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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.
PAUL WOODRUFF: Thank you.
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...
BILL MOYERS: Beauty.
PAUL WOODRUFF: Nature, beauty.
BILL MOYERS: Death?
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.
PAUL WOODRUFF: Perfect. (LAUGHTER) [Interview continued here...]