Chapter 1: The Great Theme
Picture to yourself, if you can, a universe in which everything makes sense. A serene order presides over the earth around you, and the heavens above revolve in sublime harmony. Everything you can see and hear and know is an aspect of the ultimate truth: the noble simplicity of a geometric theorem, the predictability of the movements of heavenly bodies, the harmonious beauty of a well-proportioned fugue — all are reflections of the essential perfection of the universe. And here on earth, too, no less than in the heavens and in the world of ideas, order prevails: every creature from the oyster to the emperor has its place, preordained and eternal. It is not simply a matter of faith: the best philosophical and scientific minds have proved that it is so.
This is no New Age fantasy but our own world as scientists, philosophers, and artists knew it until the advent of the Industrial Revolution and its companion in the arts, the Romantic movement. Those ideals are gone forever. After the revelations of modern scientific enquiry, educated people will never again be able to face the universe, now unimaginably complex, with anything like the serenity and certitude that existed for most of human history.
The concepts of the musical universe and the Great Chain of Being originate in the classical bedrock of our culture, flow through the Christian tradition, and remain firmly centered in the Renaissance and the Age of Reason. They are at the core of the culture. It was not until the nineteenth century that the perspective shifted decisively to the earthly, the tangible. Materialism and sensuality, qualities that had been deeply mistrusted throughout most of the Western tradition, emerged ascendant.
All art, including music, was a much more serious matter before the self-conscious aestheticism of the late nineteenth century took root. It is a recent notion that music is a divertissement to be enjoyed in comfortable surroundings at the end of the day, far removed from the hurly-burly of life's business; throughout most of the history of our culture, music was itself an essential part of life's business. Its ability to give pleasure was deemed to be not only the least of its attributes but even a perversion of its true purpose. Most serious thinkers before the nineteenth century considered the sensual delight of musical performances to have the same relationship to the ideal nature of music that sex had to love in Christianity: the former were transitory, without higher purpose, and ultimately debilitating to the soul; the latter were pure and enlightening, providing a connection between our earthly existence and eternal reality.
In the same way, science was deeply involved in the whole ethos of the culture. The conception of science as an enterprise carried out by a specially educated elite, working in laboratories filled with mysterious machines, would have been incomprehensible to an educated person before the close of the last century. The history of science is the continuing process of the widening gulf between the ideals and the practice of science. At the birth of Western science in Greece in the sixth century B.C., the two were identical. The asking of the questions was the intellectual breakthrough, and the answers were as poetic and expansive as the questions, for there existed no data with which they were expected to conform, aside from the perceived order and beauty of creation. "Doing things" was disdained as unworthy of science, whose true purpose was to elucidate the fundamental unities that explain the function and thus the meaning of the phenomenal world.
As scientific observation accumulated information, ostensibly to make the answers to the questions more precise, the universe revealed itself to be far more complicated than anyone had ever imagined. The assumption throughout centuries of science had been that there was a logic underlying the apparent chaos of creation, but that human perception was too clouded and fallacious to discern it. By the nineteenth century science had abandoned that position, and the search for the fundamental unities became more and more a theoretical goal. An abrupt conceptual turnabout had taken place: whereas Plato had taught that anything the eye could see was illusory, modern science teaches that the only things that do exist are those that we can see and touch (even if we "see" them with radio signals, or "touch" them with remote robotic devices).
Nowadays most scientists would accept the thesis that the cosmos has no underlying logic in the classical sense, but is rather a confluence of accidents, which are governed by laws. However, the laws themselves are irrational and do not arise from any fundamental orderliness. The concept of the universe as a random, meaningless place was expressed on the earthly level by the theory of evolution: the mutations that determine the course of life on earth, and indeed the very creation of humankind, were revealed to be largely fortuitous events.
Beginning at the close of the nineteenth century, science emerged as a powerful institution. Increasingly, as it came to be identified with technological thaumaturgy and the improvement of the quality of life, science ceased to be a purely intellectual enterprise: too much money was now at stake. The scientist, who had previously held a position in society equivalent to that of the poet, was now pressed into service by government and industry to work more marvels. These technological accomplishments were useful, but science became the victim of its own success, at least insofar as its traditional aims were concerned. The need to "produce" is as deadly to pure science as it is to poetry. As society came to demand ever more ingenious machines, the search for the transcendental harmonies atrophied.
The paradox (again, an evil one from the classical point of view) is that pure science occupied a more honorable position in society before it became so useful to it. Astronomers traditionally held prestigious places at court in antiquity and in the Renaissance, just as did poets (though it should be conceded that the former had to devote a great deal of time to drawing up horoscopes for their royal patrons, while the latter were obliged to compose laudatory odes addressed to them, suitable for recitation at public ceremonies). Yet these state duties did not inhibit scientists from undertaking experimental work solely to please themselves; indeed, they were able to do so exactly because they were to a large extent set apart from society.
Of course, tremendous difficulties were presented to Western scientists in the Christian era by church doctrine, of which the trial of Galilee is only the most famous example. Yet the religious variable in the social algebra of science has remained constant: the resistance to evolutionary theory, which continues to the present day, and the hurdles being put in the way of medical researchers who would use fetal tissue, to name two examples, are essentially the same as the religiously motivated prejudices against heterodox science five hundred years ago.
The rigid hierarchism of the pre-industrial world, while it may have been oppressive to most people in the society, actually tended to enhance the creative freedom of scientists. In every age of great creativity that was supported by the established authority — in the reigns of Augustus, of the Medici, of Elizabeth I, of Louis XIV — the sovereign was secure. If there was economic distress, it did not much affect the court. No one ever put a gun to Leonardo da Vinci's head and said, "Double the corn crop, or it's back to the day job with you." So long as science itself was not invested with real power in the society, it had a correspondingly greater freedom to pursue knowledge for its own sake. In the first place there was no significant motive of competition; and in the second place, there were usually no grave penalties for being wrong, which is an essential component of all scientific work.
Until the Industrial Revolution, scientists were essentially outsiders, supported by classically educated patrons who took an interest in their work, to some extent for its own sake. If a useful application happened to come out of the work, so much the better, but that was never the sine qua non of science. Yet there can be little doubt that that is what it is today. There are very few prestigious grants or government posts to be won by thinking about the ultimate aims of science.
This reshaping of science is not simply a matter of its growing complexity and power. It is a fundamental change in course. By comparison, while we now consider medicine to be a part of science, it was originally thought to be an art. Although medicine has undergone changes as profound as any field of human endeavor, today it is dedicated to precisely the same ends, to heal the sick and to protect life, as it was at the beginning of civilization. The Hippocratic oath is still administered to doctors at the beginning of their careers, just as it was more than two thousand years ago. There have been some changes, of course: the oath originally bound those who swore it not to help a pregnant woman get an abortion, a provision that is now usually omitted. Another example, briefly. The practice of law from Hammurabi to the present has been wholly transformed time after time, yet its aim has always been the same, to dispense justice, although there has never been a consensus as to what justice is, and there never will be. Our own system has as a basic principle the presumption of innocence, which would have seemed ridiculous to Hammurabi; on the other hand, his code contained provisions we moderns find barbarous and cruel. Yet Hammurabi's aim was not to be cruel but rather to be just. In order to protect itself from criminals and troublemakers, he might have said, society is entitled to exact swift, exemplary punishment.