Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Astronomy and the Quadrivium

Perhaps your first thought, as was mine, is: “How can Astronomy be an ‘art?'” Furthermore, how can Astronomy be called a ‘liberal’ art? From a very interesting (and worth exploring) website called “Arts of Liberty,” we have a snippet for explanation:

“To call astronomy an ‘art’ can come as a shock to a modern reader… Perhaps without thinking much about it, we think of “science” as being a genuine and exact knowledge, whereas ‘art’ is more expressive, or touchy-feely.  But, that is not quite adequate, since medicine is also an ‘art,’ and it is anything but touchy-feely… And while ‘science’ and ‘art’ do not appear to be synonyms, it could very well be that the same discipline can be called both a ‘science’ and an ‘art,’ although for different reasons.

To understand this properly requires us to consider a sense of the word ‘science’ not in common use today.  The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia, which meant a very exact knowledge, a rigorous and sure knowledge of things deduced from self-evident truths.  The ancient Greeks would have called such knowledge epistémé...  

In the vocabulary of the ancients, an ‘art,’ like a science, meant a carefully reasoned-out knowledge, but more than that, it meant a knowledge of how to produce something.  Where there is no ‘product,’ there is no ‘art.’  So it is possible for a form of knowledge to be a ‘science’ but not an ‘art.’  For example, Aristotle considered the study of god to be a ‘science,’ a body of knowledge rigorously reasoned out from self-evident principles, but not an ‘art,’ because it did not teach us how to make gods, or how to do anything about god.”

Ptolemaicsystem-smallClaudius Ptolemy (100-170 CE) was a Greek mathematician living in Alexandria. His work The Amalgest was one of the most influential astronomical works until Galileo’s discoveries in the 17th C. The Amalgest documents many mathematical and astronomical treatises, including works by other mathematicians – works thought to be lost. The most significant piece of this Amalgest (total of 13 books), is the documentation of the geocentric model of the universe. Ptolemy’s work became the accepted theory of the structure of the planets and stars, with the Earth central to all.

This influenced not only astronomy and mathematics but also theology, philosophy, and fine art. Three centuries after it was written, Hypatia and her father Theon, genius mathematicians, added to the work with their own commentary, throwing in their thoughts of elliptical orbits, the procession of the equinoxes, revising Ptolemy’s Handy Tables, and introducing the sexigesimal calculation systems. It’s believed that this rendering of the Amalgest, with the Hypatia/Theon commentary, is the one that was used for the majority of the Middle Ages although no direct reference to Theon survives and Hypatia is mentioned only in a passing 10th C. reference.


And thus, the Quadrivium ends. I hope you’ve enjoyed my answer to the Bro.’s challenge of finding a significant event, work, or person who influenced each specific liberal art. The question was posed, should Freemason’s really learn the liberal arts? The answer, to me, should be obvious. Not only should we learn the liberal arts individually, but understand their context in the whole of being educated about the natural world. Human beings can be taught easily to survive; we cannot just “pick up” how to thrive, generate ideas, and create a better world.

An example of this “Freemasonic mindset” is James Madison, even though he was not a Freemason. In his early twenties, when the United States was in its infancy, he gave up much of his career and life to studying the histories and government of world cultures. He was relentless in his pursuit of the histories and knowledge of government administration, what worked, what didn’t; he studied philosophy, history, theology, art, classical literature, geography – the liberal arts and more. By the time he finished, and began his work in the new nation’s government, he was arguably the single biggest influencer in shaping the United States Constitution and the framework of our Democracy. By learning the past deeply, he was able to innovate and create a new world. To me, that is a main goal of the Service of Freemasons.

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

Beethoven’s Last Work – Ode to Joy

As a classically trained musician, I often frame the way I think about the mysteries of the universe in terms of music. I love the quote of Einstein where he says, “I live my daydreams in music. I see my life in terms of music.” A world without music would be lifeless, silent, and depressing. Almost every moment in a person’s life is continually underscored by music — from birth to death, at weddings and other celebrations. The ancients were convinced that music could become internalized by the individual; the music influencing, as it were, the manner of our thoughts, feelings, and actions.  

Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony and Ode to Joy 

The “Ode to Joy” in Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, first performed on May 7, 1824, is one of those musical treasures that invites me to dream, to turn within and to contemplate my mortal coil. The chorus was the finale in the “last work” that Beethoven ever composed.

The idea for “Ode to Joy,” and the words for the chorus, came to Beethoven in his early 20’s.  The famous poet Friedrich Schiller had written in 1785 an excessively cheerful drinking song, and Beethoven was creatively impressed to set the poem to music. He was the first major composer to include a chorus and vocal soloists in the last movement of a symphony. In the chorus, we hear the joy of a man who, through suffering and compassion, embraced all.  

It is such a glorious moment. So shocking. So hopeful: even though we know the violence and burdens of the world are out there surrounding us, waiting for us. The joyful lyrics ring true the message of uniting all people in universal brotherhood. Beethoven’s little introduction to the poem also mentions not dwelling on sad things but being happy instead.

The last words direct themselves to heaven, and in some amazing m34481589172_8d767a068a_o 1usical craftsmanship, the movement ends with a sublime message:

Be embraced, ye millions!
For the universe, this kiss!
Brothers – above the canopy of stars
A loving Father surely dwells.

Millions, do you fall upon our knees?
Do you sense the Creator, world?
Seek him above the canopy of stars!
Surely he dwells above the stars!

Just imagine that Beethoven was fully deaf and writing about being happy!  He was acquainted with a deep compassion that swept through him for others in a destitute situation. He dearly loved mankind and his skill as a master musician provided the means to reveal to us the hidden nature of the world within us, touching our souls.  Could this message possibly be a metaphor in itself? Who is really hard of hearing — him or us?

Beethoven’s music has been said to awaken compassion and the desire for universal brotherhood.  Because of the feelings contained in Beethoven’s music, his works can stir crowds to higher levels of realization. One wonders what power graced Beethoven that he could write such music. His joyful message still has the ability to lift the souls of all who hear it. How does this piece or any music tend to shape and mold us?  I have wondered that so many times and questioned myself. I have tried to touch the heart of the composer; Tried to turn my life into an “Ode to Joy.”352228023_28f8dd197a_o

Ancient Philosophers and the Mysteries of Music

David Tame, in his excellent book on The Secret Power of Music describes how a select group of composers have been able to show us what the ancient philosophers knew about the mysteries of music:

Pythagoras’ understanding of music was far more than a merely materialistic, academic one, and such an understanding is lamentably rare today. Yet we discover something of this timeless flame of ageless wisdom preserved in that small minority of musicians who still today have combined academic knowledge and the practical experience of music with a genuine and earnest inner spiritual development.

A Modern Take on Immortal Beloved

I consider Beethoven to be among this elite group.  In the 90’s, there was a film that came out about Beethoven’s life called “Immortal Beloved.”  Critics disagree with much of the movie’s historical contents, but there is one scene that took my breath away. I have pondered the meaning of it ever since. 

It begins by showing Beethoven standing before the orchestra while he is conducting the finale of the Ninth Symphony. He finds himself thinking back to a childhood memory of running away from his abusive father. The film draws us in as this young boy runs through the woods to escape the awful beatings that have plagued him all his life. His journey leads him to a lake where he wades in to float on his back to look up at the stars. The whole scene is illumined by a radiant full moon. 

Suddenly, we are transported to a change of perspective as the camera pans back.  The lake becomes a reflection of the sky, making Beethoven look as if he is suspended amid the stars until eventually his young body has merged with the heavens. He finds himself in his own universe, yet above the pain and uncertainty of his troubled adolescence. From this, we are left to wonder if Beethoven was truly alone and if his immortal beloved was music: his music. 

An Ode to Joy and Freemasonry 

There are many times that I have given myself over to Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” masterpiece.  I bathe in the sounds, leave the troubles of my world behind and allow the joy to slowly purify me.  Freemasonry is much like any beautiful well-crafted piece of music in that the ceremonies and rituals give inspiration and perspective.  While the millions of stars in the sky may make us feel small in comparison, Freemasonry teaches that we are capable of so much.  We are truly a significant part of this very same Universe, and we have within us capacity to behold a sacred moment of transcendent power.

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Footnote:  Some say that Beethoven was a Freemason, although there is a lack of absolute evidence to that fact. Further exploration of this theory can be found in the article: http://freemasonry.bcy.ca/biography/beethoven_l/beethoven_l.html