The Prophet, by Kahlil Gibran, seems designed to appeal to people who are looking for inspiration. That is why I have dipped into it at various times in the past – and it may explain why I have previously put it aside after reading one or two of the 26 poems it contains. My mind does not seem to be capable of being inspired more than a few mystical messages at a time.
The Prophet, published in 1923, made Kahlil Gibran the best-selling American poet of the 20th century. I have previously thought of Gibran as a Lebanese poet and artist, but he apparently lived most of his life in America. Although The Prophet was hugely popular, its “earnest, didactic romanticism” found little favour with America’s literary critics.
While dipping into the book recently, it struck me that Gibran had been successful in reaching a large audience because he used mystical poetry to put words into the mouth of Almustafa, an imaginary prophet. That technique did not appeal to literary critics, but it helped make the messages seem profound to many other readers.
However, I have struggled to get a clear overall picture of the views Gibran was presenting. In an attempt to come to grips with the main themes, I have identified what seems to me to be the main idea in each of the 26 poems and then allocated each idea among the following six categories: physiological needs, personal relationships, psychological well-being, self-direction, living in harmony with nature, and transcendence. The first five of those categories correspond broadly to the basic goods of a flourishing human, as identified in my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing.
What follows is a summary of what I see as the main ideas in the book. As far as possible, I have tried to use Gibran’s words.
The main ideas
The activities involved in meeting basic needs should be seen to have a higher purpose. Eating and drinking has potential to be a process in which “the pure and the innocent of forest and plain are sacrificed for that which is purer and still more innocent in man”. Work has potential to be joyful, “love made visible”. Market exchange has potential to serve a higher purpose because “it is in exchanging the gifts of the earth that you shall find abundance and be satisfied”.
The “lust for comfort” can be harmful. A desire for comfortable housing “murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral”. Those who seek the “the freedom of privacy” through excessive clothing “may find in them a harness and a chain”. It would be preferable to “meet the sun and the wind with more of your skin and less of your raiment”.
If we must measure time into seasons, “let each season encircle all the other seasons, and let today embrace the past with remembrance and the future with longing”.
You should “let there be no purpose in friendship save the deepening of the spirit”. “When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market-place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.” If love is accompanied by desire, let that desire be:
“To melt and be like a running brook that sings its melody to the night. To know the pain of too much tenderness.”
Marriage partners should give their hearts, “but not into each other’s keeping”:
“For the pillars of the temple stand apart, And the oak tree and the cypress grow not in each other’s shadow.”
“Some of you say, ‘Joy is greater than sorrow,’ and others say, ‘Nay, sorrow is the greater.’ But I say unto you, they are inseparable.”
If you “wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy”.
If you want to know the secret of death, “open your heart wide unto the body of life. For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.”
When you make gifts, “it is life that gives unto life - while you, who deem yourself a giver, are but a witness.” People have different motives for making gifts. Some “give and know not pain in giving, nor do they seek joy, nor give with mindfulness of virtue; they give as in yonder valley the myrtle breathes its fragrance into space.”
No teacher “can reveal to you aught but that which already lies half asleep in the dawning of your knowledge”. You seek self-knowledge because “your ears thirst for the sound of your heart’s knowledge”. … “And it is well you should.”
“Pleasure is a freedom-song.” … “Even your body knows its heritage and its rightful need and will not be deceived. And your body is the harp of your soul, and it is yours to bring forth sweet music from it or confused sounds.”
“Your reason and your passion are the rudder and the sails of your seafaring soul.”
People view the law in different ways. Some “delight in laying down laws”, yet “delight more in breaking them”. Some “see only their own shadows, and their shadows are their laws” because they stand “with their backs to the sun”. … But you who walk facing the sun, what images drawn on the earth can hold you?”
In order to be just it is necessary to look upon all deeds in the light of knowledge “that the erect and the fallen are but one man standing in twilight between the night of his pigmy-self and the day of his god-self.”
You can only be free “when you cease to speak of freedom as a goal and a fulfilment”. … “And if it is a despot you would dethrone, see first that his throne erected within you is destroyed. For how can a tyrant rule the free and the proud, but for a tyranny in their own freedom and a shame in their own pride?”
You do not own 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.”
Living in harmony with nature
[Respect for nature pervades the book, but the prophet is not asked a specific question about living in harmony with nature.]
When asked to speak of religion, Almustafa asks: “Have I spoken this day of aught else?” … “Your daily life is your temple and your religion. Whenever you enter into it take with you your all.”
When you pray, “God listens not to your words save when He Himself utters them through your lips.”
When you have spoken of beauty, “you spoke not of her but of needs unsatisfied”. “Beauty is not a need but an ecstasy” … “a heart inflamed and a soul enchanted” … “beauty is life when life unveils her holy face. But you are life and you are the veil.”
“You are good in countless ways, and you are not evil when you are not good. You are only loitering and sluggard” … “In your longing for your giant self lies your goodness: and that longing is in all of you.”
“To judge you by your failures is to cast blame upon the seasons for their inconstancy. … And though in your winter you deny your spring, Yet spring, reposing within you, smiles in her drowsiness and is not offended.”
There are at least two major themes in The Prophet.
One theme encourages readers to ponder how all aspects of their lives can be directed toward purposes beyond survival and personal comfort. Religious traditions have long promoted similar ideals.
Another theme is the importance of individual self-expression and self-development. Individuals are urged to recognize their own potential for good and to express that potential in their relationships with others.
I cannot defend all of the messages of Gibran’s prophet. However, I support the broad themes of his teachings, while recognizing that those themes are not original.