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Is There Such a Thing as Musical Knowing?

November 2, 2016

Last week Millis Institute students joined their voices in song.  They were neither attending a rock concert nor participating in a church service.  Instead, these young people were in class, seeking knowledge.



Our society tends to view knowledge as synonymous with analytical reasoning.  It’s commonly assumed that there is only one way to know things—the kind of knowing provided by maths and science.  We privilege what we consider to be scientific knowledge, limiting the realm of the knowable to the empirical and quantifiable.


But this is a rather modern—and distorted—view of knowledge.  Thomas Aquinas spoke of another kind, which he called “poetic knowledge.”  He didn’t mean knowledge about poetry; rather, he was referring to a poetic experience of reality.  (James S. Taylor describes this more in his aptly named book Poetic Knowledge.)  This is knowledge from the inside out, so to speak—an apprehension of reality with not merely the intellect but also with the intuition, imagination, appetite, and aesthetic senses.  Poetic knowledge doesn’t just analyse data but detects--and appreciates--meaning, purpose and beauty. 
In short, there is more than one way of knowing.  Poetic knowledge may not yield the kind of certainty that a mathematical formula might, but it is a way of comprehending truth.  Truth lends itself to be known in more than one mode.  The speed of a physical object lends itself to be understood by a scientific equation; one’s admiration for a lover's beauty doesn’t.  Such admiration, which is a reality that truly exists, might be better understood through a sonnet.  And
as Robin Williams’ character in Dead Poets Society insists, the quality of a particular sonnet can be better grasped with a well-nourished imagination than a numbered graph.


 Just as there are truths that can be known poetically, I would suggest that there are truths that can be known musically.  That is, the arrangement of sound has power to convey certain meaning—to evoke in us a sense, insight or reaction that we may not otherwise experience.  For me, C.S. Lewis powerfully captures the beautiful truth of creation in The Magician’s Nephew by having Aslan sing Narnia into existence.  It seems very fitting that such a significant, creative, and joyous event would be engaged not only with the eyes but also the ears and one's whole being!


Music is a distinct way of knowing.  In fact, Plato thought that “the patterns in music … are the keys to learning.”  What does music help us to know, learn, or experience?  Among other things: a sense of order.  “Order in movement is called rhythm,” notes Plato, “order in articulation ... pitch [harmonia], and the name for the combination of the two is choric art.”  This is one reason why our students study music, which is one of the 7 original liberal arts.
They are training their minds and bodies to sense and appreciate order, which is a training in living well.  As the Cabby listening to Aslan create Narnia exclaims, “Glory be! I’d have been a better man all my life if I’d known there were things like this!”

Final Thoughts

During a U.S. election season that has made global headlines, I’ve avoided making political comments in The Pillar.  However, since I’ve already mentioned The Magician’s Nephew


…I can’t help but recall a scene from the book.  Digory and Polly, who have travelled to the land of Charn, find themselves in a Hall of Images looking at a long row of figures.  Wearing magnificent robes and crowns on their heads, these are the past rulers of Charn.  Lewis describes the scene:


You could walk down and look at the faces in turn. …
All the faces they could see were certainly nice. Both the men and women looked kind and wise, and they seemed to come of a handsome race. But after the children had gone a few steps down the room they came to faces that looked a little different. These were very solemn faces. You felt you would have to mind your P’s and Q’s, if you ever met any living people who looked like that.
When they had gone a little further, they found themselves among faces they didn’t like: this was about the middle of the room. The faces here looked very strong and proud and happy, but they looked cruel. A little further on they looked crueller. Further on again, they were still cruel but they no longer looked happy. They were even despairing faces: as if the people they belonged to had done dreadful things and also suffered dreadful things.
The last figure of all was the most interesting – a woman even more richly dressed than the others, very tall, with a look of such fierceness and pride that it took your breath away...
This woman, as I said, was the last: but there were plenty of empty chairs beyond her, as if the room had been intended for a much larger collection of images.


I intend to make a connection between this passage and no particular person—only with the nature of human political institutions in general.  As Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity:


That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended—civilisations are built up—excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down.

Our civilisation needs initiatives that can train up well-rounded, thoughtful, virtuous leaders!  Find out more about the Millis Institute here.


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