Friday, June 05, 2015

Book: The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (1923)


'The Prophet' by Kahlil Gibran is has got a few things wrong with it, which I'd like to get out of the way before moving on to the positives. The back cover of my version states that the book is apparently "regarded as the twentieth century's bestselling book after the Bible". It's an impressive claim, but one with little basis. Wikipedia states that the Bible does hold the record with the Guinness Book of World Records estimating that some 5 billion copies have been sold. In contrast, The Prophet appears to have sold 11 million copies. It isn't small potatoes but it doesn't come close to its grand claim.

The biblical style of writing also comes across at times as pretentious, although it is used to great effect. As to the content, or teachings, several of the chapters don't resonate with my views, nor do they win me over - so much for the universality of the message ("I speak only to you in words of that which you yourselves know in thought"). However, the overall message is uplifting and positive.

Criticisms out of the way, there are many positives that make The Prophet a worthy read. Gibran's writing is highly evocative and poetical and his artistry is wonderful (his paintings are similar to the work of William Blake). It is clear that the book is not a rushed work but one of repeated consideration and it's easy to see how it can reach out and touch the hearts of its readers. See below for my favourite passages from the text.

My version of the book (published by Oneworld) included an in-depth introduction that provided useful background and context about the Gibran and Mary Haskell (his confidant on the project). Here are some snippets from the intro:

Gibran: 'I want the rythm and words right so that they shan't be noticed by shall sink in like water into cloth; and the thought be the thing that registers.'

Gibran: 'This book is only a small part of what I have seen of what I see every day, a small part of the many things yearning for expression in the silent hearts of men and their souls.'


'A broad range of influences is detectable in the The Prophet, including the Bible, Hinduisim, Budhhism, Sufi mysticism, the Romantics, the popular schools of American thought, Ralph Waldo Emerson and William Blake with their respective beliefs in the Oversoul and the Universal Man, and Friedrich Nietzsche, whose Zarathrustra resembles Gibran's own prophet in certain superficial respects but differs fundamentally in others.' 


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Quotes from The Prophet

The Coming of the Ship

Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

And what shall I give unto him who has left his slough in midfurrow, or to him who has stopped the wheel of his winepress?

A seeker of silences am I, and what treasure have I found in silences that I may dispense with confidence?

Deep is your longing for the land of your memories and the dwelling-place of your greater desires; and our love would not bind you nor our needs hold you.

On Love

For even as love crowns you so shall he crucify you.

Love has no other desire but to fulfill itself.
But if you love and must needs have desires, let these be your desires:
To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night.
To know the pain of too much tenderness.

On Marriage

But let there be spaces in your togetherness.
And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.

Love one another, but make not a bond of love:
Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls.
Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup.
Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf.
Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone,
Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.

...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.

On Children

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.
You may house their bodies but not their souls,
For their souls dwell in the house of to-morrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.

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.

On Work

You work that you may keep pace with the earth and the soul of the earth.
For to be idle is to become a stranger unto the seasons, and to step out of life’s procession that marches in majesty and proud submission towards the infinite.

And to love life through labour is to be intimate with life’s inmost secret.

On Joy and Sorrow

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked.

And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.

When you are joyous, look deep into your heart and you shall find it is only that which has given you sorrow that is giving you joy.
When you are sorrowful, look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.

Verily you are suspended like scales between your sorrow and your joy.

On Houses

And tell me, people of Orphalese, what have you in these houses?
And what is it you guard with fastened doors?
Have you peace, the quiet urge that reveals your power?
Have you remembrances, the glimmering arches that span the summits of the mind?
Have you beauty, that leads the heart from things fashioned of wood and stone to the holy mountain?
Tell me, have you these in your houses?
Or have you only comfort, and the lust for comfort, that stealthy thing that enters the house a guest, and then becomes a host, and then a master?

Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.

You shall not fold your wings that you may pass through doors, nor bend your heads that they strike not against a ceiling, nor fear to breathe lest walls should crack and fall down.
You shall not dwell in tombs made by the dead for the living.
And though of magnificence and splendour, your house shall not hold your secret nor shelter your longing.

On Reason and Passion

Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.

On Talking

And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered. For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

On Time

Yet the timeless in you is aware of life’s timelessness,
And knows that yesterday is but to-day’s memory and to-morrow is to-day’s dream.

On Good and Evil

Pity that the stags cannot teach swiftness to the turtles.

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