ACHTUNG. It is a word I often find myself muttering while reading the paper, listening to the radio, or watching a news clip nowadays. Weird, since what little German I know dribbles from what little Yiddish I know. I did often hear the word as a child, but not peppering the Passover patter at my grandparents’ table. Instead, it was during endless hours of watching Hogan’s Heroes. Achtung, when accompanied by Sergeant Schultz’s flapping jowls, commanded my attention: Colonel Hogan was about to outsmart Captain Klink once again.
Later in life, while spending longer hours reading — and being outsmarted by — many philosophers, I stumbled across the word yet again. In his Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, Immanuel Kant unspools Achtung by way of taking our moral measure. 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. 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.
With Kant, Achtung remains an imperative, but in an entirely different register from Schultz’s comic command. It occurs at moments when another’s gesture or word marks our lives, commands our respect, and evokes our reverence. 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. This entails, Kant states, “the reverence [Achtung] that must be shown to each and everyone.”
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. My own moment occurred, appropriately enough, when the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, visited Donald Trump at the White House on March 17. It was a small moment, easily overshadowed by so many big moments since last year’s election. Yet, as it unfolded I could imagine Merkel’s translator whispering frantically into her headset: Achtung, achtung!
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. Trump, his legs akimbo and hands clasped, looking like a truant waiting outside the principal’s office, ignored the invitation. After a moment’s hesitation, a nonplussed Merkel gave a nearly imperceptible shrug of her shoulders and sat back.
It was a telling tableau. 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. 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. A woman seeking to find common ground and a man interested only in owning as much ground as possible. 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.
Reverence rarely gets the upper hand on irreverence. This was as true in antiquity as it is in postmodernity. The ancient Greeks thought well of reverence, but had few illusions about its reach. In The Republic, Plato does not make room for reverence among his four cardinal virtues: wisdom, justice, courage, and temperance. Nor does Aristotle seem to revere reverence. In the Nicomachean Ethics, which he devotes to identifying the elusive middle between extremes, Aristotle mentions reverence just once, only to bat it down. The reason is practical: human beings, he sighs, tend to be swayed by fear, not reverence.
Yet the tragic poets — who also philosophized, but in verse — reverberate with reverence. 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. 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. Distraught and despairing, the king cries:
Dire doom! to disobey the gods’ command!
More dire, my child, my house’s pride, to slay,
Dabbling in virgin blood a father’s hands.
Alas! alas! which way to fly?
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.
Most famously, there is the case of Sophocles’s Antigone. 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. Polynices’ sister, Antigone, ignores the command. Driven by reverence for the gods and the duty they impose on the families of the dead, Antigone buries her brother. 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. She is, in many ways, as annoying, if not downright antipathetic as Creon. Both of these characters seem equally narrow minded and self-righteous. The difference, though, is their relative positions of power and expressions of reverence. 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. 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. He acts without knowing what he does not know.
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. 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. 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? 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. In another time and place, a leader’s failure to connect with a fellow leader might seem little more than a kerfuffle. In our own time and place, though, this failure makes visible the darkness of a leader incapable of reverence. Surely as night follows day, hubris trudges behind moral blindness. 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. 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. Herein lies the rub. Insight finally strikes Creon, pounding reverence into his bones, even though this recognition comes far too late for his family. 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. But as Aristotle warns, no such delivery system exists for the moral virtues. Reverence, like any other virtue, does not blindside us, slam us to the ground, and remake us. Instead, you need to be running, even walking toward it. 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.
The trick, then, is practice, practice, practice. But how does one motivate oneself toward that practice? Where does the flickering of desire come from? 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.
Once shackled to her viola in an adversarial relationship, my daughter Louisa now teeters on the reverential. Though tempting to call it miraculous, the change is in fact mundane. 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. The attention Mr. Dinardis pays to what he plays — what he does, not what he says — led Louisa to do the same. Reverence, for both the teacher and student, becomes the work of attention. We motivate ourselves by following examples of excellence, taking cues from cautionary tales, or simply recognizing the value of another’s experience.
In fact, reverence is attention. Not the poised attention taught in hospitality studies: the eager smile, bracketed gaze, and predictable warmth of a hotel receptionist or family psychiatrist. 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.
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. 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. We take our seat in the world’s salle d’attente, forget our own itinerary, and open ourselves to the itineraries of others.
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. 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.
Reverence, in short, is the realization that there is more than this and that there is more than me. And that goes for everyone. 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. But the unspoken corollary is that protest without reverence is equally combustible. 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.
Rob Zaretsky is LARB’s history editor. 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. He also teaches at the Honors College at the University of Houston.