Archive for the ‘Anthropology’ Category

Richard Hooker on Music

Hooker’s Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, 5.38.1 and 3 (with some extra paragraph spacing to make it more readable), on music:

Touching musical harmony whether by instrument or by voice, it being but of high and low in sounds a due proportionable disposition, such notwithstanding is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath in that very part of man which is most divine, that some have been thereby induced to think that the soul itself by nature is or hath in it harmony. A thing which delighteth all ages and beseemeth all states; a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy; as decent being added unto actions of greatest weight and solemnity, as being used when men most sequester themselves from action.

The reason hereof is an admirable facility which music hath to express and represent to the mind, more inwardly than any other sensible mean, the very standing, rising, and falling, the very steps and inflections every way, the turns and varieties of all passions whereunto the mind is subject; yea so to imitate them, that whether it resemble unto us the same state wherein our minds already are, or a clean contrary, we are not more contentedly by the one confirmed, than changed and led away by the other. In harmony the very image and character even of virtue and vice is perceived, the mind delighted with their resemblances, and brought by having them often iterated into a love of the things themselves.

For which cause there is nothing more contagious and pestilent than some kinds of harmony; than some nothing more strong and potent unto good. And that there is such a difference of one kind from another we need no proof but our own experience, inasmuch as we are at the hearing of some more inclined unto sorrow and heaviness; of some, more mollified and softened in mind; one kind apter to stay and settle us, another to move and stir our affections; there is that draweth to a marvellous grave and sober mediocrity, there is also that carrieth as it were into ecstasies, filling the mind with an heavenly joy and for the time in a manner severing it from the body.

So that although we lay altogether aside the consideration of ditty or matter, the very harmony of sounds being framed in due sort and carried from the ear to the spiritual faculties of our souls, is by a native puissance and efficacy greatly available to bring to a perfect temper whatsoever is there troubled, apt as well to quicken the spirits as to allay that which is too eager, sovereign against melancholy and despair, forcible to draw forth tears of devotion if the mind be such as can yield them, able both to move and to moderate all affections.

…In church music curiosity and ostentation of art, wanton or light or unsuitable harmony, such as only pleaseth the ear, and doth not naturally serve to the very kind and degree of those impressions, which the matter that goeth with it leaveth or is apt to leave in men’s minds, doth rather blemish and disgrace that we do than add either beauty or furtherance unto it. On the other side, these faults prevented, the force and efficacy of the thing itself, when it drowneth not utterly but fitly suiteth with matter altogether sounding to the praise of God, is in truth most admirable, and doth much edify if not the understanding because it teacheth not, yet surely the affection, because therein it worketh much. They must have hearts very dry and tough, from whom the melody of psalms doth not sometime draw that wherein a mind religiously affected delighteth.

Be it as Rabanus Maurus observeth, that at the first the Church in this exercise was more simple and plain than we are, that their singing was little more than only a melodious kind of pronunciation, that the custom which we now use was not instituted so much for their cause which are spiritual, as to the end that into grosser and heavier minds, whom bare words do not easily move, the sweetness of melody might make some entrance for good things. St. Basil himself acknowledging as much, did not think that from such inventions the least jot of estimation and credit thereby should be derogated: “For” (saith he) “whereas the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue hardly drawn, and that righteousness is the less accounted of by reason of the proneness of our affections to that which delighteth; it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth the treasure of good things into man’s mind. To this purpose were those harmonious tunes of psalms devised for us, that they which are either in years but young, or touching perfection of virtue as yet not grown to ripeness, might when they think they sing, learn. O the wise conceit of that heavenly Teacher, which hath by his skill, found out a way, that doing those things wherein we delight, we may also learn that whereby we profit!”

The Preestablished Harmony of Pop

adorno1

Theodor Adorno, a member of the Frankfurt school, analysed pop music from the perspective of Critical Theory in his 1941 essay “On Popular Music”. Among his many reflections on the subject (of varying worth), he considered the reason for the hold of popular music on the masses. Part of his answer was the following:

The frame of mind to which popular music originally appealed, on which it feeds, and which it perpetually reinforces, is simultaneously one of distraction and inattention. Listeners are distracted from the demands of reality by entertainment which does not demand attention either.

The notion of distraction can be properly understood only within its social setting and not in self-subsistent terms of individual psychology. Distraction is bound to the present mode of production, to the rationalized and mechanized process of labor to which, directly or indirectly, masses are subject. This mode of production, which engenders fears and anxiety about unemployment, loss of income, war, has its “non-productive” correlate in entertainment; that is, relaxation which does not involve the effort of concentration at all. People want to have fun. A fully concentrated and conscious experience of art is possible only to those whose lives do not put such a strain on them that in their spare time they want relief from both boredom and effort simultaneously. The whole sphere of cheap commercial entertainment reflects this dual desire. It induces relaxation because it is patterned and pre-digested. Its being patterned and pre-digested serves within the psychological household of the masses to spare them the effort of that participation (even in listening or observation) without which there can be no receptivity to art. On the other hand, the stimuli they provide permit an escape from the boredom of mechanized labor.

The promoters of commercialized entertainment exonerate themselves by referring to the fact that they are giving the masses what they want. This is an ideology appropriate to commercial purposes: the less the mass discriminates, the greater the possibility of selling cultural commodities indiscriminately. Yet this ideology of vested interest cannot be dismissed so easily. It is not possible completely to deny that mass consciousness can be molded by the operative agencies only because the masses “want this stuff.”

But why do they want this stuff? In our present society the masses themselves are kneaded by the same mode of production as the arti-craft material foisted upon them. The customers of musical entertainment are themselves objects or, indeed, products of the same mechanisms which determine the production of popular music. Their spare time serves only to reproduce their working capacity. It is a means instead of an end. The power of the process of production extends over the time intervals which on the surface appear to be “free”. They want standardized goods and pseudo-individualization, because their leisure is an escape from work and at the same time is molded after those psychological attitudes to which their workaday world exclusively habituates them. Popular music is for the masses a perpetual bus man’s holiday. Thus, there is justification for speaking of a preestablished harmony today between production and consumption of popular music. The people clamor for what they are going to get anyhow.

Dallas Willard on the Nature of Feelings

Dallas Willard wisely instructs his readers on the nature of feelings:

Much of the great power of feelings over life derives not just from the fact that they touch us, move us, but from the fact that they creep over into other areas of our life; they pervade, they change the overall tone of our life and our world. They spread like an unstable dye or a viral form or a yeast. They may take over all else in us, even that to which they have no relevance. Things and people around us then look different, take on a distinctive tone or meaning. And that can even determine the tendency and outcome of our life as a whole.

This explains why it is so hard to reason with some people. Their very mind has been taken over by one or more feelings and is made to defend and serve those feelings at all costs. It is a fearful condition from which some people never escape. We have noted how thoughts generate feelings. If we allow certain negative thoughts to obsess us, then their associate feelings can enslave and blind us—that is, take over our ability to think and perceive. …

Beyond the individual level, poisonous emotions and sensations often take over entire social groups, blinding them and impelling them on terrible courses of destruction. This is nearly always what has happened in cases where repression of ethnic groups or genocide occurs. Thus, to the onlooker the participants (the Nazis, and so on) seem to be deaf, blind, and insane – which, in a sense, they are. They, too, are imprisoned.

Feelings can be successfully “reasoned with,” can be corrected by reality, only in those (whether oneself or others) who have the habit and are given the grace of listening to reason when they are expressing violent feelings or are in the grip of them. A feeling of sufficient strength may blot out all else and will invariably do so in one who has not trained himself or herself, or been trained, to identify, to be critical of, and to have some distance from his or her own feelings. Combined with a sense of righteousness, strong feeling becomes impervious to fact and reason. …

Abandonment to feeling, allowing oneself to be “carried away” by feeling, is actually sought by many, and on a regular basis. That is a testimony to our epidemic deadness of soul. People want to feel, and to feel strongly, and in the very nature of life they need to do so

The opposite of peace is really not war, but deadness. The “dead soul” is one waiting to explode or fall apart, and one that will seek out trouble for reasons it cannot understand. In its desolate life away from God, there is no drama to provide constructive feeling tones that would keep life from being a burden. Such persons really have no hope. This is the key to those “lives of quiet desperation” Thoreau attributed to “most men.” Feeling will then be sought for its own sake, and satisfaction in feeling alone always in turn demands stronger feeling. It cannot limit itself. [Renovation of the Heart, 124-125]

Chronicles In The Abolition Of Man

A woman wants to give birth to a shark.

The prophet C.S. Lewis once wrote:

My point may be clearer to some if it is put in a different form. Nature is a word of varying meanings, which can best be understood if we consider its various opposites. The Natural is the opposite of the Artificial, the Civil, the Human, the Spiritual, and the Supernatural. The Artificial does not now concern us. If we take the rest of the list of opposites, however, I think we can get a rough idea of what men have meant by Nature and what it is they oppose to her. Nature seems to be the spatial and temporal, as distinct from what is less fully so or not so at all. She seems to be the world of quantity, as against the world of quality; of objects as against consciousness; of the bound, as against the wholly or partially autonomous; of that which knows no values as against that which both has and perceives value; of efficient causes (or, in some modern systems, of no causality at all) as against final causes. Now I take it that when we understand a thing analytically and then dominate and use it for our own convenience, we reduce it to the level of `Nature’ in the sense that we suspend our judgements of value about it, ignore its final cause (if any), and treat it in terms of quantity. This repression of elements in what would otherwise be our total reaction to it is sometimes very noticeable and even painful: something has to be overcome before we can cut up a dead man or a live animal in a dissecting room. These objects resist the movement of the mind whereby we thrust them into the world of mere Nature. But in other instances too, a similar price is exacted for our analytical knowledge and manipulative power, even if we have ceased to count it. We do not look at trees either as Dryads or as beautiful objects while we cut them into beams: the first man who did so may have felt the price keenly, and the bleeding trees in Virgil and Spenser may be far-off echoes of that primeval sense of impiety. The stars lost their divinity as astronomy developed, and the Dying God has no place in chemical agriculture. To many, no doubt, this process is simply the gradual discovery that the real world is different from what we expected, and the old opposition to Galileo or to `body-snatchers’ is simply obscurantism. But that is not the whole story. It is not the greatest of modern scientists who feel most sure that the object, stripped of its qualitative properties and reduced to mere quantity, is wholly real. Little scientists, and little unscientific followers of science, may think so. The great minds know very well that the object, so treated, is an artificial abstraction, that something of its reality has been lost.

From this point of view the conquest of Nature appears in a new light. We reduce things to mere Nature in order that we may `conquer’ them. We are always conquering Nature, because`Nature’ is the name for what we have, to some extent, conquered. The price of conquest is to treat a thing as mere Nature. Every conquest over Nature increases her domain. The stars do not become Nature till we can weigh and measure them: the soul does not become Nature till we can psychoanalyse her. The wresting of powers from Nature is also the surrendering of things to Nature. As long as this process stops short of the final stage we may well hold that the gain outweighs the loss. But as soon as we take the final step of reducing our own species to the level of mere Nature, the whole process is stultified, for this time the being who stood to gain and the being who has been sacrificed are one and the same. This is one of the many instances where to carry a principle to what seems its logical conclusion produces absurdity. It is like the famous Irishman who found that a certain kind of stove reduced his fuel bill by half and thence concluded that two stoves of the same kind would enable him to warm his house with no fuel at all. It is the magician’s bargain: give up our soul, get power in return. But once our souls, that is, ourselves, have been given up, the power thus conferred will not belong to us. We shall in fact be the slaves and puppets of that to which we have given our souls. It is in Man’s power to treat himself as a mere `natural object’ and his own judgements of value as raw material for scientific manipulation to alter at will. The objection to his doing so does not lie in the fact that this point of view (like one’s first day in a dissecting room) is painful and shocking till we grow used to it. The pain and the shock are at most a warning and a symptom. The real objection is that if man chooses to treat himself as raw material, raw material he will be: not raw material to be manipulated, as he fondly imagined, by himself, but by mere appetite, that is, mere Nature, in the person of his de-humanized Conditioners.

We have been trying, like Lear, to have it both ways: to lay down our human prerogative and yet at the same time to retain it. It is impossible. Either we are rational spirit obliged for ever to obey the absolute values of the Tao, or else we are mere nature to be kneaded and cut into new shapes for the pleasures of masters who must, by hypothesis, have no motive but their own `natural’ impulses. Only the Tao provides a common human law of action which can over-arch rulers and ruled alike. A dogmatic belief in objective value is necessary to the very idea of a rule which is not tyranny or an obedience which is not slavery.

Objective Good, Economics, And Politics

There is at least one fundamental tension between the thinking of some Austrian economics and some libertarian political philosophy, and classical Christian social thinking. Consider this excerpt from von Mises’ magnum opus, Human Action:

When applied to the ultimate ends of action, the terms rational and irrational are inappropriate and meaningless. The ultimate end of action is always the satisfaction of some desires of the acting man. Since nobody is in a position to substitute his own value judgments for those of the acting individual, it is vain to pass judgment on other people’s aims and volitions. No man is qualified to declare what would make another man happier or less discontented. The critic either tells us what he believes he would aim at if he were in the place of his fellow; or, in dictatorial arrogance blithely disposing of his fellow’s will and aspirations, declares what condition of this other man would better suit himself, the critic.

Mises stands within a long tradition of thinkers assuming Hume’s separation of value and fact, a repudiation of the premodern tradition (in which Christianity finds itself) which said there was such a thing as an objective good and evil for human action, and that it could be known by everyone. In participating in the modern tradition, Mises assumed the modernists’ rejection of formal and final causes in the world, and so left humanity without any objective good purpose toward which it was intrinsically directed. What is left in the vacuum is bare will, and perhaps the passions, to which Hume said reason was always a slave. Certainly, there is no objective good that can be rationally discovered by all people of good will.

And, of course, Mises and likeminded Austrians (and libertarians) are not alone amongst the economic and political schools of today in holding this view of ethics and human nature. But they are all clearly in opposition to Christian doctrine at this point.

Reasonable Fasts

The season of Lent is upon us, and so Christians are talking once again about fasting. Among Protestants, this is always a touchy subject. Some among the sons of the Reformers strive to distinguish themselves from Papists by glorying in feasts; others, for various reasons, seek to regain some part of the church’s tradition surrounding fasts.

I’m not particularly interested in hashing out this debate here, though I have my opinions. However, I would like to share Scot McKnight’s argument, from his little book on fasting, about the logic of fasts in general. I read this years ago, but it has stuck with me ever since as eminently reasonable.

He defines fasting as follows:

Fasting is the natural, inevitable response of a person to a grievous sacred moment in life. [xx]

That is, he argues that fasting is a natural response to a particular kind of moment, a grievous, or serious, sacred moment. In other words, fasting is not done (at least in the Bible) for the purpose of achieving some response. It is not done, primarily at least, with prospective vision, but rather with retrospective [xx-xxi].

The Jews and the early Church, of course, also practiced stationary fasts, which are fasts that are practiced regularly, often two days a week (Jews on Mondays and Thursdays, Christians on Wednesdays and Fridays). McKnight admits he does not know exactly what the purpose for these fasts was, but he argues that, given the survey of fasting he had given by that point in the book, it was reasonable to assume that they, too, were retrospective acts. As he puts it:

Even if we cannot always discern why the earliest Christians fasted, we can be confident that some grievous sacred moment prompted the fasting. In light of the themes we’ve already discussed, it is reasonable to think that body discipline was a response to the presence of sin, to the reality of a broken world, and to the yearning for holiness and love. [73]

And how can it be otherwise? Until the Lord comes, there will always be evil and pain to cause us grief, both in others and in ourselves. There is thus always reason to fast, if we are sensitive enough in heart to perceive it.

Some Listening Material For The Guys

It’s probably not a secret that I’m a fan of The Art of Manliness. I think it’s a fantastic resource, and its mission of trying to make men better (and not just sexier or richer) is desperately needed.

On occasion, Brett McKay also does podcasts, and there are a few that might be of general interest. Firstly, they did an interview with Nick Offerman, who plays Ron Swanson in Parks and Recreation. Secondly, they interviewed Rich Sommer, who plays Harry Crane on Mad Men. Other interesting episodes I’ve listened to: Stew Smith, a former Navy SEAL, talks about training; Sam Sheridan, an MMA fighter, who talks (for obvious reasons) about fighting; and Dr. Frank Farley, a professor of psychology, talks about his studies on heroism.

The iTunes page for the podcast is here, though I should note, it is missing many of the episodes. It would probably be best to just do a search on the website itself for “podcasts” if you want to find them all.

Fitness And Mental Excellence

I’m infrequently chipping away at John J. Ratey’s book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. What struck me immediately about this book is that, while majoring on science, it recognizes that its practical advice is perennial. The epigram that begins the book:

In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection. – Plato

He begins his book with the case of Naperville Central High School. This school begins its day with a fitness regiment for students, focused not on “sports”, but, as I said, on fitness. This is accomplished through simple running, with the goal of raising the heart rate of students, determined with monitors for each pupil. The science Ratey goes into in his book suggests there are many benefits to physical exercise on the brain and mental processes in specific. But the most memorable part of the first chapter for me was the following:

Those exams aren’t nearly as telling as the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS), a test designed to compare students’ knowledge levels from different countries in two key subject areas. This is the exam cited by New York Times editorialist Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat, when he laments that students in places like Singapore are “eating our lunch.” The education gap between the United States and Asia is widening, Friedman points out. Whereas in some Asian countries nearly half of the students score in the top tier, only 7 percent of U.S. students hit that mark.

TIMSS has been administered every four years since 1995. The 1999 edition included 230,000 students from thirty-eight countries, 59,000 of whom are from the United States. While New Tier and eighteen other schools along Chicago’s wealthy North Sore formed a consortium to take the TIMSS (thereby masking individual schools’ performance), Naperville 203 signed up on its own to get an international benchmark of its students’ performance. Some 97 percent of its eighth graders took the test–not merely the best and the brightest. How did they stack up? On the science section of the TIMSS, Naperville’s students finished first, just ahead of Singapore, and then the North Shore consortium. Number one in the world. On the math section, Naperville scored sixth, behind only Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Japan. [13-14]

Ratey does acknowledge that Naperville resides in a demographically advantaged school district, in terms of race and income. Yet he argues that the coincidence of unusual phys-ed and exceptional science scores is too interesting to dismiss out of hand, especially in that Naperville is far from the only “wealthy suburb in the country with intelligent, educated parents. And in poor districts where Naperville-style PE has taken root, such as Titusville, Pennsylvania…, test scores have improved measurably.” (15)

Social Constructionism, Moral Realism, And Injustice

Jamie K.A. Smith wrote on twitter the other day:

We’re told that social constructionism has no resources to stop injustices like racism. But how did moral realism fair in that regard?

I want to briefly discuss where I think this is wrong. Firstly, it is true that people merely professing to be moral realists has not created heaven on earth. This should not be a big surprise to Christians, who believe in original sin, total depravity, and the persistence of indwelling sin in the lives of even regenerated people. But at the same time, I don’t notice that social constructionists, people who believe that all value and meaning is the creation of communities, have become morally perfect either. Except, perhaps, in cases where they have redefined their sin to be righteousness “for their community”. But the rest of us, I think, may not be persuaded. And certainly, communities that believe there is no objective right and wrong could easily, and indeed have, been quite evil and unjust.

Secondly, if the question is: “which view, considered in the abstract, provides more motivation to be good?”, then I think it is moral realism, not social constructionism, that has more resources available towards reaching that end. This is for one main reason. The communities of moral realism and social constructionism can both discipline their communities toward achieving the good and stopping injustices, for moral realist communities are still communities. But only moral realists can offer a principled argument for why people outside of their own community also ought to stop committing injustices. Social constructionists can only offer bare commands or invitations to those on the outside, while moral realists can do both of these things, and provide reasons why others should stop being racists, etc.

Thirdly, social constructionism is, at bottom, a kind of cultural relativism. And when cultural relativism goes missionary, when it tries to recruit from the outside or shape the outside world in its image, it is essentially being Nietzschean. Since it can have no objective right to do this (since, in its own view, there are no such things), any attempt to condemn others for things it considers wrong, or to enforce rules against such behaviour, is an act of sheer will-to-power. There is no trans-communal standard of justice that could make such an act warranted, since there is no trans-communal standard of justice. So it is merely one community trying to impose its will on another, for no more fundamental reason than that the community wishes to do it. At base, it must reduce all moral outrage to socially constructed arbitrary value preferences, and so to wish or will.

Emotions And Passions

Alastair Roberts comments on the distinction between the two:

It seems to me that there is a huge danger of confusing emotions with passions. One of the things that I so love about Reformed and Presbyterian traditions, and higher church liturgical tradition, for that matter, is that they teach us how to distinguish between the two. They teach us to distrust emotions, but to cultivate passions. Right now my emotions are shaped by a huge range of different factors: by the lack of sleep that I had last night, by the attractive woman who just smiled at me, by the sugar rush from the epic slab of banoffee pie I just ate, by the impending deadlines that I have to work towards, by the kind gift of a friend, etc., etc. However, by focusing on passions, I learn to strip away the ephemeral and shallow feelings of the moment, and learn to focus upon those most important and deep driving passions that inform my profoundest identity. Rather than being tossed to and fro by the emotions of the moment, I feed and draw upon my deeper passion for enjoying God in his love and goodness, my passion to glorify him in what I do, and to serve others in Christ’s name.

Many people who look at Reformed churches or more liturgical churches from the outside generally don’t get it. They think that passion is something that has to be fully seen on the surface and constantly on display in extroverted, bubbly, and emotionally demonstrative forms of church that many of us find so stifling, but which are de rigueur in many evangelical contexts. They judge emotionally undemonstrative churches to be cold, dead, or lifeless, when often nothing could be further from the truth. Many people also presume that outward emotional displays are proof of deep internal passion. While they often are expressions of such passion, shallow emotion really isn’t that hard to conjure up and such shallow emotion can occasionally serve as a veneer masking a deeper absence. Paradoxically, it can often be our most powerful passions that we are least inclined openly to express in an emotional form, as this can be felt to trivialize or cheapen them.

One of the things that I so love about the work of a theologian such as John Calvin is that one gets the clear sense of a deep-seated passion for Christ, a passion that, while undoubtedly there, is a signal that is hard to hear beneath the noise of fleeting emotions in many of the evangelical contexts in which I find myself, where the shrillness of the expected upbeat emotional expression tends to drown out the deep feelings and passions that one finds in the psalms and elsewhere.