Beethoven, Pluratch, and the Status of the Artis

There are some significant passages at the beginning of Plutarch’s Life of Pericles.

`Nay, many times, on the very contrary, when we are pleased with the work, we slight and set little on the workman or artist himself, as for instance, in perfumes and purple dyes, we are taken with the things themselves well enough, but do not think dyers and perfumers otherwise than low and sordid people.

And a little further on:

Nor did any generous and ingenuous young man, at the sight of the statue of Jupiter at Pisa, ever desire to be a Phidias, or on seeing that of Juno at Argos, long to be a Polyclitus, or feel induced by his pleasure in the poems to wish to be an Anacreon or Philetas or Antilochus.

For Plutarch and his age, the creator of the beautiful was a mechanic, fellow to Snug the joiner, Quince the carpenter, and Bottom the weaver. However lovely his handiwork, he was simply a drudge, albeit a skillful drudge. The highest and the only truly worthy object of human reason was a political and military career. The noblest spirits were those that advanced their state in preeminence and power. The hero exerted himself for his own tribe, city, or country. Everything he accomplishes was in spite of other tribes, cities, or countries and he could only succeed by the defeat of these competitors. The aim was for the enrichment and the security of the state. He can win victories in the field, bring back spoils from other lands, foil enemies foreign and domestic, and safeguard public virtue. An advancement of all humanity together was never imagined. Hesiod’s fives ages of mankind ran from good to bad. Every change was a fall into something worse and the ideal constitution was one that was immutable. Lycurgus made a constitution for Sparta and having drawn from the citizens a vow never to change it until his return, he went off and starved himself to death. Wholesale change could end only in broils and disorders.

For our own age, Brasidas, Lysander, and Demetrius the Besieger are not considered particularly admirable yet we do concede their martial and organizational abilities. Pericles is esteemed not because he made war on Sparta but because he made Athens beautiful. It is the Parthenon not the Peloponnesian War that is his legacy. If the Age of Pericles was Ancient Greece at its height, Phidias was its pinnacle.

Beethoven may have been the idol of Romanticism but he was ever a child of the Enlightenment. For the Greeks and Romans, genius was a tutelary and personifying spirit, an effulgence of a man’s talents and destiny. However bright, it was still his own, his representation, a shadow of light not of darkness. The Romantics made it not a personification of an extraordinary individual’s capacity, but that capacity itself. And it was no longer simply his, but something beyond merely human, something preternatural in its origins and its reach. It was a channel to the very Godhead. If Plutarch denigrated the artist in a manner that sounds crass and boorish to our ears, Romantic adulators like Bettina Brentano lifted them up above our mortal sphere. Fraulein Brentano’s two greatest idols were Beethoven and Goethe and she imparted to posterity an intriguing anecdote about her two demigods.


As they were walking together, Beethoven and Goethe crossed paths with the empress, the dukes and their cortege. So Beethoven said to Goethe: Keep walking as you did until now, holding my arm, they must make way for us, not the other way around. Goethe thought differently; he drew his hand, took off his hat and stepped aside, while Beethoven, hands in pockets, went right through the dukes and their cortege, barely miming a saluting gesture. They drew aside to make way for him, saluting him friendlily. Waiting for Goethe who had let the dukes pass, Beethoven told him: I have waited for you because I respect you and I admire your work, but you have shown too great an esteem to those people.

This story is most likely apocryphal, but in its etymology apocryphal means revealing. And this little incident, fictitious or factual, is revealing. While Beethoven may not have in fact spoken these words, he almost certainly would have agreed with them. He set a great store by himself and his gifts, but this regard also imposed tremendous demands upon him. His talent was a solace and a joy, but never an entitlement, and it was equally a burden and a duty. As a child of the Enlightenment he believed that progress was possible. He believed in its possibility and he looked for its realization. In the French Revolution, he felt that he was witness to the fulfillment of these hopes. The Revolution plunged into slaughter and horror and it seemed that Plutarch was vindicated. In Napoleon, Beethoven and his fellow horrified yet still hopeful dreamers believed that they’d witnessed the end of the Revolution and the beginning of something new and better. The Revolution had been an ending, a tearing down, and that sad chapter was now closed. A new chapter is now opened and a new order is now established upon the earth. Napoleon takes power, there is peace in the streets, bread in the shops, a better code of laws in the books, and reforms that had baffled generations pushed through in the blink of an eye.

In another probably apocryphal anecdote, Beethoven had named his Third Symphony the Bonaparte Symphony, but when Napoleon had himself crowned emperor, he struck off the title and renamed it the Eroica. He renounced the constant for the variable. Political office isn’t needed to advance the cause of humanity and in Metternich’s Vienna it seems rather an opportunity as well as an injunction to arrest it. It is the creator not the ruler who will lead. He still believed in progress and he was convinced that his music and Goethe’s and Schiller’s poetry could light the way for everyone. From nearly the beginning of his career he’d dreamed of doing something grand with Schiller’s Ode to Joy and in his Ninth Symphony, he realized that ambition. Goethe, Schiller, and he were the explorers, plunging ahead into the promised land. The scouts will return and recount the wonders they have seen and they will guide kings, prime ministers, princes, dukes, farmers, midwives, fishermen, children, and even emperors across the Jordan.