Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Music and Its Influence According to Shakespeare's Lorenzo

On a calm evening with a bright moon, "When the sweet wind did gently kiss the trees / and they did make no noise" (Merchant of Venice, 5.1.1-2), Lorenzo sends for musicians, who come and begin to play for him and Jessica. 
Title page from Wikipedia Commons.

Then Lorenzo begins to comment on the influence of music on its listeners. He says that when a herd of wild colts, whose natural tendency is to pretty much just go crazy, neigh loudly, and anxiously race about, whenever they hear "any air of music," they immediately stop to listen, and their nature is changed by its sweetness. Indeed, Lorenzo continues, the poet Ovid once wrote a fictional story about the legendary musician Orpheus who had such musical power that he could allure trees, rocks, and waters. Here is the passage:

For do but note a wild and wanton herd
Or race of youthful and unhandled colts,
Fetching mad bounds, bellowing and neighing loud,
Which is the hot condition of their blood,
If they but hear perchance a trumpet sound,
Or any air of music touch their ears,
You shall perceive them make a mutual stand,
Their savage eyes turned to a modest gaze
By the sweet power of music. Therefore the poet
Did feign that Orpheus drew trees, stones, and floods,
Since naught so stockish, hard, and full of rage
But music for the time doth change his nature. (70-81)

But it gets even more interesting. Lorenzo then concludes with the famous statement that the person who has no appreciation for good music and cannot feel its harmonic melodies must therefore have affections as dark the place of shadow between the earth and Hades, the Greek Erebus:

The man that hath no music in himself, 
Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,
Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
The motions of his spirit are dull as night
And his affections dark as Erebus:
Let no such man be trusted. Mark the music. (82-87)

For Lorenzo in these passages (which are actually just two parts of the same passage) music has a massive amount of influence on humans and on animals. Could we translate this into modern speech? Let's try to do it.

First, what exactly does Lorenzo mean by music? Well, his statement in line 82, "The man that hath no music in himself," is repeated in different words in line 83, "Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds." In other words, to have music in oneself means something like having a capacity to be "moved with concord of sweet sounds." So, just hearing music, what Lorenzo is calling the "concord of sweet sounds" is not enough. The word moved is important. One must be moved by music. 

Next, what does it mean to be moved? To move is to go from one place or state to another. In this particular case, I think we are not talking about moving in the physical sense, but moving in a symbolic sense, where symbolic, could mean emotional or spiritual. I use the word spiritual because Lorenzo uses the word spirit in line 85 when he says that the person that isn't moved by music has a spirit whose motions are "dull as night." And I use the word emotional here because Lorenzo says that this person who isn't moved by music has "affections dark as Erebus" (86 emphasis added). 

Let's also briefly discuss "concord of sweet sounds." Concord means harmony. So "concord of sweet sounds" would become something like "harmonious or melodic sweetness." We left out the word sound just now, but the word melodic denotes sound, so we're good. Harmony is the one in the many and the many in the one.

While we're talking about harmony, let's cite Paul Woodruff, who teaches philosophy and ethics at the University of Texas at Austin. In his book First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea he writes that harmony is the agreement that human beings make to live together even though all of us are not exactly the same. In terms of music, "Harmony," he says, "is not singing one note; it is singing different notes in a way that makes one texture of music" (99). Musical harmony is symbolic (or synecdochic) of political harmony. 

So, we can now translate Lorenzo's Elizabethian iambic pentameter to modern day speech this way: "The person that is not emotionally moved by harmonious or melodic sweetness is dangerous to society because that person cannot feel--and thus cannot understand--the necessary political principle of harmony." That person is hence "not to be trusted" and is thus "fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils." Furthermore, if we recall the herd of wild colts that Lorenzo mentioned earlier, we note that the herd is actually better off than this person who has no capacity to be moved by music because the wild colts, though their natural condition includes a savage gaze and untamed craziness, at least understand--and submit to--the principle of harmony. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

An Awesome Poem About Aragorn, Son of Arathorn

Frodo, Sam, Pippin, and Merry have just narrowly escaped into the town of Bree, and they're just arriving at the Inn of the Prancing Pony. Gandalf said he would meet them there, but there's no sign of him (other than a letter they receive from the innkeeper), and the person showing the most interest in the party is a strange and untrustworthy-looking man named Strider, a wandering vagabond with a mysterious past.

But at the end of the letter, Gandalf tells the party that Strider's true name is Aragorn, and Gandalf includes a poem that Bilbo Baggins had written years earlier about Aragorn, a poem that includes the wise counsel to think twice about the way they judge the enigmatic figure. There's more to him than meets the eye. Here it is:
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadows shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king. (Lord of the Rings, 
One-Volume Edition, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, page 170).
I don't own this picture, but I found it on
In other words, things may not always be as they seem, and we should not be so quick to judge. Though the first thing that may come to our mind when we hear the word gold may be something shiny and polished, we must recognize that not all gold glitters; and though those who may wander might seem lost or homeless, that may not actually be the case. Just being old doesn't mean that one is also weak, and below-zero temperatures do not necessarily kill plants that have deep roots--there's a lot that happens underground that we do not always (or even sometimes) see. Ashes don't necessarily mean that the fire is completely out because there may still be some coals within from which one can start a flame. Aragorn, you'll remember, was the rightful heir to the throne of Gondor. 

In addition to its counsel to beware of poor judgments, I think this poem is also a poem of hope--like the entire Lord of the Rings saga. During the War of the Ring in Middle-Earth, when the dark Lord Sauron was waging war in order to dominate and take control over the known world, there was still hope, and that hope came from a small band of seemingly insignificant creatures--a handful of halflings, or hobbits. 

Many terrible things happened in Middle-Earth, but the good eventually did prevail. It took many long struggles and sacrifices, but a new era of peace eventually was established. 

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Why Mom is Awesome

Today, we think about Mom. 

We think about that time when we had finished kindergarten and were sad because we didn't study dinosaurs as first graders like we did in kindergarten, and so Mom gathered some materials together and acted as our dinosaur mentor. We think about that time when, at age 11, we moved to a strange city in a new state, and we we didn't feel like we had any friends--except for Mom. And we think about that time when we didn't get that job or promotion or grade or whatever that we really wanted. But Mom didn't think any less of us. She loved us.

I don't know why I'm using the first-person plural (we/us), and I guess it sounds kind of funny. But maybe you can see yourself in some of these stories, too. I don't know. Maybe you and I both have similar stories of Mom doing things for us because she loved us. 

That love Mom has for us is profound. Maybe it has something to do with the pains and travails that she goes through so that we can take our first breath in this world and have a mortal life. I don't know. It's impossible for me to know by my own experience, but I believe the sources that say that giving birth includes a great deal of physical pain. 

But that physical pain Mom feels for us at birth isn't all that Mom goes through for us. She sacrifices a lot so that we can have what we need when we are small, even helpless creatures. She gives us attention. She plays with us. She feeds us--some of us even from her own body. She teaches us to be kind, to clean up after ourselves, and to respect others. She teaches us to take care of our bodies and to be wise about the things that we do. She's done more for us than we perhaps realize. She loves us. 

It's true--mothers have a profound influence on us. Perhaps there is no greater influence a person can have than that which a loving mother has for her children. 

I don't mean to assume that mothers are perfect. Nobody is perfect. But one does not have to be perfect to have a lot of influence. 

In 1821, the English poet Percy Shelley wrote a treatise called A Defense of Poetry, the last sentence of which reads, "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the World." He was talking about how poets have a greater influence on society and the world at large than people realize, and he was partially right, though that's a discussion for another day. What I am curious about is the degree to which we can substitute "mothers" for "poets" in his treatise and still have true statements. Are mothers unacknowledged legislators of the world?

Furthermore, because of the potential positive influence of mothers, we must be cautious that, in our zeal to ensure that both men and women are treated equally in the workplace and in the home and in society and everywhere, we should not mock those courageous women who freely choose motherhood, the raising and teaching and loving of children, over and instead of other pursuits. A woman that chooses to be a mother--or even a full-time stay-at-home mom if she thinks that is what is best--ought to be honored, not demeaned, respected, and not debased. Besides--that mother may have more of an influence than she--or the world at large--may acknowledge. 

But her children will certainly at least try to acknowledge it, won't we? I confess I don't totally understand all of the good my mom has done for me, but I do know that I simply can't say how grateful I am for the positive influence she has had in my life. I thank her. And I thank all of the other moms out there, if not the unacknowledged then perhaps too often the underacknowledged legislators of the world. Today, however, we remember you and honor you.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Cicero on How to Treat One's Neighbor

Cicero, who lived from 106-43 BC and who is considered the greatest of the Roman orators, often has some pretty good things to say. In book 3 chapter 5 of his On Duties, for example, he writes that it is better to spend one's time in the service of others instead of spending it in the service of one's self. Here is the passage: 
There he is. Image courtesy of Wikipedia
[I]t is more in accord with Nature to emulate the great Hercules and undergo the greatest toil and trouble for the sake of aiding or saving the world, if possible, than to live in seclusion, not only free from all care, but revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth, while excelling others also in beauty and strength. Thus Hercules denied himself and underwent toil and tribulation for the world, and, out of gratitude for his services, popular belief has given him a place in the council of the gods. The better and more noble, therefore, the character with which a man is endowed, the more does he prefer the life of service to the life of pleasure. Whence it follows that man, if he is obedient to Nature, cannot do harm to his fellow-man. (Loeb 30; 1913, 132)
Pretty good, right? I like it because it inspires me to want to work at making the world a better place instead of trying to make my own life as easy and extravagant as possible. I think it is true that the best human beings who have lived on this earth, the most respected and the ones who have done the most good, often "underwent [much] toil and tribulation" when they could have spent a life "revelling in pleasures and abounding in wealth." 

This certainly doesn't mean entirely neglecting one's own duties to one's self. But it does mean not letting what I want distract me from recognizing that the most important things in life are not things: having a bunch of awesome stuff that I keep for myself doesn't really make me happy. The most important things, on the contrary, are other members of the human family. They are brothers, sisters, parents, children, friends, coworkers, acquaintances, and even strangers. After all, strangers to us are not strangers to themselves. Strangers have lives similar to our own, and their lives are certainly not strange to themselves. Doing things for these people--even strangers--is what makes me happy, and it is also what makes the world a better place.

Book Review: The Rhetoric of American Civil Religion

I've recently received word from Taylor & Frances Online that a book review I wrote was published in the Journal of Religious and Th...