow to use it. Right now it has no place in secular discussions ofethics or political theory. Even more surprisingly, reverence ismissing from modern discussions of the ancient cultures thatprized it.
Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations;from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever webelieve lies outside our controlGod, truth, justice, nature,even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it thecapacity for respecting fellow human beings, flaws and all. Thisin turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moralflaws exceeding the normal human allotment. The Greeksbefore Plato saw reverence as one of the bulwarks of society,and the immediate followers of Confucius in China thoughtmuch the same. Both groups wanted to see reverence in theirleaders, because reverence is the virtue that keeps leaders fromtrying to take tight control of other people's lives. Simply put,reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying toact like gods.
To forget that you are only human, to think you can act like agodthis is the opposite of reverence. Ancient Greeks thoughtthat tyranny was the height of irreverence, and they gave thefamous name of hubris to the crimes of tyrants. An irreverentsoul is arrogant andshameless, unable to feel awe in the face ofthings higher than itself. As a result, an irreverent soul isunable to feel respect for people it sees as lower than itselfordinarypeople, prisoners, children. The two failures gotogether, in both Greek and Chinese traditions. If an emperorhas a sense of awe, this will remind him that Heaven is hissuperiorthat he is, as they said in ancient China, the Son ofHeaven. And any of us is better for remembering that there issomeone, or Someone, to whom we are children; in this frameof mind we are more likely to treat all children with respect.And vice versa: If you cannot bring yourself to respect children,you are probably deficient in the ability to feel that anyone oranything is higher than you.
Reverence has more to do with politics than with religion. Wecan easily imagine religion without reverence; we see it, forexample, wherever religion leads people into aggressive war orviolence. But power without reverencethat is a catastrophe forall concerned. Power without reverence is aflame with arrogance,while service without reverence is smoldering towardrebellion. Politics without reverence is blind to the general goodand deaf to advice from people who are powerless. And life withoutreverence? Entirely without reverence? That would bebrutish and selfish, and it had best be lived alone.
It is a natural mistake to think that reverence belongs to religion.It belongs, rather, to community. Wherever people try toact together, they hedge themselves around with some form ofceremony or good manners, and the observance of this can be anact of reverence. Reverence lies behind civility and all of thegraces that make life in society bearable and pleasant. But in ourtime we hear more praise of irreverence than we do of reverence,especially in the media. That is because we naturally delight inmockery and we love making fun of solemn things. It is notbecause, in our heart of hearts, we despise reverence. In my view,the media are using the word "irreverent" for qualities that arenot irreverent at all. A better way to say what they have in mindwould be "bold, boisterous, unrefined, unimpressed by pretension"allgood things. Reverence is compatible with these andwith almost every form of mockery. The one great westernphilosopher who praises reverence is Nietzsche, who is also themost given to mockery. Reverence and a keen eye for the ridiculousare allies: both keep people from being pompous or stuckup. So don't think that this book is an attack on laughter. Farfrom it.
Another easy mistake to make about reverence is to confuse itwith respect. Respect is sometimes good and sometimes bad,sometimes wise and sometimes silly. It is silly to respect thepratings of a pompous fool; it is wise to respect the intelligenceof any student. Reverence calls for respect only when respect isreally the right attitude. To pay respect to a tyrant would not bereverent; it would be weak and cowardly. The most reverentresponse to a tyrant is to mock him. All of this is because reverenceis a kind of virtue. A virtue is a capacity to do what is right,and what is right in a given casesay, respect or mockery for anauthority figuredepends on many things.
Reverence is one of the strengths in any good person's character.Such strengths are called "virtues," and the study of virtuesforms an important branch of ethics. Virtue ethics makes astrong assumption: that some people are better than othersbecause they have greater strengths of characterstrongervirtues, in other words. Virtues are sources of good behavior.Moral rules and laws set standards for doing right, but there isnothing about a rule that makes you feel like following it. In fact,there is something about many rules that makes most people feellike breaking them. According to virtue ethics, a good person isone who feels like doing what is right. People who do good areaware of moral rules, but so are people who do bad. The differenceis virtue. Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt usto behave well. Virtue ethics takes feelings seriously because feelingsaffect our lives more deeply than beliefs do.
Virtue ethics holds that you learn a virtue as your capacity forfeelings is attuned over years of experience. You may learn rulesintellectually, and therefore you may learn or forget them veryquickly. But virtues are habits of feeling, and these are muchharder to learn or to forget. A fine violin that has not beenplayed for many years will not stay in tune, and when it is firstplayed it will have an ugly sound. A superior instrument must beplayed well, year after year, for it to sound beautiful. So it is withmoral character. You may have as good equipment as anyone, butif your feelings have not been well played upon over the years,you will not stay in tune, and you will not respond well to life'schallenges.
Virtues grow in us through being used, and they are usedmainly by people living or working together. A family developscommon virtues by the way its members live together, a teamby the way its members play together, and so on. If you aresurrounded by vice, you will find it hard to stay in tune withvirtue. By the same token, a team or family will find it hard tocultivate virtues unless every member helps. Virtue ethics,then, deals with strengths that people develop in communities.Communities, in turn, depend on the strengths of theirmembers.
I am interested in the virtues we should be cultivating today,as I write. But I begin my work from two classic models, oneancient Greek, and the other ancient Chinese, because of theirclarity, their beauty, and their apparent difference from eachother. These two ancient civilizations were set too far apart tohave had any communication (unlike India, which had earlycommunication with both). If we find a common thread inGreek and Chinese ideals, we should take it seriously. It may wellturn out to be a kind of thread that any society needs if it is tosew itself into an enduring shape. If so, reverence is a cardinalvirtue, like justice or courage, and not the particular property ofthis culture or that. I don't think we should imitate ancientGreek or Chinese culture, but I believe we are better off forstudying them. Both peoples cared deeply and thought longabout the meaning of ceremonies in the texture of their religiousand political lives, and in this meaning they saw the deeper valueof reverence.
We have ceremonies in our own time too, but we try not tothink about what they mean. In fact, I believe reverence givesmeaning to much that we do, yet the word has almost passedout of our vocabulary. Because we do not understand reverence,we don't really know what we are doing in much of our lives,and therefore we are in no position to think about how to do itbetter.
Reverence compels me to confess that I do not know exactlywhat reverence is. I can't do any better for justice or courage orwisdom, though I have a pretty good idea in each case. Takecourage. I would say that courage is a well-developed capacity forfeeling confidence and fear in the right places, at the right times,and in the right degrees of intensity; that is, courage lies somewherebetween fearlessness (which often looks like courage) andtimidity (which no one would mistake for courage). Thisaccount of courage has a grand historyit comes from Aristotlebutis hardly a complete definition. I would call it a definition-schemasomethinglike a form full of blanks that we needto fill in as best we can, after life experience and critical reflection.The schema for courage tells us that we can't go wrong bybeing courageous, but it does not tell us how to be courageous. Itpoints to a distinction between courage and fearlessness, but itdoes not spell out the difference between themaside from theobvious point that one is always good while the other can go toofar. Before filling in the blanks in the schema we would need toknow the difference between right and wrong. That looks easyenough in some cases, but it seems to call for divine wisdom inothers.
I cannot claim divine wisdom, and so I cannot offer a fullaccount of any of the virtues, least of all reverence. My schemafor reverence looks like this: Reverence is the well-developedcapacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame whenthese are the right feelings to have. This says that reverence is agood thing, but not much more, except by pointing to furtherquestions. Sometimes it is right to be respectful and sometimeswrong; that's obvious. Sometimes our feelings should rise to thelevel of awe, but not always. So when should we be respectful,and how deep should our respect be in each case? Of whatshould we be in awe? No capsule definition will tell you. Nor canany human wisdom give you a complete and final answer. Thebest answer I can give is this book.
Some writers use the words "reverence" and "respect" as synonyms,but these words are not synonyms in this book. I needone word for an ideal, "reverence," and other words for the feelingsrespect,awe, and shamethat may or may not serve thatideal. You can never follow an ideal too closely, but you can havetoo muchor too littleof the feelings to which it gives rise.You are too lavish with awe, for example, if you are in awe of yourown wisdom and treat it as sacred. That's arrogant, and it's notmuch better if you feel that way about the accumulated wisdomof your own tradition, for both are human products. On theother hand, you are too niggardly with awe if you never feel awefor a great whale, a majestic redwood, or a range of tall mountains.You need not enjoy these thingsawe can be frightening,after alland you need not be moved by them every time youencounter them. But if you do not have the capacity to beawestruck at the sight of the majesties of nature you are missingpart of the usual human endowment.
Why This Book
The topic surprised me. I never expected to write a book aboutreverence, but I came to this as I explored material for a footnoteto a chapter I was writing in a still unfinished tome on ancientGreek humanism. But I soon came to think that this abandonedtopic deserves to have a new life.
My footnote was on Thucydides, the most thoughtful of theancient Greek historians. Writing in the fifth and fourth centuriesBCE, Thucydides adopted the humanist position thatgods do not intervene in human affairs. He believed that purelyhuman currents in history would bring about most of theresults that traditional thinkers expected from the gods: If atyrant rises too far and too fast, or if he exercises his power withtoo much arrogance, other people will fear him and hate him,and theynot the godswill unite to bring him down. But ifthe gods never punish human beings, why bother with reverence?I used to think that it was only fear of the gods that madethe ancient Greeks reverent. Thucydides does not seem to fearthe gods, but he fears human arrogance, and therefore he caresa great deal about reverence, which he treats as a cardinalvirtue. Some scholars argue, in spite of appearances, that hedoes believe the gods punish human beings when they violatereverence. But then why doesn't he say so? That was the puzzle Itook on in my footnote.
The footnote exploded as I went deeper and deeper into theconcept of reverence. I had been content in former years toaccept Plato's view that reverence is not a primary virtue at all.Plato taught that all you need do for reverence is to practicethe other virtues that the gods favor, principally justice. Platowas afraid that the Greeks of his day were trying to use reverenceto win over the gods, in the hope that the gods would forgiveany kind of wickedness on the part of people who gaveabundant sacrifices. That is why Plato treated reverence as apart of justice, so that no one would think you could be reverentwithout also being just. But if reverence is part of justice,then you will have it all if you cultivate justice as a wholeasyou shouldand you need not spend another moment'sthought on reverence.
After Plato, I turned to the ancient poets and became disenchantedwith Plato's simple theory. From Homer throughEuripides, the poets treat reverence as a substantial virtue, and Ibegan to see their point. More surprising, I began to suspectthat reverence has more to do with power than with religion. Iwas struck by the fact that Thucydides prizes reverence whilecondemning credulity in people who persist in seeing a divineplan behind the natural consequences of their own mistakes. IfThucydides believes that reverence is good but that credulity isfoolish, he is plainly thinking of reverence as a moral virtue thatis detachable from traditional beliefs about the gods. Could thisbe possible? Could reverence be detached from belief? Theanswer turned out to be complicated. Reverence depends tosome extent on belief, but not at all on formal creeds. And so Irealized with shock and delight that reverence couldin theory,at leastbe shared across religions. In fact, what religious peopletoday admire in other religions cannot be faith (since theyreject most of the content of other faiths), but reverence. So theyknow about reverence, though they don't know to call it by thatname.
I began to feel that something has been lost in modern times.This virtue, so important to the ancients, has fallen beneath thehorizons of our intellectual vision. And yet reverence is allaround us, even in the most ordinary ceremonies of our lives. Itis as if we have forgotten one of the cylinders that has beenchugging along in the vehicle of human society since its beginning.And now, because we do not know the cylinder is there, wehave no idea how to tune it up, or even how we might gum it upcompletely by inattention. The more I pondered this, the more Iwanted to know what reverence is, not just to the ancientGreeks, but for us, for all of us trying to live good human lives. Ifreverence is a cardinal virtue, it belongs to the family of justiceand courage and wisdom, and those are ideals that bear study intheir own right, not merely as they occur within the boundariesof this or that culture.
My quest for universal reverence took me out of ancientGreece and across to ancient China, back to the European traditionand to writers of our own time. I soon found that I had beenreading the wrong books. Most modern philosophers have forgottenabout reverence. But poets are aware of it, as they havealways been. I might have expected that Yeats would turn out tobe a poet of reverence. And Tennyson. But Philip Larkin? Thishas all been a delightful surprise.
In studying reverence I have come to a new view about howethics should be discussed and about how a book like thisshould be written. A writer who is serious about virtue can't staybehind the boundaries of a single academic discipline; the subjectbrings together poetry and philosophy and the history ofideas and puts them all to work on a huge livewire of a question-howwe should live our lives. Also, a writer about virtuemust not expect to deliver the sharp-edged definitions or theclear criteria that some philosophers crave. Aristotle urges uswithvirtue in mindnot to ask the same precision of ethicsthat we would of mathematics. Poets often understand virtuesbetter than philosophers, so that the wisdom of poets over timeis essential to this subject. Also essential to the study of virtue isthe experience that you, the reader, bring to the subject. Virtuesare about emotions, and you can't learn much about emotionsfrom a book. I could write a volume ten times the length of thisone, and it would still leave many questions for you to work outon your own. Reverent students of ethics will understand thatthis is a project not for a book but a lifetime.
Why write about reverence? Because we have forgotten what itmeans. Because reverence fosters leadership and education.Most important, because reverence kindles warmth in friendshipand family life. And because without reverence, things fallapart. People do not know how to respect each other and themselves.An army cannot tell the difference between what it is anda gang of bandits. Without reverence, we cannot explain why weshould treat the natural world with respect. Without reverence, ahouse is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not ateacher. Without reverence, we would not even know how tolearn reverence. To teach reverence, you must find the seeds ofreverence in each person and help them grow.
Religious wars are endemic in our time, which is a time withlittle care for reverence. Perhaps these wars are cooling down insome places, but they are heating up in others, even as I writethis book. If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as Godcommands in all things, this is a failure of reverence. A grouplike that may turn violent and feel they are doing so in goodfaith. Nothing is more dangerous than that feeling.
War is nothing new, and neither are killer strains of religion,pathogens that take hold of a people and send them into paroxysmsof violence. War and religion will always be with us; wecan't expect to shake them off. But we can ask what it is in religionthat might keep the dogs of war on leash, and what it is thatwhips them into a frenzy and lets them loose. It is reverence thatmoderates war in all times and cultures, irreverence that urges iton to brutality. The voices that call in the name of God foraggressive war have lost sight of human limitations. They havelost reverence, even when they serve a religious vision. So it iswhen a people believe that their god commands them to takeland from others, or insists that they force others into their wayof thinking. Even when the goal of war is something as noble asfreedom or peace, it may be irreverent to think we can imposethese goals by violence.
When Agamemnon waited on the beach with his ships andchariots and with the men who hungered to capture Troy, thewinds remained hostile, and he asked a diviner what he shoulddo. He had faith in his diviner, and the diviner had faith in hispower to speak for the gods. He said he knew what the godsdesiredthe life of the king's daughter. And so Iphigenia came,summoned to her wedding in all the veiled finery of a bride. Atthe altar stood her father with the priest. But there was noyoung husband, only the great sharp knife poised to end herlife.
The poet Lucretius tells this tale, as I have done, to be theintroduction for his work of philosophy. He ends with thestrong line, tantum religio potuit suadere malorum (1.101)"sogreat is the power of religion to lead us to evil." He gives us Iphigeniato stand for all the huge unholy cost of war when it isdriven by men who believe they know what the gods want. Buthe does not mean to condemn everything that falls under religion.Lucretius may be hostile to some kinds of faith, but hebegins his work with an invocation to the goddess who standsfor Nature. He too is a poet of reverence.
Reverence runs across religions and even outside themthrough the fabric of any community, however secular. We maybe divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence.If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyoneshare your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent.
Excerpted from Reverence by PAUL WOODRUFF. Copyright © 2001 by Paul Woodruff. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.