Tag Archives: Music

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

It’s not hard to be dazzled

Rose window

“The multiplicity of forms!” writes Mary Oliver in her newest book of poetry.  “It must be a great disappointment to God if we are not dazzled at least ten times a day.”  That got me to thinking:

When I wake each morning to my wife’s radiant smile,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I am with my sons, who know my human failings more than anyone, and see the unconditional love in their eyes,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I hear my teenage Granddaughters ask me a question that stops my Professor’s mind in its tracks,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When the ancient Maple Tree down the road fills its yellow autumn leaves with light,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a hummingbird rests on my finger as it feeds,

It’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a friend shares her vulnerable heart,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When a classroom full of students ignites in flaming wonder at a new idea,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Reading Mary Oliver, or Rumi, or Walt Whitman, or Dylan Thomas, or Basho, or Issa,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Listening to Mozart, or Beethoven, or Mahler, or Clifford Brown, or Bill Evans,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

When I stand before Monet, or El Greco, or Kandinsky, or Sarolla, or Winslow,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

Simply being, simply breathing, and really really really paying attention,

it’s not hard to be dazzled.

 

What dazzles you?

 

 

Rules

Rules are meant to be followed.

Rules are meant to be broken.

I think both of these folk sayings are true–but not always.  The trick is to know if and when, and perhaps why, one takes precedence over the other.  In fact, sometimes a rule should neither be wantonly broken nor rigidly followed, but applied with great care. Let us consider rules as they are found in games, courtesy, art, and morality.

Games                        Rules for games are usually arbitrary, although they often make sense within the context of the game.  Once set, however, they are as solid as granite.  Three strikes and you’re out!

Courtesy                   Rules for courtesy also seem arbitrary, and dependent upon the culture in which one finds oneself.  These rules seem to be more deeply rooted, however, in the soil of humanity’s social nature. Martin Buber is famous for his distinction between treating other people as objective things, or as conscious subjects.  When I treat a person as a thing, I objectify both her and myself.  Buber urges us to live in a world of I/Thou, where the gross use or manipulation of another human being becomes a travesty.  I also find this insight in the second formulation of the Categorical Imperative of Immanuel Kant: “So act as to treat humanity, whether in thine own person or in that of any other, in every case as an end withal, never as a means only…”

We might call this the principle of inter-subjectivity, and I think it provides a beautiful context within which to live with each other.  It would clearly preclude egregious betrayals, such as lying, stealing, or murder.  But, for me, it also carries great weight in three areas of courtesy.  In each of these three areas, I think that the rules of courtesy can be either empty formulas, or profound spiritual practices.

First, in everyday exchanges.  By simply saying “thank you” to a service person, one is  acknowledging her humanity, rather than seeing her as a “change-producing machine.”

Second, I think it is terribly important to learn the forms of courtesy in foreign cultures.  Saying “Gracias” when leaving Spanish shops, or “Itadakimasu” before a Japanese meal, is a way of recognizing both the human depth of the culture, as well as of the particular persons with whom we are interacting.  The weave of the social fabric in Japan is so tight, in fact, that my students would invariably tell me that their first moral rules were table manners.  We Westerners do not often see the moral implications of courtesy quite so clearly, but I think this Oriental attitude affords an important window into the gracious unfolding of daily life.

Third,  I would underscore the importance of courtesy with our family members and friends.  It is so easy to take our loved ones for granted, and remembering the simply courtesies helps to maintain mutual recognition and respect.  I am thinking of Archie Bunker yelling to his wife “Get me another beer, Dingbat!”   The creators of the show were obviously showing the importance of familial kindness by demonstrating the ugliness of its opposite.   It is a lesson I try to take to heart.

Continue reading

Living the Love of Wisdom # 2: Tao 38

In the previous post, I reflected on the nature of Wisdom as a classical virtue, relying mostly on the thought of Aristotle. Gaining an understanding of wisdom as a virtue, however, is only a small part of the art of living the love of wisdom. Let us turn to Eastern Wisdom today, and allow Lao Tzu to guide us on the path of the art of living. Verse 38 of the Tao Te Ching has been an inspiration for me for many years. Here is the translation by Jane English and Gia-Fu Feng:
yinyang
A truly good man is not aware of his goodness,
And is therefore good.
A foolish man tries to be good,
And is therefore not good.
A truly good man does nothing,
Yet leaves nothing undone.
A foolish man is always doing,
Yet much remains to be done. When a truly kind man does something, he leaves nothing undone.
When a just man does something, he leaves a great deal to be done.
When a disciplinarian does something and no one responds,
He rolls up his sleeves in an attempt to enforce order.

Therefore when Tao is lost, there is goodness (te, virtue).
When goodness is lost, there is kindness (jen, benevolence).
When kindness is lost, there is justice (ren, righteousness).
When justice is lost, there is ritual (li, propriety).

Therefore the truly great man dwells on what is real
and not what is on the surface.
On the fruit and not the flower.
Therefore accept one and reject the other.

The implications of this verse could easily fill several books, but I will do my best to restrain myself. I have already considered superior vs. inferior virtue in the blog post “Shoddy Virtues,” and written two essays on ritual (the Young Monk and A Sip of Tea).

For today, let us consider the evolution of consciousness outlined in another translation of verse 38:
“Hence when the way [Tao] was lost there was virtue [Te]; when virtue was lost there was benevolence [Jen]; when benevolence was lost there was rectitude [righteousness, Ren]; when rectitude was lost there were the rites [ritual, li ]. And, it is implied, when ritual fails, the disciplinarian uses force and fear.

The Way to Wisdom
We might see the unfolding of the art of living the love of wisdom as a reversal of the process in Tao 38: We often begin learning through fear, then develop rote behaviors (li), moving to “right” principles (ren), and perhaps on to benevolent, or at least beneficent, behavior (jen), finally becoming virtuous (te) by assimilating accumulated beliefs and values, actions and attitudes, into ourselves as a second nature (Aristotle). As Ken Wilber points out, each stage is both transcended and included in this process (including fear, although I think ultimately it would evaporate as a needless appendage). While becoming virtuous and acting from one’s virtue is the pinnacle of development for Aristotle, it is only the penultimate stage of development in the thought of Lao Tzu. For him, all the stages of the development of consciousness–ritual, principles, benevolence, and virtue–are dry and sterile without being vivified with the energy of Tao. Just as with Virtue, every stage can be “higher” or “lower.” Perhaps a tentative meaning of Tao and of this entire process will become more clear if I use my favorite musical analogy.

Continue reading