Saturday morning quotes 4.22: Progress and Music
Our blog and our quotations are mainly focused on early music and its role in modern life. As specialists in the aesthetics of the better sort of early music, we can’t help but observe and comment on just how much our modern culture needs to recognize and embrace this tried and true form of human expression.
Of course, music can be good or bad. Boethius and Plato before him recognized that music could also be dangerous and immoral, and therefore by definition unmusical. But music is a common reference point in historical descriptions of the human experience, and Boethius wrote that “the whole structure of soul and body is united by musical harmony” (De institutione musica, I.I). We would prefer to unite our souls and bodies with the more elegant and pleasant sort of harmony.
A slight dissonance emerges when we use modern electronic means to convey ancient ideas, but this is what we are stuck with. We note with some irony that our current state of technology was anticipated many years ago by one of our favorite writers, commenting on the innovation of television:
“…I believe television is going to be the test of the modern world, and that in this new opportunity to see beyond the range of our vision we shall discover either a new and unbearable disturbance of the general peace or a saving radiance in the sky. We shall stand or fall by television—of that I am quite sure.”
“Clearly the race today is between loud speaking and soft, between the things that are and the things that seem to be, between the chemist of RCA and the angel of God.”
“[Television]…will insist that we forget the primary and the near in favor of the secondary and the remote. More hours in every twenty-four will be spent digesting ideas, sounds, images—distant and concocted.”
“When I was a child people simply looked about them and were moderately happy; today they peer beyond the seven seas, bury themselves waist deep in tidings, and by and large what they see and hear makes them unutterably sad.”
– Elwyn Brooks White, “Removal,” July, 1938, One Man’s Meat, Harper & Row, New York, 1983.
The mad race to develop the internet and the many electronic distractions available is the unfortunate extension of White’s wry and wholly accurate observations. But a concentration on early music anchors one in the primary rather than the secondary.
The knowledge one seeks living with and immersed in the aesthetics of early music provides a template for experiencing the primary, and offers real and useful explanations for the nature of our existence. The quest for knowledge today seems to be more focused on the technical and the trivial—and the reductionist.
“For quite a while it has been possible for a free and thoughtful person to see that to treat life as mechanical or predictable or understandable is to reduce it. Now, almost suddenly, it is becoming clear that to reduce life to the scope of our understanding (whatever “model” we use) is inevitably to enslave it, make property of it, and put it up for sale. This is to give up on life, to carry it beyond change and redemption, and to increase the proximity of despair.”
“…Apparently it is dangerous to act on the assumption that sure knowledge is complete knowledge—or on the assumption that our knowledge will increase fast enough to outrace the bad consequences of the arrogant use of incomplete knowledge. To trust “progress” or our putative “genius” to solve all the problems that we cause is worse than bad science; it is bad religion. “
– Wendell Berry, Life is a Miracle: An Essay Against Modern Superstition, Counterpoint, Washington D.C., 2000.
In the distant past, things were less complex.
“If we perform the commandments of the Creator and with pure minds obey the rules he has laid down, every word we speak, every pulsation of our veins, is related by musical rhythms to the powers of harmony…If we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but when we commit injustice we are without music.”
– Cassiodorus (c. 485 – 585), Institutiones 5.2, ed. R.A.B. Mynors, Oxford, 1937.