An earnest plea for reverence

Posted: Jan 15, 2002 12:00 AM
Post-Osama bin Laden -- and we'll get there, we really will -- we Westerners face the task of reconstruction: larger by far than the work going on at Ground Zero in New York City, or in Kabul. The task is that of moral reconstruction. This overdue endeavor goes forward even now, as Americans grope to make sense of a world where homicidal maniacs hurl passenger planes into buildings and call it religion. What do we have here, a failure of diplomatic dialogue, or of something less material? Something -- as Paul Woodruff would put it -- like reverence? A classics scholar and philosopher (and Vietnam vet in the bargain), Woodruff teaches illustriously at the University of Texas. As scholars will, he asks questions. What he wishes someone might inform him is why more reverence wouldn't be a good thing for us all in this day and age. Would it be because reverence, which implies gradations in worth, is "undemocratic"? Very possibly. Reverence is a check on human emotions and actions. There are things you should do, don't you see, and things you shouldn't. We've grown unaccustomed to being told that. You just can't reverently let it all hang out. "Reverence" (Oxford, 2001) is Woodruff's engaging attempt to awaken appreciation of what he calls "a forgotten virtue" -- one that somehow has "fallen beneath the horizons of our intellectual vision." This lost virtue, persuasively taught, would keep us aware of our human limitations. We would refrain acting like the gods we conspicuously aren't. The Greeks (whom philosopher Woodruff reveres) taught reverence, and so, he insists, should our own teachers and tutors. Reverence was completed and set for publication prior to Sept. 11 -- which makes its timing all the more remarkable. It may be we are ready now in a way we were not previously to talk about reverence and its centrality to any plausible moral system. To revere is, on crucial occasions, to drop the jaw in admiration or bow the head in awe, perhaps even in shame. "Reverence requires us to maintain a modest sense of the difference between human and divine." What's that? Modesty? Who in the world would want such a Victorian doily? There is a more timely question to ask, nevertheless: Can you imagine Osama bin Laden buying a concept like reverence? To play God -- or Allah -- you have to ride down narrow objections to your view of things. You're right -- don't you see? It is the argument of tyrants, actually. Osama bin Laden, with his Kalashnikov and camouflage fatigues, is a classic tyrant: on whom Hitler or Stalin have nothing save greater numerical success (thus far) in the killing of innocent victims. Such folk have no use for a thing so crippling as reverence. Start to revere a thing -- innocent life, say, sitting at work in an office tower -- and you find you can't do all your ambition prompts you to do. Which happens to be the point of the whole thing. We're looking for ways, aren't we (we should be if we aren't) to crib, cabin and confine crazy egoists like the Bearded One. Knocking them off with daisy-cutter bombs is one way of doing it, but spreading civilization works less messily. And who knew all this before we did? Paul Woodruff's beloved Greeks. Is it "all Greek" to us, this business of reverence? If it were, that might be, ironically, a sign of our own reverence -- our acknowledgment that someone else, long ago, knew a thing or two about the universe, and our place in it. That thing the Greeks knew is the urgency of reverence in human affairs and relationships -- reverence, ever at war with egoism and its children, such as war and aimless brutality. Writes Paul Woodruff, without a trace of irony: "If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone shares your beliefs. Pray instead that all may be reverent."