The Song of Reality

Jul 7, 2021

Have you ever wished to get into someone else’s head? How does Tom Brady survey the football field or Elon Musk process business decisions? What was Octavian thinking after the battle of Actium? Each person has their own unique way of approaching the world, yet we may also speak of distinct “minds” of history. W. Harry Jellema identifies at least three such minds: the classical Greco-Roman, the Christian-Medieval, and the Renaissance-Enlightenment-Contemporary—each its own objective entity with its own voice. As C.S. Lewis reminds us, hearing the voice of minds outside our own allows the cool sea breeze to rejuvenate our thoughts.

As representative of the ancient mind, Plato claims in his Republic that music shapes and nourishes the soul of the guardian. He directs their musical training so that the guardians will be courageous and spirited, discerning good and evil. Plato is not concerned merely with the words or content digested by the guardians, but also the harmony and rhythm of the music. Modern culture tends to denigrate form, but the classical mind recognized both were essential. Everything is seamlessly woven together into an integrated whole directed towards the telos of education and conforming the soul to nature.

Plato teaches that music has the power to shape our affections. Because all of life is mimetic, music also reflects distinct attitudes and actions as it copies movements of the soul or spirit. Music trains the guardians as a river sweeping them towards proper inclinations. While it’s possible to swim upstream, it’s far easier for the soul to conform to the musical action. For the guardians, Plato identifies the Dorian and Phrygian modes as most suitable for teaching moderation and courage—modes today often used for somber or reflective songs (Dorian) and heavy metal (Phrygian). The more things change, the more they stay the same. 

However, when discussing music, the siren of subjectivism begins to sing. Does music induce certain emotions, or are emotions purely the subjective response of the listener? The default position of the modern is that all reactions to music are a matter of taste or cultural conditioning. Inherently, music signifies nothing; we impose meaning upon it. We may call a piece “sad” or “happy,” but these merely express how we feel about it. In fact, all reality is only what we make of it. It has no value or objectivity but is just an empty vessel to be filled with our names and categories. It has no form but what we give it.

In contrast, the ancient mind believed that there is a fixed objective order, and our responses may be more or less fitting. Education conforms the mind to reality. Although objects like music, art, or nature require a subject to respond to them, these subjective responses can be merited. While they are alogical and cannot be judged true or false, they may be congruent or incongruent with reason. It is fitting to adore the beautiful and to love your own children. These are proper and good responses, not just expressions of personal taste. Reality imposes its form and meaning on us.

Modern man resists this impulse by claiming that because some people drift to sleep on Metallica lullabies or feel compelled to breakdance at the Moonlight Sonata, all subjective responses are purely a matter of taste. “This song is angry” really means, “this song gives me angry feelings.” It has no more meaning than opining on the best ice cream flavor (it’s Moose Tracks). Yet this subtle knife also divides ethics from justice and knowledge from truth. Those who wield it cut off the very branch they perch upon. To claim “murder is wrong” only means “I don’t like murder” is obviously absurd. Some claim that adultery is good. Should we then suspend all ethical judgments? Some believe the earth is flat. Does this mean truth is unknowable? Those who trumpet subjectivism must paradoxically proclaim, “all judgements are subjective opinions except for this one.”

This pleasure cruise of relativism inevitably crashes upon the immovable rock of reality. Nature exists. If you try to ignore her, she’s likely to slam you against your locker and demand your lunch money. Despite our best attempts to bend reality to our whims, it snaps back to its original form without the slightest crease or wrinkle. We are not imposing our own vision of the world on objects, wrestling over our share of reality PlayDough, but are being conformed to nature. Reality imposes its standards on us. Reverence is owed to the old, love to children, honor to the great, and care to the weak. To fail in these obligations is to behave as an animal and betray the Logos.

Nature not only includes goodness or truth, but also beauty. Aesthetics is no less fixed than justice. The Mona Lisa is objectively more beautiful than the Piss Christ. The Chartres Cathedral is greater than the Franks’ early hovels. Whatever plays on pop radio these days is not worthy to be compared to Bach’s Mass in B Minor. Precious few things are merely a matter of taste. To surrender beauty to the unstable quicksand of taste must also abandon goodness and truth to the void.

How can we know if our responses are harmonious with nature or discordant? Classical education proposes that if many people, not only horizontally across culture, but also vertically across time, have recognized certain responses are good or worthy, this is a strong testimony that they are right. The universality of agreement is a formidable obstacle to overcome. We dare not dismiss the old ways with a wave of the hand and a “that was then; this is now.” We must defer to the wisdom of the past. 

Our reaction to the question of whether discordant or wild music can disorder the soul will indicate which spirit we are of. Have we secretly supped on relativism and consigned music to the irrelevance of debating favorite sports teams? The contrast between the ancient mind and our modern age could not be more clear. Will we surrender to the goodness and beauty of nature or be crushed by the weight of reality? 

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman

Austin Hoffman teaches at Charis Classical Academy in Madison, WI.

The opinions and arguments of our contributing writers do not necessarily reflect those of the Institute or its leadership.

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