TE Lawrence is a notable leader because he led an alien people with great success in an unconventional war—as it happens, the “prince from nowhere” or “strange champion” who appears to lead a tribe to which he does not belong often features in European folklore and legend. So Lawrence’s actions were not unique, and the existence of such leaders confounds simplistic nationalism and presents an evolutionary picture that is somewhat more complex than mere tribalism.
A person’s character is more less evident from the day they are born, and merely confirmed by age three or so. From an early age Lawrence was an explorer—as a baby he climbed to high windowsills. He was also a natural leader and organised games—often games that involved risk; he stole a punt and travelled down the Thames in it at night with friends. He had a natural sympathy with other people and could imitate, though not to a narcissistic extent, their behaviour back to them.
Perhaps due to her own guilt because she stole another man’s wife, Lawrence’s mother was extremely religious and wanted her sons to be missionaries. Lawrence was not interested in Islam, despite his time with the Arabs, and only admired it for its emphasis on charity—nor was he Christian, being against missions. However, from an early age he was fascinated by the knightly ethos; he took church rubbings of knights as a boy and immersed himself in romantic medieval literature about knights at Oxford. His contemporaries noted he was uninterested in career or achievement but rather held himself aloof like an ascetic on a spiritual quest. Later, an Arab woman employed by an American mission noted that he treated every task as “a devotion”, so that he worked through it in a holistic and thorough way as an offering.
However, Lawrence was also noted to have a nihilistic aspect to his personality. When an excavation in the Middle East went wrong he said, “What does it matter?”. Yet this was not nihilistic despair, it was divine carelessness: over his cottage, Clouds Hill, he engraved “Does not care” in Ancient Greek—a reference to Alcibiades, who, unlike careful Socrates, danced wildly for sheer joy. When Lawrence led it was remarked that he turned every activity into a childlike game, so it was enjoyed by everyone—this was the second childhood described by Nietzsche and Jung, maturity as the seriousness of a child at play. Unlike the strict Germans, who numbered the Arabs and beat them as they built a railway for the Ottomans, Lawrence was always overwhelmed by Arab workers for his archeological dig because to work for him—though he worked hard—was a pleasure.
So we see in Lawrence a strict spiritual discipline, developed by his mother and his medieval studies, combined with a classical notion that a man should live with divine playfulness, with every activity a game—a divine game, an offering. This was over layered on an aristocratic character and intellect rooted in adventure but garnished with the common touch—his mother was born out of wedlock, stole another man’s wife, and so he was similarly at odds with authority even as he exercised it. A man with rare and contrary qualities.