I'm a lucky dog. I earn a living thinking, reading, and writing about music from an office room at home while taking care of our 18-month-old daughter. The television to my left plays Baby TV most of the day. When our daughter takes a nap, I zap through the news channels and Mezzo. The other day I was preparing an article about classical music when CNN aired a piece that included images of the Pope's summer residence. This got me to thinking.
I had been wrestling with the idea of what sets classical music apart from other genres other than the level of pleasure it can provide to those willing to make an effort to cultivate an appreciation, and was feeling guilty thinking how much time and effort I spend on the topic of pleasure while the television shows images of suffering from Baghdad to Darfur.
The Pope piece crystallized the issue. I asked myself, what would I do if I was the Pope? How could I have a summer residence when there is so much suffering in the world? How could I accept opulence in the face of poverty?
We justify pleasures such as music by phrases like "Music ennobles the human spirit," "It's what sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom," and "It's what defines us as human." Honestly, those are empty thoughts. Music is really all about pleasure no matter what secondary effects it might have.
How does the Pope justify a summer residence, which is simply a small example of papal (religious) opulence? Are these trappings designed to reflect the grandeur of God or serve as some sort of tribute to the Divine One? Though cathedrals say otherwise, I doubt the Catholic God subscribes to conquest by shock and awe or is in need of exaggerated butt-kissing.
I pick on the Pope, as opposed to myself, because he has signed on to something more concrete than idle contemplation. He has sworn to embody certain religious principles, one of which lies at the root of my ethical dilemma: the family of man.
I'm not qualified to comment in too much detail about the dogma of any organized religion. What religious-type beliefs I harbor definitely stem from a personal and disorganized branch. It seems to me, at the root of Christianity (and I'm guessing a few other major organized religions) is the concept that we are well advised to look upon every other human being as if he or she was our brother or sister. Literally.
If you have had less than optimal experiences with your flesh and blood siblings, it's been suggested that we love our fellow human beings as we love ourselves. If you do not love yourself, replace love with respect or value. If you neither respect nor value yourself, you're free to return to MTV.
That, to me, is the family of man idea in a nutshell. I should love, respect, value, and care for every human being the same as if he or she was my actual brother or sister.
This has serious implications.
If my brother or sister was starving, tortured, shot at, or bombed, I could not rest until I had done everything in my power to alleviate his or her suffering. I could not sit comfortably at my desk writing about the beauty and pleasure of music. If I were the Pope, I'd have to take a vow of poverty so long as the world contained a single innocent victim of famine, disease, or aggression. Otherwise, I could not sleep – especially in a summer residence.
The family of man is dysfunctional, from the Pope down.
I take the same attitude toward politicians who have sworn to represent fellow citizens. Were I the mayor of a city, my conscience would not let me accept the privileges of the position while any of my citizens were disenfranchised or the innocent victims of suffering that could be ameliorated politically.
I resist the temptation to rationalize the situation and don't allow myself the comfort of spinning a fine web of argument to justify my enjoyment of so much pleasure in the face of so much suffering by millions in my family. I deserve the guilt that results.
For those who shy away from anything religious, there is a more concrete foundation to the family of man concept than dogma. As I said in my Chain of Being article, we are more closely related than we think. Literally.