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Perspective: John E. Mack on Lawrence

From the preface to the 1998 edition of John E. Mack’s Pulitzer Prize winning biography A Prince of Our Disorder: The Life of T.E. Lawrence

“Looking back over more than two decades since publication of the first edition of A Prince of Our Disorder, I find myself asking what now seems most significant about the life of T.E. Lawrence.

The answer appears curiously clear to me and has to do with Lawrence’s place among our evolving definitions of political responsibility. In my view he was ahead of this time in this respect, and his odd martyrdom can be seen as a contemporary version of what is likely to befall a person who takes exaggerated individual moral responsibility in a turbulent political arena.

Ethnonational conflict is the dominant context in which peoples in the Middle East, and now throughout the world, seek to define and express their political and personal identities, most often at the expense of other peoples who define themselves in terms of the same piece of land. Lawrence saw clearly the terrible menace of such conflict, especially when potentiated by religious emotion….

Lawrence was far ahead of his time in appreciating the central importance of self-knowledge, of awareness of deeper personal motives on the part of a person who would be an agent of change in a larger political drama. Of his motivation in the Arab Revolt, Lawrence wrote, “The self-immolated victim took for his own the rare gift of sacrifice; and no pride and few pleasures in the world were so joyful, so rich as this choosing voluntarily another’s evil to protect the self. There was a hidden selfishness in it as in all perfections.”