Saturday, February 6, 2016

Simplified History

I’m teaching the History of Western Music Theory this semester. It’s a difficult class to teach and to take, but one that I love. The story of music theory draws a thread through the sweep of western civilization that ties together the histories of mathematics, science, philosophy, aesthetics, education, politics, and economics. It covers so much ground and involves so many complexities, no one person has ever tried to write a comprehensive book on the subject. So to understand it and to teach it, I have to simplify. As if taking a rich super-HD picture (those nature videos on the TVs at Costco look pretty amazing) and pixelating it to a vague outline that makes sense if yu squint hard enough, I try to back-burner a lot of the details and round off most of the dates. I know that the true story is more complicated than what I memorize, but I also know that I wouldn’t remember it if I tried to assimilate all the messy details into my basic mental picture.

Sometimes I find out that my simplified history of some particular topic focuses on the wrong detail. I first learned about the date 1453, for instance, in my History of Theory course during my doctoral study. (You can read about my relationship with that date here.) I held on to that date as a watershed moment in the history of religion, political borders, scholarship, and philosophy for thirty years and then found out that 1439, the year of the Council of Florence, was perhaps the more important year in that story. Thank you, Will Durant! I’ll be teaching both dates and their significance to my class in just a couple of weeks, and then I’ll remind them that the real picture is more complex than this simple collage of just two snapshots. But still, I’ll emphasize 1439 as the date for them to remember.

Every once in a while, I teach a simplified vision of some historical development and discover a better view in time to tell the class about it. But I don’t remember this ever happening in a single day before. Just this past Monday, we discussed a chapter on medieval music theory that said, “In a civilization that could all too easily have taken a turn” toward censorship, Augustine validated the study of pagan literature and philosophy. In explaining that line, we discussed what medieval Christian Europe was like and how influential Augustine was (and is). The simple tale I offered explained that the Empire became officially Christian and fell at essentially the same time (according to my loose system of round dates), which also happened to be the time of Augustine’s writing. Since the Fall of Rome ushers in the Middle Ages in my Simplified History (TM), and since in that same blocky view Augustine’s influence enjoyed universal and immediate acknowledgement, Christian Europe just accepted ancient Pagan writing with no qualms.

That very day at lunch, I started reading this year’s selection from Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. There I read that in the span between the decree of Theodosius making Christianity the official religion of the Empire (in 391) and the appearance of the first parts of Augustine’s On Christian Doctrine (397), Christians displayed a triumphalism over paganism that made me quite uncomfortable. For instance, where Theodosius was happy simply to ban sacrifices to Jupiter and his pantheon, Christian bishops – including Augustine’s mentor, Ambrose – led a crusade to destroy the temples themselves. In Alexandria, they sacked the library, an act of vandalism that Gibbon found especially lamentable. So the messier truth is that Christian Europe did in fact take that turn for a few years. It seems obvious now. Augustine didn’t start saying that all truth is God’s truth and that Christians should accept whatever good they find in the eloquently written classics just on a whim. He didn’t promote his view in response to a couple of polite questions from the more studious members of his congregation. No, he wrote what he wrote in an attempt to halt a continent-wide, fear-fueled campaign of senseless destruction. We can be thankful that his efforts met with success.

Coincidences like this one (if not always quite so spectacular) meet me often on the journey through my reading plan. Yesterday, in listening to a biography of the sixth President of the United States, I learned that John Quincy Adams read Gibbon’s masterwork while serving as U. S. Ambassador to Prussia. Like a traveling lover buoyed by the thought that he and his beloved are looking at the same moon, I enjoyed thinking I that the book I had read that very day linked me with this most learned of American Presidents. But then I heard that he read it at a clip of fifty pages a day, and I had to stop my private back-patting session. It takes my entire lunch hour to read only six pages.

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