Achtung Maybe: Reverence in the Age of Trump

Sentenced to death by Creon, Antigone announces as she is being led off: “Look what I suffer for having reverence for piety.”
Reverence can be a pill: few of us would choose to catch a comedy with Antigone at the local amphitheater in Thebes. By attending to the world, we open ourselves to the awe, secular no less than religious, we experience upon confronting things greater and deeper than us, and the sense of humility that follows. If you obey Zeus, the goddess signals through an ominous portent, you must first sacrifice your own daughter Iphigenia as token for the bloodbath that will ensue. But as Aristotle warns, no such delivery system exists for the moral virtues. In the movement from Achtung to arête, reverence becomes “the well-developed capacity to have feelings of awe, respect and shame when these are the right feelings to have.”
And when are these the right feelings to have? ¤
In his small and beautiful book on reverence, the classical scholar Paul Woodruff makes much of the Greek tragedians, as he rightly does of the historians as well. Surely as night follows day, hubris trudges behind moral blindness. In another time and place, a leader’s failure to connect with a fellow leader might seem little more than a kerfuffle. In her reflections on attention, Murdoch suggests that the more “the separateness and differentness of other people is realized, and the fact seen that another man has needs and wishes as demanding as one’s own, the harder it becomes to treat a person as a thing.”
Achtung, one and all. Attentiveness entails the difficult task of waiting not for the world to take note of us, but for us to take note of the world. Against the backdrop of a city ravaged by civil war between brothers, King Creon orders that the body of the rebellious brother, Polynices, be left outside the walls as bird carrion. to disobey the gods’ command! In The Republic, Plato does not make room for reverence among his four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. After a moment’s hesitation, a nonplussed Merkel gave a nearly imperceptible shrug of her shoulders and sat back. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant unspools Achtung by way of taking our moral measure. It was a telling tableau. At play’s end, Creon gazes dumbly on the deaths caused by his hubris and the chorus sings: “Big words are always punished / And proud men in old age learn to be wise.”
Except, of course, when they aren’t and they don’t. The predictable, prudent reply of an Aristotelian is: “That depends.” It depends on our immediate circumstances, just as it depends on the particular object of our reverence. To the left, we saw the daughter of a Lutheran pastor who opened her borders to refugees fleeing chaos and war; to the right, we gazed on the son of a real estate developer determined to close our borders to immigrants. Nor does Aristotle seem to revere reverence. It was a small moment, easily overshadowed by so many big moments since last year’s election. Attention, in such instances, is attending to the appearance of attention — which is probably a good thing, if all you want is a room key or drug prescription. This entails, Kant states, “the reverence [Achtung] that must be shown to each and everyone.”
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Since last November’s election, most of us have had a particular Achtung moment — a jolt delivered by a cratering moral landscape that calls us to attention and recalls to us the imperative of reverence. And that goes for everyone. which way to fly? But how does one motivate oneself toward that practice? The constant exercise of Achtung, Kant writes, makes us “worthy of humanity.” We make ourselves worthy by acknowledging the dignity of humanity in every other human being. As any parent with a resentful child savaging silence with her viola should know, you have to want to be excellent in order to become excellent. Though tempting to call it miraculous, the change is in fact mundane. How much better it would be if reverence could strike us early enough for us to see that we are standing at the edge of an abyss. Both of these characters seem equally narrow minded and self-righteous. Planted on chairs angled in one another’s direction, the leaders of Germany and the United States made a desperate effort at small talk while the cameras hummed and snapped. At the urging of reporters, Merkel, leaning toward Trump, asked if he would like to shake hands. Insight finally strikes Creon, pounding reverence into his bones, even though this recognition comes far too late for his family. alas! As the tragedy unfolds, we find that Creon reveres little more than civic order, which he confounds with his own person, while Antigone roots reverence in something deeper and closer: the family. Reverence, for both the teacher and student, becomes the work of attention. In our own time and place, though, this failure makes visible the darkness of a leader incapable of reverence. ¤
Rob Zaretsky is   LARB’s history editor. ¤
Once shackled to her viola in an adversarial relationship, my daughter Louisa now teeters on the reverential. A woman seeking to find common ground and a man interested only in owning as much ground as possible. This was as true in antiquity as it is in postmodernity. But he also refuses to part from Aristotle and, under the influence of the Ethics, offers a definition of reverence that differs from Kant’s. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, ignores the command. Achtung, when accompanied by Sergeant Schultz’s flapping jowls, commanded my attention: Colonel Hogan was about to outsmart Captain Klink once again. The difference, though, is their relative positions of power and expressions of reverence. Weird, since what little German I know dribbles from what little Yiddish I know. My own moment occurred, appropriately enough, when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, visited Donald Trump at the White House on March 17. If reverence, as Woodruff writes, is the virtue that keeps human beings from trying to act like gods, the irreverent — whether it is Creon at Thebes or Trump at Cleveland — will declare that they alone can fix it. In the end, Creon proves less a leader than a tyrant, ignoring until it is too late the warning made by his son Haemon: “Father, the gods give good sense to every human being / And that is absolutely the best thing we have.”
The lines imply that tragedy unfolds when power falls into the hands of one who was overlooked by the gods when they distributed good sense. But the reverence inspired by Agamemnon’s predicament — the good father who, as a god-fearing leader, must kill his daughter — collapses into horror when, “slipping on the yoke of necessity,” he no longer sees Iphigenia as a human being, but instead as a sacrificial animal: “Holding her in no special honor, as if it were the death of a beast where sheep abound in well-fleeced flocks, he sacrificed his own child.” Reverence thus gives way before the blood-dimmed tide of irreverence for all that is human and humane. Where does the flickering of desire come from? The 18th-century thinker spent his life attending to what we experience when we recognize the force of moral law or, better yet, its embodiment in a particular human being. The attention Mr. In fact, reverence is attention. It is a word I often find myself muttering while reading the paper, listening to the radio, or watching a news clip nowadays. It was as if we were watching a split screen, one side running with Kantian reverence, the other side rerunning the irreverence of Hogan’s Heroes, without the laughs. Dinardis pays to what he plays — what he does, not what he says — led Louisa to do the same. Instead, it was during endless hours of watching Hogan’s Heroes. Later in life, while spending longer hours reading — and being outsmarted by — many philosophers, I stumbled across the word yet again. Yet, as it unfolded I could imagine Merkel’s translator whispering frantically into her headset: Achtung, achtung! Most famously, there is the case of Sophocles’s Antigone. He acts without knowing what he does not know. Yet the tragic poets — who also philosophized, but in verse — reverberate with reverence. The trick, then, is practice, practice, practice. In his Oresteia trilogy, Aeschylus portrays Agamemnon as a tragic figure who, commanded by Zeus to sail to Troy and destroy the city, is countermanded by Artemis. His most recent book is   Boswell’s Enlightenment, and his   A Life Worth Living: Albert Camus and the Quest for Meaning   was published by Harvard in November 2013 and recently reissued in paperback. We take our seat in the world’s salle d’attente, forget our own itinerary, and open ourselves to the itineraries of others. Alas! ¤
Reverence rarely gets the upper hand on irreverence. Reverence, like any other virtue, does not blindside us, slam us to the ground, and remake us. Driven by reverence for the gods and the duty they impose on the families of the dead, Antigone buries her brother. But the unspoken corollary is that protest without reverence is equally combustible. There are times when, sleepwalking through our lives, we are suddenly awoken — snap to attention, really — upon seeing another act on a maxim they quite simply know should apply to all men and women. Instead, you need to be running, even walking toward it. Herein lies the rub. In a much-quoted phrase, the French religious and political thinker Simone Weil described attention as “the rarest and purest form of generosity.” For her, true attention is the act of giving oneself — turning away from one’s own self and turning toward the world, making place for others by placing one’s own self in a subordinate position. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston. Distraught and despairing, the king cries:
Dire doom! With Kant, Achtung remains an imperative, but in an entirely different register from Schultz’s comic command. We motivate ourselves by following examples of excellence, taking cues from cautionary tales, or simply recognizing the value of another’s experience. In other words — or, better yet, in Iris Murdoch’s words — virtues like love and reverence come from “the extremely difficult realization that something other than oneself is real.” It is the realization that we are not alone, the realization that we can never allow ourselves to believe we are alone, the realization that we all too easily confuse the world which is as it is for a world which is all about us. Trump, his legs akimbo and hands clasped, looking like a truant waiting outside the principal’s office, ignored the invitation. It occurs at moments when another’s gesture or word marks our lives, commands our respect, and evokes our reverence. I did often hear the word as a child, but not peppering the Passover patter at my grandparents’ table. The brilliance of her orchestra teacher, whose sweet irreverence for traditional teaching reflects a deep reverence for making music with his students — no doubt played a pivotal role. Not the poised attention taught in hospitality studies: the eager smile, bracketed gaze, and predictable warmth of a hotel receptionist or family psychiatrist. The ancient Greeks thought well of reverence, but had few illusions about its reach. Reverence, in short, is the realization that there is more than this and that there is more than me. The reason is practical: human beings, he sighs, tend to be swayed by fear, not reverence. To the left, a woman who, despite mounting disapproval of her refugee policy, declared: “I will do my damn duty”; to the right, a man who threatens to slap duties on Mexican imports to fund his wall. You will never see why you should be reverent, Woodruff writes, “unless you already are at least a little bit reverent, and you’ll never learn reverence unless you practice it.” And, turning from Aristotle to Plato, Woodruff suggests that we are all born a little bit reverent — or, at least, equipped with the capacity, if not the desire, for reverence. More dire, my child, my house’s pride, to slay,
Dabbling in virgin blood a father’s hands. In the Nicomachean Ethics, which he devotes to identifying the elusive middle between extremes, Aristotle mentions reverence just once, only to bat it down. She is, in many ways, as annoying, if not downright antipathetic as Creon. APRIL 20, 2017

ACHTUNG. Woodruff warns that power without reverence is “aflame with arrogance” — a truth as telling for the United States in the Age of Trump as for Athens in the Age of Alcibiades.