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I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing

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While we’ve been going over the morality stuff, I’ve been reading a tiny little book called On Painting, by Leon Battista Alberti.

These days, we wouldn’t even call it a book, or, if we did, we’d publish it with big type and lots of white space.  My Penguin edition only makes it to the almost-book category with an extensive introduction, plus a whole bunch of notes and that sort of thing.

Alberti, though, wasn’t writing these days.  He wrote in the early Renaissance, and this little book represents the first time anybody had tried to produce a theoretical explanation of painting. 

And it was an enormously influential book, too, informing the work of Piero della Francesca, among others.  Alberti published it in both Latin and the vernacular Italian to make sure it could be read by actual practicing painters as well as by scholars, and it was.

Later, it informed the work–both in painting, and in writing–of Leonardo da Vinci. 

Alberti is an interesting character in some ways.  His writing had enormous impact on the actual practice of painting and architecture in Florence and Rome in the Renaissance, and yet he was not a very successful painter or a very successful architect.  These days, I suppose we’d call him an idea man.

But here’s what always struck me–and does still–when I picked up this book to consider reading it:

There’s a lot of math.

Alberti was successful as an idea man, I think, because he was good at doing something both the Middle Ages and the (at least early) Renaissance valued:  presenting all the aspects of “learning” as a single coherent whole.

I put “learning” in quotes like that to signal something:  for Alberti and his contemporaries, art and architecture, painting and sculpture, music and poetry, chemistry and astronomy, philosophy and theology,  were all “sciences.”   It hadn’t occurred to anybody that these were different kinds of things with different rules, or that they might ever be in conflict.

Maybe because the Christian church was as much the child of Rome as it was of Jerusalem, Christian thinkers tended to stress–from the very beginning–that there was no incompatibility between “learning” and religion.  Augustine declared that any time we think we’ve found a contradiction between science and scripture, we’d misread scripture.  He probably find today’s Christian fundamentalists completely stupefying.

Or maybe he’d just find them heretics, since they’ve separated from Mother Church.

The real point here, however, is that there is a lot of math in Alberti’s book because Alberti is working to prove that painting has its foundation in mathematics, and especially in geometry. 

The idea was to discover the underlying harmony, the essential coherence and design, under the apparent diversity of temporal things. 

That there was such harmony, that there was such coherent design, was a central intellectual truism for the ancient Greeks and largely accepted by the Romans.  The Christian Middle Ages adopted the idea because it fit so well with Christian theology.  A benevolent God would not produce unintelligble chaos for us to live in.  We could know God–if only in outline–by knowing his works.

Along with this conviction came another one, and that was that you could understand nature by understanding what it was for.  Each thing, each person, each blade of grass and rock and stone and star and cat, had its proper place and function in the world. 

Morality, then, could be discovered, by understanding what man’s proper function was and what it would take to follow it.  This was the sense in which both Aristotle and Aquinas assumed that any man, using his reason, could discover–not invent but discover–the moral law by honest and sustained inquiry into the nature of it.

I want to stress that “discover.”  Mique wrote yesterday that he thought morality was “made by” us, but I don’t think it is.  I don’t think we can invent morality.  I think we can only discover it.  I think we discover the laws of morality in the same way we discover the laws of physics.  It’s out there, beyond our ability to change it, waiting for us to figure it out.  We’ll never know it perfectly and with finality.

The classical world would, of course, have been astonished at the idea that knowledge would always be tentative or that we’d never come to an end of needing to know more, and the Middle Ages and the Renaissance wouldn’t have liked the idea either.

But that matters less than the fact that the assumption that all of Creation was essential one–that all knowledge was connected to all other knowledge, that the whole fit together like a jigsaw puzzle–provided a basis for both Medieval moral philosophy and Renaissance forays into our kind of “science” that has now been largely lost.

Because one of the things that has definitely happened–one of the things that helped kick start the scientific revolution–is the entrenchment of the idea that the various branches of human learning are radically separate.  Nobody who writes about art these days would bother to spend 3000 words explaining its foundation in mathematics, because nobody who writes about painting these days would assume that painting was founded in mathematics.  Isn’t that one of the stereotypes about the art major?  Can’t do enough math to balance his own checkbook.

I think what has me reading all this stuff at the moment, though, is that I’m beginning to think we’ve lost something in the fragmentation.

There are certainly advantages–good, practical advantages–to at least starting with the assumption that fields are radically separate.

But I think that what started out as methodological fragmentation has become existential fragmentation.

That is, I think that we started out separating fields because that provided us with a good method to pursue research.  Then we forgot it was just a method, and came to be something we automatically believed to be actually true about the nature of the world we live in.

And the more I think about this, the more absurd it seems. 

If, like me, you do not that there is any world other than this one.  If you don’t think there are “supernatural” beings or ghosts or miracles–

Then coming up with an explanation of how a world came into existence with no rhyme or reason to it, no underlying patterns, no necessary connections between its parts–

Is going to be a lot harder than justifying blood liquefying every January in an Italian church. 

For any atheist, the interconnectedness of all things, including all fields of human endeavor, ought to be a given.  And it ought to be a given without the scientistic assumption that we are making the supreme kind of sense when we engage in absolutist reductionism.

Blech.  I’ve started tripping over myself.  It’s that time of the morning.

I’ll get back to this the next time I post, and in the meantime I want to do only two things.

First, to point out to JD that I do, indeed, mean to say that no technologically advanced civilization existed before somewhere aroung the Renaissance, but 1880 would be a good bet, too–why wouldn’t I say that?  It’s true.

The real cut-off, for me, isn’t the germ theory of disease or antibiotics per se, but the point at which human beings stopped assuming that death was always around the corner, that any of us could be “taken” at any moment, for no reason anybody could make out.

And that was indeed helped along by the germ theory and by antibiotics, but actually starts with the first big public health pushes a little earlier.

But I’ll say again what I’ve said here before–nobody living now can understand the way in which people in earlier times faced the possibility of death.  None of us have ever lived in that kind of world.  And that kind of world is different in kind–not just in degree–from what came before.

The second thing is to make the little statement about POSTING COMMENTS TO THE BLOG:

If you try to post a comment and can’t, then try to register a password and end up getting the error message

            Invalid Registration Status

please e-mail me, and we’ll get you into the system manually.

So far, at least four regular contributors have had this problem, and I’m a little worried about new people with no experience of how the system usually works.

So if it happens, it’s just the program screwing up.  E-mail me–if you don’t have the address  you can use the contact form on the web site–and we’ll get you signed in.

Thanks.  Sorry for all the fuss. 

Written by janeh

November 18th, 2010 at 6:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing'

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  1. The math-aesthetics tie-in is still there. They just don’t like to talk about it. Somewhere in the Adams-Jefferson correspondence, Adams asks Jeff how far from a building the pillars should be, and gets a prompt answer: a range, actually, depending on the diameter of the pillar. Works too. DNA or custom? Dunno. Would it work under different gravities and environmental constraints? See various SF writers and illustrators. But I bet it could still be described mathematically.

    Part of the specialization problem is that no later than the 18th Century you couldn’t be a real expert across the board. The sum of human knowledge had become too great. But I agree we’d make more progress if our experts could draw on more disciplines for insight.

    As for the One Great Theory of Everything–well, as a monotheist, I’ll buy off. I’m not sure it logically follows from atheism, though, however comforting it might be to the believers therein. Brother William says not to multiply prime causes unnecessarily, which is good advice. He doesn’t go Highlander on the issue. And Physics is not untrue because we can’t come up with a unified field theory that holds water. It won’t be untrue if there never is such a theory.

    (I’d also keep in mind that really understanding doesn’t always solve a problem. Sometimes it just tells us how thoroughly frelled we really are.)

    A 1200 BC Philistine is part of a technologically advanced society if he has blacksmiths and the Hebrews in the hills don’t–but as a psychological thing, I’d put it slightly earlier than those public health measures–about the time they start putting lightning rods on cathedrals.

    Which does NOT mean I can’t drop over dead tomorrow, with or without apparent reason. It just means that if I do and the powers that be can’t see an obvious reason, they’ll pay a physician to supply one.

    But if believing that everyone dies for a reason were sufficient, there’s a tribe in Sub-Saharan Africa which beats us all hollow. They believe any death not brought about by violence is caused by sorcery, and when someone dies without a knife or bullet wound on him, they track down and kill the sorcerer.

    It was getting to be a rather small tribe, at last report. Perhaps we could refine the definition a bit?


    18 Nov 10 at 6:56 pm

  2. Ask any working artist, in just about any medium (although, oddly not prose writing so much, although I think poetry qualifies) and they will assure you that math is at the foundation of their art.

    Music and dance are obvious. So too is painting, sculpture, visual arts of all sorts. I myself do both art quilts and beaded jewelry as art, and I assure you that without math, there would be no such arts or crafts. And I don’t just mean the measure of the materials, I mean the basis for design, composition, relationship of form, rhythm of surface, the elements that make it all more than utilitarian.

    The necessity of math in art may surprise the consuming public, but any artist is well aware of it. The same goes for industrial design, architecture (not just in the structural component, but in the esthetics), fashion, cooking, and well, everything.

    “I was told there would be no math,” is the cry heard round the world, but we’d all do better to listen to our elementary teachers. The world IS math, is a manifestation of numbers and equations and relationships.

    Ignore the mathematics of the universe at your peril. ;)


    18 Nov 10 at 9:53 pm

  3. “I want to stress that “discover.” Mique wrote yesterday that he thought morality was “made by” us, but I don’t think it is. I don’t think we can invent morality. I think we can only discover it. I think we discover the laws of morality in the same way we discover the laws of physics. It’s out there, beyond our ability to change it, waiting for us to figure it out. We’ll never know it perfectly and with finality.”

    Yes, that puts what I believe more precisely than I put it myself. There is, or used to be when I was studying law back in the Dark Ages, a similar concept with regard to the Common Law. In answer to the frequent claim that superior court judges “made” the law when they decided cases under the Common Law, the argument was that they didn’t _make_ the law but simply _found_ the law that had always existed but, hitherto, had not yet been discovered. Mike could tell us whether it’s still a current view, perhaps.


    19 Nov 10 at 1:29 am

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