Bill Moyers Interviews Paul Woodruff
BILL MOYERS: Three weeks after the terrorist attacks of 9/11, a small book appeared that helped me sort out what I think about that massacre and the world that both produced it and has now been shaped by it. The book, "Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue" was written by Paul Woodruff. Paul Woodruff teaches the humanities and philosophy at the University of Texas. He's a veteran of Vietnam, the author of four other books, and one of America's foremost interpreters of Plato, Thucydides, and other Greek thinkers from the ancient world.
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, nature, beauty.
BILL MOYERS: Death?
PAUL WOODRUFF: Death is one of the most awe-inspiring facts of our lives. 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 distance between us and the ideals which we see as transcendent is the essence of reverence. Recognizing that we are born to die, and that, between the time we're born and the time we die, we'll probably make a number of significant mistakes; realizing that this is true of other people as well as of ourselves; that we have a common humanity and are all vulnerable in the same way... reverence is the virtue in both the Greek and the Chinese systems 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 a terrible fate but 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 prevents a soldier from desecrating the body he has just created?
PAUL WOODRUFF: Well you put it beautifully. Desecrating a body. The dead, of course, are the most helpless people from the Greek point of view and from any point of view. A dead body is utterly helpless and vulnerable and to desecrate that is to violate the sacred. Part of reverence is recognizing 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.
PAUL WOODRUFF: Perfect. (LAUGHTER). When people are powerful, they tend to fall into habits of acting as if they were divine. The cliche, of course, is power corrupts. But what the Greeks noticed 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 <pride>. They all indicate a lack of respect for the difference between human beings and gods, which is the essence of reverence.
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 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 a family has dinner together or celebrates any other very humdrum sort of ritual, they are, I think, celebrating the reverent idea of the unity of a family which transcends each individual member of it.
When a good teacher listens to a student; when a classroom shows an atmosphere of reverence towards the truth which they're seeking to understand and learn; reverence is in play: when a game, even a football game is played and people respect the umpires and the players respect each other and the game is 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 are simply serving the beauty of the music, 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 families, in hierarchies, in human structures of all kinds.
And when it's violated in the ways that are most important, it's violated between one human being and another.
BILL MOYERS: You've actually said that reverence is crucial to the health of a community, of a family, of an army.
PAUL WOODRUFF: Right.
BILL MOYERS: Of a political party, of a nation.
PAUL WOODRUFF: All of that.
BILL MOYERS: Why?
PAUL WOODRUFF: Well, for the ancient Greeks there were two complementary primary virtues: justice and reverence. 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. <Its about> creating avenues of respect and languages for the expression of respect between people who might otherwise not be able to function in the same community.
BILL MOYERS: You tell a story in <your book> 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 more traditional 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 <there> was inspiring to me and I thought why? What are we missing here? 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 to read 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 lest we forget... lest we forget.
Kipling was the poet of empire, but he was also a poet 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. And powerful nations can forget that, too.
BILL MOYERS: The essence of tragedy is overreaching, is it not?
PAUL WOODRUFF: Exactly. <One> can't, I think, understand tragedy without understanding why reverence was so important to the Greeks because overreaching destroys community. When people overreach, other people, of course, are angry and frightened. It's not just the gods who might resent you for overreaching. Other people do, too. And the possibility of your being accepted 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 Vietnam.
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 Greeks were extraordinarily observant about the human condition. And they were models to us, I think, in many ways. For example, Homer starts off the Greek tradition with The Illiad. In The Illiad 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 describes himself as a beast and acts like a beast through much of The Illiad. But the Trojans are human and the ability to see the enemy, the defeated, the about-to-be-defeated enemy as human is something remarkable about the Greeks.
With <The Trojan>, 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 common experiences and the common emotions, finding the common potential for reverence is what enables us to see each other as human.
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.