Saturday, August 21, 2010

Einstein, Truth, and Beauty

I have recently committed myself to a rather voluminous project of study; in fact, this could easily keep me busy for a few lifetimes. My hope, though, is to make it a finite endeavor to begin with—hopefully completed within a year or so—and after that to expand on it throughout my life. I know that sounds kinda ambitious—but anyway, there I am.

The topic of this project are some 120 great humanitarians. I cannot possibly hope to study their lives and work in detail, but my plan is to at least get an idea of who these people were, of their thoughts and their contributions to mankind. What exactly I'll do to study these people will depend on the nature of each individual humanitarian. The order in which I'll study them is my very own, determined for me—I hope—through spiritual guidance. (You can also call it fate if you like, but I like the other term better.) I intend to write at least a few paragraphs about every humanitarian I'll be studying, I imagine in relation to my own life and work to the extent possible.

The first person on my list is Albert Einstein. Now I am a musician and I like languages and I especially like teaching both music and languages; I know next to nothing about physics and as so many people, I was traumatized by a mathematics teacher in high school. So you might think it's a bit weird for me to start off this project with Einstein.

My first thought was that Einstein played the violin—as a hobby, of course. In fact there's a famous anecdote I heard years ago (and I haven't checked it yet, but even if it isn't true, it's still a good story). Einstein apparently played string quartet with some really famous professional musicians. One day, as they're winding their way through Haydn or Mozart or Beethoven, Einstein messes up—he comes in to early or too late, or he plays too fast or too slow, I don't know. His fellow musicians—the pros—are kind of annoyed by this amateurish business, and one of them has the chutzpah to quip at Einstein: "Hey—can't you count?" Einstein, drily: "Of course not!"

Unfortunately, I have every bit of understanding for the pro—look: I am a professional musician, alright? But how can anybody not totally love Einstein's reply? In fact, this remark alone makes Einstein a great humanitarian to me!

So anyway: I got a copy of The Einstein Reader from my wonderful local independent bookstore and started right away. I'm not even on page 10 and already, there is something so strong, so beautiful, so true that I wanted to write about it immediately. As you read this first quote, bear in mind that I recently retired from a 35 years as professional church musician and that I have been teaching in universities for some ten years.

"Both churches and universities—insofar as they live up to their true function—serve the ennoblement of the individual."

That to me is the best definition of what churches and universities should be about, and I think that's why I wanted to make music in churches—and, I suppose, why I want to teach in university. But of course, the catch is the clause in the middle of Einstein's sentence... As for churches—I've worked in at least a dozen of them for a shorter or longer period, so perhaps my opinion is worth something: I honestly don't think any of those places lived up to its "true function" as defined by Einstein. That sounds a bit disappointing, and believe me, it is! But let me put it this way: I'll keep looking and if I find one, I'll let you know, OK? (I'll hold off on my opinion about universities until I've taught at twelve of them or for 35 years, whichever comes first.)

Even though, Einstein goes on to say, "the essential unity of ecclesiastical and secular cultural institutions was lost during the 19th century, ... no one would have been taken seriously who failed to acknowledge the quest for objective truth and knowledge as man's highest and eternal aim."

Wow! Objective truth and knowledge! I'm not sure how politically correct these values are in today's society, but I suppose I'm old-fashioned enough to subscribe to this. You may think that objective truth is a rather absurd ideal for a musician. Does not every pianist play Beethoven his or her way? In fact, is that not exactly what makes it interesting?

Perhaps. But in my own little way, as a musician and music teacher, I think I am aiming for some kind of objective truth. That is why knowledge of music history and music theory are so important to me as a performer and teacher. But look at it in a slightly different way: Is true Beauty not the highest form of objective truth anyway? Is not the gift of a great humanitarian artist to reveal, through the Beauty of his art, some glimpse of eternal and utterly objective truth?

I would certainly like to think so.

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