Few would argue that the human condition is bereft of reverence. But in practice these days it would seem so at times. The infectious irony and scepticism of the postmodernist age have tended to unsettle our culture. Even if, as some people claim, we have moved on and postmodernism is dead, it rules us from its grave in so many social aspects.


Reverence is one. Indeed being called ‘irreverent’ can be a compliment. Used this way, it’s meant to be an ironic response to pretentiousness and pomposity or a sceptical comment on authority. It speaks of a pride that will not bow to pressure. Arguably, the origins of its recent appearance lie in the turning away from authoritarian elements of religion and upper-class dominance. Dada, shock art, punk rock and some rap music are a few of its manifestations in the aesthetic field.

Admittedly irreverence’s popularity doesn’t deny the value of reverence but it can tend to reduce its appeal and pave the way to trivialization.

More insidious though is the palpable neglect in showing reverence, which is so prevalent in our time-compressed and Internet – distracted society. And the sirens of narcissism, which seduce attention away from anything outside the self, coddle the disregard. We may not notice the diminution but are impoverished by it. Exceptions of course exist but their paucity advocates the case.

But, the veins of reverence run deep and eternal through the human condition, no matter how often ignored. As Sophocles, the Greek playwright, who signalled wisdom even in his name, said, “Reverence is not subject to the death of men; they live, they die, but reverence shall not perish.”

What is the definition of reverence? The Oxford Dictionary calls it a feeling of great respect or admiration for somebody or something. Paul Woodruff in his book on the subject adds awe and shame.

Shame might seem a curious word to use when defining reverence. He means the acknowledgement of insignificance in the presence of something greater than oneself. Perhaps humility might have been used, but shame is more piquant.

Sophocles held that “shame shares the throne with Zeus”. That shame can sit in such an exalted place illustrates its critical role in punishing behaviour that falls short. This would include failing to show reverence or exhibiting hubris, it’s the antagonistic opposite. It could be said that shame in this context assists in defining reverence for it acts as a consequence of negating it.

According to Woodruff, and it seems to be the case, reverence now has no part in discussions of ethics or political theory. It’s even left out of discourse on ancient cultures whose fundamental norms were based on it. Respect is afforded a place, but not in its evolved form, the form which gives breath to reverence and transforms it into one of the higher virtues.

Perhaps the main reason why reverence is so often missing in action now is that it’s integral to religion and identified with it. As a result, it’s accused of being inappropriate to the secularizing world we find ourselves in, seen too much as a servant of an aging master. The concern is understandable but born of misconception.

While religious devotion does indeed express reverence and always has, it’s not the only form. What can bring out the feeling is diverse, accommodating both religious and secular states. Though different in form its substance is the same, for it emerges from the interior of the person, a source common to all human beings, no matter what their beliefs.

We can have reverence for many things, small or large, and in different degrees, from mere common daily interactions to the most sublime. All are valid, though some are more profound than others. For example, one may feel reverence towards a display of excellence in sport and the players responsible, or towards the beauty of water lilies on a pond, or the grandeur of the universe.

They all evoke awe, heightened respect and a sense of humility, to a varying extent, by comparison to one’s own lack of importance. The comparison amplifies the feelings and helps to generate the contact with reality that reverence affords.

The origins of reverence go back to a time beyond mind, to the first occasion that Homo sapiens, and perhaps its forbears, stared at the terrible sky in a thunderstorm and wondered how to relate to its power.

Over the years, religious practices emerged to respond, to give expression to the feelings that so naturally arise in the presence of what is observed to be ultimate force – that which is scarcely knowable.

Coterminous with human consciousness is the experience of wonder, the transcendent extension of awe and the soft energy that gives life to reverence. The feeling is linked to the emotions that inhabit the place of the spiritual; experiencing reverence is to reach for infinity.

Each of us has a spiritual dimension, whether we are religious or not, just as we have a mental and physical one, and all must be actuated if we are to consider ourselves healthy. The spiritual is where our deeper sense of meaning resides. Indeed it has an influential effect on our values and concept of self. One might say it animates vision, the aspect of life that raises our gaze above the mundane.

“Where there is no vision the people perish”, says Proverbs. And in the poetry of Robert Browning, “Ah, a man’s reach must extend his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?”

The ancient Greeks give us guidance on reverence. For them, a well-ordered life required reverence for the gods, the ultimate authority, and the creative force of the world. In essence, it was the recognition of how puny and weak we humans are in relation to the cosmic energy that controls us. It’s a sense that demands a humbling of the self, the antidote to hubris, the sin so severely punished by the gods.  Humans are an expression of that cosmic energy, and hubris is a separation. It’s the separation that’s the nature of sin.

The Greeks well knew the need to quell the unruly and destructive vigour of the self when it bursts its natural limits and acts above its right. Their myths abound in cases of it.

One of the more famous is the punishment of Marsyas for hubris, which is seen to be the cruellest of all assaults on reverence.  The most notable musician of his time, he boasted he was best not only among mortals but also among the gods. His pride propelled him not to pay reverence to Apollo, god of music, but to challenge him to a competition.  Though shocked and angry, the god accepted because he could not tolerate the chance that, if he refused, he might be considered afraid of a mere mortal, or, even worse, not as good.

At the grand event, which all Olympus watched in rapt attention, the Muses were the judges. Marsyas played the flute which had been discarded by Athena because it distorted the beauty of her face, and Apollo the lyre. The prize was that the winner could treat the loser any way he wished. Marsyas gave a brilliant performance, impressing the Muses. Then Apollo played, just as beautifully. They were considered equal for a while but eventually, the music god forged ahead to win the contest.

He took his prize by having Marsyas flayed alive and his skin made into a wine sac, his blood flowing downhill to join the river Meander in Anatolia. And so, humans were warned.

The myth takes account of the tinge of fear that has, over time, lurked in the feeling of reverence, at least when it’s expressed in the presence of the divine. The emotion springs from an awareness of the potential for retribution, a reaction that inevitably occurs when humans fail to observe the appropriate relationship they are born to have with the force whose nature is above theirs. The concept ranges well beyond Greece; it appears in the Old Testament where Proverbs states, “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom: and before honour is humility.

In the Iliad, Homer describes what can happen if even a king fails to display reverence when due.  Agamemnon refused to free Chryseis, the beautiful daughter of Apollo’s priest, taken as a prize of war, despite her father’s pleas. Angry at the Commander in Chief’s failure to show reverence to him by complying with his priest’s entreaties, the archer god shot the Achaean troops with plague-tipped arrows. Ashamed of his impiety, Agamemnon redeemed his error by returning Chryseis to her father. Apollo was appeased and stopped the plague.

So important to the Greeks was reverence that Plato put into the mouth of his interlocutor, Protagoras, “And so Zeus, fearing that our whole species would be wiped out, sent Hermes to bring reverence and justice to human beings, in order that these two would adorn society and bind people together in friendship.”

Accordingly, to the ancients, reverence, both to feel and to show it, was a vital part of the universal order of things, what Pythagoras called the cosmos. And it was more. Reaching out to feel a connection with something qualitatively so much greater than us is liberating. The sense of inferiority, the acknowledgement of which starts the process of reverence, loses its sting as it melds into a positive relationship with power. The transformation kindles a sense of mellowness, of well -being.

Today, in the minds of many people, the fear of retribution so common in the past has evolved into a different state. For them, the relationship to the object of reverence is love, a love when expressed inadequately leads to a feeling of shame – punishment yes, but internal, not meted out by an external agent.

Much comment is made about the rising anxiety levels in our society, particularly among the young. A common form of anxiety stems from perceived loss of control in the midst of competing pressures, particularly from social media.

In the action of reverence, especially in its higher form, personal desires, which are dependent on the ego, are transcended. And so anxiety, however, caused dissolves, at least for a time, like a shower clearing a muggy day.

The longevity of its existence demonstrates that the condition of reverence is natural to humanity. It’s fundamental to what consciousness provides. Neuroscientists tell us it’s a mental experience of a bodily state. It releases oxytocin, dopamine and serotonin, neurotransmitters that produce feelings of pleasure. The deeper the state of reverence, the more powerful is the neurotransmission.

For the Greeks and for all people, before and subsequent, reverence is shown in ceremony, no matter how complex or simple. Traditionally the ceremony is in the form of ritual observed in places of worship where the distractions of the material world are excluded and quietness seeps into the gap to allow the state to reveal itself. Symbolic acts are performed which concentrate the feeling, encouraging it to penetrate the deepest regions of the soul. But these are not the only means for aiding its expression.

It can be celebrated in any manner, through observing silences in public gatherings, and candlelight vigils in the street for the sad remembrance of tragedy, for example. To commemorate the centenary of the Armistice after the catastrophe of the First World War, two thousand people assembled at the War Memorial in Canberra to feel, with bowed heads in a minute of solemn solidarity, the sacrifice of sixty-two thousand Australian soldiers, and others who gave their lives for freedom. And of course, funerals are held in venues, both religious and secular, so as to connect natural affection for the deceased with a sense of the venerable but tenuous status of human life in the universal order of things.

The power of reverence crossed national borders when the Queen visited Dublin in 2008 and laid a wreath at the Garden of Remembrance to commemorate the Irish republicans who fell in their struggles against England. She reverentially bowed her head, an act of royal grace possible only in contemplation of the unity of humanity. The Irish Prime Minister said on television later that day all hearts in Ireland melted.

In a lighter vein, reverence is shown through the ceremony of displaying national flags and playing or singing anthems. Sometimes, though, national anthems can touch the soul. At the recent Rugby World Cup in Japan, for example, the sincerity of both teams while they were singing, often at the top of their voices, showed a profound reverence, generated by awe-inspiring awareness that they were responsible for the prestige of their country. For the moment, the emotion melded them not only into their team but also into the greater unity of their nation.

Recently I attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a major extension of the Art Gallery of New South Wales. Contemplation of art’s role in contacting the human spirit would be enough to inspire reverence in itself, for art speaks its language, but on this occasion, it was enhanced by a particularly moving Welcome to Country. These recognitions can often be perfunctory, but this time not so. Six young Aboriginal children, in turn, gave it in such innocence and sincerity, that everyone in the large audience was deeply touched.

For a ceremony or ritual to express reverence the participant must have the “right feelings” as Woodruff says. For this, authenticity is vital. Of course, that doesn’t always happen; many of us merely go through the motions, stripping the exercise of substance. In fact, concentration on the frequency of this hypocrisy is one of the reasons reverence has lost its prominence in the realm of human behaviour. King Claudius’ admission in Hamlet comes to mind,

“My words fly up, my thoughts remain below. Words without thoughts never to heaven go.”

There are many agents for reverence. Music is one of them. It has long been composed to elicit the feeling; sacred music as we know it dates back to Gothic voices and beyond. It’s the sound of the soul. As arguably the most emotional of the arts, music can go straight to the amygdala, the emotional heart of the brain. It stirs; it resolves. In its religious form, it’s a pathway in the spiritual realm, leading through the valley of perfect security.

Brahms’ German Requiem shows this. Its soaring notes lift us out of ourselves, high into a transcendent sphere of unity beyond the state of death, and its resolutions calmly guide us to a place of eternal peace.

Secular music can also express the sounds of reverence. One of them is a mystery, when it expresses the wonder of the unknown. The slow and melodic otherworldly strains of Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis carry us into places that we can never know but would love to know.


With the rise of the environmental movement in recent decades is a growing respect for nature, a sensibility that evolves into reverence at times when life’s activity is allowed to pause in quiet for a while. Ceremonies as simple as merely standing in wonder of its presence are sufficient. Montaigne advises us, “We must judge with more reverence the infinite power of nature.” And Immanuel Kant said, “Two things awe me most, the starry heaven above me and the moral law within me.”

These thoughts, in one manner or another, I imagine, must move the brush of landscape painters no matter what their style, at least in the more reflective ones. Reverence can insinuate the wonder of nature into the artist’s soul where it urges the creative spirit to express its form on the canvas. Some of nature’s essence is captured, but whatever it is, reverence is the godfather.

Reverential thoughts about the land have animated Australia’s indigenous people since the time of their creation stories. At a point, before it became studded with tourists, I used to visit Ubirr rock in East Arnhem Land (in the Northern Territory). Far distant from human habitation, the rock is a weathered sandstone promontory rising out of the ground like a giant mushroom. Surrounding rocks at lower levels make the climb easy.

At sunset, Aboriginal people, and some white fellas too (who I knew to be atheists but reverent towards nature) would go to sit on the flat top. It oversees a wide flood plain bordered with sandstone escarpment and eucalyptus trees modestly blue in the distant haze. As the light slides away over the ancient land, magpie geese, whistling kites and other birds fly to their nests across the field of vision in black silhouette, and stars begin to emerge, shy in the twilight.

The demeanour of the people, silent and motionless, and the concentrated calm on their faces manifest a profound reverence, one whose awe and wonder transcend the material state and touch the omnipotence that swallows all ego. In its spell, truth can be sensed, not fully understood, but felt. And the hands of unity are joined.












Trust is the force that breaks the chains of fear. It frees us to connect with others, to co-operate, to love, to release compassion, to realize our best potential. Functioning like DNA as it were, it’s an instructor in forming the building blocks of human relations. In its highest state it aids in the creation of altruism, the elixir that saves us from the meanness of the quid pro quo.

Trust is fragile but its need is strong. Without it, our natural social instincts become twisted into a fatal spiral of selfish isolation.  At that point we lose the redemptive assistance of others and fail to hear the summons of life. Societies, civilizations, sometimes trip into this dark abyss, the grim prelude to decadence. Regrettably, ours is stumbling around the edges.

As David Brooks said in The Road to Character, “We live in an age of institutional anxiety, when people are prone to distrust large organizations. This is partly because we’ve seen the failure of these institutions and partly because in the era of the Big Me, we put the individual first.”

We have a contemporary term for the Big Me – ‘narcissism’, a word that bears the cautionary wisdom of ancient times.

In the Greek myth, as retold in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the forest nymph, Echo, saw the superlatively handsome Narcissus while he was hunting and fell in love with him. But he rejected her, as he would with all the nymphs, for self – absorption barred relationship to another. Distraught, she was left mournfully wandering in the woods until her flesh wasted away and her bones changed into stone, leaving only her voice that forever repeats the last words spoken. Later, while hunting, Narcissus came upon a clear pond and stooped down to drink. There, he saw his reflection in the water and marveled at its charm, falling love with the lovely face. “How often did he vainly kiss the treacherous pool, how often plunge his arms deep in the waters, as he tried to grasp the neck he saw. But he could not lay hold upon himself.” In grief at his frustration he cried “Oh you woods, has anyone ever felt a love more cruel?”

Nemesis, intent on punishment for his transgression of the natural order, made him linger in self – love, unable to tear himself away from the watery picture despite the passage of time.  Gradually his beauty faded, his strength decayed and his human form vanished. In its place grew a little yellow flower the Greeks named after him.

Trust rides on the waves of human relationships. It cannot live alone, apart. The self – obsession of Narcissus precluded even its beginning. It needs human connection, absent in him. In less extreme cases, which is the norm, over -concentration on the self impedes the formation of connection, allowing disinterest to fill the gap and retard the growth of trust.

There can be many manifestations of trust, but two principal aspects define it. The most emotionally rewarding but the riskiest is faith in the benevolence of the other. The second is confidence (from the Latin ‘fides’ or faith) in the competence of the other. The two are often intertwined, but not always. Trust in aircraft pilots doesn’t require faith in their benevolence; known training and self- interest are enough. And competence is not needed for faith in the benevolence of a family member or close friend – perhaps some degree of it is but not much.

A breach in the first aspect can play out in the tragic drama of betrayal – a moral assault that stabs the heart of human relationships, sometimes in bloody form like the assassination of Caesar by his friend Brutus, but more commonly in non – violent but nevertheless distressing ways.

The deeper the trust, the more beautiful it is but also the more hurtful and consequential in its rupture. Essentially trust requires the courage to accept and expose vulnerability, the giving up of self in the humility of dependence. Therein lies the magnificence of the risk.

One of the benefits of this grand surrender can be the release from care and stress, albeit at the cost of temporarily abandoning the primacy of self – reliance. I thought like this when I was in the Intensive Care Ward after a major operation. When I woke up I was so weak I could scarcely move, just lie on my back and wait, alone in the alienating sterility of steel equipment and white tiles. And then I saw a little Asian nurse nearby, crisp and clean. She bustled around cheerfully, doing what was necessary. I thought how wonderful she was, caring for me, keeping me alive. I realized how dependent I had become, someone who had always felt pride in self-reliance. That dependence was trust, trust in her competence, trust in her good intentions and her honesty in giving them form. At that point pride melted away, giving way to a feeling of well –being, even though physically I was in some discomfort despite the medication.

The neuroscientist Paul Zak has shown that the reposing of trust releases the neurochemical, oxytocin, a pleasurable hormone that inhibits fear and anxiety produced in the amygdala. Strongly associated with empathy and sometimes called the “love hormone”, its role is to facilitate trust and attachment between individuals. The most notable case is the bonding between mother and child, indicating it has a marked evolutionary role. It also has an anti depressant effect. The relationship between it and trust is circular, the more one is produced the more the other is generated.

Trust is interlinked with hope. In its action hope is born, hope that the vulnerability exposed is safe. As Samuel Johnson said, “Hope is a species of happiness, and perhaps, the chief happiness which this world affords.”  And both are stimulated by gratitude, for we are naturally disposed to trust and lay hope in someone who has done us a good turn, even in a minor degree. Compliment a person and a little moment of trust arrives, in the garb of gratitude.

We deal with the issue of trust every day, mostly in trivial cases, but sometimes in instances that really matter. We have to, because it obviates the need for exhaustive weighing of the evidence.  It’s intuitive. At his home in Guildford, John Paul Getty, the richest man in the world at the time and not the most trusting, told me a story where he had to wrestle with one of these instances. He spoke of his younger years, when his oil company, not large at that point, had a 50-50 joint venture with the famous zaibatsu, Mitsubishi, for exploration and production of petroleum.  One day when shipping oil to Tokyo Bay, he received a telegram from his Japanese partner, “Turn tanker back.” Getty didn’t know what to do. That tanker represented a large portion of his wealth then and sending it home would cause significant loss. Nevertheless he trusted in the loyalty of his partner and ordered the captain to comply with the telegram. A few days later the Imperial Air Force bombed Pearl Harbor.

I have often reflected on this staggering demonstration of discharging the sacred duty of trust. If the Japanese authorities had discovered that telegram, the most Getty’s partner could have expected would be a quick death. After all, obtaining access to raw materials, especially oil, was one of the principal reasons why Japan went to war. And what about duty to country?

Trust inhabits many places. A particularly illuminating one is sport, the proxy for war the ancients, from Mesopotamia to Olympic Greece, invented, firstly to be played at funeral ceremonies of the famous and later to enliven the time when peace broke out or it was too hot to fight in armor. A sporting team’s success depends not only on the individual expertise of its members but on how well they play together, and that largely hangs on trust. Its magic empowers a championship team to beat a disparate one of all-stars, as often happens.

In football for example, the players take daring risks, such as passing the ball when they wouldn’t if they didn’t trust their teammates’ competence, or in their being in position. And, perhaps most of all, trust in their fellow players to rise to   supreme effort, particularly in a final match, inspires all to push past the ramparts of exhaustion and pain. Alive within everyone is the intent not to let teammates down; they acknowledge trust received generates responsibility.

In warfare, soldiers characteristically put their faith in comrades to ‘have their back’, naturally producing a reciprocal obligation. It’s well known they care more about honoring the sacredness of that trust even than winning battles. A corollary is the imperative to rescue comrades in danger. The Romans exemplified this in their highest award for bravery, the corona civica, which was for saving a fellow life.

Trust is aided by faith, religious or secular, in the basic goodness of humankind. That cast of mind makes it easier to believe that the putative trustee will do the right thing. When existential attacks are mounted against faith, faith of any kind, and it is destabilized, the general disposition to repose trust tends to be diminished. Because religious faith has always been such an important form, albeit not the only one for it’s possible to have faith merely in humanity for example, it seems to me that the decline in religious faith so emblematic of our age is more than correlative in the widespread distrust of institutions today.

The willingness to take the risk of trust and the measure of it are determined largely by where on the spectrum of pessimism-optimism people stand. The more optimistic, the more likely they are to trust others. They see the risk as lower. The same is true when the risk is applied to institutions, for the reposing of trust begins at the individual level and spreads outwards.

By optimism and pessimism here, I mean the disposition inherent not only in individual personalities, but also in the extent to which people are influenced by the normative inclinations of their society.  These vary throughout history. In the Victorian era Browning could say, “God is in his heaven. All’s right with the world”, and, and shortly after, the scourge of the First World War arrived to destroy the established order and set off a contagion of pessimism from which the Western World has not yet recovered.

The blight was aggravated in the 1960’s and 70’s by the incompetence and perceived biases of what Dwight Eisenhower pejoratively called the Military Industrial Complex in its handling of the Viet Nam affair and various social issues, especially unjustifiable discrimination and social marginalization. The demographic complexion at the time set the scene for especial disappointment, for the young, alive then in unprecedented numbers, demanded, as youth is prone to do, perfection in human affairs that ultimately stumbled against the palisade of reality. Their dashed hopes evolved into distrust in the organs of society they held responsible – generally all of them. And that frustration has followed them into maturity.

The global financial crisis in 2008, visited upon us by the misbehavior of the Big Banker Me, shredded all safety nets in such a catastrophic breakdown of trust that, for a worrying while, money transfers among banks froze like an actor forgetting his lines. Its effects are still footprints in the sand. And the satanic crimes of child sex abuse recently brought to light have pulled at the underpinnings of trust in religious institutions, already under attack by atheistic tendencies in contemporary society.

Cynics claim, with widespread acceptance, that we have entered a post truth age, a not unreasonable conclusion given the deconstruction of truth into different views of the facts and its dethroning from the absolute to the relative preached for years by postmodernists. And the calling of anything one disagrees with “fake news” further erodes the cause of truth.


Another sign of our era is the heightened attention paid to politics. Not content to stay within its usual realm of governance and jockeying for position within organizations it has intruded into virtually all aspects of life – teaching at schools and universities, characterization of literature and history, art, matters of gender, sexual orientation, race and ethnicity, together with socio-economic disadvantage and advantage of all sorts. Talk shows on TV and radio, articles in in the press, posts on the social media, seem to have time for little else but issues infused by politics of one kind or another.

It used to be that in the minds of most people politics hibernated, awakening solely at election time. Only the odd snore before then disclosed it was still alive. Now, everything is viewed through a political lens; all definitions relevant to humanity are deconstructed to demonstrate an innate political motive or explanation. Relations among people, even in sport, once immune from the virus, are infected as never before. The tagline “Total Politics” fairly applies to almost all public discourse. Certainly the descent into angry partisanship so noticeable in the Western world these days has scratched the political itch but that does not explain fully the embrace of Total Politics.

Politics, by its nature is divisive; it pits one interest and opinion against another, pressing people apart, increasing the sense of difference and masking the underlying truth that links us all together. Some one said, “If the mathematical proposition 2 + 2 = 4 ever became a political issue, immediately there would be a party for and a party against”.

Trust is built on the awareness of sameness, not difference. One is more likely to trust a person or institution that shares a basis of perceived commonality. Politics is an enemy of that. The fragmentation it produces increases the tendency to find fault in the other, not to repose trust. Its heightened presence today has markedly contributed to the level of distrust we see in institutions and the people who run them – politicians, journalists, bankers, lawyers, corporate executives, academics, clerics.

The one possible exception to this dystopia, it can be argued, is science. The beneficial advances so manifest over recent times, the rigors of the scientific method and the stiff punishment so certain to follow aberrant behavior are all conducive to reposing trust, even in our jaundiced world. However, the odd brush with politics recently, such as the climate change controversy, and lack of comprehension on the part of large swathes of the public render its crown uneasy to wear.

Ironically science is responsible for a development that is having a further erosive effect on the existence of trust. In social media, its contemporary creation, the element of risk that characterizes trust in ordinary relationships is diminished, a blemish that reduces its nature to an entity of lower order.

Virtual friendships made in the land of the click do not normally require the exposure of vulnerability of the sort needed in the building of trust. Any reaching out is mainly without danger (unless one does something stupid or crosses swords with clickers whom one would never trust) for everyone knows that the connection to the so-called friend can be deleted at any time by the press of a finger by either party, an action provoking only a moment’s irritation, a superficial scraping of the ego’s knees, soon forgotten. It’s hard to imagine an equivalent in this to the gravity of betrayal that occurs in a normal breach of trust, except in the most unusual cases. I wonder whether the lure of pseudo friendships degrades the willingness to nourish real ones.

Though cynicism shares our lunch these days, trust survives. It must, for we are human. It may be under assault in our institutions but at an individual or small group level we still see the shining light of its truth. Personal relationships can be infused with it, so can teams of people. There’s relief in that since a tendency to trust others, according to psychologists, is a strong predictor of subjective well – being.

Tony Grey



Roman politician and Stoic philosopher Cicero warned, “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child.” The Greeks also recognized the importance of history, inspired by Clio, its muse. She, whose name means to make famous, was the daughter of Zeus and Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. The open roll of parchment she carries shows how memory of important events and people can be kept alive.

Life’s purpose includes learning and part of that comes from observing what not only is but also was. History shows how what was informs what is. It lets us perceive how the past links with the present, becomes part of it, and survives into the future profoundly influencing it, and how the future looks back upon the present, as it becomes the past. Time, as history’s companion, discloses itself in an infinite chain of changes, interdependent and rationally understandable. At the foundational level is a unity linked to wisdom.

In this sense, one should consider history of all cultures, for much can be learned from people outside one’s own and all are worthy of respect. Indeed, Herodotus, called the father of history, writes about both Greeks and foreigners. However, history of a particular civilization, such as Western Civilization, has a more personal role for those living there. It’s fundamental to their consciousness, helping to create a unified sense of identity and pride.  The need for that sense reaches deep into the human soul, particularly in times of strife.

The longing for unity and identity sometimes creates history. After the divisive Revolutionary War, the thirteen separate colonies became the United States of America, forming a unique identity. And the Great Seal of the new nation proclaimed the philosophical truth (probably ultimately derived from Pythagoras) of “E pluribus Unum” – out of many, One.

There’s the rub. The concept of a unified identity combines with a postmodern distaste of Western Civilization to spark an assault on history today, particularly in the humanities faculties of universities, although not all.

If you want to attack a civilization, or a period in it, you should attack its history, for it’s a record of how identity-forming values are created and played out in the illuminating struggles of the human drama. The Egyptians did it; the reactionary successors of the revolutionary pharaoh, Akhenaten, tried their best to erase all memory of him and his unique religion. The past is full of such attempts.

When the Chinese staggered through the dark tunnel of Maoism all memory inconsistent with Mao’s thoughts in the Little Red Book was proscribed. The present killed the past and purified its corpse with ignorance.


Nevertheless, in a quiet triumph of the human spirit, the sense of history stayed alive during the assault, albeit furtive and naked. I saw this each time I visited China shortly after Deng Xiaoping’s granting of greater freedom. It was usually on business, but not always. Because I was interested in the subject, I swotted up a little on Chinese history before each trip. My knowledge was wantonly superficial, but surprisingly often my Chinese interlocutors knew even less than I. However what impressed me was the awareness and the reverence they had for the fact of their history, its existence – that they had an important one, that it contained glory, tragedy, politics, philosophy, art, science, religion, an amalgam of human atoms that made them what they are, unified them in a Chinese identity, even though virtually no details could be brought to mind. Arguably the consciousness of that helped kept them from existential despair in the life-sapping desert which took twenty-seven years to cross.

Chinese history study has shucked off its chains but, sadly, the forced forgetfulness engendered in the Mao period has not been completely purged in the older generation.

Today’s assault in the West stems, to a large extent, from a sensitizing recognition of manifest injustices that occurred in the past, some of which are seen as staining society now. Our unprecedented affluence in the presence of these flaws stimulates a sense of guilt among those who feel over-privileged, a guilt that needs assuaging by deconstructing and reconstructing our past. It’s also fed by a Marxist orientation that has essentially morphed from identifying and promoting the economically oppressed to the socially oppressed.

In a flagrant breach of the generally accepted rubric that events of the past should not be interpreted in the light of moral standards of the present, a political imperative has emerged aimed at perceiving Western history not as traditionally written but basically through narrow, politically correct perspectives – of indigenous people, race, gender, and class. This orientation springs from a desire to change radically contemporary society. Its project begins by making negative assertions about so-called white supremacy, capitalism, colonialism and other supposed oppressive systems, and continues by applying those attitudes to a revision of our history.

In the attempt, the scope of identity is shrunk. Instead of operating as a broad unifying force at the spiritual level it becomes fragmented, in danger of declining into a state as confusing as a pub brawl. In the melee the antagonists of Western history lose sight of their supra collective nature, emphasizing separate entities. In the shape-shift, they may not succeed in cutting the roots of our society but they do tend to obscure them.

Ironically something like this malaise has occurred before, but in a different way. European colonialists, so disparaged by history revisionists, attempted to snap the links connecting indigenous peoples they conquered to their history and the cultural roots it nourished. The justification was similar – existing culture must be remolded radically; and revising the way its past is perceived helps the process. The vector then was religious zeal; today it’s a secular equivalent. Both tap into the same instinct for orthodoxy, comforted with the same sense of self-righteousness. In the assault, history is distorted; cultural detriment follows.

After a sobering re-direction of conscience we are now able to recognize and empathize with the searing sadness that burns the souls of First Peoples around the world at the obliteration of so much of their remembrance and the richness it once bestowed.

We repent the error today and to some extent are encouraging a rediscovery, especially through indigenous language revival. But the revisionists are setting about a repetition of the mistake by applying a version of it to ourselves, presumably in a perverse hope of redemption. Self-awareness not self- loathing surely is a better pathway to that solace.

Clearly there should be room for debate in the study of history, for re-evaluation and reappraisal of facts in light of new evidence and fresh perspectives. Also, it’s instructive to view the mistakes and horrors of the past as historical facts to be learned from. But twisting history to support an objective of re-ordering society is a bridge too far. In addition, too much study time is taken away from what has produced the most influential effects on life. The most becomes the slave of the less. I have had this view confirmed in discussions with several history professors who are frustrated with the trend but are unable to counter it.

To make matters worse, history amnesia is rolling through society like a rising fog obscuring the ground we stand on. It’s starting in the very place where politically correct revisionism is taking place, in the universities. The eminent historian Niall Ferguson laments, “History at U.S. colleges is suffering a decline and fall faster than Gibbon’s Roman Empire.” According to him, undergraduate enrollment in history courses has fallen twenty percent in the last decade. “The Harvard history department of 1966 offered twenty-seven courses on twenty important historical subjects, five times more than their counterparts today.” Regrettably the same indifference threatens to catch Australian students, like a rip current carrying swimmers out to sea.

The eclipse of history, either through political tampering or neglect, has an inherent cost, one that goes to the heart of what it is to be human. It causes a terrible loss of perspective.

Facts of the past can be ignored, either through design or neglect, but the omission limits perception and distorts reality. Imagine a building with a hundred balconies on top of each other, each holding a person. If viewed from a drone above only one person is visible and that’s all the observer thinks there is. However, if looked at from the side, the full complement of the balconies is disclosed. The study of history does this; it makes visible not just the one person in the present but the many in the past and how they relate to each other to form a whole.

Our word for history comes from the Greek ‘historia’ which means enquiry or investigation. According to Herodotus, enquiry into the events of the past is necessary so “that the great achievements of people may not be forgotten”. They form a root system essential for shaping and sustaining identity.

Identity in a particular period mutates along the chain of later ones. But always, as time works in alliance with change, salient features survive, at least for a while, sometimes a long while, as we see in Western Civilization.

This is most marked in our relationship to the ancient Greeks, whose famous identity has resonated down the ages to form the foundational motif of the Western Canon. It expresses the first action to separate the discipline of philosophy (which at the time included science) from religion. And the first to fragment political power through oligarchy and then democracy. Its literary and artistic achievements are heralded in every era down to ours. And so are its science and wisdom. Pythagoras and Socrates belong to us.

History is vulnerable because it’s such a political discipline, victim of the changing winds of whim, both in the sense of what it covers and how it’s viewed. Cynics claim the winners write it and because of that it lies in the shallows of subjectivity. But others assert its very political nature can instruct. Polybius said the study of history is “a training for political life” and Churchill opined, “In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.”

It ranges beyond politics though, into economics, religion, ideas, science, art, society generally, indeed everything in the past. Dionysius of Halicarnassus, the 1stcentury Greek historian, said, “History is philosophy teaching by example.”

Abraham Lincoln elaborates on this idea when he says, after the end of the War Between the States,

“Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak and as strong as silly and as wise as bad and as good. Let us therefore study the incidents of this as philosophy to learn wisdom from and none of them as wrongs to be avenged.”

We live in a multicultural society today, one that affords us diverse cultural riches to be cherished. However, its benefits carry challenges to social cohesion. Over -concentration on separate identities tends to segment society and once the process starts it has a tendency to degrade into ever- smaller fragments.

Most people have a desire to belong, to be part of some group or another and in that sense be drawn into the comfort and strength of unity, but also they want to flourish as individuals. Wisdom lies in effectively dealing with the tension, not only in small groups but also on a larger scale. The prospect of resolution is aided when people are persuaded to concentrate on aspects of identity common to all in the larger community and the connectedness it encourages.

The past can be instructive here, albeit in some ways not acceptable today. Conflicts fomented by clash of identities and eventual melding of the parties into a form of unity have often occurred in history. Empires, as they rolled up different cities and states, were built on them. Sometimes they occurred over centuries through invasions, as in Britain, whose eventual unity was forged out of native Celts, Romans, Germanic peoples, Scandinavians, and Normans. A tendency towards unity from separate linguistic groups has been achieved in Switzerland, Belgium and Canada. And the United States healed fragmentation after its civil war, despite some grumbles to the contrary today. On the other hand, disunity has led to disaster; witness Russia in the First World War. We should not forget the Biblical admonition in Matthew XII, “a city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

Like a piece of sculpture, history can be looked upon from different angles, each one revealing a separate understanding. Herodotus collected oral traditions, putting them into an account of past events that preserved memory of what he called, “the great achievements”. Thucydides enquired from a more impartial, evidence-based and scientifically oriented perspective in his history of the Peloponnesian Wars. Modern research digs up more evidence for the discipline and extends it to the entire world, enriched by the help of archaeology and access to more documents.

Whatever the method used for discovering the facts, they can be viewed as an overall system of dramatic stories, a long exciting narrative of creativity, conflict and contrast that touches us personally. It’s how it most readily enters our sense of identity, for we can see ourselves playing different roles, understanding them, being affected by them. It’s no wonder that Shakespeare based so many of his plays on historical events and characters.

The grand narrative of history reaches far back into the days of myths, which in many, if not most, cases originally had some basis in fact. Over time the specific facts were forgotten, were embellished as they merged into imaginative stories, like Homer’s epics about the Trojan War (which actually happened), or the Gilgamesh tale of the Sumerians. The salient effect of the myths is that they forged a collective identity in the people, giving them self-esteem, useful pride, and a sense of belonging to something greater than themselves, not to mention a moral road map. History does this but performs it with facts.

We all love a good story and are most willing to absorb truths told in it. In the grand narrative of history there are many, sometimes uplifting, chapters of human achievement, sometimes cautionary tales, sometimes just fascinating aspects of human nature. Often the themes recur again and again, always in different form but nevertheless instructive through their commonality at the fundamental level.

As Mark Twain said, “History doesn’t repeat itself but often it rhymes.” Through the rhyme, the past integrates with the present and touches the future. In the process we of the present can learn. It’s like a laboratory experiment that’s not reproducible but whose data can be used in another one anyway.

Stories of the “great achievements” trumpeted by Herodotus were to have their counterparts in the centuries to come, well beyond the marvelous period of the ancient Greeks. They encompass the military, engineering and law-giving feats of the Romans, the establishment of the Christian Church, which, drawing on Judaic tradition, laid the foundation of universal human rights, and later, the Glorious Revolution of 1688 which gave us representative democracy.

They tell of the Renaissance, where Petrarch fathered humanism, the worldview still informing thought today, and of the other marvels of the period – modern banking, which enabled vast developments of commerce, Gutenberg’s printing press, which disseminated information to all classes, the discovery of the New World, and some of the finest art ever produced.

They explain the Age of Reason, where Francis Bacon’s insistence on empirically testing theories gave birth to modern science, and the Galileo controversy, which set the world on a course that shook science free from religious restrictions on thought. On the political front they inform us of the Treaty of Westphalia after the Thirty Years War, which places the inviolability of sovereignty at the centre of the international system.

The stories feature the intellectual and political advances of the Enlightenment, where the ideal of reason wrested primacy from emotion in the conduct of human affairs and classical liberalism founded by John Locke became the way of the future. They uplift us to the moral mountaintops where the battle for rights shook the world in the American and French revolutions, and bring us down to earth by detailing the inventions that kicked off the Industrial Revolution through radically improving manufacturing processes.

One of the most important stories is about the creation of the welfare state by Bismarck in the mid 19thcentury and its extension in the West after the next century’s horrific wars, among other purposes as an antidote to Communism.

Throughout the yeasty narrative, its illumination of creativity in science, philosophy, the arts and literature has given inspiration to all, as has its speaking of how moral idealism spread into public discourse, making an unchallengeable case for freedom and the worth of the individual.

All along the line of time the narrative tells us not only of the great achievements but also the depths of evil to which some of the dramatis personaehave descended, horrors that we must ever be on our guard to avoid repeating. Its alloy of good and bad creates an image of ourselves today; its voice is our own.

The anthology of the stories works to craft our identity, tell us who we are, with all our greatness and baseness. They inspire us; they sadden us. But whatever they do, at the deepest level they speak to our spiritual core, which is after all where identity lies. If we live in the Western World, this is our epic, whether we were born here or have arrived from a place with different traditions, and whatever our station in life. An awareness of what we have inherited can have a tendency to bring us together, give us a sense of belonging to a house that includes all. We should know it and defend it. Western history, despite its portrayal of faults, is something to be proud of not cringe from.










I have just returned from a visit, with good friends and a superb guide, to the fascinating St. Petersburg, a glorious metropolis built in a swamp linked to the Gulf of Finland and famous for its white nights in summer, for it is as far north as Alaska. Founded in 1703 by that colossus of tsars, Peter the Great, as a conduit of Western civilization into a backward Russia, it was the capital until the Soviet era, two hundred years later.

Against fierce resistance from traditionalists, Peter cut the beards of the orthodox priests, allowed women to attend banquets, made marriage voluntary, reformed the army along European lines, founded the Russian navy, and instituted the Academy of Sciences (initially filled by foreigners since no Russians even qualified for university). An example of the task he faced in yanking his people into the modern world is the list of rules he wrote out in his own handwriting for guests at the Peterhof Palace (which he laid out as a Russian equivalent of Versailles). Two of the rules were “Don’t wear your boots to bed” and “Don’t take the silver”.

At the time, Russia, which ultimately put a man in space, didn’t even have the wheelbarrow.

The mesmerizing Hermitage is there, pulling together several buildings including the gilt-emblazoned Winter Palace, which was the official residence of the tsars. The museum has three million objects, so many that if you were to spend one minute looking at each, it would take seven years to finish the task.

The Rembrandt room contains twenty-three paintings of the master, including the great exemplar of compassion – The Return of the Prodigal Son. At the time, there was a temporary exhibition of Anselm Kiefer’s works – huge, confrontational paintings dominating two large rooms. And of course, the Impressionists (including the “Absinthe drinker”), some of which were kept hidden for years from the West because they had been stolen from the Nazis who stole them from the original owners and the Russians were afraid they would be claimed.

St. Petersburg blends the beauty of art and architecture with resonances of Russia’s violent history. In the basement of the sumptuous Yusupov Palace, wax effigies of Rasputin and his killer, Felix Yusopov, who lured him there, tell of the extraordinary influence the mesmeric peasant had over the weak and superstitious Royal family. And the Aurora, whose cannon signaled the assault on the Winter Palace that started the Revolution, stands moored in the Neva River.

The stark island Fortress built by Peter at the entrance of the Neva to guard against the Swedes, with whom he was at war for twenty-one years, held Dostoyevsky for a while. Born in St. Petersburg, he had been caught up in the Bolshevik crackdown on dissidents and sentenced to death, even though he was merely associating with some of them. Just as he was about to be executed, his sentence was commuted to ten years imprisonment in Siberia, where he wrote Crime and Punishment, drawing on the characters of fellow prisoners, some of whom were real criminals, others not.

The grim Siege Museum confronts the visitor with the horrors of the Nazi attack in the Great Patriotic War, where eight hundred thousand people died, mostly of starvation, gnawing on leather belts and eating glue in temperatures often forty below zero, Shostakovich wrote his seventh symphony during the siege. It was played on the radio, understandably touching the rawest emotions of all who heard.

Cruising along the Neva, which links with other water- courses in a system of canals that encourages St. Petersburg to be called the Venice of the North, I was impressed by the unity of design of the buildings, each with Baroque style in pale green, a colour concession to the bleak winters.  The whole of the Hermitage faces the Neva. And, along the water’s edge, is the apartment where Pushkin died of wounds after a duel with a Frenchman who claimed his wife was unfaithful, a calumny made somewhat credible by the fact that the great author was short and ugly and his wife young and pretty. That, in a racist age, his grandfather was Black didn’t help.

Ornate Baroque churches pop up among the secular buildings, survivors of the Bolshevik attempt to abolish religion. St Isaacs’s cathedral is the most ornate, stunning the eye with gilt, but without stained glass windows, for the technique did not exist in Russia. Religion is now permitted and is on the rise all over the country. Putin supports the Orthodox Church, but not without controversy. Secularists reluctantly do not oppose services but they argue that churches should be treated essentially as museums, with admission charges defraying their maintenance costs, while the priests insist they be entirely places of worship. The rise of religious sensitivity was the background against which Putin’s government, provoked by the behavior of the rock group Pussy Riot, passed a law making it a crime to give offence to believers by insulting the Church

People are a lot more open than they were under the Soviets, when to smile was interpreted as not being serious enough, and even to speak about the government was dangerous. Reports could go to the KGB, whose predecessor was established by Peter the Great as a useful innovation for keeping control. Now people speak freely. We were told that Putin is said to have two faces, one for foreign affairs and one for domestic concerns. They all love the former, as he stands up to the West, but they criticize the latter, as manufacturing has collapsed (but is recovering with the devaluation of the ruble) and unemployment outside the big cities is high. In many cases several families have to share a kitchen. However, with the recovery in the oil price, the economy is picking up somewhat, despite the current sanctions.

Many wealthy people are criticized for corruption, not only the oligarchs. However, nobody cares about Putin having twenty dachas (country houses) because he is the tsar and monarchs have always been rich at the nation’s expense. Undoubtedly Putin is popular, but some say it’s because his youth and fitness are contrasted with Yeltsin, his elderly vodka-sodden predecessor. The constant drum beat of propaganda helps.

Regardless of the straightened economic conditions elsewhere in Russia, St. Petersburg is bustling with wealth, most of it thanks to the seven million tourists who visit each year. The palaces and churches are freshly painted and the ever-present gilt shines bright everywhere. New cars are in the streets and not a scrap of rubbish is there to offend the eye.

And the restaurants serve food that is as tasty as its Soviet predecessor was inedible. My favourite was beef Stroganoff, a dish invented by a wealthy burgher of that name. Known to Catherine the Great, Stroganoff loved to entertain. His palace was constantly jammed with bibulous and hungry guests. One time however, when the generous host saw the number of carriages coming in, he realized he had to do something innovative to cater for the multitude. In a frantic session, he and his chef worked out a solution that would streamline the dinner. Knowing that Russians eat sour cream with almost everything, they created a dish with that, mushrooms and strips of beef, easily prepared. It worked then and works to this day.

The culture of Peter’s city is wide and profound, too much to appreciate in one visit at more than a superficial level. However, its immediate charm makes one want to drink deep, as Alexander Pope advises.


Tony Grey

















Without music life would be an excuse. More insistently than all the other arts, music touches the place where emotions embrace the spirit of humanity. It needs no mediation. Words can reach the heart and paintings delight but music speeds fastest to the soul.

Neuroscientists tell us that music directly penetrates the brainstem nuclei and amygdala, the emotional heart of the brain.  The little almond belongs to the primitive stage of evolution, alive before the frontal component came on the scene to moderate its intemperance. The later arrival, which helps us on the path to wisdom, embraces certain sounds and conceives them as music, an art in perfect harmony with our emotional base. In the presence of music, the brain’s emotional, language and memory centres are all linked, the stimulating of one leading involuntarily to an experience in the others. Schopenhauer claimed music “reproduces all the emotions of our innermost being, but entirely without reality and remote from its pain.”

In his book, Musicophilia, the noted physician Oliver Sacks goes further – “while it is most closely tied to the emotions, music is wholly abstract; it has no formal power of representation whatever.”

Entering the space of abstract reality (as in Plato’s forms) allows the listener to sense individually and personally the mathematical perfection of Bach’s Well Tempered Klavier, the subtle melancholy of Gorecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, the soulfulness of Blues, the exuberance of a Pop festival, the joy in the last movement of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. While the discipline of time is integral to musical composition, the abstract freedom of its form allows for the perception of infinity to emerge out of the more serious pieces, a quality which adds an affecting aspect to their reality.

So removed from the concrete, music can even be without sound, as in the case of hearing it mentally like Beethoven did when he was deaf, or little Mozart as he remembered the Miserere from the Vatican, or any of us with simple tunes, or Pythagoras when he conceived the geometry governing the movements of celestial bodies as a metaphysical form of music  – a conceit which for centuries was called ‘the music of the spheres’.

Music is so undeniably innate to human nature, operating from birth, and apparently even before, that anthropologists have long argued about whether language and music evolved in tandem or one preceded the other, and if so, which one. The dispute may never be resolved but its existence is indicative of how fully music has been incorporated into the essence of the human project from the earliest times.

The sounds of nature would have been present to the first hominids, and in a far more compelling way than they are to us, so distracted are we by the things of civilization. What our ancestors heard in their natural surroundings would have called forth the ineffable, sometimes in a frightening, sometimes in a beguiling way, but always in a manner that connected with their emotional roots. The sheer terror of the rhythmic rolls of African thunder against a dark and cracking sky, the wonderful whistling of wind through the forest or savanna, the gentle ping of raindrops on a still pond, the melody of birds, all demanded imitation for that is what the human animal did and still does. Imitation has the power to give comfort by reducing the horrifying roar to finite form and glean delight from embracing the softer sounds. And so our progenitors created music. It was the best way to make sense of what they heard. As Aristotle said in his Poetics, “Imitation is natural to us, and also melody and rhythm”.

There are still places where people can feel resonance with these prehistoric origins. The remote woodlands of Arnhem Land in Australia’s far north are one. There the Kambolgie sandstone, laid down a billion years ago, has been masterfully sculpted over time into a vast sun-reflecting escarpment with deeply chiseled gorges and weird shapes impossibly balanced on its heights. The Aboriginal locals call it the Stone Country. One of the oldest terrains in the world, it’s still clad in primeval wonder and is the home of a culture that has maintained its integrity for at least forty thousand years, even sixty thousand as new discoveries indicate. I camped there with Aboriginal elders and had the privilege of witnessing corroborees, the sacred dance accompanied by didgeridoo and music sticks and singing.

In the corroboree, music clothes the dance and dance clothes the music, inspiring the participants to apprehend the holy memory of their origins in the primordial domain of the Dreamtime. It takes concentrated effort to learn the songs and sing them in the proper way, with the right beat and pitch, effort like that required to learn hunting techniques; but it’s worth it. The rituals are essential in helping the people maintain the spiritual connection with the land that gives meaning to their lives.

The haunting rhythmic notes threading through the gum trees, sometimes base, sometimes treble, of the garnbak, the name the local Gagadju people give to the didgeridoo (a confected European word based on onomatopoeia), are formed by blowing into the opening of a eucalyptus tree trunk or branch where the interior has been eaten out by termites. This woodwind, which can also be a horn, may be the oldest musical instrument in the world. A few say it might be an adaptation of something that came from the northern archipelago over forty thousand years ago, but no one knows. Could it owe its origin to wind blowing through a hollow log lying on the forest floor in ancient Arnhem Land?

It’s not only the first Australians who felt the connection of music with a force beyond the visible world; the bible records the feeling. The psalms (Greek for musical instrument) do it with poetic beauty. Set to music and originally sung, the songs (written in Hebrew but surviving only in Greek and Syriac translations) fire up human emotions and guide them to a meeting with the divine. “Sing unto the Lord with the harp; with the harp and the voice of a psalm”. They swell the human breast with anger against wickedness, with love and compassion, with comfort to those in the shadow of death, and bring the bread of heaven to the world below.

Sadly, the ancient music is lost, but perhaps not irretrievably. The Dead Sea Scrolls and later texts disclose a tantalizing presence of cantillation signs used to record the melody. So far attempts to decode them have not been met with unqualified success, but hope remains.

Much of the music written in Christian times has also sought to touch the fingers of God and with transcendental beauty arouse the spiritual sensibility of its listeners. The same is true of Islamic compositions.

So completely can music lift us out of our mortal coil and change our mood, even to the point where for the moment we can become a different person, or thing even, that the ancient Greeks turned their genius for mythology to conveying the sense of its power.

The Pierian slopes of Thrace inspired Calliope (the muse of epic poetry) to conceive from Apollo the musician whom Pindar called the father of song. Orpheus waved the magic of music at all he met. The sounds of his lyre and timbre of his voice could calm lions, smooth stones and make the trees dance. Even the pitiless Eumenides stopped tormenting the wicked in the presence of his melody and learned to weep.

On the centaur’s advice, Jason took him to Colchis with the Argonauts so he could drown out the Sirens with his song and save the crew. When his bride, Eurydice the beautiful dryad, was bitten by a snake in the woods on their wedding day and carried off to the underworld, stung by grief, Orpheus set out to rescue her armed with nothing but his lyre.  He paid Charon with a tune to row him across the Styx and entered the gates past Cerberus, which he calmed to sleep with his music.  Once in the land of shades he so softened the hearts of Hades and Persephone with the plaintiff song of his love and pain they allowed his suit. The rules of death were reversed and Eurydice was set on a path back to life, albeit with a condition that ultimately proved fatal.

Music can be vital in the material world too. Oliver Sacks and others have used it as therapy.  In the case of a patient with Parkinson’s disease (which compromises movement), the firm rhythms of a Chopin nocturne brought the natural rate of moving back to what it was before the onset of the illness, although only for as long as the music lasted.

Music’s effect on dementia patients can be even more pronounced. The aim in that therapy is to amplify the portions of the self that survive by addressing the emotions and cognitive ability through calling upon musical memory, famously known for its longevity. Sacks points out that “There can however be longer term effects of music for people with dementia – improvements of mood, behavior, even cognitive function  – which can persist for hours or days after they have been set off by music.”

It doesn’t have to be as severe a disorder as Parkinson’s or dementia for music to come to the rescue. Through stimulating the brain to produce dopamine and serotonin it can engender not only a sensation of joy but also what Nietzsche called a ‘tonic’ effect on the mournfulness of bereavement and the melancholy of depression, a state unfortunately increasingly common in today’s febrile social media world.  In such dark places, music can reach into the bottom of the emotional well where the soul lies bruised and with its cadence bring the comfort of resolution. Through its calming agency, all emotions merge and become as one and sadness melts away for the moment – and in some cases that moment will last.

I saw something like this happen in a video of Barack Obama at an African American church where a service was being held for nine churchgoers who had been murdered during a bible study in a race hate frenzy. In the middle of his eulogy, the President paused for a second, as if he was thinking of doing something, then started to sing the 18th century Christian hymn Amazing Grace, slowly and quietly with deep dignity. After a couple of bars, the congregation followed into song and the organ came on to steady the pitch and swell the sound. In a few moments, the mourners, some with soaking cheeks and all very tense, changed their expression utterly and seemed to relax into innocence as the melody seeped into their souls and exalted their spirits above the horror of the tragedy.

So integral is music to human life that Shakespeare puts into Lorenzo’s voice when he is instructing Jessica on the subject,

“The man that hath no music in himself,

Nor is not moved with concord of sweet sounds,

Is fit for treason stratagems and spoils.

The motions of his spirit are as dull as night,

And his affections dark as Erebus.

Let no such man be trusted”.


Tony Grey