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The Concepts of Rhythm and Self-Consciousness

These two concepts are important to the modern-day culture of live performance in music, athletics, and other fields. They are the focus of a book by the same name written by William McGaughey. This was the philosophical matrix from which Five Epochs of Civilization sprang.

The author, who studied philosophy at Yale, decided to look at modern society and culture in the manner of the classical Greek philosophers. He identified the concept of "rhythm" as embodying ideals of modern culture much as truth, beauty, justice, and the good were ideals of the classical Greek culture.

In contrast with the ideals of classical philosophy, which were static, the idea of rhythm is dynamic. Static ideals are timeless forms or shapes of being. Dynamic ideals depend on a certain arrangement of motions in time.

The ideals of Greek philosophy, as presented by Plato and Aristotle, consist of generalities. Plato believed that, if a person knew the general form of something, specific truths could be deduced. The perception of form was the hard part - something he thought that philosophers could do well. A person of mechanical talents could handle the application once the general pattern was supplied.

Rhythm is different. There is no "form" of rhythm which will allow successful execution once the generality is known. Rhythm is, instead, something which grips the mind. It is a particular state of inspiration. It is the state of concentration that an athlete has when performing well in an athletic contest or a popular speaker or musician has been giving an inspired performance. Rhythm, it would seem, just happens.

Yet, there are persons such as athletic coaches, sports psychologists, and music theorists who purport to have knowledge in this area. They advise performers as to the attitudes or thoughts required for peak performance. How can a speaker overcome stage fright? How can an athlete "psych" himself up for the big game? These are some of the challenges which must be met, if not by knowledge by some type of mental preparation.

The secret, in a word, is "concentration". But how does a person concentrate on cue? Part of the answer would lie in suppressing distractions. A common type of distraction is "self-consciousness". Self-consciousness consists of paying attention to one's own movements and clumsily trying to control them instead of letting the mind go on auto-pilot and perform something flawlessly by habit. Alternatively, concentration is a certain blankness of mind in the midst of a delicate activity.

If that is what rhythm requires, it would seem to be the opposite of Plato's advice that the mind be fully aware of its object. Habit, that inferior part of the human psyche in Plato's estimation, seems to be rhythm's motor. Far from being in command, the mind become a mechanism needing to be disciplined. The human mind is submerged in rhythm to bring a smooth performance.

Self-consciousness is, then, an enemy to rhythm. Successful performers of every stripe need to learn to overcome it. They must cultivate thoughts that will stifle self-consciousness whenever this ruinous awareness rears its ugly head. The paradox is, however, that, if you think of suppressing a thought, you think of the thought in the very attempt to forget it. The situation is similar to that of an insomniac willfully trying to fall asleep.

From the perspective of static philosophy, self-consciousness is also quite interesting. It is interesting because this kind of thought really involves two thoughts - the original thrust of awareness and the thought of the previous thought. In other words, self-consciousness is “thought thought of”. It is a kind of thought formed in response to a previous conscious activity.

This more complex kind of thinking is at the root of so many challenges in modern life. It is why no one can predict the future course of the stock market through intelligence alone. The stock price reflects not only information about company performance but investor decisions made in response to that information. There is no way to know what other investors have in mind. The moment the financial community receives a certain piece of information about a company, it is immediately discounted. Successful action on the basis of knowledge is impossible in that situation.

The final chapters of Rhythm and Self-Consciousness look at human society in an almost Hegelian way. The pristine world of conscious behavior here gives way to the complex world of self-conscious thinking. We can trace the patterns of thought which preceded the current situation, chronologically or logically, to gain a full sense of its meaning. It's a tale of innocence lost as when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden.


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