Two Kinds of Harmony

Week 8, Lecture 1

Learning Objectives

  1. Discuss differences between harmonia (αρμονία) and he (和)
  2. Explain Kongzi’s “golden rule”

Harmonia, from which we derive our word “harmony” is another critical term for the ancient Greeks. In our current usage, harmony indicates a state of being well-blended, a mode of unity in which each element is properly-apportioned in relation to one another.

Think of a choir wherein the altos aren’t overpowering the sopranos, nor are the tenors overly loud to the bass, and all to one another. Let’s look at this example from the Mormon Tabernacle Choir:

There are hundreds of people on this stage, and yet what is produced is a singular voice. This is what harmonia seeks to achieve.

It’s important that we recognize just how significantly our cultural inheritance biases us towards understanding the world around us. Our cultures orient us in the world.

Contrast the performance of Händel’s Messiah above with the following example of Gagaku (雅楽), the traditional music of the Japanese imperial court (this is arguably the oldest orchestra in the world):

In the ancient Greek context, harmonia indicated a joining together, an organizing principle of unity that assumed, as was the thinking from Heraclitus, that the universe is the site of constant enmity between forces and agents. (Anna Afonasina, “The Birth of Harmony out of Tekhe”)

Prior to Heraclitus we get the sense of harmonia as a “felloe,” the inner rim of a wheel where the spokes intersect with the outer rim. (Petar Ilievski, “The Origin and Semantic Development of the Term Harmony”)

Felloes illustrated
This image shows the assembling of a wooden wheel using felloes.

The felloe was an early technical innovation. The initial wheels were solid disks with an axle, but these solid wheels were both heavy and fragile. With the use of a hollow wheel supported by spokes around an axle it was possible to move more materials and potentially further and over rougher terrain. The initial wheels used wood that had been bent through heat or were naturally occurring such as those in use at Thebes ca. 1435 BCE. By the time of Homer and Hesiod a chariot wheel features light spokes that intersect at four felloes to create a circle.

Try to imagine how important it would be that each of these felloes be fitted well. It is for this reason that we talk about “truing” a wheel: the parts must fit accurately and steadfastly.

Check-out this handy webpage that discusses and presents how to make wooden wheels.

Wood is critical, obviously, in making the earliest light-spoked wheels, and so was truth in fitting the joints. So crucial is this relationship that in Old English the term treow means both “tree” and “loyalty.” (Partridge, Origins: A Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, 740)

Harmonia refers to the felloe of a light-spoked wheel. Hyle (ὕλη “carved wood”) refers to matter, it would then be translated into the Latin term materia from which we get in English “material” and “matter.” In the Chinese context, and throughout East Asia this distinction is resonant, “harmony” is of a different matter.

Click here to continue the lecture, here we’ll discuss Kongzi’s “Golden Rule.”