The Roots of Modernity

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is published here with the gracious permission of The Imaginative Conservative who published it in November 2012 with permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 35, No. 2, 1984).

The part of the title of this talk which I asked to have announced is “The Roots of Modernity.” But there is a second part which I wanted to tell you myself. The full title is: “The Roots of Modernity in Perversions of Christianity.”

The reason I wanted to tell you myself is that it is a risky title, which might be easily misunderstood, especially since “perversion” is strong language. So let me begin by explaining to you what I intend and why I chose to talk to you about such a subject.

I think you will recognize my first observation right off; you might even think it hardly worth saying. It is that we live in “the modern age.” We never stop trying to live up to that universally acknowledged fact: We are continually modernizing our kitchens, our businesses, and our religions.

Now, what is actually meant by “modern times?” The term cannot just mean “contemporary” because all times are contemporary with themselves. Modern is a Latin word which means “just now.” Modern times are the times which are in a special way “just now!” Modernity is just-nowness, up-to-date-ness. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like a very powerful distinguishing characteristic, because, again, what times are not just now for themselves? How is our modern age distinguished from ancient times, or from that in-between era we call the “middle” ages, all in comparison with our present times?

Well, the first answer is very simple. We live differently in our time from the way those who came before us lived in theirs. For instance, when we speak of something or even someone as being “up to date,” we are implying that what time it is, is significant, that time marches, or races, on by itself, and we have the task of keeping up with it. Our time is not a comfortable natural niche within the cycle of centuries, but a fast sliding rug being pulled out from under us.

Furthermore, we have a sense of the extraordinariness of our times; we think they are critical and crucial, that something enormous is about to be decided, or revealed. You might say that we don’t just have a sense of doom or delivery, but that things are, in fact, that way. And yet such a feeling of crisis has marked decades of every century for the last half-millennium. Modernity itself is, apparently, a way of charging the Now with special significance.

To ask about the roots of modernity is to ask what made this state, this chronically hectic state, we are in come about. By the roots of modernity, I mean the true beginnings, the origin of our way of being in time.

At this point, you might think that I am talking of history and that I am planning to lecture to you on the various historical movements which led up to our day. But not so. Such “movements” – be they the Protestant Reformation or the Industrial Revolution – are themselves only the names given to the sum of events which are in need of explanation. Let me give an example. Suppose I were to explain the resolve or habit some of you live with of turning directly to Scripture for your knowledge concerning faith, by saying that you are “products” of the Protestant Reformation. This historical explanation would sound as if I were saying something significant, but, in fact, it would say nothing about the inner reasons why a part of Christianity decided to return directly to the Bible. And inner reasons, namely ideas, are in the end the only satisfying explanation of the actions of human beings.

Next, in explaining my title, I have to tell you what I mean here by Christianity. I do not refer to the faith itself. Nor do I mean specific dogma, that is to say, dogmatics. What I do mean are certain spiritual and intellectual modes, certain ways of approaching thought and life and the world, which are perhaps more noticeable even to a non-Christian than to someone who lives within Christianity. I hope the examples I mean to give you will clarify what I am saying.

And finally, I want to define as carefully as possible what I mean by a “perversion.”

I do not mean something blatantly heretical or terrifically evil, which we moderns should cast out. For one thing, I am not myself a Christian, and it is not my business to demand the purification of other people’s faith. For another, I mean to show that all of us, simply by reason of living as moderns, have been deeply penetrated by these perversions and that we could hardly carry on without them. They are an unavoidable part of our lives. When I say “unavoidable” I do not mean that there is no possibility and no point in resisting them. In my opinion, there are no inevitable movements but only human beings willing, and on occasion unwilling, to go along. These perversions are unavoidable only in the sense that once certain very potent trains of ideas had been set into the world, they were bound to be carried beyond themselves, to be driven to their inherent but unintended conclusion.

Perhaps, then, I should speak less dramatically and say that it is the secularization of certain Christian notions that is at the root of modernity. Nevertheless, I do want to hold on to the stronger word to describe this development, and for the following reasons.

You all know what the sin of Satan is said to have been. It was resistance to God and rebellion against his creator, and its cause was pride, the sin of sins. Satanic pride, any pride, is, theologically speaking, a perverse will, literally a will that turns things awry. In particular, it overturns the relation of the creature to his creator. Satan rebels because he cannot bear to be derivative and subordinate, and least of all to be more remote from the center of knowledge than Christ. He communicates that terrible impatience to Eve in the Garden when he tempts her with the fruit of knowledge and promises “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” – in Latin, this is the scientia boni et mali.

Now, as it happens, the men of the generation around 1600 Anno Domini – the generation which was most pointedly responsible for modernity and in whose writings its roots are to be most explicitly seen – these men were also unspeakably proud. I am thinking of names probably familiar to you: of Galileo Galilei, of Rene Descartes and of Francis Bacon, an Italian, a Frenchman and an Englishman. You need only glance at the engraving published as the frontispiece of the most accessible translation of Descartes’ works to see how haughty he looks.

Nonetheless, anyone who reads their books must be struck with the sober and restrained character of their writing. They keep claiming that they are not revealing great mysteries or setting out momentous discoveries. They present themselves as merely having found a careful, universally accessible method, which, once they have set it out, can be used by all mankind. All that is needed is the willingness to throw off old prejudices and preoccupations, all that Bacon calls our “idols;” we are to throw off the nonsense of the ages and to apply sober human reason to clearly-defined problems. In other words, these initiators of modernity are preaching rebellion against the traditional wisdom, but in measured, careful, sometimes even dull words, so dry that students often get rather bored with reading them. That is, they get bored partly with the measured dryness with which this tremendous rebellion is announced, partly because the Baconian-Cartesian revolution is so much in our bones, has been so precisely the overwhelming success its authors expected it to be that we, its heirs, hardly recognize the revolutionary character of its original declarations of independence.

But the overweening pride of these first moderns was not essentially in the fact that they were aware of opening a new age. That was too obvious to them and they were of too superior a character to glory much in it. Their pride was the pride of rebellion, though not, perhaps, against God. Interpretations differ about their relations to faith, and I think they worshipped God in their way, or at least had a high opinion of him as the creator of a rationally accessible world, and they co-opted him as the guarantor of human rationality. Their rebellion is rather against all intermediaries between themselves and God and his nature. They want to be next to him and like him. So they fall to being not creatures but creators.

Let me give you a few bits of evidence for this contention. First, they all had a cautiously sympathetic respect for Satan.

For example, as you may know, both Galileo and Descartes had trouble with the publication of their works. Galileo had such trouble because he supported Copernicus in his view that the earth is not fixed at the center of the universe, but travels around, a wanderer (which is what the word planet literally means) in the world, so that we human beings become cosmic travelers, able to see the heavens from various perspectives. Now, the authorities of the Catholic Church at that time, considered the fixed central place of the earth as crucial to the character of the place God had chosen to become incarnate. But they were not so crude as to quarrel with an alternative astronomical hypothesis if it happened to be mathematically satisfying. What they forbade Galileo to assert in public was that this was the true reality and not just a possible theory. In this, they were in the best tradition of ancient science. The astronomers had always known that there were alternative mathematical hypotheses for explaining the heavenly motions, depending on one’s point of view. The Ptolemaic, geocentric system was simply the one more in accord with the evidence of our unaided sense – everyone can see the sun running through the sky – and the system then and now most useful for navigation. What the Church required of Galileo was that he should keep science hypothetical instead of claiming that it revealed the reality of the heavens; this earth’s motion could be asserted hypothetically but not as a fact. We all know that he pretended to yield, but is said to have muttered: “And yet it moves.” By that stubbornness, he showed himself the archetypal scientist. I mean, he made it possible for that word scientia which means simply knowledge, as in the scientia boni et mali, to come to be confined to such knowledge of reality as Galileo had, which is what we call science today. Among such realities is the fact that the heavens are full of real matter which is indistinguishable from and moves just as do the stones on earth.

Now Galileo and also Descartes, who had similar troubles with the theological faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, did find a publisher in Holland. And this Dutch publisher had a most revealing emblem which includes a very serpent-like vine twining around a tree, an apple tree, I imagine, whose fruit is the new scientia, modern science. Of course, the serpent is Satan’s shape as he tempts human beings to knowledge beyond that proper to a creature: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

A few more examples. When Bacon first sets out those procedures which are now smoothly familiar under the name of the scientific method, he constructed a type of experiment he slyly calls light-bringing or “luciferic” experiments. You all know that the angelic name of Satan before his revolution in heaven and his fall was Lucifer, or the Light-bearer. Again, some of you have probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost, and perhaps you can compare Milton’s Satan with Dante’s. Dante’s Satan is a horrible, inhuman figure encased in ice in the lowest hell in Inferno. Milton’s modern Satan has much grandeur. He is in fact represented as an overwhelmingly proud, antique, even Homeric, hero. Or one last example: Dr. Faustus, an evidently not altogether fictional scholar who stands on the brink of modernity, has a real intimacy with the devil. And in those old tales from which the famous later treatments are taken Faust sells his soul to him not only for the pleasures and the dominion of the world, but also for the secrets of modern astronomy and algebra.

Here, let me repeat my caution: I am not saying that these founders of modernity played silly and wicked blasphemous games, but only that they still had the theological learning and the grandeur of imagination to know what their enterprise resembled.

Now let me give you three enlightening complementary facts. Bacon wrote a book, a kind of scientific utopia called the New Atlantis, a place which is an imaginary island lying off the shore of America. The book is, in fact, the first description of a scientific research complex. Bacon calls the group of people in charge of it “the College of the Six Days’ Work.” Furthermore, Galileo’s work called the Two New Sciences, in which he sets out the beginning of modern physics, is a dialogue taking place on a succession of days, possibly six. And finally, Descartes’s Meditations, intended to prepare the world for modern science, takes place in six sessions. There is no question in my mind but that these men were thinking of themselves as re-doing God’s work of the creation, as creating a new world or re-creating the old one in an accessibly intelligible, illuminated form, and as revealing what they had done in a new kind of scripture. They were light-bringers, making us, their heirs, like gods, knowing a source for re-making the world, for better or worse, as new creators. Here, finally, is the point I have been leading up to; you may find it a little outrageous, but see whether you can deny it: We, almost all of us, have so totally absorbed such an attitude that we hardly notice what we are saying anymore. Let me ask you when you have last said that you wanted to “do something creative” with your life, or have been told to “think creatively” or called someone you admired “so creative.” In fact, we are in the habit of referring to all our more exciting activities as “creative.” But creativity is a precise theological idea whose meaning we are partly forgetting, partly perverting to our modern use. Creativity means the ability to bring something into being out of nothing, in Latin, “ex nihilo,” from the very beginning, as God is implied in Genesis to have separated the heavens and the earth out of a chaos of his own creating.

Clearly, we are quite incapable of such production. For example, take a potter to whose work we may refer as “very creative.” But a potter has clay out of which the pottery is fashioned and a wheel on which it is thrown. The ancient Greeks referred to all such work as “making,” for which the Greek word is poesis, and they used that word particularly for that kind of making which is done in words and which we still call poetry. Creative poetry is, therefore, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms, and yet that adjective has a revealing significance. For a maker works on given material according to a tradition and from a pattern. But a creator is free of all those restrictive circumstances and bound above all by the inner demands of self-expression. It makes for that kind of production we peculiarly think of as “Art,” with all its courage, cleverness, sophistication, and emphasis on the artist’s individuality. The story of modern art is the story of the triumph of rebellious creativity, of creativity divorced from its proper, superhuman agent.

But artistic creativity is only a later outcome of the original perversion of the notion, and, indeed, a reaction to it. The first, and still predominant application of the notion of human creativity is the re-enactment of the six-days’ work I have already referred to. That is to say, it is the science of nature and its application, called technology, which appears to put humanity in control of the creation.

Now modern science, it seems to me, has two separate roots. One is Greek. The Greeks began the development of those mathematical tools which characterize modern science. They also distinguished and named the science of physics. Physics is a Greek word derived from physis, which means growth and movement and is usually translated as “nature.” But the natural science of the Greeks was, I think, in its very essence, incapable of mechanical application. It was pure theory – theory is another Greek word which means “beholding,” “contemplation.” The Greek physicists looked on natural beings but they did not control nature. You will not be surprised when I say that I think this attitude has everything to do with the fact that the greatest of them, Aristotle, regarded the world not as having a beginning and an end but as unmade and indestructible.

Something very different had to arise to induce the frame of mind which made a technological science possible. It was not merely the notion of creation, for you remember that when God asks Job in the Old Testament: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”, Job has no answer. – He is overcome by his own impotence in the face of God’s power over nature. But these moderns I have been speaking of, they do have an answer. For example, when God goes on to ask; “Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?” Of course, the modern answer is: Yes, we were there; yes, we can. What has intervened?

What has intervened is, I think, the notion that God can appear in human form and work miracles, that transubstantiations, that is, substantial transformations of nature can take place: In sum, that the creation can be controlled from within. Modern science takes, I believe, some of its impulse and much of its pathos from a secularized version of these notions.

There are dozens of other aspects of modernity which have a similar origin in a secularized version of Christian notions. Because I cannot set them out carefully now, let me just pour them out before you and then choose that one which particularly bears on the just-nowness, the peculiar “modernity” of our time for a brief final word.

Here is a mere list of such aspects. It will probably be a little unintelligible; it is certainly incomplete; but it might be suggestive. Modernity, then, has adopted from Christianity:

  • The search for certainty in philosophic matters,
  • The notion of a total adherence to an idea (cf. the bookburning of Acts 19:19, 20, Hume, Enquiry, last para.),
  • A burning interest in facts of existence and in their ordinary or extraordinary standing,
  • The concentration on the self and its expression,
  • The emphasis on the will and its power,
  • The fascination with freedom,
  • The conversion of the antique noble virtues to virtues of benevolence (such as Jefferson explicitly urged),
  • The passion for equality,
  • The notion of salvation through work (cf. Weber, The Protestant Spirit),
  • The overwhelming importance of the written word,
  • The idea of historical change.

Let, me, by way of finishing off, dwell a little on the last aspect. I cannot imagine that there is anyone here who does not have one of two possible attitudes toward the past. You may think either that the past is too much dead and gone to bother with in this modern, fast-changing world. Or you may think that you need to study the past to get some perspective on the present day and its uniqueness. But that means that whether or not you are interested in the academic discipline called history, you believe in History as a movement of time in which essential and irreversible changes come about, and many of you may also think that this movement is toward something, either doom or fulfillment, that is either progress or decline. The ancient pagans, to be sure, also knew that every present passes away, that kings die, empires crumble and ancestors moulder in their tombs. They too kept chronicles of times past, to keep alive the memory of heroes or to prove how ancient was their own descent, and they certainly thought that the world might have its epochs and its cycles. But, to my knowledge, they never, never, thought of history as having an intelligible, purposeful movement; they never thought that time contained moments of revelation, or bore a spirit, or had in it a beginning and an inevitable end. Hence they had none of our preoccupation with the future as a shape coming toward us. What we keep calling “tomorrow’s world” was for them simply the “not yet,” the nothing.

Now, I think that this way of thinking of time was prepared for us by the Christian notion of the irruption into time of divinity, that is, by the Incarnation, and by the promise of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgment and a New Kingdom. The secularization these ideas have undergone has removed their precise theological significance, and what we have retained is only a sense of doom or of progress, according to our temperaments; and a sense of the whirling advance of time. But that sense of living in a Now which is both unique and vanishing—that is exactly what is meant by modernity.

Let me conclude by repeating what I said in the beginning. This is emphatically not a sermon but a lecture, and so I am in no way urging some sort of purification of modernity. On the contrary, I hope to have shown that modernity consists of such perversions of notions drawn from Christianity, and that to be a modern means to be deeply enmeshed in them.

But there is a conclusion to be drawn. It is that there is no way to understand ourselves and our world without some deep study of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Let me tell you a brief anecdote. Some of my colleagues-for-the-year at Whitman College were arguing over the current curriculum reform the college is undertaking and the difficulties of finding a subject matter that all could agree on as indispensable. One member of the group finally asked: What would you all say if you were asked what was the single most necessary study? Then a man who has, I am sure, only the loosest religious affiliations answered unhesitatingly: Theology. And no one was willing to deny his explanation that students need a framework in which to think about the nature and ends of their life. My point today has been that they need the same study to understand the nature and ends of their time.


The Neglected Muse: Why Music is an Essential Liberal Art

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Imaginative Conservative, where it first appeared.

Music transcends the classroom, the concert stage, and professional recordings. It pervades life. Mankind has long used music in all sorts of ways, to celebrate, to lament, to dance, to pray, to soothe or arouse, to woo, to infuse courage and terrify an enemy, to commemorate, to unite a community. Even the most primitive societies are keenly aware of the power of music, and various myths from cultures throughout the world confer on music and musicians a lofty, even divine significance. In some myths, notably in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, the world springs from the composing power of a musician-god.

That music is a vibrant part of life is especially clear in the case of the young. Most young people cherish their favorite music as their most intimate friend and their absolute refuge from care and stress. When we get older, music is inevitably bound up with nostalgia. We older folk have only to hear a song from our youth in order to be magically transported, as if by a familiar scent, to a former time, place, self, or love. Music does not merely sound: It casts a spell and conjures worlds. Music is no mere addendum to human life, no historical accident that might just as well have never been, but an essential part of who we are as human beings.

Why should young people study music? One answer presents itself on the basis of what I have said so far: Music has a central place in the lives of young people. For many, music is their life. Teaching music to the young is therefore much more than conveying historical information and technical facts, or helping students develop their musical talent. It is more than the effort to make them competent and aesthetically refined. In getting young people to engage in a serious study of music, we are giving them an opportunity to know themselves better by becoming more precisely aware of the amazing power that music has over them. Also, as we shall see, we are giving them an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the natural world – and of our connection to it – by becoming more aware of the mathematical order that underlies music.

Listening and Singing

In my three decades at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where all students are required to study music for two years, I have learned that students cannot engage in substantive musical learning without actual musical experience. Such experience takes two forms: listening to and making music.

Listening is an obvious requirement, but it is harder than it might seem. What should students listen to in their music classes, and what should they listen for? We should, first and foremost, expose our students to great music in the classical tradition (e.g., works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) and then to other examples of great music (e.g., folk songs, blues, and jazz) – broaden their horizons, as the saying goes. But how to do this is difficult. It makes sense to start with classical works that are appealing and fairly short. For instrumental music, single movements from symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets work well. Perhaps the best “first thing” to listen for is simply that musical works have a beginning, middle, and end. Students can listen to a given piece several times, each time listening for some particular aspect of the work: a recurring theme, a rhythm, a moment of heightened tension, etc.

But listening by itself is not enough. Students, by singing or playing an instrument, must be made to realize that music is not the symbols on the page any more than a poem is the written word. Music and poem come to be what they are only in the act of sounding. The object of musical study is not the written symbol but the musical event – the living phenomenon, for which the score is but the recipe. More than anything else, singing brings music to life and overcomes the passivity that often attends the act of listening. In singing, students are the instrument and the music. Most important here is not that students sing well, but that they make their best effort. In singing great choral works, however imperfectly, students get to experience one of life’s most humanizing pleasures: that of cooperating with others in the attempt to form a beautiful whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Students thus attain in sound the ideal of a perfected human community – a perfected friendship that preserves differences but renders them harmonious. To sing is to transcend the isolation and vagary of selfhood. Such transcendence is one of the greatest gifts of a genuine liberal education.

Music’s Connection to Math and Nature

Music, amazing in its power over our emotions and character, is even more amazing because it is eminently capable of being studied. Traditionally, music is one of the seven so-called “liberal arts.” Liberal, here, has nothing to do with its current, political usage. It is not a synonym for progressive. Rather, it is derived from the Latin liber, meaning free, and is best associated with words like liberate. The liberal arts constitute the knowledge that free people need to guide them in their decision-making at home, at work, as neighbors, and as citizens. The system of seven liberal arts was first developed and taught in the Middle Ages and has continued to strongly influence education down to the present day. The liberal arts are divided into a trivium (which is Latin for the three ways or roads) and a quadrivium (meaning four ways or roads). The trivium consists of the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium consists of the arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The former develops the arts of language, the latter the arts of measurement. Together they provide a template for a so-called “liberal education,” whose end is not a technically trained professional, but an educated human being.

As a quadrivial art, music has an exalted placement that points to the long acknowledged bond that music has with number and nature, and sharply distinguishes it from the visual arts. The connection between music and mathematics was established by the legendary Greek, Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that the most commonly used (and most singable) musical intervals had intelligible mathematical counterparts.

Let’s use the octave as an example. To the musician, notes that are one octave apart sound alike—the only difference is that one is higher, or lower, than the other. Modern science tells us that an octave is a musical interval in which one note has either double or half the frequency of another note—if one note has a frequency of 400 Hz (hertz or cycles per second), the note an octave above it has a frequency of 800 Hz and the note an octave below has a frequency of 200 Hz. So, the ratio for an octave is 2:1.

Pythagoras discovered this connection without the knowledge of frequencies: He simply divided a string in half and, to his utter amazement, heard that this division produced the octave. Likewise, he discovered that when one string is two-thirds the length of another, it will produce a higher note that fits another common musical interval, a perfect fifth (the first melodic interval in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). This discovery – that notes that sound good together can be represented mathematically with ratios of small whole numbers – was far-reaching; it suggested that great music was not just a matter of taste and convention, but was grounded in the very nature of the physical universe – which could explain why humans respond to it. Our sensuous experience of music might, in fact, be a deep if unconscious response to an intelligible order: The most common and singable musical intervals might be ratios that we automatically sense. Moreover, it suggested the possibility of a mathematical physics. If precise, discoverable, numerical ratios were at work in the relationships between notes separated by common musical intervals, then wouldn’t they also be at work in, say, the relationship between distance and the time it takes for an object to fall to the ground?

It is easy, and fun, to recreate the Pythagorean discovery by experimenting with different divisions of a string on a device known as a sonometer or “measurer of sound.” Sometimes it is called a monochord because you need only one string to do Pythagorean experiments. But the device works best when it has two strings: one that is divided and another that is not, so that it can serve as a reference pitch. A sonometer is very easy to make, as I discovered when my son and I constructed one for his high school science project. All you need is a thick board, metal strings, a few screws, two small bridges to anchor the strings at both ends, a small moveable “bridge” that is used to divide the string at various points, and a meter stick to take measurements. High school students can use this simple musical instrument to verify that the most common musical intervals do indeed correspond to ratios of small whole numbers. They can do this in two ways. One way is to measure off a length of the string that corresponds to a given ratio (say, 3:2, or two-thirds the length of the undivided string), move the bridge into place, and then pluck the resulting partial length (the two-thirds length) to hear if the predicted interval sounds (the perfect fifth). The other way is for the students to move the bridge around under the string, plucking and listening at each point, until they reach what sounds like a given interval and then use a meter stick to determine the ratio into which the string has been divided. The octave is especially interesting because of its simplicity and familiarity. Knowing that its ratio is 2:1, students can divide a string exactly in half without ever using a visual measuring device. All they have to do is listen for the division that sings the octave.

This simple Pythagorean experiment is a real treat for students, who invariably experience amazement at the mathematical grounding of music in nature. The experience helps their learning in a number of ways. It makes them realize that the musical intervals and the scale acquire a precise definition only through the power of mathematics (ratios); that the practical problem of tuning a stringed instrument like a guitar or a piano is a mathematical problem of getting different ratios to fit with one another in a consistent scale; and that the tuning they have inherited (the 12-toned equal temperament in which an octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps) is the product of a rich, complex history marked by incredible ingenuity and laborious effort.

Music Shapes Us

Even apart from this profound connection with mathematics, music is pre-eminent among the arts for the order and clarity, the sharply defined character, of its elements. Music moves us, sometimes to overpowering emotion. It does so through well-defined structures, through an order of tones and rhythms. It is not the mere sound of drums but their rhythmic beating that stirs us. Here we come upon the central paradox of music, the paradox that defines music as a worthy object of sustained intellectual wonder: Music is the union of the rational and irrational, of order and feeling.

Ultimately, by shaping feeling, music shapes the whole human being. For a proper understanding of this, we turn to the ancient Greeks, for whom music, far from being morally neutral, played a decisive role in moral education. Aristotle’s Politics ends with an extensive discussion of the proper moral and political uses of music and the effect of music on the souls of citizens. In the Republic, Plato draws our attention to the power music has over the young. He places special emphasis on the danger of music. The severity of his critique underscores what we, in our effort to excuse or defend music, often fail to acknowledge: that music is a great power and, like any great power, can be used for great good or great evil. Why is music so emotionally powerful, far more powerful than the visual arts? Plato provides a possible answer. In the Republic, he calls upbringing in music “most sovereign” because rhythm and concord “most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously.” In experiencing music, we do not behold from a distance but drink in and incorporate. Some forms of music, so Plato claims, are conducive to orderliness of soul and the love of grace and beauty; others indulge the baser passions and feed the lust for disorder and self-indulgence. Studying music as a liberal art gives students the opportunity to consider the possibility that Plato is right – that music is not limited to taste and enjoyment, but has a powerful influence on who we are and whether we are ennobled or debased.*

This leads me to the observation that we are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions—and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.

Cultivating Musical Taste

By studying music, we want to cultivate our students’ taste, encourage their appreciation of beauty. But what is this beauty? Why do we say that an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute or a movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful? Although a complete definition of beauty is beyond the scope of this essay, I will venture a few remarks on this topic.

I begin with the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or the ear of the listener). This saying is both obviously true and obviously false. True because beauty exists only in relation to a responsive subject: It must appear beautiful to someone. False because merely thinking that something is beautiful does not make it so – judgments of beauty are not relative. Thinking that they are confuses judgments of mere subjective liking with judgments of aesthetic taste, which always claim to be objective and universal. After all, beauty is not the same as pleasure. Just as beautiful things do not always immediately please, pleasures are not always beautiful. We can take pleasure in something ugly and base. Beauty is not a feeling in a human subject but a quality we perceive in an object. The perception comes first, then the emotional response. Beauty can take us by surprise. It strikes, pierces, even transforms us. This would not be possible if beauty came from us. Beauty educates us by taking us outside ourselves. It compels us to transcend self-interest and self-feeling. We do not merely behold beauty, but look up to it. In appreciating beauty, we admire that which deserves to be admired. To cultivate taste is therefore to cultivate judgment. Beauty, in short, is in the eye of the educated beholder.

Moreover, the beauty of a great musical work is not always immediately evident. Sometimes it takes time, and training, to realize that it is beautiful. Students often say that a piece they did not like at first became one of their favorites with repeated experience of it. Their taste changed, not because they got used to something they didn’t like, but because an inherent quality eventually became apparent to them. There is an ancient Greek saying: “Beautiful things are difficult.” This is true to our experience of beauty, which sometimes comes to us only if we make an effort to go to it.

In order for beauty to be admired, it must first be recognized. As discussed in the previous section, there is a long tradition that connects beauty and order, especially mathematical order. The musician and mathematician Edward Rothstein, in his book Emblems of the Mind, shows how mathematical relations underlie the beautiful in music. He writes: “A composition is a construction of patterns and proportions, resembling an argument in mathematics.” Relations like symmetry and various sorts of proportion are, in fact, evident in the works of the great composers.

But mathematics, though beautiful in its own right, cannot fully explain the beauty of music. By itself, it cannot explain our response to a Mozart aria or a Beethoven symphony. Why do these pieces continue to attract listeners who become familiar with them all around the world, not just in the West? These pieces seem not to have been written for one country, people, or time. They are universal and belong to everyone. They strike us with their amazing wholeness and perfection. Everything seems to fit and cohere in a carefully worked out scheme. The orderliness is not merely correct but inspired. With time and effort, most of us can detect the layers of order and the balance of forces at work in these pieces: the architecture of the whole. We can detect how tensions build and are sustained, and how they are satisfyingly resolved. We can even learn to identify the technical means by which these effects are produced. We hear how a theme is announced and then developed, how it seems to take on a life of its own, occasionally even seeming to spin out of control only to be brought back into the economy of the musical whole.

Beautiful music pleases and sometimes challenges us with its intelligence, depth, and complexity. It does not please for the moment, but invites endless re-experience and return. The more we listen, the more we hear. And the more we study the music, the more reason we have to find it beautiful. Music unfolds in time and exhibits a delightful play of forces or tensions. In music, the question of beauty comes down largely to this perception of how musical forces conspire to form a whole.† These forces or tensions are at work in the familiar major and minor scales, and in the chords of harmony. Great musical works exploit these tensions to the fullest. That is why they are both maximally ordered and emotionally potent, why, as we say, they are beautiful.

Learning from a Simple Melody: Scarborough Fair

Music education that aims at real knowledge requires careful attention to the elements of music: tones, time-values, intervals, etc. Students must learn to read music and correctly identify notes on a staff. Soon after this “basic training,” they should look closely at how the elements conspire to form significant musical wholes. These wholes need not be impressive compositions by well-known composers like Bach and Mozart – they demand way too much all at once. A better way to begin is with a folk song.

Scarborough Fair, the very old folk song made popular by Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s, is a good example of a beautiful, simple melody that lends itself to close analysis. With the right guidance and materials, even the most musically naive students can begin to engage in a deep and thorough analysis of this haunting melody.

One of the problems in getting students to think about music is that it comes to us too easily. It seems to be right there for our immediate pleasure. Music does not, by itself, raise questions. One way to generate questions is with a series of “experiments.” Play the melody on the piano several times and have the students sing along. Then change one note and get the students to state, to the best of their ability, how they think the melody has changed in sound and “feel.” Do this with different notes in the melody and examine each change in turn. At each point, ask, “What happened? What was the effect of the change?” Changing a note in a melody – in effect, disrupting a familiar whole – is also a good way to get students to become aware that there is a whole. What is right sounding about a melody comes to light when we cause it to stray from its intended path and sound “wrong.” Students then begin to realize that the melody consists of carefully made choices, and that a change in one part is a change in the whole. Such experiments become even more revealing when we alter the melody’s rhythm.

Next, students should explore the connection between the notes of the melody and the words. To do this thoroughly, they should have access to the complete text (whose story is very sad). Does the sound of the melody fit the meaning of the words? What do the words gain in being sung? Does the melody make certain words stand out? How does the rhythm affect the mood of the song, the meaning of the words, and the story they tell?

Finally, students can compose a variation of Scarborough Fair, perhaps with their own lyrics. In this exercise (which I have found works beautifully in class), students learn, through direct experience, that composition involves revision: that certain musical choices don’t work, that some work better than others, and, more generally, that a piece of music (like a piece of writing) can be improved.

A simple, familiar folk song is a musical education in itself. The examination of simple melodies encourages students to give reasons for what they feel. This liberates them from the erroneous and stultifying opinion that a response to beauty is based solely on subjective feeling (that beauty is “relative”) or habit (that we hear musical events as we do only because we’ve heard them repeatedly). It reveals, in highly specific ways, that human feeling is complex, that our emotional response to beautiful sound is grounded in a remarkably precise, if usually unconscious, perception of order. Similarly, examination of simple melodies reinforces the trust that analysis, however abstract it may seem at first, can lead us back to our musical experience with renewed wonder, a keener sense for the details of a beautiful whole, and a more intense and discerning pleasure. By analyzing Scarborough Fair, we get a better idea of what to listen for in this melody. We also come to understand it better and, as a result, appreciate it even more. To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, it is like being able to “count the ways” in which we love someone.

Music as a Liberating Art

The study of music has several goals. One of them is to improve, through education, students’ aesthetic taste: to introduce them to truly great music in an effort to beget a love for all things graceful and well formed. As a music teacher, I hope that the study of music begets in my students a habit of searching for the causes and details of beautiful things, and that the love of beauty will nourish the love of knowledge and truth. As students’ intellects are opened to the power of music, I hope they will strive to imitate in their day-to-day lives the musical virtues of harmoniousness, proportion, good timing, appropriate flexibility or grace, and “striking the right note” in thought, speech, feeling, and action.

Music, as I noted earlier, is one of the traditional liberal arts. It liberates us from vulgarity, intellectual rigidity, and the tyranny of unexamined, popular opinions about music and beauty. Music does this by encouraging human fellowship (in singing), by inspiring a love of beauty that transcends the mere gratification of desire, by making us more attentive to the elements and causes of our emotional response to beauty, and by compelling us to test conventional opinions against the standard of our own experience.

Music, alas, is the neglected Muse of educational programs across the board, from kindergarten to college. One reason for this is a failure to perceive the importance of music in the education of the young and in human life generally. Another is the tendency to regard music as a “soft” subject– there for the sake of amusement or a vague sort of “music appreciation.” Yet another is the opinion that music is not basic to our human nature, but is the prerogative of a trained or gifted elite – something that only those with the potential to be professional musicians need study. I have endeavored to show that none of these is true.

If studied as a liberal art (i.e., in order for the student to become more inquisitive and reflective and more aware of music’s power) rather than as a fine art (i.e., in order for the student to become a musician), music gets students to look beyond surface distinctions in order to seek out deep, underlying harmonies or bonds between things apparently remote. In the breadth of its domain, in its union of the mathematical and the poetic, and in its involvement of the whole human being (body, heart, and mind), music is an essential liberating art.

*It is interesting to note that the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) also means noble just as the word for ugly (aischros) also means base.

†For discussion of the treatment of tones as forces, see the Sense of Music by Victor Zuckerkandl, Princeton University Press, 1959.


The Virtue of Irrelevance

How many writers, educators, and opinion formers, urgently wishing to convey the thoughts and feelings that inspire them, have found themselves confronted with the cry “that’s not relevant?” In the world of mass communication today, when people are marshaled into flocks by social media, intrusions of the unusual, the unsanctioned, and the merely meaningful are increasingly resented if they come from outside the group. And this group mentality has invaded the world of education in ways that threaten the young.

It began long before Facebook and Twitter. Indeed it began with John Dewey, and his call for “child-centred education.” The influence of John Dewey over American thought in general, and education in particular, has never ceased to amaze me. If any writer has set out to illustrate what Schopenhauer meant by “unscrupulous optimism” it is Dewey, who disguised his middlebrow complacency behind a mask of wisdom, like an agony aunt for an old-fashioned women’s magazine. What could be more evidently a travesty of the nature and duties of the teacher than the idea that it is children and their interests that set the agenda for the classroom? And yet what idea is more likely to recruit the tender hearted, the ignorant, and the lazy? What a gift to the idle teacher, and what an assault on the child!

From the educational philosophy of Dewey sprang the “relevance revolution” in schooling. The old curriculum, with its emphasis on hard mathematics, dead languages, ancient history, and books that are too long to read, is portrayed as an offence to modern children, a way of belittling their world and their hopes for the future. To teach them to spell correctly, to speak grammatically, to adopt the manners and values of their parents and grandparents is to cut them off from their only available sphere of action. And in the place of all that so-called knowledge, which is nothing in itself save a residue of the interests of the dead, they should be given, we are told, their own curriculum, addressed to the life that is theirs.

The immediate effect of the relevance revolution was to introduce into the classroom topics relevant to the interests of their teachers – topics like social justice, gender equality, nuclear disarmament, third-world poverty, gay rights. Whole subjects were concocted to replace the old curriculum in history, geography, and English: “peace studies,” “world studies,” “gender studies,” and so on. The teaching of dead languages virtually ceased, and today in Britain, and doubtless in America too, it is a rare school that offers lessons in German, indeed in any modern language other than French or Spanish. Of course, it could be that less and less teachers are available with the knowledge required by the old curriculum. But it is a sad day for education when the loss of knowledge is described, instead, as a gain – when the old curriculum, based on subjects that had proved their worth over many decades, is replaced by a curriculum based purely on the causes and effects of the day. At any rate, to think that relevance, so understood, shows a respect for children that was absent from the old knowledge-based curriculum is to suffer from a singular deficiency in sympathy.

Respect for children means respect for the adults that they will one day become; it means helping them to the knowledge, skills, and social graces that they will need if they are to be respected in that wider world where they will be on their own and no longer protected. For the teacher, respect for children means giving them whatever one has by way of knowledge, teaching them to distinguish real knowledge from mere opinion, and introducing them to the subjects that make the mind adaptable to the unforeseen. To dismiss Latin and Greek, for example, because they are not “relevant” is to imagine that one learns another language in order, as Matthew Arnold put it, “to fight the battles of life with the waiters in foreign hotels.” It is to overlook the literature and history that are opened to the enquiring mind by these languages that changed the world; it is to overlook the discipline imparted by their deep and settled grammar. Ancient languages show us vividly that some matters are intrinsically interesting, and not interesting merely for their immediate use; understanding them the child might come to see just how irrelevant to the life of the mind is the pursuit of “relevance.”

Moreover the pursuit of irrelevant knowledge is, for that very reason, a mental discipline that can be adapted to the new and the unforeseeable. It is precisely the irrelevance of everything they knew that enabled a band of a thousand British civil servants, versed in Latin, Greek, and Ancient History, to govern the entire Indian sub-continent – not perfectly, but in many ways better than it had been governed in recent memory. It is the discipline of attending in depth to matters that were of no immediate use to them that made it possible for these civil servants to address situations that they had never imagined before they encountered them – strange languages, alphabets, religions, customs, and laws. It is no accident that it was a classical scholar – the judge Sir William Jones, founder of the Asiatic Society of Bengal in 1788 – who did the most to rescue Sanskrit literature from oblivion, who introduced the world, the Indian world included, to the Vedas, and who launched his contemporaries on the search for the principles and repertoire of classical Indian music.

All this is of great importance to the teacher who wishes to introduce children to the tradition of Western music, and to the listening culture of the concert hall. Hand-in-hand with the relevance revolution came the idea of the “inclusive” classroom – the classroom in which “no child is left behind,” whether or not adapted to the matter in hand. Music has suffered greatly from this, since it is a subject that can be properly taught only to the musical, and which therefore begins from an act of selection. Furthermore even the musical are subjected outside school to a constant bombardment of music in which banal phrases, assembled over the three standard chords and the relentless four in a bar, have filled the ear with addictive clichés. How, in such circumstances, does a musical education begin?

The classical repertoire, it goes without saying, is not “relevant” to the pop-trained ear. It is the creation of another and earlier world, one in which people encountered music only if they, or others in their vicinity, were involved in making it. It was a performance art, which brought people together in a uniquely coordinated way, and which was inseparable in its origins from the habit of improvising around a tune. Music was played, but also listened to, danced to, sung to, and studied for its intrinsic meaning. It was fundamental to the curriculum from the moment when Plato founded the Academy. From the rise of musicology at the Enlightenment to the Conservatoires and Colleges of Music today, music has been taught as a branch of accumulated knowledge, the significance of which can rarely be grasped by the untutored ear, and certainly not by the ear of the average child. Music as an academic discipline is about as “relevant” as Greek or Sanskrit. And no matter how hard we scholars emphasize the use of the useless, we will be dismissed in the name of relevance, and told that our curriculum means nothing to the young musical person today.

To counter this argument it is not enough to point to all the ways in which a relevant curriculum debases learning by making ignorance into the measure of what should be taught. For what we dismiss as ignorance is often the smoothed and adapted outer form of accumulated knowledge, like the simple manners of ordinary people that seem inept in sophisticated company only because some forms of sophistication depend upon hiding this reservoir of social knowledge. In like manner folk music and the traditions of improvisation from which it arises are forms of collective knowledge, and the same can be said for much pop music, including some of that which has carved grooves of addiction in the young musical ear.

The real objection to relevance is that it is an obstacle to self-discovery. Some sixty years ago I was introduced to classical music by teachers who did not waste time criticising my adolescent taste and who made no concessions to my age or temperament. They knew only that they had received a legacy and with it a duty to pass it on. If they did not do so the legacy would die. They discovered in me a soul that could make this legacy its own. That was enough for them. They did not ask themselves whether the classical repertoire was relevant to the interests that I then happened to have, any more than mathematicians ask whether the theorems that they teach will help their students with their accounting problems. Their assumption was that, since the musical knowledge that they wished to impart was unquestionably valuable, it could only benefit me to receive it. But I could not understand the benefit prior to receiving it. To consult my desires in the matter would have been precisely to ignore the crucial fact, which was that, until introduced to classical music, I would not know whether it was to be a part of my life.

Once we see the logic of my teachers’ position we must recognize that, if we know what music is, we have a duty to help young people to understand it, regardless of its “relevance.” We should do this as it has always been done, through encouraging our students to make music together. In the not too distant past every school had a choir whose members were taught to sing in parts and to read music in order to do so. This practice opened the ears of the choristers at once to the experience of voice-led harmony. From that it was a small step to lessons in harmony and counterpoint, and thence to classes in music appreciation.

If there is a point to musicology as a university discipline it surely lies here. The immense knowledge contained in the classical repertoire cannot be imparted in a day, and even when the young ear has begun to appreciate and the young fingers to perform the masterpieces of the repertoire, fully to understand all that they contain by way of emotional and dramatic knowledge is the study of many years. This knowledge fully justifies devoting a faculty of the university to collecting, augmenting, and transmitting. But, whatever else we say of it, this knowledge is not now and never was or will be relevant.


The Persistence of Beauty

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the address delivered by invitation to the Academy of Philosophy and Letters at its annual meeting in June, 2015.

It may be that the greatest challenge facing those who love classical music in our modern age is the one facing those who do not also love Beauty. Those who reject the idea of Beauty, who deny its value, or who relegate it to meaninglessness – as in fact so many of today’s most vocal proponents of classical music emphatically do – are at a loss to explain what it is that music offers us. What makes it worth conserving? What gives it meaning or makes it relevant to our lives? If classical music is not about beauty, then what is it about?

We might convincingly characterize all of classical music’s present struggles, as well our orchestras’ persistent failures, to find a place in today’s Brave New World as attempts to answer that question, avoiding a commitment to Beauty at whatever the cost. Our orchestras are in this predicament because they are, for the most part, run by those who do not admit or understand the nature of Beauty – or else who cannot or will not defend it. And let’s face it, it’s a dangerous thing to defend Beauty today. You’re likely to be assaulted with the Ugly stick. Many of those who would have stood up for Beauty very probably learned along the way that it is better to keep your head down and your mouth shut; it is far pleasanter, in many ways, to just go along with the rabble than to oppose it. And for the rabble, it’s now an unassailable given that music is not about Beauty.

Of course, the most obvious efforts to deny Beauty in classical music are the attempts to make the music itself ugly, or else to make it ridiculous. With that tactic alone orchestras have managed to drive away a great many decent people during the course of the last century. Music, the Modernists told us, has to be ugly because modern life is ugly. Webern and his Modernist pals may have been quite certain we’d all one day be whistling their horrendous atonal “tunes,” but they’d be hard pressed to find anyone today who could recall one. The Postmodernists tell us music must be ridiculous because life is ridiculous. They brought us stunt-men like John Cage, and pieces like the one I recorded with a European orchestra recently that included a part in the score written for an inaudible dog whistle. To drive the point quite literally “home,” Modernists house our orchestras in brutalist buildings of rust- and algae-streaked concrete, and Postmodernists impose on us concert halls that look like crashed-landed spaceships. Well, perhaps much about the way we live now is ugly and ridiculous, but we have only to look around us to be convinced that it’s largely the crackpot theories of the Modernists and Postmodernists that make it so.

Still, perhaps in the wake of the sickening devastation of the First and Second World Wars it was difficult not to sympathize with the Modernists’ sentiment. And that’s when the idea first seriously took root in the international music community. The horror that broke upon the world with the dawn of industrialized warfare must have seemed to suggest that the modern condition was one of an abject and novel ugliness. What the argument depends upon, however, is the assumption that, in an ugly world, Beauty is no longer relevant.

And it’s a losing argument. The ugly and the ridiculous in musical composition have been largely defeated in our concert halls because they have been rejected unequivocally by the human ear. When they do appear in a concert program today they are not-quite-ingeniously sandwiched in the middle of the evening, because programmers know that audiences will arrive late or leave early to avoid them. And it’s no good scorning the audience for its “philistine” appreciation of Beauty. They’ll just elect not to show up for the scorn or for anything else, either. In fact, not surprisingly, that is exactly what has happened as naturally conservative audiences abandoned their symphony orchestras.

It’s the source of much consternation for those who expect classical music to go the way of art, where fame and fortune reward offensive scribbles, mindless drippings, pickled sharks, and giant balloon animals. David Goldman, writing as “Spengler” about the phenomenon, wondered at the fact that art galleries devoted to ugly modernist art should be full while concert halls featuring the musical equivalent are empty:

When you view an abstract expressionist canvas, time is in your control. You may spend as much or as little time as you like, click your tongue, attempt to say something sensible and, if you are sufficiently pretentious, quote something from the Wikipedia entry on the artist that you consulted before arriving at the gallery. But when you listen to atonal music, you are stuck in your seat for as long as the composer wishes to keep you. It feels like many hours in a dentist’s chair from which you cannot escape. You do not admire the abstraction from a distance. You are actually living inside it. You are in the position of the fashionably left-wing intellectual of the 1930s who made the mistake of actually moving to Moscow rather than admiring it at a safe distance.

Music, perhaps for precisely this reason, has resisted the ideological uglification that the Brave New World order has imposed more successfully on its cousins Art, Poetry, and Literature. Music is still an unconquered repository of Beauty, standing like a fortress above the onslaught, built on a canon to which we still respond and always return. Orchestras, however disheartened they may profess to be at the prospect, will always perform Beethoven’s Fifth because audiences will always want to hear it. In fact, they will be more inclined to hear it the uglier our world becomes.

And that is because beauty does not deny the ugliness, the pain, the torments, the sorrows, or even the ordinariness or baseness of existence; it transforms them. Writing at the turn of the century about the push to make poetry vulgar, Samuel McChord Crothers put it in much the way any normal, decent person might. He called this person The Gentle Reader and he gave him these words:

When the poet delves in the grossness and the slag, he does so as one engaged in the search for the perfect. …So I say, when drain pipes and cross-cut saws and the beef on the butcher’s stalls are invested with beautiful associations and thrill my soul in some mysterious fashion, then I will make as much of these things as I do of the murmuring pines and the hemlocks. When a poet makes bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers to loom before my imagination in heroic proportions, I will receive them as I do the heroes of old. But, mind you, the miracle must be actually performed; I will not be put off with a prospectus.

In the canon of classical music, the miracle is often performed, and we attend concerts precisely to witness it – to take part in the miracle. Bank clerks and stevedores and wood-choppers alike realize in Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater – or in Bach’s St. Matthew Passion, Wagner’s Liebestod, Britten’s War Requiem, or the first movement of Tchaikovsky’s sixth symphony, for instance – at once both the commonality and the peculiarity of their condition and its woes, and they participate in the transformation of the slag and sorrow that accompanies their journey through the world into something transcendentally beautiful that shines from beyond it. When we reject Beauty – when we insist on wallowing in vulgarity and ugliness – what we ultimately reject is this possibility of transcendence. It might be even more accurate to say that we reject Beauty because we first reject the Transcendent Himself.

Without a way to reach beyond it, we are left to wander for a lifetime through the earth-bound desolation of our material reality, after which there is simply nothing. We retain, nevertheless, our deep need to escape from the bleakness of existence. But our only option now is to create our own heaven right here in the dust. We must shape our physical world into Utopia, by ourselves, with just the strength of our wills.

So what next for those who insist that music is not about Beauty? If music cannot, through Beauty, transform our relationship with or transcend the ugliness of reality, then it must change physical reality itself in order to eliminate ugliness. It must transform society. Next comes the insistence that we attach classical music to an ideology – to “change we can believe in.”

Orchestras, desperate to be relevant now that Beauty has been declared ir-relevant, get busily to work on everything except that one thing which they essentially exist to do. Sure, they play their concerts every week, but they’ve become a little apologetic about that part – and, on top of that, a little ironic about the fact that they’re playing Beethoven again. Like the hipster who wears dirty flannels with his carefully-coifed mustache lest you mistake him for someone “fashionable”, orchestras today want you to focus on their plans to bring about social progress lest you mistake them for the inheritors and champions of an art form created by dead, white, privileged, Christian, heterosexual, European men. They, after all, the consensus seems to assure us, are the cause of everything we need to change about society.

And this is where most efforts to describe just what it is that classical music is about are concentrated today: it’s about making our world a better place. Musicians are styled as ambassadors of change and sent out into their communities to show everyone that they are somehow more important, or at least more relevant, than they are willing or able to argue that Bach and Beethoven are. Orchestras clamor for anything written by or celebrating life’s “victims”, hoping to refute their historical association with life’s vilified “winners”. They set their hands and their instruments heroically to the task of bringing an end to inequality, poverty, injustice, and environmental abuse, to repairing our broken families and our failing schools, and to curing all kinds of systemic “-isms”, depending on who you talk to. Of course, all these things are easy to count even if they are difficult to measure. But they are nigh to impossible to achieve.

What will happen, we have to wonder, when orchestras and the canon of classical music inevitably fail to bring about world peace, the end of poverty, environmental balance, and homogenous diversity? Like the purveyors of the ugly and the ridiculous, orchestras selling social progress are on a collision course with reality. How many more decent, ordinary people will our orchestras alienate with their gross misunderstandings of both the nature of classical music and human nature itself?

Well, if it can’t cure society’s ills, then maybe it can do something for us as individuals. There’s a frenzy of interest that surrounds advances in neuroscience and nano-technology that promise to explain how music enhances our brains, how it facilitates our synapses, how it makes us better at math, and ultimately how it makes us more successful in our careers. After all, it must have some use in the material world. What can it profit us?

Anyone familiar with the struggles facing the long tradition of classical liberal education in today’s cynical “diploma market” will recognize this lamentable tune. And it reminds me of an amusing account that Kitty Ferguson shares in her book, The Music of Pythagorus:

When someone asked what the practical use of one theorem was, Euclid turned aside to his slave, sniffed, and muttered, ‘He wants to profit from learning, give him a penny.’ The Pythagorean aphorism was ‘A diagram and a step (an advance in knowledge), not a diagram and a penny.’

It’s quite a slippery subject, and difficult to tackle in our utilitarian age.  There is a valuable little university that I frequently come across in my travels that always vividly reminds me of this challenge. And that is because, in passing by, one can’t fail to notice its slogan, finger-painted as it is in gigantic letters all over the windows of its most prominent building: “Knowledge that works.”

Of course, there is knowledge that works, and it’s very important: knowing how to construct a Gothic arch or how to decipher an MRI scan, for example. But music was never that kind of knowledge. During the Middle Ages, it was an essential part of the Quadrivium, the second tier of the seven Liberal Arts – distinct from the Practical Arts such as medicine and architecture – and prerequisite to studies in philosophy and theology. All men whose station in life freed them from the necessity of learning a craft or trade studied music. It is not at all extraordinary that King Henry V composed some very respectable pieces himself – a Gloria and a Sanctus both survived the ravenous fires of the Reformation.

But even without knowing any of that, we might look around at the audiences in our concert halls. It’s becoming something of a cliché to remark on the grey hair. We wring our hands and wonder what would bring the young people to concerts? What do they want out of the experience? More fun? More excitement? More sex? But our obsession with youth and Youth Culture aside, what might we suppose our elders are hoping to “get” from the music? Do we ever ask ourselves why they make the considerable and ever-increasing effort to attend concerts? Why are those who contribute most generously to our institutions of classical music also the ones have so little time left to enjoy them?

The wisdom of age might consist largely of the ability to appreciate finally the value of things because there are simply fewer opportunities to use them as means. Striving gives way to circumspection; we draw nearer to the threshold that separates this world from the next. As we approach our natural end, perhaps we also approach an intimacy with ends.

Obviously, our elders come to concerts not because they hope the music will make them better at math or more successful in their careers. There is no use to which they plan to put the music they come to hear, cleverly plying it to realize their five- or ten-year plans. I think if we asked them, we would find that classical music for them is only about Beauty. I think they would sympathize with John Ruskin, who said, “Remember that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless.”

And maybe this is the real reason that audiences for classical music are aging: that it takes so much longer for us to shake off the utilitarian mindset that pervades our modern world, so well-rooted it has become in our unexamined ways of thinking and being. It is harder and harder for us to find our way through our inherent materialism to that space in which we value a thing for itself alone. And until we can sit with classical music and value it in that way, then we don’t really value it at all.

As James Matthew Wilson reminded us at our conference last year, “Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.” And what is classical music if it’s not this thing: a good in itself, valued for the sake of Beauty? All the for-sake-of-whiches that we try to attach to it fail to justify its existence and explain its value because they begin by precluding the thing which classical music essentially is.

Many of those who have abandoned classical music to its painful Modernist and Postmodernist contortions, including many of the conservatives who should have been its natural allies, have taken refuge in popular or rock music instead. And while that is understandable – because the pop and rock genres never abandoned the tonal language that makes music intelligible, and on top of that borrowed much of what works best from the classical tradition – it is also not a fair trade.

Classical music is almost entirely unlike pop or rock music. It belongs in a different category altogether. It is not something to be overheard, but something to which we must give our full attention. It is not entertainment, but something much more like a religious experience. In fact, the birth and history of classical music is inextricably joined to the history of the Church. And the completeness of their affinity is reflected in the traditions of the concert hall, in the way we approach the music and the way that we hear it. As Roger Scruton explains,

You entered both the church and the concert hall from the world of business, laying aside your everyday concerns and preparing to be addressed by the silence. You came in an attitude of readiness, not to do something, but to receive something. In both places you were confronted with a mystery, something that happened without a real explanation, and which must be contemplated for the thing that it is. The silence is received as a preparation, a lustration, in which the audience prepares itself for an act of spiritual refreshment.

The music, like the religious mystery, draws us into it and holds us in its enchantment. It opens for us a door into a space that exists beyond our physical world, and what we hear moving in the music through that space is us. The symphony takes us on a journey through the secretive shadows and the uncertain vistas of our human condition. It touches those things of value within us, and it invites them to witness the miracle of transubstantiation wherein the dross of our daily existence, however trivial or tragic, is changed into the possibility of our salvation. “Your feelings at the end of a great classical symphony,” Scruton confirms, “have been won from you by a process which involves your deepest being.”

Nothing like this happens at a rock concert. To begin with, we do not approach the music with the same preparation of stillness and silence. Instead, we are animated by a noisy sort of excitement that anticipates, in Scruton’s words again, “participation, rather than contemplation.”

If the classical concert is more like a religious experience, the rock concert, Scruton explains,

is more like a collective celebration, in which everyone joins in and there is no mystery at all – only life, expressed and accepted for what it is. In the usual Rock concert, the excitement, and the message, are contained in the very first bar. Rhythm, tonality and the main spurt of melody are thrust immediately into the ears of the listener. There is a ‘let’s go!’ feeling to the music, and an invitation to leave aside all those long-winded and difficult emotions that have hesitation as their initiating mark.

There is, of course, a certain exhilaration that this kind of raucous musical release brings us. But it is not like the transcendence that classical music offers us, either in its durability or its depth.

Johann Sebastian Bach said that “The aim and final end of all music should be none other than the glory of God and the refreshment of the soul.” That is another way to say that the aim and final end of all music should be Beauty, for it has always been with beauty that we glorify God just as it has always been beauty that refreshes our souls.

Bach’s is an unpopular notion in our secularist age. That the truth of it shines through all our willful and accidental corruptions and corrosions testifies to the fact that classical music is still indisputably and essentially about Beauty, even for those of us who do not believe in God. Beauty falls like the refreshing rain on all our souls alike.

But classical music will need champions in the camp of conservative thought to survive for the benefit of future generations. For those who might think they love classical music, but who detest Beauty or the God it traditionally glorifies even more, the only thing left to do is to silence the music in order to forget the God. And that, I suspect, is the greater part of the battle we’re facing next.


Your map to places only the dorkiest dare to go.

Subscribe to find out more about the ideas behind our ideas. And the progress of our projects.

Your email address is safe with us. Unsubscribe anytime.