In the above photograph I believe that we have been given an insight into a major theme in many of the compositions of Andrew Bird. That theme is an exploration of the natures of humans and animals and their relationship to each other. Also, the title of an album is usually meant to convey a thematic quality of the songs included therein, and I believe the title for Andrew Bird’s 2009 album “Noble Beast” serves that purpose well. Therefore we will begin our exploration of the major theme that we have been given in this picture and in the title.
The photograph obviously shows “a bird” and “Andrew Bird.” They are representative of the animal, and of the human. What is their relationship to each other? Is their relationship to each other that of food/feeder; servant/master; inferior/superior; ancestor/descendent; equal/equal? Are these choices mutually exclusive?
The title “Noble Beast” is similarly provocative of this theme by the combination of two simple words. “Noble” evokes images of greatness; “Beast” evokes images of lowliness. Noble in its main meaning implies a privileged hereditary birth.The words taken in contrast to each other can also evoke the range of possible inter-relationships noted in the picture above. But placing the contrasting words together creates a description of one being that has the qualities of both. So in applying this description of a being as a “Noble Beast” to the above picture we are then faced with another range of possible meanings: Is the animal a noble beast? Is the human a noble beast? Is one of them the noble beast and not the other? Are they both noble beasts?
So to summarize so far, I believe that these types of questions explore the theme of the natures of humans and animals and their relationship to each other.
Our next step is to consider two main ways that the idea of “Noble Beast” has been used conceptually in the past, in philosophic systems that are quite different to each other. These two systems can be given the titles of “Pascal’s Anthropology” and “The Scientism of H.G. Wells.”
“Pascal’s Anthropology” is the supposition that man is a “Noble Beast” because he has fallen from an original high position of “greatness,” to a position of “miserableness,” from a position of “Nobility” to a position of “bestiality.” Pascal called humans “Deposed Royalty.” But Pascal held that there are remnants of the original position within humans, so that they are now not fully “Noble,” nor fully “beasts” (he used the term “brutes”). Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) was thought to be a true genius, and was a scientist, mathematician, and sort of philosopher/anti-philosopher. He is thought by historians of philosophy to have been one of the first modern existentialists. He was also a devout Christian who had a profound mystical experience, and thus he sought to understand the relationship between religious and scientific knowledge. Therefore for Pascal the term “Noble Beast” implies that man was created by God as the pinnacle of life on Earth, and through free will had fallen to a state of estrangement from God. While it is not possible here to examine Pascal’s anthropology in depth, it is worth noting that it is a form of empiricism, namely basing knowledge on the universally observable facts of the nature of man.
“The Scientism of H.G. Wells” is the supposition that man is a “Noble Beast” because he is the pinnacle of the life force that is inherent in all forms of life. Thus, man had his beginning in the lowest forms of life that through the manifest propensity of creative evolution over vast periods of time resulted in the human. Wells saw God as unnecessary in this process and viewed religion as something that should be abandoned by modern man who had now attained the insight of his glorious destiny of the highest form of life. Man would become the superman. In essence man himself would replace God. Therefore for Wells, “Noble Beast” implies that man is essentially created by the life force of evolution, and was now near to reaching the pinnacle of life on earth, if he could free himself from superstitions and liberate himself and the world, and become “God.” H.G. Wells (1866-1946) is best known for his pioneering science fiction works an his “Outline of History.” It is not possible to here examine the Scientism of Wells in depth, but it should be noted that the view itself is called “Scientism” and not “science.” Therefore we need to provide a definition of scientism.
As distinct from science, then, scientism is an ideology in which the model of the natural sciences is seen as the only acceptable test of the validity of all things and all ideas. (Thomas C. Peters, in The Pilgrim’s Guide, edited by David Wells, 1998, p.207)
It should be noted that these two systems of Pascal and Wells were chosen because they perhaps best represent these two systems of thought. The view of Pascal was simply Augustinian, and has thus been the majority view of human nature for most of Western Church history. The view of Wells was not original to him but he was its greatest proponent for the twentieth century. The view itself actually predated Wells and even predated the Darwinian “revolution.”
So now back to Andrew Bird. In his lyrics that explore the theme of the the human and the animal, or the “Noble Beast,” is he presenting the view of Pascal, or Wells, or something in between them? It is a very difficult question to answer, but in subsequent posts I will consider many of Andrew Bird’s lyrics from “Noble Beast” that relate to the theme, to see if his position can be found.
To close this post then, I would like to point out that Andrew Bird is not only an amazing composer, songwriter, musician, and performer, but a person using his gifts to explore and share the perennial questions of life with his listeners. As one of those listeners I can say that the quality of his musical compositions evokes a sense of curiosity that simply draws one in.
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