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The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

The Prophet (1923)

by Kahlil Gibran

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Kahlil Gibran

The Prophet

Wordsworth Classics, Paperback, 1996.

8vo. xvi+60 pp. Introduction by Christine Baker [v-xiv]. Cover: Study of Camels and Bedouin Drivers in the Desert of Mount Sinai by John Frederick Lewis (1805-76).

First published, 1923.
This edition first published, 1996.


Biographical Note
Suggestions for Further Reading

The Prophet


Talk about style over substance! This is the ultimate example. The style is a beautiful poetry in prose, seductively melodious and richly metaphorical, all the more remarkable since English was not the author’s first language. But the substance is slight and trite!

Since this booklet consists of nothing but preaching by “The Prophet”, its value, such as it is, must rest on his aphoristic wisdom. For much the greater part, this is devastatingly pedestrian. The most profound thing he can tell you about marriage is that both parties should be allowed some freedom. Children, he states, are our future, but we must not try to make them like us because we cannot know the future. Obvious, is it! When he switches to more philosophical matters, The Prophet is even more pathetic. All he has to say about beauty is that it is a subjective form of ecstasy and all he has to say about time is that it is a man-made fiction. Obvious, is it! He is willing to speak about good but not about evil. Why? “For what is evil but good tortured by its own hunger and thirst?” Really? Outdated concepts like God and prayer don’t help the matter, either. Sometimes – rather often indeed! – The Prophet doesn’t seem to make any sense at all:

For what is it to die but to stand naked in the wind and to melt into the sun?
And what is to cease breathing, but to free the breath from its restless tides, that it may rise and expand and seek God unencumbered?
Only when you drink form the river of silence shall you indeed sing.
And when you have reached the mountain top, then you shall begin to climb.
And when the earth shall claim your limbs, then shall you truly dance.

Apart from very occasional flash of epigrammatic brilliance (e.g. “And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered), there was little in The Prophet’s sermons that made me pause and think. And that little was not always worth it. For example:

You give but little when you give of your possessions.
It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.

Now, this seems profound. Only seems so. The majority of people are slaves to possessions. They would freely give you their precious time and sage advice, but would be reluctant to let you use an old lamp that has been collecting dust in the attic for ages. On the subject of giving, The Prophet misses the point completely: “It is well to give when asked, but it is better to give unasked, through understanding”. Nope. The other way round. You should give when asked, for this is when the other party really needs your help (asking for it was probably hard). When you give unasked, you give more to satisfy your own vanity than to please the other party. More often than not, this self-indulgent giving strains the relationship.

The Prophet praises work highly because “work is love made visible.” Nice phrase, but the real situation is a bit more complex. There is work that people love and live for, or at least like enough to feel a sense of self-fulfilment. Then there is work that is forced on people, unpleasant, exhausting and nothing but a source of psychopathological conditions. Were it not for the money and leisure, such as they are, that it brings, people never would have done it. And finally, there is WORK that is not only forced on people but actually kills them, slowly yet surely. The Prophet’s reply to this is the following:

And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

This is rude. But one mustn’t judge The Prophet too hard. He roams through the clouds and cannot be expected to comprehend that the vast majority of people on Earth simply have no choice.

When he fancies himself an authority on business relations, The Prophet urges you either to buy or to sell, but never both. This may have been feasible in 1923 BC, though I rather doubt it, but it must have been badly dated even in 1923 AD. In 2016 AD, it is simply impossible. Of course, he is right that “unless the exchange be in love and kindly justice, it will but lead some to greed and others to hunger.” But that doesn’t change the fact this is not always the case. Indeed, looking globally, it is seldom the case. Nor is it true that “the gifts of the earth” are abundant enough to satisfy our needs. They are not. It is up to us to supplement them with artificial production and thus prevent natural destruction.

Crude black-and-white reasoning is quite common throughout the whole book. The Prophet is not keen on nuance or subtlety. He is particularly virulent on the subject of comfort: “Verily the lust for comfort murders the passion of the soul, and then walks grinning in the funeral.” Verily, I say unto you, Mr Prophet, it is a lot more complicated than that. Lust, in a sense of immoderate desire, is always harmful, but so is the complete lack of comfort, be it forced or wilful. There is nothing wrong, and much right, with a moderate desire for comfort as means to higher ends. If you want a mature discourse on the subject, read Aldous Huxley’s essay of the same name.

On the top of all that, The Prophet is a bit of a masochist:

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

In one of his rare flashes of genuine wisdom, The Prophet asserts that almost all of us are something like masochists. We find it harder to profit from our joy than to suffer from our sorrow. In a way, we cannot truly appreciate the one without the other: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” In another, less successful attempt to unite masochism with wisdom, The Prophet proclaims that “much of your pain is self-chosen.” This is true, but only in the limited number of people who wallow in self-sacrifice and self-pity. In the great majority of cases people suffer, not because they choose to, but because they have no choice: either somebody chooses for them, or nature deals them a nasty hand. The Prophet says we should accept this bitter potion from the physician because he is “guided by the tender hand of the Unseen”. If that makes any sense, I’m not aware of it. The masochistic obsession reaches its climax, predictably enough, when we talk about love:

Love has no other desire but to fulfil 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.
To be wounded by your own understanding of love;
And to bleed willingly and joyfully.
To wake at dawn with a winged heart and give thanks for another day of loving;
To rest at the noon hour and meditate love's ecstasy;
To return home at eventide with gratitude;
And then to sleep with a prayer for the beloved in your heart and a song of praise upon your lips.

The first line is fine and true. The next five are empty rhetoric. The rest seems to describe affection rather than love. As if they had anything to do with each other! In The Summing Up (1938), Somerset Maugham argues along these lines with profound insight well beyond Gibran’s florid metaphors and simplistic clichés.

The Prophet is slightly less platitudinous and more stimulating on teaching, laws, crime and punishment. He is doubtless correct that teachers can do no more than lead you “to the threshold of your own mind”. This is a rare vocation. That’s why there are so few teachers and so many taskmasters. The Prophet is also correct that we are fond of making laws and fonder of breaking them. He is harsh, and rightly so, on hypocritical or envious law-makers who eagerly forbid “vices” they secretly indulge in or irrationally hate. The man-made character of justice is an unfortunately timeless topic, but if you want some really powerful depictions of it, Melville’s Billy Budd and Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice are far better choices. The discourse of crime and punishment is admirably humanistic, arguing for lenient treatment because we are all mixtures of good and bad as well as putting a lot of the blame on the callousness of society, but this attitude is brought to unacceptable extremes:

And this also, though the word lie heavy upon your hearts:
The murdered is not unaccountable for his own murder,
And the robbed is not blameless in being robbed.
The righteous is not innocent of the deeds of the wicked,
And the white-handed is not clean in the doings of the felon.
Yea, the guilty is oftentimes the victim of the injured,
And still more often the condemned is the burden-bearer for the guiltless and unblamed.
You cannot separate the just from the unjust and the good from the wicked;
For they stand together before the face of the sun even as the black thread and the white are woven together.

Gibran’s grossly oversimplifying method, bad enough anyway, is here joined with disconcerting nihilism and cruelty. Heaven knows, there are plenty of crimes when provocation and retaliation have been carried too far, and many of these cases are anything but simple. Then the guilty are indeed the victims of the injured. But these are exceptions. There are far, far more cases where the only guilt of the victim is being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Did the victims of the latest suicide bombing or mass shooting deserve to die because there were adulterers, liars and shoplifters among them? To say that “you cannot separate the just from the unjust” is sheer pusillanimity and dodging the responsibility of justice. Nobody says this is easy or pleasant or infallible. But some concept of justice, however imperfect, is essential for any society if it is survive for at least a few generations.

Unlike many other reviewers, I will not often re-read The Prophet to be comforted or inspired. I’m glad I’ve read it once because it is short. For my part, this is a greatly overrated work; or overhyped rather, for many reviewers wax lyrical about it without actually saying why. I would read and re-read Maugham, Huxley, Hazlitt, Gibbon, Melville, Byron and Shakespeare, to name but a few great writers and great minds, for there is nothing Gibran says here that they haven’t said better. And besides, they have said a great deal The Prophet has never even dreamed of.

Kahlil Gibran reminds me of a pianist with good technique and beautiful sound, but no originality or power in his interpretations. He does decently well in the concert hall. But given the embarrassment of riches in the recording catalogues, who would like to listen to him at home? ( )
2 vote Waldstein | Aug 1, 2016 |
One of those books you will go to over and over again for comfort and wisdom and beauty. The language is transporting. ( )
  aclaybasket13 | Jul 29, 2016 |
Beautiful, amazing, spiritually-lifting little book that I have been flipping through for 25+ years! I highly recommend it - to everyone!!! ( )
  jennifersalderson | Jul 4, 2016 |

Perhaps this didn't appeal to me because I've heard a lot of it before, either the original quotes or echoed by other similar authors.

Perhaps I'm just not in the mindset for this right now.

But what I really think I didn't like was the endless succession of contradictions/paradoxes : I must be far from you to see you clearly, blah blah blah. I get the wisdom in some of that. But here it is over-done, & feels forced more often than not.

Even if Kahlil Gibran was the first to espouse these lessons (& I'm not claiming he was - I only know he pre-dates the modern examples), I do believe others have done it better, & in a more captivating manner. I know he & this book are much beloved. But now I know why this hung out on my shelf unfinished for so long. ( )
  LauraCerone | May 26, 2016 |
  Jway | Apr 18, 2016 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Kahlil Gibranprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
McFarlane, RobertPhotographersecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Almustafa, the chosen and the beloved, who was a dawn unto his own day, had waited twelve years in the city of Orphalese for his ship that was to return and bear him back to the isle of his birth.
You have been told that, even like a chain, you are as weak as your weakest link.
This is but half the 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.
And ever has it been that love knows not its own depth until the hour of desperation.
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. And when he speaks to you believe in him...
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 give but little when you give of your possessions. It is when you give of yourself that you truly give.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Library of Congress please note: this is NOT a work written in Arabic and translated into English. It is a work written in English by a Lebanese poet.
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Book description
Kahlil Gibran, born in Lebanon, is well known throughout the Arab world as well as the West for his poetry, art and philosophy. The Prophet, one of Gibran’s most celebrated books, is his first published collection of poems and has been translated into more than twenty languages. This 2001 edition of his book includes 12 of Gibran’s own drawings.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0394404289, Hardcover)

In a distant, timeless place, a mysterious prophet walks the sands. At the moment of his departure, he wishes to offer the people gifts but possesses nothing. The people gather round, each asks a question of the heart, and the man's wisdom is his gift. It is Gibran's gift to us, as well, for Gibran's prophet is rivaled in his wisdom only by the founders of the world's great religions. On the most basic topics--marriage, children, friendship, work, pleasure--his words have a power and lucidity that in another era would surely have provoked the description "divinely inspired." Free of dogma, free of power structures and metaphysics, consider these poetic, moving aphorisms a 20th-century supplement to all sacred traditions--as millions of other readers already have. --Brian Bruya

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:25 -0400)

(see all 7 descriptions)

The Syrian author, a poet, mystic and painter, was born in Palestine but lived in America for over twenty years. Translated from the Arabic, these widely-read, often profound meditations upon life and people bear a resemblance to some parts of the Bible in both content and style.… (more)

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13 editions of this book were published by Audible.com.

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Penguin Australia

3 editions of this book were published by Penguin Australia.

Editions: 0140194479, 0141187018, 0141194677

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An edition of this book was published by Tantor Media.

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