Spengler at PJ Media writes an even better-crafted essay titled "A Thoughtless Age" reflecting on this one:When properly conceived and taught, the liberal arts do not by themselves make us “better people” or (God knows) more “human.” They don’t exist to make us more “liberal,” at least in the contemporary political sense. But the liberal arts can do something no less wonderful: They can open our eyes.They show us how to look at the world and the works of civilization in serious and important and even delightful ways. They hold out the possibility that we will know better the truth about many of the most important things. They are the vehicle that carries the amazing things that mankind has made—and the memory of the horrors that mankind has perpetrated—from one age to the next. They teach us how to marvel.
So much of the great classical literature deals with moral questions. I always think of Plato's great Socratic dialogue, the Euthyphro where Socrates, on the way to his own indictment runs into Euthyphro on the porch of the King Archon who is there to file the charge of murder against his own father. In questioning Euthyphro Socrates comes up with one of the greatest moral questions of all: do the gods (or God) condemn murder because it is wrong? Or is murder wrong because the gods condemn it?Western culture has become inaccessible to the general public because we have lost the ability to see the world through the eyes of those who created it. A generation ago, the literary critic Harold Bloom complained in The Western Canon that it no longer was possible to teach English literature to undergraduates because they lacked the cultural references to make sense of it: imagine reading Moby Dick without knowing who Ishmael and Ahab were in the Bible, or Joyce’s Ulysses without knowing that someone named Homer had written an epic about a certain Odysseus. (Outside the English realm, Bloom is guilty of the same sort of ignorance, but that is a different matter).There is a deeper problem, though: Why should we read works by long-dead authors with concerns entirely different than ours, and if we should, how can we do so?
Aesthetic questions, as David Hume realized, are philosophically rather similar to moral questions and both are vulnerable to fashionable claims of relativism: everything you do is a lifestyle choice whether it is to murder the innocent or listen to bad music. One of the great aesthetic authorities on music, Duke Ellington, once said that there are only two kinds of music: good music and bad music. With the greatest possible irony, I note that the two words you are least likely to read in any music criticism these days are the words "good" and "bad". I honestly think that Alex Ross of the New Yorker would rather drive knitting needles into his ears than describe a piece of music as either good or bad!
Spengler's essay delves quite deep into the purposes of art and culture and ends with a challenge to some of my own views:
To some extent, the conservative movement is to blame for the suicide of the liberal arts, through its embrace of Matthew Arnold and the cult of “culture” as a substitute for religion. Apart from the fact that Arnold was a dreadful poet, and said nothing that had not been said better three generations earlier by Friedrich Schiller, he has the whole thing backwards. The great works of high culture arose in the first place from the existential concerns of religion, and are incomprehensible without it. To propose culture as a substitute for religion is a contradiction in terms.I confess that, in my own life, music often acts as a substitute for religion. I make the claim that I just don't have a religious sense, but an aesthetic one instead. But perhaps this is balderdash and I just don't understand religion. For me the great works of music tend to be clustered in the 18th century, spilling over a bit into the 19th century and it is hard to see them as other than linked somehow to the great liberations of the Enlightenment. I wonder which of us has the right of it? Myself or Spengler?
The appropriate work to act as envoi to this post is probably the opera by Mozart, Don Giovanni, that a lot of Spengler's discussion focuses on. This is the Chorus of De Nederlandse Opera & Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, dir. Nikolaus Harnoncourt (1988):