May 7

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840)

It was on this date, May 7, 1840, that composer Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky was born in Votkinsk, Russia. He got some early legal training and worked for a time as a civil servant, but after discovering his talent for music he never looked back. Though he composed sacred as well as secular music, Tchaikovsky was a secret Rationalist.

In a letter to his brother Modest, he wrote that he had been reading Gustave Flaubert and remarked, "I think there is no more sympathetic personality in all the work of literature (than Flaubert). A hero and martyr to his art. And so wise! I have found some astonishing answers to my questionings as to God and religion in his book" (July 29, 1892). It is significant that Flaubert was an Atheist. It is true that his disastrous, and short-lived, marriage (18 July 1877) was performed by a priest.

Tchaikovsky took ill from cholera, shortly after conducting his Symphonie Pathétique. A priest was summoned to administer sacraments as he lay dying but, as the composer was unconscious the whole time, his brother Modest observed, "it was obvious my brother did not hear a single word." For his state funeral, eight thousand mourners squeezed into St. Petersburg's Kazan Cathedral, and the route to the cemetery was lined with masses of people.

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Johannes Brahms (1833)

Also on this date, in 1833, another composer of note was born in Hamburg, Germany: Johannes Brahms. Brahms was also equally adept at composing sacred and secular music. And he was an apostate from Christianity. His letters to his friend Hertzogenberg, who was likewise a Rationalist, show that he was an agnostic. The lyrics of the first of his Four Serious Songs, written the year before he died, as he admitted in a letter to Hertzogenberg, express his disbelief in personal immortality (quoting Ecclesiastes 3:19-22, one of the most skeptical parts of the Bible):

     For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts, as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.
     All go unto one place; all are of the dust and all turn to dust again. Who knoweth the spirit of man that goeth upward, and the spirit of the beast that goeth downward to the earth? Wherefore I perceive that there is nothing better, than that a man should rejoice in his own works; for that is his portion: for who shall bring him to see what shall be after him?*

* As a matter of fact, Ecclesiastes 3:19-22 is one of the clearest examples of redaction (adaptation by later clerics) in the Old Testament. Experts say it was written by an Alexandrian Jew about 200 BCE or a little earlier, but Hebrew editors revised it to bring it in line with Judaism. Ecclesiastes has more wisdom in it, albeit of the cynical, common-sensical sort, than any other book in the Bible.

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Robert Browning (1812)

It was on this date, May 7, 1812, that the English poet Robert Browning was born in London. As he was born into a wealthy family and well educated, he was able to emancipate himself from Christian belief by the time he was 18, although he remained a Theist. "Who knows most," said Browning, "doubts most." And, 34 years later, in a poem called "Gold Hair," he wrote,

The candid incline to surmise of late
that the Christian faith may be false, I find."
His narrative poem "Christmas Eve" portrays divine truth as unreachable through denominational religion, making worship a personal choice; "Easter Day," the second part of this 1850 poem, is a dialogue which argues that doubt is essential to faith. He speaks much of God, but admits, "I am no Christian."

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David Hume (1711)

Finally, born on this date, May 7, 1711, was the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume. Hume professed a belief in God. However, when he applied the scientific method to determining how knowledge is acquired, and formulated the theory that all knowledge is subjective, he pretty much undercut the basis for even Deism. In his Natural History of Religion, he wrote, "Examine the religious principles which have, in fact, prevailed in the world, and you will scarcely be persuaded that they are anything but sick men's dreams."

Hume was friends with Adam Smith and James Boswell. It was Boswell who attended him as Hume lay dying in 1776 and, hoping to convert him at last, was frustrated when Hume said flatly that "the morality of every religion was bad" and that "when he heard a man was religious, he concluded that he was a rascal."

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Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.
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