Read an Excerpt
Conversations between Music and Theology
William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company
Copyright © 2011 Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
All right reserved.
Chapter One Augustine and the Art of Music
The Liberal Art of Music
In classical and late antique culture, music was generally understood not in terms of something composed, practiced, played, or performed, but as a mathematical discipline that was concerned with identifying, categorizing, and creating measured relations between sounds — usually the written or spoken sound of words in poetic rhythm, meter, and verse. Alongside the other mathematical-type disciplines of arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy, and the literary disciplines of grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic, music formed part of the "core curriculum" of the seven liberal arts: those disciplines which effectively formed a common culture shared by the governing elite of educated, free citizens among whom they were studied.
Of course, music as we would now commonly understand it did exist and was practiced, though we know very little about its precise form. Wind instruments such as pipes and horns; stringed instruments such as the lyre; percussion instruments such as the cymbals and drum — all of these were played, most often in a context associated with pagan cult, the theater, dinner parties, or brothels. In churches, vocal music, or more precisely, a type of simple, one-line chant, was increasingly used to recite the Psalms, although there is no evidence of instrumental music being used in a Christian context: it was most likely simply too tainted by its pagan associations. Instrumental or vocal music was, however, quite separate and distinct from the liberal discipline of music: the former was merely a craft or technical skill, working by imitation, in bodily, temporal, mutable media; the latter, on the other hand, was a rational discipline that studied the laws of spiritual, eternal, immutable measure and relation. The former was therefore merely an inferior distraction from the latter — and a potentially dangerous and misleading one at that — hardly worthy of being called "music." Only the latter could form and educate the mind in order to grasp the truth, if one was of a philosophical inclination — or, if one was more worldly minded, could form part of the educational formation that provided a passport to a career as a governor or military commander. Music, then, in its most acceptable, most widely acknowledged, highest, and purest form, was an intellectual discipline to be studied and acquired, much like geometry; it gave one a means of comprehending the eternal relations that govern reality and, more practically, a passport to higher culture and the society and occupations that went with it. No provincial governor, no lawyer, no general would be ignorant of "music," though none would think that accomplished playing of an instrument was something to boast about or really had anything to do with "music" in the proper sense.
Any attempt to consider what Augustine (354-430), or any other Christian author of antiquity, thought of music is therefore to pose a rather different question than one might think one was asking, and to invite somewhat unexpected answers. All Christian authors were, by definition, educated men (unfortunately there aren't any women authors from this period) — they were able to write, to preach, to catechize, to address letters and petitions, and (after Constantine) to act as legal arbitrators. In other words, they had benefited from a classical education: their intellectual, cultural formation was irrevocably that of the liberal arts; they were adept at dialectic or rational argument; they were proficient — sometimes consummate — rhetors; they could analyze and gut a text along with the best grammarians; and they understood the nature of reality in terms of measured relation or "music." All of these liberal arts or "disciplines" were therefore naturally, inevitably, applied to their understanding, exposition, and often defense of their Christian faith. This is not to say that the fathers were unaware of the potential ambiguities and dangers of such a procedure, but the question of how the liberal arts should be used and applied in a Christian context was no more, and no less, than the question of how they themselves understood and articulated their own faith: the liberal arts were not only the intellectual disciplines, but the preconceptions and prior understandings — the mind-set — that they brought to their faith. They could not simply be cast aside like an old or worn-out garment, but had to be carefully weighed, re-evaluated, and refashioned.
This is precisely what we find Augustine doing in his first works as a new Christian convert. The language of these works is that of the schools; the subjects — the happy life, order, the good, skepticism, evil, the soul, and so forth — are philosophical chestnuts. But this should not surprise: he believed, like all the fathers, that Christianity was the true, the ultimate, the consummate philosophy, which had superseded all the classical schools. Like them, it dealt with the nature of reality, the soul, providence, evil, the true, the good, the beautiful, the happy life, the ultimate good.... The questions were the same; the language remains very much the same too; but the answers are radically new and are shaped by Christian revelation, tradition, and Scripture. The new ontology, ethics, and aesthetics that emerge in a Christian context — and we see this happening dramatically in Augustine's works — were to be the crucible in which classical culture, and the liberal arts that had formed it, were dramatically transformed. It is in this context — which we must not ignore if Augustine is not to be misunderstood — that we might finally turn to consider Augustine on the art of music.
What place, then, did the liberal art of music have to play in a Christian context? Like the other arts, it certainly could not be ignored by an educated Christian. Just as it had formed the basis for analyzing and evaluating the nature of reality, for appreciating its essential harmony, unity, equality, and order, for generations of free citizens, Augustine obviously felt that it would be similarly appropriate in a Christian context. On a number of occasions in the early works, most notably in On Order, Augustine uses an analysis of the liberal arts as a sort of ladder in order to effect — or at least attempt to describe — a gradual ascent to grasp divine truth. Indeed, in a characteristically ambitious manner, as a new Christian convert he entertained the grand scheme of writing a commentary on each of the liberal arts in turn. It is not certain how far this project got, and all that is now extant are the works on dialectic (and possibly grammar) and music. The latter, On Music, begun almost immediately after his conversion in 387 and completed around 391, is the most extended and perhaps the most revealing.
At the risk of stating the obvious, it is important to remember that when Augustine set out to write his projected series of works on the liberal arts, including music, he did so, not in the guise of his former profession as a teacher of rhetoric, but as a Christian — a positively enthusiastic and zealously evangelical one. They are evidently not intended simply as intellectual exercises in order to tone his mental muscles, or, indeed as some sort of closely argued demonstration of Christianity's rational respectability. Rather, it is clear from the outset that they are careful attempts to further his understanding of his newly embraced faith, and most especially of how that faith should be lived: they are as much religious, ethical, and mystical works that seek self-knowledge and knowledge of God as exercises of the mind. What we find in On Music (in common with the other early works) is, in fact, a rather dramatic reassessment of the role of reason and the liberal arts, in the context of their application to a Christian doctrine of creation, the fall, and the work of God's saving grace, which leads to a rather more positive evaluation of the bodily, temporal, and mutable than one would ever have expected: careful rational analysis is used, rather disconcertingly, to demonstrate the role of faith; the liberal art of music is used, even more disconcertingly, to demonstrate the role of the created, temporal, and mutable (and thereby, perhaps to an extent, music as we would now understand it).
But this is to anticipate. What we find in books 1-5 of On Music is exactly what we would expect to find in any classical treatise by an ancient author on the liberal art of music: a minute and painstaking analysis of the properties of number (numerus) or music (musica) — the two are synonymous — and the way in which it is manifest in measured relation, in rhythmic patterns and intervals, in meter, and in verse. The emphasis is firmly upon the rational quality of music: it is a knowledge (scientia) of how to measure and relate numerical properties well (scientia bene modulandi) — in other words, in a fitting, harmonious, unified manner that observes the inherent order of reality in all its aspects (1.2.2). The element of "fittingness," which the word bene suggests here, draws attention to the important fact that the liberal art of music was never "just" a matter of knowledge or scientia but, like all the liberal arts, had always been understood as an articulation of the nature of reality and, as such, a way of expressing not just quantitative judgments about — in this case — the nature of number, but also qualitative ones about the truth that number embodies and its ethical and aesthetic aspects.
The inextricable interrelation of the true, the good, and the beautiful was a presupposition of the liberal disciplines that was certainly not lost on Augustine, and in the final book, book 6, its implications are worked out in what virtually amounts to a small summa of Christian doctrine. The basic, but revolutionary, insight is that God is music: he is supreme measure, number, relation, harmony, unity, and equality. When he created matter from nothing he simultaneously gave it existence by giving it music, or form — in other words measure, number, relation, harmony, unity, equality....
Thus, the whole of created reality exists because of its possession of music. It remains in existence, however, only by acknowledging its complete and absolute dependence upon its Creator, by understanding itself and all that is as existing only in relation to its Creator. Thus all that we are, all manifestations and embodiments of music, are from God and, in so far as we humbly, obediently, and lovingly turn toward him and acknowledge him as their source, they to some extent reveal him, allow us to know something of him and to relate to him aright. In book 6, therefore, in this new Christian context, music is no longer simply a liberal art that teaches us about the nature of reality through a rational analysis of numerical relation; it is an art that must be practiced in every moment of a creature's existence if it is to remain in right relation to God and not fall back into non-being; it has become a matter of ethics as much as a quest for truth. And we must not forget that God, the True and the Good, is also the Beautiful; that the music (forma) of creation is inherently beautiful (formosus); and that this beauty is only preserved when it is loved in reference to its Creator. Both of these aspects of music — the ethical and the aesthetic — will become increasingly important in book 6 as Augustine analyzes the creature's failure to maintain a right relation with his or her Creator, and the way in which that relationship is restored by God's grace.
The previous paragraph is a summary of Augustine's teaching in On Music — a necessarily brief and general summary, but important nevertheless in that, without an overview of the theological context, the seemingly remorseless rationalism, abstraction, and sheer intellectualism of the early part of On Music might certainly mislead — as indeed many scholars, who ought to know better, have been misled. A close reading of book 6 gives the lie both to the initial impression made by books 1-5 and to the often dismissive judgments of scholars that have been made on the basis of them.
Book 6 of De Musica
The Ascent of the Soul — in Theory
Book 6 does not get off to a promising start, however — at least in terms of music as we now understand it. The reader is immediately caught up in a seemingly inexorable movement away from the bodily, temporal, and mutable toward the spiritual, eternal, and immutable. Augustine's avowed aim is to raise his reader, by means of a consideration of the art of music, from the corporeal to the incorporeal (6.2.2), from traces of music to music itself. What follows is a familiar, characteristically Augustinian, Neo-platonic-type ascent of the soul, couched in terms of a hierarchical categorization of the way in which, in this case, the soul perceives and knows a particular line of music (the first line of Ambrose's hymn Deus Creator Omnium). Each stage of the ascent is identified and labeled, from the sound made by the body, to the reaction of the soul to sound in hearing, to that which produces the sound, to the memory that stores the sound, to that which has the power to judge it (6.2.2–4.7). As in many similar ascents, which punctuate the early works through to the Confessions and beyond, the movement is most definitely inward and upward — at least (and again, this is characteristic) in theory. As ever, the seemingly inexorable ascent, which is confidently set forth in theory, begins to waver and falter as soon as Augustine's actual attempt to pursue it, in practice, is examined more carefully. In this case the stumbling block takes the form of the relation between body and soul in the process of perception: in theory, and before the fall, the relation of the soul and body was characterized by the peaceful and harmonious subjection of the body to the soul; in practice, following the fall, the soul must suffer the distraction of the mortality and frailty of the body, which is no longer fully subject to it or obedient to it; the soul is thereby diminished and weakened, and experiences difficulty, labor, and pain in its operation — the characteristic concupiscentia of original sin (6.5.9–6.16).
Although the ascent falters, Augustine presses on to consider that power of the soul which has the ability to judge the different aspects of its perception of music that have formed the earlier stages of its ascent. He realizes that, to a large extent, its "judicial" power relies on memory, which both contains the eternal rules according to which the soul judges (6.12.34), and which preserves the sounds which have gone before, so that they can be present to be evaluated and judged (6.7.17–8.22). But, as in the famous ascent in Confessions 10, he then proceeds beyond memory, to investigate what the source of the judicial power itself is. In doing this he makes a significant, but admittedly rather unsettling, distinction between that which enjoys and takes pleasure in the sound perceived by the soul and retained in the memory, and that which judges it by reason. It is as if the latter is an additional stage, ensuring that the soul does not simply remain at the stage of taking pleasure in well-measured, harmonious sound, but that it moves beyond it in judging it. He is emphatic that the taking pleasure and the rational judgment are both actions of the same soul, as were all the earlier types of perception of music he has enumerated and analyzed. "We are examining," as he puts it,
the motions and states of one and the same nature, that is to say, the soul ... [and he proceeds to summarize the different types or levels of perception:] as it is one thing to be moved towards the reactions of the body, which occurs in perceiving, another to move oneself towards the body, which occurs in an activity, yet another thing to retain what has been produced in the soul as a result of these motions, which is to remember, so it is one thing to approve or disapprove of these motions, when they are first set in motion or when they are revived by remembrance, which occurs in the pleasure of that which is convenient and in the dismay of that which is inappropriate in such motions or reactions, and another thing to evaluate whether it is right or not to enjoy these things, which is done by reasoning. (6.9.24)
Thus, there is not so much a separation between pleasure and reason as a necessary warning that pleasure is not the end, but the means to the end, which is to know and love God, and that we need to be rationally aware of this and constantly judge all else against this end — even what is ethically right or aesthetically pleasing. This is not least the case because what pleases and delights us is a temporal, mutable manifestation and embodiment of eternal, immutable music. Reason and rational judgment make us aware of this (6.10.28).
Excerpted from Resonant Witness Copyright © 2011 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.