The Pythagoreans…call music the harmonization of opposites, the unification of disparate things, and the conciliation of warring elements…. They say that the effects and applications of [musical] knowledge reveal themselves in four human spheres: in the soul, in the body, in the home, and in the state. For it is these things that require to be harmonized and unified.
Theon of Smyrna
I have been blessed to see once again the astounding beauty and power of medieval and Renaissance architecture in Italy. Walking through certain towns and cities one can feel at least one aspect of the truth of Theon’s words. The order put into a city—even in its physical architecture—is somehow an expression of a natural order discoverable by human reason.
Non-Christians and Christians alike since ancient times have been moved with wonder and gratitude at this order that is supra-human, but nonetheless about human life. The full richness of Theon’s words is beyond our consideration here, especially regarding the importance of music as an expression of this order. Of central interest are the four areas in which we as human beings can instill and incarnate the great order we discover. (That music can be a vehicle and aid in this project we can save for later reflection.)
In each of these four areas it is our privilege to use the power of reason, with discipline and docility to reality and tradition, to make this order alive and fruitful.
The city of Siena in its very architecture speaks fundamental truths about the good human life. These truths include: the primacy of spiritual goods, the dignity of the body and the bodily, the centrality of community and common living, the role of work and leisure in daily life, the importance of bodily presence and conversation, the place of plants, animals, and their stewardship in human life, to name just a few.
Putting good order into a city or polis—in everything from laws to architecture–is the responsibility of civil authorities, supported by citizens. Putting good order into our homes is our direct responsibility, and in many ways is in our control. And as surely as the right order of the polis includes the whole ambit of human life, likewise the well-ordered household is a masterpiece of spirit and matter, of soul and body.
Each of the truths reflected, and indeed spoken and promoted by Siena’s architecture can be likewise the principles of structuring life in our homes. For instance, if not the floor plan then at least the room arrangements and decorations can express convictions about how we live the good life together. (For a series considering various rooms in the home go here.) Our ‘yard,’ be it a just a terrace or a larger expanse, can be a little Eden of stewardship and comely living, with and from the land and its creatures.
My house’s exterior and interior will probably never look like Siena or its houses. But my wife and I can try to animate our household, in its body and soul, with much the same spirit and principles that once upon time gave form to that city. I am going to keep thinking about how the shape, color and feel of life in my home can better reflect our deepest convictions. This much surely is a great gift that remains within our reach.
Note: I have been a reading a wonderful book titled Timeless Cities: An Architect’s Reflections on Renaissance Italy, by David Mayernik, noted architect and associate professor in the Notre Dame School of Architecture. The quote from Theon of Smyrna (2nd century A.D., Greek philosopher and mathematician) is quoted in the chapter on Florence and Siena. I love this book; its Introduction might change the way you think about architecture, cities, and the Renaissance, among other things.
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Husband, father, and professor of Philosophy. LifeCraft springs from one conviction: there is an ancient wisdom about how to live the good life in our homes, with our families; and it is worth our time to hearken to it. Let’s rediscover it together. Learn more.