A note on stars, planets, the gods, and the discovery of reason
“One thing leads to another,” and one moment of wonder leads to more wonder. As Plato has Socrates declare in his dialogue, the Theatetus, “Wonder is the feeling of a philosopher, and philosophy begins in wonder.” Philosophy, or the Greek word, philosophia, literally means, of course, “the love of wisdom.” One gains wisdom through loving it, and wondering at what is.
When I first let Moses and Elijah (my dogs) outside this morning, at 0130, I was immediately struck by the brightness of the stars. The sky was cloudless, the waning moon had not yet risen, and the stars and (I thought) some planets stood out, inspired awe, and provoked a few questions. “What am I seeing” I wondered. “Surely that very bright object in the southern sky must be a planet. If so, which one?” I surmised that it was Jupiter, which I have seen on a number of occasions. As I walked around my yard in the dark, I also remembered the ancient Greek story that one of the philosophers—Thales, I believe—was said to have been so enraptured looking up at the stars that he fell into a well. That account also comes from Plato’s Theatetus.
I wondered, “Which is that planet I am seeing in the southern sky?” A quick search using Bing online convinced me that it was not a planet, for no planet was visible in my location (not far south of Butte, Montana) at 0130 this morning. As the object was stationary, it would not have been a plane or a satellite. Well, it was surely not the moon. Hence, by deduction, it is a star. Which star it was I will search out in coming days, as I seek to learn which constellations are visible at my location at this time of the year. In youth and as a young man, I could identify a number of constellations. Now I recognize few, although I can clearly identify the Large Dipper (Ursa Major) as I lean back and gaze outside my living room window, when the electric light has been turned off.
And so I began to wonder about the names of the planets, and especially of Jupiter, which I was not seeing. Jupiter, as I’ve long known, is the Roman derivation from the Greek designation of the “chief god” as “Zeus Pater,” “Father Zeus.” Zeus, and derivatively the Roman god Jupiter, were thought of as the head god. For some reason, the ancient Romans named the second brightest planet Jupiter, reserving Venus—the goddess of love and of beauty—for what seems to be the brightest of the planets, when visible. In the Greek understanding, Zeus was not “from the beginning,” but was the son of Kronos (Chronos), the Greek name for a older god, and their word for Time (hence the origin of our word “chronology,” an account of time, of of a series in time). Again, the ancient Romans derived their names for gods and a large part of their fundamental mythology from the Greeks; as Zeus was the son of Kronos, so Jupiter was conceived as the son of Saturn, a Latin word thought to be related to a verb meaning, “to devour,” for “Time devours all things.” Saturn is devouring time, and his son, Jupiter, must confine him within limits, lest Saturn destroy all things.
The Roman thinker, Cicero, wrote c 45 BC in his book, De Natura Deorum, On the Nature of the gods, the following. Note how Cicero shows concern for real natural processes, and is not just engaging in mythical speculation for its own sake. For in reality, “Time devours all things.” Cicero writes: "By Saturn they [the mythologizers] seek to represent that power which maintains the cyclic course of times and seasons. This is the sense that the Greek name of that god bears, for he is called Kronos, which is the same as Chronos, or Time. Saturn for his part got his name because he was "sated" with years; the story that he regularly devoured his own children is explained by the fact that time devours the courses of the seasons, and gorges itself "insatiably" on the years that are past. Saturn was enchained by [his son] Jupiter to ensure that his circuits did not get out of control, and to constrain him with the bonds of the stars."
I would add to Cicero: Note that the divine Zeus / Jupiter must constrain Time (Kronos), the Roman Saturn, and keep its devouring within limits. The discovery of limits—and hence being-things or things—were historically essential to the discovery of reason, and of what we call “natural science.” Limited being has “a nature,” a way of being within limits. To know the nature of something, one must know its limits—not only what it is, but what it is not. In the words from Delphi in Greece that Socrates took as his watchword, “Know thyself; that thou art a human being, and not a god.” We are limited or bounded in ways that gods are not. The gods of the ancient Greek and Roman myths (among others) were not bound by time going forward, as they were understood to be “deathless,” or immortal; but they were bound by time in the past, as even the gods were thought to have a beginning in time, an origin.
The ancient Greek philosophers made a major discovery: there are not only limited beings in the world, or “being-things” (Homer, Hesiod), but “being itself,” unlimited. This significant discovery took place in the mind of Parmenides of Elea, born c 515 B.C. Parmenides was filled with wonder at unbounded being, being itself. (Note the “Unbounded” was already discovered and named by Anaximander, slightly before Parmenides.) Parmenides worked out in his thought the contrast between being-things, all of which are limited; and unlimited being, which is One, utterly simple, eternal, and divine. Now the concern with divinity was moved from the gods, who were still bounded or limited, and the unlimited being itself, or what Thomas Aquinas would later explain as the sheer act of to be, “esse per se subsistens.” At the same time, Parmenides was aware that he discovered being itself by a power at work in his own mind, in his psyche; and he called this power “nous,” or intellect, reason. By reason man becomes aware of unlimited being. Here we have a major, decisive breakthrough in the history of philosophy, but more fundamentally, in the history of human consciousness: Man or human being is that being-thing, that limited being, which becomes aware of unlimited being, the truly divine. The stars and planets were losing some of their shine to what was present in human being as human being, and in all of reality as being itself. The discovery of unlimited being, and its contrast to things with limits and hence “having a nature,” was a decisive breakthrough both for philosophy, and for what in time would come to be called “science,” or “natural science,” as it explores the limits in things and processes. Philosophy explores the unlimited; science explores the limited.
A further note on myths: There is usually far more meaning and truth to these ancient myths than one would guess. If one allows Positivistic bias to blind one’s mind, myths are “falsehoods,” untrue, and “primitive.” One would do well to know that myth is derived from the Greek word, mythos, which does not mean fiction or falsehood (that would be pseudos); rather, mythos means story, tale, myth. Ancient cosmological myths, tales of the gods, are stories, and our contemporary stories are myths. Movies are myths presented with pictures and sounds, actors and actions. So Greek myths were often about the gods, or forces of nature. What was the main purpose of the myth? Just as with our stories: myths are meant to communicate some truths about reality, and ultimately to explain the cause of things, and what we would call the nature of things—the way the world works, and why. I have often noted that frequently, there is more truth in stories (myths) than in literal accounts; so called “fiction” is often more true to reality than “non-fiction,” as I realized in childhood. So-called “fiction,” or myths, stories, can be profoundly insightful into reality. Consider for example the biblical story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, an ancient Hebrew story (myth). It says more about what it is to be human than probably any few pages of analytical text ever written. In a story, the writer or speaker is free to explore and express reality without worrying about “what exactly happened.” That a snake can talk, and ask, “Did God really tell you not to eat the fruit of this tree?" communicates profound insight into the susceptibility of human being to evil provocations; the fact that snakes do not talk is irrelevant to the meaning of the story—and hence to existential truth.
Often, myths or stories are rooted in concrete, everyday experience. In the case of ancient myths, insights into the workings of nature, of the divine, and of human being are expressed using divine personages, or “beings,” such as gods who dwell in the skies, or on Mount Olympus, and so on. The tellers of myths are not seeking to understand scientific processes, or what we might naively say, “really happens.” They saw lightning, and imagined Zeus the Father god in the sky hurling lightning bolts because he was angry (a belief encouraged, no doubt, by loud bursts of thunder). Or they saw a planet (literally, a “wanderer” in the night sky) that appeared red in color, and they associated red with anger, bloodshed, and war, and so they named that wandering body “Ares” (Greek) or “Mars” (Romans), and in both cases, the god of war. Or Mary, the virgin Mother of Jesus, understood as the carrier of divine grace and not as its origin, could be portrayed as the Moon, which does not generate light (as does the sun), but reflects it: “My soul magnifies the LORD; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1). Myths are means of communicating truths about reality. I often recall words attributed to Aristotle, the great lover of wisdom, in his relative “old age” (he died around age 62). The Elderly Aristotle wrote, “The older I grow, and the more I am alone, the more I love myths.” Why? We can guess: Because myths communicate much meaning and insight into reality succinctly—unlike discursive philosophy and science. Myths pack meaning into fewer words, or at least more imaginatively rich words.
The spiritual-intellectual break from myth to philosophy and its offspring, science—which occurred primarily and essentially in Ancient Greece, and elsewhere only following from the Greek breakthrough—was a major revolution in human history, in the history of the mind (in what Hegel would call the “history of consciousness”). Philosophy and science are still full of wonder and wonders, as are myths, but they proceed with the aid of a Greek discovery of the foremost significance: the discovery of nous, the divine intellect in human beings, and not just “in the gods.” Nous is the human mode of participating in the divine nous, in the mind of God.
I still study the "pre-Socratic philosophers" of Greece, and especially Herakleitos and Parmenides, as well as others, to observe this gradual discovery of reason, and the revolutionary effects it had on thinking and on understanding human being and our place in the Kosmos. Even the tales of the gods get “cleaned up” on account of being deemed “unseemly,’ as by Xenophanes, and later Plato. Poets such as Homer and Hesiod already helped pave the way for the break, but the discovery of reason within human being, our critical faculty, was decisive. One of the most helpful documents on the history of the development of philosophy out of myth is in the opening book of Aristotle’s so-called “Metaphysics,” on which I shall write at a later time.
And note, by way of contrast, that there is neither science nor a concept of “nature” as the givenness in reality in the Hebrew bible. Nor is their a conception of human beings sharing in the divine intellect through reason. But patterns in the world, and in what came to be called “history,” were observed, as in “animals of various kinds,” or “a woman’s way” (referring to menstruation). Nor do we find science or nature (reality) in ancient Hindu texts, or Egyptian, etc. Human beings used reason as in mathematics, observation, historical writing, but it was among Greek thinkers that reason “turned on itself,” became “self-conscious” in Hegel’s term, and was discovered as the presence of the eternal wisdom (divine) in human being (This great leap is clearly seen in Parmenides, Heracleitos, and later in Socrates-Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus [AD 204-270]). I find the discovery of reason to be one of the truly most fascinating processes in human history. Another unsurpassed revolution in human history is what happened in Moses and the prophets of Israel: the discovery of the presence of the I AM in and to human being, as in the story of YHWH encountering Moses out of the burning bush (and the bush was not consumed by fire, hence a non-natural phenomenon). Is it not amazing how the ancient Israelites, then Jews, then early Christians, did not interest themselves in “natural processes,” or “nature,” or realty as such—and did not discover reason—but were so pre-occupied with the in-breaking of the divine as Spirit, not as intellect? That is both their strength and weakness, and it took centuries to work out the balance of insights, to give scope to both the divine in-breaking as pneuma (Spirit) and the divine presence as intellect, reason. The Greek philosophers had it both ways, because the divine broke in as “reason” (nous), but was also understood to present itself as non-rational pneumatic activity, as in the Greek prophets, in the Delphic Oracle, in the Orphic cults and rites. That the ancient Greeks were well familiar with prophesy, and sudden inspiration from the gods, is clearly displayed in some of the Greek tragedies (such as Oedipus Rex), and in Plato, who even praises Eros as “divine madness.” But the seminal discovery of ancient Greece was in the gradual discovery of nous, of reason: that human being is essentially the “being having nous” (Aristotle; translated into Latin as the animal rationale).
No wonder, then, that philosophers turned their attention to history as the “realm of reason” (Hegel’s phrase), as the locus of the divine-human encounter (Plato, Aristotle, and some philosophers in our time). Patterns begin to appear to the wondering mind; and the search for wisdom continues as a fundamental human quest.
—Wm. Paul McKane
22 November 2019
A brief note on the three greatest composers in western music
I have written before that if one wishes to appreciate and understand something of the sweep, beauty, and depth of western music, there are three composers to whom one must especially attend: Johann Sebastian Bach; Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; and Ludwig van Beethoven. Together, they span the years from 1685-1827, about one hundred and fifty years that witnessed such magnificent achievements in serious music. By selecting these three men, I do not wish to exclude others, and surely not such towering geniuses as Palestrina, Thomas Tallis, Heinrich Schütz, Antonio Vivaldi, Joseph Haydn, Richard Wagner, to mention a few. What I am suggesting is that if a person listens attentively to considerable amounts of music from the hands of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, s/he will not only be hearing some of the finest music ever composed, but with thought, be able to discern much that forms the living heart of modern western civilization. I maintain that more than any other art, music reveals the Spirit and the spirit of the one composing. If we date the high point of western civilization from roughly 1600 to 1900 or even extending into the late phase, into the twentieth century, then the three aforementioned composers indeed stand out, and form excellent guides into the mind, the spirit, the life of modern western civilization. And for those with ears to hear, these three composers also offer, at least at times, guides on the soul’s journey into God, however understood, and beyond all understanding.
Rather than list compositions by these three men which I would most recommend, I leave it to each reader to discover works on their own—or, if you wish, ask me for personal recommendations. I wish to make a few broad generalizations to give you some perspective on these masters of western music.
Each of these three composers excelled in virtually every field of composition for which they wrote, and composed major works in those areas of composition. Still, I think it just to say that each of these three men is best understood in one or two genres of music at which he not only excelled, but in which he seems most to be at home, most himself, most able to put into music that which he longs to say. This is a bold claim, but it is based on years of listening, study, and thinking about serious music, and these mens’ compositions.
Bach’s genius and unsurpassed achievement is most seen in two highly recurring patterns of phenomena: his exceptional compositional skill that allowed him to be foremost in numerous genres of music; and above all, Bach’s solid and unashamed faith and joy in Jesus Christ. During Bach’s lifetime (1685-1750), Christian faith was already bleaching out and fading from the center of western consciousness. Most of the leading thinkers (and far more popular composers) had already become more secular-minded, often with little interest in the things of God. (For example, Descartes, whom can be called the father of modern philosophy, had already died by 1650; here the preoccupation with self takes a giant leap forward.) Bach was in this regard more of a throw-back to early modern western composers, such as Tallis, Palestrina, Byrd, and Schütz (born in 1585, a century before J S Bach). I think that a major reason Bach’s Cantatas were not given their due in his lifetime, or even for many years after their composition and performance at Lutheran church services, was their explicit religious content. As noted, by the early 18th century, Bach’s time, leading minds of western culture and popular tastes had largely left Christian faith (whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Protestant) behind on what Hegel would call “the dust heap of history.” As Hegel wrote c 1803 in his Phenomenology of the Spirit, “God is dead,” replaced by human consciousness (and consciousness of self) as the decisive center of existence; and that was already clear for the reader of Descartes’ Meditations (1641), with its famous declaration: Cogito ergo sum—I think, therefore I am. (Note the deliberate play on God’s self-revelation to Moses in the Book of Exodus, “I AM that I AM.”) Bach’s faith in the world-transcendent God—in the I AM incarnate in Jesus Christ—had experientially died and “decomposed” (as Nietzsche graphically phrased it) even as Bach composed such profoundly spiritual music pointing to, and embodying in sound, God and Christ.
The heart of Johann Sebastian Bach’s musical output is clearly to be found in his enormous number of church Cantatas, of which about two-thirds are thought to be extant today. These roughly 200 compositions, when recorded, fill about 70-80 CD’s of music. In my opinion, if there are two enormous mountains of creative genius in the arts of our civilization, they would be the plays of Shakespeare and the Cantatas of J.S. Bach. This does not mean that Bach does not have many other masterful compositions, some of which excel individual Cantatas by a long distance: the St. Matthew and St. John Passions; the Mass in b minor; the orchestral suites, the Brandenburg concertos, the harpsichord and violin concertos; the Well-Tempered Clavier and so many other polished keyboard works; works for solo violin, cello, and other chamber compositions; and so on and on. It is in the Cantatas, however, taken as a collection, and experienced individually, with special attention to the finest compositions, that one sees in an overview and in detail the sweeping genius and the vibrant faith of J S Bach. Truly to hear some of these cantatas movements is to have one’s soul lifted up into the presence of God. Such is the power and art of Bach’s musical genius in expressing his solid faith.
The living center of Mozart’s output is, I deem, two-fold: it is in his 27 piano concertos, and in the more mature works among his roughly 20 dramatic compositions for stage—usually called “operas,” many of which are rarely performed now. Nearly all of the 27 piano concerti, and perhaps 7 or so of the operas, serve to give one appreciation for, and insight into, the musical mind of Mozart. Now, whereas Bach’s motives seem ever to be the communication of his faith and joy in Christ with as much technical skill as his highly developed German mastery permits, Mozart’s goal is different. Of every serious composer I have ever heard, I would maintain that Mozart has the most acutely developed sense of the beautiful in music; his aesthetic sense is acute, and highly developed, and it clearly guides his compositions. Mozart is not primarily interested in communicating faith in God in sound; rather, Mozart reveals the beautiful, or Beauty itself, which he may well have interpreted as the divine, but we leave that for a fuller study of Mozart. Listen to the slow, inner movements of Mozart’s piano concertos, and one is often brought to tears, or nearly so, by the sheer, simple beauty of his melodies, and the exquisite, tender manner in which he presents and develops their beauty. He requires musicians with a delicate touch, and who have a cultivated sense of the beautiful; Bach requires in his instrumental works performers with highly developed technical skills.
Beethoven would have been a young man of twenty when the Mozart died. His music, and that of the great Joseph Haydn, formed and directed Beethoven’s early compositions. But Beethoven was no mere interpreter or imitator of anyone. He was a genius of the highest order in music, and his genius was not primarily or essentially lived out in faith or in a highly developed sense of the beautiful. Rather, Beethoven is the foremost genius (in my opinion) of self-expression in sound. In whatever he composed, Beethoven was revealing himself—not the divine, not Christ, not the Beautiful, but Beethoven himself. His compositions could be called the first and foremost example of egophany (self-revelation) in musical history. I classify his word as egophanic, not to be critical, but to be analytical, and to do justice to Beethoven, for whose compositional skills and achievements I have utmost respect. As befits his goal of self-expression, there are two genres that seem most typical and the best way to hear and to appreciate Beethoven: the 32 piano sonatas, which fairly span his entire period of composition, and his 9 symphonies, composed roughly from age thirty into his early fifties (about three years before his death in 1827). In general terms, Beethoven worked out his feelings and thoughts in the piano sonatas, and then could make them more public, and on a grander scale, in his symphonies. As I recall, unlike Bach or Mozart, Beethoven usually drafted his orchestral compositions at the keyboard, the instrument at which he clearly felt most at home—where he could be himself, express himself, work out his feelings and thoughts in sound.
There is one additional body of works from Beethoven that I must mention. If most of his music is primarily personal self-expression—well documented in the piano sonatas and symphonies—I find a profound degree of self-transcendence in his last and highly important set of string quartets. Composed in the last 2-3 years of his life, and in a period in which Beethoven suffered much from serious health problems, these quartets still express the mind and heart of Beethoven; but they also lead the attentive listener out of Beethoven, out of oneself as listener, into a realm beyond time and space, into eternal peace and beauty, to a degree rarely achieved in western music. Here Beethoven transcends and to an extent fulfills the promise of Beethoven, and does so with unexcelled compositional skill. Sensitive souls who actively enter into these last compositions by the great Beethoven rarely cease to praise their magnificent achievement. It is in the slow movements, especially, that I most hear the heart and mind of Beethoven in meditation—Beethoven alone with the Alone, or with his attentively listening friends, moving into the unknown depths of God.
Wm. Paul McKane
18 November 2019
A brief note on “conversion” to Christ.
One often hears Christians and others talking about “conversion,” and explicitly about “being called by Jesus,” or “becoming a Christian,” or “becoming a disciple of Christ,” and so on. Or one hears in doctrinal church circles the claim that when an infant is baptized, the child “begins a life in Christ,” or “is filled with grace,” or “becomes a Christian,” and so on.
I prefer to use the term “conversion to Christ” in a more definite, less doctrinal, more experiential sense. Whether an infant is “joined to Christ” in baptism, I have no idea, because of such an experience I have no awareness; it is merely a doctrinal assertion one hears among those given to talking in religious language abstracted from concrete experience. Let them talk, and pass on by.
The following brief meditation could be fleshed out later, perhaps should be developed for the sake of greater clarity and to avoid misunderstandings. For the sake of sparking an interest in those for whom these words may have meaning, I submit the following.
Properly understood, and grounded in reality and in language derived from experiences of reality, to be “converted to Christ,” or expressing the same experience(s) in equivalent phrases, has a definite meaning that has unfortunately been all-too-neglected among both “Christians” and non-Christians. Let’s be as concise and as clear as possible:
To be “converted to Christ” refers to an experience of faith-grace, in which a human being chooses to open up his or her heart to the presence of God in Christ, and Christ floods into consciousness. This breaking-in of Christ is the essence of “conversion.” How one can say that he or she is “a Christian,” or a “disciple of Christ,” without such a grounding experience, I do not know. What could it mean to be “a Christian” except one in whom Christ lives with a humble and grateful response from the human partner? God is in all, but not all respond with trust and love; and many seem utterly unaware of indwelling divine Presence. When awareness of Presence dawns, one has been converted to God. If this experience of Presence is related to God-in-Christ, then one’s conversion is “Christian,” or in-Christ.
Consider the foundational experience again: A particular human being hears about Christ, about the presence of the Unknown God in the man Jesus, and lovingly opens up one’s being to Christ; now that human being is alive in the Resurrected Christ, as proclaimed by the Apostle Paul and other men and women in Christ who have had similar experiences. “God raised Jesus from the dead” may be the operative phrase that moved the heart to open up, although such words can easily be understood in an objectifying manner, divorced from concrete experience—as in the Nicene Creed, for example: “He suffered, died, was buried; he was raised on the third day.” This language has indeed divorced experience from verbiage, and many then get caught in the words, and miss the underlying reality or truth. (It is unfortunate that the more experiential language of the Apostle was omitted from the Creed: “Christ suffered, died, was raised, and appeared.” The apostles’ visions of the Resurrected give context and meaning to the verbal formulations of “raised on the third day,” and so on.
Hence, less ambiguous are formulations of those who had the “apostolic experiences” themselves, and not second-hand warm-ups, as in creedal formulations. As a good example, one finds the words of the Apostle Paul compressed in his true but not expounded words: “Now I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2). Such are the words of a converted human being, who is now “a man in Christ Jesus,” that is, living in a state of faith-union with the Resurrected Christ. The Apostle is marvelously conscious that Jesus Christ is alive in Paul’s own heart, mind, consciousness. So when Paul writes that “Christ was raised,” he is grounding his words not hearsay or on mere formulations, but on his real experience of Christ appearing to him, and now alive in him. Such is the life-giving awareness that the church Fathers forgot or unthinkingly stripped away when they composed the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325). They substituted formulations for genuine experiences in Christ, and unwittingly paved the way for the spiritual wasteland that one all-too-often finds in churches yesterday, today, and probably tomorrow. Here are the churches; but where is Christ?
Doctrinal formulations, however useful, have plagued the gospel movement and Christianity at least since the third century. In the churches of our time, so much damage has been done by doctrinalization and recourse to ritual and sacraments as substitutes for genuine spiritual experience that the best that a seeker of truth can do may be to immerse himself or herself in Christ and other divine experiences apart from external forms of “religious practice.” Rituals and church services are not bad in themselves, but they can and do often become substitutes for, and blockages against, genuine spiritual experiences of Christ. I write this as a warning for those of us who have had contact with organized Christianity. Rather than nourish men and women in Christ, the churches have often inflated minds with “the Bible,” or with “Sacraments,” or with “official Church teachings,” and so on. The Bible, teachings, and sacraments are of little if any true benefit unless a particular man, woman, or child is open to the direct and overshadowing experience of divine Presence, whether as the Resurrected Christ, or as the “Holy Spirit,” or simply as “God.”
Contrast the Christianity of our present churches with the genuine spiritual experiences of the Apostle Paul and the writers of the canonical Gospels. The evangelist John, for example, finds numerous ways to communicate his own personal faith-union with the Resurrected in words he puts on the lips of Jesus: “I am the Resurrection and the Life; he who lives and believes in me, even if he dies, shall live….” To experience the Resurrected is to allow the divine Life to flood into one’s consciousness, so that dying to self becomes a joyful way of allowing the eternal I AM to live in, with, and through the human partner. The one in union with Christ experiences in his or her heart the same I AM that appeared to Moses out of the burning bush. The Unknown God, symbolized as “Father,” enflames or enlivens one’s consciousness, so that one may express the experience as “being raised with Christ,” or “awakening,” or “now I live, yet not I, but Christ,” or “did not our hearts burn within us” (Luke 24), and so on. The verbal expressions are many and varied, ever imperfect or imprecise, but all drawn out of the fundamental experience of being converted to “God, the living God,” through the message about Jesus crucified and risen, with the attending experience of the in-breaking of Christ into one’s own consciousness as “my LORD and my God” (John 20).
Such is conversion. “By their fruits you will know them.” Out of faith-union with Christ will flow love that gives life, and truth that raises from the dead. All too often one experiences in the churches love as mere inner-worldly action (the “social gospel”), and rather than minds raised from the dead, minds and hearts dully put to sleep by stale and tired religious formulations. To those who have undergone genuine conversion, the experience of Christ is real, alive, and convincing. But without the experience of being in union with Christ, preaching or teaching is a mere movement of verbal formulations, dead leaves blowing around spinning or nodding minds—in a word, churchianity.
I conclude this brief meditation on conversion with an attempt to verbalize the foundational experience of conversion, of being alive-in-Christ Jesus:
I in you, and you in me. All that I am and have I give to you. All that you are, you share with me. Apart from you I can do nothing truly good; in you and with you, even this passing self becomes a divine vessel of life, a human vessel of divine life. You are the Mind of my mind, the Light shining in the darkness of doubt and unbelief, the living flame of love that burns out the dross of selfish love and enflames the heart with love that enlivens. In You and with You, even this imperfect being becomes a channel of your flowing stream to thirsty ground. Be in me, LORD God, a purgatorial fire, burning out all that does not proceed from You, and lead back to You. For You who are Life is overcoming death in me, so that the union becomes ever more real, ever more delightful, from now into eternity, the fullness of You in all.
—Wm. P. McKane
14 October 2019
The following is an actual email exchange I had this week with a former undergraduate student of mine. He is still young, living in the Midwest. Kris had sent me the trailer for a film scheduled to be released next month, called “The Hunt.” In it, supposed “elites” from left-wing strongholds hunt “Deplorables” from interior states for sport. The trailer was extremely graphic and disgusting. For purposes of clarification, I made a few small changes in our exchange.
On 9 August, Kris emailed me:
Greetings, Fr. Paul,
I'm not sure if you have heard of this [new film] or not but it is an example of the extreme decadence coming out of our elites in this country. The video embedded in this page is very graphic so don't feel like you need to watch it. The idea behind it is enough to sicken a person.
I hope that you are well and I hope to get the chance to communicate with you again soon. May God bless you and yours.
My response later on 9 August:
Kris, what I saw is shocking, for the same reasons you feel it. If the hunted had been blacks being lynched, there would be a very loud outcry. And this film is called a “satire”? So such politically-motivated brutality is supposed to be humorous in some way? Yes, I had heard of it on Lou Dobbs, but had no idea that it was this graphic. I am “blown away” by what I just watched. It is sickening—literally.
I rarely indulge in any Hollywood productions, and when I do, they are old movies (say, from the 1930’s to 1950’s). I have no stomach for the nonsense generated by most of the Hollywood money-makers.
How can this country have a good future? The future is unknown, but I would not bet on the development of a real culture of life and nourishment in our country. No way.
God bless you, your wife, and your little ones,
P.S. I am still with Moses and Elijah
An additional note which I wrote a little later, as the images would not leave my mind.
Kris, that movie trailer for “The Hunt” was very disturbing.
For many years Hollywood has been glorifying violence, or using it to make big money. They are surely a major factor in the preference and taste for violence that keeps tearing families and communities apart. They sold hatred, and many bought it.
Kris responded the next day.
10 August 2019
I have found that as I grow older and more withdrawn from worldly allures, I find violent images and disregard of human life to be more and more unbearable. It was difficult to watch that video without turning my eyes away. A few years ago, I attempted to read the book that inspired the popular Game of Thrones series and could not stomach the graphic sexual descriptions and inhuman violence. Perhaps it is weakness of soul. Perhaps it is also a concern for the dignity of human beings. I do not know how I would react in a battlefield scenario. I would hope that I could do my duty without flinching and defend my family, home, and friends.
The reason this particular film stood out to me was its plot of progressive elites herding up Trump supporting “deplorables” and murdering them, scratch that, butchering them for sport. To these elites, any who disagree with their agenda (be it environmentalism, gender fluidity, sexual liberation, LGBT progress, unconditional choice, absolute progressivism, etc.) is not even worthy of being human and should be treated as animals; worse than animals for animals are our innocent friends and deserve to inherit the earth after human beings pass away into oblivion. This mentality of the elites has been growing steadily since the Obama era and came to a head with the rise of Trump. Now we see their hearts' desire portrayed in a film where they can finally rid the world of those who would hinder their progress. It is terrifying.
We do not turn on the television in our home and so our children are shielded from much of the media's influence. Every time I hear a news report or read an article in a mainstream publication, I think of the scene in Orwell's 1984 where the company workers are required to participate in the two-minute hate. An image of the enemy (Trump) is shown on the screen and all participators are required to curse, jeer, and yell at that image. It is no wonder that the extreme on both sides of the political spectrum are coming out into the spotlight.
I know that I am young (32) and I have not seen much of the history in our country, but has the polarization and conflict between the two parties ever been so poignant before? The rift between left and right, progressive and conservative, republican and democrat is so deep and intense that one is almost forced to choose a side. Could it escalate to a civil war? If so, do the conservatives have a hope of surviving? We feel as if we are constantly on the defense. What would happen if a conservative cause went on the offense? What would that look like?
Is there enough goodness left in this country to try to conserve?
After the conglomeration of big government and semi-socialism that we have experienced, is it possible to return to a republic of states grounded in enduring liberties? How long would it take to return to order and how much more will we lose before that happens?
When society falls, will the Church of Christ be strong enough to carry the survivors? If not, to what or to whom shall we turn?
The weight of the disorder is heavy and oppressing. How does one become more like St. Lawrence and laugh in light of the persecution? How do we stay light-hearted as much of the world seeks to tear us down?
The perplexities of a young father striving to find light in the darkness.
10 August 2019
I feel for your situation with a family and young children living in the midst of this culture of decadence, now intensified by sheer hatred and murderous thoughts. The trailer you sent did not change my thinking at all, but only brought a wave of anguished feelings into my heart. It is not just the scenario of leftists hunting down Trumpian “deplorables” as sport that so sickens me, but my recurring sense, previously noted, that Hollywood has immersed our population in scenes of violence, cruelty, hatred, and depravity for years now—all to make money, and to change us into the image that these movie-makers seek: a godless society without spiritual, intellectual, or moral standards. Hollywood has helped to tear down whatever has been good and noble in our people, much as leftist idiots have run loose and torn down historical statues of figures from our past now deemed “unacceptable” to their own “woke consciousness.”
I do not wish to alarm you, but you already voiced your strong and grounded concern for raising a problem in the midst of our culture morass. Often a thought returns to my mind, “America is dying.” If this is not what a decadent and dying society looks like, what could it be? What we are going through reminds me of Weimar Germany, and how it gave rise to National Socialism. Once God and right reason are rejected (and even hated), “all hell breaks loose.” The worst forces that dwell submerged in the human spirit come to the surface and find expression. Without either a genuine spiritual life or noetic controls (from right reason), what can hold a society together except force?
When I was a child, I probably did not object to seeing violence on the screen. But when I was ten or eleven, my father took my family to see “Psycho”, and soon thereafter another highly violent film called, I believe, “Homocidal.” And we viewed other such violent films. To this day, whenever I travel and must stay in a motel room, I have spontaneous flashbacks from “Psycho,” in which a blond woman is attacked and killed by repeated blows of a knife while taking a shower. One thing I learned is that these Hollywood money-making spectacles have real and lasting effects on human beings—on psyches and their lives. Such movies are not innocuous. There are various forces that have contributed to making our society a cesspool of hatred, violence, and various perversions, but surely Hollywood has played a leading role—and should give itself an Academy Aware for the most corrupting. You are wise indeed not to allow your children to watch television. My family gathered around the TV nightly. Some shows in the 1950’s were either harmless or even uplifting, but the standards and tastes kept sinking downhill. And now we have a movie about liberals hunting conservatives for sport. And we should think that such evil movies will have no effect on our citizens?
I share your concern that the political divide in our country is reaching a very dangerous point. As I see it, we are on the verge of tearing ourselves apart by hatred and violence. The divisions were indeed present and real during the Obama era, which you mentioned, but the hard core left in this country hates President Trump so vehemently and irrationally that they seem to be willing to stop at nothing to destroy him, or at least his Presidency. Their ferocity and viciousness is, I think, unrivaled in our country’s history. Or if such passions were nearly as strong before, the means to magnify and to implement hatred and other evils in human hearts were not nearly as great. The immense power of the State to spy on and destroy Trump, employed by highly partisan and lawless individuals in the FBI, CIA, and other departments and agencies, has never been used to the same extent before in our history, to the best of my knowledge, although some Presidents (FDR, Kennedy, LBJ, Nixon) did use State powers against political opponents. Now the wickedness of Obama officials and leftist extremists (and a large part of the GOP establishment) has been joined by most of the mass media (NYT, CNN, ABC, and so on) in a steady and unashamed assault on Trump in every way they can concoct. In this sense, the leftists have been hunting down “deplorables” for at least three years now—but really much longer. We are repeatedly branded as “racist” and “white supremacists” just for appreciating a number of President Trump’s policies—as I surely do as a political scientist and as a citizen. We are smeared and vilified for supporting the President in any way. Perhaps you have experienced such smearing personally; I surely have. But I recall being branded as “an extremist” in my youth when I supported and campaigned for Barry Goldwater for President. The intensity and degree of the hatred and willingness to assassinate a man’s character (and the man himself, at least in violent speech) have reached a new depth of depravity. For just one example, think of the so-called “comedian” who carried around an image of a severed, bloody head of Donald Trump. Verbalizing assaults on him and members of his family have been frequent—and publicly tolerated by the leftist “elites.” Hence, the film showing leftists hunting down conservatives for sport is actually not unexpected. It is another case of left-wing, nascent totalitarian hatred for those who think differently than they do. These “progressives” have been engaged in “search and destroy” by other means up to the present. If you wish for a concrete example, think of the corrupt and wicked little FBI agent, Peter Strzok. When I listened to him testify before Congress, I saw a shrunken, deceitful, wicked little soul on public display, and seemingly getting away with his antics. Unfortunately for Strzok and other such “Progressives” (who can “smell” Trump voters), truth will out, sooner or later. Or so one must hope in order to see justice done. But to be honest, I am not holding my breath, because these “elite” types have protected each other for years. Again, leading GOP figures and party donors have shared in this charade.
What is one to do? Hiding one’s head in the sand, or packing up and moving, or trying to live in a cocoon are not viable solutions. One must prepare one’s soul, one’s mind, to be tested and under assault if one seeks to live a good life, to act justly, to speak the truth. You will suffer for goodness in a corrupt society such as ours. That much we know, and so one must be prepared. Lightheartedness is not, I dare say, a rational response to being roasted (as was St. Lawrence). But nor is defeatism or melancholy. What comes to mind is a teaching from the prophet Jeremiah to the effect that through struggle one must gain one’s soul. One finds the same in the Gita—life is a battlefield, in which one must do one’s duty and act aright, regardless of the personal consequences. Here is a real hero to study and to imitate: the Austrian farmer, husband, and father, Franz Jägerstätter. Without choosing to speak the truth, to act justly, to refrain from evil, over and again, one loses himself. And saintly and wise Franz was pressed even by his priest and bishop to play along with the Nazis, and he refused—knowing that his family would suffer. For not being willing to fight in a war of aggression for Nazi Germany, Jägerstätter, abandoned by the Catholic hierarchy, was murdered by the totalitarian regime.
You ask, “When society falls, will the Church of Christ be strong enough to carry the survivors? If not, to what or to whom shall we turn?” If by “Church” one means the official church, then I put far less faith in “the Church of Christ” than you may do. To gain my own soul and live in dignity, I had to withstand corrupt powers within the Church—and especially from members of the clergy. For nearly 40 years now I have served within the Church as a monk, and as a priest, but receive no benefits (pension or health care), in large part because I dared to uncover and speak out against a priest who indulged in various crimes, grand theft. He was given a pension and health care, and still functions in parishes. His bishop promised our finance council that this priest would never function again; the same bishop restored this corrupt man’s faculties a few months later. Why? Was the bishop bought off? No answer was given. You can imagine the agony that such clergy have caused many lay persons who know of the deceits, stealing, and cover-up. But If by the “Church of Christ” you mean Christ, his teaching, and the faithful who are genuinely struggling to live in Christ—such as my spiritual friend, Franz Jägerstätter—then yes, for them and with them we can have hope. But the hierarchy as an institution has shown itself to be as decadent as our American culture—and both are dying. (I often think that the Body of Christ must slough off the hierarchy as a snake sheds its old skin.) At times one must even bear with foolishness from Popes, as we frequently do even now. Again from Jeremiah, “Cursed is the man who trusts in man; blessed the man who trusts in God.” And the hierarchy is “human, all too human,” so beware of trusting it. If I am truthful, respect me for it, but please do not respect me because I am an “ordained priest.” The very title of “priest” has become a source of shame to me, given what I have experienced. Titles worth having are “courageous,” “truthful,” “just,” “reliable.” In short, “Beware of wolves who come in sheep’s clothing,” even when dressed in priestly clothes and fancy liturgical vestments.
So, dear Kris, if you have felt yourself hunted at times by self-styled “Progressives” and “elites,” and by the self-proclaimed “learned professors” and by clerical hierarchs, do not be surprised. If you have not felt the tentacles of corruption reaching into you, or even dwelling in your own heart, wonder why. “For out of the heart proceeds murderous thoughts…” The only cure for corruption is virtuous activity, and acceptance of the consequences for choosing life over death, and goodness over evil.
Yours in Christ,
P.S. Kris, if you do not mind, I will post our exchange on this video on my website. The only personal information on you is your first name; I omitted your wife’s name, and made no reference to where you live. As for me, the hunters know where to find me!
I do not know what my life would be like without the beauty and joy of magnificent music. Fortunately, recordings make so much great music available to one without leaving home, or in the car with playlists, and so on. I subscribe to Apple Music, and hence have access to millions of compositions and often as performed by various artists. One can also use YouTube, and listen and watch as some outstanding musicians share their art with us.
Again and again I return to certain compositions, including the set of Beethoven’s “Late String Quartets,” which number five or six, depending on how one counts the Great Fugue. These quartets constitute the bulk of Beethoven’s last compositions, composed the two years before he died (26 March 1827). For some reason, it is especially the slow movements that have most appealed to me. They bespeak a spirit at rest, after the turmoils of one’s earlier years are over. Here one does not hear the storms and outbursts of younger Beethoven, but soulful meditations composed by a man living on the edge of eternity. The listener is drawn with Beethoven into a realm that is not altogether of this world. And it is quiet bliss into which one enters. I truly thank God that Beethoven suffered as he did, and rose above his sufferings into sublime peace and transcendental love. How far Beethoven’s spirit advanced beyond the rage of the Eroica (Symphony #3 in E-flat, a truly revolutionary accomplishment) into the sublime language of the late Quartets.
As I listen to chamber music such as these string quartets, I often recall the words a fundamentalist preacher spoke to me one day in Iowa. The man was a farmer and a minister, who had attended college, and purportedly had a degree of education. One day when I mentioned the pleasure I take in chamber music, he asked me, “Why would you ever listen to chamber music?” He asked as if I were engaged in some truly bizarre activity, such as bungee jumping off a bridge with nothing but sharp boulders below. His question utterly puzzled me. How does one answer such a question? “Why do you love the ocean?” “Why do you enjoy viewing the greatest works of sculpture?” “Why would you ever read Shakespeare?” The questions are similar: If asked without a living appreciation of such beauty, the one asking is apparently dead (or numb) to the experience of beauty or truth in great works of art or nature. For me, such questions are incomprehensible. “Taste and see for yourself,” perhaps I should have said to him. But he would not have known how or where to begin in order to awaken his appreciation for such works of art. It requires hard work, and many are unwilling to make the effort to climb the mountain.
So much is lacking in American education. I wonder how many adults in Montana, where I live, would be willing to sit and listen to a late Beethoven Quartet, or to a Schubert Trio, or to a Brahms Piano Quartet, or a Bach Sonata for Violin and Harpsichord. Not many, I dare say. Many here think nothing of drinking beer even to the point of drunkenness, or of driving pick-up trucks speeding down a road, or of yelling themselves hoarse at some high school basketball game. But sitting still and listening to musicians perform some of the masterpieces of musical composition is probably beyond the limits of their imagination. They simply have not been exposed to such works, nor have they made the effort to discover them. As I just stated, so much is lacking in American education. We do not know or care to know how dead we are to so much beauty, or to works of philosophy, or to achievements of science. “Professing ourselves wise, we became fools.” Most sadly, education in America often means instruction, if not propagandizing and brain-washing; it rarely means inspiring a human being to seek the truth for himself or herself.
In reality, one must choose to educate his own mind, his own soul. There is no substitution for self-education, and its work requires a lifetime of devotion and hard work. As I reflect back on my years in high school, college, and graduate school, although I am truly thankful to a number of my teachers and professors for the learning they shared, I am also strongly aware that much of what I gained from formal education was done outside the classroom, through browsing library shelves of books, through listening intently to great music, from visiting museums, from sharing thoughts with fellow students, and so on. Formal education is at best a shell, a skeleton. If one is to flesh one’s learning, one must spend years educating oneself in the best that human minds and spirits have brought forth over time. And that requires a searching mind, and discipline, and one of the greatest of all gifts: a genuine love for learning, grounded in a humble awareness of one’s own ignorance, and need for right education. The day one thinks, “I am an educated man,” that day one’s true learning ceases. Learning is watered by the disturbing sense of one’s ignorance and shortcomings, not in pride in one’s accomplishments. “Seek and you will find,” not “Think that you have found, you have arrived.” As I see life: “Baby, you’ve just begun!”
Now, to what shall I turn my attention? There is so much lacking in my knowledge of truth and appreciation of beauty, how shall I begin? Who or what can guide me on the quest out of relative darkness into a greater light, into a deeper and fuller vision of the whole of reality? What little steps shall I now take on this journey of a thousand years?
—Wm. P. McKane
3 August 2019
Perhaps fifty years ago, the philosopher Eric Voegelin wrote that living in a modern western society often feels as though one is living in an insane asylum. That was true then, and is considerably more true today. But it seems fitting to take the underlying thought and its engendering experience in a different but related direction: If western societies had some of the feel of insane asylums, they also had and have the feel of becoming concentration camps, set up and run by quasi-totalitarian governments and their instruments of control. Specifically, who can be alive and conscious in our American society today and not realize that increasingly we see elements of totalitarian political culture growing up and firmly lodged in our society?
At the present time, the United States of America is not essentially identical to Nazi Germany, to the Soviet Union, or to Communist China; but are we not heading in a similar direction? The degree to which political power is amplified by mass media and by mass education is startling and disturbing. The political culture of our country is no longer republican, as we were at the time of our Founding in the late 18th century; nor are we the kind of largely egalitarian-democratic society that emerged in the era of Jefferson and Jackson; nor are we simply a culture dominated by plutocrats—already visible during and just after the Civil War. Increasingly, the political power of the Federal Government—and to a lesser extent, the power of the State and local governments—has grown to such enormous scope and magnitude that none of our Founders would recognize in our regime the spirit and essence of the Constitution of 1787. They would recognize certain names, such as “the Congress,” “the Presidency,” and the “Supreme Court,” but the institutions that have developed have dwarfed and virtually drowned out the institutions set up by the Constitution as it was written and promulgated. We have broken the spirit of the Constitution by amassing largely unchecked power in the hands of the rulers and the power elite.
Even more disturbing is what has happened to the body politic, and to individual citizens under the law. For the most part, we Americans have become a nearly lawless people, who refuse to govern ourselves. We are manipulated by media and “education,” dominated by governments and self-important politicians, and nearly impervious to the call of virtue and right living in our own souls. Indeed, most Americans today either do not know, or do not want to know, that they have souls—that they are ensouled bodies. The Hobbesian belief in man as a “body in motion” has become part of the uncoded civil religion. We interpret ourselves as a people in history, with no destiny beyond what is achievable on earth. “The new order of the ages” has swallowed up the life of the spirit in the United States; we are “new men,” not perhaps in Marx’s sense of “Socialist Man” who “creates himself,” but virtually the same thing in reality. Our society does not so much inculcate individual liberty grounded on individual responsibility and acquired virtues, but on the “right” to follow one’s whims and wishes and willing wheresoever they may lead. Observe the way we Americans act, and especially among those under about age fifty or so, and one finds that as a whole, we are a virtually lawless people. Or rather, we are a “law unto ourselves”—noisy self-driven actors governed by passions which are dominated and ruled, not by reason dwelling in one’s soul, but by the powers that be, especially in the mass media, entertainment world, manipulative corporations and their “social media,” and of course, the power of the elites, whether elected or appointed.
Thinking ourselves free and a “free people,” we are in fact enslaved to mass manipulators, and to our own lower passions. We Americans are enslaved. We are slaves to ideologies, to fads, to Hollywood, to Silicon Valley, to Wall Street, to K Street (in Washington, DC), to the noise and bombast of a degenerate mass culture that exists at an astonishingly low level. But worse than this, whatever good qualities we as a people possessed one hundred or even fifty years ago seem all but bleached out now. We need to ask ourselves: Can we sink much lower as a people in history? As a people under God? (“Under God!” some would scream. “Hell, you can’t say that. We are not under God because either there is no God, or God is irrelevant in our lives, and in the destiny of our country. We are free and equal! We are our own creators and rulers.”) Are we indeed our own creators? We are so “free” that many resort to violence or violent speech against those who disagree with them. “Freedom” apparently is becoming a synonym for self-slavery. Rejecting God and reason, we Americans are creating a godless concentration-camp society in our own image.
It is more than disturbing to see and to feel what America is becoming. Many of us in the second half of our lives are painfully aware of destructive changes. Rather than “making America great again,” by our actions, inactions, and words, we are becoming neo-totalitarians, generally driven by a godless “progressive” ideology, in which “nothing is real,” except what one “chooses to believe.” We are so blind, that, even with our science, we cannot recognize the image of God in the womb of a mother, or on the face of one’s political opponent. We see nothing of any genuine worth except what serves our own purposes, what enhances our own power, or what is “convenient,” or “politically correct,” or “acceptable” to the least rational elements among us. As a recent American President rather fiendishly advised his supporters, “Get in the face” of your opponents, and “take a gun to a knife fight.” Having preached in this manner, and had his effects, it is not surprising that we have an actual Fascist group that labels itself “Antifa” (short for “Anti-Fascist”) to hide its intent, to dupe people, but in reality uses tactics similar to the Nazis and Communists in Weimar Germany: threatening others, using violence against opponents, destroys property, deceives by slogans, and seeks to overturn and destroy whatever does not suit their criteria for being “progressive.” In other words, “Antifa” is a fitting symbol of the the New Society, the “Progressive America” that is emerging in our midst. It seeks to dominate, to destroy, to inflict its will on others just as completely as the abortionist inflicts his will on the unborn human being. Indeed, in the new Progressive America, abortion is in reality the model for the new society: whatever these people deem “inhuman” or “unwanted,” can be destroyed in the name of their god, “Progress.” Abortion, euthanasia, killing the “unwanted” or “socially useless,” such as the elderly, and destroying one’s personal or political opponents by “any means necessary” to achieve their end—these are their achievements. Their goal is complete domination of our culture and society, and in true totalitarian fashion, build a “new society” and a “new humanity.” And their dream is now far advanced.
All things that enter being must perish; everything that is born, dies. Political societies are no exception. America was born several centuries ago, and in time, it will perish, despite popular illusions and beliefs. Our task, however, is not to hasten our country’s demise, but to preserve and protect the best in us and in our political society, and to uproot from our own hearts the evil that hastens the destruction of all things good and beautiful. Our country’s fate is in the balance, and so is our own.
—Wm. P. McKane
27 July 2019
22 July 2019
I enjoy and appreciate a wide variety of music, and I spend a considerable amount of time listening, sometimes analyzing, sometimes following scores. As I’ve said, I use my time far more with listening to good music than to watching movies or TV shows. Time and resources are limited.
When listening to music within the Romantic genre, I often think about Goethe’s famous saying that “Romanticism is disease.” Much of popular music in the 20th century is within the Romantic movement. It is the bulk of music to which we are exposed, unless one makes a hard effort to listen to other genres (such as Renaissance, Baroque, Classical in the narrow sense (Haydn, Mozart), or ancient Chinese music, and so on).
Last night I could not sleep because of a noisy pool party two houses away, and a young man moving things into his father’s place at midnight, right next door to me, with much banging, as he was moving a pile of furniture legs and wood (his father does wood working). So I used AirPods for concentrated listening, and to hide the screams of children and the banging of unloading wood piles. I listened with a question in mind: What is there about Romantic music that would induce a mind such as Goethe’s to call it “disease”? And note, one finds similar thoughts in late Nietzsche, once he turned on that famous Romantic, Wagner, and labeled his music as “degenerate,” which I take to be a rough equivalent to “diseased.”
I listened to a number of Romantic composers with my question in mind. First, I focused on the slow movements, saving more outwardly expansive movements (such as the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Eroica) for another time (and because I have analyzed it previously, as the work of aggression and rebellion). I listened to some Shostakovitch, Rachmaninoff, Robert and Clara Schumann, Brahms, and of course Wagner (using the central music of Tristan und Isolde, “O sink hernieder…”) There is indeed a similar quality in these composer’s works that marks them as unmistakably within the Romantic movement. My brief notes are not meant to be a criticism of the music, but analysis. In fact, I enjoy this music very much, and occasionally turn to it for its melodic beauty and emotional depth.
There seems to be what can be called a breach from reality in the Romantics, or a wallowing in excess. Listening to this music reminds me of something in Homer: explicitly, it brings to mind the passage in the Odyssey in which Odysseus has his crew strap him to the mast, so that he can listen to the Sirens without pursuing them into the waves to his own death. As you may remember, Odysseus goes wild from the Siren songs, so beautiful are they, and yet he cannot seek them out, as he longs to do. The best Romantic composers are geniuses at singing Siren songs that are so beautiful and enticing—but one enters at one’s risk. To listen in moderation (occasionally) should be no problem, but one can easily become in effect addicted to their seductive beauty. This applies to the great Romantic composers—and to no one more than to Wagner, whose aficionados / devotees are well known for being so addicted that some travel around the world to keep attending performances of the Ring or other of Wagner’s operas. (Or recall to mind how some youths followed “The Grateful Dead” from one location to another, so entranced were they by the music). This behavior displays excess.
If one listens closely to Schumann, for example, one falls in love with the beauty, and wants to keep listening. The music provides an excess of tenderness, a feeling of ecstasy, of a movement into one’s own private feelings and daydreams from which it may become difficult to escape. Pleasure is indeed addicting, and the pleasure given by the Romantic composers can be extreme, as they are geniuses of exciting chosen emotional responses.Haydn does not set out to overwhelm one’s mind with sentiment, with intense feelings (anger, love, grief, fear), but the Romantics do. And again, they are masters of engendering and one can say manipulating passions. Again, the masters in this regard are probably Beethoven (in some of his works, such as the Eroica) and R Wagner.
For example, if I listen closely (while doing nothing else) to the slow movement of Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto, or to the andante of R Schumann’s Quartet for piano and strings in E-flat, I feel intensely drawn in, enraptured, and taken off by a kind of Erlkönig (Goethe’s symbol) into another realm. I am charmed to enter into my own private feelings and thoughts and memories. That pull and withdraw into oneself, if not balanced by a reasoned attunement to reality as a whole is, I think, the essence of the “disease of Romanticism.” It is like good wine: one can drink it responsibly; but one can be so taken in by the taste and its effects at “relaxing one” as to become a “wino,” at which point real damage is done.
In the wise words of the ancient Greeks, “Nothing over-much,” meaning “nothing in excess.” There is no substitute for a balanced, sane life, governed by reason. I think that this is what underlies Goethe’s dismissal of Romanticism as “diseased.” It traps one in the abyss of self.
Have I been so long with you,
And yet you do not know me?
If not now, when?
If not here, where?
Have you been so long with me,
And yet I have not known you?
Did you hear me knocking?
Have you heard me calling?
If not I, then what was it you heard?
Was it the wind that knocked on my door,
Or gently rocked my heart?
Was it the call of a lonesome bird I heard,
Or the whisper of a soundless voice?
If it is you yourself, then tell me to come.
If it is not you but another, please do not bother,
Do not disturb the dust, or brush off the rust.
If you are not here, then where?
If you are not here now, then when?
Dawn is breaking, night is fading.
What else is breaking, what is fading?
When no one spoke, it just happened.
When nothing happened, it was.
You are as you are,
And still the eye of my I.
—Wm. P. McKane
26 May 2019
You yourself must find the way.
No one can do it for you,
No one can describe it to you,
No one can show it to you.
You yourself must find the way.
You yourself must hear the word.
No one can hear it to you,
No one can tell it to you,
No one can explain it to you.
You yourself must hear the word.
You have a task that you must find,
You have tasks which you must do.
You have your own proper work,
Which no one else can do for you,
Or find for you, but you yourself.
You have a burden that you must carry,
No one else can carry it for you,
No one else can relieve you of your burden.
You yourself must bear your burden,
You are your own burden: carry it.
You must be true to your truest self,
Not to the whims and wishes of passing self.
You must be true to yourself at your best--
The good that you have been, and better,
The better that you shall be, and best.
Do not place your trust in passing human beings,
Do not place your trust in institutions.
Do not place your trust in laws, or in books.
Place in your trust in that which alone endures,
As each and all else is passing away.
You have now to become what you truly are,
To let go of what you might have been,
To let go of dreams of what you may be.
You have now to become who you truly are,
Beneath the transitory pulls and dreams.
Now is the time to be awake,
Now is the time to be alive.
Those who dwell in the past,
And those who dwell in the future,
Are all passing away.
The one who loves is true to the beloved,
The one who loves is one with the beloved.
Truly to love costs oneself everything,
Truly to love transforms you into You,
And all else passes away.
—Wm. P McKane
26 May 2019
16 May 2019
I’ve made slow progress on Hesiod (Theogony and Works and Days) ever since leaving for Oregon. Barely back into reading him.
Returned to read again some very dense pages on Hegel and Hesiod in Voegelin’s last book, In Search of Order, published posthumously (1987), which he wrote in his 80’s. This short passage, lifted out of its theoretical context, explains far better than I could why am I attracted to turn to Hesiod again. It is so refreshing for a mind steeped, as we all are, in what I call “Cartesian thingism,” which was highly beneficial for the development of modern natural science, but detrimental to more human, whole-aware consciousness. Here is the lifted passage:
“Hesiod’s mythospeculation makes us aware of fundamental experiences of reality that require for their expression the language of the gods even when, in the process of differentiation, the many gods are superseded by the One God. The past of experience will not die with differentiation; it is part of the Whole of reality, of 'the things that are, that shall be, and that were before' [Theogony].”
You may or may not have a clear understanding of what Voegelin is saying; I think I do, but then, I’ve been reading him for about 45 years; and I study the context. If you think back to some of the poems I’ve been dabbling with in the past number of months, you will see some of my concrete attempts to rediscover my own experiences that engendered speech about “the gods” in the first place. I have no difficulty experiencing the moon as “a goddess,” as Siléne. And what you may not understand or appreciate in my approach to reality is that for me, sensing the divine aura in the moon is far more real than all the scientific talk I’ve heard about the moon. I do not reject the scientific talk, but it has never really engaged my imagination or mind. It is abstract, and for me, beyond experience and internally unknowable; however useful, science is a secondary kind of knowledge. But to experience the earth, sky, ocean, moon, sun, stars as gods is directly experienced, as one can remember from childhood, before oblivion set in. I think that if teachers and professors had sought to preserve the fundamental experience, and also explored the physical world scientifically, I would have been far more interested. (I do not fault them; it would take a philosopher to be able to experience the Whole and engage in science at the same time.) As it was, I preferred the mysterious Whole to the analyzed part, although I probably could not have explained it as clearly when I was 20 as I can now. That is why I so strongly reacted against Descartes when I began to study him, with his conception of human being as a “res cogitans,” “a thinking thing.” Reading him made me feel imprisoned in his flattened consciousness things. (Even his “god” is a thing, of whose “existence” Descartes can “prove.” Makes no sense to me at all.) Knowing of what the moon is made, and when, surely has its own beauty and wonder, but it remains quite alien to immediate consciousness. But to feel awed at the feminine beauty of the moon is surely part of my (and I presume, everyone’s) concrete experience. The experience of the oneness of each and of all precedes naming and analyzing; this context for human consciousness is what is absent in Descartes and his descendants.
Who was the philosopher who bemoaned how scientific consciousness had taken the mystery out of the world? Was it Nietzsche? Whoever it was, I agree, even as I appreciate the usefulness gained by science and its offspring, technology. The mystery is not out of the world for Plato and Aristotle. Recall that not long before he died (about age 62, as I recall), Aristotle wrote in a letter, “The older I grow, and the more I am alone, the more I love myth.” Why? I would say that it reconnected him to the Whole, which philosophical-scientific analysis in themselves cannot do. And myth for Aristotle would surely have meant, above all, Hesiod and Homer, perhaps also Aeschylus.
I read Hesiod to help reground me in fundamental experiences that precede analysis and even to an extent, speech (logos) itself.
Click here to read several recently added poems.