Friday, May 26, 2006

The Philosophical Tradition of Classical Architecture, Part II, The Roots of the Tradition

Grand Tradition, Classical Architecture on the Web is devoted to the promotion of the Western tradition in the arts and architecture. This relatively new website includes articles, discussion boards, news, jobs postings, and a Classical architecture help desk.

Grand Tradition has published the second article in my series on the Western tradition: The Philosophical Tradition of Classical Architecture, Part II, The Roots of the Tradition. My intention with the series is to provide a good philosophical foundation for the practice of architecture in the Western tradition, via the thinking of the ancient Greeks and the Schoolmen. I'm neither interested in being critical of the past, nor am I seeking lost, secret wisdom: instead, I try to find the good, the true, and the beautiful in the tradition. I will contrast the tradition with modernism, and hope to show that the tradition is superior and more intellectually defensible. This series is not Roman Catholic, but rather, I hope that it will be small-c catholic, or universal.

Click for The Philosophical Tradition of Classical Architecture, Part I, an overview of the series.

From Part II:
The beginnings of art, architecture, and philosophy are lost in the mists of time; but to be human is to do these things. Everywhere in the world and in every era we can find objects of art, buildings, and writings of some sort, but in this course of study we limit our examination to the Western tradition as has been passed down to us through the ages. Although the roots of this tradition are lost, we do know that the Western tradition comes most directly from the Greeks, who wrote things down, and whose many writings exist to this day. And the Greeks studied in Egypt, so we should look there for roots of the tradition.
Egypt was "the happiest, healthiest, and most religious nation of the world", and greatly influenced the tradition:
The lessons of Egypt were not lost on the latter Greeks and Romans; these nations were not blessed with the natural stability of the Nile, but instead hoped to duplicate the success of Egypt by art instead of by nature. How can a society ensure happiness and stability? Obtaining the good of both individuals and of society is the great project of the Western tradition, and this goal is embodied in the Western arts tradition.
Next I describe the influence of Pythagoras, who started classical Western education in mathematics:
But Pythagoras was on to something new and more demonstrably true. His notion that nature was governed by numbers seems almost obvious now, especially to someone trained in the sciences or engineering. His studies of the musical scales and astronomy led him to believe that much of the cosmos could be described in terms of ratios of small numbers, and that certain ratios predominate: particularly those that have pleasing musical sounds. He thought that phenomena could be described by rhythm and cycles. While a stringed musical instrument can have an infinite number of possible lengths of strings, only certain ratios of lengths between strings sound harmonious; likewise, the orbits of the planets are not arbitrary, but have a simple harmonic ratio between them, and these, remarkably, are the same ratios that make harmonious music.

This is not a wild or mystical idea, nor is it just a coincidence; for modern engineers and scientists often use linear mathematics and harmonic analysis to approximate real-life systems. Systems that operate linearly [harmoniously] will be stable and predictable; and nonlinear systems will often settle down into linear systems via frictional losses. Harmonious physical systems are indeed 'pleasing', like music.
Next I describe some of the pleasing musical ratios found in the arts and nature:
An occultist may think that all of these ratios make up a kind of 'Sacred Geometry' appropriate only for mystical structures, while a skeptic may think that these ratios are merely changeable social convention, and that a modern artist should not be bound to them. I take the traditional view: there seems to be some geometric or mathematical necessity behind these ratios, pointing to the truth; we may not now understand why they are important, but we should take them very seriously.

The ancients did not know why certain ratios were desirable, but they certainly found evidence in nature and in mathematics that these ratios had a basic truth.
Grand Tradition

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