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Moyers Archive . NOW: Paul Woodruff on Reverence
April 30, 2010

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BILL MOYERS: Three weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a small book appeared that I have now read twice to help me sort out what I think about that massacre and the world that both produced it and has now been shaped by it. This is the book: REVERENCE: RENEWING A FORGOTTEN VIRTUE. Paul Woodruff wrote it. Paul Woodruff teaches the humanities, philosophy at my alma mater, the University of Texas. He's a veteran of Vietnam, the author of four other books, one of America's foremost interpreters of Plato, Thucydides, and other Greek thinkers from the ancient world.

Figuring out what they had to say to our world is Paul Woodruff's passion. Welcome to NOW.


BILL MOYERS: How do you define reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: I think reverence is the capacity for awe in the face of the transcendent.

BILL MOYERS: The transcendent being--

PAUL WOODRUFF: It's whatever we human beings did not create: God, justice, the truth...


PAUL WOODRUFF: Nature, beauty.


PAUL WOODRUFF: Death is one of the most awe-inspiring facts of our lives.

PAUL WOODRUFF: And I think complementary to the awe in the transcendent is a felt sense of our own mortality and our own limitations, our own tendency to make mistakes.

BILL MOYERS: How does this create reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Realizing the-- the distance between us and the ideals which we see as transcendent is the essence of reverence. Recognizing that, you know, we are-- we are born to die and between the time we're born and the time we die, we'll-- we'll probably make a number of significant mistakes, and realizing that this is true of other people as well as of ourselves, that we have a common-- a common humanity and are all in the same way vulnerable. It's the virtue in-- actually, in both the Greek and the Chinese system, I think, that protects the people who are most helpless from the people who are most powerful. When a victorious soldier kills a prisoner, that's a failure of reverence. When a ruler refuses to hear a suppliant, that's a failure of reverence.

When you're utterly helpless, if you're an old person in a hospital, if you're a lonely minority teenager stopped on a road late at night by a policeman, you really have nothing between you and-- and a terrible fate but the-- what I would call the reverence of the powerful person in your life at that moment. The best clue to how reverent we are is how we treat the weakest people around us.

BILL MOYERS: Why does reverence do that? Why is it responsible for that kind of humane, civil behavior that-- that prevents a soldier from desecrating the body he has just created?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well you put it beautifully. Desecrating a body. The-- the dead, of course, are the most helpless people from the Greek point of view and from any point of view. They are-- a dead body is utterly helpless and vulnerable and to desecrate that is-- is to cross-- is to violate the-- the sacred. Part of reverence is recognizing, you know, the lines that divide where we can step and what we can touch and what we can do from what we shouldn't.

BILL MOYERS: You say, simply put, reverence is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods.


BILL MOYERS: Well said.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. But it's very ...

BILL MOYERS: You said that.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. When people are powerful, they-- they tend to fall into habits of acting as if they were divine. The-- the cliche, of course, is power corrupts. But what-- what the Greeks are noticing is that it corrupts in a very particular way. You think that you can't go wrong. You think that you can't be mistaken. You think that because you are not likely to be mistaken, you don't have to listen to other people. And those are all signs of tyranny and they're all signs of hubris. They all indicate a lack of-- of - of respect for the difference between human beings and-- and gods, which is the essence of reverence.

BILL MOYERS: So reverence is something other than the worship of God.

PAUL WOODRUFF: On my view, yes. And this came to me as a surprise, actually, because I had always been taught that for ancient peoples, reverence was sacrificing the appropriate number of goats or sheep or cattle or chickens or whatever so that the plague will be averted or we won't have an earthquake next year or whatever. What people have called "do a deus," "I give to the god, the god will give back to me."

Then I-- but as I-- as I tried to translate this term and understand what it meant and why it was so important to the tragic poets like Sophocles, I realized that had nothing to do with it. Oedipus and the other tyrants are not in trouble because they didn't sacrifice enough chickens. It didn't have anything to do with that. It was about their attitude towards themselves and their-- their failure to realize that they were not truly godlike.

BILL MOYERS: Do you see evidence of reverence around you in your daily passages?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yes. When-- when a family has dinner together or celebrates any other very humdrum sort of ritual, they are, I think, celebrating the reverent idea of-- of the unity of a-- of a family, which transcends each individual member of it.

When a good teacher listens to a-- to a student, when a good teacher in a classroom an atmosphere of reverence towards the truth which they're seeking to understand and learn, reverence is in play. When a game, you know, even a football game is-- is well run, you know, and people respect the umpires and-- and the players respect each other and the-- the game is plainly not simply about the egos and the successes of the various players and coaches. When a group of musicians comes together and plays and their egos sort of drop away and they-- they are simply serving the-- the beauty of the music, that's-- that's reverence.

BILL MOYERS: The surprising thing in your book is when you say reverence has more to do with politics than religion.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Reverence has to do with politics because I think reverence has more to do with human relations than it has to do with relations between human beings and God. It has to do with human relations because it's expressed in-- in families, in hierarchies, in human structures of all kinds.

And when it's violated in the ways that are most important, it's-- it's violated between one human being and another.

BILL MOYERS: You've actually said that reverence is-- is crucial to the health of a community, of a family, of an army.


BILL MOYERS: Of a political party, of a nation.

PAUL WOODRUFF: All of that.


PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, for the-- for the ancient Greeks, there were two complementary primary virtues, justice and reverence. And justice by itself you might think is enough to have a sound community. But the Greeks understood that it was not. Justice works between equals and when justice has been done, usually there's a winner and a loser.

Reverence is about sort of gluing together a society where there are big differences in power or big differences in wealth or big differences in strength and involve-- and-- and creating avenues of respect and languages of-- for the expression of respect between people who might otherwise not be able to-- to function in the same community.

BILL MOYERS: You tell a story in here of the woman Janis who never voted and tells you she never will. She thinks Tweedle-Dee, Tweedle-Dum, it makes no difference. What's that got to do with reverence?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Voting is one of the great ceremonies of democratic society. It's one of the ways that we come together as a community. And I think tradition soc-- more tradition societies than ours that have a closer experience of ceremony and reverence vote in larger numbers.

Seeing long lines of people who voted in South Africa when it first became possible for everyone to vote in South Africa was inspiring to me and I thought why-- what are we missing here? And I think what we're missing here is the sense of the importance of that act to our being the community that we want to be.

BILL MOYERS: There's a very moving passage here. I'd like to ask you just to-- to read it right through the poem.

PAUL WOODRUFF: As I write, the United States is in the supreme moment of its power. Not far from where England stood in 1897, when Kipling wrote "Recessional" as a reminder that power leads to arrogance and arrogance to a fall. The tumult and the shouting dies, the captains and the kings depart, still stands thine ancient sacrifice and humble and a contrite heart. If drunk with sight of power, we loose wild tongues that have not thee in awe, Lord God of hosts, be with us yet lest we forget, lest we forget.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Kipling was the poet of empire, but he was also a poet of-- of reverence. Remembering, not forgetting that we are mortal. Remembering, not forgetting that human enterprises, great governments, great powers eventually stumble and fall, as history teaches us. It's very dangerous to be powerful. Powerful people forget that they can make mistakes. I said this before. And powerful nations can forget that, too.

BILL MOYERS: The essence of tragedy is overreaching, is it not?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Exactly. And I-- you can't, I think, understand tragedy without understanding why reverence was so important to the Greeks because overreaching destroys community. When-- when people overreach, other people, of course, are angry and frightened. It's not just the-- the gods who might resent you for overreaching. Other-- other people do, too. And the-- the possibility of your being accepted as a-- as a genuine leader, as a legitimate king is undercut by your overreaching.

BILL MOYERS: I saw that happen to Lyndon Johnson when he overreached in that war which you were part-- you were in Vietnam in what, '69?

PAUL WOODRUFF: '69 to '70.

BILL MOYERS: How do you think that experience influenced your thinking about all this?

PAUL WOODRUFF: Enormously. I-- I went to Vietnam as someone who was partially trained in classical scholarship for whom it was a diversion. I came back from Vietnam thinking that I really shouldn't do anything that didn't matter to people's lives. It was hard for me to figure out how to pursue a scholarly life in the way that I'd been taught and take on issues that really matter to people.

BILL MOYERS: Well, there are some people who say that nothing matters less to us today than the lives and thinking of 3000-year-old dead Greeks.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, I think they're wrong. The-- the Greeks were extraordinarily observant about the human condition. And they-- they were models to us, I think, in many ways. For example, this is one of the-- the most important things to me about the ancient Greeks. Homer starts off the Greek tradition, after all, with THE ILIAD. And in THE ILIAD, the most human, the most sympathetic characters are the Trojans. They're not Greeks. They're going to be defeated. They're losing the war. And the least sympathetic figures are the Greeks.

Agamemnon, who is really a tyrannical general, quite without reverence, Achilles, who flies into a rage and-- and describes himself as a beast and acts like a beast through much of THE ILIAD. But the Trojans are human and the ability to see the enemy, the defeated, the about to be defeated enemy as human is-- is something remarkable about the Greeks.

With Hector, there's a wonderful scene just before they fight. Hector says, "Achilles, let's make a deal. Whichever one of us kills the other, we'll spare the body of the other and turn it over to his parents for proper burial." Achilles says, "Does the wolf make bargains with the lamb? I will kill you and I will leave your body to the dogs and the vultures." And they fight and indeed that's what Achilles sets out to do. When he returns the body of Hector to Hector's father, he does so because he remembers his own father. And in remembering his own father he remembers his humanity and sees what there is in common between him and Hector, which up to now he's been denying on the grounds that they're enemies.

BILL MOYERS: And in your world, the wolf does make bargains with the lamb out of reverence for the weak.

PAUL WOODRUFF: In my world, we're not wolves or lambs. We are human beings in this together and finding the common bond, finding the-- finding the common experiences and the common emotions. Finding the common potential for reverence is what enables us to see each other as human.

BILL MOYERS: You write, "If a religious group thinks and acts and speaks as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence." That's what you mean.


BILL MOYERS: It is some people's notion of the sacred that-- that frightens some of us. I mean, the men who hijacked the planes and drove them into the World Trade Center, into the Pentagon, they did it in the name of-- of Allah, of God. It's there in their manuals and their instruction books.


BILL MOYERS: I mean, it's when they think they're on a sacred mission that I think some of us have to worry.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Absolutely. And I think that one of the most devastating ways to be irreverent is to think that you know the literal mind of God and that you are carrying out God's will, that you are God's instrument in what you do. We don't know the divine that well. And partly because they were unable to see, recognize the humanity they share with the many innocent people they killed.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me the story of Iphigenia.

PAUL WOODRUFF: Yeah. This is famous. Agamemnon was leading the Greek army against Troy. They needed a favorable wind in order to cross the Aegean Sea to get from Greece to Troy and the winds kept coming the wrong way. So he consulted the prophet. The prophet said if you sacrifice your daughter Iphigenia or Iphigenia-- you can say it any way you want-- if you sacrifice your daughter, you will have fair winds. So he sent a message to his wife saying, "I found a bridegroom for Iphigenia. Bring her in her wedding dress and we'll have an altar and everything will be ready." Well, she went to the altar and there was no bridegroom. There was her father there with a knife. The Roman poet Lucretius, describes this scene and then ends with a ringing line, "So much evil religion can bring about," and it certainly can.


PAUL WOODRUFF: Because religion is not always reverent. Religious wars represent a failure, I think, to recognize the common human experience of reverence in different religions. The great Israeli poet of peace, Yehuda Amichai, who died a few years ago, wrote in his last long poem a canto that has the theme, "Gods come and go, but prayer is forever."

And the English poet of war, Rudyard Kipling, said something like that in one of the poems he wrote for his novel, KIM, and he's speaking of a man who's worshiping a burnished idol. And he says, "His god is as his fates assign/His prayer is all the world's, and thine."

Both poets in different ways, I think, were trying to get at the same idea that if we can get beyond differences in articulate belief and focus on the reverence that is possible in the different religious traditions and the human vulnerability, the human needs which are represented in our common prayers, gods come and go, but prayer is forever. It's a very powerful line.

BILL MOYERS: Paul Woodruff, thank you for joining us. REVERENCE: RENEWING A FORGOTTEN VIRTUE is a wonderful book.

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