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Harvey Sachs on how Beethoven preferred humanity to most humans

I don’t often do that LOL thing, but I did yesterday, in a crowded café, when I read this:

Beethoven’s contempt for most human beings conflicted with his all-embracing love for humanity.

That’s on page 54 of a book by Harvey Sachs entitled The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824, which is about the composition and first performance of the Ninth Symphony, and about the world and the time in which this happened.

Remembering that I had written here before about Beethoven, I just reread an earlier piece I did called Eroica (at first mis-read by some as Erotica – what can you do?). It still reads well, I think. And it tells you all you need to know to enable you to forgive Beethoven a hundred times over for preferring humanity to humans.

I haven’t read this Sachs book yet. Yesterday I was just doing a preliminary flick-through, and came across the above sentence only by the sheerest good fortune. I certainly now want to read to rest of it.

18 comments to Harvey Sachs on how Beethoven preferred humanity to most humans

  • Jon

    There’s an old Peanuts cartoon where Linus discusses his desire to become a doctor and says “I love humanity. It’s people I can’t stand.”

  • Oh how totally I understand such sentiments.

  • Alisa

    I mean, I like people too, but mostly from a safe distance:-)

  • PeterT

    Actually, since I avoid people I don’t like, but still have a handful of friends, I would say that I prefer people to humanity, which does stuff like the holocaust. People are better one on one than in a group.

  • Richard Thomas

    I stand with the thread majority on this. People as persons are, for the most part, dull and uninteresting (to me)*. But humanity as a whole provides a mechanism that provides for some pretty outstanding stuff.

    *And I’m pretty sure it’s probably reciprocal.

  • Laird

    I’m going to have to dissent from the majority opinion here. “Humanity”, while interesting is its way, is an abstract concept, and really only comprises the combination of a bunch of individuals. Some of them you may like and others not, but what matters is their individuality, not the collective. It’s long been my opinion that leftists/progressives/statists (call them what you will) have that same mindset: the’re all for (or at least claim to be all for) helping “people” in the abstract, generic sense, but they could care less about individuals. Otherwise they would recognize the destructive effects that their collectivist policies have upon individuals (and you can’t attribute that failure entirely to stupidity; much of it comes from their worldview). Frankly, I’m rather surprised to see libertarians professing the same sentiments.

    On a side matter, thank you Brian for that link to your 2005 essay on Eroica. That was an amazing piece, some of the best musicological writing I’ve seen in a long time. Bravo!

  • but they could care less about individuals

    First, you conflate caring with liking, Laird (the post and consequent comments are about the latter). Second, I really don’t care about most people as individuals, either: I don’t know them, and I am concerned about their wellbeing only to the extent it influences mine (which it does in great measure, surprisingly or not).

    I like people in general (call it ‘humanity’ or something else) because I find them endlessly interesting and even fascinating, even the dullest ones. I do not like the dull ones as individuals, though (although I may care about them for selfish reasons, as noted above).

  • Laird

    You make a fair point, Alisa, about my conflating “caring” with “liking”, but you then go on to commit the same error. I submit that you cannot “like” humanity, which is merely an abstract concept. You can find the study of humans in large groups to be interesting, or fascinating, or whatever, and I suppose you could in some sense like the concept of “humanity”, but not humanity per se. You can only like or dislike individual specimens.

    And in any event, I think my point remains valid: leftists and statists “like” humanity only in the abstract; conservatives are more inclined to consider the needs of individuals rather than groups; and libertarians are deeply distrustful of mobs, collectivist notions and gross generalizations as to groups. That Beethoven, a wanna-be aristocrat, should fall into the first group should surprise no one.

  • Hmm

    I’ve got to admit that I appear to be rather the opposite to most here in that I far prefer individuals to “humanity” as any group definition (except as definition of the ideal of the best of humans as a whole). I find individual people endlessly interesting. I have never met 2 people exactly the same.

    I’ve met many similar people and everyone can be generalised about, but everyone really is different, and I love exploring the differences. I’ve professionally had to deal with some of the worst types of people, and I’ve found that there are very few that do not have some good in them, (I suppose that does speak to a “humanity” of sorts). Though admittedly those that are truly “evil” use their “good” parts to further their nasty impulsions.

    However, I find groups of people incredible annoying. Group psychology tends to the lowest common denominator, especially when morals/ethics are limited or set aside. It is in groups that I find “Humanity” takes a nosedive.

    Maybe that explains why I suck at playing the faster part of Fur Elise 🙂

  • Laird

    Maybe that explains why I suck at playing the faster part of Fur Elise 🙂

    Me, too! 🙂

  • I’m totally with Hmm here, except that the distinction between individuals and mobs is not that simple and clear-cut: I find that many individuals (even those of the relatively individualistic mindset) find it difficult to resist mob type of thinking even in one-on-one interactions. Think of your favorite aunt/best friend who keeps bugging you about still not being married/not having a steady job/whatever, or think of millions of people who early on take a general path in their lives that is clearly dictated to them by “society” (i.e. the mob), without ever stopping to think if that’s really the best life can offer them personally. I dislike mobs just as much as Hmm does, but what I find most annoying about most individuals is that even when on their own, they do not take the trouble to think for themselves.


    conservatives are more inclined to consider the needs of individuals rather than groups

    Yes, but it does not imply that they actually like all those individuals. And of course humanity is a concept, or a trait – at least as it seems to be understood in the original quote. Like Hmm, I like individuals for their humanity, which is to say for their ability to think, feel, their complexity or lack of it, and yes, their endless differences. That does not mean that I necessarily like each and every person I find thus interesting.

  • I now notice that Hmm thinks that he’s in opposition to most here, and so is Laird. I think you guys are actually not, it’s just that you seem to have a different understanding of the terms involved (such as ‘humanity’), at least the way they seem to be understood in the original quote. Just another case of several people, separated by a common language…:-)

  • BTW, there’s another quote I remember from many years ago, but not the source: “Bach loved God, Beethoven loved humanity, but God loved was Mozart”:-)

  • …delete ‘was’ there, and sigh with relief as I’m out of here…

  • Paul Marks

    Beethoven sounds (in this) like Rousseau (not praise).

    I am more the opposite.

    I like a lot of individual people – including the people I work with.

    However, I dislike (indeed detest) “the people”.

  • Paul, the word ‘humanity’ has two meanings.