Archive for June, 2011

Grant: The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages

June 29, 2011

The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages
Their Religious, Institutional, and Intellectual Contexts
Edward Grant
(Cambridge, 1996)

261 p.

It is not easy to think of an aspect of medieval culture that enjoys popular acclaim today (unless we count the paternalistic medieval code of chivalry or the militaristic medieval ideal of knightly valour — do you see what I mean?), though it is a favourite pastime to tabulate all the many ways in which medieval society was thoroughly awful. Perhaps no aspect of medieval culture is more eagerly and easily derided than its science: impotent, absurd, hide-bound, airy, and wrong. It is a cunning strategy from our point of view, of course, for what better grounds on which to criticize others than those on which we stand most confidently? The bad reputation of medieval science dates from the seventeenth century, and is perhaps exemplified most famously in Galileo’s character (in his Dialogue) Simplicio, a dim-witted Aristotelian whose flounderings serve as a foil for the boldness and intelligence of the new scientists — and, in particular, of Galileo himself.

Fair enough, I suppose. The old order, which certainly merited criticism, was also open to caricature. Today, however, from a distance of several hundred years, we can look back at the dispute and try to discriminate the just criticisms from the unjust, and perhaps to trace certain threads of the fabric of the new science back into the Middle Ages, supplying the appreciation that was withheld or neglected at the time.

This is very much the objective of Edward Grant’s fine book, a study of the debt which modern science owes to medieval Europe. Grant is a leading scholar in medieval science, and has published numerous books on various aspects of the subject; this book feels like a condensation and summation of a lifetime of learning. Its conclusions, as is fitting, are balanced: there were important elements of the new science, he argues, that were genuinely new and which were not anticipated by medieval thinkers, but, at the same time, there were real and significant respects in which the medieval period made the birth of the new science possible.

To the extent that the new science was stimulated by encounters with Greek science, the Middle Ages deserves credit for having made the Greek texts available in a language that Europeans could understand. When knowledge of Greek was largely lost in the later Roman Empire, the scientific texts were preserved by Eastern Christians — whether Orthodox or Nestorian — and were then translated into Arabic in the aftermath of the Islamic conquests. Through the eleventh and twelfth centuries these texts found their way back to Europe, and from Arabic to Latin, through a dedicated and far-sighted translation effort, centred on the Iberian peninsula. They were eagerly taken up for study in the universities, as is well known.

The universities themselves deserve comment. We are sometimes inclined to take universities for granted, but it is well to consider what a rare and, in some respects, peculiar institution a university is. Apart from distant and singular Greek models like the Academy and Lyceum, there was really no precedent for the medieval university. Medieval scholars were self-consciously aware that the institution was not intended to serve the practical needs of society. There was a strong emphasis, which will come as no surprise to those familiar with medieval ideas about the liberal arts and the relative merits of the contemplative and active life, that the university was grounded in a love of learning and an appreciation for the intrinsic value of knowledge. The university enjoyed a wide liberty for free inquiry; interventions by civil and ecclesiastical authorities were remarkably rare. Its curriculum was structured around the trivium (grammar, rhetoric, logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music). It is significant, for our present considerations, that the quadrivium had a significant mathematical component, for we all know how important mathematics was, and is, to the natural sciences.

A third important factor that prepared the ground for science was the emergence, within the universities, of men well-trained in both natural philosophy and theology. Theology was the highest field of study, the ‘queen of the sciences’, and one could gain entry to a program of theological study only after having obtained a thorough grounding in more elementary subjects, including philosophy. The fact that theologians had, as a matter of course, also studied natural philosophy meant that there was no artificial bifurcation between the two fields of study, and certainly no motive for hostility; rather, the theologian-natural philosophers were able to relate the two fields of study to one another with relative ease. The interest they took in natural philosophy was often, naturally enough, from a theological vantage point — as a means to better understand and interpret Scripture, for instance — but that does not alter the essential point, which is that there was a group of elite scholars in Europe who understood and valued natural philosophy.

Those, then, are several historical and contextual factors that, Grant argues, created a climate in which interest in scientific questions could flourish. But were there any specific medieval intellectual contributions to the sciences themselves? Grant argues that medieval science was divisible into two parts: natural philosophy, concerned with the principles of nature at a fairly general level, and the exact sciences, such as optics or statics, in which specific scientific questions were addressed. The medieval contribution was principally to the former; scholars of the period mastered the ancient methods of the exact sciences, but did not add substantially to them.

In the light of that fact — which might reasonably be considered a failure — it is worthwhile to pause briefly to consider several of the most common criticisms of medieval science. One, of course, is that the medieval period did little to advance the exact sciences. Grant, as was just said, does not contest the charge, but argues that some allowance must be made for the difficult conditions under which medieval scholars laboured: it was a period in which, owing to the relatively small scholarly community and the mutable media available for recording and transmitting knowledge, ‘knowledge was as likely to vanish as to be preserved’. Consequently, ‘an enormous effort would have been required just to maintain the status quo’. We are, I think, sometimes too apt to forget that fact. Another common criticism of medieval science is that it was unfruitful because it was not experimental; this, again, is true to a large extent, but is the merit of an experimental approach so very evident at the outset? Grant argues that within the Aristotelian intellectual tradition which dominated the high medieval period experimental science actually seemed to be a superfluous, if not actually obstructive, endeavour. Aristotle’s physics implied that the nature of a thing would be manifest most clearly under natural conditions; to study something under ‘unnatural’, laboratory conditions, in which objects were manipulated, constrained, or otherwise tampered with, would therefore not have taught one about their true nature. Overcoming this objection required overcoming Aristotelian physics (which was, in some sense, the whole adventure of medieval science). Instead, medieval scholars preferred to argue deductively from principles. Finally, it is sometimes said that medieval scholars wasted their time with pseudo-sciences like alchemy, astrology, and divination; but this is false: these subjects were not part of the medieval curriculum. Interest in them belongs principally to the early modern period, contemporaneous with Bacon, Descartes, and Galileo.

Returning, then, to the question of whether medieval scholars made any significant concrete contributions to scientific progress, we should look to conceptual advances more than to experimental results. And we find, perhaps surprisingly, a quite wonderful litany of contributions that are so basic to us as to be almost invisible. Medieval natural philosophers argued over and clarified ideas about causality, necessity, contingency, and degrees of certitude. They studied, under Aristotle’s guidance, types of causes, and some (like John Buridan) actually anticipated the early modern philosophers by rejecting, for better or worse, final causes in nature. They developed conceptual frameworks for discussing infinities and infinitesimals, and mathematical treatments of qualities. They developed a language for describing kinematics, and proposed precise definitions for concepts such as uniform motion, uniform acceleration, and instantaneous velocity. They distinguished intensive and extensive qualities. They proposed principles of simplicity and economy of explanation. Crucially, they adopted the concept of ‘the common course of nature’, which granted to the natural world an integrity and consistency that made it intelligible and fit for scientific scrutiny, not immune from divine intervention but nonetheless having an orderly structure of its own.

This is not to claim that their ideas about these matters were all correct; in many cases they were not. It is to claim — and it seems to me a significant point — that many of the breakthroughs in early modern science did not occur because new questions were asked, but because new answers were given to old questions. The conversation was in many respects already happening; the questions were thought worthy of study; the shelves were stacked with proposals and counter-proposals.

Among the more interesting points Grant makes about the conceptual developments in medieval natural philosophy concerns the impact of the famous, or infamous, Condemnation of 1277. This was one of the infrequent ecclesiastical interventions into the intellectual life of the university: the Bishop of Paris issued a condemnation of some 219 philosophical and theological propositions. In his book on scholasticism, Josef Pieper reflected ruefully on the chilling influence these condemnations had on the dialogue between theology and philosophy, and between theological authority and philosophical inquiry. Grant has a more positive appraisal because of the unforeseen positive impact the condemnations had on natural philosophy. The burden of several of the condemnations, in particular, had been to insist that God’s power can be limited by nothing save logical contradiction. This was an idea fraught with peril for natural philosophy, for it might have had the effect of dissolving the order of nature into radically contingent and potentially capricious ‘happenings’, its character dependent from moment to moment on the changeability of God’s omnipotent will. (Something very like this seems to have afflicted Islamic natural philosophy, and also eventually certain Christian thinkers like William of Ockham.)

Instead, however, the doctrine of God’s omnipotence had a milder and more fruitful effect: it began to loosen the stranglehold that Aristotelian physics had on the medieval imagination. The Aristotelian view of nature, however correct it was as a description of our world, was not the only way God might have structured the world he created. This thought inspired medieval natural philosophers to speculate about possible worlds that might differ in one respect or another from ours, worlds in which one or another of the principles of Aristotelian physics did not apply. They found that certain of these ‘natural impossibilities’ were logically defensible — that vacua might exist, for instance, either within or beyond our cosmos, or that other worlds might exist. The arguments Aristotle had offered in defence of his positions were therefore subjected to critique and found wanting in certain respects. This process was immensely important for the development of the sciences, for modern science could not have emerged until people took seriously the idea that Aristotelian science might be wrong.

In closing, I would like to examine a few specific technical developments of medieval science that seem particularly closely related to developments usually associated with early modern science. In particular I will briefly examine some medieval arguments about the earth’s axial rotation, about motion and kinematics, and about the concepts of inertia and momentum.

Certain medieval natural philosophers entertained the thought that the earth might rotate axially once each day. It seemed a more elegant and economical way of explaining the observed daily rotation of the celestial sphere. The principal objection to the idea, of course, is that we seem to be stationary; natural philosophers considered whether that was a sound objection. John Buridan posed the problem as one of relative motion, and he argued that if the earth was rotating an arrow shot directly upward would fall to the ground in a different spot, since the ground would have rotated some distance while it was aloft. (In other words, he did not have the concept of inertia.) Nicole Oresme, however, who was one of the greatest natural philosophers of the later Middle Ages, pointed out that if the earth was rotating then evidently the atmosphere was also rotating with it (else we would always feel a wind from the same direction), and so the arrow aloft would be carried by the air and fall to earth exactly where it was launched. This is not quite a correct explanation, but it is probably about as good as one can do without the concept of inertia. Oresme, in fact, went systematically through all of the objections to the earth’s axial rotation and found them all wanting; he therefore concluded that there was no good reason why the earth should not rotate. He had, however, no positive case to make for its actual rotation. It is interesting to note that several of his arguments reappear in the writings of Copernicus.

I have already mentioned above that medieval natural philosophers made several important conceptual contributions to kinematics. They were motivated to do so by a quite general interest in the augmentation and diminution of qualities — the increase of grace in the soul, for instance, or the reddening of leaves in the autumn, or the acceleration of a moving body. A mathematics to describe this variation in quantifiable qualities was developed, and the concepts of uniform motion and uniformly accelerated motion were articulated, principally by a group of men at Oxford’s Merton College. (They are collectively called ‘the Oxford calculators’.) Perhaps their finest achievement was a derivation of the mean speed theorem; they gave the theorem verbally, not algebraically. Nicole Oresme later gave a geometric proof that was in all essentials identical to the geometric proof given by Galileo, for whom the mean speed theorem was foundational to the new science of motion. It is possible that Galileo learned the theorem from medieval treatises, which circulated widely in Italy, but this has not actually been demonstrated.

Some interesting modifications of Aristotle were made on the topic of the dynamics of motion. Aristotle had argued that the velocity of an object was proportional to its weight and inversely proportional to the resistance to its motion (v ~ W ~ 1/R); this led, however, to infinite velocities when the resistance was zero, which was one of the reasons Aristotle offered for the impossibility of a vacuum. Thomas Bradwardine, at Oxford, suggested instead that velocity was proportional to the applied force and inversely proportional to a combination of weight and resistance (v ~ F/(W + R)). This was wrong — it is acceleration that is proportional to force — but it was interesting because it behaved nicely in a vacuum (R = 0). This allowed Bradwardine to think about the possibility of motion in a vacuum, and to propose the idea that a medium was a retarding factor imposed upon a more basic, if hypothetical, vacuum case. This was a powerful idea that was to be of central importance to Galileo and Newton. Bradwardine also argued for a somewhat different set of ideas, in which motion did not depend on weight or size, but on an intensive quality called ‘internal resistance’. This is rather similar to Galileo’s use of ‘specific weight’ in the same context in an early manuscript (De motu, c.1590), which was later supplanted by the more universal (and correct) claim that motion is independent of the constitution of an object (Two New Sciences, 1638). Again, despite the suggestive parallels, no connection between Bradwardine and Galileo has been demonstrated on this matter.

Finally, we can look briefly at early ideas related to inertia and momentum. John Buridan argued that the motion of an object which results from an impressed force was determined by the object’s ‘impetus’, which he defined as a combination of its speed and its ‘quantity of matter’. I do not know what he meant by ‘quantity of matter’, but if he meant something like ‘mass’ then his impetus would be what we call momentum. In modern physics the impressed force is equal to the time rate of change of momentum, so Buridan was not too far off. He conceived of impetus as something that would be preserved unless diminished by an outside force, which is again suggestive of the modern concept of conservation of momentum. For Buridan, however, impetus was a cause of motion, rather than simply a quantity of motion, and in this he differed sharply from the modern view. Also, despite his idea that impetus would be preserved in the absence of outside forces, he did not conceive of rest and uniform motion as comparable states, nor of the possibility of infinite uniform motion — which was, in any case, an impossibility in an Aristotelian cosmos.

In each of these examples we see something that I find quite fascinating: challenges to the Aristotelian framework and the proposal of creative ideas that bore a certain family resemblance to the ideas that became basic to physics during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This supports, I think, the claim made earlier that the birth of modern science was in important respects a consequence of new answers being given to old questions. The brilliance and power of those new answers is beyond dispute, but the probity and intelligence of the questions ought also to have our respect. Grant makes a strong case for the claim that modern science could not have developed without the preparatory work — cultural, institutional, literary, and conceptual — of medieval scholars, and, as such, it seems long past time for their contributions to be acknowledged.

Great moments in opera: Faust

June 22, 2011

There was a time when Gounod’s Faust was one of the most popular operas in the world. It was the first opera to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and over the years it has been translated into over twenty languages. It has fallen into comparative disfavour in recent decades, but has certainly not vanished. It is, like the poem on which it is based, very much a creature of the nineteenth-century, thriving in those hot vents where Romanticism rubs up against the Enlightenment. I think it is fair to say that the Faust legend does not resonate so strongly with us today as it once did, and perhaps this partly accounts for the slide in popularity.

The source material is Goethe’s Faust, Part I, which focuses on the relationship of Faust and Margaret — a story that was not part of the medieval legend, but was Goethe’s own invention. (It was for this reason, says the Earl of Harewood in his Opera Book, that Germans of his time referred to the opera, rather archly, not as Faust but as Marguerite.) Faust, an old man who laments the futility of the studies to which he has devoted his life, makes a pact with Méphistophélès (Old Scratch himself): in exchange for youth and the fulfillment of his desires he will surrender his soul in the next world. Faust seduces Marguerite, and fathers her child. Abandoned by him, she kills the baby and is imprisoned. The opera ends with Marguerite, repentent, being taken into heaven.

One of Faust’s finest moments, both musically and morally, in which he celebrates the innocence and beauty of Marguerite, occurs in the aria Salut, demeure chaste et pure. This is sung before he seduces her, and he is not to know another such moment of repose and peace again. The aria is sung here by Roberto Alagna in a recent production. English subtitles are included.

Enchanted by Marguerite, Faust instructs Méphistophélès to acquire a gift adequate to her charms. He returns with a jewel chest, which is placed at Marguerite’s door. Discovering it, she sings what is probably the most celebrated music from the opera: the Jewel Song (O Dieu! que de bijoux). It is a virtuoso showpiece, with some tricky vocal flutters and a big finish. Here is Angela Gheorghiu, again with English subtitles:

Faust’s seduction is a success, but when Marguerite’s soldiering brother returns from the front (providing an occasion for a rousing chorus, linked at the top of this post) and discovers that Faust has disgraced her, he challenges Faust to a duel. With Méphistophélès’ help Faust slays his opponent, and Marguerite, in sorrow and terror, retreats to a church to pray. This is the site of the famous “Church scene”, in which Marguerite finds herself at the center of a spiritual war. Here is Angela Gheorghiu again, with Bryn Terfel a terrific Méphistophélès. The clip is quite long, but this is a scene that has won this opera much praise.

The final Act of the opera portrays the lurid Walpurgis Night festival, at which Méphistophélès presides over a carnival of witches and demons. At break of dawn Faust, disgusted, seeks out Marguerite in her prison cell to seek reconciliation. Marguerite, however, has not long to live. As she dies, the heavens open to receive her soul. Here, again, are Roberto Alagna, Angela Gheorghiu, and Bryn Terfel in the closing minutes of the opera.

Faust is new to me, and as such I am not able to make a confident appraisal of it. I will say that I did not much care for it on first acquaintance. Perhaps part of the problem is that I watched a DVD performance (not the one linked in the clips above) that was just awful: well sung, but badly lit, poorly edited, inertly staged, and so ineptly managed that the story was all but incomprehensible. But I do not think that entirely accounts for my lack of enthusiasm. The music did not really catch my ear, and the opera unfolded rather heavily and slowly. I acknowledge that a great many people disagree with me.

Godden: In This House of Brede

June 16, 2011

In This House of Brede
Rumer Godden
(Loyola Classics, 2005) [1969]

668 p.

Novels about the cloistered religious life are not very common. There have been books enough written with a cloistered setting — Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose and the whole of the Brother Cadfael series come to mind immediately — but these are not really about religious life, not about the spiritual ethos of monasticism. The only other example that I can think of — other than In This House of Brede — is Fernand Pouillon’s novel about the building of a medieval Cistercian monastery, The Stones of the Abbey, which is a fine book, though not well known. Are there others?

In This House of Brede is about a community of Benedictine nuns in the English countryside, and it has the very considerable merit of taking the Benedictine way of life seriously on its own terms, with no need for sensational drama thrown in. The substance of the story is drawn from the day to day life of prayer, work, and song that these women have chosen. The religious life, like any life, has drama enough, if one pays attention.

Godden has written a remarkably down to earth story. Were I to set pen to paper on a novel about religious life I would be tempted to turn out a novel of ideas, a clash of orthodoxies pitting the contemplative and Catholic against the worldly and weary, a cross between The Magic Mountain and The Temptation of St. Anthony. Rumer Godden has taken the opposite tack. Her women are quite ordinary, with ordinary concerns about their responsibilities to the community, worries about their health and families, and gratitude for friendship. Their religious life is woven into the fabric of each day, taken almost for granted as something so basic as not to require a great deal of attention. Even here, in the lives of those living the hidden life, the life of grace lies hidden deeper still. But it is there, and one of the chief pleasures of the book is seeing how grace illuminates and transforms the lives of those — not all, but some — who give themselves up to it.

Rumer Godden lived for several years in the gatehouse of a Benedictine abbey before she wrote this book, and I imagine that the frank, unromantic view of the religious life that she presents reflects what she observed at that time. The novel was published in 1969, which means that it was written while Vatican II was in session. The sisters in the story betray no knowledge of the Council, but they do from time to time discuss amongst themselves matters about which the Council deliberated. Godden is even-handed, almost to a fault: each perspective gets a voice thrown into the mix, and none is allowed to conquer the others.

If there is one point on which the psychological and spiritual realism of the book must be challenged, it is this: one has the impression, throughout, that the religious life itself — the Rule and the way of life built upon it — is stable and steady, like a quiet river that will flow forever. There are women in this story who are outside the cloister and want in, but there is no-one who is inside and wants out. Yet we know that in the wake of the Council, in the years immediately after this book was published, the religious orders of the Church began to hemorrhage members at a terrible rate. No hint of that looming catastrophe appears in these pages, and, in retrospect, this puts an unfortunate but undeniable blot on the portrait Godden painted.

“Mom, I got my picture in the paper”

June 16, 2011

I hope the police find this gentleman:

The streets of Vancouver erupted into riots last night after the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. My sister had to drive through the city after the game, and she says it was scary. Judging from these photos, I can see what she means. Idiots.

On top of the inherent criminality of the riots, it is a pity that they overshadow the night’s positive news: the Stanley Cup was won by the most deserving team. Congratulations to the Boston Bruins!

Nine of Ten Ways

June 15, 2011

For the past few months I have been slowly reading through Anthony Esolen’s latest book, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child. It is so packed full of (inverted) good sense that I thought I would try to get it a little more exposure: I asked our local city library to acquire a copy. To my delight, they ordered nine. Today I went to see if anyone has noticed them, and, to my even greater delight, I see that they are all in active circulation (except for one, which is apparently already lost).

I do believe that I have done a good deed, and made this city a little better than it was before. (It doesn’t take much.)

When I paint my monkey masterpiece

June 14, 2011

I remember reading, a few months ago, about a study that had compared paintings by artists of the abstract expressionist school to paintings made by untrained children and animals. In the study, subjects were shown a pair of paintings, one from each category, and asked which they thought better. The authors found that in 67% of cases the viewer thought the painting by the professional painter was better.

This meant, of course, that in roughly one-third of cases the viewer thought that the child or the animal had made a better painting, which, one might think, would be pretty damning for the pros, but the authors of the paper put the best construction on their results, noting that subjects “chose the professional work significantly more often than would be predicted by chance”, and then concluding with the pleasant thought that “The world of abstract art is more accessible than people realize.”

Man or monkey?

Recently an amusing little paper appeared in the arXiv database (the database where new papers in physics are first posted) that finds the cloud in this silver lining. The author, Mikhail Simkin, had the thought to compare the 67% success rate with success rates in other contexts. He notes, for instance, a study on ‘just perceptible differences’ that found that only 72% of people could correctly identify a 100 g weight as being heavier than a 96 g weight when held in the hand; given that even fewer could distinguish the two groups of painters, does this suggest that the ‘artistic weight’, as it were, of the professional’s paintings is only ‘just perceptibly different’ from that of the monkey’s?

Or, again, he compares the results to the Elo rating system for chess players, and points out that players separated by one rank have skill levels more different than that shown between the two groups in the painting study. He concludes that

Since abstract expressionist wins over a monkey only in 67% of cases, the difference in their artistic Elo ratings is less than 200. This means that they either belong to the same category with apes or are just one category above. If we class a gorilla as a novice, abstract art grandmasters are at best class D amateurs.

Well, granted that there are obvious problems with drawing these analogies between art, weights, and chess, this nonetheless strikes me as a creative way to explore the real significance of that 67% result. I confess that there is no love lost between abstract art and me, and these findings, both here and, perhaps especially, in the original paper, put a big ol’ smile on my face and a song in my heart.

By the way, Mikhail Simkin has had a bee in his bonnet over abstract art for a while. He runs an online quiz in which the task is to correctly distinguish real abstract paintings, by acknowledged masters, from ‘ridiculous fakes’, by Simkin himself. Although the test is biased in favour of the real paintings (because people may have seen some of them before), he has found that people correctly distinguish wheat from chaff only about 66% of the time. I took the quiz myself, and scored just 58% (7/12). I would have done worse were it not for some clues, unrelated to the compositions themselves, that tipped me off.

Great moments in opera: Alcina

June 13, 2011

I have seen two of Handel’s operas on the stage.  At the first, which was Giulio Cesare, a gentleman in the row behind me snored loudly through most of it, and I thought his commentary apt.  The second was Alcina, a seemingly interminable opera comprised of over 3 hours’ worth of recitative and da capo arias.  The music is lovely, of course, but one can have too much of a good thing.  I confess I left after the second act.

Nonetheless, I thought this week to give it another try, and I listened to a recent, highly praised recording led by Alan Curtis.  The story is based on Ariosto’s Orlando furioso.  Alcina is a sorceress who makes use of enchantments and magical rings to ensnare unsuspecting passers-by.  During the course of the opera, she is destroyed by Ruggiero, a Crusading knight, and Bradamante, his lover.

The finest moment in the opera is undoubtedly the aria Verdi prati (Green meadows), sung by Ruggiero when his enchantment is lifted and he sees, for the first time, the monster-infested island on which he has been trapped by Alcina.  It is a beautiful song, sung here by counter-tenor Andreas Scholl:

The intemperate genealogist

June 10, 2011

It’s not that I don’t appreciate Nietzsche; I admire his candour, and his constantly renewed assaults on spiritual complacency, and his determination to follow the truth wherever it leads (or seems to be leading — I do not forget that Nietzsche was fundamentally wrong), and, not least, his glorious rhetorical power. Reading him is almost always a bracing, eye-opening encounter.

Sometimes, however, reading him is more eyebrow-raising than eye-opening. Sometimes his rhetoric gets the better of him, and he says something so outrageously misanthropic that it rather spoils the effect. Last night I was making my way slowly through The Genealogy of Morals and I came across this, the opening paragraph of the third section of the book, titled “What is the Meaning of Ascetic Ideals?” Nietzsche writes:

What is the meaning of ascetic ideals? In artists, nothing, or too much; in philosophers and scholars, a kind of “flair” and instinct for the conditions most favourable to advanced intellectualism; in women, at best an additional seductive fascination, a little morbidezza on a fine piece of flesh, the angelhood of a fat, pretty animal; in physiological failures and whiners (in the majority of mortals), an attempt to pose as “too good” for this world, a holy form of debauchery, their chief weapon in the battle with lingering pain and ennui; in priests, the actual priestly faith, their best engine of power, and also the supreme authority for power; in saints, finally a pretext for hibernation, their novissima gloriae cupido, their peace in nothingness (“God”), their form of madness.

I admit that I set the book down and laughed. Someone get the man a cold compress for his fevered brow.

Liszt’s Bénédiction

June 8, 2011

This year is a Liszt anniversary year — his 200th birthday is coming up in October — and I have been listening to a lot of Liszt in the meantime, focusing, as you would expect, on his piano music, but also making forays into his chamber, orchestral, and even choral music. It has been a good education for me, for although I have known certain of his big showpieces (Totentanz, Sonata in B minor, certain opera transcriptions) in an offhand way I must admit that I have not taken him all that seriously. I have tended to buy into the caricature of Liszt of a somewhat vulgar showman who piled up heaps of notes to get an easy round of applause.

After spending quite a few hours with Liszt over the last six months, I am ready to agree that that portrait is a caricature. There is some truth in it, of course (for there are heaps of notes), but there is more musical substance in his work than I had expected. He wrote some very lovely chamber music for cello and piano, for instance, and his Schubert transcriptions are a treasure. I have been getting to know the mighty Sonata in B minor in more detail, and it is amazing.

I have also been exploring the religious side of Liszt. Both early in life and late (though not so much in the middle) he was a devout Catholic, and he wrote a considerable amount of music on Catholic themes: music for Mary, music inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, music for Christmas and Easter, and so forth. Perhaps my favourite of his religious pieces, however, is Bénédiction de Dieu dans la solitude, a long (20 minute), gentle, luminous, and transporting meditation for piano. It stands with the very best of his work, and might, I think, be counted among the finest purely instrumental compositions on a sacred theme in the entire tradition.

I am thinking of this today because Inside Catholic has “re-printed” a good essay by Stephen Hough (himself a very fine pianist) which explores Liszt’s spiritual journey and sacred music in some detail, focusing on the Bénédiction as an outstanding example of his art:

The Benediction is a work celebrating the love affair between a soul and God; solitude, not as a denial of love, but as a concentrated immersion in the life of God who is Love. In this way, the idea of solitude sheds its negative connotations. The heart, free from an attachment to the particular, can love the All. Liszt’s profound awareness of these truths expresses itself in a seraphic sublimation in the Benediction. Absent is any sense of loneliness, for this is not a turning inward to escape from people or reality but a joyous stretching outward to God, and from Him to others.

I recommend reading the entire essay, as Hough is a rare example of someone who is both musically and religiously literate. In the meantime, here is a video of Jorge Bolet playing roughly the last half of the Bénédiction.

Mumford & Sons: After the Storm

June 2, 2011

Last year I put Mumford & Sons’ debut record Sigh No More atop my ‘best of the year’ list, and I haven’t changed my mind in the meantime. I have returned to it again and again, and I continue to find new things in it.

Of late I have been listening with increasing appreciation to the record’s final song, “After the Storm”. I have remarked before on the spiritual vitality of the record as a whole, and this song is a good example. It is poised between earth and heaven, a quiet hymn of a broken heart longing for the beauty and peace of a kingdom not subject to death. “Death is just too full, and man too small. / I’m scared of what’s behind, and what’s before“, he sings, but then a gently lilting melody emerges, like a balm on the heart:

There’ll come a time, you’ll see
With no more tears
And love will not break your heart
But dismiss your fears.
Get over your hill and see
What you find there
With grace in your heart
And flowers in your hair.

It’s a lovely image on which to end an excellent song and a fine album. Here is Marcus Mumford in a live performance: