In this small book, philosopher Paul Woodruff sets himself two large tasks: to revive an appreciation for reverence in a culture that celebrates irreverence, and to rescue the idea of virtue from its proponents on the right and its opponents on the left. He succeeds admirably in both.
On the right, cultural conservatives tend to define the practice of virtue as believing and behaving more or less as our grandparents did. They embrace tradition and recite rules. In America, they are often allied with Christian fundamentalists, who proclaim that there is only one book of virtues, the Bible, valid everywhere and always.
On the left, postmodernist critics argue that all talk of virtue is merely a code reflecting the interests of those in power. They dismantle tradition in order to show its faults. They treat religion as a social construct, bound up with race and gender and class, and they insist that no one system of belief is any more or less valid than any other.
Woodruff, a professor of the humanities at the University of Texas, navigates skillfully between these two extremes. The conservatives go wrong, he says, in claiming that the virtues are captured by an unchanging set of rules or bound up with a particular faith. And the radicals go wrong, he says, in dismissing the notion of virtue as simply a mask for power struggles or cultural biases.
The alternative view he offers, derived largely from Aristotle and Confucius, is that the qualities we have traditionally labeled as virtues - justice, courage, compassion, and so on - are durable human possibilities, outlasting religions and regimes, vital to the conduct of a good life and the creation of a good society in any time or place.
Virtue, he argues, is not merely the capacity to do the right thing in a given situation, but also the desire to act in the right way: "Virtue is the source of the feelings that prompt us to behave well." Such feelings must be learned, above all in families and in close-knit communities, if they are to become second nature in us, and they must be practiced in heartfelt ceremonies and rituals, if they are to be kept fresh.
Against this background, Woodruff settles down to his main business, which is to draw a portrait of reverence, a virtue that lends strength to all the others, and one that has taken a beating in the culture wars.
First, he clears away some of the misconceptions. Reverence is not solemn, he says, nor is it frozen in the rigor mortis of tradition. Reverence is neither faith nor worship. To claim that God is on your side, or to show blind obedience to any human rule or ruler, is the exact opposite of reverence.
"Reverence begins," he writes, "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." The chief emotions arising from reverence, aside from awe, are respect and shame: "Respect is for other people, shame is over one's own shortcomings, and awe is usually felt toward something transcendent." The object of our reverence may be holy or secular, may be a moral cause or an ideal, may be the universe itself, but whatever the object, it dwarfs us, keeps us open to new guidance, teaches us humility and restraint.
Tracing the roots of the idea to ancient Greece and China, and following it through into our own time, Woodruff shows persuasively that the qualities he associates with reverence are crucial to the health of families, communities, armies, and political systems, and also to the health of the natural world insofar as it is influenced by human actions.
Although the great erudition underlying his argument is evident in the notes, Woodruff carries his learning lightly, using narrative scenarios and Socratic dialogues to illustrate his points, drawing on his own experience as a teacher or soldier, quoting poetry, writing clear prose.
This illuminating book would have been even more useful had he discussed what happens when the terms of reverence clash - as in debates over capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia, pacifism, or experiments on animals. Still, to have rescued the ideas of virtue in general and reverence in particular from their ideological kidnappers, as this book does, is a worthy feat.
Scott Russell Sanders is the author of "The Force of the Spirit" (Beacon, 2000).
By Paul Woodruff Oxford Univ. Press 243 pp., $19.95