The Classical tradition: Confucius

We could discuss this more later, but I want to counterpose this approach, the oligarchical approach of making people stupid through music, to the Classical tradition of great thinkers of the past, who understood very well that great music is what makes people more intelligent.

You know that the most important person in the Chinese tradition is the famous philosopher Confucius, who presently is experiencing a big revival in China. As a matter of fact, there is a neo-Confucian revival, because the Chinese presently say that China must go back to the 5,000 years of history, and especially the 2,500 years of Confucian philosophy, to find the strength to deal with the problems of the present, and to use these cultural resources to make an important contribution to mankind today.

Now, Confucius wrote a lot about music, and he talked about music a lot in his discussions, where he said that one of the key notions of Confucian philosophy, on the one side, is ren, the question of love, but also li, which is the idea of man finding his place in the universe, of being in harmony with the universe. So, Confucius says that li gives man the right, gives him strength, and music makes him complete.

For Confucius, music had a function for the state. He said: “Music rises from the heart when it is touched by the external world. Therefore, sorrow will give you the sound when the sounds of the music are somber. Satisfaction: The sounds of the music are languorous and slow. Joy: The sounds are glorious. Anger: The sounds are harsh and strong. Piety: The sounds are simple and pure. Love: The sounds are gentle and sweet.

“These moods are produced by impact from the external world. Therefore, the ancient kings were ever careful about things that affect the human heart. They tried to guide the people’s ideas and aspirations by means of li, establish harmony in sounds by the means of music. Li, music, punishment, and government, have a common goal, which is to bring about the unity in the people’s heart, and carry out the principles of political order.

“Music arises from the human heart. When the emotions are touched, they are expressed in sounds. And when sounds take definite forms, we have music. Therefore, the music of a peaceful and prosperous country, is quiet and joyous, and the government is orderly. The music of a country in turmoil shows dissatisfaction and anger, and the government is chaotic.”

Now, what would you say about the governments of our present day, if you apply that measurement of music? “The music of a destroyed country shows sorrow and remembrance of the past.” Now, if you permit me to say it, that is Country and Western, because that has this sorrow of the past. “And the people are distressed. Thus we see music and government are directly connected with one another.”

In a very beautiful treatise on music, Confucius writes: “When the likes and dislikes are not properly controlled, and our conscious minds are distracted by the material world, we lose our true selves in the principle of reason, and nature is destroyed. When man is constantly exposed to the things of the material world which affects him, and does not control his likes and dislikes, then he becomes overwhelmed by the material reality, and becomes dehumanized, or materialistic. When a man becomes dehumanized or materialistic, then the principle of reason in nature is destroyed, and man is submerged in his own desires. From this arise rebellion, disobedience, cunning, and deceit, and general immorality. We have then a picture of the strong bullying the weak, the majority persecuting the minority, the clever ones deceiving the simple-minded, the physically strong going for violence, the sick and the crippled not being taken care of, and the aged and the young helpless and not cared for. This is the way of chaos.

“So music is connected with the principles of human conduct. Therefore, the animals,” says Confucius, “know sounds, but they do not know tones. He who understands music, comes very near to the understanding of li. And, if a man has mastered both li and music, we call him virtuous, because virtue is the mastery of fulfillment.”

Confucius says: “Truly great music shares the principle of harmony with the universe. When the soul is poor, things do not grow. When the fishing is not regulated according to the seasons, then fishes and turtles do not mature. When the climate deteriorates, animal and plant life degenerate, and when the world is chaotic, the rituals and the music become licentious. We find, then, a type of music that is rueful without restraint, and joyous without calm.

“Therefore, the superior man tries to create harmony in the human heart by a rediscovery of human nature, and tries to promote music as a means to the perfection of human culture. When such music prevails, and the people’s minds are led toward the right ideas and aspirations, we may see the appearance of a great nation. Character is the backbone of our human nature, and music is the flowering of character.”

Now, the point I want to make, is that there is a direct connection between music and the way society is organized. Please think back: The United States was the first country in history to adopt a representative republican system. And, in the famous U.S. Declaration of Independence, it states that each human being has inalienable rights, which nobody can take away.

Historically, that was very important, and it is still very important, because if the United States doesn’t function on that principle, there is no harmony in the rest of the world. So, citizens of the United States, whether they know it or not, have a much larger responsibility, simply because of that historical role which the United States has played, and must play. And you should remember the famous Federalist Papers of Alexander Hamilton, in which he asked, in the commentary, the gigantic question: Can men organize society in such a way that justice and freedom rule, or are we condemned forever, that arbitrary power of the strong and misery of the poor should prevail?

I’m saying that everything has to do with the kind of educational system, and the kinds of values which permeate a society, which will answer this question posed by Alexander Hamilton.

Let me say why we wanted the Thomanerchor not only to come to Washington, and sing beautifully, which you all can hear in the afternoon, but why we wanted to let you participate in the rehearsal of this choir, which, unfortunately, we now will not be able to see. But I attended a rehearsal several years ago, and I can only tell you: It gives an absolutely incredible insight into how people, children from a young age, 6, 7, 8 to 18, can acquire excellence. And, I wanted to integrate the question of musical excellence–because it is just one, but by no means the only area, in which excellence can be reached in education.