Sunday, September 12, 2010


A symphony must be like the world. It must contain everything.
--Gustav Mahler

Exactly 100 years ago today, Gustav Mahler premiered his Symphony No. 8, also known as the “Symphony of a Thousand,” in Munich, Germany. Both a critical and popular success, it was the last work whose premier he’d live to see. While not as famous as Nos. 5, 2, or 1, Mahler’s Eighth has distinction as one of the largest choral works in the classical music repertoire: a staggering number of voices and instruments must come together to produce it. This inspired me today to consider Symphony as a virtue--and the perfect caravansary at which to discuss root and aggregate virtues.

While we may be familiar with “symphony” as a piece of music, my trusty American Heritage Dictionary also defines it as “characterized by a harmonious combination of elements.” As such, Symphony may be best thought of as a group virtue--a virtue mainly manifest in the interactions of multiple individuals. Other examples of group virtues include Cosmopolitanism, Fraternity, or Hospitality (all of which we will visit later in our travels). Whenever a group of human beings unite to produce a beautiful outcome not possible with one individual, there is Symphony. This might include anything from creating a peaceful protest, to getting a ball down the court to score a basket, to caring for a sick relative.

The virtue of Symphony touches on a mathematical idea called emergence, the notion that individual parts can come together to produce a whole whose properties are unique, surprising, and would not have been predicted from examining the separate parts alone. Think about a single termite wandering around. Now think about how thousands of termites come together to produce one of their gigantic mounds. Some scientists would call this pretty mathematics, but I think Symphonic or emergent phenomena have something of the Divine about them. The beauty of the forest is not just that it’s a bunch of trees. It has a soul.

Symphony also may be thought of as an aggregate virtue--meaning, a virtue made up of pieces of other, more fundamental virtues a.k.a root virtues.  If we, for example, use Peterson and Seligman’s virtues list as a source of ingredients, Symphony’s recipe calls for Creativity, Vitality, Social Intelligence, Teamwork, Humility, and Appreciation-of-Beauty. Each of these ingredients, in turn, traces back to the universal root virtues of Wisdom, Courage, Humanity, Justice, Temperance, and Transcendence--virtues the authors say we can find across all human cultures.

Working the cities metaphor, think of how the boroughs of Manhattan, Bronx, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and Queens unite to make New York City its delicious pastiche, or how the unique neighborhoods of the Mission, the Sunset, the Haight, Russian Hill, and dozens of others give San Francisco its spicy diversity. Likewise, the root virtues can be thought of as districts within the City (the Virtue) they make up. No neighborhood alone makes the City what it is; it takes them all. (If we mistake one neighborhood as representing the entire City, we fall into a “synecdochal fallacy” and miss Truth; we find this illustrated in the famous parable of the blind men and the elephant.)

At any given moment, you are manifesting Symphony in your interactions with members of your family, worksite, team, community, and even the ecosystem. So, give Mahler’s Eighth a whirl, and while it plays, think on the miracle of Symphony for a moment.

May we see the gates of Symphony, and perhaps make a home there.

And Happy Hundredth Birthday, Mahler’s Eighth!

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