The Relevance of Reverence

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue

By Paul Woodruff. Oxford University Press, 248 pages. $19.95

Something is missing from our modern lives, according to
Paul Woodruff, and we know it--but we can't identify exactly what it is. Woodruff
has a theory: What is missing is reverence.

Reverence? American society prizes the irreverent. When film producer
Stanley Kramer asked a motorcycle-gang member--a blue-collar World War II
vet--"Well, what are you rebelling against?" he got a true-blue American
answer: "Well, what ya got?" Marlon Brando echoed the line in The Wild One
and became an icon of 1950s irreverence, capturing a spirit that was only to
become stronger in the following decades.

As for reverence, it's been either mistaken for a form of phony piety or
discarded altogether. The title of Woodruff's new book--Reverence: Renewing a
Forgotten Virtue
--is thus a bit misleading. Before we can "renew" the virtue
of reverence, we have to figure out what it is and then answer the question "Why
bother?" Woodruff, a professor of philosophy and humanities at the University of
Texas, spends all 248 pages of his elegant meditation helping us find answers.

Proposing a working definition, Woodruff writes that reverence is "the
well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these
are the right feelings to have." We recognize reverence not so much when we see
it, then, but when we feel it. For example, we may sense that something is amiss
in our lives as parents, children, friends, lovers, citizens, soldiers, teachers,
and students. Reverence should permeate and hover over our social relationships
and actions. And true reverence ultimately resides in the feelings that we
cultivate and sustain about the mysteries of life around us.

Compared to philosophers, political scientists, jurists, and religious
theorists, poets have always had a more intimate sense of what reverence is and
why we should invite it into our lives. Woodruff explores what poets and other
thinkers have said about reverence from ancient until modern times, drawing
especially on his knowledge of the ancient cultures of Greece and China.

Human beings are political animals, and reverence, according to

has more to do with politics than with religion. We can easily
imagine religion without reverence; we see it, for example, wherever religion
leads people into aggressive war or violence. But power without reverence--that
is a catastrophe for all concerned. Power without reverence is aflame with
arrogance, while service without reverence is smoldering toward rebellion.
Politics without reverence is blind to the general good and deaf to advice from
people who are powerless. And life without reverence? Entirely without reverence?
That would be brutish and selfish, and it had best be lived alone.

Woodruff is good at drawing subtle distinctions that help us avoid confusing
reverence for things it is not. Take the term irreverence. Woodruff
explains that reverence and irreverence, at least as we use the
latter, are not necessarily opposites and that healthy irreverence can serve the
cause of reverence. The qualities that we consider irreverent are really
boldness, boisterousness, and being unimpressed by pretension--fine things.
"Reverence is compatible with these [qualities] and with almost every form of
mockery," Woodruff says. "Reverence and a keen eye for the ridiculous are
allies." It is also a mistake to confuse reverence with respect.

Respect is sometimes good and sometimes bad, sometimes wise and
sometimes silly. It is silly to respect the pratings of a pompous fool; it is
wise to respect the intelligence of any student. Reverence calls for respect only
when respect is really the right attitude... . A virtue is a capacity to do what
is right, and what is right in a given case--say, respect or mockery for an
authority figure--depends on many things.

So why bother with "feelings of awe, respect, and shame" or feelings about
the mysteries of life? Might such concerns be self-indulgent or suggest a
preoccupation with personal enlightenment or spiritual growth that is out of step
in our new world of exploding skyscrapers, anthrax in envelopes, religious
fundamentalism fomenting violent hatreds, and nightly CNN footage of
stealth-bomber fireworks? This is where Woodruff's distinction that reverence
belongs more to community than to religion comes into play.

In the world of politics--using the word in its original sense of how we
conduct ourselves as citizens of our societies--we ought to be cautious of
extremism in all forms. We ought to restrain ourselves and our leaders from
resorting to arrogant behavior and impulsive violence, even in the name of
justice; and we need to listen to and think about differing viewpoints,
especially those we would otherwise dismiss as "unpatriotic" or downright

Reverence entails good, hard thinking about life and active engagement in it.
Because true reverence is not passive, it has always been viewed with suspicion
by political and religious authorities interested in maintaining conformity. This
explains the obsessive pursuit and punishment of thought criminals in Hitler's
Germany, Mao's China, Pinochet's Chile, and even Eisenhower's United States.

The concept of "virtue ethics" is the machine that drives Reverence.
"Virtues are sources of good behavior," Woodruff explains. "Moral rules and
laws set standards for doing right, but there is nothing about a rule that makes
you feel like following it. In fact, there is something about many rules that
makes most people feel like breaking them." But according to virtue ethics, "a
good person is one who feels like doing what is right.... Virtue is the source of
the feelings that prompt us to behave well." Of course, there is a social dynamic
to this. Families develop common virtues, as do people who work together. Virtue
ethics looks at "strengths that people develop in communities. Communities, in
turn, depend on the strengths of their members."

Pointing to common threads in ancient Chinese and Greek ideas about
reverence, Woodruff concludes that reverence is a universal principle in
promoting positive human social behavior. For example, the ancient Chinese notion
of the emperor as the "Son of Heaven" is rooted in the belief that society as a
whole will be better off if an emperor "has a sense of awe [that] will remind him
that Heaven is his superior." Such an idea suggests that "any of us is better for
remembering that there is someone, or Someone, to whom we are children; in this
frame of mind we are 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 or anything is higher than you." A parallel
notion is embodied in Hesiod's Works and Days, the primary Greek
enculturating text about man and his political and economic environment.
Universally, then, reverence has to do with power and how we respect whatever
power we have in our human actions.

As we have recently been reminded, the effects of social virtues
in human history are mainly seen in negative counterexamples. In Western
tradition, the earliest and arguably the most famous treatment of the disastrous
results that can arise when reverence is disregarded is found in the Greek
historian Thucydides, a high-ranking military commander and the father of
case-study history. Woodruff analyzes Thucydides' account of the deliberations,
decisions, and actions taken in 416 b.c.e. by the Athenians when they destroyed
the neutral island-polis of Melos and slaughtered its adult-male population (the
event that inspired Euripides' Trojan Women). Woodruff argues against the
traditional interpretation that the Athenian position is that "might makes
right." Rather, this early act of something like genocide results from a
fundamental absence of reverence toward power, on both sides. Athenian leaders
assert not that might makes right, but that might makes right irrelevant. The
Athenian negotiators--and the Athenian citizenry back home who deliberated upon
and directed all decisions--can only conceive of an answer to the Cold War-style
tension between Athens and Melos in terms of using their superior military power
to assert dominance over a tiny neutral state. The Melian oligarchic leaders lack
reverence in excluding most of their citizens from the negotiations and from
information about the negotiations, out of fear that respect for the regular
ceremonies of organized government will put pressure on them to compromise their
own hard-line position.

The relevance of this discussion to the American position as the one
remaining superpower in a world of unstable nation-states and powerful
subnational groups is clear. But Woodruff's greatest act of reverence toward the
readers of Reverence is to refrain from interpreting recent history
according to the ideas he discusses. Woodruff stays true to his understanding of
the role of the reverent teacher, noting that "a teacher is well advised to be
quiet from time to time about even the most ordinary facts, so that students may
have the freedom to make those facts their own."

Reverence is not a simple self-help book, nor is it intended to be a
feel-good, or feel-better, philosophical read over cappuccino at Barnes and
Noble. It is grounded in Western and Eastern philosophical, intellectual, and
literary traditions, and it invites us to figure out for ourselves how its
plainspoken lessons about the role of reverence in government, in churches, in
the military, in schools, and in families and communities can be applied to the
challenges that confront us in our day-to-day lives.