- Ritual and Reverence in Ancient China and Today
It is a sad commonplace that works in moral philosophy rarely do much to make their readers more moral. Unusually gifted classroom teachers can sometimes make a difference in students' lives, though, and now and again there appears a piece of philosophical writing that makes a similar impact. Paul Woodruff has written an extraordinary book that has a chance of joining this select company. Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue wears its scholarship and philosophy lightly; in addition to lucid exposition and argument, it employs anecdotes, readings of a range of poems, and in one chapter a question-and-answer format in order to engage readers in the very real, very contemporary concerns that motivate the book. Woodruff believes that we have largely forgotten how to talk about reverence, even though its practice has not disappeared, so his sources for the theory of reverence are largely ancient-both Greek (his specialty) and Chinese. He weaves together classical text and contemporary issue in masterful fashion, producing a book that is both philosophically challenging and potentially transformative. I will comment mainly on its philosophical themes, but I urge one and all to experience the book's power.
Reverence, says Woodruff, is a virtue: indeed, one of the most important of virtues. It is the "well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have" (p. 8). He characterizes the "belief in human imperfection" as the "central belief of reverence" (p. 199), and this makes sense, even though reverence is not primarily about beliefs. The idea that we are limited or imperfect informs each of the three feelings through which reverence is expressed. It is easy to see how this works with awe, but respect and shame are more complicated, requiring further discussion below. Woodruff offers the following initial formulation of the interrelationship among the three:
Reverence begins in a deep understanding of human limitations; from this grows the capacity to be in awe of whatever we believe to be outside our control—God, truth, justice, nature, even death. The capacity for awe, as it grows, brings with it the capacity for respecting human beings, flaws and all. This in turn fosters the ability to be ashamed when we show moral flaws exceeding the normal human allotment,(p. 3)
He continues by saying that this syndrome was recognized by the Greeks before Plato, and that "the immediate followers of Confucius thought much the same." [End Page 471]
Woodruff's tying of reverence to specific thinkers immediately makes one wonder what word or words he is translating as reverence, if it was known in Greece and China. Comparative philosophers will also ponder the words "much the same": is there really a single virtue called "reverence" that, without our previously realizing it, can be found in both the Greek and Chinese traditions? Or are there two, more loosely related, ideas?
Woodruff's answer is that there is a single virtue, but that it is realized and theorized somewhat differently in different contexts. Indeed, he does not insist that the concept of reverence that he finds in ancient Confucianism is the only Confucian concept of reverence. He relies only on the Analects and Mencius as sources, and readily acknowledges that his picture is partial and simplified (p. 230). He makes similar qualifications with respect to his Greek sources. His "reverence," then, is in the first instance a rational reconstruction built upon the ideas/terms of different traditions as well as his own philosophical reasoning. In the Greek case, he says that the concept he is exploring is "named both by hosiotēs and its near synonym eusebia, which is frequently translated as 'piety'" (pp. 225-226). Once we know this, it is easy to see that his topic was discussed in Greek texts and to ask how these texts fit the awe-respect-shame schema he has identified.
Rather than pursue this topic—on which see particularly Woodruff's chapter 5—I am going to spend some time...