About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Wednesday, July 31, 2013
Foment for the Future
What is new, however, is always evil, being that which wants to conquer and overthrow the old boundary markers and old pieties ... The good men are in all ages those who dig the old thoughts, digging deep and getting them to bear fruit — the farmers of the spirit. But eventually all land is exploited, and the ploughshare of evil must come again and again.
— Nietzsche, The Gay Science
Satisfied sheep don’t change the world — wanton wily wolves do. The status quo loathes the uncertainty quotient. Whether it’s the fear of losing power, the fear of the unknown, or the feeling of losing control, change is almost never a welcome guest in our lives. We may retrospectively judge a change to have been beneficial or expedient, but perhaps the most important effect of change is the broadening of the range of human experience, expression and fulfillment.
I. First, Break All the Rules
Whether you run a brothel or a multinational corporation, you will have to manage employees. Even if you’ve done a stellar job of hiring the right person for each role, you will encounter instances where employees make innocent mistakes, or forget to do something, or even try to think outside the box. Almost without exception, the traditional approach to dealing with these things is punishment: scold the employee, dock his pay — even fire him. It is one of our species’ oldest and strongest instincts. But there’s one problem: while this may provide a temporary fix, it doesn’t really address the core issue.
A little over a decade ago, researchers at The Gallup Organization conducted an enormous and detailed study of the employee-manager dynamic. What they found is that, contrary to popular belief and practice, the greatest area for an individual’s growth is that individual’s strengths. The greatest managers focused on building upon their employees’ strengths instead of merely trying to fix their weaknesses. So instead of taking the easy route of punishing employees for missteps, hoping that she will learn from her mistakes, they consciously focused on identifying and reinforcing her natural talents, thus turning them into productive strengths. This accords nicely with John Rawls’s “Aristotelian Principle,” which says that “people normally find activities that call upon their developed capacities to be more interesting and preferable to simpler tasks, and their enjoyment increases the more the capacity is realized or the greater its complexity.”
So the greatest source of fulfillment for an individual will be the development of her talents turned into strengths. And this will be true in her work life as well as her personal life. She will be constantly bumping up against tradition, convention, and the unspoken rules of others. If she is serious about it, she will have to take steps to exercise her talents; and she will become a rule breaker. Though her intention will be the maximization of her own “realized capacities,” she will be fomenting change because others, whether they are staunch defenders of the status quo or enlightened individuals seeking to turn their own talents into strengths, will resist her attempts. But, as Daniel Dennett says in Freedom Evolves, “encroachment is what makes life interesting.” And the word “interesting” is an understatement: encroachment entails conflict.
The ploughshare of change cuts in half many a worm.
II. Next, Break the Pentameter!
The turn of the twentieth century brought a sea change in the world of poetry. Controversial poet and critic Ezra Pound decisively broke with tradition and sought nothing less than to “keep alive a certain group of advancing poets, to set the arts in their rightful place as the acknowledged guide and lamp of civilization.” And by most accounts, he did. Contemporary poet T.S. Eliot wrote that Pound offered “the most important contemporary criticism of its kind. He forced upon our attention not only individual authors, but whole areas of poetry, which no future criticism can afford to ignore.”
Pound’s break with tradition was so extreme that he even baffled his own supporters — which were few. At the beginning of the second decade of the twentieth century, he delineated his aesthetic credo as follows:
1) Direct treatment of the “thing” whether subjective or objective.
2) To use absolutely no word that did not contribute to the presentation.
3) As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome.
What he wanted to do was reign in the extravagance of nineteenth century romantic poetry. His third maxim above relates to the traditional use of the iambic pentameter in verse — think Shakespeare’s sonnets, or even the “free verse” of Pound’s contemporaries. Speaking of free verse he said, in characteristically acerbic style, that the “actual language and phrasing is often as bad as that of our elders without even the excuse that the words are shovelled in to fill a metric pattern or to complete the noise of a rhyme-sound.” In one of his famous poems, Canto LXXXI, he said “to break the pentameter, that was the first heave.” Pound desired a verse that gave a true freedom of expression to the poet. Sticking to a traditional metric pattern, however lovely, is too restrictive. It doesn’t allow for a true or complete expression. Pound wanted each poem to have a rhythm “which corresponds exactly to the emotion or shade of emotion to be expressed.”
In his magnum opus, The Cantos, Pound moves forcefully beyond aesthetic concerns and incorporates historical, economic and political issues. In his personal life, he was an expat who became an admirer of Mussolini, and during WWII he broadcast a series of tendentious radio commentaries aimed at American political and economic figures — particularly and, infamously, Jewish bankers whom he believed were part of the reason for the war. At the end of the war, he was arrested by the U.S. Army and kept in an outdoor wire cage where he seemed to have suffered a nervous breakdown.
Though he would later repudiate his magnum opus in an interview with poet Donald Hall, he nevertheless blazed a bright trail for innumerable poets after him. His efforts and the efforts of those immediately influenced by him would change the face of poetry to this day. This break with tradition significantly expanded the opportunities for individual poets to nurture their talents and maximize their realized capacities.
The ploughshare of Pound broke into pieces many a fine sonnet.
III. Finally, Bring it On Home
The history of human music is much too involved for a single brief essay, but we can at least talk about Western classical music and popular music, and describe a few of the most notable figures there.
A major figure of the Baroque period is obviously J.S. Bach, who had a flair for improvisation. This period saw the growth of more complex and stylish forms such as opera, the oratorio and the cantata for vocals, and the concerto, sonata and suite for larger-scale instrumental pieces. The Classical period saw the elevation of public performances, an important first step toward the enjoyment of music for the masses. The three giants of the Classical period were Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. Whereas Haydn composed significant choral music and Mozart was a child prodigy, Beethoven marks the beginning of the shift from Classical to a more “heroic” style of Romantic music. Beethoven began to break with what had become a preoccupation with form and restraint, as was evident in his famous Eroica symphony which he originally dedicated to Napoleon.
Modern popular music begins with the Blues, which evolved out of African-American work songs and spirituals far from the formality and instrumentation of Classical music, and gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll and hip-hop. One of the most influential blues musicians from the 1930s was Robert Johnson (see photo), whose death was as mysterious as his life, and who seems to have been a founding member of the 27 Club — those musicians who die before they reach their 28th birthday. Other notable members of this club are Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and Amy Winehouse.
Johnson’s soulful intensity, expressive vocals and guitar mastery would mesmerize and inspire scores of British rock musicians in the 1960s, titans such as Eric Clapton, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin. In America, the Blues was part of the formula that created the Rock music of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, the King, Elvis Presley. All of these artists broke with traditional norms and mores, forging unique styles that would inspire still others to do the same, and which still drives popular music today.
In every area of human concern that matters, whether it’s the practical endeavor of earning a living and contributing economically to society, or the more “spiritual” pursuits of art and music, breaking the rules is a necessary evil. But to call such an attitude an “evil” is really a misnomer, because rule breakers are innovators who allow us to experience vistas of existential possibilities that we couldn’t even imagine previously. Those who create new norms and values not only allow us to maximize our innate capacities and achieve fulfillment, but are really catalysts in the evolution of our species beyond the all-too-human.