I've been reading a number of commentaries on the attacks in Paris on Friday night. A couple of them referred to "enlightenment values" as being something we are, or should be, defending against this kind of barbarism. This is an underlying theme of this blog, though it may not always be evident. The Music Salon is an advocate of reasoned argument, free speech, Western civilization, English common law and that whole panoply of things sometimes called Western Civilization.
We are, therefore, opposed to those elements in the contemporary university that chant things like "Western Civ has got to go!" For one thing, classical music is an integral part of "Western Civ" and the appreciation and promotion of classical music is our main priority. But we take a broader view than that even. Another project or interest here is philosophy, the repository of wisdom in the West (meaning Europe and the New World). Not to say that there are not fonts of wisdom elsewhere, such as in Chinese and Indian philosophy, but they are not as central to the intellectual and cultural tradition that I feel part of: Western Civilization.
I have commented in the past that in some ways my favorite century for music is the 18th century that began with the spectacular and rich music of people like Vivaldi and Bach and ended with the astonishing brilliance, grace and power of the music of people like Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven. It was also a century in which so much was written of profound and civilized wisdom. This included things like Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1755, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, published in 1776, David Hume's A Treatise of Human Nature, published in 1739, Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published between 1776 and 1789, and a host of other writings and discoveries in nearly every field of human endeavor including, especially science, politics and economics.
It is perhaps the case that that aspect of the Enlightenment that critiqued religion has been the most problematic as there are those who might trace some of our current difficulties to the loss of a religious sense or spirit in society, but that is not my feeling. It is certainly the case, however, that the enlightenment did offer a critique of religion and some aspects, such as Hume's critique of miracles and Gibbon's of the role of Christianity in the decline of the Roman Empire, were telling. But philosophy and religion have long had an awkward relationship going right back to Plato's first Socratic dialogue, the Euthyphro which poses the very difficult question, do the gods condemn murder because it is wrong, or is murder wrong because the gods condemn it?
In some senses the Enlightenment, like the earlier Renaissance, consisted in part of the rediscovery of certain aspects of philosophy and culture that originated with the ancient Greeks. The power and role of reason is a crucial one, of course, but so were the literary genres of epic and lyric poetry, tragedy and comedy and, of course, philosophy and history. It can never be emphasized enough that all these, and including things like ethics, aesthetics, political science, music theory and many other disciplines were all, all, invented or discovered by the Greeks. Aristotle's six treatises on logic went unchallenged for over two thousand years until other forms of logic were discovered in the late 19th century.
In one particularly ironic historic event, the invention of opera in Florence around 1600 was an attempt to recreate the use of music to accompany tragic drama as was done in ancient Greece. They had to invent something entirely new because while we have the texts to the Greek tragedies, the music has been lost.
All this is to underline that while there have been many dislocating and alienating trends in art and culture in the last century or so, the foundations of Western Civilization are still those that I catalogue above. The various heresies and totalitarianisms of the 20th century were in fact defeated, even though their mutated offspring seem to continue to pop up now and again.
The long rival and opposition to Western Civilization is Oriental Despotism and by "long" I mean that it goes back to the Greco-Persian Wars of the 5th century BC. If the hugely outnumbered Greeks had not won those wars, Western Civilization might never have come to be, certainly not in its present form. The successor to Persia, as far as competition with the West is concerned, was and is Islam and we have been at war with various forms of Islam since the 8th century AD. One crucial moment was a battle fought in 732 in Poitiers in southern France where the Muslim army was beaten by Charles Martel, halting the conquest of Western Europe. Another crucial moment was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 when the Ottoman fleet was defeated by the Holy League, a coalition of maritime Catholic states. Yet another was the Battle of Vienna in 1683 when the imperial city of Vienna was besieged for two months by the Ottoman Empire.
Turkish or Ottoman music appeared in pieces by Mozart and Beethoven for some time after.
The point of mentioning this dusty history is that Europe was under existential threat from various entities of Islam for nearly a thousand years, between the 8th century and the 17th century. Spain was partly a possession of Islam until 1492. The Balkans were possessions of the Ottoman Empire until late in the 19th century and not completely free until after the First World War.
Between 1683 and the 1970s, Islam, at least as an aggressive, invading force, was largely moribund. But the huge oil revenues that came to the Middle East after the Second World War and a revival of radical Islam, one example of which was the Iranian Revolution of 1979 which brought to power the Ayatollah Khomeini, has seen a revival of Islamic aggression. Since then, various radical factions such as al-Qaeda and ISIS have began a new terrorist champaign against the West.
Unfortunately their campaign against Western Civilization seems to be aided and abetted by trends within our culture that both weaken and dilute the moral and cultural authority of Western Civilization and empathize with Islam, members of whom are perceived as being "oppressed". Well, sure they are, but not by us. No, indeed, it is Islam itself that oppresses its own people.
But it is not our responsibility to free them from its yoke. No indeed. Our duty and plain and simple self-interest is to protect Western Civilization and Enlightenment values from being attacked, destroyed, eroded or diluted by forces from without or from within.
Ask any citizen of Paris this morning.
The obvious envoi for this post is Mozart's Abduction from the Seraglio: