Mediocrity or Noble Life

I have mulled over a passage of Aristotle’s for a long time:

[The philosopher] would prefer a short period of intense pleasure to a long one of mild enjoyment, a twelvemonth of noble life to many years of humdrum existence, and one great noble action to many trivial ones (Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, Book IX. 8)

In general, this strikes me as a striving for excellence.  So the philosopher seeks intense pleasure, he seeks 12 months of a noble life verses many years of an ordinary life, and one great deed of nobility than average acts.

To some degree, I have lived along these lines.  In my 20’s I sat in my room reading the texts assigned to me by my professors while my peers were out partying.  During my commitment to my Ph.D program, I endured 8 years of poverty in the noble pursuit (as I saw it) of higher education.  After graduation, I spent much of my free time from my job, over a two-year period, writing a substantial book about love and spirituality, which, to my great delight, was published.  Why I think this relates to Aristotle, is that I forewent ordinary life pleasures, such as munching on popcorn in front of the tube in my efforts to pursue a more noble calling.  While my peers were partying, I was sacrificing good times for what I fancied to be a more noble life.

But Aristotle’s quote is especially relevant to a bus ride I recently underwent.  My bus ride home from a work trip took 4 hours.  To pass the time, I listened to my iPod.  At first, I was content to listen to pop music, then some jazz.  But I felt an ache in my soul for greater depth.  This ache took the form of a longing to listen to Beethoven.  I decided on his Mass in C, conducted by Sir Colin Davis, who also conducted my recording of Handel’s Messiah.  I had listened to the Mass in C several times in the past, but my mind usually wandered.  This time I really wanted to discover what Beethoven was doing.  Now that I am writing horn arrangements for my original compositions, I was particularly interested in Beethoven’s orchestrations.  This interest in orchestration gave me a new handle on how to listen to Beethoven.  And this time I followed the first two movements assiduously.  And my efforts were rewarded.  I was uplifted, moved, and also entertained.  I was brought into a better place through intense listening to Beethoven.  Beethoven did much more for my soul than did the pop music I had just passed time listening to.  That was the difference, I passed time with the pop music.  I listened to Beethoven.

Listening to classical music is a commitment.  It requires setting aside about a 40-minute time block to allow the composer to lead you through the whole piece.  You can’t just turn off the radio after a few minutes, or change stations.  The composer has worked out a 40-minute “argument”–if you will.  And to understand what the composer is doing requires commitment to that 40 minutes.

What I am writing about can sound like snobbery.  This is an age in which elitism in all forms are out of favor.  An age in which one can study “pop culture” in university graduate programs.  The attempt is to democratize knowledge and art.  But I think that it does make sense to speak of great art.  And the word “great” does not mean “snob.”  A person is a snob when he or she looks down on people who don’t share high-minded ideals.  I believe in the commonality of all souls, as I also believe that noble works are worth dedicating my life to.  I don’t think less of people who listen to pop music.  But I find Beethoven more rewarding and worth the time he requires.

Finally, it is not possible to spend an entire life with only Beethoven, Shakespeare, Plato and Aristotle, researching and writing, and in romantic ecstasy.  That would be like eating only chocolate all the time.  Chocolate is good, but no one wants a steady diet of it.  I watch TV, munch on popcorn, listen to Drake, and surf the net.  But I also put aside 40 minutes, sometimes, to dedicate special time to a Bach cantata or fugue, or a Beethoven symphony, or to labor through a Shakespeare play.  There is a place for noble works; time devoted to great art is rewarding; there are higher forms of delight than partying.


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