Saturday, March 9, 2013

Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

I had high hopes for this one.

Some of the evil of my tale may have been inherent in our circumstances. For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; and we were dizzied by beating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars. We were a self-centered army without parade or gesture, devoted to freedom, the second of man’s creeds, a purpose so ravenous that it devoured all our strength, a hope so transcendent that our earlier ambitions faded in its glare.

As time went by our need to fight for the ideal increased to an unquestioning possession, riding with spur and rein over our doubts. Willy-nilly it became a faith. We had sold ourselves into its slavery, manacled ourselves together in its chain-gang, bowed ourselves to serve its holiness with all our good and ill content. The mentality of ordinary human slaves is terrible—they have lost the world—and we had surrendered, not body alone, but soul to the overmastering greed of victory. By our own act we were drained of morality, of volition, of responsibility, like dead leaves in the wind.

Those are the opening two paragraphs, and it’s as if Lawrence is speaking directly to my generation and my society over the vast difference of years and miles, intent on providing a cautionary tale about the inevitable legacy of empire, of the fruitless pursuit of the ideal instead of the human.

And the insights into the different cultures and the mindsets of what we now call the Middle East come with fair regularity as, in the first few chapters, Lawrence describes the stage on which his narrative will be played and the actors that will drive it.

In the very outset, at the first meeting with them, was found a universal clearness or hardness of belief, almost mathematical in its limitation, and repellent in its unsympathetic form. Semites had no half-tones in their register of vision. They were a people of primary colours, or rather of black and white, who saw the world always in contour. They were a dogmatic people, despising doubt, our modern crown of thorns. They did not understand our metaphysical difficulties, our introspective questionings. They knew only truth and untruth, belief and unbelief, without our hesitating retinue of finer shades.

This is on page 38, and with turns of phrase like “doubt, our modern crown of thorns,” I thought I was going to have no problem getting through the next 634.

But I was wrong. After such a promising beginning, Lawrence’s narrative decays into a seemingly endless recitation of people, desert places, army movements, and battle plans. It would help if I knew more about the era and, especially, the people being described. I mean, I saw Lawrence of Arabia once, and remember being confused by even it, so imagine my surprise at finding the book just as inscrutable. Usually, the book manages to explain so much more.

I called it quits after page 168. Before getting there, I found this interesting pearl about leadership.

A weariness of the desert was the living always in company, each of the party hearing all that was said and seeing all that was done by the others day and night. Yet the craving for solitude seemed part of the delusion of self-sufficiency, a factitious making-rare of the person to enhance its strangeness in its own estimation. To have privacy, as Newcombe and I had, was ten thousand times more restful than the open life, but the work suffered by the creation of such a bar between the leaders and men. Among the Arabs there were no distinctions, traditional or natural, except the unconscious power given a famous sheikh by virtue of his accomplishment; and they taught me that no man could be their leader except he ate the ranks’ food, wore their clothes, lived level with them, and yet appeared better in himself.

Perhaps if there had been more of these tidbits between pages 38 and 157 I would have kept slogging through the rest for them. Absent those pillars of wisdom, and as I grow ever older, alas, I find myself more and more thinking about all the other books I’d like to read. Maybe I’ll come back to this one at the end.

This post written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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