Dethroning the conductor

Paul Raven @ 13-01-2011

As unsurprising as it might be to see an essay by a Christian theologian advocating submission to authority as one of the highest ideals of our political lives [via BigThink], I’m not in the mood to let it pass without comment. I think what really bugs me is the largely unquestioned elevation of hierarchy to sacred principle:

Austin gives the example of an orchestra. If I want to be free to play the violin in a well-performed Beethoven symphony, then I must submit myself to the authority of a conductor, for without the conductor the other musicians cannot be brought into coordination with my playing.

Submission to authority for the sake of freedom is not, as Simon recognized, a function of human sin but instead finitude. It’s not the case that an orchestra can just play if everybody is selfless and cooperative. Someone needs to guide the whole so that each player can concentrate on his or her part. Nobody can both play the violin and at the same time and conduct the orchestra.

The logic there is sound enough, but it’s built on the assumption that everyone wants to play through the precisely denoted structure of that Beethoven symphony, and the implication that anything else would be a cacophony of unpalatable noise, or at the very least inherently inferior to Beethoven.

Well, look: I spent three hours last night jamming with a handful of other musicians. We don’t play from sheet music; the band doesn’t “belong” to anyone; there is no conductor or leader. We take the simple rules of harmony and melody, and we start playing; music emerges. Sometimes it takes a little while to find a groove; sometimes there are bum notes, fumbled phrases, rhythmic slips. But sometimes we come up with stuff that transcends our individual abilities – little passages which, when we’ve finished playing, we discuss with a mixture of surprise and awe. There was no planning, no leadership, but we still created something amazing. Part of that comes from the selflessness that our theologian friend above claims is insufficient, but another part comes from the selfishness of occasionally feeling that one knows what the moment demands, and the willingness to step out of the groove and extend it upwards, outwards, inwards, wherever.

The orchestral analogy’s appeal to a theologian is pretty obvious: the orchestra first has to recieve the text of the piece, a rule-set handed down to them by a distant authority figure whom they can only hope to partially channel and glorify; the text then has to be interpreted by the conductor, who plays no part in the creation of the symphony beyond grafting a personal vision and interpretation to the text. The musician’s place is to play what he is told, just as the communicant’s place is to accept, without question, the interpretation of God’s word as filtered through his priest.

This obviously works for many people, but not for all. The music I made with friends last night wasn’t perfect, wasn’t planned, but it was all the more glorious for that, because we made it without constraints. We accepted our individual failings at the same time that we accepted our individual achievements. We participated in an act of creation on equal terms, and were brought closer together as people in the process. (I imagine any other musician would agree that playing in a band lets you get to know people in an intellectually more intimate manner than other forms of friendship, and I’m sure the same goes for other acts of collaborative creation.)

So, keeping that in mind, back to our theologian:

That’s why nobody actually wants “participatory democracy,” a non-hierarchical fantasy that progressive political theorists often champion. It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good. As Herbert McCabe observed: “Society is not the product of individual people. On the contrary, individual people are the product of society.”


The expansion of political responsibility beyond a certain point would absorb our private lives, a result that entails the opposite of what most people intend when they endorse political liberty. Like the violinist who can’t concentrate on his part and conduct at the same time, finite human beings don’t have enough energy to attend to the ordinary duties of life and bring about world revolution.

Did you get that? You don’t really want freedom. Indeed, hierarchy is necessary, because without it we couldn’t enjoy the luxury of our lack of control over it. The shepherd graciously allows the sheep to revel in the pleasure of sheepdom; the price of never being eaten by wolves is to be kept safe until the shepherd has need of a meal. And let’s just repeat a phrase to be sure it sinks in:

It would be oppressive in the extreme if all of us were vested with exactly the same responsibility for the common good.

I cannot read that sentence and parse it in any way that makes logical sense to me, except as an indicator of a mindset that destroys lives and ruins the world the we live upon. “Daddy knows best.”

Regular readers can probably see the sociopolitical direction in which I’m driving, so I’ll stop before I belabour it too badly… but not before pointing out that when an orchestra finishes playing, it is the conductor who takes the bow, and takes the glory that the musicians have laboured for.