Sweet Music

imagesCould Milton write this?

             How charming is divine Philosophy

             Not harsh and crabbed as dull fools suppose

             but musical as is Apollo’s lute

He writes these lines as part of a masque in honor of chastity, presented September 29, 1634, before the Earl of Bridgewater, newly installed as President of Wales. So these lines may not express his true sentiments but rather his wish to please the Earl. And note that Milton has Apollo praise chastity. The musical Dionysus, in his song and dance, would praise something considerably wilder.

Be that as it may, the idea of joining lutes and philosophy warms the cockles of my heart. Hearing that I teach philosophy, I often get mumbles of disgruntlement. “I took a course once. Dry as dust, logic only. Hair-splitting. Too abstract.”  No music, no lute playing Apollo there.

Let’s call such mute, crabbed philosophy Scholastic. There are strict outlines of, and methods behind, any worthy categorical thought. The outcome is propositional, forcing conclusions soon to be contested. It is declared and demonstrated, but not sung. One aims for results that are eternal and diamond-like.

I travel to Montana today to speak about the lyrical, musical philosophy of Thoreau and Henry Bugbee. Both reject familiar options: either building and admiring systems or elegantly tearing them down. They would reject the technique and lexicon of deconstruction or reductive analysis and embrace that odd bird, philosophical song or musical thinking.

Philosophy then follows the rhythms of walking, dancing, singing, or breathing. (“All is vanity” is better rendered “All is breath.”) Good thinking has the texture of momentary reverie – beautiful at times, but passing, like an aria. That’s why we’re never convinced but must read the passage over and over.

We follow (and listen to, and replicate or speak back) the breath of thought as it bursts from the lungs and is given up to the air — there to dissolve as a puff offered to the chill of a Syracuse morn. All the while we maintain the poised confidence that a new breath will emerge as the first is offered up and lost to the world. Such is the ecstatic writing of Thoreau or Emerson and also of Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.

And isn’t that how we read many of Plato’s dramas, full of myth and image and verbal back and forth? Perhaps it is the insight that Socrates conveys before half-heartedly assembling on his death day an architectonics of immortality.

Before Socrates begins, he reports to his friends that a dream has whispered, “Socrates, make music and compose!” (Or, perhaps, “Write poetry, lyrics . . . let the muse inspire!”) His life of call and response was perhaps more musical than system building or system-deconstructing. Milton asks us to hear philosophy sing like Apollo’s lute. Perhaps there’s something to that wild idea.

— Ed Mooney, Zeteo Contributor

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