Paul Woodruff, "Reverence"

"To Be Read" Book Review Column

November 1, 2002


During my first formal encounter with ethics, a long time ago in the fifties, I ran across a book by Dietrich von Hildebrand called Fundamental Moral Attitudes. There were, I believe, four chapters, describing four different attitudes; but the only chapter I remember is the one entitled "Reverence." I have always remembered it because it proposed a notion of reverence which went far beyond religion -- the general area where I had lodged the notion of reverence in my mind.

Von Hildebrand spoke of the artist's reverence for his medium, be it wood, marble, canvas, or egg tempera. He spoke of the carpenter's reverence for his tools. (This made me think of my father, who had undergone a major career change after World War II, going from a machine operator in a munitions factory to a plumber. I had witnessed the careful hours of practice it took before he learned to wipe lead joints and pass the examination for journeyman.) Von Hildebrand spoke of the musician's reverence for his instrument -- I was learning to make the transition from piano to organ at the time. I hadn't learned much about the piano as an instrument during my grade school piano lessons, but a college friend who seemed to know everything about organs had taken me up into the organ loft of the College Church at St. Louis University and shown me the swell box, described to me the voicing of the pipes, explained what ranks were, and then positioned me in the narrow aisle between the swell and the great organs while he practiced that most famous of all Bach's organ pieces, the D Minor Toccata and Fugue. My bones shook and my muscles twitched under the thunderous barrage of sound.

From that early encounter with the idea of reverence, I have continued to discover, in a random and informal sort of way, its importance in almost every pursuit, every human situation -- in teaching, in marriage, in trying to keep myself from spoiling my grandchildren. And yet I have run across precious little to read about it. I am tempted to say that Paul Woodruff's book on Reverence is good simply because he decided to write about reverence, a subject which needs to be thought about a lot more than it is.

But Woodruff's essay differs from Von Hildebrand's in important ways. It is more about politics than about art or work. It is more against hubris and tyranny than it is against shoddy or careless performance. It is more about self-restraint than about the joy of commitment to the creative possibilities of life. Finally, it is more about feeling than about skill and power - the power, I mean, which is suggested by the Latin root of virtue, i.e., virtus, manliness, courage, capacity, which is in turn from vir, the word for a man. Setting aside its sexist assumptions, the Latin roots of the word require us to include in the definition of virtue the notion of force or power. For this reason Von Hildebrand doesn't call reverence a virtue. He calls it an attitude. Attitude is, I think, the better word.

Woodruff covers a lot of ground, moving easily from philosophical reflection to literary commentary, making his reflections concrete by reference not only to Confucius and the Greeks, but also to such mundane situations as parents angry at the umpires of their children's little-league games. He doesn't so much lament the absence of reverence in our life, as ask us to discover it where it already is -- since, he claims, we could not live in society unless we had already taught ourselves reverential patterns of civility and unless we still felt some nostalgia for lost traditions.

We like to idealize irreverence, he concedes; however, this is not the opposite of reverence but rather the refusal to be impressed by pretense. In speaking of Greeks, he points out that common people are less prone to failures of reverence. By the small, almost invisible, acts of reverence that are a part of civic and familial ritual, ordinary life is woven into a stable fabric. Reverence, he points out, is most obvious when it is missing, and it is missing most often in people who think they are exceptional. By definition, he says, reverence "is the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have." (8)

Is religion important to Woodruff's conception of reverence? "Reverence must stand in awe of something," but not necessarily religion or belief in God. Woodruff attacks the argument from design for the existence of God, and then goes on to attack all arguments for a particular conception of God or religion. He is justly critical of religious fundamentalists: "If a religious group thinks it speaks and acts as God commands in all things, this is a failure of reverence." (13) As for war in the name of religion: "The voices that call in the name of God for aggressive war have lost sight of human limitations. They have lost reverence, even when they serve a religious vision.... Even when the goal of war is something as noble as freedom or peace, it may be irreverent to think we can impose these goals by violence." (14) Religions, he says, come and go, but ritual, the "language" of reverence, survives.

But in insisting that religion is not necessary to reverence, Woodruff also attacks relativism as arrogant, the opposite of reverence. He uses strong words in criticism of Protagoras' saying that "A human being is the measure of all things":

Anyone who says that a human being is the measure of what is true or real cannot be reverently aware of human limitations.

The moral point was that complete relativism is arrogant. It tries to offer human beings an immunity from argument and refutation that doesn't fit with human fallibility.... Many would-be relativists miss the moral point altogether, because they think that relativism is tolerant and kind. They think they are doing people a favor by granting them immunity from argument and refutation; they may even think that the moral advantages of relativism outweigh the logical problems Plato pointed out. They are making a mistake. Relativism has no moral advantages. In the world of ideas, relativism cultivates minds that are closed or lazy; in a world of ethical choices, relativism leaves human rights undefended by allowing no place for discussion or debate. (151)

Though Woodruff speaks often of awe, his examples of the lack of reverence center on hubris, and his positive examples emphasize the recognition of one's own limitations. As for the awe which elicits reverence, it hardly seems to play a role. For that reason, I find myself unsatisfied with both Woodruff's definition of reverence and his classifying it as a virtue.

What Woodruff calls reverence, I would call the virtue of humility. And humility, the opposite of hubris -- the recognition of one's own limits and the limits of one's community, society, nation -- is certainly a virtue and a necessary one. Humility is a virtue because it arises out of action, out of practice. Feelings are a part, but certainly not the essence of it. There is also skill acquired by trial and error, which makes doing the right thing easy and spontaneous. As the pianist gets to Carnegie Hall by practice, practice, practice -- and carries off his performance with sprezzatura -- so the humble person becomes humble by practice, practice, practice in just those acts of deference which Ben Franklin teaches us how to perform in the latter part of his Autobiography (though Franklin humbly claims to have practiced only the appearance of humility.) It takes practice not only to deny one's aggressive impulses with ease, but also to learn, by trial and error, how to carry off one's self-denial without offense or foolishness. One who is priggishly humble does not have the virtue -- and will not acquire it until he has learned, through trial and error, how to be simple and straightforward in his humility. One who practices charity clumsily does not yet have the virtue. Again, though she may feel reverent toward the object of her charity, she must learn, by trial and error, how to be charitable without being, even blamelessly, offensive.

To Woodruff reverence is a feeling, rather than a practiced action. It is a habitual feeling, but a feeling nevertheless. Woodruff says that if we have reverence our feelings are on our side, which is, of course, true. But if we have a virtue we have more than feeling. We have a skill that allows us to act our virtue with ease.

I look upon reverence as the ground of virtue, and virtue as the fruit of reverence, and in this respect I am glad to have read Woodruff's little book, for he asks us to focus our attention not just on the way we do our work but especially on the way we live in society. But I prefer to call reverence an attitude. An attitude is something that, as Woodruff says, we discover in ourselves. But it is not so much a habitual action as it is an expanding recognition of the number of things and people who draw us out, beyond our sense of the ordinary into a world that is both near us and at the same time mysteriously beyond us. Reverence, I think, is much less about our own limitations than it is about our discovery of the limitless beauty of the people we live with and the world we live in.