What’s Wrong with the World

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Times Change

For this Sunday, we travel back in time, for a few thoughts not my own:

In an age which has in great measure repudiated the only kind of fear that Johnson acknowledged, it takes a little effort to repossess the knowledge of certain positive consequences that follow from an outright acceptance of the point of view centering in religious humility. Of these, one of the foremost has to do with the communication of ideas: with the nature of the ideas and the way in which they are expressed. The assurance of a common commitment, common perils, and a common goal with all mankind at once justifies addressing one's fellow men on the perennial topics of mutual and ultimate concern. It is unnecessary to apologiaize for raising subjects universally acknowledged to be of profound importance. That these have been discussed before is insignificant in face of the fact that everything to come is still involved with them. Platitudes are not platitudes while they are being tested in the fire of personal experience. To an apprehension vital and unjaded, a truism is a truth. And a conviction that our private welfare is implicated is a wonderful sharpener of attention...

Indeed, intensely vital periods like the Elizabethan manifestly enjoyed a passion, a positive bulimy, for moral statement. The Elizabethans never tired of hearing that flesh is grass, and that "whatever fades but fading pleasure brings." To the unspoiled and vigorous intelligence no truths, perhaps, are too true:

I know my body's of so frail a kind
As force without, fevers within, can kill;
I know the heavenly nature of my mind,
But 'tis corrupted both in wit and will.

I know my soul hath power to know all things,
Yet is she blind and ignorant in all;
I know I am one of nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life's a pain and but a span,
I know my sense is mocked with everything;
And to conclude, I know myself a man,
Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.

So Sir John Davies, writing in the fifteen-nineties; and in the seventeen-fifties few Englishmen as yet rested content merely with hearing the parson's Sunday saw. In addition, they bought volumes of admired sermons and read them by the hundreds - both gentle and simple, clergy and laity...Not content with sermons, they also read moral essays; and like their forebears, welcomed moral generalization in their poetry, too. These things they did, not in the expectation of learning new truths, and certainly not because the senses failed to assert their vivid counterclaims, but because it was rational, they thought, for moral beings to give thought to morality, and because they added a dimension to their self-esteem by so doing.

by Bertrand H. Bronson, from the Introduction to Samuel Johnson: Rasselas, Poems, and Selected Prose, ©1952

Comments (16)

The assurance of a common commitment, common perils, and a common goal with all mankind at once justifies addressing one's fellow men on the perennial topics of mutual and ultimate concern.

Yes, against all odds.

I recommend singing. Singing harmonizes society. But you have to sing out. Teach your children to sing. It will prepare the way for mutual and ultimate concerns.

I second KW's recommendation as heartily as possible. And I recommend, to all Christians of all denominational affiliations, many of the great hymns of the faith and even many of the 19th century hymns written by very low Protestants indeed. You can, around my house, hear the 8-year-old singing, "Someday the silver cord will break, and I no more as now shall sing,"--from a hymn by Fanny Crosby. And no one worries about uttering truisms.

Btw, C.S. Lewis has a wonderful bit about Dr. Johnson in one of his letters concerning the way the French react to Johnson. It relates to this very subject. Something to the effect that the French are annoyed by Johnson, because they say they haven't come to their time of life to be told a lot of platitudes. To which, says Lewis, Johnson replies, "Men require more often to be reminded than to be taught" (my paraphrase from memory).

Pretty close. Precisely: "men more frequently require to be reminded than informed."

Singing harmonizes society.

I'd certainly like that to be true, as in Coca-Cola commercials (I'd like to teach the world to sing, in purr-fect har-mo-neee..), but most people I know can't carry a tune. Furthermore, you teach your children to play an instrument and to sing in church, and when they hit middle school the instrument intrudes on their social life, so they drop it, and since church intrudes as well, you have to compel their attendance (and their singing) with threats because they've begun absorbing the subversive, musical pandemonium of their peers, also known as the Chaos of the Spheres. By the time they graduate high school, their tastes so poorly resemble your own that each must hold the other in contempt. In late adulthood, say in their 30's, they might start drifting back in your direction, but by then the fun's gone out of it and they've already started raising the next generation of musical primitives. So, somebody cheer me up.

I think it's important to teach them to sing at home, not just in church. For that it's helpful to have a piano and be able to play it, but not absolutely necessary. If one parent can carry a tune, you can just sit around and sing. If you start it when they're little, they think of it as normal.

The subversive musical pandemonium of their peers--well, it's hard for me to know what to say, because home schooling really takes care of all of that. But I tell ya' what: Sing songs sitting on the floor with the grand kids. It'll cheer you up.

Now look here, Bill: I have met your two daughters and your lovely wife, and can say confidently that you have at least three causes for cheer -- even if they all love the subversive musical pandemonium (which is a phrase I believe I may make into a Review subcategory for this blog) . . .

For me, it only took until I was about 21 to forswear what is called hip-hop or rap; now my dad and I share most opinions on most things, even in the area of taste.

Chanting/Singing the Psalter and Biblical Canticles was the norm for the Church, both east and West for most of its history. Chanting is easier for most of us then singing and does not require a piano. Why should we all follow Luther into this new fangled business of singing?

Because a mighty fortress is our God. :~)

If by chant you're thinking Gregorian, I don't want to hear people who can't carry a tune try that either.

All this seems a little off-topic anyway, re the "change" mentioned in the original post. It wasn't music that prepared people for ultimate concerns.

It wasn't music that prepared people for ultimate concerns.

Field work does wonders, too, for common and ultimate concerns. What do you suggest?

Field work? And what do I suggest for what?

What do you suggest prepares people for common and ultimate concerns?

Faith. And living together in genuine communities where people share it. And actually know one another. Music will provide a wonderful support for that society, but will not create it. If you want suggestions as to how that faith might be found, yours will be as good as mine.

I see. But rather than a support, I'd say music is a supreme medium for the communication of aphorisms and sententia--no need to go back in time to notice that.

As far as content is concerned, I'll grant you that a great faith is needed for a great community.

It was in song that I heard the sincerest expression of my parents faith. Unlike the piety of their prayers or sermons, song invites other voices to join. Song can be shared. The simple truth penetrates the hearts of my children when we sing it. "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King." It's a statement of profound and historical insight raised through song.

Not to underestimate the power of music, we have it on the authority of Dryden and Handel in the "Ode to St. Cecilia that "From harmony, from heav'nly harmony, this universal frame began." Further back in time, the great epics required minstrels to express their epic thoughts. If poetry was anything for the Elizabethan, it was music for the Greek.

Speech, is what communicates to others who I am. Its expression is made efficacious through cadence and rhythm. Its life will move it from monotone to music. Once it breaks into a melody, the expression is open for sharing. It is no longer the sole privacy of the individual.

I'm not about to play Tolstoy and dispute whether it's the pendulum or the spring that makes the clock move. In this our discussion, both form and content is needed for what you seek, namely, "what oft was thought but ne'er so well expressed."

Look, I can see you're a great lover of music. It's not a quality I wish to discourage. But if you're implying that music is superior to the spoken or written word as a "medium for the communication of aphorisms and sententia" (wisdom?), I will simply take refuge in the fact that Christ spoke to us in parables unaccompanied by melody. As far as I know.

No, nobody has made the argument that music is superior--so far. In some ways music will be superior, because music is music, and other mediums cannot do what music does. The Gospel parables are good too, but not for tragedy or truisms.


The dinner table is an opportune place for turning truisms into truth. The medium there is dialogue and it's a very difficult art, especially with adolescent family members have not yet separated the good from their ego. But the chief difficulty belongs to the conversation's guide. Like having to play just five bars in a lengthy symphony, if you don't keep count, you'll be out of time. It's a mastered art if you can still taste your food at the same time.

Peace, KW.

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