HUMANISM, REASON, AND THE ARTS by Frederick Edwords We are the music-makers, And we are th
HUMANISM, REASON, AND THE ARTS
by Frederick Edwords
We are the music-makers,
And we are the dreamers of dreams,
Wandering by lone sea-breakers,
And sitting by desolate streams;
World-losers and world-forsakers,
On whom the pale moon gleams:
Yet we are the movers and shakers
Of the world for ever, it seems.
With wonderful deathless ditties
We build up the world's great cities,
And out of a fabulous story
We fashion an empire's glory:
One man with a dream, at pleasure,
Shall go forth and conquer a crown;
And three with a new song's measure
Can trample an empire down.
We, in the ages lying
In the buried past of the earth,
Built Nineveh with our sighing,
And Babel itself with our mirth;
And o'erthrew them with prophesying
To the old of the new world's worth;
For each age is a dream that is dying,
Or one that is coming to birth.
These lines are from Arthur William Edgar O'Shaughnessy's
Ode, and they speak, through the rhythem of poetry, to the power
of the arts.
Literature, drama, dance, music, painting, sculpture,
archetecture and other art forms often allow a culture to find its
identity and crystalize its vision. And through these same media,
a culture can be destroyed or transformed.
Armies march to war with songs on their lips. Religions
spread their message through passion plays, poetic writ, and
awesome temples. Ethnic groups find their roots in music and
dance. Giant sculptures: the Colossus of Rhodes, the Great
Buddha of Japan, the Statue of Liberty, symbolize the ideals of
And when new groups triumph over old, songs and dances of the
vanquished regime are outlawed, scriptures burned, temples razed,
and sculptures sent crashing to the earth.
A case in point. When I visited Russia in the Summer of
1986, I found statues and busts of Lenin everywhere -- so many
that it seemed pointless to take pictures of them. But now I wish
I had, since there may be few or none left by the time I chance to
Counter cultures identify themselves, and modify or overthrow
the dominant society, through a variety of art forms including
music, dance, poetry, cinema, fashion design, poster art,
painting, and sculpture. As examples, one can think of various
"Bohemian" movements at the turn of the last century or the Hippie
phenomenon of the late 1960s.
But why are the arts so central to culture, to movements and
revolutions, and to the expansion and downfall of empires? And
why are alternative art forms and messages so much feared and
It is simply this: Artistic expression, when effective,
often bypasses the human reason and appeals directly to emotion.
It may even appeal to something primitive or primal, in us. This
was the aesthetic theory set forth by Winwood Reade in his book
The Martyrdom of Man. He wrote:
When the poet invokes in his splendid frenzy the shining
spheres of heaven, the murmuring fountains, and the rushing
streams; when he calls upon the earth to hearken, and bids
the wild sea listen to his song; when he communes with the
sweet secluded valleys and the haughty-headed hills as if
those inanimate objects were alive, as if these masses of
brute matter were endowed with sense and thought, we do not
smile, we do not sneer, we do not reason, but we feel. A
secret chord is touched within us: a slumbering sympathy is
awakened into life. Who has not felt an impulse of hatred,
and perhaps expressed it in a senseless curse, against a
fiery stroke of sunlight or a sudden gust of wind? Who has
not felt a pang of pity for a flower torn and trampled in the
dust, a shell dashed to fragments by the waves? Such
emotions or ideas last only for a moment; they do not belong
to us; they are the fossil fancies of a bygone age; they are
a heritage of thought from the childhood of our race. For
there was a time when they possessed the human mind. There
was a time when the phrases of modern poetry were the facts
of ordinary life. There was a time when man lived in
fellowship with nature, believing that all things which moved
or changed had minds and bodies kindred to his own.
Such a view of art was certainly taken seriously by the
philosophers of ancient Greece. They had seen the irrational
excesses of the mystery religions, best expressed in the bloody
finale of Euripides' tragedy, The Bacchae, and therefore they had
ambivalent views about anything inspired by what they termed "the
passions." Passionate art, to them, was an incredibly potent
Aristotle saw this direct appeal to the emotions as resulting in
catharsis, or a release of tension, which he held to be good for
the health of the individual so affected. Centuries later, the
psychologist Havelock Ellis, in his book The Art of Life, would
support this idea. He said:
Just as we need athletics to expand and harmonize the
coarser unused energies of the organism, so we need art and
literature to expand and harmonize its finer energies,
emotion being, as it may not be superflous to point out,
itself largely a muscular process, motion in a more or less
arrested form, so that there is here more than a mere
analogy. Art from this point of view is the athletics of the
Plato, on the other hand, saw such emotional appeal as potentially
dangerous, a force capable of influencing ideas, ideals, and
behavior for good or ill.
In Book II of The Republic, Plato has Socrates in dialogue
with Glaucon on just this topic. Socrates says:
And shall we just carelessly allow children to hear
any casual tales which may be devised by casual persons,
and to receive into their minds ideas for the most part
the very opposite of those which we should wish them to
have when they are grown up?
Then the first thing will be to establish a
censorship of the writers of fiction, and let the
censors receive any tale of fiction which is good, and
reject the bad; and we will desire mothers and nurses to
tell their children the authorized ones only. Let them
fashion the mind with such tales, even more fondly than
they mould the body with their hands; but most of those
which are now in use must be discarded.
This conversation continues into Book III as the two interlocutors
become more and more specific about what is reprehensible in
literature -- so specific that they get down to deleting
particular lines from Homer! After a number of sample lines have
been selected for deletion, Socrates says:
And we must beg Homer and the other poets not to be
angry if we strike out these and similar passages, not
because they are unpoetical and unattractive to the
popular ear, but because the greater the poetical charm
of them, the less are they meet for the ears of boys and
men who are meant to be free, and who should fear
slavery more than death.
The argument continues into the realm of music. Plato has
Socrates observe that a song "has three parts -- the words, the
melody, and the rhythm." Now, since we already know what sorts of
words are to be discouraged, and since melody and rhythm depend
upon the words, then censorship of music can logically be derived
from censorship of prose and poetry. Further, since certain
harmonies are expressive of certain undesirable emotions, in
particular the sorrowful tenor and bass Lydian harmonies, then
such should also be banished from the ideal state.
The topic is returned to in Book X, where it is argued that art is
not life, but only a poor imitation. Hence, though Socrates is
very conscious of the charms of art, he may not on that account
betray the principle of truth. The conclusion of the argument is
that those who listen to poetry should be on guard against its
seductions and should fear for the safety of their principles.
Plato's concerns have been echoed throughout the centuries by
tyrants and totalitarian regimes, and in recent years in this
country by the Religious Right and those who would stifle the
freedom of the National Endowment for the Arts. Tim LaHaye, a
leading political activist for Christian Fundamentalism, is
opposed to certain art forms which he and others feel are socially
harmful. In that vein, he writes the following about the
Renaissance and Renaissance Humanism in his book The Battle for
Florence, Italy, became the cultural headquarters of the
Renaissance. The glorification of mankind, particularly in
his human form, was soon reflected in art. The giant replica
of Michelangelo's magnificent David stands nude, overlooking
that beautiful city. Quite naturally, this contradicts the
wisdom of God, for early in Genesis, the Creator follows
man's folly by giving him animal skins to cover his
nakedness. Ever since, there has been a conflict concerning
clothes, with man demanding the freedom to go naked. The
Renaissance obsession with nude "art forms" was the
forerunner of the modern humanist's demand for pornography in
the name of freedom. Both resulted in a self-destructive
lowering of moral standards.
The suppression of art deemed harmful is soon followed by the
dictating of art deemed ideal. Plato's Republic treats of this
also. Socrates declares to Glaucon,
. . . we must remain firm in our conviction that hymns to the
gods and praises of famous men are the only poetry which
ought to be admitted to our State. For if you go beyond this
and allow the honeyed muse to enter, either in epic or lyric
verse, not law and the reason of mankind, which by common
consent have ever been deemed best, but pleasure and pain
will be the rulers in our State.
Perhaps the most dramatic effects of such ideological control of
art can be seen in the works of Naziism and Communism. The
accepted literature, art, and archetecture of Hitler's Germany,
Mao's China, and Stalin's Soviet Union, by ordinary artistic
criteria, are sterile and flat. Their functional role as
propaganda generally dulls their impact as art, limits their
originality, and hampers their universality. Such art forms do
not speak TO people, only AT them, and not about THEIR aspirations
but only the aspirations of the State. Such art is not for
CATHARSOS, only for control. Eric Hoffer addressed this issue in
The True Believer when he wrote:
. . . Napoleon and Hitler were mortified by the anemic
quality of the literature and art produced in their heroic
age and clamored for masterpieces which would be worthy of
the mighty deeds of the times. They had not an inkling that
the atmosphere of an active movement cripples or stifles the
creative spirit. Milton, who in 1640 was a poet of great
promise, with a draft of Paradise Lost in his pocket, spent
twenty sterile years of pamphlet writing while he was up to
his neck in the "sea of noises and hoarse disputes" which was
the Puritan Revolution. With the Revolution dead and himself
in disgrace, he produced Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained,
and Samson Agonistes.
Emotive art, that which reaches the heart with a universal appeal,
is constrained in an atmosphere of repression. The cause of this
relates to the artistic process itself. Artistic ability, I think
it safe to say, is not a skill like computer programming or
salesmanship that can be offered to the highest bidder. Because
it appeals to the emotions, to the imagination, the free spirit,
it often must SPRING from the emotions, from the imagination, from
a free spirit. It seems to arise best from a spontinaity that the
artist does not try too hard to control.
In accepting her 1987 Humanist of the Year Award from the American
Humanist Association, novelist and poet Margaret Atwood had this
. . . artists worthy of the name are difficult to coopt
completely. They are messy, obstreperous, and unpredictable;
they are contrary minded and dislike total authority. They
especially dislike being told what to say, think, paint, or
write, which is why they have ended up on the wrong ends of
execution teams in so many countries in so many historical
periods. . . . The kinds of truths art can convey are not
literal -- as Plato pointed out when deciding to banish all
poets from his republic -- nor are they consistent with the
stated beliefs of the artist through whom they are conveyed.
But another novelist, Ayn Rand, begged to differ. She took the
position that art could rightly be made the handmaiden of one's
personal ideology. And she wrote books to prove it.
Unfortunately, those not endorsing her brand of libertarian
rationalism, and in some cases those who do, regard her novels as
third-rate -- as having nothing to do with art. Readers often
complain that her works are excessively preachy, her heros too
ideologically pure and emotionally consistent, and her villians
mere straw-man charicatures, brute personifications of evil. Her
work seems to verify Eric Hoffer's observation that the artist
motivated by the "practical" goal of disseminating propagandistic
. . . does not create to express himself, or to save his soul
or to discover the true and the beautiful. His task, as he
sees it, is to warn, to advise, to urge, to glorify and to
And this Ayn Rand does in spades. The passage I will now quote
provides a clear example of the way her heros speak. And through
this particular hero, the musical composer Richard Halley, Ayn
Rand pontificates on her philosophy of art. Halley declares that
art is admired through the faculty of reason, and that the vision
of artists is similar to the vision of engineers or industrial-
ists. To him the artist is a devotee of truth, as opposed to
. . . a sloppy bum who goes around proudly assuring you that
he has almost reached the perfection of a lunatic, because
he's an artist who hasn't the faintest idea what his art work
is or means, he's not restrained by such crude concepts as
'being' or 'meaning,' he's the vehicle of higher mysteries,
he doesn't know how he created his work or why, it just came
out of him spontaneously, like vomit out of a drunkard, he
did not think, he wouldn't stoop to thinking, he just felt
it, all he has to do is feel -- he feels, the flabby,
loose-mouthed, shifty-eyed, drooling, shivering, uncongealed
In the summer of 1797, the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge awoke from
a dream with an entire epic poem in his head. Writing feverishly,
the following lines spilled onto his page:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round:
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
He went on writing more lines until, suddenly, a man came to the
door who called Coleridge out on business and detained him for
over an hour. Afterwards, on his return to his page, Coleridge
found, much to his mortification, that the inspiration and the
words had passed from memory. He was able to write little more,
and the poem was never completed.
Even so, Kublai Khan stands as one of the great poems of the
English language, a poem that came out of its author
spontaneously, without thought, and without the author knowing
what it meant. Great art can indeed result from such a process.
Furthermore, art can express views, or present images, that
directly contradict its creator's personal philosophy or faith. A
classic example is John Milton, a devout Christian. His Paradise
Lost is a startlingly heroic poem about Satan, one which airs so
many questions concerning faith that religious scholars still
occasionally seek to justify or reconstruct the work.
In Book I, Satan and his minions have been cast down to hell by
Jehovah. With ringing oratory worthy of the valiant figure that
he is, Satan rouses his fallen army to stand up and defy the
powers of heaven.
. . . Princes, Potentates,
Warriors, the flow'r of heav'n, once yours, now lost,
If such astonishment as this can seize
Eternal spirits; or have ye chos'n this place
After the toil of battle to repose
Your wearied virtue, for the ease you find
To slumber here, as in the vales of Heaven.
Or in this abject posture have ye sworn
T' adore the conqueror? who now beholds
Cherub and Seraph rolling in the flood
With scatter'd arms and ensigns, till anon
His swift pursuers from heav'n gates discern
Th' advantage, and descending tread us down
Thus drooping, or with linked thunderbolts
Transfix us to the bottom of this gulf.
Awake, arise, or be for ever fall'n.
In Book V, the story is told of Satan's revolt in heaven. In
order to make sense of such an event, and to render it believable,
Milton had to give the rebellious angels good reason to follow
Satan's promptings. And in giving them good reason, he
inadvertantly gave the reader good reason to reject the faith.
Milton's Satan argues against the monarchy of God by appeals to
the rights of angels, by appeals to liberty and equality. And his
oratory is persuasive.
In Book IX, Eve convinces Adam that she should be free to wander
alone in the garden, fearless of demonic temptation. And in doing
so, she convinces the reader of yet another heretical point: the
notion that no perfect creator would be foolish enough to fashion
beings vulnerable to temptation. And after eating the forbidden
fruit, she continues the argument with Adam, noting that her Fall
is God's also. From this conclusion she surmises that God will be
loth to destroy her, lest Satan
Triumph and say, Fickle their state whom God
Most favours: who can please him long? Me first
He ruin'd, now Mankind. Whom will he next -- ?
which suggests that God is an inept creator who, for all his
power, still manages to generate rivals and failures.
There is even the suggestion that God's knowledge of human
psychology is lacking or, if it is not, God is himself every bit
the tempter Satan is. This comes out in Eve's musing before
eating the forbidden fruit when she reasons that, by God's own
words the fruit is a good, and by God's own actions it is placed
within reach, hence God is forbidding Adam and Eve to taste a
good, and by so forbidding, commends it all the more.
It is no wonder that the Great American Agnostic, Robert G.
Ingersoll, was notably influenced by this poem.
Other artists of traditional faith have gone further, often
speaking with more effect against religious excesses than the
fiercest atheist pamphleteer. Take for example Charles Kingsley's
Hypatia. There we get a chilling depiction of belief gone mad,
one that flows through an entire novel centered on the brutal
murder by a Christian mob of Alexandria's greatest female
philosopher. Literature is filled with such examples of authors
hinting or expressing views seemingly or actually contrary to
This is not to say, however, that no artist produces works
consonant with his or her professed philosophy. Most do.
Euripides wove in tragic verse his protest against war, against
superstition, against the subjugation of women. Beethoven put the
spirit of liberty to music, a principle in which he fervently
believed, and audiences rewarded his stage with a sea of flowers.
Harriet Beecher Stowe inflamed a nation to civil war through her
heart-felt prose expressing the evils of slavery. And Isadora
Duncan gave to the dance the freedom of her personal lifestyle,
delivering her art from the shackles of rigid fashion and bringing
back into vogue the liberated spirit of the ancient Greeks.
It is possible, then, to speak of art as emanating from or
reflecting a given philosophy. But such art cannot always be
planned. Many in the arts find that their work must grow freely
out of sincere lives, from philosophies buried deep in their
Those individuals who, in their personal and artistic lives,
express a profound Humanism are a prime example. Authors like
George Eliot, Mark Twain, and George Bernard Shaw; playwrights
like Moliere, Voltaire, and Henrik Ibsen; poets like Percy
Bysshe Shelly and Matthew Arnold; the historian Edward Gibbon, the
architect Frank Lloyd Wright, the painter Rockwell Kent, the
filmmaker Stanley Kramer. Such a list could go on, a list of
Humanists who have liberated us through their work.
But, ultimately, a work of art will stand on its own, stand
separate from its creator and become the possession of humanity.
As such, it can be judged for the role it plays and the impact it
has. Whether we speak of Prometheus Bound by Aesculus, the
Overture to La Belle Helene by Offenbach, or a photograph of
Lassen Volcanic National Park by Ansel Adams, we can find an
expression of some aspect of the Humanist and liberal spirit.
For whenever a work of art has been created in an atmosphere of
freedom, or whenever the artist has felt internally free despite
outword conditions, there we will most frequently, I think, find
expressed that which the Humanist and religious liberal can
admire, and that which will humanize the beholder.
We need not, then, attempt to lay out a specific humanistic theory
of aesthetics; we needn't attempt to dictate, in the fashion of
Plato, the proper details, expression, and message of the arts.
We need only provide the atmosphere of a humanistic society, a
society of freedom, compassion, and rationality, and let matters
of art take care of themselves. What flowers up will many times
be to the Humanist's liking.
Perhaps, rather than speaking of a Humanist Art, or attempting to
define that art which is most liberating, it would be better that
we foster more artistic Humanists and liberal religionists, more
liberated freethinkers, individuals who can live their lives more
aesthetically, who can set aside for a moment the rugged pursuit
of truth in the interest of seeking beauty.
A greater appreciation and use of the arts in liberal religion and
among Humanists would go a long way toward promoting not only joy
and pleasure, but the expansion of the movement as well. Human
beings are not mere intellects on legs, as Beverley Earles once
put it. The traditional faiths have long known this and used it.
Now we can too.
This is the text of a talk presented to various audiences. Its
author is the executive director of the American Humanist
(C) Copyright 1992 by Frederick Edwords
Permission to reproduce and distribute this material in electronic
or printout form, or through reprinting, is hereby granted free of
charge by the copyright holder to nonprofit Humanist and Free-
thought organizations and publications only. All others must
secure advance permission of the author through the American
Humanist Association, which can be contacted at the address below.
For further information on Humanism and the AHA, please contact --
AMERICAN HUMANIST ASSOCIATION
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