Pop culture and the lure of Platonism

Come on now, be honest! Which one of you wouldn't rather listen to his hairdresser than Hercules? Or Horatius, or Orpheus... people so lofty they sound as if they shit marble!

Mozart (Tom Hulce) in Amadeus

I can remember spending many happy times observing the arrivals and departures of college boys with monocles, walking sticks, capes. They always livened up receptions and dinners, to say nothing of seminars and street demonstrations… I cannot actually report having spotted a young squire wearing a powdered wig, but doubtless there will come a day.

R. Emmett Tyrrell, Jr. on the early days of the conservative movement, in The Conservative Crack-Up

The Catholic Church is like a thick steak, a glass of red wine, and a good cigar.

G. K. Chesterton

Several readers of my recent post on Thelonious Monk, both here and at What’s Wrong with the World, expressed a dislike of jazz, a couple of them on conservative philosophical grounds. One of them cited Richard Weaver’s critique of jazz in Ideas Have Consequences, a classic of modern conservatism.

It’s no secret that I sympathize with the main theme of Weaver’s book, viz. that the nominalism of William of Ockham set the stage for the characteristic philosophical, moral, theological, and political errors of modernity. (This is also a major theme of The Last Superstition.) But, needless to say, I differ with Weaver at least in part on the matter of modern popular culture, and the issue is by no means as trivial as it might seem. Weaver and I agree that it was a catastrophe to abandon realism about universals, to deny that things – including, most importantly, human beings – have essences which define an objective standard of goodness for them. But realism comes in different forms, and the different forms have different moral, theological, cultural, and political implications.

For the Platonic realist, the essences of things are transcendent, existing in a “third realm” beyond both the material world and any mind. For the Aristotelian realist, essences are immanent, existing as constituents of the things themselves. For instance, the Form of Tree, for Plato, exists utterly apart from any particular tree, while for Aristotle a tree’s form (no caps needed, thank you very much) is a metaphysical component of the tree itself, not something external to it. Where they agree is in holding that the form or essence of the tree is something objective and repeatable, that this tree, that tree, and the other tree share the same nature, and that that nature determines what is good for trees as a matter of objective fact – such as that a tree that sinks its roots deep into the soil so as to give it stability and take in nutrients is to that extent a good tree, and that a tree which due to genetic defect or injury is unable to sink its roots very deep is to that extent bad and defective qua tree.

The differences between Platonism and Aristotelianism make a very real difference, though. Given the transcendence of the realm of the Forms, the Platonist is bound to regard the material world not only as second-rate but even as positively contemptible, and the body and its passions as a prison from which the soul needs to escape if it is to attain true wisdom and happiness. There is no such implication in Aristotelian realism. On the contrary, the Aristotelian regards the material world as good, and man as an essentially embodied being for whom the goods of the body, while less noble than those of the intellect, are nevertheless real goods worthy of pursuit in moderation.

I would not want to say that Weaver is a Platonist without qualification, but there is certainly more than a whiff of Platonism in his critique of jazz and of the popular culture of which it is a part. He tells us that jazz is a mark of modern civilization’s “barbarism,” “disintegration,” and “primitivism.” Why? His reasons seem to boil down to four: First, jazz evinces “a rage to divest itself of anything that suggests structure or confinement” and an eschewal of “form or ritual”; second, its celebration of the soloist’s virtuosity is a mark of “egotism” or “individualization”; third, its appeal lies in “titillation” and its themes are often “sexual or farcical,” appealing to the “lower” rather than “higher centers,” so that it fails to raise us to “our metaphysical dream”; fourth, it is “the music of equality.” Obviously, what he says about jazz applies also to other elements of modern pop culture.

Let’s consider Weaver’s concerns in order. First, it is, of course, by now a commonplace that to accuse jazz of formlessness or lack of structure is the height of superficiality. From swing to bop to modal jazz to fusion to acid jazz, it does not take much listening to discern the order underlying even the freest improvisation. Even free jazz has structure, though as I indicated in my previous post, it is so abstract that it can (in my view, anyway) only ever be of purely intellectual rather than aesthetic interest. It is hard not to see in Weaver’s criticism the Platonist’s impatience with the messiness and complexity of the real world, a desire for all form or order to be simple and evident enough to be accessible from the armchair. As the Aristotelian realizes, however (and has constantly to remind his critics, many of whom seem to think that all essentialists are armchair essentialists), to know the essences of things we actually have to get our hands dirty and investigate them empirically, in all their rich detail. If the structure of jazz is complex and unobvious, it is in that respect only mimicking the world of our experience.

Second, if like the Neo-Platonists one regards our very individuality as a kind of fallenness, remediable only by the dissolving of all duality in mystical union with The One, then I suppose the jazz fan’s admiration for virtuoso musicianship might seem to evince a morally objectionable “egotism.” But if, as the Aristotelian holds, our bodies are essential to us, then so too is the individuality that follows upon embodiment; and in that case, admiration of individual skill or achievement is not in any obvious way per se morally problematic.

Third, though I would deny that the pleasures of jazz lack any intellectual component, it cannot be denied that much of its appeal is bodily and sensual. But this too is per se objectionable only if one regards the body and the senses themselves as per se objectionable. For Plato, “each pleasure and pain is a sort of nail which nails and rivets the soul to the body” (as the Phaedo famously puts it) which is deeply problematic if the aim is to free the soul from the body. But such harrowing metaphors at least require serious qualification if we are essentially embodied, as the Aristotelian says we are.

That the “nailing” metaphor might have some application even on an Aristotelian view is of course due to the fact that since intellect and will are the highest parts of our nature, the goods of the intellect and will are the highest goods we can attain, and we can lose sight of them if we are too focused on the goods of the body and the senses. But as I have said, the latter are still genuine goods; and since the intellectual and moral endowments of human beings are not equal, these lesser goods are bound to have greater significance in the life of the average man than they are in the lives of philosophers and saints.

Now a Platonist, aware of how few men are capable even in principle of living up to the severity of his otherworldly moral vision, might well object to the “sense of equality” Weaver perceives in jazz; that the appeal of such music is broad might seem to make it ipso facto corrupt. But the Aristotelian, while certainly an elitist of sorts, need not object to the idea of lower but still genuinely beautiful forms of art and music, any more than he objects to the idea that the goods of the body and the senses are, though lower goods, still genuine goods. Just as a mixed regime with monarchic, aristocratic, and democratic elements is for the Aristotelian preferable to the utopianism of Plato’s Republic, so too is a kind of mixed aesthetic polity bound to be the natural condition of human cultures.

Though anyone with conservative instincts is bound to recoil at the excesses of modern popular culture, then, it is possible to overreact. At the very least, it is arguable that a conservative could take a more nuanced and charitable approach to modern popular culture than Weaver does. And I would argue that such an approach is actually more conservative than Weaver’s is, because it is more realistic, more sensitive to the complexity and variety of the actual human world. As I have acknowledged before, Platonism is a noble doctrine and it can be a useful corrective to the shallow materialism and hedonism that dominate modern life. But it is also prone to unconservative excesses of its own – to utopianism and puritanism, and to either fanaticism or quietism as their sequel. It stands in need of correction itself.

Within Christianity, the Augustinian tradition partially accomplished this to the extent that it sought to reconcile Platonism with the earthiness of the Old Testament. But the Platonic-Augustinian tradition itself required correction, and this was accomplished only with the revival of Aristotelianism and the fusion, within Thomism, of the best of both worlds. In its cultural and moral implications no less than in its philosophical and theological achievements, the Aristotelico-Thomistic tradition synthesizes what is good in earlier systems and purges what is bad, and has also the resources to incorporate the best of the new.

There can in any event be no question that the mainstream Christian tradition acknowledges that the pleasures of the body and the senses have their place. For that tradition, asceticism is a nobler form of life not because the pleasures of food, drink, sex and the like are bad, but precisely because they are good. The ascetic sacrifices what is natural and good for the sake of a higher, supernatural good; and for the vast majority of human beings, even approximating such an ideal is possible only through grace, not via our natural moral capacities, precisely because it is what is naturally good for us that is being forsaken.

In light of all this, there is no reason to condemn some form of popular culture merely because it deals with this-worldly themes rather than raising us to “our metaphysical dream,” as Weaver puts it. This is not to deny for a moment that much of contemporary popular culture really is evil and corrupting. Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture is inferior to high culture, and that it ought never to intrude into sacred contexts. (As a lover of the Tridentine form of the Roman rite, I am stridently opposed to the use of jazz, rock, or folk music in the Mass. If I were somehow elected pope, this would be my first official act.) Nor is it to deny that even the best in popular culture can, like all the good things of this world, become a snare if we allow them to distract us from the higher and nobler things. Conservatives can definitely take too optimistic a view of pop culture – I think Brian Anderson does so in South Park Conservatives, to take one prominent example. But they can take too pessimistic a view as well, and see only bad where there is in fact much good. Weaver does so, as does Roger Scruton in some of his moods, though he seems to have mellowed a bit. (I say this as someone who admires Anderson, Weaver, and Scruton.)

As I have argued before, while conservatism should not be populist, neither should it be snobbish. The conservative or Christian who insists on Weaver’s Platonic hard line cannot fail to come across like one of the oddballs in Tyrrell’s anecdote quoted above, or the bores targeted by Mozart in the line from Amadeus – eccentric, cranky, nostalgic, uptight, unappealing, inhumane, ineffective, and irrelevant. More to the point, he is just wrong, refusing as he does to see man as he truly is, as nature made him, as God made him.
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