Tag Archives: western civilization

It’s also worth doing well

I have very few fond memories of the time – decades ago – when I used to watch the 60 Minutes TV program. But one of them is (I think, it might possibly have been a different show) a segment on the Portsmouth Sinfonia, “the worst orchestra in the world.” Atlas Obscura has an article about it:

The original Sinfonia consisted of 13 members, mostly students who had little to no musical experience. The “scratch” orchestra was meant as a one-off joke, part of a larger collection of silly acts. And they didn’t win the contest. Still, their playful irreverence hit a nerve. Spurred on by an outpouring of enthusiasm for their initial performance, the Sinfonia continued to play, growing in size over the next several years. Their policy was that anyone, of any skill level, could join, with the exception being that skilled musicians could not join and simply play poorly on purpose. Another rule was that all members had to show up for practice.

For a while they attracted large crowds, and they even cut a couple albums. People (like me) were charmed by the blatant effrontery of the thing. It was a sort of an embodiment of Chesterton’s maxim, in his essay on amateurism, that “anything worth doing is worth doing badly.”

The concept is fun, but it seems to me there’s a serious side too. The pleasures of bad music, like other pleasures of the flesh, are fleeting. In the end, quality counts. There’s a difference between enthusiasm and virtuosity, and virtuosity has staying power. It’s worth preserving.

Which brings me to this link, from Legal Insurrection, about protests at very liberal Reed College, Portland, Oregon. A number of students are angry that the school’s Humanities 110 course, a core course in the freshman curriculum, concentrates on western civilization.

I’m gonna go ahead and say it. Western civilization is the best civilization the world has ever seen. The very anger of the course’s opponents is a symptom of their cognitive dissonance, a refusal to accept the evidence of history, science, and their own senses.

‘The Edge of the World,’ by Michael Pye

The Vikings are hailed as the first Europeans, at least by some French scholars, breaking cultural divisions as well as breaking heads, and made into a foundation myth for our flabby, neo-liberal Europe.

The moment somebody shared a link to this book on Facebook, I knew I had to get it. And I’m glad I did, though I have certain quibbles. Michael Pye’s The Edge of the World reminded me of that old BBC television series with James Burke, “Connections.” It follows a somewhat wandering road of causation from the 7th Century to the 16th Century, showing how innovations that began when the Frisians dug so much peat out of their homeland that they were forced to build dikes and canals to control flooding led to the development of North Sea trade. Trade meant developing the concepts of hard money and credit, which led to abstract mathematical thinking, which led (in part) to modern science.

Trade means choices, and choices mean freedom. In a non-dogmatic way, The Edge of the World is a vigorous defense of capitalism.

There were parts I didn’t care for. Pye falls into the old trap of condemning the monks for denouncing the Vikings, on the grounds that Christians did pretty much the same things. He doesn’t go so far as to suggest the Christians should have just embraced the Vikings and their religion, but I’m not sure what the point is. He makes what seem to me rather conventional comments on people’s “need” to define ourselves by identifying enemies, as if enemies haven’t been in abundant supply throughout history. I suspect he wouldn’t criticize Muslims in the same way for condemning Crusaders.

But all in all an excellent book, full of interesting information, and with a sweeping narrative line. I recommend it.