Tag Archives: aristotle

Religion, Public Discourse and the Common Good

November 2016 Pulse

Without doubt, one of the most important – if highly contentious – ideas in political and social philosophy today is that of the common good.

Although the idea is once again in vogue in recent public and academic discourse, its origins can be traced to Aristotle, who refused to designate a government just if it neglected to pursue the common good. As the Greek philosopher and scientist put it in his famous work Politics: “The good is justice, in other words, the common interest.”

It should be emphasised that the envisioning and quest for the common good is the responsibility of every member of society, not just that of the government. Participation is key. As The Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church states: “Participation is a duty to be fulfilled by all, with responsibility and a view to the common good.”

This is especially the case in modern democratic societies.

In our postmodern and culturally pluralistic societies, it is sometimes difficult to arrive at a notion of the good that can be truly described as common, shared by communities with very different cultural sensibilities and habits.

However, it is important not to exaggerate the incommensurability of the different cultures. As the Harvard law professor Mary Ann Glendon has perceptively pointed out – against the instincts of some postmodern fundamentalists – “Where basic human values are concerned, cultural diversity has been exaggerated.”

Be that as it may, cultural differences can sometimes become an impediment to social life by obfuscating important issues and should therefore be taken seriously. That is why in the quest for a shared vision of the good, the participation of every member of society in the deliberative process is extremely important.

“In a society where everyone has a share in government,” writes Robin Lovin, “the deliberative process cannot be irrelevant to the search for the common good.”

Does religion have a role in this deliberative process?

Many secularists – even those of a benign variety – question the legitimacy of religion’s contribution to debates about the political and economic wellbeing of society. Procedural secularists – namely, those who do not oppose religion per se, but insist that public debates should be kept secular – assume that religion and politics simply do not mix, and that the former’s participation in public debate would result in confusion instead of clarity.

Such misgivings, however, are unfounded.

Not many people would doubt the sterling achievement of the United Nations in promulgating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948, in the aftermath of the atrocities of World War II.

But what is sometimes missed is that this document was put together not only with the input of diplomats from different countries, but also that of scholars and intellectuals from different faith communities.

The Declaration shows that it is quite possible for people shaped by different philosophical and religious traditions and who belong to divergent political and economic systems to have common convictions about what it means to speak of the rights of a human being.

But there is another reason why religion – especially Christianity – should not be excluded from the ongoing effort to envision the common good. Its presence can in some important sense challenge our idolatries, the myriad of “isms” to which we give our unquestioning allegiance.

To say this is not to naively suggest that religions are somehow immunised from perversions. Indeed, some of the most sinister idolatries can parade under the banner of religion.

It is to recognise that religion can encourage certain important ways of seeing and of thinking about what it means to be human or what it means to be a community that is forgotten, obscured or simply absent in secular accounts.

Even a secular philosopher like Jürgen Habermas recognises this. In his famous 2005 essay “Religion in the Public Sphere”, Habermas notes that “Religious traditions have a special power to articulate moral intuitions, especially with regard to vulnerable forms of communal life.”

Against the oft-repeated refrain about the divisiveness of religion, religious traditions like Christianity – with its emphasis on equality and justice – can in fact help society achieve a clearer vision of the common good by exposing and correcting veiled intolerances and fanaticisms.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article is first published in Methodist Message.

 

Music and Morality

November 2016 Pulse

In February this year (2016), Pop Queen Madonna held her controversial Rebel Heart concert in Singapore amidst concerns expressed by religious groups.

In his pastoral letter, Roman Catholic Archbishop William Goh urges his 300,000 strong flock not to support ‘pseudo-arts that promote sensuality, rebellion, disrespect, pornography, contamination of the mind of the young, abusive freedom, individualism at the expense of the common good, vulgarity, lies and half-truths’.

The influence of modern pop and rock music on society and culture is a question which scholars – philosophers, theologians and sociologists – have been debating for quite some time. Although a consensus on the extent of music’s impact has not been reached, many are of the view that music does in some ways influence society.

The educational uses of music are, of course, already quite well documented. Children find it much easier to learn the alphabet if it is set to a song. This raises an important question: if children can be taught the alphabet or how to read through music, can they be taught what is right and wrong through the same medium?

To help us to reflect on these questions, we turn to the writings of two of the most eminent philosophers of Greek antiquity – Plato and Aristotle. What they have to say on this important subject is not only enlightening, but also surprisingly relevant.

Plato believes that far from being morally benign or neutral music has a profound if subtle ability to sway its listeners either positively or negatively. Thus, in The Republic Plato argues that music can be subversive and that certain kinds (or ‘modes’) of music can even engender a spirit of lawlessness.

The persuasive nature of music, Plato maintains, its ability not only to arouse particular emotions but also to habituate them, means that it can even shape the character of its listeners.

Now, the claim that certain forms of music produce certain effects in the listener is hardly controversial. It is obvious that listening to the Gregorian Chant and to Metallica’s ‘Creeping Death’ produce quite different effects in the listener.

But can listening to music mould the character of the listener (for the worse), as Plato claims? And if it can, how does it do this?

Rock music may influence the character of its listener – especially its teenage and young listeners – by the subtle and sometimes not so subtle messages it conveys through its lyrics but also through the sensibilities it generates.

Laced as it often is with themes of anger, frustration and self-indulgence, rock music presents the message of anarchy that is often very appealing to young people. For example, heavy metal contains such toxic messages of hatred against parents that it is sometimes described as music to kill your parents by.

But rock also urges the view that all social conventions and values must be overturned: nothing is sacred. A good example of this is Madonna, who throughout her career has attempted to desacralize sex and vulgarise (and even pornify) Christianity, especially its Roman Catholic variety.

Rock does not do this only with its provocative and damning lyrics. It does this by the music itself.

Here is where what our next philosopher, Aristotle, has to say about music is instructive.

According to Aristotle, music works on the will and the soul through representation. By this he means that music directly represents certain passions or emotional states such that by listening to certain types of music certain passions – courage and temperance or anger and rebellion – may be aroused.

Rock often arouses anger, angst and rebellion in the listener. As one commentator puts it, ‘One of the things that rock and the rock industry do best is to take normal adolescent frustration and rebellion and heat it up to boiling point’.

As Aristotle has taught us, we are not dealing here only with the lyrics but the whole emotional arc that the music creates. As (re-)presentational rather than discursive language, music abstracts feelings from lived experiences and impresses them powerfully on the listener.

As John Dewey has put it, ‘Music, having sound as its medium … expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life’.

That is why Plato emphasises the importance of proper education in music. ‘Education in music’ he writes, ‘is most sovereign because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold of it’.

What sort of music, then, would contribute to the healthy moral development of an individual?

To answer this question would require another article. But briefly put, it is music that is wholesome, music that celebrates the good and the beautiful and music that tells the truth. It is music that is firmly rooted in a community, music that tells a story that captures the profoundest human experiences and emotions, and music that has stood the test of time.

We find such qualities in the music of Bach, Mozart and Handel. We also find them in varying degrees in Joan Baez’s ‘Barbara Allen’, in spirituals such as ‘Go Down, Moses’ and in ballads like Paul Simon’s and Art Garfunkel’s ‘Bridge Over Troubled Water’.

In his letter to the Church at Philippi, the Apostle Paul writes: ‘whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things’ (Philippians 4:8).

These qualities are of paramount importance to good music, music that will form its listeners into people of virtue and substance.


Roland Chia (suit)_Large
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.