Mike Kueber's Blog

July 30, 2012

Sunday Book Review #80 – The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Filed under: Book reviews,Philosophy — Mike Kueber @ 1:18 pm
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One of my resolutions this year is to be less philistine and more appreciative of culture, and if reading The Prophet is an indication, I am making progress.

Several years ago, a girlfriend gave me The Prophet, a book by Kahlil Gibran.  It is considered to be prose poetry – i.e., poetry “written in prose instead of using verse, but preserving poetic qualities such as heightened imagery and emotional effects.” When I first received The Prophet I was unable to read it because the poetry was too abstract to make much sense to me.  I am happy to report that I have since evolved to the point that, not only is The Prophet readable, but the reading is now so enjoyable that I am able to savor it.   

Gibran was a Catholic-educated Lebanese who immigrated to America in 1895 and The Prophet, which was published in 1923, is considered to be his masterpiece.  The book is about a philosopher who has lived in a fictional foreign country for twelve years and is preparing to return to his home country.  Before going, however, the local yokels ask him to leave them with his version of truth and wisdom on a variety of subjects:

  • Love
  • Marriage
  • Children
  • Giving
  • Eating and Drinking
  • Work
  • Joy and Sorrow
  • Houses
  • Clothes
  • Buying and Selling
  • Crime and Punishment
  • Laws
  • Freedom
  • Reason and Passion
  • Pain
  • Self-knowledge
  • Teaching
  • Friendship
  • Talking
  • Time
  • Good and Evil
  • Prayer
  • Pleasure
  • Beauty
  • Religion
  • Death

Gibran, through this philosopher, is able to provide cogent, succinct wisdom on each of these subjects in 2 to 4 pages.  The most memorable are as follows:

  • Love.   “When love beckons to you, follow him.  Though his ways are hard and steep.  And when his wings enfold you yield to him.  Though the sword hidden among his pinions may wound you….  For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.  Even as he is for your growth so is he for your pruning….  Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself.  Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love is sufficient unto love.”  Gibran says go for the gusto
  • Marriage.  “Love one another, but make not a bond of love:  Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls….  Give your hearts, but not into each other’s keeping.  For only the hand of Life can contain your hearts.  And stand together yet not too near together:  For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”  Gibran, who incidentally was never married, will not be defined by marriage.
  • Children.  “Your children are not your children.  They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself.  They come through you but not from you.  And though they are with you yet they belong not to you.  You may give them your love but not your thoughts.  For they have their own thoughts.”  Gibran will not live through the children he never had.
  • Giving.  “You give put little when you give of your possessions.  It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.  For what are your possessions but things that you keep and guard for fear you may need them tomorrow.  And tomorrow, what shall tomorrow bring to the overprudent dog burying bones in the trackless sand….  There are those who give little of the much which they have – and they give it for recognition and their hidden desire makes their gifts unwelcome….  It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding….  Therefore give now, that the season of giving may be yours and not your inheritors.  You would often say, ‘I would give, but only to the deserving….  Surely he who is worthy to receive his days and his nights, is worth of all else from you….’  And you receivers – and you all are receivers – assume no weight of gratitude lest you lay a yoke upon yourself and upon him who receives.”  Gibran reveals his socialistic, Catholic tendencies.
  • Joy and sorrow.  “Your joy is your sorrow unmasked….  The deeper that your sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain….  Together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep with you upon your bed.”  The ying and the yang mark much of Gibran’s philosophy.
  • Clothes.  “Your clothes conceal much of your beauty, yet they hide not the unbeautiful.”
  • Buying and selling.  “It is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied.  Yet unless the exchange be in love and kindly justice, it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.”  Socialism again rears its ugly head. 
  • Crime and punishment.  “Oftentimes I have heard you speak of one who commits a wrong as though he were not one of you, but a stranger unto you and intruder into your world.  But I say that even as the holy and the righteous cannot rise beyond the highest which is in each of you, So the wicked and the weak cannot fall lower than the lowest which is in you also.”  Gibran is extremely nonjudgmental (a kindred spirit).
  • Laws.  “You delight in laying down laws, Yet you delight more in breaking them.”  Reminds me of Shakespeare’s admonition about lawyers.
  • Reason and passion.  “Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.  If either your sails or your rudder be broken, you can toss and drift, or else be held at a standstill in mid-seas….  I would have you consider your judgment and your appetite even as you would two loved guest in your house.  Surely you would not honour one guest above the other; for he who is more mindful of one loses the love and the faith of both.”  More ying and yang.
  • Teaching.  “No man can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge.  The teacher who walks in the shadow of the temple, among his followers, gives not of his wisdom but rather of his faith and lovingness.  If he is indeed wise he does not bid you enter the house of his wisdom, but rather leads you to the threshold of your own mind.”  The ultimate liberal.
  • Friendship.  “When you part from your friend, you grieve not;  For that which you love most in him may be clearer in his absence, as the mountain to the climber is clearer from the plain.  And let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit.  For love that seeks aught but the disclosure of its mystery is not love but a net cast forth; and only the unprofitable is caught.”  The essence of Gibran’s philosophy.
  • Talking.  “And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.”  Ironically, the bulk of this book consists of Gibran talking
  • Good and evil.  “You are good when you strive to give of yourself.  Yet you are not evil when you seek gain for yourself.  For when you strive to gain you are but a root that clings to the earth and sucks at her breast.  Surely the fruit cannot say to the root, ‘Be like me, ripe and full and ever giving of your abundance.’  For the fruit giving is a need, as receiving is a need for the root.”  Again, nonjudgmental to an extreme.
  • Prayer.  “You pray in your distress and in your need; would that you might pray also in the fullness of your joy and in your days of abundance.”
  • Pleasure.  “And you ask in your heart, ‘How shall we distinguish that which is good in pleasure from that which is not good?’  Go to your fields and your gardens, and you shall learn that it is the pleasure of the bee to gather honey of the flower.  But is also the pleasure of the flower to yield its honey to the bee.  For to the bee a flower is a fountain of life, And to the flower a bee is a messenger of love, And to both, bee and flower, the giving and the receiving of pleasure is a need and an ecstasy.”  Sounds idyllic to me.

The Prophet concluded his soliloquy by asserting that the adage you are as strong as your weakest link was a half-truth – “You are also as strong as your strongest link.  To measure you by your smallest deed is to reckon the power of the ocean by the frailty of its foam.”

The Prophet also questioned the strength of words – “I only speak to you in words of that which you yourselves know in thought.  And what is word knowledge but a shadow of wordless knowledge?” 

I was struck by The Prophet’s recognition that he was a loner – “And some of you have called me aloof, and drunk with my own aloneness, And you have said, ‘He holds council with the trees of the forest, but not with men.  He sits alone on hill-tops and looks down upon our city.’  True it is that I have climbed the hills and walked in remote places.  How could I have seen you save from a great height or a great distance?”

The Prophet gave his final good-bye with a suggestion of reincarnation – “Forget not that I shall come back to you.  A little while, and my longing shall gather dust and foam for another body.  A little while, a moment of rest upon the wind, and another woman shall bear me.”     

My ex-girlfriend who gave me The Prophet was especially moved by one of its 26 poetic essays.  Unfortunately, I failed to mark that essay, and despite reading twice this slim volume (96 pages), I have been unable identify the essay.  (I’m leaning toward the essay on Friendship.)  Maybe someday I will have an epiphany.