All human shortcomings have at their heart an inflamed sense of self. That’s an overstatement but at times I feel it’s not so far off the truth. Especially in a consumer society with an attention economy, we’re flooded with inducements to scratch the itch of our own egos. We live in the age of the selfie.
Traditionally, the antidote for the inflamed ego is reverence. Paul Woodruff writes (and, in shorter form, talks) about reverence as directed toward something non-human. The most familiar object of reverence is God or the divine. But people feel reverence for trees, for mountains, for the stars. The one thing you can’t feel reverence for, says Woodruff, is other people. Your fellow human warrants respect but not reverence.
Reverence is vulnerable to the same danger that anything important is. As soon as it’s commonly agreed that something matters, charlatans and hucksters will rush in to claim its mantle. Call it the paradox of reverence: in appealing to the importance of things beyond the human sphere, reverence risks boosting the self-importance of the humans making the appeal. Not all this false reverence is intentional. Our very human tendency to self-importance can creep in unnoticed or even against our deliberate intent.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that an age in which reverence is in decline (I’m shooting from the hip here but I’m guessing there’s empirical evidence to back me up on that) is also one in which ego is everywhere. It’s hard nowadays even to take public expressions of reverence seriously. In such straits, irreverence might be the next best thing.
Irreverence is not the opposite of reverence. The target of irreverence isn’t reverence itself but false displays of reverence. When false reverence is rampant, renewed calls to reverence risk exacerbating the problem. Sometimes what’s needed is for someone to step in boldly and take the piss.
Our age might be unusual in its lack of reverence, but pompous displays of false reverence are probably universal. Every age needs sages but every age also needs jesters to pop the bubble of self-importance. Sometimes the two roles coincide. In Plato’s Euthyphro, Socrates dismantles Euthyphro’s puffed-up claims to piety. Diogenes the Cynic launched an even more aggressive assault on false piety. Zhuangzi was equal parts jokester and sage. The Zen tradition demanded constant vigilance against self-inflation through false reverence. One famous koan, attributed to Linji Yishuan, admonishes us: “If you meet the Buddha, kill him.”
As I became interested in Buddhism, I was struck by the overlap between Western Buddhism and punk. There’s Adam Yauch of Beastie Boys fame—a hip hop band with roots in punk—who was also a Buddhist and intimate with the Dalai Lama. Kurt Cobain named his band Nirvana because punk music offered him what he saw Buddhism offering to others. I’ve been struck by the number of people I’ve met in Buddhist circles who are also into punk.
On one level, this is very strange. Buddhist meditation aims at serenity and Buddhist teachings warn against exciting the senses. Punk music is loud and dissonant and you’re sort of missing the point if you don’t thrash about when listening to it. The punk aesthetic more generally is aggressive and rebellious. In terms of hand gestures, Buddhist mudras and the punk’s iconic “fuck you” (two fingers or one, depending on your country) couldn’t be more different in intent.
The punk aesthetic is quintessentially irreverent. (Diogenes is the most punk rock of all philosophers.) But that doesn’t mean it has no sense of the sacred. Quite the contrary. The punk aesthetic expresses disgust at the corruption, bloat, and bourgeois respectability of a self-indulgent society. If you’re living in the West, mainstream religion can seem a part of the rot. If you’re looking for uncorrupted channels of reverence, you might look farther afield. Hence Buddhist punks.
Irreverence, to my mind, is always reactionary. You don’t start from irreverence. You turn to it as a way of attacking the pretensions of those around you. As a public gesture (it’s hard to imagine someone being privately irreverent) it’s also a call to arms. Look at all this crap around us, the irreverent person says: we can do better. In effect, irreverence is a call to renewed reverence.
But as a reactionary phenomenon, irreverence is also limited. It tears down but doesn’t build up. But since reverence and irreverence aren’t opposites, there’s no reason they can’t coexist. Plato’s Symposium is a masterclass in juxtaposing the two. Socrates pokes holes in Agathon’s pompous speech in praise of love and then follows it up with a sublime vision of his own. At the climax of Socrates’ speech, Alcibiades and his drunken retinue burst in and Alcibiades eulogizes Socrates as the ultimate cock-tease. Things get out of hand but by the end of the night, Socrates remains deep in philosophical discussion.