Towards Uniting the Heart and Mind – part 1

I enjoy immensely the freedom I have in my classroom to employ a variety of methods to engage students in reflective, critical thought and discourse.  To this end I sometimes use music to convey ideas in a novel way.  It so happens (not a coincidence, really) that my favorite musical artists are also probably the best Theory of Knowledge band.

In the 1970s, Rush established a reputation for composing complex, multi-part songs with serious lyrical themes containing obscure philosophical and literary allusions.  One of these was the song “Cygnus X-1 Book II: Hemispheres,”  an 18 minute 5-part masterpiece off the 1978 album “Hemispheres.”  The song explores the perpetual conflict between the forces of reason and love in the human soul, and more broadly throughout history.  Inspired by the pop-psychological theory that the “left brain” is the source of our logical-mathematical intelligence and that the “right brain” is the source of our non-logical, emotional drives such as artistic expression, the song presents this conflict as an ancient, supernatural battle between Apollo (“the god of Reason”) and Dionysus (“the god of Love”).  Most of the song consists of each god making his case for the loyalty of the human race, followed by a joyful response of allegiance, which finally leads to a disappointing end. For instance, Apollo promises:

I will find you food and shelter
Show you fire to keep you warm
Through the endless winter storm
You can live and grace and comfort
In the world that you transform.

In response, the people run off to “build their cities and converse among the wise.”  As they use reason to transform nature into technologies that produce wealth and make their lives easier, eventually they begin to feel empty and lose a sense of meaning in these activities: “The urge to build these fine things seemed not to be so strong.”  Driven to fill this void, they seek after Dionysus, who promises to satisfy their longing for meaning and liberate them from the constraints of Reason:

I bring Laughter, I bring Music
I bring Joy, and I bring Tears
I will soothe your primal fears
Throw off those chains of Reason
And your prison disappears.

Well, this sounds great to the people, so this time they abandon the cities they had built and run to the forests where “they danced and lived as brothers/ They knew Love could not be wrong.”  This lifestyle of free love (think Woodstock!) makes them content, at least for a while, until “winter fell upon them/And it caught them unprepared/Bringing wolves and cold starvation/And the hearts of men despaired…”  In other words, they need their cities for protection from the cruelties of nature.

Disappointed now with both gods, the people begin to fight and splinter between those who would follow the dictates of the Heart and those who would submit to the demands of the Mind: “Our world was torn asunder into sorry Hemispheres.”

At this point, I discuss with my students how they experience conflict between the Heart and Mind (reason and emotion) in their own lives and how this fundamental tension gives rise to some of the major conflicts in history and our own time.  Consider, for instance, the Romanticist movement in the early 19th century in response to the Enlightenment; the 1960s counter-culture in response to the stifling pressures of conformity in the 1950s; even the conflict between Western civilization and Islam may be helpfully understood in these terms, though perhaps cast in a different way as a clash between Liberty (heart) and Law (mind).

While this conflict rages in this story a few, hoping for peace and believing that there is a way to find a synthesis between the two, embark on a journey to consult with a transcendent force called Cygnus that is part of their ancient lore.  Perhaps Cygnus will have a solution for them that will harmonize these warring forces and bring peace.

In the second part of this series, I will explain how I use this Cygnus figure to lead students to consider the uniqueness of the biblical revelation of God’s nature and how only such an understanding of God gives us a basis for uniting the Heart and the Mind.

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