Against Houyhnhnm-ism: Recovering Wholeness in our Perspectives on Reality

“Reason alone is sufficient to govern a rational creature…” according to Gulliver’s master Houyhnhnm in the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels.  While human reason is construed as being tainted by the passions and a natural propensity to vice, the Houyhnhnms’ perfect rationality leads to a disregard for relationships, life, and the soul because their sole aim is “to cultivate reason and to be wholly governed by it.”

As Swift asserts, human rationality is subject to emotions, sin, and individualism, but most of us living in the post-Enlightenment West treat reason as the most unassailable and essential element of ourselves.  I think it is for this reason that we frequently perceive studies of the “rational” and “useful” sciences as more important and worthwhile than the study of the arts.  This view is not uncommon in the Western church either, especially among the theologically minded.  For example, music does not speak directly to our rational sense; indeed, it moves our emotions and not our minds, and may thus be at best, innocuous to furthering our spiritual growth (especially when it is wordless) and at worst, dangerously inhibitive to our spiritual understanding.

I am overstating the case, but to a purpose: I, loving the rational, have struggled to believe that music can have integral value in my life as a Christian because it does not directly influence my rational understanding of my relationship with God.  I tend to “treat the world as an arena of objects that [I] can manage, control, and speak about reasonably efficiently,” yet music, and the arts in general, reveal a world beyond our control and understanding, with more meaning than we can express in rational prose (Begbie, Resounding Truth, 51).  Music makes connections with things in the world, but it does not signify things in the world in the way that words do.  Much of the value, meaning, and pleasurableness in music comes from the relation of musical sounds to each other – the “science” of which forms the meat of my daily work as a music theorist.  These relationships then connect with our social, mental, spiritual and bodily states, interacting with understood conventions, associations, actions and physical perceptions of sound, thus leading to a richly meaningful experience that cannot be contained in rational expression (Begbie, RT, 53-56).

Music reminds of our whole selves, of our interaction with the created order, of the non-rational good that is part of how we are created.  We cannot be caught up in the opposite error, reveling in the sensuous beauty and emotional effect of music without recognizing its import, but if we reduce it to its usefulness or the lack thereof, we miss its ability to restore us to a holistic, integrated perception of the reality of our humanness in God’s created world.

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3 thoughts on “Against Houyhnhnm-ism: Recovering Wholeness in our Perspectives on Reality

  1. Thank you for this, Emma. You bring up a really good point. I especially like “Music reminds of our whole selves, of our interaction with the created order, of the non-rational good that is part of how we are created”

  2. Pingback: Three-Part Faith « Pictures on Silence

  3. Pingback: What is it that keeps us sane? « Pictures on Silence

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