Modern Principles

     People are fortunate if they have one good teacher in their life.
     Dr. Johnson wrote that the names of an author’s teachers should be inscribed in his books, for if the books are good, the teachers deserve some of the credit.
     I was lucky to study for two years with the second-greatest teacher of them all, Joe Allard, the philosopher of the saxophone.
     Joe said Socrates was the greatest teacher, because Socrates acknowledged that he was ignorant.
     Joe taught principles. “A principle may, but need not, lead to a system,” Joe said.
     As a teacher, Joe said, he tried to “get inside the student’s head,” to understand what the student was trying to express.
     He watched the student, to see what habits she had picked up that kept her from expressing herself as she wanted to. Then Joe tried to help her free herself from those habits.
     Like any genius who works from basic principles, the lessons Joe taught extend far beyond music. I thought of that, and of Joe, again, as I read A.C. Bradley this week on “Shakespearean Tragedy” (1904).
     Bradley must have been a hell of a teacher. His first chapter, “The Substance of Tragedy,” is what we all were taught in high school. It also illuminates what’s wrong with Washington today.
     “(A) Shakespearean tragedy is never, like some miscalled tragedies, depressing,” Bradley wrote. “No one ever closes the book with the feeling that man is a poor mean creature. He may be wretched and he may be awful, but he is not small. His lot may be heart-rending and mysterious, but it is not contemptible. … And with this greatness of the tragic hero (which is not always confined to him) is connected, secondly, what I venture to describe as the centre of the tragic impression. This central feeling is the impression of waste. With Shakespeare … the pity and fear which are stirred by the tragic story seem to unite with, and even to merge in, a profound sense of sadness and mystery, which is due to this impression of waste. ‘What a piece of work is man,’ we cry; ‘so much more beautiful and so much more terrible than we knew! Why should he be so if this beauty and greatness only tortures itself and throws itself away?’ … Everywhere, from the crushed rocks beneath our feet to the soul of man, we see power, intelligence, life and glory, which astound us and seem to call for our worship. And everywhere we see them perishing, devouring one another and destroying themselves, often with dreadful pain, as though they came into being for no other end.”
     How does this apply to Washington?
     From Congress today we surely get the impression of waste. But there is no mystery about what passes for today’s loyal opposition. They are driven by the smallest of motives: self-interest, destruction of perceived enemies who are their kinsmen.
     They do not show us glory and intelligence; they show us meanness, smallness, contempt.
     “I think you’re going too far,” South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham said this week to the proposal that people on the terrorist watch list might be prohibited from buying high-powered rifles. “Some of the people pushing this idea are also pushing the idea of banning handguns,” Graham said.
     Graham was not speaking from principle; he was not invoking the Second Amendment. He was invoking fear and grubby self-interest: fear of the National Rifle Association and a pathetic grasping after the vile powers he has accumulated.
     And how about Graham’s fellow Republican Ron Kirkland, a candidate for Congress from Tennessee, speaking to those fine folks in the Tea Party about his days in Vietnam: “I can tell you if there were any homosexuals in that group, they were taken care of in ways I can’t describe to you,” Kirkland said.
     This is what passes for political principle in the United States today: a vicious pandering to fear and ignorance. A contemptible smallness. Vile threats, the desire to inflict torture upon the powerless – and to brag about it – to try to get elected for it.
     This is what has become of our system.
     Thank God for principles.
     Bradley wrote: “Evil exhibits itself everywhere as something negative, barren, weakening, destructive, a principle of death. It isolates, disunites, and tends to annihilate not only its opposite but itself.”

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