Monthly Archives: December 2012

Swiftian sympathy

A sort of follow-up to this post on explanations that invoke sympathy. From Swift’s Tale of a Tub:

Let us therefore now conjecture how it comes to pass that none of these great prescribers do ever fail providing themselves and their notions with a number of implicit disciples, and I think the reason is easy to be assigned, for there is a peculiar string in the harmony of human understanding, which in several individuals is exactly of the same tuning.  This, if you can dexterously screw up to its right key, and then strike gently upon it whenever you have the good fortune to light among those of the same pitch, they will by a secret necessary sympathy strike exactly at the same time.  And in this one circumstance lies all the skill or luck of the matter; for, if you chance to jar the string among those who are either above or below your own height, instead of subscribing to your doctrine, they will tie you fast, call you mad, and feed you with bread and water.  It is therefore a point of the nicest conduct to distinguish and adapt this noble talent with respect to the differences of persons and of times.

Leibniz and Burnett and Toland and Bach

Some non-expert meanderings…

Reading Eric Silbin’s The Cello Suites, a book about J.S. Bach, his cello suites, and Pablo Casals, I came across this passage: “When Bach was hired at Cöthen in 1717, the court Capelle consisted of sixteen musicians, the core of whom came from the disbanded Berlin Capelle, courtesy of rising Prussian militarism” (p.63). That was the Capelle that was in Berlin under Frederick I, and disbanded after he died in 1713. Now Frederick I had been married to Sophie Charlotte, who had died in 1705. And Sophie Charlotte is somewhat familiar from the history of modern philosophy, at least because of her connections with Leibniz.[1] Other philosophically engaged figures had connections here too. For example, John Toland travelled there, and described the court in a book, and Leibniz’s correspondent Thomas Burnett, about whom I’ve been writing, had been there too. Thus, for example, Burnett wrote to Catherine Trotter from Berlin on 5 December 1704:

I have no delight in the hearing or seeing any woman, since I came abroad, like the queen, who, never, I believe, spoke, but with satisfaction to the hearer. Her concern for me is so great, that I am ashamed therof. It hath made me many open flatterers, and it may be hidden enemies.[2]

So these philosophical types had been at the court in Berlin. And some of Bach’s musicians in Cöthen had also been at the court in Berlin. So, I wondered, were any of those musicians who moved to Cöthen in 1713 among the musicians who might have been heard by the philosophers in Berlin?

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