Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Lurking Viciousness

For fourteen years during the nineties and the oaties, I helped grade the AP Music Theory exam. It was the best job I ever had -- after I got out of the FR7 room. On the question known as FR (for "Free response") 7, students are given a simple melody and asked to harmonize it in eighteenth-century style. A good number of students did quite well each year, but many others composed very strange music for their responses, harmonic combinations that often went beyond my ability to hear and that often did weird things to my mind, especially around siesta time in the hour before the afternoon break.

But some of the wrong answers became quite familiar. Every year the readers (in AP world, graders are called "readers") were amazed at how many times we saw the iii6-4 chord (pronounced "three six-four"). The major scale has seven different pitches: DO, RE, MI, FA, SO, LA, and TI. Each pitch can serve as the basis, or "root," of a chord, so we have seven chords: I, ii, iii, IV, V, vi, and vii°. Each of these seven chords can theoretically find any one of its three pitches in the bass; because I know people want to know this, I'll tell you that the symbols for those bass positions are 5-3, 6-3, and 6-4. The least common of the seven chords is iii; a typical beginning music-theory class probably never encounters a single one all year. The least common bass position is 6-4; all theory classes teach that only the I, IV, and V chords ever use the position and only in certain restricted situations. So why is it that so many students feel compelled to include in their harmonizations not one but multiple instances of the iii6-4? Musicians invented the bass-position symbols only in the seventeenth century, the roman-numeral symbols for the chords not until the nineteenth century. Yet for all the ages of human existence before then, the uncontrollable pull of the iii6-4 chord lay dormant within human nature, waiting for the object of its desire to be invented and then proscribed just so it could sing its weirdly harmonized siren song and lure young music students to destruction, or at least to a lower score on FR7.

In his story of Lucius Cornelius Sulla, a dictator of the Roman Republic and the leader of one of the factions in the terrible civil war that eventually brought on Julius Caesar and the Roman Empire, Plutarch mentions another kind of hidden temptation. Why do so many people of moderate temper become violent and ruthless upon achieving power, he asks? Is it a "real change and revolution in the mind," or is it a "lurking viciousness of nature" that reveals itself only in possessors of authority? If the first is the reason, the debasement depends partly on circumstances, and maybe some new leaders will escape by chance. If the second, then every person possesses the poison seed and plants it in dark soil the second he takes office.

This question is just one of many moral puzzles Plutarch investigates in his monumental collection of mini-biographies. In my reading this year, I've come across several more. For instance, in his story of Lysander, the Spartan general that ended the long Peloponnesian War, Plutarch says that ambitious leaders err in feeling jealousy for others of high reputation. They see these others, he says, as rivals in virtue when they should treat them as companions in a partnership that could make all the participants more virtuous; the wrong attitude just ends up hindering everybody from performing noble actions. I know a few college administrators who could benefit from pondering this pattern in interpersonal dynamics. (Thank goodness, Plutarch would never call human relationships "interpersonal dynamics.")

Earlier in the same story, Plutarch says that "moral habits, induced by public practices, are far quicker in making their way into men's private lives, than the failings and faults of individuals are in infecting the city at large." The evil whole, he says, easily corrupts its parts, whereas the the evil part meets resistance at every turn when trying to infect the healthy whole. I'm still pondering this one. Accepting the idea might suggest that we should attack institutional problems more readily than we rail at the misconduct of individuals. After all, no doubt "we" are the guardians of public morality. But then, how easy is it for a good part to influence a corrupt whole? Plutarch doesn't address that side of the issue here.

In his essay comparing Lysander and Sulla, Plutarch proposes a surprisingly republican theory about character: "As a vicious nature, though of an ancient stock, is dishonourable, it must be virtue itself, and not birth, that makes virtue honourable." He says this in defending and praising Lysander for changing the laws of Sparta to allow magistrates to come from more than just the leading families. Imagine how differently eighteenth-century Europe might have developed had the leaders of France and Great Britain thought through this little argument with Plutarch's clarity and then sincerely accepted its conclusion. Oh, but that's right, they were in power and suffering from a lurking viciousness of nature.

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