Tuesday, July 13, 2010


Last week at The Hannibal Blog, Andreas Kluth put the question, "Greatest thinkers: Greeks or Germans?" Of course the challenge is a bit of a joke of the fact so many great thinkers were Greek or German. I did begin to consider though, "what do you mean by great?" Do you mean "profound" or "original?" Many great ideas were first considered by a Greek thinker of the ancient world, but found their perfect expression later. By this I mean that many artists put ideas more clearly, succinctly, and beautifully than the philosophers who first thought of them did. Surely some philosophers were great authors and stylists, namely Plato and Nietzsche. Aristotle's prose is remarkable for its clarity and succinctness, but it is still dense and technical. Some philosophers, like Kant, were abysmal prose stylists and their work is excruciating to read.  

Thus I thought, which works of art gave a philosophical idea, or even more specifically a metaphysical idea, its most clear, beautiful, and succinct expression? Of course all art is about some idea, but I was considering particularly abstract or philosophical ideas or ideas expressed in their most abstract or "pure" form. For example, I excluded expressions of a dramatic, descriptive, or pictorial nature. Likewise I considered whether the form of expression was appropriate, particularly appropriate, or most appropriate, for the idea. In the examples I selected I believe the form is ideal for the idea.

I also did consider mean statements simply well-said like, "the highest form of Human Excellence is to question oneself and others (Socrates) and "It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it." (Aristotle) Rather my thinking was to find an expression of an idea so extraordinary as to be a perfect expression of its essence, and one which invites the reader into an experience of it. Philosophers sometimes succeed here, for example, Nietzsche's statement, "Battle not with monsters, lest ye become a monster, and if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you" is no mere assertion but an aphorism fraught with portent.

Thus we might say what I was looking for were expressions not about an idea, but which themselves constituted the idea. For example, Nietzsche's statement draws you into the question and makes the experience it is about and draws you into it.

The following were the first to my mind, though I welcome suggestions and there will likely be a Part II at some point. Music being the most abstract of expressive forms I am sure could predominate. I'm sure Beethoven ought to figure more prominently and one might consider the Mozartian overture in general as a fine example of what I am considering. I have discussed them here.

I have refrained from commenting where possible, since these works by nature are highly condensed, expressing much with little. Where necessary I offered some explication just to get the ball of inquiry rolling. In my experience starting to think about any of these pieces takes you down many and long roads.

Part I. Being, Non-Being, and Becoming

i. Overture to Don Giovanni, KV.521 (W.A. Mozart)

". . . the work is not about guilt and retribution but simply about being and non-being, and the overwhelming tragedy of the conclusion rests on the grandeur and terror of the action as such, not on the triumph of moral laws over the world of appearances." [Abert, 1050.]

James Levine, conducting.

ii. Piano Concerto 21, KV.467. Andante. (W. A. Mozart)
. . . the form is "a becoming." In it we may be aware of phrases, of sequences which show metabolism. . . but the main principle of its form is the approach to and decline from climax. . . we imagine ourselves to be the performer; if we do not live along its line, we are not fulfilling the composer's demands of us. [Hutchings, 139.]

iii. Hamlet, Act III, Scene I. (William Shakespeare)

– "To be, or not to be. . ."

iv. Das Rheingold - Scene 1: Prelude (Richard Wagner)
. . . It symbolizes the primitive element, water, in state of repose; the water from which, according to the teaching of mythology, life springs complete with all its struggles and passions. During this long sustained note we hear the beginnings of life; but those are things which are outside the province of words, and which music alone, speaking without an intermediary to the intelligence, can hope to make us comprehend. [Lavignac, 343.]
Georg Solti conducting The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.

v. Fragments (Heraclitus)
  • X: Nature loves to hide.
  • L: As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them.
  • CIII: The way up and down is one and the same.

    Part II. The Problem of Knowledge

    Items i-iii cannot be adequately shared here. Their length and nature is such that to divide them is to destroy their messages. I have, though, written on 2001 and Solaris.

    i. 2001: A Space Odyssey (Stanley Kubrick)

    ii. Solaris (Andrei Tarkovsky)

    iii. Rashomon (Akira Kurosawa)

    Briefly to comment: Rashomon is a sort of hermeneutic riddle. What happened, and how do we interpret these descriptions of the events?

    iv. Claude Monet: Haystacks

    See the variations at Wikipedia.

    v. Four Quartets, II. East Coker. iii. (T. S. Eliot)

    You say I am repeating
    Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
    Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
    To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
    You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
    In order to arrive at what you do not know
    You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
    In order to possess what you do not possess
    You must go by the way of dispossession.
    In order to arrive at what you are not
    You must go through the way in which you are not.
    And what you do not know is the only thing you know
    And what you own is what you do not own
    And where you are is where you are not.

    vi. The School of Athens (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino)

    Causarum Cognitio, but how do we get it? The full painting is a sort of galaxy of philosophy, with other philosophers as constellations around the fundamental, intertwined, and yet opposing figures of Plato and Aristotle.

    See whole image at Wikipedia.

    Part III. The Divine Mystery

    i. Mass in B minor - Gloria - Duet: Domine Deus (J. S. Bach)

    The  canon "'neither confounds the Persons nor divides the substance', for the figure that is detached in one voice is slurred in the other." [Tovey, V. 38.]

    IV. Love

    i. Prelude to Tristan und Isolde

    An unfolding of themes, ceaselessly modulating. . . "the tension growing towards, and relaxing from, a climax of passion; and the passion is the love of Tristan and Isolde." [Tovey, IV. 125.)

    Zubin Mehta conducting Bayerische Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester


    Abert, Hermann. W. A. Mozart. Yale University Press. New Haven and New York. 2007.

    Hutchings, Arthur. A Companion to Mozart's Piano Concertos. Oxford University Press. New York. 1948.

    Lavignac, Albert. The Music Dramas of Richard Wagner and His Festival Theatre in Bayreuth. Dodd, Mead, and Company. New York. 1898. 

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume IV. Illustrative Music. "Tristan und Isolde. Prelude." Oxford University Press. 1965.

    Tovey, Donald Francis. Essays in Musical Analysis, Volume V. Vocal Music. "Bach. B Minor Mass." Oxford University Press. 1965.


    1. Wow! This would make the basis for a fantastic lecture--or better yet a week long seminar. I think it's fantastic that you are attempting the linkages you are--all interesting and full of opportunities for discussion. I agree with you about Beethoven but where do you start, I know. I might have included the whole of Gotterdammerung in Part I and it might be interesting to discuss whether Macbeth might fit in Part II. Thanks for making this wonderful effort--it deserves a lot more thought and study on my part before I start commenting!