November 3, 2010

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue - A Book Review

Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (2001) by Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas.

Here is the crux of the book:  Reverence is a virtue characterized by respect for all who are kind and just, including the strong and the weak, the intelligent and the ignorant.  It is a feeling of awe toward powers greater than ourselves.  It is a capacity for empathy and humility.  Reverence can be taught and learned, and strengthened through repeated acts of reverence.  It is essential to personal and societal well-being.  It need not be, but can be, religious.  It should be grown.

Other reviewers have commented that the book could and should have been condensed into article form.  I agree.  For example, the author repeats his thesis and main points too often and the examples from ancient Greek mythology and Chinese philosophy are tedious.  But, the Greek and Chinese examples have value if you are like me, less than well-versed in these areas.  Examples from a wider range of cultures and civilizations would have made the reading less tedious and given greater weight to the points the author makes.

This book was recommended to me by an old friend who lives in Oregon.  I read it hoping to find answers to the following questions:  What exactly is “reverence?”  What happened to “reverence” that has left it in need of renewal?  Why is it important to renew "reverence?"  What will happen if/when we do or do not renew it?  How do we renew it?  Here are some of the author's answers....

Reverence Defined
  • “Reverence 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.” (pg. 3)
  • “…reverence is a kind of virtue.  A virtue is a capacity to do what is right, and what is right in a given case …  depends on many things.” …  “Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well.” (pgs. 5-6)  “A virtue is the capacity to have certain feelings and emotions when this capacity has been cultivated through training and experience in such a way that it inclines those who have it to doing the right thing.    A virtue is a capacity, cultivated by experience and training, to have emotions that make you feel like doing good things.”  (pgs. 61-62)
  • “…is a cardinal virtue, it belongs to the family of justice and courage and wisdom…” (pg. 12)
  • "Reverence is the greatest virtue of leaders, because it gives powerful people the strength to listen to those who are weaker than they, and it reminds them that no one, no matter how successful, was ‘born complete, knowing everything.’    To present yourself as all-knowing, then, is to forget your humanity and play the part of a god.    Think yourself equal to a god, and you will commit the most dangerous kind of irreverence.”  (pg. 94)
    “…the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have.” (pg. 8)
  • “Reverence is the capacity for a related set of feelings and emotions.  Each has a different object:  respect is for other people, shame is over one’s own shortcomings, and awe is usually felt toward something transcendent.”  (pg. 65)
  • “Reverence is most obvious when it is missing, and it is missing most often in people who are – or who think they are – exceptional.  Irreverent heroes put themselves above the human level sometimes, and sometimes below; they can go wrong either way.”  (pg. 85)
  • “Reverence must stand in awe of something – something I will call the object of reverence.  What could it be?  Something that reminds us of human limitations….  Therefore you must believe that there is one Something that satisfies at least one of the following conditions:  it cannot be changed or controlled by human means, is not fully understood by human experts, was not created by human beings, and is transcendent.  Such beliefs are the least you must have in order to be reverent.    The Something could be nature, or the universe.  For many people, the Something will be divine.  But if the Something is justice or nature, the reverent person may be an atheist or, as some say, a non-theist.    We may be willing to sacrifice many of our beliefs to the march of science or to the goal of harmony among religions, but we should never abandon the feelings that keep us humble and respectful of each other.”  (pgs. 117-118)
  • “Reverence declares itself through silence, more deeply and more truly than through speech.”  (pg. 187)
  • “(R)everence is the capacity for a range of feelings and emotions that are linked; it is a sense that there is something larger than a human being, accompanied by capacities for awe, respect, and shame; it is often expressed in, and reinforced by, ceremony.”  (pg. 63)
Reverence and Respect
  • “The main difference between reverence and respect is this:  You can have too much respect, and you can have respect for the wrong things.  It is wrong to respect false judgments or vicious people.  But if reverence is a virtue, it can never require of you anything that is wrong.  So reverence does not always require respect, and reverent people will feel contempt for whatever deserves contempt.  Reverence is the power to feel the right degree of respect in each case.    Respect is something you feel.  Reverence is the capacity to have feelings.  It is not simply a feeling in itself.” (pgs. 66-67)
What Happened to Reverence and Why We Should Renew It
  • “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 it better.” (pg. 8-9)
  • “…(reverence) has been lost in modern times.”  “…(it) has fallen beneath the horizons of our intellectual vision.” (pg. 11) “…we have forgotten what it means.” (pg. 13)
  • “… without reverence, things fall apart.  People do not know how to respect each other and themselves.” (ibid.)
  • “…we cannot explain why we should treat the natural world with respect.  Without reverence, a house is not a home, a boss is not a leader, an instructor is not a teacher.  Without reverence, we would not even know how to learn reverence.  To teach reverence, you must find the seeds of reverence in each person and help them grow.” (ibid.)
  • “Listen to the news or read the papers and you will find that ‘irreverent’ has become a word for something good.  Anything bold or innovative may be called irreverent because it is not held back by old-fashioned tradition, and so is anything that pokes fun at pomposity.  …we seem to be losing sight of respect and ceremony.” (pg. 36)
  • “What we are losing is not reverence, but the idea of reverence.  We go on unconsciously doing reverent things, and this is fortunate, because the complete loss of reverence would be too grievous to bear.” (ibid.)
  • “What we have lost is not reverence but the idea.  We do not know well enough what it is, or why we need it, or how we should cultivate it.    What I am proposing is that we restore the idea of reverence to its proper place in ethical and political thought.  We will be better off, I think, if we know what it is and why it matters.  Only then can we consciously preserve and cultivate it….” (pg. 38)
  • “…virtues give us strength to live well and to avoid bad choices.  Reverence, for example, gives us the ability to shudder at going wrong.  When it fails, as it does all too often, people in power forget how to be ashamed.  …reverence has been fading out of our conscious lives.  We have not lost our capacity for reverence.  The capacity for virtue belongs to all of us as human beings.  What we are losing is a language of behavior – a self-conscious sort of ceremony – that best expresses reverence in daily life; and, along with self-conscious ceremony, we are losing many of the occasions on which people used to find ways to be reverent.” (pg. 42-43)
Reverence and Religion
  • “Reverence runs across religions and even outside them through the fabric of any community, however secular.  We may be divided from one another by our beliefs, but never by reverence.  If you desire peace in the world, do not pray that everyone share your beliefs.  Pray instead that all may be reverent.” (pg. 15)
  • “…(Reverence) requires us to maintain a modest sense of the difference between human and divine.  If you wish to be reverent, never claim the awful majesty of God in support of your political views.” (pgs. 17-18)
  • “Reverence is not faith, because the faithful may hold their faith with arrogance and self-satisfaction, and because the reverent may not know what to believe.” (pg. 46-47)
  • “You do not need to believe in God to be reverent, but to develop an occasion for reverence you must share a culture with others, and this must support a degree of ceremony.” (pg. 50)
  • “Religions have faded, religions have been displaced by violence, religions have fractured; but ceremony and reverence live on.  Ceremony is older than any surviving religion, and wherever there has been ceremony, there has been a way of taking ceremony seriously, and that requires reverence.” (pg. 54)
  • “Reverence and religiousness overlap, but they do not entail one another.  Even an atheist or a non-theist may be reverent.”  (pg. 67)
  • “When violence breaks out between people of different religious beliefs, reverence has fled the scene.  Reverence – like Tennyson’s poem (In Memoriam) – cannot take a stand on fine points of belief.  True reverence does not kill heretics or unbelievers.  Reverence knows the limits of human knowledge and never presumes to represent literally the mind of God.”  (pgs. 132-133)
Reverence and Justice
  • “…justice does not suffice for a healthy society.  Justice can be arrogant, rough, and heedless; without reverence justice can tear people apart.” (pg. 40)
  • “…justice has very little motivational power.  It is a fairly dry virtue, guided more by judicious thought than by trained feeling.  Virtues such as sympathy, reverence, and courage, by contrast, are capacities for emotions, and where they are actively present they move people to act or refrain from action.  (That is because emotions are, roughly speaking, feelings that motivate.)  So the weak cannot rely upon to justice to restrain their powerful overlords, because justice, unlike reverence, is not a motivational restraint.  Nor can the powerful rely on justice to secure the obedience of their subjects…”  (pgs. 174-175)
Reverence and Good Judgment
  • “Human judgment has a way of going wrong, especially in isolation from competing points of view.”  (pg. 90)
  • “Reverence, by keeping you humble in your opinions, is a bulwark of good judgment, because it keeps you open to new considerations that might alter the course of your reasoning.  …people who think they have perfect knowledge, or are guided in their decisions directly by God, are usually in for a surprise.  Overconfidence is an ever-present danger in a human mind, and the best defense against it is listening to others, with reverence.” (pgs. 184-185)
 Growing Reverence
  • “You learn it (reverence) by finding the virtuous things that you do and doing more of the, so that they become a habit.” (pg. 35)
  • “Every aspect of human life gives occasion for reverence.” (pg. 46)
Here is another online review of the book:

Paul Woodruff, "Reverence" by John E. "Jack" Becker, Professor Emeritus of English at Fairleigh Dickinson University

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