Christopher Lasch once raised what he called the "forbidden topic of limits" in our society. In his new book Reverence, Paul Woodruff explores in a fresh and compelling way the topic of implacable human limitations and what it means to acknowledge or fail to acknowledge them in the business of living. His work brings to light a much obscured dimension of human life and living, and ought to be of keen interest to philosophers, social theorists, social scientists, and seekers after wisdom generally.
In Woodruff's view, "reverence" has as much to do with politics and power as religion and often transpires outside the sphere of religion altogether. Reverence "begins in a deep understanding of human limitations" and from it "grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control"--God, the gods (beneficent or evil), truth, nature, justice--in his words, "conceived as an ideal, dimly grasped and much disputed"--death, or, if that is how one sees it, nothing at all. This capacity and its exercise is a virtue, indeed a cardinal virtue, Woodruff claims, in just the sense that courage or fairmindedness are virtues. He argues that reckoning with this dimension of human life is a universal, inescapable task. Of course, it takes myriad forms in different times and cultures. But he points out that people from very different religions commonly much admire one another's outlook and practices, which can't be based on the content of their creeds. It appears that we can detect and admire this quality anywhere. I would add (I am sure he would agree) that the same sense of admiration and commonality often occurs among religious and nonreligious individuals.
Woodruff explores how the Greeks before Plato and Confucius and his immediate followers in China, such as Mencius, defend reverence as an indispensable bulwark of human society, the thing that alone keeps leaders from trying to act like gods (tyranny and hubris for the Greeks), and is necessary if ordinary people are to find a place of belonging in society, with its inevitable differences and hierarchies, one that avoids the extremes, we might say, of emotional isolation and domination. Woodruff points out that Western philosophers since Plato largely ignore reverence, perhaps because they have so often pursued utterly objective and timeless truth. But poets from Homer and the Greek tragedians to Tennyson and Philip Larkin , and others like Lasch, bring it to the fore again and again.
Reverence, in Woodruff's words, is "the virtuous capacity for awe, respect, and shame" in the face of what "cannot be changed or controlled by human means" ( p. 7). In our time, we mainly hear praise of irreverence. But reverence is not only compatible with but often calls for the mocking of pompous solemnity and arrogant hypocrisy. Of course, more than irreverence is needed, lest we fall into mere negativity or cynicism. In the civic republican tradition, any viable alternative to excessive independence or subservience to others must include shared or overlapping notions of the common good and mutual deliberation about them. Most of us are understandably leery about these ideas. But Woodruff contends that we have to be serious about them because we simply cannot cultivate or practice virtues like courage, compassion, or reverence apart from membership and participation in the life of a community, including its ceremonies that powerfully install a sense of limits and mutual respect. For example, you can't be a courageous soldier in a unit of cowards who are unwilling to take risks because to take them yourself would amount to throwing your life away, which is foolish, not courageous. Similarly, you can't practice altruism or compassion among cruel or narrowly self-seeking individuals because to do so would simply be to portray yourself as a sucker in their eyes, and to an extent be one! Without a community, Woodruff points out, such virtues "have no outlet."
Consider the interesting example of respect. Respect "helps us avoid treating others with contempt, partly because it reminds us of our limitations, and partly because it can be shared in a variety of practices" (p. 7). Respect can be too "thin" when it is accorded to everyone regardless of "whether they respond to it or not" or are accountable for their actions. Kant's concept of respect as a mutual recognition of autonomy falls largely in this category. Respect also can be too "thick," as when it is claimed on the basis of unquestioned authority or expertise. The enormous limitations of all our perspectives, capacities for moral insight, and knowledge make such thick respect a recipe for stultification and arrogance. Reverence for our enduring limitations and imperfections requires a sense of common humanity. Thus, skillful leaders and knowledgeable teachers must extend respect to and really listen to their followers and students, just as the latter would be foolish not to feel and show respect for those in their communities who seem to have greater knowledge, maturity, or wisdom than they do. If so, reverence and an abiding appreciation of our human limitations requires the sort of just dialogue I outlined earlier in the paper, and is an essential virtue for the practice of that dialogue. Woodruff argues that the exercise of such virtues is "dependent on the presence of virtue in the community," and that we are therefore more dependent upon one another in the pursuit of a good life than we commonly acknowledge.
This book succeeds very well in "renewing a forgotten virtue," as Woodruff puts it. As a result of reading it, I am currently exploring how contemporary psychology and psychotherapy are somewhat distorted because they tend to obscure the crucial dimension of human life named by "reverence." I feel sure many others will find the book illuminating and useful, as well.
Paul Woodruff, a Professor of Humanities at the University of Texas, writes about what he maintains we have lost sight of, reverence. While he admits the word is difficult to define, Mr. Woodruff says it "begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe lies outside our control--God, truth, justice, nature, even death." If we have reverence, we respect people lower than ourselves; we are kind to children. Woodruff differentiates between religion and reverence. He says that some people the most fervent about their religion do not have reverence. There is reverence outside religion. Reverence moderates war in all times and cultures. Reverent people do not say they speak on the authority of God either. Mr. Woodruff describes how a group of young people without traditional religion can experiene reverence at a memorial service for a friend when they share both their sorrow and silence.
The author gives many other examples of reverence or the absence thereof, citing references in both ancient China and ancient Greece as well as calling up the Victorian poet Tennyson.
I bought this book after having seen Mr. Woodruff discussing reverence in an interview by Bill Moyers. I must say that while the book is both thought provoking and thoughtful, it is far too long. The author repeats himself over and over. I could have gotten the point from a chapter or two on the subject in a book of essays or in a long journal article.
Having said that, I was so taken by Mr. Woodruff's comments on The Iliad that I ordered the translation he cites to reread this work for the first time in many years.