Saturday, 26 April 2008

Lewis, the Magic Flute and being logical

I have a really bright student of strongly mathematical bent and enquiring mind who is currently reading C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity. Yesterday he protested with some force that he found Lewis illogical in places. It was not the time or place for a defence so I let it pass but I found it an interesting comment. Personally though I have always found Lewis to be highly logical, but I am neither a good mathematician nor a logician. We had one other brief comment on the matter but I will save that till later.

Now the reason I didn’t post last night was that we went to the opera. It was Mozart’s The Magic Flute done by the Welsh National Opera from whom I have borrowed the image. Now if you know anything about the Magic Flute you know it’s got some strong points: some great tunes, some awesome soprano bits and it all ends happily. It is also something of a problem opera. The plot revolves around the Masons of Mozart’s day and their rituals, and we have such mysterious elements as dragons, bird catchers, three boys, a Queen of the Night and an order of priests. It’s all very Masonic, full of ritual and symbolic elements and it swings between rustic comedy and high drama. The performance by WNO seemed to catch the bizarre atmosphere well with sets that made a blatant nod to the surrealist art of RenĂ© Magritte. There is also a lot of talking but thankfully in this performance it was in English. I’m still not at all sure what was going on (and I gather no one really knows anyway) but it was great art and made you feel good about life.

Now the interesting thing is that of course it fails at every level the tests of logic and rationality. Any supercomputer would be driven mad trying to analyse what was going on. Why were the priests of the Order dressed in orange? (Was it merely a bad pun ‘the Orange Order’?) Who are the three boys? And what about the lobster? Yet it was not meaningless or pointless. Indeed you could say of the ending of the opera that it achieved what art is supposed to do but rarely does: it was moving.

My student made a second comment later in a gap in the teaching. I forget the exact words but it was a question as to whether I considered logic to be the ultimate test of truth. My fumbled answer was that to try to do that involved a circular fallacy: you could never logically prove that logic was the ultimate criterion because to do it you would have to use logic. I quoted Pascal at him (actually I misquoted but he got the sense). ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing.’ I think The Magic Flute – and a million other things – demonstrates that.