It’s always nice to see progressive rock taken seriously outside of our little prog bubble. Today I came across this recent July 2 essay by Henry T. Edmondson III over at Law & Liberty, a wonderful website dedicated to the tradition of classical liberalism and its impact on law and society. Edmondson is professor of political science and public policy at Georgia College.
In this essay, Edmondson looks at vice and virtue through the lens of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb,” going so far as to compare the lyrics of this song (and others by Pink Floyd) to the wise words of Aristotle. Here are some brief highlights:
Ours may be an age of unanticipated consequences. The longevity offered by medical progress proceeds apace with a falling interest in those things that make for a meaningful life. The constant connectivity of social media is shredding the nation’s shared fabric; and, convenience and the alleviation of pain may have produced an untroubled insensitivity to things that matter.
How then, might the prophetic Waters/Gilmour composition have anticipated the present day? The “prophet” in this sense is not a fortune-teller; rather he sees further in the distance than others, and has the capacity to articulate what others cannot. In this case, “Comfortably Numb” suggests that the individual life is dissolving into an insubstantial existence—the “smoke” of “a distant ship” visible “on the horizon.”
The collective politics of the band were decidedly left-of-center, especially those of Roger Waters, who could be arrogant and obnoxious, especially to his bandmates. Pink Floyd’s acclaimed album “Animals” (1977) repurposes George Orwell’s Animal Farm so that the oppressors include the commercial class as well as the political. But the band’s insight into the human condition has appeal across the political spectrum. Their diagnosis of our present state is remarkable, and when that acumen is expressed through their art, it is arresting.
Aristotle, in his Ethics, develops the idea of the cardinal virtues. In Aristotle’s scheme, for every virtue, there are two vices: one vice is too much of the virtue; the other two little. One of those virtues is temperance or moderation. It is flanked by two vices, indulgence on the excessive side and insensibility on the defective side (Nicomachean Ethics, III, 11).While self-indulgence may be easy to recognize, insensibility may not, and that vice may offer a clue to the state of comfortable numbness. Whereas lust and desire may run amok in the vice of excess; in the defective vice of insensibility, the passions that support virtue, including honor, ambition, love, pride and fear, are scarce. Consequently, the insensible life is bland and driftless: comfortably numb. Aristotle warns such a state is barely “human.” Curbing the vice of excess seems relatively straightforward, at least compared with awakening someone from the insensible state, precisely because the motivating passions are enervated. Perhaps ruminative artists like Pink Floyd can be of assistance in the quest for a cure.
The Wall is certainly a deep lyrical well from which to draw. In 2019 I wrote an in depth piece about “Hey You,” arguing that the song touches on our most deepest of human desires – connection with others. Certainly that theme connects with the numbness spoken about in “Comfortably Numb.” If one can’t get the human connection they need, then they will often turn to drugs, alcohol, lust, or any other vice instead. We would do well to heed Pink Floyd’s warning, especially in an age where we are torn apart by loneliness, substance abuse, lust, and violence.