The Greatest Man|In The History|Of The World

GUILFORD, VT. – “This really isn’t T-shirt weather,” Andrew said as we cleaned out his car.
     But it’s mind over matter at the tail end of winter. When the temperature hits 34 and the world is dripping, you go out in a T-shirt to show nature who’s boss.
     So what if it’s 6 degrees in the morning? It makes 34 feel that much better.
     Ice is melting from boulders on streams in the woods, revealing gray lichens and deep green moss. Trees that blew over in December windstorms are emerging, black and snaggled, from under the snow. Soon the reign of black and white will end and colors will re-enter the world. Crocuses will bloom, purple and gold.
     Among the many reasons to celebrate the first day of spring is that it’s the birthday of the greatest man in the history of the world.
     This is provably true, if you define greatness this way: Take the joy and beauty a person created, add the scientific discoveries and the consolation he or she brought to people, then subtract the suffering caused by the man and his followers.
     This disqualifies every political and religious leader who ever lived, with the possible exception of the Buddha. I don’t know if Buddhists have started any wars, but Buddhist monks suffer a lot. They think it’s worth it, but still, that’s a lot of subtraction.
     Socrates might qualify. After all, he taught us what’s important, and how to live. But Socrates had no real followers 2,500 years ago and he’s got none today.
     Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming might qualify. They relieved immense amounts of suffering. The people who were granted extra years of life had to provide their own joy and beauty, though.
     No, the greatest man in history, by this definition, is Mr. Johann Sebastian Bach, 323 years old today. Old Bach brought the world nothing but joy, beauty and consolation. And he convinced the world, with one book of preludes and fugues, that equal temperament is the best tuning system for music. Equal temperament was not J.S. Bach’s scientific discovery, but he proved its superiority to every other harmonic system. Western music is based on it.
     Old Bach inflicted suffering upon his pupils – he was a feisty old guy – but the suffering was transient – rapped knuckles for singing out of tune, or for writing an unprepared suspension. Sure, he beat a couple members of his choir with the flat of his sword, but they started it. And, OK, the ecclesiastical authorities reprimanded him for calling a guy named Geyersbach a “nannygoat bassoonist,” but who are you going to believe: Johann Sebastian Bach or a nannygoat bassoonist?
     Aside from these peccadilloes, Bach and his many sons and his thousands of followers have left us nothing but joy, beauty and consolation.
     True, Bach wrote a lot of religious music, and religion has caused war for at least 6,000 years, and no doubt will cause war forever. But Bach’s religious music didn’t make them do it. No one ever marched off to war singing Bach’s B Minor Mass.
     As a matter of fact, that’s a Catholic Mass, and Bach was Lutheran. While adherents of those sects butchered one another by the hundreds of thousands, raping, burning, plundering and devastating Europe, Old Bach created beauty for his enemies.
     Many years ago, I was fortunate to see Artur Rubinstein give a master class. The maestro, already in his 90s, presided benignly over a string of pianists who knocked the stuffing out a Steinway. For an hour, Rubinstein did not offer a word of correction or advice; he merely beamed love. After the last young pianist had performed, the maestro stood and slowly, stiffly approached the microphone at the lectern.
     “You must keep playing music,” Rubinstein told a packed auditorium. “When people get old, sometimes they become sad, and music is the only thing that can console them. So you must keep playing music.” Then the maestro, immaculately dressed, white haired and magnificent, returned to his chair and sat down.
     What Rubinstein said was not just advice; it was the literal truth. No matter what horrors people inflict upon one another, upon themselves, upon the Earth, nothing will stop us from making music.
     Yesterday I ran 4 miles in the woods, up and down hills, past a waterfall, slipping on muddy paths where not so long ago I slipped on ice. Tiny green shoots pressed up from underground. Then I drove home, listening to Garrison Keillor sing corny old songs on the radio.

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