Thursday, July 17, 2008

Enlightenment Thinking and the Role of the Individual

Over at One Utah, Glenden Brown wrote a post on the influence of “the enlightenment” on the thinking of our nation’s founders and upon the establishment of a Democratic Republic which grants rights to the individual. Last night, I was listening to flute concertos by Carl Philip Emmanuel Bach (CPE Bach), an enlightenment composer and I contemplated the significant differences between his musical style and that of his illustrious father, Johann Sebastian Bach (JS Bach).

JS Bach is admittedly my favorite composer. His music has a lot of power, which is derived from a rational mix of structure, harmony and an amazing technical understanding of how notes relate to each other. JS Bach through his music, sought to glorify God, and to speak through the idiom of music, the power, knowledge, and mystery of an all-powerful and all-knowing God.

CPE Bach was greatly influenced by the music of his father, and borrowed from his father’s music liberally during his long career, first in Berlin and later in Hamburg. But what is interesting and striking, is the differences in the musical language and the differences in the goals of his music relative to his father’s. Like his father, CPE Bach wrote religious music. In fact, I would rank his “Die Auferstehung und himmelfahrt jesu” as probably one of the ten best oratorios of the 18th Century. But the portrayal of God is strikingly different from father to son. The mysterious and powerful God of JS Bach, is replaced by a God that is more human, and humane. The God of JS Bach is to be revered and feared. The God of CPE Bach is one you’d have a beer with. Much of this is the result of the enlightenment thinking that influenced CPE Bach in the intellectual circles he gravitated towards in Hamburg.

The musical language of CPE Bach sought to internally examine the soul of man. His language reflected the “empfindsamer Stil” or “sensitive style” and the focus of his music is human emotion and understanding. The role and value of the individual is central to CPE Bach’s music and is also the focus of enlightenment thinking. Enlightenment thinkers such as Rousseau, Locke, Hume, Hutcheson, Voltaire etal., placed value on being true to oneself and to the power of reason. This line of thinking is what inspired the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Paine, Franklin and others who helped found our nation. Instead of a nation where God had granted powers to the king, our nation was created with the notion that God had granted inalienable rights to the individual.

Individual liberty, enshrined in the secular, rational, thinking of enlightenment philosophy was a dramatic break from the past. It created an optimistic view of humanity that focused on human potential, not on human failings. It subordinated the government to the individual, not the individual to the government. And though you could argue that America was and continued to be a predominantly “Christian nation”, it was also a nation predominated by a Christianity in flux. The powerful medieval God was being replaced by a more personal God. And as Christians argue that man is created in the image of God, I would argue that man creates God in his own image. And as humanity became more rational and humane, so did the Christian God of the time.

And if you want to understand which direction we are going as a nation, we increasingly see a re-emergence of the medieval God that subordinated individual liberty to the whims of the state. The gains Americans made via the enlightenment are being rolled back. The question is whether the train is stoppable at this point. I’m hopeful that it is.

1 comment:

David said...

You might say that what started as a nation that eschewed government influence on religion has become a nation caught in a tug-of-war between two fundamental religious ideas. One is a religion of secularism where religion is expected to stay in the closet and never be felt in the public sphere, and the other is a generic Christendom where the various sects in our predominantly Christian nation can essentially agree and thus they feel that they can codify those beliefs into law.

We desperately need to return to being a nation where I can worship according to the dictates of my own conscience and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship (or not) how, where, or what they may.