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The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.”

The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics Pioneer Norbert Wiener on Communication, Control, and the Morality of Our Machines

“Information will never replace illumination,” Susan Sontag asserted in considering the conscience of words. “Words are events, they do things, change things,” Ursula K. Le Guin wrote in the same era in her exquisite meditation on the magic of real human communication. “They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.” But what happens when words are stripped of their humanity, fed into unfeeling machines, and used as currencies of information that no longer illuminates?

Half a century before the golden age of algorithms and two decades before the birth of the Internet, the mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener (November 26, 1894–March 18, 1964) tried to protect us from that then-hypothetical scenario in his immensely insightful and prescient 1950 book The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society (public library) — a book Wiener described as concerned with “the limits of communication within and among individuals,” which went on to influence generations of thinkers, creators, and entrepreneurs as wide-ranging as beloved author Kurt Vonnegut, anthropologist Mary Catherine Bateson, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier.

Norbert Weiner

Wiener had coined the word cybernetics two years earlier, drawing on the Greek word for “steersman” — kubernētēs, from which the word “governor” is also derived — to describe “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine,” pioneering a new way of thinking about causal chains and how the feedback loop taking place within a system changes the system itself. (Today’s social media ecosystem is a superficial but highly illustrative example of this.)

In a complement to Hannah Arendt’s contemporaneous insight into how tyrants use isolation as a weapon of oppression and manipulation, Wiener explains why, under this model of information systems, communication and control are inexorably linked:

Information is a name for the content of what is exchanged with the outer world as we adjust to it, and make our adjustment felt upon it. The process of receiving and of using information is the process of our adjusting to the contingencies of the outer environment, and of our living effectively within that environment. The needs and the complexity of modern life make greater demands on this process of information than ever before, and our press, our museums, our scientific laboratories, our universities, our libraries and textbooks, are obliged to meet the needs of this process or fail in their purpose. To live effectively is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society.

Art by Ralph Steadman from a rare edition of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

A pillar of Weiner’s insight is the second law of thermodynamics and its central premise that entropy — the growing tendency toward disorder, chaos, and unpredictability — increases over time in any closed system. But even if we were to consider the universe itself a closed system — an assumption neglecting the possibility that our universe may be one of many universes — neither individual human beings nor the societies they form can be thought of as closed systems. Rather, they are pockets of attempted order and decreasing entropy amid the vast expanse of cosmic chaos — attempts encoded in our systems of organizing and communicating information. Weiner examines the parallel between organisms and machines in this regard — a radical notion in his day and plainly obvious, if still poorly understood, in ours:

If we wish to use the word “life” to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so. However, we shall then include many astronomical phenomena which have only the shadiest resemblance to life as we ordinarily know it. It is in my opinion, therefore, best to avoid all question-begging epithets such as “life,” “soul,” “vitalism,” and the like, and say merely in connection with machines that there is no reason why they may not resemble human beings in representing pockets of decreasing entropy in a framework in which the large entropy tends to increase.

When I compare the living organism with such a machine, I do not for a moment mean that the specific physical, chemical, and spiritual processes of life as we ordinarily know it are the same as those of life-imitating machines. I mean simply that they both can exemplify locally anti-entropic processes, which perhaps may also be exemplified in many other ways which we should naturally term neither biological nor mechanical.

Art by Ralph Steadman from an illustrated biography of Leonardo da Vinci

In a sentiment of astounding foresight, Wiener adds:

Society can only be understood through a study of the messages and the communication facilities which belong to it; and that in the future development of these messages and communication facilities, messages between man and machines, between machines and man, and between machine and machine, are destined to play an ever-increasing part.


In control and communication we are always fighting nature’s tendency to degrade the organized and to destroy the meaningful; the tendency… for entropy to increase.

In consonance with Neil Gaiman’s conception of stories as “genuinely symbiotic organisms that we live with, that allow human beings to advance,” Wiener considers how living organisms resemble and are aided by information systems:

Organism is opposed to chaos, to disintegration, to death, as message is to noise. To describe an organism, we do not try to specify each molecule in it, and catalogue it bit by bit, but rather to answer certain questions about it which reveal its pattern: a pattern which is more significant and less probable as the organism becomes, so to speak, more fully an organism.


We are not stuff that abides, but patterns that perpetuate themselves. A pattern is a message.

He adds:

Messages are themselves a form of pattern and organization. Indeed, it is possible to treat sets of messages as having an entropy like sets of states of the external world. Just as entropy is a measure of disorganization, the information carried by a set of messages is a measure of organization. In fact, it is possible to interpret the information carried by a message as essentially the negative of its entropy, and the negative logarithm of its probability. That is, the more probable the message, the less information it gives.

Weiner illustrates this idea with an example that would have pleased Emily Dickinson:

Just as entropy tends to increase spontaneously in a closed system, so information tends to decrease; just as entropy is a measure of disorder, so information is a measure of order. Information and entropy are not conserved, and are equally unsuited to being commodities. Clichés, for example, are less illuminating than great poems.


The prevalence of cliches is no accident, but inherent in the nature of information. Property rights in information suffer from the necessary disadvantage that a piece of information, in order to contribute to the general information of the community, must say something substantially different from the community’s previous common stock of information. Even in the great classics of literature and art, much of the obvious informative value has gone out of them, merely by the fact that the public has become acquainted with their contents. Schoolboys do not like Shakespeare, because he seems to them nothing but a mass of familiar quotations. It is only when the study of such an author has penetrated to a layer deeper than that which has been absorbed into the superficial clichés of the time, that we can re-establish with him an informative rapport, and give him a new and fresh literary value.

From this follows a corollary made all the clearer by the technologies and media landscapes which Wiener never lived to see and with which we must and do live:

The idea that information can be stored in a changing world without an overwhelming depreciation in its value is false.


Information is more a matter of process than of storage… Information is important as a stage in the continuous process by which we observe the outer world, and act effectively upon it… To be alive is to participate in a continuous stream of influences from the outer world and acts on the outer world, in which we are merely the transitional stage. In the figurative sense, to be alive to what is happening in the world, means to participate in a continual development of knowledge and its unhampered exchange.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss

In a passage that calls to mind Zadie Smith’s lucid antidote to the illusion of universal progress and offers a sobering counterpoint to today’s strain of social scientists purveying feel-good versions of “progress” via the tranquilizing half-truths of highly selective statistics willfully ignorant of the for whom question, Wiener writes:

We are immersed in a life in which the world as a whole obeys the second law of thermodynamics: confusion increases and order decreases. Yet, as we have seen, the second law of thermodynamics, while it may be a valid statement about the whole of a closed system, is definitely not valid concerning a non-isolated part of it. There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.


Thus the question of whether to interpret the second law of thermodynamics pessimistically or not depends on the importance we give to the universe at large, on the one hand, and to the islands of locally decreasing entropy which we find in it, on the other. Remember that we ourselves constitute such an island of decreasing entropy, and that we live among other such islands. The result is that the normal prospective difference between the near and the remote leads us to give far greater importance to the regions of decreasing entropy and increasing order than to the universe at large.

A 1617 depiction of the notion of non-space, found in Cosmigraphics.

Wiener considers the central flaw of the claim that the arrow of historical time is aligned with the arrow of “progress” in a universal sense:

Our worship of progress may be discussed from two points of view: a factual one and an ethical one — that is, one which furnishes standards for approval and disapproval. Factually, it asserts that the earlier advance of geographical discovery, whose inception corresponds to the beginning of modern times, is to be continued into an indefinite period of invention, of the discovery of new techniques for controlling the human environment. This, the believers in progress say, will go on and on without any visible termination in a future not too remote for human contemplation. Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.

With this, Weiner turns to the most gaping void in the narrative of progress — a recognition of the interconnectedness of existence across scales and species, which the pioneering naturalist John Muir so memorably captured a century earlier in his assertion that “when we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” A decade before Rachel Carson awakened the modern environmental conscience, Wiener considers the larger planetary costs of humanity’s “progress”:

What many of us fail to realize is that the last four hundred years are a highly special period in the history of the world. The pace at which changes during these years have taken place is unexampled in earlier history, as is the very nature of these changes. This is partly the result of increased communication, but also of an increased mastery over nature which, on a limited planet like the earth, may prove in the long run to be an increased slavery to nature… We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment. We can no longer live in the old one. Progress imposes not only new possibilities for the future but new restrictions… May we have the courage to face the eventual doom of our civilization as we have the courage to face the certainty of our personal doom. The simple faith in progress is not a conviction belonging to strength, but one belonging to acquiescence and hence to weakness.


The new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword… It may be used for the benefit of humanity, but only if humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible. It may also be used to destroy humanity, and if it is not used intelligently it can go very far in that direction.

Three decades later, the great physician, etymologist, poet, and essayist Lewis Thomas would articulate the flip side of the same sentiment in his beautiful meditation on the peril and possibility of progress: “We are in for one surprise after another if we keep at it and keep alive. We can build structures for human society never seen before, thoughts never thought before, music never heard before… Provided we do not kill ourselves off, and provided we can connect ourselves by the affection and respect for which I believe our genes are also coded, there is no end to what we might do on or off this planet.” Weiner’s most visionary point is that if we are to not only survive but thrive as a civilization and a species, we must encode these same values of affection and respect into our machines, our information systems, and our technologies of communication, so that “the new modalities are used for the benefit of man, for increasing his leisure and enriching his spiritual life, rather than merely for profits and the worship of the machine as a new brazen calf.”

Man as Industrial Palace (1926) by infographics pioneer Fritz Kahn

More than a century after Mary Shelley raised these enduring questions of innovation and responsibility in Frankenstein, Weiner offers a sentiment of astonishing prescience and relevance to the artificial intelligence precipice on which we now stand, in an era when algorithms are deciding for us what we read, where we go, and how much of reality we see:

The machine’s danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it.


The modern man, and especially the modern American, however much “know-how” he may have, has very little “know-what.” He will accept the superior dexterity of the machine-made decisions with out too much inquiry as to the motives and principles behind these… Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions, if it does not possess the power of learning, will be completely literalminded. Woe to us if we let it decide our conduct, unless we have previously examined the laws of its action, and know fully that its conduct will be carried out on principles acceptable to us! On the other hand, the machine [that] can learn and can make decisions on the basis of its learning, will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made, or will be acceptable to us. For the man who is not aware of this, to throw the problem of his responsibility on the machine, whether it can learn or not, is to cast his responsibility to the winds, and to find it coming back seated on the whirlwind.

At the heart of Weiner’s decades-old book is a point of great timelessness and great urgency, which ought to be inscribed on the mental motherboard of every coder, technologist, and entrepreneur. Eight years after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer considered how the questions we ask shape the answers we give and the world we build, he writes:

When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right questions.

Precisely because our existence is so improbable against the backdrop of a universe governed by entropy, it is imbued with a singular responsibility — a responsibility that is the source and succor of meaning in human life. In a sentiment which the Nobel-winning Polish poet Wisława Szymborska would later echo, Weiner writes:

It is quite conceivable that life belongs to a limited stretch of time; that before the earliest geological ages it did not exist, and that the time may well come when the earth is again a lifeless, burnt-out, or frozen planet. To those of us who are aware of the extremely limited range of physical conditions under which the chemical reactions necessary to life as we know it can take place, it is a foregone conclusion that the lucky accident which permits the continuation of life in any form on this earth, even without restricting life to something like human life, is bound to come to a complete and disastrous end. Yet we may succeed in framing our values so that this temporary accident of living existence, and this much more temporary accident of human existence, may be taken as all-important positive values, notwithstanding their fugitive character.

In a very real sense we are shipwrecked passengers on a doomed planet. Yet even in a shipwreck, human decencies and human values do not necessarily vanish, and we must make the most of them. We shall go down, but let it be in a manner to which we may look forward as worthy of our dignity.

Nearly a century later, The Human Use of Human Beings remains an immensely insightful and increasingly relevant read. Complement it with the great cellist Pablo Casals on making our world worthy of its children, then revisit Thomas Merton’s beautiful letter to Rachel Carson about technology, wisdom, and the difficult art of civilizational self-awareness.


Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“The closer the likeness … the more virulent the hatred.”

Anatomy of Hatred: The Paradoxical Psychology of How That Which Repels Us Binds Us

“Hate, in the long run, is about as nourishing as cyanide,” Kurt Vonnegut admonished in his magnificent Fredonia commencement address. But when the run is generations long — when hate lodges itself in the soul of its carrier and becomes part of the spiritual DNA that propagates the species — it becomes more toxic than anything human beings can synthesize.

Decades before Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. asserted that “along the way of life, someone must have sense enough and morality enough to cut off the chain of hate,” a forgotten woman offered an incisive perspective on hate’s paradoxical quality to both repel and bind with its magnetic chain stretched across time.

Millicent Todd Bingham (February 5, 1880–December 1, 1968) was the daughter of astronomer David Todd and writer Mabel Loomis Todd, who penned the first popular science book on eclipses and who, through a maelstrom of complicated family dynamics and antagonisms, ended up as the steward of Emily Dickinson’s body of work. For two decades, Mabel had been the lover of the poet’s brother, Austin. Her invasion of the lives of the Dickinsons caused a rupture from which the family never recovered. When she edited the first volumes of Emily Dickinson’s letters and poems to enter the world, Mabel didn’t hesitate to exercise her position of literary power in advancing her personal agenda — to excise from the record her lover’s wife, Susan Dickinson.

Before marrying Austin Dickinson, Susan had been young Emily Dickinson’s first great love and would remain her greatest for the rest of the poet’s life. Some of Dickinson’s best known and most electrifying poems were dedicated to Susan, her “only woman in the world”; some of her most passionate letters written to her. Throughout Dickinson’s life, Susan would be her most important reader — and often editor — making Todd’s manipulative mission of excision all the more cruel, and all the more difficult, for Susan animated the vast majority of Dickinson’s writing.

Emily Dickinson’s legacy would become the front onto which the war between Austin Dickinson’s wife and his lover would be fought. The hatred that Susan and Mabel brought to the feud would survive them both, finding new life in their daughters: Martha Dickinson and Millicent Todd.

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from Let’s Be Enemies by Janice May Udry

As Millicent neared sixty, she reflected on the paradoxical psychological mechanism undergirding such enduring transgenerational hate in an arresting piece cited in Lyndall Gordon’s Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (public library) — the most nuanced, insightful, and beautifully written of what has become a self-standing canon of Dickinson biographies.

In a passage that applies with equally perceptive precision to the durational hatreds between human factions as varied as sports teams and political parties, social groups and nations, Millicent writes:

Hatred implies similarity, that is, lasting hatred does. The kind of hatred that implies incentive enough to enable it to last a lifetime — strength enough to propel it beyond the grave and loop it in the hearts of a succeeding generation. The kind of congenital hatred means a feud — and a feud does not flourish among aliens … The most virulent kind seems to get its start in stealing of affections, and affections usually do not exist between aliens … Real hate is focussed … and focussing on a negative purpose may be carried out with as much or more determination. It’s not iniquity which the hater hates; he’s hating during an interval while waiting till the opportunity comes for vengeance. This waiting through a life-time does not destroy the carrier; on the contrary it seems to add the vitality to prolong life. The emotion, the hatred, keeps the hater alive and vigorous. The affection which starts a feud may be between aliens, but the hates it engenders does not continue unless between kindred souls and the closer the likeness perhaps, the more virulent the hatred.

Complement with a Zen master’s strategy for handling hate, then revisit the mightiest antidote we have to this most virulent of hatreds — the Ancient Greek notion of agape.


A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

A Stoic’s Key to Peace of Mind: Seneca on the Antidote to Anxiety

“The truth is, we know so little about life, we don’t really know what the good news is and what the bad news is,” Kurt Vonnegut observed in discussing Hamlet during his influential lecture on the shapes of stories. “The whole process of nature is an integrated process of immense complexity, and it’s really impossible to tell whether anything that happens in it is good or bad,” Alan Watts wrote a generation earlier in his sobering case for learning not to think in terms of gain or loss. And yet most of us spend swaths of our days worrying about the prospect of events we judge to be negative, potential losses driven by what we perceive to be “bad news.” In the 1930s, one pastor itemized anxiety into five categories of worries, four of which imaginary and the fifth, “worries that have a real foundation,” occupying “possibly 8% of the total.”

A twenty-four-hour news cycle that preys on this human propensity has undeniably aggravated the problem and swelled the 8% to appear as 98%, but at the heart of this warping of reality is an ancient tendency of mind so hard-wired into our psyche that it exists independently of external events. The great first-century Roman philosopher Seneca examined it, and its only real antidote, with uncommon insight in his correspondence with his friend Lucilius Junior, later published as Letters from a Stoic (public library) — the timeless trove of wisdom that gave us Seneca on true and false friendship and the mental discipline of overcoming fear.


In his thirteenth letter, titled “On groundless fears,” Seneca writes:

There are more things … likely to frighten us than there are to crush us; we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.

With an eye to the self-defeating and wearying human habit of bracing ourselves for imaginary disaster, Seneca counsels his young friend:

What I advise you to do is, not to be unhappy before the crisis comes; since it may be that the dangers before which you paled as if they were threatening you, will never come upon you; they certainly have not yet come.

Accordingly, some things torment us more than they ought; some torment us before they ought; and some torment us when they ought not to torment us at all. We are in the habit of exaggerating, or imagining, or anticipating, sorrow.

Day 63
Illustration by María Sanoja from 100 Days of Overthinking

Seneca then offers a critical assessment of reasonable and unreasonable worries, using elegant rhetoric to illuminate the foolishness of squandering our mental and emotional energies on the latter class, which comprises the vast majority of our anxieties:

It is likely that some troubles will befall us; but it is not a present fact. How often has the unexpected happened! How often has the expected never come to pass! And even though it is ordained to be, what does it avail to run out to meet your suffering? You will suffer soon enough, when it arrives; so look forward meanwhile to better things. What shall you gain by doing this? Time. There will be many happenings meanwhile which will serve to postpone, or end, or pass on to another person, the trials which are near or even in your very presence. A fire has opened the way to flight. Men have been let down softly by a catastrophe. Sometimes the sword has been checked even at the victim’s throat. Men have survived their own executioners. Even bad fortune is fickle. Perhaps it will come, perhaps not; in the meantime it is not. So look forward to better things.

Art by Catherine Lepange from Thin Slices of Anxiety: Observations and Advice to Ease a Worried Mind

Sixteen centuries before Descartes examined the vital relationship between fear and hope, Seneca considers its role in mitigating our anxiety:

The mind at times fashions for itself false shapes of evil when there are no signs that point to any evil; it twists into the worst construction some word of doubtful meaning; or it fancies some personal grudge to be more serious than it really is, considering not how angry the enemy is, but to what lengths he may go if he is angry. But life is not worth living, and there is no limit to our sorrows, if we indulge our fears to the greatest possible extent; in this matter, let prudence help you, and contemn with a resolute spirit even when it is in plain sight. If you cannot do this, counter one weakness with another, and temper your fear with hope. There is nothing so certain among these objects of fear that it is not more certain still that things we dread sink into nothing and that things we hope for mock us. Accordingly, weigh carefully your hopes as well as your fears, and whenever all the elements are in doubt, decide in your own favour; believe what you prefer. And if fear wins a majority of the votes, incline in the other direction anyhow, and cease to harass your soul, reflecting continually that most mortals, even when no troubles are actually at hand or are certainly to be expected in the future, become excited and disquieted.

But the greatest peril of misplaced worry, Seneca cautions, is that in keeping us constantly tensed against an imagined catastrophe, it prevents us from fully living. He ends the letter with a quote from Epicurus illustrating this sobering point:

The fool, with all his other faults, has this also, he is always getting ready to live.

Complement this particular portion of Seneca’s wholly indispensable Letters from a Stoic with Alan Watts on the antidote to the age of anxiety, Italo Calvino on how to lower your “worryability,” and Claudia Hammond on what the psychology of suicide prevention teaches us about controlling our everyday worries, then revisit Seneca on making the most of life’s shortness and the key to resilience when loss does strike.


How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Supreme Power

“Music opens a path into the realm of silence.”

How Bach Will Save Your Soul: German Philosopher Josef Pieper on the Hidden Source of Music’s Supreme Power

Some of humanity’s greatest and most fertile minds — including Oliver Sacks, Walt Whitman, Virginia Woolf, Kurt Vonnegut, Susan Sontag, Aldous Huxley, and Friedrich Nietzsche — have contemplated the power of music, and yet the question of why music moves us so remains unanswered, and perhaps unanswerable. Why is it that music can permeate our deepest memories, help us grieve, and save our lives?

Four years after his increasingly timely case for shedding the culture-crushing shackles of workaholism, the German philosopher Josef Pieper (May 4, 1904–November 6, 1997) explored the abiding puzzlement of music’s power in a speech delivered during intermission at a Bach concert in 1952, later published under the title “Thoughts About Music” in his small, enormous posthumous essay collection Only the Lover Sings: Art and Contemplation (public library) — a set of reflections titled after Augustine’s beautiful assertion that “only he who loves can sing” (which Van Gogh echoed in his insistence that art and love are one), exploring what Pieper argues is the “hidden root” of the richness of all music, fine art, and poetry: contemplation.

Art by Carson Ellis from Du Iz Tak?

Piper begins his Bach speech by examining our age-old preoccupation with pinning down the elusive source of music’s singular enchantment:

Not only is music one of the most amazing and mysterious phenomena of all the world’s miranda, the things that make us wonder (and, therefore, the formal subject of any philosopher…) [but] music may be nothing but a secret philosophizing of the soul… yet, with the soul entirely oblivious, that philosophy, in fact, is happening here… Beyond that, and above all, music prompts the philosopher’s continued interest because it is by its nature so close to the fundamentals of human existence.

Pieper considers the question of what we actually perceive when we listen to music. Surely, he points out, we perceive something greater and beyond the sum total of the specific sounds and words, something of additional intimacy and meaning, just as in poetry we “perceive more and something other than the factual, literal meaning of its words.” Echoing Aldous Huxley’s exquisite assertion that “after silence that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music,” Pieper writes:

Music opens a path into the realm of silence. Music reveals the human soul in stark “nakedness,” as it were, without the customary linguistic draperies.

Art by Julia Kuo from The Sound of Silence by Katrina Goldsaito

With an eye to the canon of ideas about music in Western philosophy — including Schopenhauer, who believed that music is superior to all other arts for they “speak only of the shadow, but music of the essence,” and Nietzsche, who dramatized his monumental regard for music in the proclamation that “without music life would be a mistake” — Pieper summarizes the landscape of thought:

The nature of music variously [has] been understood … as nonverbal articulation of weal and woe, as wordless expression of man’s intrinsic dynamism of self-realization, a process understood as man’s journey toward ethical personhood, as the manifestation of man’s will in its aspects, as love.

All of these ideas, he suggests, can be summed up in a single formulation. A decade after the trailblazing philosopher Susanne Langer framed music as a laboratory for feeling and time, Pieper writes:

Music articulates the inner dynamism of man’s existential self, which is music’s “prime matter” (so to speak), and both share a particular characteristic — both move in time.

Much as the great Russian film director Andrei Tarkovsky would argue decades later that cinema is the art of “sculpting in time,” Pieper argues that this temporal element of music gives us a vital tool with which to sculpt our personhood:

Since music articulates the immediacy of man’s basic existential dynamism in an immediate way, the listener as well is addressed and challenged on that profound level where man’s self-realization takes place. In this existential depth of the listener, far below the level of expressible judgments, there echoes — in identical immediacy — the same vibration articulated in the audible music.

We now realize why and to what extent music plays a role in man’s formation and perfection… beyond any conscious efforts toward formation, teaching, or education.

The Gnomes: "He played until the room was entirely filled with gnomes."
One of Arthur Rackham’s rare 1917 illustrations for the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm

In a passage of even more jarring pertinence to our own era of formulaic mass-produced mediocrity marketed as popular music, Pieper writes:

If we now look at our society … we observe how much the most trivial and “light” music, the “happy sound,” has become the most common and pervasive phenomenon. By its sheer banality, this music expresses quite accurately the cheap self-deception that on the inner existential level all is fine… We observe how much attention is demanded by — and willingly given to — the rhythmic beat of a certain crude and orgiastic music… Both kinds of music, the “happy sound” as well as the numbing beat, claim legitimacy as “entertainment,” as means, that is, of satisfying, without success, the boredom and existential void that are caused and increased by each other and that equally have become a common and pervasive phenomenon. We further observe how music … is frequently selected and consumed as a means of personal enchantment, of escapism, of a certain pseudo-deliverance, and as a means to achieve delight that remains merely “skin-deep” (von aussen her, as Rilke said)… We observe all this with great alarm, aware that music lays bare man’s inner existential condition, removing veil and façade (and it cannot be otherwise), while this same inner condition receives from music the most discreet impulses, for better or for worse.

Pieper returns to the subject of his speech, extolling Bach as a timeless counterpoint to this debasement of the soul in music — a supreme example of the kind of music that ennobles our personhood by inviting existential contemplation:

We observe and ponder all this and then are moved to rejoice as we become aware again and acknowledge anew that among all the various kinds of music today there still exists, also and especially, the music of Johann Sebastian Bach!

Obviously, this implies a challenge to ourselves, a challenge not easily nor “automatically” satisfied. That we are willing to listen attentively to the essential message of this music and that we let this message find an echo, as if on reverberating strings, within the immediacy of our soul is decisive. This will lead to new and rekindled clarity, authenticity, and vigor of our inward existence; to the dissatisfaction with entertaining but hollow achievements; and to a sober and perceptive alertness that is not distracted from the realities of actual life by the promise of easy pleasure proffered in superficial harmonies. Above all, this will guide us to turn with resolve, constancy, courage, and hope toward the one and only Good by whose grace our inner existential yearning finds fulfillment; the one Good praised and exalted particularly in Bach’s music with such ever-present “wordless jubilation.”

Complement this particular portion of the wholly jubilant Only the Lover Sings with Franz Kafka on the power of music and the point of making art and Aldous Huxley on why music speaks to our souls, then revisit Pieper on the neglected seedbed of creative culture.


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