“Better? How can you say better?”
This is a very common question nowadays, what with the collapse of all discourse into postmodern nihilistic emptiness. As with all such questions, it can only be answered by a return to old ideas, ideas older than the current back-and-forth between enlightenment and post-enlightenment thinking.
Once, in those benighted days, people thought a work of art or a course of action could be “better” than the alternatives, subjective preference be damned.
How were they able to do this?
There are several layers of groundwork that must be in place to truly argue for it, and expounding on them would take much more effort (and time) than I can currently give. Suffice it to say, one would probably begin with the question of whether a human being can actually apprehend the truth of anything, then move on to what that truth it, work one’s way through the steps of the ancient philosophies, perhaps discover G-d along the way, and (more important for our purposes) even discover man.
It is this last part of the groundwork that forms the foundation for the ladder of better and worse. Simply stated: A human being is an animal that can do something no other animal can do. Just as an animal is a plant but more, so too is a human an animal but more. A human being is an animal that can think.
When we say “think” here, we mean in the old sense of the word. Not that one can process data, or accomplish organized tasks, or even organize socially. Rather, to think is to grasp the form of the object of thought, to understand what it is, in distinction to other things.
If I think about dogs, I will come to realize they are not cats, and that they are not tables, and that they are not the Pythagorean theorem. But I will also come to realize dogs probably are more feline than they are Pythagorean. In this sense, to think is to grasp what different things are, and how they fit together. Therefore, a human being is an animal that can grasp what different things are, and how they fit together.
However, not all things are created equal in their form. This is evidenced by the difference between man and other animals. Our dog, for example, can definitely react to a cat differently than he reacts to a table. However, a dog cannot react to the Pythagorean theorem at all.
Why? Because a cat not only possesses a form but is also made of physical material. A dog cannot really think in the human sense, cannot grasp forms, what a cat is and how it fits together with dog food or squirrels. A dog reacts to a cat differently than a table but does not understand what a cat is in any abstract sense; it could not tell you what makes a cat a cat, but only that the thing in front of him right now, with the claws and brushy tail, must be chased. In other words, it grasps not so much the form of the cat as the smell or appearance of certain matter. A form is general, abstract, and qualitative; a dog grasps only what is particular, concrete, and embodied.
This is why Pythagoras spoke only for people, and not for animals. A human being can grasp more of reality than his best friend; a human can grasp what things are and how they fit together, even if they are general, abstract, and qualitative.
It follows, then, that the more one grasps form over matter, the further away from an unthinking animal one becomes: Just as a chipmunk can sit on a log, so, too, can a man as wise as a chipmunk. But to craft a mahogany chair informed by engineering and aesthetics, to impose a form on the log and reduce its matter to that which is necessary (or most beautiful) to hold up a sitting person, is a profound reflection of what makes us human. The latter is the imposition of the general, the abstract, and the qualitative upon the matter of the log. It is the imposition of form onto matter. It is what humans can do that no animal can do.
Similarly, there is a difference between a hooky melody with lyrics of young lust and the Ninth Symphony.
The difference is not, as our modern minds are trained to think, one of complexity. It’s not that Beethoven uses a full orchestra whereas Bieber uses Pro Tools, per se. Complexity and the dominance of form over matter are not synonymous. We could make the information conveyed in the Ninth Symphony more complex by breaking it up into smaller pieces. But taking an ax to a chair and reducing it to kindling makes it more complex, too, and what is achieved is only chaos. Chaos is not an expression of form but rather the deepest expression of matter, because to grasp a form is, again, to grasp not only what things are but also how they fit together.
The “how they fit together” aspect of a form derives not only from the form itself (because, after all, chaos and white noise are technically forms as well) but from a third aspect of every thing, namely, its purpose. The matter of a chair is wood; this an animal can appreciate. The form of a chair is its legs, its seat, the specific shape of the carving, etc., and that is human handiwork. But what makes the chair a chair rather than an oddly shaped arrangement of stuck-together kindling, what lends the form an advantage over the matter, is ultimately the chair’s purpose; it’s for sitting. If either the matter or the form is not conducive to sitting, then the chair ceases to be a chair, and its form ceases to be an imposition on its matter, and we are left with a jungle-like chaos inimical to humanity.
The same holds for Beethoven. What makes Beethoven a higher form of human expression than “Baby” is not raw complexity, but rather a complex form used to the specific ends of the great composer.
It is this purposive complexity, the masterful demonstration of unity and harmony in the imposition of form over matter, that is the higher form of music. The simpler, more rhythm-based forms of Mr. Bieber, especially as they are so focused on the animal realm of material sensation, simply do not manage to achieve those heights.
And so, for humans, at least, Beethoven is better than Bieber, since it is more in line with what we are, and is a clearer demonstration of what makes a person more than an animal, that is, our ability to grasp what things are, and how they fit together.