The great Ludwig Van Beethoven said, “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
I’m guessing most people would applaud this notion.
Beethoven wasn’t a philosopher. He was a musician.
His opinion was biased.
Lots of people’s opinions are. Even a philosopher’s opinions are.
If you haven’t noticed, philosophers have lots of opinions about lots of things – life, death, morality, good, evil, God – all the “important” stuff. Name any issue and a philosopher has got something to say about it. Anything.
I guess it would surprise absolutely no one that philosophers have something to say about the not-so-important stuff, too. Like movies and sports; even music. This is what a couple of philosophers had to say about music:
The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote “Without music, life would be a mistake.”
The French writer and philosopher Voltaire wrote “Anything too stupid to be said is sung.”
Their opinions were biased, too.
Both men are absolutely right.
As a matter of fact, so is Beethoven.
A few weeks ago, I watched The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2. There’s a character in the movie named Chop Top. Chop Top is Leatherface’s brother.
Leatherface is the guy with the chainsaw.
Chop Top was in Vietnam when the first movie happened.
That’s why you didn’t see him until the second movie.
Chop Top tells a late-night radio disc jockey, right before he attempts to bludgeon her with a hammer, “music is my life.”
I think he was paraphrasing Nietzsche.
As thinks turn out, philosophers tend to think that music is our life, too.
A long time ago, way before Nietzsche said it, the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates said that music is important to our lives. Socrates’ reason had something to do with the idea that music possesses a unique quality to influence the way that we think and act. Socrates argues music can stimulate the wrong kind of emotions in some people. If we listen to the wrong music, Socrates says, the wrong kind of music teaches us to prefer a life of frivolity instead of appreciating the serious philosophical pursuit of wisdom. We can become intemperate, cowardly, learn bad habits like drinking, and develop a taste for merriment.
The PMRC weren’t the first people to believe music can make you do bad things. That Kind of thinking goes back quite a long way. Socrates wrote:
“rhythm and harmony most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul… they make a man graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.”
The purpose for music, Socrates says, is to encourage the development of a good soul. According to Socrates, “…good speech, good harmony… and good rhythm accompany a good disposition.” The right kind of music, Socrates says, enables a man to develop the “right kind of dislikes” and an appreciation for the fine things. Through listening to the right kind of music a man becomes a gentleman …a philosopher.
Socrates declares that all bad music should be banned. The only music people should be allowed to listen to is music that encourages good emotions and virtuous behavior; music that teaches people to be courageous and temperate; to develop a warlike disposition and to encourage people love the gods and act for the good of the state.
This is why Socrates says music is important.
If one’s behavior is any indication of what kind of music one listens to, it’s clear that Chop Top was listening to the wrong kind of music.
Probably music like this:
Socrates probably would not approve of the song “Me So Horny”…. I think.
Now, I know that there are things (like music) that not only influence who we are, but may be indicative of the kind of person we are. In his book Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell writes that we can tell a lot about a person from a “blink” or first impression. We don’t even have to meet an individual to tell what a person is like. All we have to do to figure out a person, says Gladwell, is to take a glance at what’s on their walls, their bookshelf or in their music collection.
Take a look at my bookshelf.
This is what my bookshelf looks like:
I have a lot of philosophy books on my bookshelf.
At first glance, you might assume that I like to read philosophy books and thinking about things philosophically. If you made that assumption you’d be right.
Socrates would be pleased.
Although an assumption about an individual’s disposition based on one’s reading material may seem like a sure shot, using one’s musical preferences as an indication of one’s personality may not be as cut and dry. Unless you’re an Emo or a metalhead it may be difficult to tell how the music one listens to influences us. There are plenty of closeted Metallica and My Chemical Romance fans; people whose musical tastes and disposition appear to be incongruent. Still, we’d be wrong to say that music bears no affect on who we are and what we do. After all, the way a song or musical artist makes us feel is what draws us to listen to a particular song or artist.
Now, knowing what philosophers have to say about the effect of music on the kind of person we are, what exactly does the kind of music we listen to have to say about us philosophically? If Socrates is correct, and music does have the power to shape one’s character, can a person’s philosophical outlook be identified by simply glancing at what kind of music a person listens to?
If we glanced at a person’s music collection could we differentiate a Socrates from a Chop Top?
More importantly, what does the music I listen to have to say about my philosophical disposition?
Can you tell just by looking at my music collection?
First off, I would say that, if you met me face to face and I had to define my personal philosophical beliefs, I would define them as follows: I would say that I’m an existentialist. I would describe my ethics as ethical egoist with a slight tinge of Kantian ethics (I call it Kantian Egoism). I would add that am an empiricist (which means I’m also a materialist). And as for what I think about God, well, let’s say that my religious disposition as apatheist.
Having said all that, this is my music library:
I know it’s a little bit difficult to see it from here, but there’s quite a bit of Steely Dan loaded up in there.
Yeah I said it. I admit, without any fear of seeming pretentious, I am a fan of The Dan.
Ok, I know. When (or rather if) one thinks of Steely Dan and you’re not a fan of William Burroughs, one will almost assuredly and immediately conjure up visions of over-educated, faded hipster, college-types (who spent too much time in college or at least too much time chasing co-eds) who quote Sartre, paraphrase Nietzsche, drink brands of hard liquor no one has ever heard of, and carry around a dog-eared copy of Camus’ The Stranger in the pocket of a well-worn, cigarette or marijuana (or both) aroma-soaked, vintage leather jacket.
Thinking about it, that’s not a wholly incorrect stereotype of the average Steely Dan fan.
What else would one expect of a fan of a band named after a dildo?
If you know a fan of The Dan, you’re probably already well aware that Steely Dan’s fans have a habit of pontificating.
There is a legit reason why Steely Dan is often associated with overthinking. And no, it really has nothing to do with pretentiousness. It’s because Steely Dan songs are philosophical.
To the point: Steely Dan songs are very existentialist.
Don’t roll your eyes. And stop laughing. They are. Really.
For those of you who have no idea what an existentialist is, an existentialist is a person who adheres to the philosophical theory of Existentialism. Existentialism is:
… the name given to the branch of philosophy which is concerned with the meaning of human existence – its aims, its significance and overall purpose – and the freedom and creative response to life made by individuals.
If you listen to a Steely Dan album or two (really, you should listen to all of them), it becomes pretty clear that Steely Dan songs like “Hey, Nineteen”, “Deacon Blues”, and “Home At Last” include lyrics about common existentialist themes such as life, relationships, sex, self-reflection, drugs, getting old, and death.
Actually, “Home At Last” is supposed to be about Homer’s The Odyssey.
See, I told you there was some thinking in there.
In the song “Deacon Blues” from the Steely Dan album Aja (1977), Donald Fagen sings:
I’ll learn to work the saxophone
I play just what I feel
Drink Scotch whiskey all night long
And die behind the wheel
They got a name for the winners in the world
I want a name when I lose
They call Alabama the Crimson Tide
Call me Deacon Blues
Besides discovering one’s life achievements pale by comparison to the famed University of Alabama football team (nicknamed the Crimson Tide), “Deacon Blues”, with its lyrics about finding and defining one’s self, embodies the existentialist principle “Existence precedes essence”. According to existentialist philosophy our selves are not determined by God, nature, society, or our parents; we choose who we want to be (i.e. we determine who we are – our essence). We are born as physical entities (i.e. exist) then we define what meaning our purpose our lives will have. The French existentialist philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980), says:
Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself; that he is alone, abandoned on earth in the midst of his infinite responsibilities, without help, with no other aim than the one he sets himself, with no other destiny than the one he forges for himself on this earth.
Walter Becker (of Steely Dan) says:
The protagonist is not a musician. He just sort of imagines that would be one of the mythic forms of loserdom to which he might aspire and um, you know, whose to say that he’s not right in a thing like that?
Indeed, if we look at the lyrics of “Deacon Blues”, we should think of the existentialist idea that we make choices in our lives, and that we are accountable for the consequences of our actions.
Who we are, our identity, is the product of our own creation .
The song says Call me Deacon Blues.
I’m sure that many music experts will say that “Deacon Blues” isn’t about existentialism at all, but when I hear the song I think of Sartre’s declaration that “Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.”
Especially when I hear the line “This brother is free. I’ll be what I want to be”.
The thing is I wasn’t always a fan of Steely Dan. When I was in high school, I was a pretty mopey kid.
Actually, I was downright pessimistic.
I could have been the subject of an Emily Dickenson poem.
Back when I was in high school (This was the early 1990s, mind you. Ugh! That makes me feel positively geriatric!), if you moped about and wore black as much as I did, it was pretty obvious what kind of music you were likely to listen to.
To be honest, I still wear black these days… because it’s slimming.
Back then, the particular subgenre of goth music every kid who moped around like me listened to could be identified by its raven-haired lead singer. Some kids listened to The Cure. They looked like a Robert Smith.
This is what The Cure’s fans look like:
Other kids listened to Siouxie and the Banshees. Some kids listened to Ministry, The Cramps, Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire or Alien Sex Fiend. Some kids went old school and listened to eighties old-school synthpop artists like Soft Cell and Gary Numan.
My raven-haired lead-singered band of choice was nine inch nails.
Or NIN, if you like.
Ok, I know. First Steely Dan, now nine inch nails (and yes, I’m using the appropriate small-case letters). I know what you’re thinking. Stop thinking that. My musical preferences do not suggest that I’m a pretentious person.
However, the fact that I write a blog does.
But I digress.
If anyone was around and watching MTV in the mid-nineties, you couldn’t watch MTV for more than a half hour without seeing some angst-ridden, heroin chic-looking, alternative band front man whining his way through 4 minutes and 38 seconds of music video.
That would explain why nine inch nails was in fairly heavy rotation.
Wait, I know. Nine inch nails isn’t goth.
And I know it’s not industrial, either.
Philosophers know these things.
A quasi-industrial, somewhat goth rock band (or is it artist because it’s just one guy?) like nine inch nails may be difficult to categorize musically but it’s easier than a goth girl at Lollapalooza 1991 to figure which philosophical school of thought nine inch nails belongs to.
Everybody say it together. 1…2…3…
Nihilism, according to Webster’s New College Dictionary, Nihilism (from the Latin nihil: nothing) is:
The belief that all existence is senseless and that there is no possibility of an objective basis of truth
Nihilism is most associated with this guy
AND HE SAID:
Nihilism is Nihilism: any aim is lacking, any answer to the question “why” is lacking. What does nihilism mean?—that the supreme values devaluate themselves.
Nihilism’s themes of self-destruction, self-loathing, loss of values, hopelessness and despair is pretty much the theme of every nine inch nails song.
Seriously, name any song. Nietzsche’s philosophy is there.
“terrible lie”? Yup. Nietzsche. “hurt”? Title pretty much says it all. “happiness in slavery”? Check. “wish”? Yeah. “somewhat damaged”? Uh-huh. “everyday is exactly the same”? Yeah, Nietzsche is there, too.
Well, there is that one song about double rainbows, kittens, and blooming flowers.
I’m kidding. No there isn’t.
For a minute you felt like googling to see if there is, didn’t you?
Trent Reznor even quotes Nietzsche’s infamous (and often misused) quote “God is dead” in the song “heresy” on the 1994 album the downward spiral. Reznor sings (or is it yells?):
“God is dead and no one cares. If there is a hell, I’ll see you there.”
Not quite exactly what Nietzsche said, but you get the idea.*
Albert Camus (1913-60) said “Nihilism is not only despair and negation, but above all the desire to despair and to negate.”
Check out these lyrics to the song “piggy” (from the downward spiral):
Nothing can stop me now
I don‘t care anymore.
Nothing can stop me now
I just don’t care.
Does that sound like a sentiment that is not only despair and negation but also the desire to despair and negate to you?
Does to me.
Ok, that sounds pretentious.
You know something? Even though Nietzsche is most associated with nihilism he is often considered an existentialist philosopher.
Wow. I guess that confirms what I told you at the beginning of this blog about being an existentialist.
But I guess I really didn’t need to look at my current favorite band or the bands I liked in high school to know that. I could have started with the first band I ever declared was my favorite: The Beatles.
Not only were The Beatles the first boy band (They were! Don’t deny it), John Lennon and Paul McCartney remain one of music’s most successful and influential songwriting duos of all time. But, more importantly – yes, you guessed it –
Lennon and McCartney might not have realized it, but they were laying down some pretty heavy philosophy.
… Along with a lot of LSD.
I guess philosophy comes easy when you’re tripping balls.
In a decade that brought us “Wooly Bully”, “Gitarzan”, and the still-indecipherable “Louie, Louie” by the Kingsmen, The Beatles’ lyrics not only included themes of about love, peace, not fussing and fighting (and the occasional hidden drug reference), but also existentialism, Eastern philosophy and mysticism. The Beatles, though not as philosophically adept as Kant or Heidegger, not only established the boy band phenomena, they were one of the first pop bands to write lyrics that were not only enjoyable but intended to make the listener think.
Some folks out there think The Beatles are philosophical enough to warrant this book:
And this book was written by professional philosophers.
Look, if you don’t believe The Beatles are at all philosophical, check out these lyrics:
The love you take is equal to the love you make.
Life is very short and there’s no time for fussing and fighting my friend.
Ob-la-di, ob-la-da life goes on brah.
La la how the life goes on.
There’s nothing you can made that can’t be made.
No one you can save who can’t be saved.
There’s nothing you can do but you can learn how to be you in time.
If that’s not philosophical enough, get ready for some heavy philosophy:
When you’ve seen beyond yourself
Then you may find peace of mind is waiting there
And the time will come when you see we’re all one
And life flows on within you and without you.
Didn’t know The Beatles got that heavy, did you?
You feel enlightened?
Ok, never mind. Do you feel like dropping acid?
Go ahead. Tell everybody you’re searching for philosophical enlightenment.
That one worked for Timothy Leary.
Oh – but before you do, take a glance at your music collection.
Ask yourself this one question:
Would Socrates approve?
There is an entire sub-field of philosophy called the philosophy of music. If you’re interested about the exciting world of the philosophy of music, you can read this article:
In Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, Malcolm Gladwell describes an experiment wherein a group of people were asked to assess the personality of individuals (they hadn’t met) after briefly looking at the individual’s living space. Objects we surround ourselves with often indicates what kind of person owns those objects. Gladwell argues that we can accurately assess personal traits of individuals through snap judgments based on what we see in a person’s living space.
The later (Beatles) songs written by George Harrison were largely influenced by Eastern philosophy, which generally includes philosophical and religious systems from India and the Far East, including Hinduism, Buddhism, Jain, and Confucianism.
Read the Bhagavad-Gita and then listen to anything George Harrison wrote. Check here for a few quotes to get you started on the comparison:
* In The Gay Science (Section 125, The Madman), Nietzsche writes:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
1. Plato. Republic. Trans. Allan Bloom. 401d-e, 401e – 402a
2. Mel Thompson. Teach Yourself: Philosophy. 1995, 2003. Contemporary Books. 184.
3. “Deacon Blues”. Lyrics and music by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen. Copyright 1977 ABC/Dunhill Music, Inc.
4. Classic Albums (DVD). Steely Dan: Aja. 1999. Eagle Rock Entertainment.
5. “piggy”. Lyrics and music by Trent Reznor. Copyright 1994. leaving hope/TVT music, inc.
6. “All You Need Is Love”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright 1967. Northern Songs Limited.
7. “Within You, Without You”. Lyrics and music by George Harrison. Copyright 1967. Northern Songs Limited.
8. “The End”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright. 1969. Northern Songs Limited.
9. “Ob La Di, Ob La Da”. Lyrics and music by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Copyright. 1968. Northern Songs Limited.