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.

“News from the real world!”

Felicia: And I remain unmoved by your prophetic dooming and damning. We’re not decadent, as you imply. We’re just into our feelings.
Socrates: Feeling-fondling? Is not auto-eroticism a form of decadence?
Felicia: What is your music into, Socrates?
Socrates: If you mean what is it about, it is about its source, the Muses. It is a divine glory.
Felicia: Well, our music comes from us, not from the Muses.
Socrates: I rest my case.
Felicia: What do you mean?
Socrates: That fact itself is evidence of your decadence. For you know neither the heights nor the depths of the music, if you think it comes only from you. I seem to see a picture of the two castaways on a desert island suddenly receiving a message in a bottle. They feel a sudden hope: news from the real world! Then they read it and their faces fall: they realize it came only from them. No wonder you do not hear the Muses; your ears are turned inward. And I will hazard a guess that Plato was right in seeing decadence in music as prophetic of all further decadence, for once the most primitive and appealing voice of the gods is subjectivized, other, harder things will follow: you will begin to think that you invented society, and civilization, and religion; you will subjectivize right and wrong, and finally even reality itself. Eventually you will believe that the world itself is only a projection of your consciousness.

Peter Kreeft, Best Things in Life, 106.

Exies, "Ugly"

Are you ugly?
A liar like me?
A user, a lost soul?
Someone you don’t know
Money it’s no cure
A Sickness so pure
Are you like me?
Are you ugly?

We are dirt, we are alone
You know we are far from sober!
We are fake, we are afraid
You know it s far from over
We are dirt, we are alone
You know we are far from sober!
Look closer, are you like me?
Are you ugly?

Ihe Exies, “Ugly,” on the album Head for the Door (Virgin Records, 2004).

Kendall Payne, Aslan

Really enjoyed this song:

Don’t stop your crying on my account
A frightening lion, no doubt
He’s not safe, no he’s not safe
Are you tempted now to run away?
The King above all Kings is coming down

But He won’t say the words you wish that he would
Oh, he don’t do the deeds you know that He could
He won’t think the thoughts you think He should
But He is good, He is good
(chorus)

I know you’re thirsty, the water is free
But I should warn you, it costs everything
Well, He’s not fair, no He’s not fair
When He fixes what’s beyond repair
And graces everyone that don’t deserve
No one knows Him whom eyes never seen
No, I don’t know Him but He knows me
He knows me, He knows me
Lay down your layers, shed off your skin
But without His incision, you can’t enter in
He cuts deep, yeah He cuts deep
When the risk is great and the talk is cheap
But never leaves a wounded one behind

The power of rock

Rod Dreher makes some interesting observations here:

I recall reading Allan Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind” when it came out in paperback, in 1988, when I was an undergraduate, and scoffing at his negative judgment on rock ‘n roll. As I recall — and please correct me if I misremember — Bloom, who was a very deep thinker, connected the reckless, anti-rational, culturally destructive passions released in the 1960s to the instinctual power of rock. I remember at the time thinking this was stupid, but not because I had an intellectual answer to Bloom. To me, it simply sounded like the kvetching of an old fart. I was frustrated at the time to learn that Bloom was not some sort of right-wing Christian, but was in fact a secularist homosexual. I was living in Washington then, doing an internship, and made an idiotic remark to someone at a party that Bloom was a traitor to his class, having written a book that was being used by conservatives as ammo in the culture war. I remember my interlocutor, an older liberal, looking at me with puzzlement and pity at the crudity of my judgment.

Now, I see that I was wrong, but I don’t say that in an ideological sense. It’s not that I’ve turned on rock and roll — most of my music collection is rock — but that I see that Bloom was onto something, that rock is a far more ambiguous a phenomenon than I could possibly have grasped at 21. To the extent that rock music hastened the demise of the despicable Soviet regime, hooray. But the same energies called forth from the human spirit by rock music, and its descendants, have affected our own institutions, traditions and self-understanding.

I remember another night long ago, when I was in college, and listening to George Michael’s “I Want Your Sex.” A thoughtful Christian who lived on my hall in the dorm asked me how I could listen to those lyrics and remain so unaffected by the sentiment. He wasn’t asking in a prudish way; he was a fan of classic jazz and pop, and as an appreciator of the refined longings expressed in, say, the songs of Cole Porter, he was appalled by the barbarism in the George Michael song. I didn’t have an answer for him, but he did make me reflect on how the lyrics of so many songs I dearly loved expressed sentiments I found at the time distasteful, and, as I matured, would come to find gross.

I gave up listening to George Michael and that lot years ago, not out of moral conviction, but because I was bored by it. But I still don’t have an adequate answer for that question posed to me in my dorm room decades ago.