Archive for November, 2018

Cicero: On the Nature of the Gods

November 22, 2018

On the Nature of the Gods
Marcus Tullius Cicero
Translated from the Latin by P.G. Walsh
(Oxford, 1998) [44 BC]
lv + 230 p.

When Cicero was in his 60s he embarked on an ambitious project to write a series of philosophical works. Though he, when a young man, had studied with several of the leading philosophers in Athens and Rhodes, he was by profession a lawyer and politician, not an original philosopher, which he knew quite well, but he did his contemporaries a service by translating Greek ideas into elegant Latin prose, and summarizing the views of various philosophical schools, often in a dialogue format.

Such is the case with De Natura Deorum, which explores the views of the Epicureans, Stoics, and Academics as to the nature of the gods. There are four characters in the dialogue, each of them, interestingly, based on a real person: Velleius presents the Epicurean view; Balbus defends the Stoic tradition; Cotta is an Academic; and Cicero himself is an interested listener. The principal school missing from the dialogue is the Aristotelian.

Though formally a dialogue, the give and take familiar from Plato’s dialogues, for instance, is mostly absent. Instead, Cicero gives us a series of set speeches in which individual characters present, at length, their views on the question, or rebut the views of others. In the seams between these monologues there is some back-and-forth, but little more.


The dialogue opens with Velleius presenting the Epicurean view. As we recall from reading Lucretius, the Epicureans were materialists who believed that everything is made of indivisible and eternal atoms. Lucretius himself didn’t discuss the gods, apart from a few references here and there, and the present dialogue is actually our best surviving source for what the Epicureans thought about these matters. For them, the gods were akin to material beings (they are said in this translation to have “quasi-bodies”) having human form, but living a life of idleness and bliss — which does, indeed, sound divine. They held that the gods pay no heed to human affairs.

Cotta, the Academic, then steps forward with a critique. He ridicules the anthropomorphism of the Epicurean gods, the ad hoc quasi-materialism, and wonders why we should bother to reverence these beings who care not for us. He contests Velleius’ simple argument that we know the gods exist from common consent.

In the next stage of the dialogue Balbus presents the Stoic case. The Stoics, too, defended the existence of the gods on the grounds that belief in their existence is nearly universal, but added other arguments too: from design of the world, from divine interventions, and from religious practices like divination. Balbus then proceeds to construct something like an ontological argument: God (or a god) is the greatest being, and therefore possesses every good, including reason, sensation, and even sphericity; and, since the universe as a whole is the greatest being possible, the universe itself must be this divine being. In this way, the Stoics arrived at something like a pantheist theology. Against the Epicureans, the Stoics maintained that the gods providentially ordered the world, and that therefore religious practices were right and salutary.

But this view, too, is subjected to an Academic critique by Cotta, who contests essentially every point in the Stoic case apart from the bare existence of the gods. The arguments offered for their existence he finds weak. He rebuts the ontological argument by deducing from it absurdities, such as that if the universe possesses every good then it must be adept at reading, writing, and flute-playing. In one interesting section he even challenges the premise that reason is a good thing, arguing to the contrary that reason makes men cunning in their evil-doing. “That Providence of yours is blame-worthy for bestowing reason on those who she knew would use it unreasonably and wickedly.” He catalogues inconsistencies in stories about individual gods, and concludes that, in the end, we cannot trust much of what the religious tradition has handed down about the nature of the gods. Likewise the pious belief in divine providence is misguided, for if the gods took care for the affairs of men then the good would prosper and the wicked suffer, contrary to fact.

At the conclusion of this critique the dialogue draws to a close. Cotta, who has been the principal critic, never does present his own positive case, if he has one. (He may not; the Academics were largely skeptics.) He only states that he has offered his criticisms out of simple honesty, though he “longs to be refuted”. As the interlocutors disband, Cicero remarks, rather unexpectedly, that his sympathies are with the Stoics, perhaps because this was the school that sought to preserve the rationale for the state’s religious practices, which Cicero was, as a public figure, responsible for upholding and observing.


It is striking that the gods in this dialogue are seen simply as “superior beings”. They are better than us, but not transcendent. They are corporeal, existing alongside us as beings in the world, akin to the “flying spaghetti monster” beloved by modern armchair atheists. Nowhere in the dialogue does the conversation turn to what it could mean to conceive of a high god (i.e. God) as the origin of the being of all else. Had Cicero seen fit to include Aristotelian natural theology in the dialogue this problem could have been partly addressed. As it is, however, the rudimentary metaphysics of these philosophers is in high contrast to what Christian and Islamic philosophers would produce in centuries to come.


Its shortcomings notwithstanding, this dialogue has enjoyed a long tradition of influence in the West. Parts of it (especially the critique of the stories of the Roman gods) were cited by early Christian apologists against paganism. Augustine himself references or quotes from this dialogue more than a dozen times in The City of God. It was also read by the great medieval philosophical schools, and we find citations from it in Abelard, Aquinas, Bonaventure, and Roger Bacon. It was even more important to Renaissance thinkers, for whom Cicero was a touchstone: it was a favourite of Petrarch, and Montaigne cited it nearly 50 times in his writings. The skepticism of Cotta was especially influential in this period.

Among early modern thinkers, Locke and Hobbes both knew it, and Hume gave his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion the same structure and cast of characters (though with different names). Voltaire, with a characteristic lack of temperance, saw fit to describe it as “le meilleur livre puet-être de toute l’antiquité”, but this, it seems, had the nature of a last hurrah, for in the nineteenth century its influence declined along with the prevailing appraisal of Cicero’s value as a philosopher.

Today it is not widely read, and I would argue that its value as an historical document, describing the leading arguments in theology at the time, eclipses its value as a living source of reflection on the questions it poses. But I am, nonetheless, pleased to have read it.

Another missed concert

November 17, 2018

Last weekend I did not get to see Hilary Hahn in concert. Tonight I don’t get to hear the Latvian Radio Choir in concert. But I can stay home and listen to them sing Arvo Pärt’s Nunc dimittis. This is a quiet and slow piece, but difficult to sing well. It’s delicate, and fragile, and will break if the choir fumbles it. It’s safe in these hands:

I wonder what concert I will not attend next weekend?

Stravinsky: Poetics of Music

November 13, 2018

Poetics of Music
In the Form of Six Lessons
Igor Stravinsky
(Harvard, 1970) [1942]
xiii + 142 p.

During the academic year 1939-40 Stravinsky was invited to deliver a series of lectures at Harvard University. In them, he, then, as now, considered one of the great composers of the twentieth century, spoke about creating music, the role of musical form, the importance of tradition, and aspects of musical performance. He was a brilliant and amusing figure with strong views and a playful intelligence; the experience of reading these lectures is, I believe, greatly enhanced by imagining them spoken in his own voice (which one can hear in, for example, this interesting interview).

The title of his lectures — the “poetics” of music — might lead the unsuspecting to think that he would expostulate, in romantic terms, on the ineffable and sublime, but this was not Stravinsky’s way. The title is precise: his subject is poetics, from the Greek poieo, meaning “to do or make”. He speaks not about the pleasant fancies of music, but about the down-to-earth craft of music-making. These were the terms on which he understood his own vocation — not as a revolutionary, and not even as an “artist”, but as a craftsman. This he understood, rightly, to be a return to a pre-Romantic conception of musical composition.

(As is sometimes the case with Stravinsky, one suspects an element of misdirection at play in this self-description; it would seem to apply more aptly to the composer of Pulcinella than Le Sacre.)

If a composer is a craftsman, what are his materials, and what his tools? He defines music in objective language: “a form of speculation in terms of sound and time”. His materials are sounds, which he arranges harmonically and temporally to form structures. In the very interesting third lecture, specifically on “The Composition of Music”, he describes what this process is like for him: a combination of improvisation, accidental discovery, and positive construction in awareness of (if not always in compliance with) established musical forms. He, borrowing from medieval theologians, uses very beautiful language to describe this process of searching and finding as “a spiral of love and understanding”. This is, if you want, a phenomenology of musical composition, which he wants to present as “objective findings” of general application but which can at least be appreciated as a first-hand account of his own experience.

The importance of form to Stravinsky would be hard to overestimate. (The subtitle of these lectures is, again, carefully chosen.) It is fairly common in treatments of musical fundamentals to take tonality as one of the principal organizing features of music. This Stravinsky rejects. Instead he uses the phrase “poles of attraction” to describe what is fundamental to music. The tonal system is but one example of a “pole of attraction”, and not a necessary one. More fundamental is musical form itself, and more fundamental still is melody, which “survives every change of system”.

Form was important to him in part because it imposed limits. “If everything is permissible to me… [then] every undertaking becomes futile,” he says. Using the example of fugue to illustrate his point, he argues for the paradoxical view that “we find freedom in strict submission to the object”. By limiting our choices, we are better able to act. He contends that “strength is born of constraint and dies in freedom”, citing da Vinci, but he might have cited almost any pre-modern authority, for this view, jarring to modern ears, was a commonplace of pre-modern ethics. In applying the point here to art and aesthetics, I expect he intended exactly this jarring effect.

A principal means by which this process of limitation takes place is tradition, which hands down a set of musical forms and techniques for the composer’s use, and part of his task is to appropriate this tradition, imposing it, as he says, upon himself. He is aware that twentieth century music, especially in the person of his arch-nemesis Schoenberg, ruptured the tradition of Western music, and he describes with, it seems, barely controlled fury the plight of the man thus bereft of his inheritance:

“Individual caprice and intellectual anarchy, which tend to control the world in which we live, isolate the artist from his fellow-artists and condemn him to appear as a monster in the eyes of the public; a monster of originality, inventor of his own language, of his own vocabulary, and of the apparatus of his art. The use of already employed materials and of established forms is usually forbidden him. So he comes to the point of speaking an idiom without relation to the world that listens to him. His art becomes truly unique, in the sense that it is incommunicable and shut off on every side […].

Whether he wills it or not, the contemporary artist is caught up in this infernal machination. There are simple souls who rejoice in this state of affairs. There are criminals who approve of it. Only a few are horrified at a solitude that obliges them to turn in upon themselves […].

The universality whose benefits we are gradually losing is an entirely different thing from the cosmopolitanism that is beginning to take hold of us. Universality presupposes the fecundity of a culture that is spread and communicated everywhere, whereas cosmopolitanism […leads to…] a sterile eclecticism.”

One hears echoes of T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, which Stravinsky never refers to but which almost certainly lies somewhere in the background, and the general point, here eloquently put, has wider application beyond merely musical or literary tradition.


Stravinsky’s love of musical order and objectivity, and his disdain for radical individualism, led him to dislike much of the music of the Romantic era, and especially to detest the music of Wagner. These lectures are laced with withering anti-Wagner invective too good to pass over in silence:

“How powerful this man must have been to have destroyed an essentially musical form [the symphony] with such energy that fifty years after his death we are still staggering under the rubbish and racket of the music drama!…

Is this what is called progress? Perhaps. Unless composers find the strength to shake off this heavy legacy by obeying Verdi’s admirable injunction: ‘Let us return to old times, and that will be progress.'”

And again:

“For the devotees of the religion of Progress, today is always and necessarily more worth while than yesterday, from which the consequence necessarily follows that in the field of music the … Wagnerian orchestra represents an advance over that of Beethoven. I leave it to you to judge what such a preference is worth.”

His aversion for this music appears to be driven in part by the Romantic reliance on extra-musical elements: tone poems that allegedly tell stories, for example, or, as with Wagner, music designed to express a stage drama. One has to take this with a grain of salt, for Stravinsky himself wrote ballets, which would be susceptible to the same criticism. I wonder, also, if he expressed the same contempt for the music of “old times” which was, so often, written to convey words, which are, in themselves, non-musical. Stravinsky, too, wrote a Mass…


These lectures close with a consideration of musical performance, with which Stravinsky had extensive personal experience, especially as a conductor. He stresses that the performer’s task is not only technical and aesthetic, but also ethical, for he stands under an obligation to present the work in such a way as to faithfully convey the intentions of the composer. Naturally, this is the sort of thing you would expect a composer to say! It is also in keeping with his view that musical pieces are objective productions of a skilled craftsman, like a chair. Presumably Stravinsky must have hated Glenn Gould. But a musician feels an understandable pressure to project his own personality in performance, not least as a way of distinguishing himself from the crowd of able musicians. Most of us, I expect, recognize that a performance of a piece of music reflects a combination of what the composer intended us to hear and what the performer finds in the music. I join Stravinsky in thinking that the composer’s intentions are normative, but I am inclined to give performers some indefinite and perhaps haphazard latitude in interpretation (and, in music written for the harpsichord, I am a positive revolutionary in my insistence that it be played only on a piano).


I very much enjoyed reading through these lectures. I always find Stravinsky stimulating; I cannot think of another person in the musical world today who is comparably articulate and eminent. Part of the problem is surely that the disintegration of our musical tradition which he lamented has been one of the factors causing it to disappear from public life. But he was also just a special person, and it is probably simple folly to expect to find another like him. He can surprise me — as when he quotes, in these lectures, both Jacques Maritain and G.K. Chesterton — and he can provoke, but spending these few hours in his company has been very much worthwhile.


[Sincere ignorance]
In itself ignorance is, of course, no crime. It begins to be suspect when it pleads sincerity.

[Objective music vs subjective interpretation]
It is not easy to conceive how a pianist could establish his reputation by taking Haydn as his war-horse.

[Musical over-saturation]
The time is no more when Johann Sebastian Bach travelled a long way on foot to hear Buxtehude. Today radio brings music into the home at all hours of the day and night. It relieves the listener of all effort except turning a dial. Now the musical sense cannot be acquired or developed without exercise. In music, as in everything else, inactivity leads gradually to paralysis, to the atrophying of faculties. Understood in this way way, music becomes a sort of drug which, far from stimulating the mind, paralyzes and stultifies it. So it comes about that the very undertaking which seeks to make people like music by giving it a wider and wider diffusion, very often only achieves the result of making the very people lose their appetite for music whose interest was to be aroused and whose taste was to be developed.

A missed opportunity

November 11, 2018

This weekend Hilary Hahn was in town for a concert. Despite my best efforts, I was not able to go; six or eight hundred people were better organized, and all the tickets were sold.

It had the potential to be a memorable night: one of the great musicians of our time, and certainly my favourite living violinist, playing nothing but Bach’s music for solo violin. A dream come so nearly true. The pain of regret is slightly alleviated by looping this short video, in which she plays the Presto from Sonata No.1:

Around and about

November 8, 2018
  • We are in a Debussy centenary year, and Alex Ross explains why he is such an original and wonderful composer.
  • For the Feast of All Souls, Fr Rutler praises the music of Edward Elgar, and especially his Dream of Gerontius.
  • (Speaking of Fr Rutler, I cannot resist linking to an earlier column in which he touches on a teapot-tempest at the Vatican. I’ve tried to steer mostly clear of Vatican controversies in this space, but Fr Rutler’s wit is too good to miss.)
  • In FORMA, Sean Johnson writes a thoughtful appreciation of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.
  • Peter Hitchens pens a wry review of John Gray’s recent book Seven Types of Atheism, which, despite Hitchens’ sallies, sounds pretty good.
  • If you’re a reader, I’ll wager you’ll enjoy reading Joseph Epstein’s winsome account of his own bookish life.
  • While on the topic of books: I have huge tsundoku. Hmmm. I think we need another word for it.
  • Academic hoaxes are excellent — both entertaining and instructive — and a brave trio of youngsters have perpetrated a doozie against what they call “Grievance Studies” journals. You’ll laugh and you’ll cry.

For a musical envoi, here is Elgar’s “Praise to the Holiest”, from The Dream of Gerontius: