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Notes from readers.


John Ahern’s points (“The Alienated Man’s Guide to Modern Music,” Lent 2024) are well-taken, but it’s worth noting that his criticisms of Non-Classical Modern Music are categorically different from his criticism of Modern Classical Music (to adapt his taxonomy). The former he criticizes for its form and substance and the latter for its medium (which it happens to share with the former). If his intent is to criticize the medium of recorded music in toto, then let’s have that essay, fully developed. That’d be more instructive than sneaking in a trolling-adjacent condemnation of recorded Classical Music along with his explanations of the compositional deficiencies of Modern Non-Classical Music.

Peter Grace
La Cañada Flintridge, California

The author replies:

I appreciate the distinction between form and substance versus the medium. All of the formal features I noted in commercial popular music—the low-pass filters, the clapping, the ducking, and so forth—were not meant to be understood as compositional deficiencies but rather brilliant simulacra of sociality, out of reach behind the recording technology as if sealed behind glass. And so, when it comes to Classical Music, the form and substance, although they might begin as a kind of Rest, are rendered powerful tools of the Beat, thanks to the medium. As an example, take Schubert’s Fantasie in F minor for four hands: imagine, on the one hand, a connoisseur who watches a YouTube video of Argerich and Pletnev playing it and, on the other hand, two amateurs, overheard by no one, stumbling their way through the score at the piano and making a dog’s breakfast of it. The latter is a valiant blow struck against the Beat whereas the former is, at best, a shadow of the latter. At worst, the former may even be an insidious re-assertion of the Beat. It tantalizes the connoisseur with the possibility of harmonious music made through harmonious conviviality, but it is all behind the screen and the speakers, made all the more unattainable by the sensitive performance of Argerich and Pletnev.

Of course, I would be unjust not to acknowledge that many people experience recorded Classical Music in quite a different way—for them, the recordings are pretexts for and spurs toward a rich, social musical life. I strive to make that my own relationship to Classical Music (including, I admit, vinyl of Klemperer). For more specific critiques of recorded music as a medium, I have benefited from the work of Jacques Attali, Thomas Turino, and Jonathan Sterne.

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Paul J. Griffiths worries (“Against Human Flourishing,” Lent 2024) that all versions of human flourishing language and imaginary presuppose a rigid dualism between damage and repair. He suggests that such language indicates that we must learn about “what repairs us so that we can nurture it” and about “what damages us so that we can constrain or remove it” and that “damage without remainder can make no contribution to repair” and “is therefore immune to transfiguration.” Therein lies Griffiths’s principal concern with human flourishing: it fails to account for the intrinsic significance of stages of life that fall outside of our floruit or active period of life.

But is this true? Some flourishing research focuses also on the ways in which the experience of human frailty opens the possibility for otherwise inaccessible growth. While physical and mental function may be dimensions of flourishing, these are certainly not all that is discussed in this literature, which clearly extends also to character, virtue, meaning, and spiritual growth. Indeed, one may cultivate virtue and attain meaning and purpose in unique ways in the context of suffering and dying. We have thus noted elsewhere that “certainly there are aspects of well-being that are precluded by severe suffering, but suffering can also lead to personal and character growth and spiritual and religious transformation which itself may lead to, and constitute, a yet greater flourishing.”

Griffiths is right to highlight tensions between an Aristotelian-inspired, temporal account of well-being and Christian perspectives on death and the afterlife. But there is value in speaking of temporal flourishing just as there is value in ensuring good health care, social support, education, and law enforcement in human societies, notwithstanding the orientation of Christian life toward eternal beatitude. This is a feature, rather than a bug, of flourishing language, and one indeed present in Saint Thomas Aquinas’s understanding. Such language allows us to give due attention to temporal considerations while leaving open the possibility that all kinds and stages of human experience are open to spiritual transfiguration. It also allows us to acknowledge religion and spirituality as further constituting social goods that have positive personal, health, and social effects even in this life. This thereby allows us to find common ground with others, and to seek various temporal goods together, while also pointing towards the eternal.

Xavier Symons
The Human Flourishing Program
Harvard University

Tyler VanderWeele
Director of the Human Flourishing Program
Harvard University

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There’s a certain trend among conservative Christians that’s been gnawing at me for a few years now. I don’t know how to describe it, except that they’re really down on being nice. It’s not that they’re in favor of being mean; at least that’s not how they would put it. But they’re absolutely emphatic that being “nice” is not a virtue. I thought the anti-nice movement had begun to die down—until I saw Robert Wyllie’s essay (“Against Humanity,” Lent 2024).

Wyllie rebukes Charles Dickens, for example, because he makes no mention of the Incarnation and “offers sentiment rather than policy” in regards to the suffering of the poor. By the end, he has accused liberals (broadly defined) of the same error. “Liberals,” he writes, “sacrifice principle and policy to clutch the pearls of humanity.”

Well, let’s say this about that. First of all, Dickens offers a bit more than mere sentiment. At the end of the story, the Ghost of Christmas Future shows Scrooge a vision of his own grave. Moved by this memento mori to a contemplation of the Last Things, he gives Bob Cratchit a raise, allowing him to pay for the care needed to save Tiny Tim’s life. Paying one’s employees a decent salary so they can afford health care seems like pretty sound policy to me. But I know there’s a certain kind of socialist who gets angry when the rich are benevolent towards the poor—just as there’s a certain kind of capitalist who gets angry when government programs do what they’re supposed to. That’s not charity, though. It’s not justice. It’s ideology.

Secondly, does anyone think that we as a society suffer from a glut of amiability? Is our civilization being crushed beneath the weight of our mild benevolence? When you go out in public—to work, or study, or shop, or whatever—are you suffocated by strangers’ easy kindness?

Thirdly—and most importantly—“niceness” is an integral part of the ordinary praxis of the Christian faith. Saint Paul himself commands the Ephesians to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you.” Likewise, he tells the Colossians: “As the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering, bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do.”

It’s true, as some might point out, that the Psalm also says, “Let the righteous strike me; It shall be a kindness.” This is why the Roman Church lists rebuking the sinner among its Spiritual Works of Mercy. True kindness—true charity—sometimes means confronting our loved ones about some grave sin and helping them to repent. But this is not the ordinary expression of kindness.

Wyllie also mocks Dickens’s “philanthropic dream.” As it happens, one of the titles of God used in the Eastern Church is “lover of mankind”—in Greek, philanthropos. This is from the Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. It doesn’t get much more traditional than that.

“Niceness” is not something that infected the Church from the outside. It’s one of Christianity’s great gifts to Western civilization. True, as our society becomes unchurched, much of the traditional theological context of our Christian values is stripped away. The values themselves, which were once fundamental to our social order, have become watered down or perverted. And niceness is one of them. But attacking “humanity” because it’s abused by secular liberals is like saying that the problem with gay marriage is marriage. Liberals get lots of things wrong, but this isn’t one of them. Jesus taught love, and the most basic expression of love is kindness.

Michael Warren Davis
Goffstown, New Hampshire

The author replies:

Any self-professed Chestertonian who finds it unpleasant to be reminded of Charles Dickens: A Critical Study ought to take that one up with the master. Can that book have been forgotten where pipes are smoked and tweed is worn? I’m sorry, but don’t shoot the messenger.

I live in Ashland, Ohio, the “World Headquarters of Nice People.” But I answer to Dickens’s description of the Ohioan: “invariably morose, sullen, clownish, and repulsive.” My neighbors’ amiability oppresses me. Off-putting tomfoolery is my only outlet. Dickens tried to warn you!

Abide a little clowning around (is it really so repulsive?), and you shall be pleased to find “Against Humanity” shifts the goalposts. My target is the perfidious doctrine of sola humanitate, that lone cardinal virtue of liberals ancient and modern. We make the shrillest demands of ordinary humanity, stretching it to absurd lengths, to the detriment of other virtues, and thus disfigure that most extraordinary thing—true charity.

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