Spinoza, Bach, and Democracy

Daniel Barenboim : Music Quickens Time

Daniel Barenboim : Music Quickens Time

Spinoza: Ethica

Spinoza: Ethica

Spinoza, in the Scholium to Proposition 35 in Part II of his Ethics says: “men are deceived in that they think themselves free …, an opinion which consists only in this, that they are conscious of their actions and ignorant of the causes by which they are determined.”

Daniel Barenboim has, in his 2008 collection of essays, Music Quickens Time, an essay devoted to his experience of Spinoza’s Ethics.

In this essay, Barenboim writes that Spinoza leads one to observe that as “human beings we must acknowledge that we are individually all equally finite in relation to the infinite depth of human nature. Paradoxically, the essence of our finitude is precisely our striving to exist forever, to become infinite.”

Barenboim also writes that “Spinoza’s Ethics is the best training ground for the intellect, above all because Spinoza teaches the radical freedom of thought more completely than any other philosopher.”

This is made evident in the profound interrelationship among all art; and that, in a sense, that interrelationship is one that is parallel the natural one our bodies dwell in. The application of intellect is quite clear, for example, in the music of Bach. Barenboim remarks: “The task of the performing musician, then, is not to express the music as such, but to aim to become a part of it.”  As one listens to the opening prelude of the first Book of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, there is an palpable sense, physically and mentally felt, of encounter. But when one begins to understand that that opening C major prelude is the doorway to the 47 preludes and fugues that follow, it becomes not a moment of sound but a constant of awareness. Moreover, in time it becomes clear that the prelude foreshadows the subject of the fugue, and that the nature of fugue goes beyond technical construction to the condition of question and answer.

Bach Prelude in C, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Bach Prelude in C, Well-Tempered Clavier, Book I

Pablo Casals said he liked to start each morning with a walk beside the sea and then play two of Bach’s preludes and fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier before beginning the day’s work. After having experimented with this, I am beginning to understand why this assists a person so profoundly.
The need and effect of radical freedom of thought applies to the workings of society as well.

Barenboim points out that there is “a significant difference between spontaneity, or flexibility, and a lack of conception, or strategic thought.” Flexibility is what is required “to adjust … ideas of what must be done to the current reality,” and this applies imperatively to democracy.

The original Greek manifestation of democracy has been lost. “In ancient Greece, only the sages of society could vote and determine the government’s course of action for the public good. Today we made the right to vote ubiquitous, and very rightly so, but have denied the voters the opportunity of a complete education. The political world of today is modern only in its outward manifestations; technology has made communications far more efficient, which unfortunately has led to an exploitation and manipulation of the uneducated population. The average voter in our society is not well versed in any of the arts or sciences—which were, according to ancient Greek thought, so essential to any understanding of government—and is unable to think beyond the present and the immediate future to understand fully the consequences of political action. The result is a doubly poor society in which politicians are forced to act tactically rather than strategically in order to remain in power long enough to make any changes and the public is manipulated while remaining ignorant about the most vital issues.”

160424 Contemplating Casals, English Bay, Vancouver

Contemplating Casals, English Bay, Vancouver. Morning, 24 April 2016. Photo: Hendrik Slegtenhorst

Taking this as his point of departure, Barenboim writes that this “Spinozan brand of freedom is not a release from discipline into arbitrariness of thought, but an active process.” Determining, and thus causing, one’s own thoughts creates one’s own experience of reality; the more so, the more free. This is not the Western freedom of choice—where to live, what to read, what to select—but a freedom dependent upon awareness of one’s appetites. Otherwise, one is enslaved to these appetites, and does not possess the power of self-direction in thought and action.

Barenboim makes a key observation of the relationship between analysis of the form and the artistic architecture of a work and the imagination to create or recreate a work; that is, that an intellectual understanding of the former is essential to the workings of the imagination.

Hans Selye

Hans Selye

Further, this form of what he terms “liberated thinking” is all the more valuable in our “era in which political systems, social constraints, moral codes and political correctness often control our thinking,” the construction of “a system of belief that renders the act of questioning futile.” The effort to question is “the most powerful weapon available against dogma; the very idea of search requires the will and courage to learn in stages without any guarantee of acquiring knowledge at the end of the process.”

Dmitri Shostakovich, in later life (Courtesy: www.findagrave.com

Dmitri Shostakovich, in later life (Courtesy: http://www.findagrave.com

I find a similar perspective in the work of Hans Selye and the compositions of Dmitri Shostakovich. Reason, according to Spinoza, “should pervade all thought, emotion and human activity.” I have heard the call to emotion to be claimed as the overriding influence on one’s actions and decisions, even from within my own family, and over a lifetime, from my self as well; but as I assess the consequences of such an approach, it becomes clear that they are either not sufficiently desirable, or plainly erroneous, and too often a path without exit or gain or progress.


One thought on “Spinoza, Bach, and Democracy

  1. Interesting insight from Barenboim. I see what you mean, esp. when listening to the Goldberg variations: that simple Aria and what it is announcing to come.


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