Seven pillars of wisdom : a triumph

by T. E. Lawrence

Paper Book, 1976

Status

Available

Publication

London : Cape, 1976.

Description

This is Lawrence's epic account of the First World War as it was fought in the deserts of the Middle East by the Arab tribes in revolt against the Ottoman Empire. Part traditional history and travel writing, and part philosophy, it remains a testimony to one of the 20th century's most intriguing figures.

Media reviews

Abinger Harvest
That is what the book is about, and it could only be reviewed authoritatively by a staff officer who knows the East. That is what the book is about, and Moby Dick was about catching a whale. For round this tent-pole of a military chronicle T.E. has hung an unexampled fabric of portraits, descriptions, philosophies, emotions, adventures, dreams.... He has also contributed to sociology, in recording what is probably the last of the picturesque wars. Camels, pennants, the blowing up of little railway trains...
1 more
The author himself had described Seven Pillars in these terms, in a letter to Charlotte Shaw in 1923: ... it's more a storehouse than a book - has no unity, is too discursive, dispersed, heterogeneous. I've shot into it, as a builder into his yard, all the odds and ends of ideas which came to me during those years ... (Lawrence, 2000: 33) And he proved himself no indexer's friend in the matter of consistency. He wrote: Arabic names won't go into English, exactly ... There are some 'scientific systems' of transliteration... I spell my names anyhow, to show what rot the systems are. (Lawrence, 1935: 19)

User reviews

LibraryThing member jwhenderson
T. E. Lawrence's masterpiece was published in 1926 even though he wrote most of it about 1919 following his return from the desert. Reading this classic account of Lawrence's exploits is both exhilarating and informative. I am impressed by his depiction of Arab culture of the time and its seeming connection with past and present. The importance of tales told around the hearth as the heart of Arab culture seems to be similar to the culture encountered by Muhammad as he was growing up centuries earlier. Further, Lawrence's keen ability to describe his surroundings and bring the events, of which he was often the center, alive is shown in almost every chapter. The portraits of the Arab leaders from Abdulla and Auda to Feisel are fascinating in their detail and psychological insight. Lawrence, it seems, was born for this journey and fated to share it with us. T. E. Lawrence acted upon his dream 'with open eyes' and made it happen. In a book filled with deception he gives us a view into the world before the end of World War I changed everything. We see the various Arab factions and the deals made with the British. More importantly we are given insight into the men through Lawrence's eyes, his acute judgement, and his poetic narrative. He notes the keys to the Arab Revolt in the common language they shared and their heritage of the greatness that existed under the Caliphs going back to the six centuries following the death of Muhammad. We share in his pangs of conscience and his judgements of others and his own life and actions. He notes that "feeling and illusion were at war within me" and it reminds me of the birth of modernity with Faustian man. Also important are his comments on the British in the Middle East and the nature of the soldier in war. Ultimately I was moved and found support for my own subjunctive mood in this inspirational book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Banbury
IT’S LONELY AT THE TOP

Despite the cast of seeming thousands (all named Hussein, Abdullah, or Ali), it seems the only real characters in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are T.E. Lawrence, the landscape, and the weather. The other “people” are just background, or perhaps two dimensional archetypes. For example, Feisal is a personification of a saint—willing to bear anything for the cause, and endowed with all human graces appropriate to that cause. Farraj and Daud are like Greek symbols of innocent boy-love and perfect loyalty. Although the humans may indeed be as beautiful as artworks, they do not seem to be fully human:

He had large eloquent eyes, like black velvet in richness. His forehead was low and broad, his nose very high and sharp, powerfully hooked: his mouth rather large and mobile: his beard and moustaches had been trimmed to a point in Howeitat style, with lower jaw shaven underneath.

Chapter 38, p. 225 (describing Auda). In contrast, the landscape, sky, and weather fairly breathe and undulate, and emote almost humanly:

For years we lived anyhow with one another in the naked desert, under the indifferent heaven. By day the hot sun fermented us; we were dizzied by the heating wind. At night we were stained by dew, and shamed into pettiness by the innumerable silences of stars.

Chapter 1, p. 28. Another example:

The swell of every curve was a grey breast of sand set hard with mud, sometimes glistening with salt-crystals, and sometimes rough with the projecting brush of half-buried twigs which had caused it.

Chapter 74, p. 409.
It was difficult to get through the first two hundred or so pages—I could not find any rhythm or pattern to the account. The story did not read smoothly, but jerked along with new names of people and new names of places (and I was not always sure which was which), and then with a sudden lurch of a compelling vignette. I guess it was like learning to ride a camel—the ride does not really get any smoother, but you learn not to fight the movement carrying you along. By the end, I could appreciate that because this book is more a journey into the psyche of Lawrence than a recounting of war experiences. Events would be remembered in idiosyncratic ways and with importance measured by the effect on and memory of Lawrence rather than the historicity of the tale. The journey was an interesting travelogue, beginning with an “indifferent heaven” with freedom the object of his faith, and feeling himself and the Arabs to be mere “sentient puppets on God’s stage.” (Chapter 1, p.28). Before the journey was over, Lawrence had in his own mind become something greater than Jesus:

It might have been heroic to have offered up my own life for a cause in which I could not believe: but it was a theft of souls to make others die in sincerity for my graven image. Because they accepted our message as truth, they were ready to be killed for it; a condition which made their acts more proper than glorious, a logical bastard fortitude, suitable to a profit and loss balance of conduct. To invent a message, and then with open eye to perish for its self-made image—that was greater.

Chapter 100, p. 548. It could be argued that Lawrence did not perish, but if we circle back to the Introduction, Lawrence tells us quite clearly that he was destroyed by his self-sacrifice for the Arab and English irreconcilable causes:

In my case, the effort for these years to live in the dress of Arabs, and to imitate their mental foundation, quitted me of my English self, and let me look at the West and its conventions with new eyes: they destroyed it all for me. At the same time I could not sincerely take on the Arab skin: it was an affectation only. Easily was a man made an infidel, but hardly might he be converted to another faith. I had dropped one form and not taken on the other, and was become like Mohammed’s coffin in our legend…

Chapter 1, p. 31. So he also compares himself to Mohammed! Yet, ironically, all this self-exultation just leads Lawrence to feel completely alienated from other people:

They talked of food and illness, games and pleasures, with me, who felt that to recognize our possession of bodies was degradation enough, without enlarging upon their failings and attributes. I would feel shame for myself at seeing them wallow in the physical which could be only a glorification of man’s cross. Indeed, the truth was I did not like the ‘myself’ I could see and hear.

Chapter 103, p. 565. The price of divinity is self-loathing.
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LibraryThing member lriley
A great book. Beautifully written. Chronicles the WW I desert campaign that he helped to organize and in some respects lead. Like my previous review of Malaparte's Kaputt (WW II) the prose is elegant and appealing to the eye even if what it often describes is man in his cruelty to other men. Again like Malaparte's book it is not really fiction but it has an appeal like it--in its flow--in Lawrence's natural talent to use fictional devices. This would be one book that GWB and his neo-con friends might have thought of reading before they invaded Iraq. The area is something of the same quagmire then as it is now. Unfortunately Laura does all the reading at the White House. The president looks them in the eye and then deep into their souls. For what that is worth--it just doesn't seem enough. In any case this is a book worthy of attention especially in these times.… (more)
LibraryThing member thorold
Not an easy book to sum up in a paragraph or two: in many ways it's a big, shaggy mess, at times tediously self-centred and self-important, at times captivating and beautiful. You can put up with his endless agonising about his role in history and his "betrayal" of the Arabs, his sweeping generalisations about other people, his half-baked theories of this and that, his detached and callous descriptions of death and destruction; because there is nothing like the experience of riding across the desert with Lawrence. When he is talking about landscape, camels, tracks and wells, all the bloat and solipsism drops away, and his prose is perfectly fitted to what he is describing. Reading his descriptions of his journeys perversely gives a more intense visual experience than even the most technicoloured cinemascope version could hope to.… (more)
LibraryThing member amerynth
I read Michael Asher's "Lawrence: The Uncrowned King of Arabia" and enjoyed it so much that I wanted to read about the Arab Revolt in T.E. Lawrence's own words. Unfortunately, I only managed to get about half-way through the book... it was incredibly tedious and filled with minute detail that I found uninteresting (as someone who is merely casually interested in Arabian history.) This is probably a great tome for someone interested in serious study of Middle Eastern history... but for readers like me (who are more interested in adventure stories and more generalized history) this book is too plodding to enjoy.… (more)
LibraryThing member steve_d27
If the US had read this twice before going into Iraq a second time, things could be different.
LibraryThing member amanda4242
Tonight I finished [Seven Pillars of Wisdom], a book I've started reading half a dozen times before without making it to the end. It's very long, and can be tedious at times, but then there will be a thrilling scene of setting explosives while the enemy is near or a painfully beautiful description of the desert.

Lawrence's account of the revolt in the desert should not be taken as the definitive--or even reliable--history of the conflict, but he never intended it to be. As he writes in the introductory chapter: "In these pages the history is not of the Arab movement, but of me in it. It is a narrative of daily life, mean happenings, little people. Here are no lessons for the world, no disclosures to shock peoples. It is filled with trivial things, partly that no one mistake for history the bones from which some day a man may make history, and partly for the pleasure it gave me to recall the fellowship of the revolt." It is the romanticized, deeply personal truth of one man.

Throughout the book, Lawrence comes off as a very complicated person: self-aggrandizing and self-deprecating; highly intelligent, but inexperienced; romantic, but often clear-sighted and cynical. By the end, I found myself even more fascinated by this quixotic figure who found himself torn between conflicting loyalties.

I shall leave off with one of my favorite passages:

Later I was sitting alone in my room, working and thinking out as firm
a way as the turbulent memories of the day allowed, when the Muedhdhins
began to send their call of last prayer through the moist night over
the illuminations of the feasting city. One, with a ringing voice of
special sweetness, cried into my window from a near mosque. I found
myself involuntarily distinguishing his words: "God alone is great: I
testify there are no gods, but God: and Mohammed his Prophet. Come to
prayer: come to security. God alone is great: there is no god--but God.'

At the close he dropped his voice two tones, almost to speaking level,
and softly added: 'And He is very good to us this day, O people of
Damascus.' The clamour hushed, as everyone seemed to obey the call to
prayer on this their first night of perfect freedom. While my fancy, in
the overwhelming pause, showed me my loneliness and lack of reason in
their movement: since only for me, of all the hearers, was the event
sorrowful and the phrase meaningless. (Chapter CXX)
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
In bare terms, this is an autobiographical account of a British liaison officer and his adventures leading an Arab rebellion against the Turks. But there is much more than that. An account by a philosopher-traveler-soldier about war and adventure and heroism and all that.

It is a product of his time. And Lawrence does seem a bit patronizing about the Arabs and Turks. But in other times, he is astonishingly sensitive and well-attuned and insightful to their needs. How else could he have helped led a successful guerrilla campaign?

A book which still shines and has much to teach. If only he was in charge of the post-war partitioning of the world.
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LibraryThing member rocketjk
Seven Pillars of Wisdom is T.E. Lawrence's classic memoir of his time in the Arabian desert helping the many tribes try to coalesce into an effective fighting force in order to run the Turkish Empire out of the area, where they had been for centuries. Of course, Lawrence's real agenda was to help destroy the Turkish Army forces in the area and thereby help England and her allies win World War One. As Lawrence continues to gain ever greater trust and prestige among the Arab tribes and their leaders, his sense of fraudulence grows, as well. For the Arabs' cooperation is based in large part on English promises to ensure Arab independence after the war has been won, and Lawrence is fairly certain that the rulers of the Empire are dead set on colonization rather than independence for these people. Still, Lawrence's first loyalty is to king and country, so he carries on.

The tale is long in the telling, checking in at 660 pages. Lawrence was a very good writer, and his diaries were very detailed. The hardships and splendors of his many long trips on camelback through extremely arduous terrain and weather, the details of Beduin desert life, the personalities of the people he comes in contact with, influences and commands and their daily lives and mores, and the frustrations, follies and terrors of individual battles and war in general are all effectively and compellingly related. Sometimes the physical aspects journeys that turn out to be of relatively minimal import are described in such detail that they leave a reader wondering what the point of that particular description was. But in the end, the breadth and length of these details helped me get a real sense of the vast distances being traversed in a way that a more rushed exposition would not. Again, both the physical world of the desert in all its glory and appalling hardship, and the chaos of battle, are very, very well described. The inner-workings of the British high command on the Middle Eastern front, and the personalities involved there as well, are also revealed. So, although this book needs a commitment in time and psychic energy, I feel it is well worth both for anyone interested in the topics described here. The only areas in which I felt Lawrence went astray were in his often agonized reflections about human nature and the relationship between physical and moral desires. There is in particular a pages-long segment of such contemplations towards the end that was pretty much incomprehensible to me. All in all, though, these passages make up a very, very small percentage of the tale.

As I understand the wikipedia entry on Lawrence, it was early on assumed that he had embellished his tale freely, but that as biographers have researched the story they have come to think of Lawrence as a relatively trustworthy narrator after all. I could have that wrong, though.

There was an edited-down version of this memoir, published as Revolt in the Desert, made available during Lawrence's lifetime and still available today. This may be more to the liking of many readers, and, really, I couldn't blame anyone for sticking to the shorter version. Personally, though, I'm glad I made space for the long version.

wikipedia also mentions that fact that Lawrence refused to profit from the sales of either version of his memoirs, choosing instead to donate proceeds to charitable organizations.
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LibraryThing member benjaminorbach
Beyond the insights and history, this book is beautifully written.
LibraryThing member PghDragonMan
This book belongs on the bookshelf of any student of World Politics and / or Middle East Politics in particular. Despite the passing of the years, little has changed, other than some arbitrary borders being redrawn, in Arab politics since Lawrence's account was first published. The same problems that stymied the British in the early 20th Century are still preventing peace in the region today.

An excellent work and an excellent autobiography.
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LibraryThing member euang
A book for bedtime.....: Are you a philosopher? - Read no further, you might enjoy this book, if you can stay awake long enough - for the rest of us, this book, unlike its author, is just not interesting - it's too long-winded.
Definitely NOT a book to read in the 21st Century, it's just NOT of our time - the title is the most interesting thing about it.
It's about as interesting as that dull little tome by Ann Robinson.....zzzzzzzzzzz ......time for bed...
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LibraryThing member charlie68
A riveting ride through the desert with this man and his cohorts as they battle the Turks. From a small beginning they accomplish the seemingly impossible, the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.
LibraryThing member meegeekai
This is a tough read but one of the most interesting books on the Middle East you will ever read. This is the book that the movie, Lawrence of Arabia, was based on. What is interesting is, like the the book Europes Last Summer, it gives you a very different look at the causes for some of todays biggest issues, including the current war in Iraq. T.E.Lawrence was a genius and a leader. He got it rigth, but was put down by the higher echalon in power at the time. He was prophetic and predicted the problems we now have back in 1926. To understand why we have problems in the Middle East, you have to read this book.… (more)
LibraryThing member Johne37179
Anyone interested in events in Iraq cannot possibly place them in perspective without reading this book. This book about the Arab Rebellion of 1912 and the roll of Western Society/Democracy could be playing out today. The issues on the ground that face the indigenous people have not changed, only the names have changed. While we are not currently playing out the 19th Century Colonial roll, the local issues are spot on. This book reads like the headlines from the region. History has a way of thumbing its nose at those who ignore it.… (more)
LibraryThing member smith54a
The strength of this book is in the writing itself. If you have ever read "Sagittarius Rising" by Cecil Lewis you may agree with me.
Tedious? At times. Egotistical? Who wouldn't have been in that role? Truly a multi-level study of war, Arab culture, geography of the Arabian peninsula, his own homo-eroticism, and his underlying guilt at the British and French betrayal of the Arab people make this a classic that still explains and teaches today. It should be required reading for every President, Secretary of State, and everybody on the Middle East desk in the State Dept.… (more)
LibraryThing member Schmerguls
I know this is a classic and ever since in 1945 I learned it was a best seller in 1935 I have sort of wanted to read it. I came across a copy recently and decided I would never read it unlessI simply set out to do so. I found it drudgery often, detailing the events in the war against Turkey in 1917 and 1918 in so much detail that it made me wish that the end of the book would come--but it went on for over 600 pages. True, there are interesting and exciting episodes but the detail is often similar and seldom is there a date used--not even a year very often. So one does not know how close to the end the story is. I had hoped he would tell about his time at the Versailles peace conference but he does not. I would estimate the interesting pages in this 600 page book amount to about 75 pages.… (more)
LibraryThing member Annmarie_Banks
I selected this book to read as part of the research I was doing on my novel. I had seen the film "Lawrence of Arabia" in the past and now wanted to mine the book for details I needed to know about life among the Bedouin in 1920. I had planned to only read the parts I needed for my novel, but ended up devouring the whole thing. Then I read it again, parsing out what had now become an intense interest in TE's psychology. I then retreated to a biography and selected John Mack's "A Prince of our Disorder", not only because it won a Pulitzer, but because it was a psychological biography rather than the more materialistic ones that focused on TE's war efforts. (I do not care how Lawrence learned to blow up a train). As Lawrence's personality was dissected in that fabulous biography, I could not help but draw on a curious aspect of human-ness. There is a correlation between being deeply psychologically disturbed and fantastic achievements in some of history's greatest artists. Van Gogh, is the first who comes to mind, but Beethoven and Mozart and Wagner all had personality problems (I am being polite here), Degas, Cezanne, Gauguin: not particularly well-balanced. There are any number of examples, too many to discuss here. The opposite is true as well, as other men who are infamous rather than famous, and their achievements might be better categorized as harmful to humanity rather than having enriched it (these men tend to enter politics rather than the arts). But the point I am making is that in order to step out of the ordinary, the mold has to be broken, and cracking that mold often corresponds to a cracking the psyche. Reading Seven Pillars again after reading Mack's biography underlined the most poignant parts of the book, and watching the film again after being immersed in the two books brought out the fierce intent of the filmmakers to illustrate in sound and color what Lawrence meant to other people and to history, but not what that medium could convey to us what was churning in Lawrence's soul. They tried, they tried, and Peter O'Toole does a fantastic job looking like a tormented soul, his eyes at times full of humor and then pathos and then fear. But the screenplay cannot put the words in our ears that we need to hear in order to understand Lawrence. Only his own words can do that, and they are heartbreaking.… (more)
LibraryThing member crystalcarroll
A good book in its own right, filled with fascinating details, adventure, excitement, and introspection. It details a period in history that helped create the Modern world. for all of that, it is not only one of most successful examples of an autobiography that I have ever read.

It's also is one of those books. The books that help shape characters, dialog, and plot in other stories. Like a stone falling in a pond, the effect ripples out. I found myself recognizing so many ideas and concepts.

It is a brilliant book and a fascinating read. One word of warning however, a bit like a really large slice of chocolate fudge cake. It is hard to eat in one sitting.
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LibraryThing member srboone
Lawrence's towering epic of his campaigns in the Middle East durinf WWI. Brilliant, exhausting, egnimatic, arrogant, maddening but never really boring. I don't think I would have liked Lawrence musch as a person, but his memoir is illuminating to say the least.
LibraryThing member amandrake
Big, sprawling, and better than you'd think. I'm not a history buff and never will be, but this book is interesting, probably due to T.E. Lawrence's very quirky personality.
LibraryThing member mwlrh
If you want to understand the genesis of the modern Middle East and the attentive problems of today, this is a great book to start with. T.E. Lawrence writes with the fluidity of a poet, even if the narrative is a bit heavy in places because of the practice of the time to tell everything in detail. The movie is a good companion to this book, but the book is the main event. You just can't believe that one person had this grand adventure.… (more)
LibraryThing member Polaris-
A monumental book. Recounts in extensive detail the Arab revolt against the Ottomans during WW1 and how the British Army's Arabists played their parts. Lawrence's account has its great moments of prose.
LibraryThing member robertsgirl
Written between 1919 and 1926, this text tells of the campaign aganist the Turks in the Middle East, encompassing gross acts of cruelty and revenge, ending in a welter of stink and corpses in a Damascus hospital.Superb book. Must read.
LibraryThing member diocletian
Reportedly Army officers have been watching THE MOVIE for advice on how to make the Arabs win. Boys you may be about 5 years behind the curve here - most of THE BOOK is about how to help the Arabs paralyze their enemies by setting train-side bombs! Which is in the movie, under the guise of "the Arabs are greedy and corrupt." Not too useful as advice at the moment.… (more)

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