Purpose and Liberty by Antonio Sosa.
One of the funniest and most insightful scenes in the film Amadeus takes place when Emperor Joseph II puzzles over the rehearsal of a wedding scene from Mozart’s new opera, Le nozze di Figaro. In an attempt to hinder Mozart’s career, Count Orsini-Rosenberg, the Emperor’s opera director, had forced Mozart to remove the music that was to accompany the wedding dance, citing as his justification the Emperor’s proscription of ballet in royal operas. As a result of this excision, the Emperor unwittingly sits down to watch a silent and awkward spectacle, the only sounds of which are the sporadic thuds made by leaping dancers as they land on the stage floorboards. The performance self-evidently makes no sense: the scene is a dance without music, i.e., a dance that lacks that without which a dance, as a dance, cannot properly exist. With all the reticence of a man who does not believe himself to be a competent judge of aesthetic matters, and all the self-doubt of a man who does not want to appear unduly censorious, the Emperor attempts to comprehend, and perhaps even criticize, the unintelligible performance taking place before him. “I don’t understand,” he says, perplexed. “Is it modern?”
In this line, Emperor Joseph points us toward the problem of the modern conception of liberty. He intuitively equates the disordered nature of the performance, which lacks those things required by its nature as a performance of a certain kind, with a modern aesthetic conception on the basis of which what is unintelligible and incoherent may be plausibly presented as a finished work of art. Those of us who have gawked at modern art or been mystified by modern poetry well know the Emperor’s bewilderment. In such works, we notice—on the aesthetic plane—what Daniel Mahoney calls the “doctrine of liberty as liberation” in his succinct book The Conservative Foundations of the Liberal Order. According to Mahoney, such a doctrine, which “finds powerful support in some of the core assumptions of modern political philosophy itself,” seeks “to systematically overcome all external restraints and limitations on the exercise of human autonomy.”
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