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God and Reason

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

On November 1, 1755, Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake

In a famous feud, Voltaire and Rousseau argued about the nature of God.    Both were Deists.   Deists didn’t doubt that there was a God.     Following Newton, a “world in motion” had to have a first mover.   Moreover, how could such an intricate and elaborate universe have come into being without a creator?   Beyond that, though Deists had different views.

Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) believed that God was a loving God, with nature being God’s true Bible, his message to humans.   Rousseau was convinced that the worst mistake humanity ever made was to leave the state of nature and form communities, generating artificial “needs” and desires.   He would no doubt be sickened by how humanity is now literally poisoning the planet and producing genetically altered plants and animals.

Voltaire (1694-1778), the pen name of François-Marie Arouet, did not share Rousseau’s optimistic view of God.   On November 1, 1755 Lisbon Portugal had a massive earthquake.   It was as strong as 9.0 on the Richter scale, destroyed 85% of Lisbon’s buildings and killed perhaps 50,000 of Lisbon’s 200,000 inhabitants.  It inspired the philosopher Immanuel Kant to develop the concept of “the sublime.”

(At the same time the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria was in labor – on November 2, 1755 she would give birth to her daughter Marie Antoinette, who would later be married off to the future king of France).

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

French philosopher Voltaire helped define enlightenment values

Voltaire, who already was suffering from personal tragedies, visited Lisbon and was sickened by what he saw.  Utter destruction, massive death, and survivors in misery.  Horrific suffering thanks to nature.   How could this be the handiwork of a loving God?  Why would God allow such misery to occur?

Rousseau offered an answer.    Nature is God’s message, and God is love.   So the problem must be humans.    God clearly doesn’t want us congregated into huge crowded cities.    People living on the country side could avoid the massive suffering caused by the earth quake.  It was a message: cities are unnatural, if humans create them and natural disaster hits, blame people, not God.

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

Swiss philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau inspires naturalists to this day

This infuriated Voltaire.   He had seen the suffering with his eyes and could not believe that Rousseau was blaming innocent victims for their peril.   But Voltaire was not sure how to respond.   Could God really be a horrific brute that reigned terror on humanity?   But if God was loving, how could he allow such suffering?

He pondered Gottfried Leibniz’s (1646-1716) explanation for the existence of evil, that of all the possible worlds that could exist, this one was the “best possible.”   Yes, bad stuff happens, but you could not have humans with free will without the potential of negative consequences.   Thinking of the scenes from Lisbon, Voltaire wondered, “is this is the best of all possible worlds?”

So Voltaire did what most writers do when stymied, he wrote.   And wrote.   The product of his work was a book called Candide, or Candide or the Optimist.   It is long, humorous, fast paced and satirical.   Candide is studying with Pangloss, a teacher who follows  Leibniz and Rousseau in saying that all works out for the best.    Within the book they even visit the scene of the Lisbon earthquake.   Candide asks if he should save a man who is drowning and Pangloss replies that he need not bother – if God wants him saved, he’ll be saved.  (Pangloss in Latin means literally “all word”).

By the end of the book Candide rejects Pangloss’s argument that all turns out as it necessarily must, for the best.   Instead, Candide says, “we must cultivate our own garden.”

That still inspires artists and thinkers to this day – click below to watch a video of Rush’s song “The Garden,” which lyricist Neil Peart said was inspired by Candide:

To be sure, there’s considerable debate over what exactly Voltaire meant.   I read it to suggest that while there may have been a creator, it’s not at all clear that the creator cares about or even pays attention to his work.   Perhaps God is out creating other worlds.  In any event, God doesn’t need our love, other humans need our love.   Rather than worshiping God or looking to him for salvation or support, we should be help each other.

Voltaire’s pragmatic argument was the beginning of what is now called “secular humanism.”   It is humanist because humans are the center – we are to help others, improve the world and use reason to take responsibility for the world we construct.  It is not the best of all possible worlds, but a world in need of improvement.    It is secular because God is irrelevant.  Praising God does nothing to help feed the poor or take care of those in need.   Better to put our energy towards making the world we find ourselves in a better place.

Voltaire marked a move towards truly putting reason first for creating ethics.    We are to use reason to figure out how to make the world better, improving conditions for humans.    Given conditions in France at the time, Voltaire could correctly blame the Church and its traditions for a good portion of human suffering going on in cities like Paris – suffering that would ultimately lead the people to revolt.

Yet perhaps there is a middle ground.   This may not be the “best of all possible worlds,” but that doesn’t mean that reason alone provides meaning.   Reason only leads one to work to better humanity when you take as a goal a humanist belief that the well being of humans is the ultimate value.    Yet reason does not give us proof for that value; reason can be used by fascists, Nazis, racists, nationalists and communists to justify their ideology.   Reason is a tool, not a means to discover principles and value.  Indeed after the French revolution people who thought they shared common principles turned into bitter enemies and society broke down.

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a "Goddess of Reason" to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

By 1793 the French revolutionaries ironically created a “Goddess of Reason” to sit in the Notre Dame cathedral

It does not have to be religious belief nor a traditional concept of God (though it can be).   But the fact we are alive in a world with no clear purpose or reason — the fact there is something rather than nothing — strongly indicates that we are only glimpsing part of reality, and not the part that tells us the “answers.”   Modern physics in fact says light is both a particle and a wave, and particles are actually just ripples in fields and not actually “stuff.”

Atheists often say that only things with measurable material consequences are relevant for understanding our world.   Yet that materialist view ignores the fact that perhaps the parts of reality we don’t experience in material terms do come through in our emotions, intuition, and inner sense.  For lack of a better word we call that “spiritual,” and it runs the gamut from magic new age crystals to Buddhist meditation and both traditional religious and non-traditional beliefs.  Perhaps we can use a “God concept” to explain whatever power gives substance to the universe.

That still doesn’t settle Rousseau and Voltaire’s dispute.     Rousseau believed that civilization muted our natural compassion.    Voltaire believed that civilization could be guided to better the human experience.  Perhaps both were right in their own way.   We must cultivate our own garden, but to do so we need to look both to nature and that voice inside, a voice that may have its origin outside the material reality we can perceive.  God?   Spirit?   Does it really matter?

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Clockwork Angels: a Rush Classic

Rush – Geddy Lee (Gary Lee Weinrib), Alex Lifeson (Alex Zivojinovich) and Neil Peart have been together as Rush for four decades.   During that time they have released 19 studio albums, the latest being Clockwork Angels.    To be blunt: it is a stunningly poignant, powerful and entrancing album.

For their first album in five years the trio go back to the prog rock standard of having not just a concept album, but an album that tells a story.   Rush did that in the seventies, but after Hemispheres came out in 1978 they rejected long stories and overt concept albums.    Clockwork Angels is a story told by an older man looking back at life in a dystopian steampunk world.

A youthful Geddy, Alex and Neil

For Peart – the lyricist and story teller, the album is personal and reflects a kind of bookend to the 1976 classic 2112.   In that album a young man confronts a world of conformity and control, and finds power in music to rebel and express his individual freedom.   2112 is a young man’s story, inspired by the philosophy of Ayn Rand, brimming with optimism about one’s ability to go out and create one’s life, taking control and expressing the ideal of freedom.

Peart, who calls himself a “bleeding heart libertarian” has backed off from his embrace of Rand, and this album helps explain why.   It is the album of a man nearing sixty who looks back at a life with moments of both glory and tragedy.   Peart himself lost his daughter in a car accident and his wife to breast cancer within a year.    He’s traveled the globe and had success doing what he loves – drumming and creating lyrical magic for a band that has stuck together through thick and thin.   But he’s experienced lows, saw the pain this world can create, and realizes that reality betrays his ideals.   Yet he still is an idealist.

Older but more experienced rockers – they still electrify crowds.

One inspiration for the album was Voltaire’s classic Candide, mentioned overtly in the album notes introducing the last song – The Garden.    Candide was Voltaire’s response to Rousseau’s belief that nature was good and any evil and pain humans experiences is due to our choices in constructing civilization contrary to nature.   Voltaire visited Lisbon after the famous 1755 earthquake and saw the horror there — and was stunned to hear that Rousseau blamed the victims for defying nature and building a massive city vulnerable to such tragedy.   He wrote Candide as a response to Rousseau, having the hero travel the world with his mentor Pangloss, who claimed that all happens because it should.

While not mirroring in structure or content Voltaire’s work, the hero in Clockwork Angels  is on a similar journey.   In BU2B he writes:

‘I was brought up to believe the universe has a plan
We are only human, it’s not ours to understand
The universe has a plan, all is for the best
Some will be rewarded and the devil will take the rest

All is for the best, believe in what we’re told
Blind men in the market buying what we’re sold
Believe in what we’re told until our final breath
While our loving Watchmaker loves us all to death”

The capital of this steampunk world is Crown City, where the angels of Chronos Square help the Watchmaker keep order.   Life is secure, but boring.   As a young man our hero yearns for something more: “I can’t stop thinking big!”   He escapes a life of order and obedience, working at first for a carnival.    The songs take us through some of the hero’s journey such as The Wreckers where he emerges from a shipwreck as the sole survivor and Halo Effect reflecting on how easy it is in love to fall for illusions:

“What did I see?
Fool that I was
A goddess, with wings on her heels
All my illusions
Projected on her
The Ideal that I wanted to see”

As the album nears an end the hero comes to conclusions similar to those of Voltaire’s Candide.   In Headlong Flight (a song with vintage Rush stylings) he reflects on “all the journeys of this great adventure.”   His “headlong flight” is life, with high peaks and dark valleys, a journey different than expected but with no regrets: “I wish that I could live it all again.”

That is followed by BU2B2:

“Belief has failed me now, life goes from bad to worse
No philosophy consoles me in a clockwork universe
Life goes from bad to worse, I still choose to live
Find a measure of love and laughter and another measure to give”

He reaches a profound conclusion in that passage – in a clockwork universe there can be no satisfying philosophical answer to life’s mysteries.   You can have faith in the Watchmaker (e.g., God), but reality makes such faith hard if not impossible to hold.    So he turns to choosing life – a measure of love and laughter.

The penultimate song, Wish them Well adds:

“All you can do is wish them well
Spirits turned bitter by the poison of envy
Always angry and dissatisfied
Even the lost ones, the frightened and mean ones
Even the ones with a devil inside
Thank your stars you’re not that way, turn your back and walk away…”

He’s also found there is no point in dwelling on the weaknesses of others, even those who’ve cheated him or caused pain.   They are the ones with the sickness in their souls, all you can do is “wish them well.”   The hero realizes that dwelling on the misdeeds and betrayals of others only gives them power over his own thoughts and mood.    He will not be diminished by the smallness of others.   Rather than seeking revenge, wish them well.

Candide is often seen as the first modern philosophical expression of humanism

The album notes for the last song, The Garden, cites Candide, a story from “another timeline.”   Candide experienced adventure and tragedy while being constantly told by his teacher Pangloss that all that happens is the will of God.   At the end Candide concludes that “now it is time to cultivate our own garden,” choosing a simple life in the countryside.   Peart’s conclusion is similar:

“The treasure of a life is a measure of the love and respect
The way you live, the gifts that you give in the fullness of time
it’s the only return that you expect

The future disappears into memory
with only a moment between
Forever dwells in that moment
Hope is what remains to be seen.”

Candide is often considered the first full modern expression of humanism.  God may exist, but he doesn’t need our love and efforts – we humans need them.    We need to love ourselves and each other.   The humanist ethic emerges when idealism battles cynicism.   Idealism wins, but at a price.   Instead of faith in an omnipotent loving God and a future of paradise, one only has life and the moments as they arise.   Living each moment well has/is its own reward.

“The measure of a life is a measure of love and respect
So hard to earn, so easily burned
In the fullness of time
A garden to nurture and protect.”

A few things stand out about the album.   First, these guys are no slouches.   The album took work, they explored new musical territory while not letting go of their signature sound.   I’m not qualified to write a musical review, but most music critics are amazed that these musicians are not only still producing quality work, but taking great pride in trying to always produce their best album ever.   That work ethic is why they can still produce a masterpiece when others from their era are either retired or rehashing old music in arenas, often two or three of the old superstar bands teamed together.

Beyond that, a look at Rush through time shows a band that constantly grows and evolves, both musically and lyrically.   They never try to be commercial (only Tom Sawyer was a real hit), and until their last two albums have tended to be dismissed by music critics who took a snobbish view on the entire prog rock movement — the two coasts sneering at the Midwest and Canadian hard rock sound.    Now, though, even the critics have come around.    Perhaps Rush will finally get a place in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

This is not an album they could have made back in the 70s.   It reflects the wisdom of thoughtful years through Peart’s lyrics, the meshing and development of a variety of sounds through Lee and Lifeson’s compositions, a seriously evolving style of drumming from Peart, and a commitment by the band to excellence and to each other.  Their success now is a vindication of the band and people like me — fans who have always seen something special in their words and music.    Just as the youthful rebellious individualism and hard rock power in 2112 inspired me at age 16, the reflective wisdom and tight musical complexity of Clockwork Angels moves me at age 52.

Here’s a drum solo from Peart from a 2011 appearance on Letterman:

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