The Modern Counter-Renaissance

Why do they want to cancel Beethoven?

2020 has been a weird year all around, but some recent developments on the cultural front really take the cake. There are pernicious efforts underway to rewrite history and re-define culture. Let’s look at some of the initiatives that we have witnessed this year.

What is “Cancel Culture”?

“Cancel Culture”, according to Merriam-Webster, works like this:

The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste… As troubling information comes to light regarding celebrities who were once popular, such as Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, Roseanne Barr, and Louis C.K. — so come calls to cancel such figures. The cancellation is akin to a cancelled contract, a severing of the relationship that once linked a performer to their fans.

Cancel Culture is also being applied to historical figures, leading to such popular pastimes as “statue toppling” and the renaming of various institutions. Political conservatives, in particular, have taken umbrage at these practices, and the National Review took the time to compile a list of some of the more unreasonable demands. However, I believe that it would be wrong to view this as a conservative vs. liberal controversy, as I shall explain.

One historical figure who was, shall we say, ahead of the cancellation curve was Christopher Columbus. In 1992, Berkeley, California became the first U.S. city to officially replace the Columbus Day holiday with “Indigenous Peoples Day,” a move that has been repeated by numerous other cities including Los Angeles. Columbus has been accused of “opening the continent to slavery.” However, this claim is incorrect. Native Americans were themselves practicing slavery long before Columbus arrived. As far as I can tell, however, Native Americans are not subject to “cancellation.”

Another popular claim is that the economic strength of the United States was a product of slave labor. This betrays a profound misunderstanding of how an economy works. The rapid economic success of the United States was due, in particular, to the genius of Alexander Hamilton (a fierce opponent of slavery), who understood the importance of national banking and dirigist investments into infrastructure and manufacturing, which tremendously increased the productivity of labor — in the northern states. In the South, they preferred to keep things simple, using slave labor rather than technology, and thus kept labor productivity at the lowest possible level. Slavery retards the development of an economy, rather than advancing it.

The southern states also remained helplessly dependent, de facto colonies of the British Empire, with their economies based solely on the export of tobacco and cotton to England, where the manufacturing took place. A simple indicator of the economic superiority of the non-slave northern states is the fact that the Union won the Civil War, largely due to its superior infrastructure and manufacturing capability which gave a logistical advantage to the Union Army. Yet, the North is being “canceled” as well, by the proponents of the “America was built upon slavery” thesis.

Although the Confederacy is rightfully condemned for the brutal practices of the slave system, its low-tech, decentralized economy is very much in line with today’s popular “Green” vision of what our economy should become. So the Confederate States, as it turns out, are only partially cancelled.

The Feudal “Golden Age”

Let’s take a look at the real reasons why they want to “cancel” Columbus. It has nothing to do with any of the actually bad things he did.

From the standpoint of the monied oligarchs whose tax-exempt foundations shape the trending ideas in academia and popular culture (including the financing of “color revolutions”), the most nearly perfect form of society was feudal system, typified by Europe of the 11th through 14th centuries. Why? Because social relations were entirely static. There was no “upward mobility.” A feudal lord could reliably assume that his progeny would also be lords, generation after generation, while a man who had the misfortune to have been born a serf would know with the same degree of certainly that his great-grandchildren would also be serfs. There was no social tension; this form of society was entirely “sustainable.”

Pieter Breughel the Younger — The Wedding Feast

This fixed set of social relationships was made possible by the fact that the economy was also static. There was no need to educate the labor force so that it might adapt to changing modes of technology, because technology simply did not advance. Every now and then a renaissance might erupt in places such as China, the Islamic world, or during the 12th century rule of Charlemagne in the Holy Roman Empire, causing new technologies to find their way to Europe. But for the most part, the economy continued to reproduce itself at the same technological level, and humans repeated the same activity generation after generation, not unlike the inhabitants of the animal kingdom. All human knowledge, including even the ability to read and write, was confined to a small, carefully chosen group of courtiers and clerics. From the standpoint of an oligarchy, this represented a blissful sort of stability.

The Golden Renaissance Spoiled Everything

While most of Europe was languishing under feudalism, the seeds of the Golden Renaissance were germinating in the Andalusia region of Spain, thanks largely to the role of the Islamic Renaissance which had preserved and transmitted the ideas of Greek antiquity. This represented an entry point for the revival of Platonism and its concept of an evolving, progressing universe, a direct challenge to Aristotle’s fixed, unchanging universe which had been enthusiastically promoted by the kept intellectuals of Europe’s feudal lords. Eventually these ideas took root in Florence, Italy, and sent a series of intellectual shock waves out into the rest of Europe.

This stream of new ideas disrupted the “sustainable” social fabric of the feudal order. In France, King Louis XI scrapped the traditional alliance of the monarch with the nobility against the peasantry, and launched a program to promote literacy among the commoners. His reasoning was that an educated population would be better equipped to advance and strengthen France’s economy, and to defend the country against foreign aggressors; while this may seem like common sense to us, it was regarded by the nobility as a dangerous gamble that could cause popular discontent and a demand for rising living standards. But when the gamble paid off, it inspired similar innovation in other parts of Europe.

Detail from Raphael’s painting, “The School of Athens”

The Golden Renaissance was regarded with dismay by Europe’s oligarchy. In contrast to Aristotle’s view that some people are simply born to be slaves (I am still waiting for Aristotle to be “cancelled”), the resurgent Platonists argued that there was a universal propensity among humans to grapple with higher ideas, and that defined “human nature.” Imagine the hostility with which educated noblemen and noblewomen viewed the implications of the “Meno” dialogue of Plato, where Socrates demonstrates that an illiterate slave can discover the solution to the geometric problem of doubling the square.

This was a genuinely revolutionary challenge to the fixed social order, and it led to the formation of political movements that called for the replacement of hereditary monarchies with republics inspired by Plato’s work. The difficulty of achieving that goal in Europe, where the oligarchy was deeply entrenched, led many activists to migrate to the New World of the western hemisphere, a movement which culminated in the 18th century with the American Revolution. This is what the historical revisionists are actually “cancelling.” The atrocities commited against indigenous peoples in North America and elsewhere were commited by those who still identified with the Empire, not those who rebelled against it.

The Empire Strikes Back

The 18th century version of “think-tanks” which the oligarchs sponsored in their academic strongholds were busily concocting what they hoped would be an antidote to the renaissance image of humanity, and that was what became known as Romanticism (a tactic which was brilliantly analyzed and lampooned by the German-Jewish poet and philosopher Heinrich Heine.) Romanticism attacked the renaissance image of Man as a rational being, and argued that science and progress were spoiling the “all-natural” innocence of humanity.

Prometheus Bound By Christian Schussele

An important archetype for this debate is the character of Prometheus from Greek mythology. Prometheus was a titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it to humans, thus introducing technology. For this, the gods punished him terribly.

Benjamin Franklin was known as “the modern Prometheus” for his experiments with electricity. This earned him the wrath of the oligarchy, and he became the target of the famous novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, where a misguided scientist uses electricity to create a monster. She sub-titled her book “The Modern Prometheus,” lest anyone miss the point.

In the 20th century there were a number of anti-technology, “back to nature” movements, beginning in the early 1900s with the “wandering birds” (Wandervogel) in Germany (who later formed the nucleus for the Hitler Youth.) In the 1960s, the hippies appeared in the U.S. and eventually throughout the world. Their ethos was shaped by books like Hermann Hesse’s Steppenwolf, which features a “war against the machines.”

Now, as we enter the third decade of the 21st century, we have the brawling street gangs of both the redneck and antifa persuasions, as well as the neo-flagellants of the Extinction Rebellion. These groups all share the fundamentally Romantic outlook that passion, especially rage, is a good in itself, and that most of what we inherited from the renaissance ought to be cancelled.

Where Does Music Fit In To All This?

I managed to discuss the Golden Renaissance above without bringing up the arts, and I intend to rectify that now. I should begin by pointing out that for the great thinkers of Florence, science and art were one and the same. For Leonardo da Vinci, analyzing the physical principles of vortices in water was the same as creating beautiful drawings of them. Art and science both represent Man’s willful interaction with nature.

The intellectual courtiers who served Europe’s oligarchy were clever enough to recognize that their way of life was threatened by the Platonic approach to the arts, which awakens in the beholder a consciousness of the power of his own mind, making him less likely to behave in an entirely submissive fashion. In England, the “Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood” was formed to promote a return to a strictly sensual, “natural” approach to painting, and to reject the ironic, idea-rich approach of Raphael and the other renaissance painters. Similar operations were initiated to attempt to control other art forms.

Now to music. In Plato’s Timaeus dialogue, it is theorized that the universe was created through an act of musical composition, and scientists in the Platonic tradition have continued to think this way throughout history. Kepler described his application of musical principles to his breakthrough discovery of the planetary orbits in his Harmonices Mundi (Harmony of the Worlds). Albert Einstein, when asked about his Theory of Relativity, said:

It occurred to me by intuition, and music was the driving force behind that intuition. My discovery was the result of musical perception.

It follows that if the universe is organized by musical principles, the converse must also be true. Music cannot be arbitrary; it must express truths about the physical universe, and musical ideas must develop and evolve the way that the universe does.

It was the great Moses of music, J.S. Bach, who emancipated music from the mere sentimentality of folk music, and gave to it the capacity to touch the highest cognitive functions of the mind by creating ironies, by posing paradoxes that only the mind’s poetic resources can solve. He did this with what is called tonal counterpoint, where musical ideas are repeated in different contexts which transform their meaning. Other composers followed him and made their own unique contributions using his method, but the one who carried it to its highest, most perfected form was Ludwig van Beethoven.

Following Beethoven’s death, a political battle erupted between the heirs of Beethoven such as Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms on the one side, and the Romantics Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt on the other. This battle has continued to the present day, and I must sadly report that it has not gone well for the pro-renaissance faction. The composers of the 20th Century decisively chose the Wagner-Liszt path — or worse.

The supposedly “natural” approach of the Romantics was displaced by a new and more nihilistic approach, existentialism. Instead of a beast-like image of man ruled by his passions, they preferred a psychotic one: the universe was said to be arbitrary, irrational, and meaningless. Consequently, the arts gradually took on those same characteristics. This was called modernism.

Following World War II, two major oligarchic think tanks went into action. In Germany, the Frankfurt School had aggressively applied existentialist doctrine to music and the other arts. Following the war, it moved to the U.S. and made the questionable claim that it was now a bulwark against a resurgence of fascism. The School’s leading spokesman on musical matters was Theodor Adorno, who made himself a champion of modernism, attempted to recast Beethoven as an existentialist, and was fond of issuing pithy quotes such as “Behind every work of art lies an uncommitted crime” and “Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage.”

A second and perhaps more complicated case was the Congress For Cultural Freedom. This institution attracted many leading intellectuals, and is known primarily for the scandal that arose when it became known that it was entirely a creation of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency; ostensibly created to promote the arts, it was being used as a covert means to try to discredit communism by promoting a “non-communist left.” The question which deserves far more study is why a CIA front group energetically promoted modernism in the arts to the exclusion of classical forms.

Meanwhile, Beethoven has stubbornly refused to die, and his opponents are growing increasingly frantic as they continue to attempt to kill him. The year 2020 is being celebrated by classical music aficionados as the Beethoven Year because it marks the 250th anniversary of the composer’s death. This has triggered truly unprecedented expressions of hatred from his detractors, including performances of his works that may charitably be described as perverse.

A social media link to the article in question

One article which was widely circulated on social media proclaimed the need to cancel Beethoven with the title, “How Beethoven’s 5th Symphony put the classism in classical music”, insisting that the symphony “may be predominantly a reminder of classical music’s history of exclusion and elitism.” This elicited one response from a professional musician, who expressed his astonishment that Beethoven, whose politics were “quite progressive”, should become a target for cancellation, rather than Wagner, “whose personal defects and despicable views are well-known.”

This simply indicates that our well-intentioned musician is missing the big picture here. He may believe that Beethoven, along with many other respected historical personages, is being targeted by ostensible leftists because he does not conform to some Identity Politics purity test. Some of the ostensible leftists themselves may believe this, too. But for the cultural string-pullers, Beethoven’s political opinions are not the issue. It is the power of his artistry to awaken the cognitive potential of the populace that makes him a threat. William Shakespeare has become a target for similar reasons.

As the present, bankrupt financial system lurches toward its ultimate demise, the oligarchy hopes to use the ensuing chaos to re-establish their preferred way of life. But that can only happen if the population is demoralized, confused, semi-literate, and deeply pessimistic. It is for that reason that all vestiges of the last renaissance are targets for cancellation. Our job is to safeguard the legacy of that renaissance, and usher in the next one.

Marisol is an arts aficionado and a social media habitué.