Boethius on Music as Anesthetic

Boethius’ The Consolations of Philosophy contains a dialogue wherein Philosophy, like a physician, seeks to cure Boethius’ soul from its malady brought on by his decrease in fortune. He is imprisoned, soon to be executed for treason on spurious charges arising from his concern for the dignity of the senate. Philosophy utilizes what she calls “some gentle and pleasant remedy which may prepare you for the stronger medicine”; this remedy is Music with its graces. So she sings, in the voice of Fortune herself:

“If free-handed Plenty should dispense riches from her cornucopia as plentiful as the sands cast up by the storm tossed sea, or as the stars that shine in heaven on clear nights, men still would not stop crying their miserable complaints.

“Even though God were overgenerous with treasures of gold and deigned to satisfy every plea, if He favored the ambitious with the greatest honors, still all this would not satisfy.

“Ravenous greed would devour everything and then discover other wants. No bridle can restrain man’s disordered desires within reasonable bounds. Even when he is filled with great favors, he burns with thirst for more. No man can be rich who cries fearfully and considers himself to be poor.” (Boethius, Consolations, 25.)

To which Boethius replies, “You have made a persuasive argument, and presented it with sweet music and rhetoric. But it satisfies only while it is being spoken. Those in misery have a more profound awareness of their afflictions, and therefore a deep-seated pain continues long after the music stops.”

“You are quite right,” Philosophy answered, “for these words are not supposed to cure your disease but only to kill the pain of obstinate sorrow. At the proper time I shall apply more deeply penetrating medicine. …”

Boethius, The Consolations of Philosophy, translated by Richard Green (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1962), 25.

I’ve been having some very preliminary conversations with a friend about the psychological event of disintegration from trauma. It strikes me that Boethius may be himself dealing with such an event, and trying to reconcile the emotional value of music and philosophy. In the end, he argues that philosophy is the better cure. But this passage is intriguing for its suggestion that music is an emotional anesthetic of sorts, it allows an alternate vision for a time. It is not the cure, but it can be a path toward it.

The Humanness of Art

Caveat: this post is a mental exercise, trying to work out my thinking.

First a quote from Roger Scruton:

“There is also the division that separates merely conscious creatures from self-conscious creatures like us. Only the second have a genuine ‘first-person’ perspective, from which to distinguish how things seem to me from how they seem to you. The creature with “I” thoughts has an ability to relate to his kind in a way that sets him apart from the rest of nature, and many thinkers (Kant and Hegel preeminently) believe that it is this fact, not the face of consciousness per se, that creates or reveals the central mysteries of the human condition. Although dogs are conscious, they do not reflect on their own consciousness as we do: they live, as Schopenhauer put it, in ‘a world of perception,’ their thoughts and desires turned outward to the perceivable world.”

Roger Scruton, “Confronting Biology,” in Philosophical Psychology: Psychology, Emotions, and Freedom, edited by Craig Steven Titus (Washington D.C.: The Catholic University Press, 2009), 90.

Reading the phrase “relate to his kind” stimulated me to think about how we relate to our kind. As Scruton says, I have “‘I’ thoughts”; I’m not merely conscious, but also self-conscious. But awareness of my “I” thoughts leads me to understand others “I” thoughts. It leads me to be aware of the fact of a sort of intentionality that is only possible for a self-conscious person. I must be aware of myself and my conscious aims for becoming to be able to intend in the fullest sense.

This cluster of ideas led in a hard-to-specify way to a realization that the sort of art I appreciate is human art (isn’t all art?). What I mean is this, I enjoy art to the extent that I can perceive alongside the artist, and especially when the objects perceived are humans. It is this struggle with self-consciousness and for the the rightness of self-conscious aims that so fascinates me about the human condition. And art that captures this struggle captures my imagination. As an example of what I mean, I am posting below a sampling of my recent and favorite Facebook “Cover Photos.”

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Edward Hopper’s Room in New York

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Jacques-Louis David’s Oath of Horatii

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Hendrick ter Brugghe’s The Supper at Emmaus

10575279_10152664475495342_5683220365933775673_oLéon-Ernest Drivier’s La Joie de Vivre (The Joy of Life)

1412739_10152065162000342_341645355_oJohannes Vermeer’s The Milkmaid

Edward Hopper, “House by the Railroad”

housebytherailroadPersonal Reflections
I appreciate the way this picture captures the absurdity of American life, with its competing pulls toward material prosperity and spiritual (or aesthetic) peace (it is clear which is primary). Put in another setting, perhaps with an abundance of trees scattering the glittering sun, hedged by bushes and water, the house would be beautiful. In that way, it could even feel like a home, at least for a time. But this is no home. The blind judgments of material prosperity have either put the track near the home or the home near the track; no sensible person would have done either. It makes me think of Tolkien’s horror in “The Scouring of the Shire” (The Return of the King) that anyone would fashion a house to make money. But here the house stands with stark naked sunlight blasting the mostly shut shades. It cuts hard lines out of soft aesthetic curves. It makes me wonder which would be worse in the morning, the sunlight or the morning train? The only real sign of life in the picture is that obviously the tracks and the house were both designed, but, absurdly, both for utility.