Dolly Parton Is Magnificent
We start here going down the Anabaptist rabbit hole and discover that it leads to contemplation of the doctrine of great soul and the example provided by Dolly Parton.
What the hell just happened? My respect for Dolly just rose an order of magnitude. does she have a selfich bone in her body?
And can you live to this standard? This is the real struggle for a human being.
Singing in Dungeons; and Dolly Parton Is Magnificent
Why We Make Music, Part 1
MARCH 22, 2022
Peter and Susannah discuss the Aristotelian magnificence of Dolly Parton with Mary Townsend.
About This Episode
Peter and Susannah open the music issue podcast series with a discussion of Anabaptist music: the beautiful and occasionally grim songs of the Radical Reformation.
But what is music for anyway? They talk about music as a crucial aspect of the human telos, and the need for the body of Christ to worship him in song. The sheer power of music has been recognized in all the philosophical traditions of the world as well: music can call out the best in you, and can make you worse. It is not something to be taken lightly.
Then they bring on Mary Townsend to talk about Dolly Parton and her exhibition of the Aristotelian virtues of magnificence and magnanimity: the way in which she spends money out of thoughtful love for the public good, and the way that her generosity in song reflects a fundamentally Christian experience of having been given a gift of song. In this way, Dolly may serve as a truly Christian corrective of Aristotle’s more masculine and humorless magnanimous man. The petite blonde woman from Tennessee may be the closest thing we have to a living example of public and thoughtful greatness that is also good and beautiful.
I: Editorial: The Songs of the Radical Reformation
II: Editorial: Music and the Meaning of Life
III: Mary Townsend: Dolly Parton’s Magnificence
IV: Mary Townsend: Dolly Parton’s Magnanimity
Peter Mommsen, “Why We Make Music”
Mary Townsend, “Dolly Parton Is Magnificent”
Dhananjay Jagannathan, “Music and Morals”
Benjamin Crosby, “Is Congregational Singing Dead?”
Boethius, “Fundamentals of Music”
Section I: Editorial: The Songs of the Radical Reformation
Susannah Black: Welcome back to The Ploughcast. This is Susannah Black.
Peter Mommsen: And here is Peter Mommsen. I’m Editor-in-Chief of Plough.
Susannah Black: And I’m senior editor at Plough. This is the first of our music issue podcasts.
Peter Mommsen: In this series of six podcasts about music, we’re going to explore all kinds of things from chanting psalms to Martin Luther’s hymns to congregational singing to Black spirituals to …
Susannah Black: How music makes you a worse person sometimes.
Peter Mommsen: And Dolly Parton, who is coming up at the end of this particular podcast. Welcome and we’re going to dive in.
Susannah Black: Pete, you have an editorial here, as you do in each issue; this one is titled “Why We Make Music.” You start with a story about an Anabaptist martyr/songwriter.
Peter Mommsen: Yes. I start with the story of Jeronimus Käls, because we don’t want to start too lightheartedly in what might seem like a kind of frivolous topic, right? The story of Jeronimus Käls was always fascinating to me since I was a little kid.
There was this big book called the Hutterite Chronicle that was begun in the 1570s and it tells the story of the Anabaptist communities that began as part of the Radical Reformation in the 1520s. And most of it is a kind of year-by-year account of their doings and where they got persecuted; largely where they went to next and also just some random ephemera and some great stories. There are, of course, many stories of Anabaptist martyrs, one of whom was Jeronimus Käls, one of the earliest. He was a schoolteacher. In fact, when my wife grew up in a Hutterian colony in South Dakota, they still say the prayer before meals that he wrote when he was a schoolteacher in the community back then.
He was sent out on mission from the community, and he was in Vienna on a night in January 1536. And there was this drinking game going on and the other people in the pub said, “Hey, come on and join us.” And he wasn’t so sure about that, and his refusal and that of the two friends that were with him actually resulted in them being suspected as Anabaptist, which was a capital crime then. And one of the people in with them wrote a little note to the other in Latin, not thinking he could understand it, “I think these three guys are Anabaptists.” And they passed that to a judge and two hours later they were arrested. So what did this have to do with singing, you might ask?
Susannah Black: What does this have to do with singing, Pete?
Peter Mommsen: Because when they were locked up in Vienna for three months, they were kept in separate cells; they were interrogated first kindly and then under torture, pressuring them to recant, turn in their fellow Anabaptist believers. They were then separated into different cells, and one of the things that impressed me as a kid reading this story was the letter that Käls wrote to his fellow prisoners. He somehow managed to persuade a guard, who seemed to be really sympathetic, in fact there’s records of Viennese people coming to visit them in prison and helping them and making supportive noises outside the jail, which is kind of weird, if you think about it. But they were in separate cells, not allowed to talk to each other between these torture sessions and they figured out, as many prisoners have since, that they could communicate by singing.
And in this letter he describes what a joy it was. He says, “I rejoice with my heart to hear you sing, especially you, dear Michael, when you sing in the evening. I can understand almost every word if you are sitting right by the window and I listen carefully. And I love hearing each of you, for I rejoice when I hear you singing, so let’s keep on shouting until we are hoarse.” And that’s how they encouraged each other and I remember our teacher, or someone, telling us at the time, “That’s, kids, why it’s so important to learn lots of songs and sing, because if you’re ever locked up and about to be martyred, you can sing and encourage the other people in prison.” So that is a tip for you.
Susannah Black: There’s a really good life hack. Has that ever come in particularly handy for you?
Peter Mommsen: Not yet, but I’ve repeated that to my kids.
Susannah Black: Okay, good. All right. You also mentioned that there were a couple of Anabaptist lyrics that you wanted to share.
Peter Mommsen: Yeah, so the wider point of the story though was of course the Reformation was this huge spiritual revolution, but it was accompanied by an enormous musical outburst and those things seem really strongly linked. So of course Martin Luther himself kind of propelled his reformation through the power of song, through writing many, many hymns which were sung and this whole idea that the common man and woman should be able to learn the Gospel and sing it during their daily work, doing whatever they were doing. And that became the basis for hymn-singing in Western Christianity and the basis of, essentially, Western musical culture in many ways.
Now, there was an Anabaptist version of that happening simultaneously. For the Anabaptists, songs were even more important than for Lutherans, because they were, you can imagine, harassed, being driven from country to country, often far from their homelands, separated from family without the ability to do a lot of writing or institution-building. They didn’t have a University of Wittenberg; they didn’t have theologians sitting comfortably in Strasbourg writing books, defending their ideas.
What they had was songs that they sang to each other that either just taught the faith – so many of them are just Bible songs – or that told the story of martyrs like Jeronimus himself, who wrote songs in prison and sent one of those to his wife, in his farewell letter.
There were songs that were often quite long; I mentioned my wife who grew up in a Hutterian community: they still sing many of these songs. Many of them are long ballads that will tell a story. The Amish sing songs like these, as well, many of the same songs. And this is what they pass around, this is how they stay connected and it’s a kind of hackneyed metaphor, but I think it’s really applicable here, songs literally were kind of the social media network of their movement. They were the way information was passed around and that a people was connected, that the faith was passed to the next generation.
And they’re really interesting songs. I mean, there’s this one that, for instance, is about Elizabeth, an Anabaptist martyr, 1549 in the Netherlands, and it describes in great detail, blow by blow, her debate with the priests who were interrogating her under torture about her views on the Mass and on baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and it describes in detail, and you can imagine seeing this in an Anabaptist church, how she was subjected to the thumbscrews, the song says, “until the blood squirted from underneath her nails.” These are songs that would keep you awake in church, I think. And you can imagine why they would be sung, much as epic poetry was sung, right? These were the heroes of the faith who were being remembered. But there is, and this is just sheer digression, can I make a digression?
Susannah Black: You may make a digression.
Peter Mommsen: Martin Luther and the Anabaptist songs were reacting to medieval church music, which was in an ad orientem type Mass, sung typically by the priest, although not always, using plainchant. And there was this strong Protestant and Anabaptist critique of this plainchant for getting too complicated, too artificial. And so, you’ll notice that Luther’s hymns and the Anabaptist ones tend to be very straightforward. There’s one syllable per note, typically, and they’re designed that way to make them easy to learn. And, of course, the other criticism was that the plainchant was in Latin and wasn’t available to the common man.
So, fast-forward to today, and if you go to an Amish church you will find they still sing these songs, but because they’ve passed them down for 500 years, they’ve developed a form of chant that goes with them that is extremely complex and melismatic and there’s up to nine different musical notes per syllable and they’re sung in a certain way. And, of course, they’re sung in a language that isn’t people’s everyday language – they’re sung in an old church German. So I’m not making any point here except that I think it’s pretty cool.
Susannah Black: It’s sort of carcinisation. It’s like the way that animals keep evolving into crabs. Song keeps evolving into chant.
Peter Mommsen: Chant always wins. But the purpose of doing this issue isn’t to rehash 500-year-old history here, or to talk about chant, as nifty as that is, but because a lot of that sense of a participatory musical culture isn’t really working out that well right now, and especially not after the Covid pandemic.
Section II: Editorial: Music and the Meaning of Life
Susannah Black: One of the things that you talk about in the editorial is the fact that most churches, despite the unfortunate predominance, many of us think, of worship-band style music, most churches still have a choir or at least a little more than half, I think you said.
Peter Mommsen: Yeah, 46 percent according to the last survey.
Susannah Black: Still have a choir, but that was before Covid. And Covid gave us the experience of a world without communal singing, and that was a pretty rough thing. I think for a lot of us, one of the most powerful experiences of – I mean, we’re not post-pandemic, but we are in a different phase; anyway, it was really good to start singing again with other people and it was really good to start singing in church again and that was a powerful kind of marker, for me, and I think probably for a lot of other people.
Peter Mommsen: Another thing that’s affecting singing that you can see that in churches – and we have a great article about that, by the way, “Is Congregational Singing Dead?” by Benjamin Crosby in this issue – is that the Reformation was born out of a wider culture of singing. People sang already. Now, you don’t want to make massive generalizations about “nowadays people don’t sing like they used to,” but the fact is that in the age of earbuds and Bluetooth and constant music, our relationship to music, as to so many things, has massively, massively changed. We’ve been reprogrammed to approach music primarily passively, so you see – I have no idea if this quantifiable, but anecdotally seems to be true and I can say for my church community here, I think it’s undoubtedly true – that it doesn’t come as naturally or comes much less naturally to sing together in church or to sing together in most places than it did at a time when people were more likely to break into song as they were going about their daily work.
Susannah Black: I can’t remember where I read this, but it is pretty much the case that the only people who regularly sing with other people in American life, other than a couple of niche people who are hobbyists and belong to choirs, which are a very small number, are people who sing in church. Church is one of the last remaining communal singing locations.
Peter Mommsen: This is one more place where the technological revolution of the last fifteen years has removed us from our own bodies, our own maybe unlovely sounds that we make when we open our mouths and try to sing and replace that with a polished performance that is immersive for us, that doesn’t call on us to actually join with others in literally breathing together in the sort of physicality of singing as a community. Now, that in itself I don’t think is enough reason to do an issue of Plough around, just one more casualty, you might say, of some very massive shifts in society and culture over the last little while that have affected many people and you can say, “Well, there’s much bigger things at stake than whether we sing or not.” But from a Christian point of view I don’t think that’s true.
Susannah Black: Nope. I mean, one of the things that I had tried to get you to write about in your editorial, which you didn’t end up writing about, but I’m going to say it now is that, arguably, there’s a lot of ways that we can understand what we are doing when we worship and what we are looking forward in the new heavens and the new earth, but one of the ways that that is described is that when we worship we are actually participating in this kind of continual choral worship service that’s going on in God’s heavenly throne room. And that is an aspect, at least, of what we are going to be doing in eternity. This is literally what we are for. Talk about telos: this is what we are for.
My pastor’s wife, who’s the music director at our church, Amber Salladin, she refuses to entertain the idea that there are people who are not singers, because she says, “Your bodies are made to sing. The roof of your mouth is shaped like a resonating chamber, the way that an acoustically sound interior space, concert hall would be shaped like.” We are a musical instrument that we are designed to play and when we don’t sing, we’re not doing that.
Peter Mommsen: I’m going to back you up with a nice early church father …
Susannah Black: Please do.
Peter Mommsen: Gregory of Nyssa. “If the entire world order,” he writes in Commentary on the Inscriptions of the Psalms, “If the entire world order is a kind of musical harmony whose artisan and creator is God, as the apostle says, then man is a microcosm, and imitator of him who made the world. Since everything natural is compatible with nature, music too is in accord with our human nature.” And he talks about how, therefore, David sang to God. Of course the Psalms have been central first in the Jewish liturgy and then in Christian liturgy. The Bible tells us repeatedly in the Old Testament, repeated in the New, to sing to God. This is not just a minor concern.
Martin Luther, the guy that we love to bash on this pod, often with good reason, but when it comes to music, the man was right on point. Here’s a great Luther quote: “Experience testifies that after the word of God, music alone deserves to be celebrated as mistress and queen of the emotions of the human heart.” He says famously, too, that “music is an endowment and a gift of God, not a human gift. It drives away the devil and makes people cheerful. One forgets all anger, unchasteness, pride, and other vices. Place music next to theology and give it the highest praise.”
There’s something about music and, of course, philosophers of music have written about this for a while, music goes straight to the emotions, right? Plato recognized that; Aristotle recognized that. The Confucians recognized that, as I mention in my editorial. Luther certainly recognized it. That was what the German Romantics were trying to get at when they spoke about music as giving us access to the Absolute, which is kind of BS, but it’s true to the extent that music cuts through the need to verbalize or to conceptualize and goes straight to the human heart. And if we believe, as we do, that human beings are made in the image of God, then its ability to do that is a kind of sacred thing.
Susannah Black: This is obviously because everything kind of comes back to political theology for me, because I’m an annoying person like that, but the question of music and the way that it kind of ties together different layers of the world often seems to me to be parallel to the way that we think about the way that politics ties together different layers of the world. So if you think about personal virtues like self-rule, you compare that with rule in a family, rule in a city, and then God’s rule of the cosmos. At the same time – especially if you kind of get back to what I do not believe to be disproven aspects of cosmology, like the idea that there is a music of the spheres that’s going on in the universe – there’s this sense of, when we sing, we’re being tied together with the music that the actual universe makes as it’s operating and that there’s something there that brings us right to the heart of … we’re peeling back aspects of the cosmos and getting kind of in there among the gears, so to speak, when we sing.
Peter Mommsen: I was amazed reading some of that medieval philosophy of music, the discussion of the musica mundana – Boethius writes about this and others following him – that it’s actually pretty sophisticated. It’s not like they imagined the stars are up there making little tinkling sounds as they revolve around the earth, as they might have imagined. They saw this music, as you say, as a harmony, as a system of order, which is reflected in the fact that there are laws of physics.
Susannah Black: And obviously, they were also operating with the Pythagorean understanding of the interrelationship between harmony and number. And so, whatever, I have this thing where I don’t actually think as much medieval cosmology and physics have been disproved as we think, but I think that one of the ways to think about that is that even the fact that there are rhythms and predictable laws of motion is an expression of that same musical aspect of the cosmos.
Peter Mommsen: So even if you’re listening to this and say, “That’s all hogwash,” I think what we do want people to realize is that singing is something that is deeply human in a way that very few other things are, and that it also has a huge and deep connection to the human soul and to the life of faith. And then, through that, to the building-up of human beings into communities, whether that is a political community or, very specifically, the Christian community, which is constantly told to sing hymns, Psalms, and spiritual songs to God as one core way that the Christian community constitutes itself.
So when we’re not doing that, there’s a really big problem. Let’s bracket even the Christian stuff aside though for a moment, because Plato, of course, famously, took a great interest in music to the degree that he actually sought to, or depending on how you read The Republic, would have liked to ban different modes and harmonies from his ideal commonwealth, because music has such power over us that it’s not only for the good. It can be threatening; it can be dangerous; it can lead to disharmony and disorder and bad things.
Susannah Black: Personally, the Mixolydian mode does make me a worse person.
Peter Mommsen: Okay. I went on YouTube and I looked for a whole bunch of reconstructions of the Mixolydian mode and I listened to them and I tried to feel those feelings of evil, I think softness and whatever it was, temptation to drunkenness or whatever the Mixolydian mode would supposedly make me feel and I didn’t feel that. But …
Susannah Black: Oh, but you are worse today than, I don’t know, when we were hanging out a couple days ago.
Peter Mommsen: Okay, so that’s …
Susannah Black: Sadly, visibly.
Peter Mommsen: … probably what did it. And weirdly enough, Martin Luther himself was pretty concerned about the power of music for evil as well as for good. And, in fact, one big reason he stole a lot of folk songs – the tunes – and set Christian words to them, is he was really worried that having people singing these courtly love songs or coarse, secular, folk love songs all day to themselves rather than singing about spiritual things to themselves, as they milked their cows or plowed their fields or did whatever they did, was going to actually really hurt them as Christians.
Susannah Black: And so, he wanted to have the songs be as catchy as possible and as holy as possible.
Peter Mommsen: Right. And he managed, because we still sing many of his hymns today and they form the basis of some of the most sublime music written, like Bach’s Passions and oratorios. Do you think there’s bad music?
Susannah Black: Oh, yeah. I think there’s bad music. I mean, so the piece, actually, that went up, as we are recording this today, by Dhananjay Jagannathan, who’s a friend and has written for Plough a bunch, is about bad music. And we were sort of trying to figure out, basically, whether all moral panics having to do with bad music are just moral panics and can be dismissed or whether some moral panics are justified. And I actually think, Marilyn Manson, for example, the guy is telling you for years and years who he is and is making music that is inviting you to celebrate what he knows to be wrong and what he’s intending to be wrong, he turns out to be a terrible person in real life.
Yes, I think music is powerful and part of respecting the actual power of music means respecting that, yes, music can make you worse in various ways. I don’t think that, I don’t know, death metal is the only kind of bad music, and it’s possible even that there is some good death metal, but yeah, music can make you worse. Music can make you coarse. Music can make you thoughtless. Even good music, I think, can make you bad in various ways, like if there’s a very stirring patriotic melody that stirs you up to do terrible things.
Peter Mommsen: Right. I mean, the most obvious form of that is if you think to the role of song in the Rwandan genocide. Or I recall a good friend and mentor of mine who had escaped the Holocaust. She came from a Jewish family in Dresden and she remembered roving vans of SA thugs going through Dresden outside their house, singing a very catchy melody, but the words were, “When Jewish blood runs from our knives.” So music can be a terrible thing and even good music that’s good in and of itself and doesn’t have bad words can play a weirdly horrible role. If you go on YouTube, there’s an absolutely chilling video of a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth, the great Ode to Joy, being played by the Berlin Philharmonic with Goebbels in the audience, an audience full of the Nazi top brass in the midst of World War II.
There’s no way I’m going to say Beethoven’s Ninth is bad music, right? But it tells you that music is not automatically good or automatically used for good things, even really good music. I also do think there’s music that is bad in itself. I definitely don’t argue with you on Marilyn Manson. I think the problem with moral crusades against music is often that they have the wrong targets. So they’ll go after rap music for having curse words, which okay, fine, there’s music I don’t want my teenage kid playing in the living room, but there’s different kinds of badness.
I think a kind of badness we don’t look enough at, and here I’m probably going to just alienate everyone, is I think the vast majority of contemporary Christian music is bad music. I think it’s facile, it’s derivative, it attempts to say things in a fundamentally insincere way. It tries to use the real energy of the genres of music that it opportunistically adopts in order to somehow do Christian messages. It tries to do the Martin Luther hymn thing in a bad and unconvincing and embarrassing way. And just as I will not allow my kids to play Marilyn Manson in our house, I will not allow any CCM in our house either.
Susannah Black: That’s outstanding. I mean, I was just reading an essay by someone we’re going to be speaking with in a couple of episodes from now, Paul Buckley. He’s basically making the case for singing Psalms as a major part of your worship music and he describes the experience of being the music director in this Evangelical church and the pastor was preaching through the book of Psalms and then the sermon would be about the text of the Psalms, which, obviously, we know the Psalms, they’re all over the place. They’re very intense. They’re the opposite of facile. And then, the worship music that would go with that sermon would be some of the happy-clappy CCM stuff and it was viscerally bizarre to think about that. This is not the kind of music that we are invited to sing normatively.
Peter Mommsen: Now, that said, we had a bunch of CCM artists write some great pieces for our issue and despite my massively overgeneralizing comments just now, we don’t think you’re all bad. But I do think that the question of sincerity and goodness in music goes far beyond slapping happy Christian messages on, essentially, elevator music and thinking that there’s something virtuous to listening to it. And I’m also just, frankly, really uncomfortable with that style of music becoming the soundtrack of Christianity, because, like you say, it displaces the Psalms. It displaces things that are much more substantial. It also tends to displace music that’s meant to be sung communally with music that’s focused on a charismatic performer.
Susannah Black: So one of the things that I do think I’d like to talk about here, I’m trying to think if we have someone else who’s addressed it in the issue, is the way that music, through the history of the church, can draw parts of the church that are fragmented because of schism back together. You mentioned Bach earlier and one of the things that I … it’s a really common observation, obviously, everyone says this, but I can remember my dear friend Laura describing to me this weird vision she had because of something like Bach’s Mass in B Minor: she felt like listening to that was like experiencing a possible alternate history of Christendom, where the Protestant Reformation hadn’t needed to happen or where, whatever you think of it, those two halves of the Western church hadn’t fallen apart, but where they were, as they are in that Mass written by a Protestant musician, reunited in some way. And that’s always struck me as deeply mysterious. It is a kind of alternate history.
And the way that we pick up songs from each other, another sort of Paul Buckley quip which is just something he mentioned at one point, is that he was trying to convince an Evangelical church, again, to kind of adopt psalm-singing and they were reluctant to do it because it was Catholic or at least that’s what they perceived it as. And he told them, he pointed out the fact that one of their favorite, regular staples of the music director, “Crown Him with Many Crowns,” was actually written as a rosary-related hymn. These are things that we can’t help. As divided as we are by theology and by polity and by history and painful pasts, we can’t help stealing music from each other and giving music to each other.
Peter Mommsen: And you’ll see that a lot of Martin Luther’s hymns are in many Catholic hymnals and certainly vice versa, right? The Bruderhof Hymnal has Ave Verum Corpus by Mozart in it, so go figure.
Susannah Black: You also have a bunch of Marian hymns.
Peter Mommsen: Correct. So what we hope we’ll explore over the next few episodes is why communal music-making is important and we want to convince anyone who needs convincing that this is every bit as urgent a culture war issue as your favorite culture war issue. It’s not just a matter of the nice aesthetic trimmings of a common life, but really music as Plato and the Confucian writer and Aristotle and Martin Luther and lots of other people have said: it really is constitutive of what it means to live well as a human being and live well together. And that’s what we want to kind of get into. So we’re really excited about this new podcast series and with that we’ll turn to our first set of interviews.
Section III: Mary Townsend: Dolly Parton’s Magnificence
Susannah Black: Welcome to Mary Townsend, friend of the podcast, a friend of ours with whom we just had dinner the other night. Mary Townsend is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. John’s University. She is the author of The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic and her articles have appeared in the Hedgehog Review and the Atlantic. She is also a repeat Plough offender and, yeah, we are extremely happy to have you on.
Peter Mommsen: To talk about the magnificence of Dolly Parton.
Susannah Black: The sheer magnificence of Dolly Parton.
Peter Mommsen: Could you, Mary, tell us why Dolly Parton is magnificent?
Mary Townsend: Well, when I originally made a joke about this on Twitter, I was just thinking about the way that she spends money. The news about the vaccine research that she’d donated to had just come out and the internet was sort of going crazy and singing “vaccine” to the tune of “Jolene” and there were some good jokes that day. But people were sort of astonished that somebody would be so thoughtful about spending money in this way. And so, it just immediately connected in my mind to this special kind of virtue that most of us don’t really have access to, in Aristotle.
You can be an ordinary human with an ordinary income and be generous to give to people at the right time, with the right respect, what they need. But there’s another virtue, called magnificence, where if you have a really, really true large fortune, then you get to start spending for the public good in ways that sort of are brilliant and beautiful and over the top, but not vulgar. But if you stint a little bit in your lavish spending, you’re going to be chintzy. So it just seemed to me that the vaccine is one example, but as I did research for this article, there’s so many it’s actually kind of terrifying how many examples of how well she’s able to spend. So she does this thing with wealth, but then it turns out that magnificence in English really describes her entire persona and personality, as well.
Peter Mommsen: I remember seeing that tweet and just thinking, “Wow, it would be a fantastic Plough article.” And I guess we talked about it and you agreed to write it and it turned out so fantastic. In a way, we’re not even going to attempt to summarize the article, but we’ll nibble around at the edges, especially the fun ones. You just mentioned Dolly’s literal magnificence in the ways that she’s contributed to the public good.
My sister used to live in a pretty low-income county in southwestern Pennsylvania where a lot of kids were eligible for her Imagination Library program and although she doesn’t particularly care for Dolly Parton’s music or persona or anything, she could not stop saying good things about how wonderful the Imagination Library is, not just in the idea, but in its execution and the selection of books and how it was run and the impact it had in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. So it’s the type of thing where there’s not only great announcements and great PR work, but also really happy kids in places you don’t think about necessarily very often.
Susannah Black: So you contrasted Dolly with other potentially magnificent people, although less magnificent in various ways. Do you want to talk about that contrast? And are there other people who are equally magnificent or similarly magnificent who you can think of?
Mary Townsend: Yeah, that’s a really good question, because I think of people like the Carnegies with their libraries and the Rockefellers, I guess you could sort of lump Bill Gates and so forth in this kind of category. They do spend money lavishly, they give away great wealth, but it tends not to be very specific. I mean, the grants tend to be sort of amorphous and then they obviously commit certain injustices with getting their wealth that the magnificence can’t quite make up for. I think this is at work in Aristotle, too. I think when he’s explaining what real spending for the public good in a beautiful way would look like, he is thinking about wealthy Athenians who don’t live very well and commit great injustices. But there’s a way in which he’s teasing them with the possibility of the kind of great reputation that magnificence would give you.
So Dolly is both a good person and a good spender in this way. And she, as Pete was saying, she’s very, very good not just at writing checks to some amorphous public good-project thing, but just finding this very, very specific way to intervene in people’s lives. The books are well-chosen, they’re creative, for this Imagination Library. It’s not like, “Oh, can we give the kids an extra test to figure out how to get them more literate,” or whatever. It’s like, “Here are some nice books,” which is actually just very specific and very kind and thoughtful.
Susannah Black: It’s concrete. I don’t know whether Dolly’s ever been to Davos, but I can’t really picture Dolly at Davos and I can’t picture her using her wealth towards something like, I don’t know, a project promoted by the World Economic Forum. You can’t really picture Dolly and Klaus Schwab in the same room. Although it would be kind of fun to see them in the same room. She doesn’t seem to be trying to shape society according to a personal vision; she doesn’t seem to be trying to get people to adopt, I guess, her values except that she kind of does by creating these songs that are lovable and that describe good things in a lovable way or sad things in a way that evokes sadness. So there’s an accuracy in her songwriting that I feel like is kind of shaping the public conscience in a way. But she doesn’t do the massaging-of-society thing that the Rockefeller Foundation tends to.
Mary Townsend: No, that’s a really good point, because she’s not trying to make something happen, but try to give a gift. But knowing that only the right gift will work, which is just so perfectly Aristotelian.
Peter Mommsen: Mary, as a professor of philosophy, I’m going to tempt you with this next question. I will lead you into temptation with the question, can you just break down for us the meaning of magnificence as you discuss it in your essay? We talked about, obviously, Aristotle and we’ve mentioned him. How does this fit in? What are we really talking about? This virtue of magnificence and maybe there’s other places we could see it.
Section IV: Mary Townsend: Dolly Parton’s Magnanimity
Mary Townsend: In Aristotle’s philosophy of life, he thinks that the point of life is to be happy; it’s the goal that sort of collects all of our ends and purposes and choices together. And the way you do this is to repeatedly do things that aim at the beautiful, but aim at the beautiful that is a mean in proportion to your own temperament and your own means and abilities. So happiness is activity in accordance with virtue. What I found when I was writing the article is that great-souledness is another strange virtue that doesn’t quite make sense at first that Dolly seems to exhibit almost more than anything else. So let me see if I can describe that for a bit. The classic virtues are things like courage, it is good to be courageous. If you can bring yourself to be brave at the right time, in the right respect, for the right reasons, you simply will be happier. Aristotle’s got this great line about, “No one can be happy if they’re afraid of every insect that floats by.” You have to have a little bit of something like courage, something like generosity, just to get along in any sort of real way with other people.
But then, there’s other special-case virtues that seem to be for humanity who sort of manage to organize all the virtues already, but then they add something a little bit on top. So great-souledness is a kind of self-knowledge. It’s understanding exactly what your capacity for deeds in life are, and if you understand yourself to be a person who’s capable of moderate things, then that’s self-knowledge for you. But if you underestimate yourself and consider yourself capable of only small things, you’re going to be small-souled, whereas the great-souled person is the person who knows that they are capable of great things and they are actually correct about themselves and they manage to make that part of their life. So he describes this, Aristotle, as a way in which great-souledness, this kind of self-knowledge, ornaments the virtues. It almost sort of brings them to life, in a way. Because it’s not just about did I act morally right in this way, but do I understand my place in the world in a way that launches me into the world in a beautiful way.
Susannah Black: You also discussed a little bit some of the ways that Aquinas tweaks this virtue, or tweaks our understanding of it, and you also describe the way that Aristotle’s description of the magnanimous man is actually a little bit unappealing in certain ways and you think that Dolly kind of …
Peter Mommsen: And doesn’t fit a short girl from Tennessee.
Mary Townsend: Yeah, it’s this funny debate among Aristotle people, if Aristotle’s kind of making a joke about the great-souled man, in the same way that I think he’s teasing the wealthy people, the wicked wealthy people in Athens, with the hope of getting them to spend money well. I think he’s also sort of teasing the idea of this masculine warrior who’s tall and walks slowly and has a deep voice and, I mean, he starts talking about physical characteristics, rather than characteristics of soul. And so, it does actually kind of look like he could be making fun of … I mean, what do we really want out of virtue? Do we want to look and sound good or do we want to actually have a beautiful soul? So by the end of his discussion of great-souledness, I think you get pointed to a little bit more of a really human way of thinking about that.
But so, there’s also another thread where it could be that Aristotle does really think that if you’re not tall and you’re not a dude, you’re going to be missing some kind of way of existing in the world. It disqualifies so many of us, doesn’t it? But Dolly is such a great example because she has this quality, she embodies it, and the way you can tell is because it’s just too visible. And it’s not just visible in one thing that she does, but it sort of has seeped into the entirety of her life, even just the smallest story like spending the Whitney Houston money on shoring up a Black neighborhood in Nashville. Just little things like that just sort of point to the wholeness of her character. So I think it is possible to be a petite, blonde woman from Tennessee and have this kind of virtue, even though she sort of has to play with that aspect of her visibility in order to really make it land.
Peter Mommsen: And she does that, as she herself pointed out, I believe as you mentioned in a conversation with Barbara Walters, that show business is a joke, right? And so, she, unlike Aristotle’s maybe ironic magnificent guy, slow-walking and deep-voiced, has a sense of humor about herself.
Susannah Black: There’s another aspect to sort of great-souledness that she also seems to fly in the face of which is this sense of if you are a maximally magnanimous man then you can’t really have any friends because there’s no one who’s as good as you. I mean, you’re Gaston, but if Gaston were actually that good. He’s just sort of sitting there and you don’t … (sorry, Beauty and the Beast reference, I’m ashamed of that) and there’s no one for you to look up to and there’s no one for you to be a peer of.
Mary Townsend: And Dolly certainly does not have that. There was this description of how she reacted when she heard Whitney Houston’s cover of “I Will Always Love You.” Dolly wrote “I Will Always Love You,” which is a really incredibly well-written song and very moving about renouncing a certain kind of love; she wrote it while she was still under contract with what looks to be a pretty abusive musical partner who had a television show, Porter Wagoner.
And so, when you see the video of her singing the song, it’s like there’s this tension present in her whole way of presenting herself. And Dolly has no tension ever when she performs. There’s something that she’s not telling us when she’s singing the song, so flash forward several decades into the future, and she had sold the rights to Whitney Houston and there’s a story there about how it all came about that they were going to use the song for the movie The Bodyguard, a classic film. But so, when she heard the song on the radio, she had to physically stop driving because she was so amazed and sort of in awe of what she was hearing and I think this shows pretty good aesthetic judgment on her part, because as good as she can perform this song, there’s something about the way that Whitney Houston does it that makes it into an epic musical moment.
In the article, I describe when I came out when I was about 11 and just how the whole landscape of life became about this song, because there’s something so captivating about it. So I think it takes a certain kind of great-souledness and maybe this is more sort of where we get into some of the Christian virtues, to be able to see when someone surpasses you with your own art and not just be like, “Well, she surpassed me with my own art,” but to actually physically feel joy at the fact that someone managed to take something that you made and make it into something even larger and more beautiful. And I think that quality in her, once you start thinking about her character, it explains that car-pulling-over story. Just when you’re sort of like, “Oh, it’s a funny story. Oh, she pulled the car over,” but when you think of it as a moment of cosmic recognition on her part, it’s really damn impressive and it’s not the kind of thing that I think a lot of artists could really allow themselves to feel.
Susannah Black: And, I mean, it seems to me that that’s really related to one of the things that you talk about early on in the piece which is this other extremely useful Greek word with you mentioned before, kalos. Do you want to discuss that word and how it’s related to our happiness?
Mary Townsend: Yeah, so the goal or the endpoint or the telos of virtue is, in some way, to aim at beautiful action. In Greek this word is kalos and it’s kind of a funny word that we would translate as beautiful that doesn’t quite capture all of its range of meanings. There’s an element to it that means beautifully good. In English, you can be beautiful or good or you can be beautiful and also good, but it is sort of hard for us to have the kind of moral imagination to see the beautiful and the good as united in this way as they are in this Greek word very naturally. I always ask my students, “Who speaks several different languages?” coming to me in Queens. “If you guys know the language that does this, as well, please let me know.” But there does seem to be a divorce in it, in our thinking.
And I think that’s reasonable and I think that beauty is not quite the same thing as goodness, but there are moments, and this is how we get to aim to live our lives where we can unite a beautiful action that’s visible and lovely and has a sort of speaking and shining quality to it, with things that are also straightforwardly actually really, truly good. So I think it’s not just because Dolly’s a performer that she manages to have this quality, but there is something very nice about the seamless blend of both her human virtues and then also her performing virtues, as well.
Peter Mommsen: Yeah, and it seems to me, this is a bit the secret of why she’s somebody who’s both a darling in red states and gets glowing write-ups in the New Yorker and New York Times, right? There’s many people who roll their eyes at Dolly Parton, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people who hate her, dislike her, and a lot more people who just have this kind of irrational love, I guess, for her, for what she represents. From a Christian point of view, and of course Plough is a Christian magazine, the kind of Calvinist response to all this would be, “Well, what about the fall, what about …” do the Calvinist thing, Susannah, for us.
Susannah Black: Why are you looking at me? And plus, it’s not just a Calvinist thing, it’s a Christian thing.
Peter Mommsen: Oh, okay.
Susannah Black: It’s an Augustinian thing!
Peter Mommsen: Yeah, okay. Right. We will get into that another time. However, human beings are deeply deplorable through and through and that also applies to Dolly Parton, right? As she herself actually, I see in the essay, refers to herself in one song as a poor sinful creature. So how do we reconcile the kind of love, to be able to just actually praise and love a person like Dolly Parton who has this greater-than-life persona, is also just a celebrity who makes a lot of money, right, with this kind of suspicion that probably comes from Christianity to some degree, that actually everyone’s kind of full of it, right? And it’s so much easier to write a long essay pointing out how a widely beloved figure is actually full of it than to just write in praise of them.
Mary Townsend: Yeah, I think, well, truly the theology is kind of above my pay grade, but I’ll give it a shot. The love that we feel for Dolly seems to be sort of a reconciling love. If there is a presence of love here, and there obviously is, both hers for us and her fans’ for her. That’s got to be a Christian red flag, like a pointer. Some kind of presence of something that’s important. I don’t think people are deplorable through and through, although I certainly have my Sophoclean tragic moments.
Peter Mommsen: Well I was trying to spur Susannah there to give us some original sin; she hasn’t obliged yet.
Mary Townsend: One of the things that’s impressive about Dolly is that it’s not like she’s just sort of lucking into virtue. It’s not like she’s just accidentally good and that her decisions are just sort of things that come naturally to her. They all come from this very thoughtful, loving, decisive and deliberative place, that doesn’t just sort of ride on natural goodness, but sort of reconciles itself to what goodness is possible in the world. And because she does, I think, hit some kind of remarkable balance point for this, it does spill out in a way that feels larger than itself, in a way that it’s not like she’s actually divine, and yet she sort of makes visible what reaches towards that in us, I would say.
Susannah Black: Well, how about this, this is not going to be as Calvinist as apparently everybody wants me to be, I’m not even a Calvinist exactly. But I do think that one of the things that Aquinas, noted Calvinist Thomas Aquinas (sorry, I just said that to make everyone on Twitter mad at me, I don’t really believe it) one of the ways that Aquinas tweaks the virtue of magnanimity is that he talks about the greatness that we have, that we accurately recognize in ourselves as being a gift and it certainly seems to me that the way that Dolly gives reflects the fact that she is the recipient of some kind of generosity from somewhere. She seems to be reflecting God’s generosity into the world. And, I mean, I think that that’s theologically accurate and it also just seems to be experientially accurate.
I don’t know, I’m kind of thinking of the Olympics where they are excellent and they might even make an enormous amount of money through Nike endorsements or something like that, but you feel that their excellence is clawed from reality, that it’s broken them, that nothing has been given to them. They have taken that excellence by force. And there is something amazing in watching that kind of excellence, too, and obviously I’m thinking about figure skating where there is this sort of sense of grace and effortlessness that comes through that clawed-from-reality excellence, but with Dolly, obviously, it’s not the case that she doesn’t work hard, she definitely works hard, but even the way that she describes her ability to rhyme she said, “I always knew that I could rhyme words if I needed to.” It feels like she’s the channel of gratuitousness, of a gift.
Mary Townsend: It goes back to maybe the relationship between magnificence and great-souledness, in that we’re not impressed with her and love her simply because she is great, and maybe that’s sort of an analogue to the clawing-out of virtue that you were describing, Susannah. But yeah, it’s like when she gives back, when she finds the right place to intervene, whether it’s the vaccine or the reading program. My favorite bit of trivia is the really impressively successful bald eagle sanctuary at Dollywood.
Peter Mommsen: Which is very cool.
Mary Townsend: It’s very cool and so random. I suspect her of having a thing for eagles, because it’s something that comes up in her song lyrics a fair amount. But so, yeah, there is something gratuitous about it and it’s not just that it alters the world that it’s so lovely, it’s just that someone would try and that they would be so good at it. It kind of softens the world, in a way.
Peter Mommsen: That makes sense. Is there anybody else besides Dolly Parton who is magnificent? I mean, there’s many people who are equally famous, right? It’s hard to think of a lot of other people in the mode of the one that you wrote about in this essay, Mary.
Mary Townsend: No, and I guess you guys have to help me out, because my ignorance of cultural figures in the world is present here. I guess I just know so many people that give money because they feel it’s the right thing to do, but they don’t understand that there’s a sort of sense of lavishness in the world that, especially if you have this great wealth, that is just simply good to do. There’s this story, can I tell this story? I know somebody who gave away a great fortune, because he thought that it was sort of unjust to possess it as a private citizen, and then goes around and sort of does pretty low-key charitable work in a city that will remain nameless. But he sells art prints for peace from homicide in the city. But, one of the things that I just can’t understand is why he didn’t give a new school building to every public school in New Orleans. That would’ve been a very, very small fraction of his wealth.
And it seems like there’s something small-souled about that. When you have this responsibility to give broadly, the possibility of giving broadly, just to be like, “Well, it’s too much for me, I can’t do it.” One thing that I did think is we see charity often happen through organizations, which is not terrible. But there is something special about one person who does the decisionmaking process, instead of a committee that picks which grants to make happen, you’ve got one human organizing principle, Dolly, and that does seem pretty rare.
Peter Mommsen: I think, and I’m not sure, this is probably departing quite far from Aristotle, because we’re not talking about grand fortunes, but I know of a group of people in the village I used to live in in Nicaragua, who because of their work – and it’s a subsistence village where people are living, literally, hand to mouth and so are they – but because of their work, have access to comparative wealth, relative to the rest of this village. And one of them is a really good friend of mine and whenever they have money, more than what their family needs for the next month – and the idea of sort of saving for the future, for their family, seems to be foreign to them – they’ll, for instance, go around and buy medicine for all the old people in the surrounding villages and they’ll put a big celebration together for the kids for Christmas or they’ll repaint all the churches in the surrounding villages.
And they’ve been doing this for like ten years when by any sort of normal standard, even my own, I would say, “You guys are living hand to mouth yourselves, why don’t you put some money away for your kids’ education or something like that?” But there’s this kind of joy in finding the meaning of life in kind of spending what, in those circumstances, is vast wealth on something that is very targeted, that creates much good, but isn’t sort of attempting in a sort of a Bill Gates kind of way to make a measurable impact. What it’s doing is making some people very, very happy and it’s an expression of human to human love and care and community building that I’m not sure is captured in your conventional NGO metrics.
Mary Townsend: No, I like that example a lot, because it makes me think about the difference between this kind of generosity and something that looks more utilitarian, in that there’s not the sort of ever shifting calculation, ever shifting attempt to measure just exactly how much good we’re supposed to be doing in the world. Our small actions, like what exact impact do they have on people, how many lives do we save, but finding something so specific that you can just tell that it’s beautifully good in that moment and it’s worth spending not on yourself, but on these other people. I keep going back to visual metaphors, because there is something like I don’t have to calculate the amount of good that those people are doing in that village, it’s right there in the story. It’s right there in the example.
Susannah Black: I mean, thinking about that kind of doing of good in contrast to something like Peter Singer or something like all of the ways that … I mean, what we’re talking about is virtue-ethicist charity versus utilitarian charity. And the utilitarian version of it, first of all, there’s no sense that what’s behind the action is important. There’s no sense that the selfhood that’s behind the action of charity is important. But it matters that Dolly is the one behind the specific books that are given. It’s not just that the books themselves are imaginative and excellent – it matters that that is a gesture. There’s a mean-er; there’s not just meaning. And with a more utilitarian version of “what is the most good that you can do” in an effective altruist way, it seems that the person who’s giving tends to disappear or there doesn’t really need to be someone who’s giving, as long as things get done. And, I don’t know, there seems, to me, to be something much more humane and less annihilating about, I guess, a more virtue-ethicist approach to charity.
Mary Townsend: Yeah, absolutely, in that in utilitarianism the motive doesn’t matter, just the consequences. So character never becomes an issue. Character doesn’t matter. But that deprives us of a person to love, to know that someone made a decision lovingly, to whom we can be grateful. It flattens out so much.
Peter Mommsen: As we conclude, Mary, as you were putting this piece together, was there a particular Dolly Parton song that you found yourself listening to over and over again?
Mary Townsend: This is funny. My children went through a cycle where they were really into Dolly, then they were sick of her, then they got really into her again, because I listened to so much. I really loved … I found, from her very first album, there’s a very modal sort of Appalachian song that sings called “Don’t Let it Trouble Your Mind.” It’s almost, in a way, the flip side of something like “I Will Always Love You,” in that in this particular song she’s sort of saying it’s a breakup song, but she’s sort of more willing to be frustrated with the circumstances under which the breakup takes place. And so, the modality is very spare, it’s more Dorian, so related to minor, but sort of more open. That I love, because I always think of her as a larger more commercial ’80s, ’90s Dolly, whom I also love, but sort of hearing her just sing an Appalachian ballad was very good for me.
Peter Mommsen: Wow. Thank you. I’ll have to check that out. Thanks so much for joining us, Mary, and for writing this beautiful piece. And I’m sure it won’t be the last.
Mary Townsend: Thank you guys so much. It was great to talk to you.