The Roots of Modernity

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is published here with the gracious permission of The Imaginative Conservative who published it in November 2012 with permission from The St. John’s Review (Volume 35, No. 2, 1984).

The part of the title of this talk which I asked to have announced is “The Roots of Modernity.” But there is a second part which I wanted to tell you myself. The full title is: “The Roots of Modernity in Perversions of Christianity.”

The reason I wanted to tell you myself is that it is a risky title, which might be easily misunderstood, especially since “perversion” is strong language. So let me begin by explaining to you what I intend and why I chose to talk to you about such a subject.

I think you will recognize my first observation right off; you might even think it hardly worth saying. It is that we live in “the modern age.” We never stop trying to live up to that universally acknowledged fact: We are continually modernizing our kitchens, our businesses, and our religions.

Now, what is actually meant by “modern times?” The term cannot just mean “contemporary” because all times are contemporary with themselves. Modern is a Latin word which means “just now.” Modern times are the times which are in a special way “just now!” Modernity is just-nowness, up-to-date-ness. Perhaps that doesn’t seem like a very powerful distinguishing characteristic, because, again, what times are not just now for themselves? How is our modern age distinguished from ancient times, or from that in-between era we call the “middle” ages, all in comparison with our present times?

Well, the first answer is very simple. We live differently in our time from the way those who came before us lived in theirs. For instance, when we speak of something or even someone as being “up to date,” we are implying that what time it is, is significant, that time marches, or races, on by itself, and we have the task of keeping up with it. Our time is not a comfortable natural niche within the cycle of centuries, but a fast sliding rug being pulled out from under us.

Furthermore, we have a sense of the extraordinariness of our times; we think they are critical and crucial, that something enormous is about to be decided, or revealed. You might say that we don’t just have a sense of doom or delivery, but that things are, in fact, that way. And yet such a feeling of crisis has marked decades of every century for the last half-millennium. Modernity itself is, apparently, a way of charging the Now with special significance.

To ask about the roots of modernity is to ask what made this state, this chronically hectic state, we are in come about. By the roots of modernity, I mean the true beginnings, the origin of our way of being in time.

At this point, you might think that I am talking of history and that I am planning to lecture to you on the various historical movements which led up to our day. But not so. Such “movements” – be they the Protestant Reformation or the Industrial Revolution – are themselves only the names given to the sum of events which are in need of explanation. Let me give an example. Suppose I were to explain the resolve or habit some of you live with of turning directly to Scripture for your knowledge concerning faith, by saying that you are “products” of the Protestant Reformation. This historical explanation would sound as if I were saying something significant, but, in fact, it would say nothing about the inner reasons why a part of Christianity decided to return directly to the Bible. And inner reasons, namely ideas, are in the end the only satisfying explanation of the actions of human beings.

Next, in explaining my title, I have to tell you what I mean here by Christianity. I do not refer to the faith itself. Nor do I mean specific dogma, that is to say, dogmatics. What I do mean are certain spiritual and intellectual modes, certain ways of approaching thought and life and the world, which are perhaps more noticeable even to a non-Christian than to someone who lives within Christianity. I hope the examples I mean to give you will clarify what I am saying.

And finally, I want to define as carefully as possible what I mean by a “perversion.”

I do not mean something blatantly heretical or terrifically evil, which we moderns should cast out. For one thing, I am not myself a Christian, and it is not my business to demand the purification of other people’s faith. For another, I mean to show that all of us, simply by reason of living as moderns, have been deeply penetrated by these perversions and that we could hardly carry on without them. They are an unavoidable part of our lives. When I say “unavoidable” I do not mean that there is no possibility and no point in resisting them. In my opinion, there are no inevitable movements but only human beings willing, and on occasion unwilling, to go along. These perversions are unavoidable only in the sense that once certain very potent trains of ideas had been set into the world, they were bound to be carried beyond themselves, to be driven to their inherent but unintended conclusion.

Perhaps, then, I should speak less dramatically and say that it is the secularization of certain Christian notions that is at the root of modernity. Nevertheless, I do want to hold on to the stronger word to describe this development, and for the following reasons.

You all know what the sin of Satan is said to have been. It was resistance to God and rebellion against his creator, and its cause was pride, the sin of sins. Satanic pride, any pride, is, theologically speaking, a perverse will, literally a will that turns things awry. In particular, it overturns the relation of the creature to his creator. Satan rebels because he cannot bear to be derivative and subordinate, and least of all to be more remote from the center of knowledge than Christ. He communicates that terrible impatience to Eve in the Garden when he tempts her with the fruit of knowledge and promises “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil,” – in Latin, this is the scientia boni et mali.

Now, as it happens, the men of the generation around 1600 Anno Domini – the generation which was most pointedly responsible for modernity and in whose writings its roots are to be most explicitly seen – these men were also unspeakably proud. I am thinking of names probably familiar to you: of Galileo Galilei, of Rene Descartes and of Francis Bacon, an Italian, a Frenchman and an Englishman. You need only glance at the engraving published as the frontispiece of the most accessible translation of Descartes’ works to see how haughty he looks.

Nonetheless, anyone who reads their books must be struck with the sober and restrained character of their writing. They keep claiming that they are not revealing great mysteries or setting out momentous discoveries. They present themselves as merely having found a careful, universally accessible method, which, once they have set it out, can be used by all mankind. All that is needed is the willingness to throw off old prejudices and preoccupations, all that Bacon calls our “idols;” we are to throw off the nonsense of the ages and to apply sober human reason to clearly-defined problems. In other words, these initiators of modernity are preaching rebellion against the traditional wisdom, but in measured, careful, sometimes even dull words, so dry that students often get rather bored with reading them. That is, they get bored partly with the measured dryness with which this tremendous rebellion is announced, partly because the Baconian-Cartesian revolution is so much in our bones, has been so precisely the overwhelming success its authors expected it to be that we, its heirs, hardly recognize the revolutionary character of its original declarations of independence.

But the overweening pride of these first moderns was not essentially in the fact that they were aware of opening a new age. That was too obvious to them and they were of too superior a character to glory much in it. Their pride was the pride of rebellion, though not, perhaps, against God. Interpretations differ about their relations to faith, and I think they worshipped God in their way, or at least had a high opinion of him as the creator of a rationally accessible world, and they co-opted him as the guarantor of human rationality. Their rebellion is rather against all intermediaries between themselves and God and his nature. They want to be next to him and like him. So they fall to being not creatures but creators.

Let me give you a few bits of evidence for this contention. First, they all had a cautiously sympathetic respect for Satan.

For example, as you may know, both Galileo and Descartes had trouble with the publication of their works. Galileo had such trouble because he supported Copernicus in his view that the earth is not fixed at the center of the universe, but travels around, a wanderer (which is what the word planet literally means) in the world, so that we human beings become cosmic travelers, able to see the heavens from various perspectives. Now, the authorities of the Catholic Church at that time, considered the fixed central place of the earth as crucial to the character of the place God had chosen to become incarnate. But they were not so crude as to quarrel with an alternative astronomical hypothesis if it happened to be mathematically satisfying. What they forbade Galileo to assert in public was that this was the true reality and not just a possible theory. In this, they were in the best tradition of ancient science. The astronomers had always known that there were alternative mathematical hypotheses for explaining the heavenly motions, depending on one’s point of view. The Ptolemaic, geocentric system was simply the one more in accord with the evidence of our unaided sense – everyone can see the sun running through the sky – and the system then and now most useful for navigation. What the Church required of Galileo was that he should keep science hypothetical instead of claiming that it revealed the reality of the heavens; this earth’s motion could be asserted hypothetically but not as a fact. We all know that he pretended to yield, but is said to have muttered: “And yet it moves.” By that stubbornness, he showed himself the archetypal scientist. I mean, he made it possible for that word scientia which means simply knowledge, as in the scientia boni et mali, to come to be confined to such knowledge of reality as Galileo had, which is what we call science today. Among such realities is the fact that the heavens are full of real matter which is indistinguishable from and moves just as do the stones on earth.

Now Galileo and also Descartes, who had similar troubles with the theological faculty of the University of Paris, the Sorbonne, did find a publisher in Holland. And this Dutch publisher had a most revealing emblem which includes a very serpent-like vine twining around a tree, an apple tree, I imagine, whose fruit is the new scientia, modern science. Of course, the serpent is Satan’s shape as he tempts human beings to knowledge beyond that proper to a creature: “Ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”

A few more examples. When Bacon first sets out those procedures which are now smoothly familiar under the name of the scientific method, he constructed a type of experiment he slyly calls light-bringing or “luciferic” experiments. You all know that the angelic name of Satan before his revolution in heaven and his fall was Lucifer, or the Light-bearer. Again, some of you have probably read Milton’s Paradise Lost, and perhaps you can compare Milton’s Satan with Dante’s. Dante’s Satan is a horrible, inhuman figure encased in ice in the lowest hell in Inferno. Milton’s modern Satan has much grandeur. He is in fact represented as an overwhelmingly proud, antique, even Homeric, hero. Or one last example: Dr. Faustus, an evidently not altogether fictional scholar who stands on the brink of modernity, has a real intimacy with the devil. And in those old tales from which the famous later treatments are taken Faust sells his soul to him not only for the pleasures and the dominion of the world, but also for the secrets of modern astronomy and algebra.

Here, let me repeat my caution: I am not saying that these founders of modernity played silly and wicked blasphemous games, but only that they still had the theological learning and the grandeur of imagination to know what their enterprise resembled.

Now let me give you three enlightening complementary facts. Bacon wrote a book, a kind of scientific utopia called the New Atlantis, a place which is an imaginary island lying off the shore of America. The book is, in fact, the first description of a scientific research complex. Bacon calls the group of people in charge of it “the College of the Six Days’ Work.” Furthermore, Galileo’s work called the Two New Sciences, in which he sets out the beginning of modern physics, is a dialogue taking place on a succession of days, possibly six. And finally, Descartes’s Meditations, intended to prepare the world for modern science, takes place in six sessions. There is no question in my mind but that these men were thinking of themselves as re-doing God’s work of the creation, as creating a new world or re-creating the old one in an accessibly intelligible, illuminated form, and as revealing what they had done in a new kind of scripture. They were light-bringers, making us, their heirs, like gods, knowing a source for re-making the world, for better or worse, as new creators. Here, finally, is the point I have been leading up to; you may find it a little outrageous, but see whether you can deny it: We, almost all of us, have so totally absorbed such an attitude that we hardly notice what we are saying anymore. Let me ask you when you have last said that you wanted to “do something creative” with your life, or have been told to “think creatively” or called someone you admired “so creative.” In fact, we are in the habit of referring to all our more exciting activities as “creative.” But creativity is a precise theological idea whose meaning we are partly forgetting, partly perverting to our modern use. Creativity means the ability to bring something into being out of nothing, in Latin, “ex nihilo,” from the very beginning, as God is implied in Genesis to have separated the heavens and the earth out of a chaos of his own creating.

Clearly, we are quite incapable of such production. For example, take a potter to whose work we may refer as “very creative.” But a potter has clay out of which the pottery is fashioned and a wheel on which it is thrown. The ancient Greeks referred to all such work as “making,” for which the Greek word is poesis, and they used that word particularly for that kind of making which is done in words and which we still call poetry. Creative poetry is, therefore, strictly speaking, a contradiction in terms, and yet that adjective has a revealing significance. For a maker works on given material according to a tradition and from a pattern. But a creator is free of all those restrictive circumstances and bound above all by the inner demands of self-expression. It makes for that kind of production we peculiarly think of as “Art,” with all its courage, cleverness, sophistication, and emphasis on the artist’s individuality. The story of modern art is the story of the triumph of rebellious creativity, of creativity divorced from its proper, superhuman agent.

But artistic creativity is only a later outcome of the original perversion of the notion, and, indeed, a reaction to it. The first, and still predominant application of the notion of human creativity is the re-enactment of the six-days’ work I have already referred to. That is to say, it is the science of nature and its application, called technology, which appears to put humanity in control of the creation.

Now modern science, it seems to me, has two separate roots. One is Greek. The Greeks began the development of those mathematical tools which characterize modern science. They also distinguished and named the science of physics. Physics is a Greek word derived from physis, which means growth and movement and is usually translated as “nature.” But the natural science of the Greeks was, I think, in its very essence, incapable of mechanical application. It was pure theory – theory is another Greek word which means “beholding,” “contemplation.” The Greek physicists looked on natural beings but they did not control nature. You will not be surprised when I say that I think this attitude has everything to do with the fact that the greatest of them, Aristotle, regarded the world not as having a beginning and an end but as unmade and indestructible.

Something very different had to arise to induce the frame of mind which made a technological science possible. It was not merely the notion of creation, for you remember that when God asks Job in the Old Testament: “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?”, Job has no answer. – He is overcome by his own impotence in the face of God’s power over nature. But these moderns I have been speaking of, they do have an answer. For example, when God goes on to ask; “Canst thou send lightnings, that they may go and say unto thee, Here we are?” Of course, the modern answer is: Yes, we were there; yes, we can. What has intervened?

What has intervened is, I think, the notion that God can appear in human form and work miracles, that transubstantiations, that is, substantial transformations of nature can take place: In sum, that the creation can be controlled from within. Modern science takes, I believe, some of its impulse and much of its pathos from a secularized version of these notions.

There are dozens of other aspects of modernity which have a similar origin in a secularized version of Christian notions. Because I cannot set them out carefully now, let me just pour them out before you and then choose that one which particularly bears on the just-nowness, the peculiar “modernity” of our time for a brief final word.

Here is a mere list of such aspects. It will probably be a little unintelligible; it is certainly incomplete; but it might be suggestive. Modernity, then, has adopted from Christianity:

  • The search for certainty in philosophic matters,
  • The notion of a total adherence to an idea (cf. the bookburning of Acts 19:19, 20, Hume, Enquiry, last para.),
  • A burning interest in facts of existence and in their ordinary or extraordinary standing,
  • The concentration on the self and its expression,
  • The emphasis on the will and its power,
  • The fascination with freedom,
  • The conversion of the antique noble virtues to virtues of benevolence (such as Jefferson explicitly urged),
  • The passion for equality,
  • The notion of salvation through work (cf. Weber, The Protestant Spirit),
  • The overwhelming importance of the written word,
  • The idea of historical change.

Let, me, by way of finishing off, dwell a little on the last aspect. I cannot imagine that there is anyone here who does not have one of two possible attitudes toward the past. You may think either that the past is too much dead and gone to bother with in this modern, fast-changing world. Or you may think that you need to study the past to get some perspective on the present day and its uniqueness. But that means that whether or not you are interested in the academic discipline called history, you believe in History as a movement of time in which essential and irreversible changes come about, and many of you may also think that this movement is toward something, either doom or fulfillment, that is either progress or decline. The ancient pagans, to be sure, also knew that every present passes away, that kings die, empires crumble and ancestors moulder in their tombs. They too kept chronicles of times past, to keep alive the memory of heroes or to prove how ancient was their own descent, and they certainly thought that the world might have its epochs and its cycles. But, to my knowledge, they never, never, thought of history as having an intelligible, purposeful movement; they never thought that time contained moments of revelation, or bore a spirit, or had in it a beginning and an inevitable end. Hence they had none of our preoccupation with the future as a shape coming toward us. What we keep calling “tomorrow’s world” was for them simply the “not yet,” the nothing.

Now, I think that this way of thinking of time was prepared for us by the Christian notion of the irruption into time of divinity, that is, by the Incarnation, and by the promise of a Second Coming and a Day of Judgment and a New Kingdom. The secularization these ideas have undergone has removed their precise theological significance, and what we have retained is only a sense of doom or of progress, according to our temperaments; and a sense of the whirling advance of time. But that sense of living in a Now which is both unique and vanishing—that is exactly what is meant by modernity.

Let me conclude by repeating what I said in the beginning. This is emphatically not a sermon but a lecture, and so I am in no way urging some sort of purification of modernity. On the contrary, I hope to have shown that modernity consists of such perversions of notions drawn from Christianity, and that to be a modern means to be deeply enmeshed in them.

But there is a conclusion to be drawn. It is that there is no way to understand ourselves and our world without some deep study of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. Let me tell you a brief anecdote. Some of my colleagues-for-the-year at Whitman College were arguing over the current curriculum reform the college is undertaking and the difficulties of finding a subject matter that all could agree on as indispensable. One member of the group finally asked: What would you all say if you were asked what was the single most necessary study? Then a man who has, I am sure, only the loosest religious affiliations answered unhesitatingly: Theology. And no one was willing to deny his explanation that students need a framework in which to think about the nature and ends of their life. My point today has been that they need the same study to understand the nature and ends of their time.


The Neglected Muse: Why Music is an Essential Liberal Art

Reprinted with gracious permission from The Imaginative Conservative, where it first appeared.

Music transcends the classroom, the concert stage, and professional recordings. It pervades life. Mankind has long used music in all sorts of ways, to celebrate, to lament, to dance, to pray, to soothe or arouse, to woo, to infuse courage and terrify an enemy, to commemorate, to unite a community. Even the most primitive societies are keenly aware of the power of music, and various myths from cultures throughout the world confer on music and musicians a lofty, even divine significance. In some myths, notably in Plato’s dialogue Timaeus, the world springs from the composing power of a musician-god.

That music is a vibrant part of life is especially clear in the case of the young. Most young people cherish their favorite music as their most intimate friend and their absolute refuge from care and stress. When we get older, music is inevitably bound up with nostalgia. We older folk have only to hear a song from our youth in order to be magically transported, as if by a familiar scent, to a former time, place, self, or love. Music does not merely sound: It casts a spell and conjures worlds. Music is no mere addendum to human life, no historical accident that might just as well have never been, but an essential part of who we are as human beings.

Why should young people study music? One answer presents itself on the basis of what I have said so far: Music has a central place in the lives of young people. For many, music is their life. Teaching music to the young is therefore much more than conveying historical information and technical facts, or helping students develop their musical talent. It is more than the effort to make them competent and aesthetically refined. In getting young people to engage in a serious study of music, we are giving them an opportunity to know themselves better by becoming more precisely aware of the amazing power that music has over them. Also, as we shall see, we are giving them an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the natural world – and of our connection to it – by becoming more aware of the mathematical order that underlies music.

Listening and Singing

In my three decades at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, where all students are required to study music for two years, I have learned that students cannot engage in substantive musical learning without actual musical experience. Such experience takes two forms: listening to and making music.

Listening is an obvious requirement, but it is harder than it might seem. What should students listen to in their music classes, and what should they listen for? We should, first and foremost, expose our students to great music in the classical tradition (e.g., works by Bach, Mozart, Beethoven, etc.) and then to other examples of great music (e.g., folk songs, blues, and jazz) – broaden their horizons, as the saying goes. But how to do this is difficult. It makes sense to start with classical works that are appealing and fairly short. For instrumental music, single movements from symphonies, piano sonatas, and string quartets work well. Perhaps the best “first thing” to listen for is simply that musical works have a beginning, middle, and end. Students can listen to a given piece several times, each time listening for some particular aspect of the work: a recurring theme, a rhythm, a moment of heightened tension, etc.

But listening by itself is not enough. Students, by singing or playing an instrument, must be made to realize that music is not the symbols on the page any more than a poem is the written word. Music and poem come to be what they are only in the act of sounding. The object of musical study is not the written symbol but the musical event – the living phenomenon, for which the score is but the recipe. More than anything else, singing brings music to life and overcomes the passivity that often attends the act of listening. In singing, students are the instrument and the music. Most important here is not that students sing well, but that they make their best effort. In singing great choral works, however imperfectly, students get to experience one of life’s most humanizing pleasures: that of cooperating with others in the attempt to form a beautiful whole that is more than the sum of its parts. Students thus attain in sound the ideal of a perfected human community – a perfected friendship that preserves differences but renders them harmonious. To sing is to transcend the isolation and vagary of selfhood. Such transcendence is one of the greatest gifts of a genuine liberal education.

Music’s Connection to Math and Nature

Music, amazing in its power over our emotions and character, is even more amazing because it is eminently capable of being studied. Traditionally, music is one of the seven so-called “liberal arts.” Liberal, here, has nothing to do with its current, political usage. It is not a synonym for progressive. Rather, it is derived from the Latin liber, meaning free, and is best associated with words like liberate. The liberal arts constitute the knowledge that free people need to guide them in their decision-making at home, at work, as neighbors, and as citizens. The system of seven liberal arts was first developed and taught in the Middle Ages and has continued to strongly influence education down to the present day. The liberal arts are divided into a trivium (which is Latin for the three ways or roads) and a quadrivium (meaning four ways or roads). The trivium consists of the arts of grammar, logic, and rhetoric; the quadrivium consists of the arts of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The former develops the arts of language, the latter the arts of measurement. Together they provide a template for a so-called “liberal education,” whose end is not a technically trained professional, but an educated human being.

As a quadrivial art, music has an exalted placement that points to the long acknowledged bond that music has with number and nature, and sharply distinguishes it from the visual arts. The connection between music and mathematics was established by the legendary Greek, Pythagoras. Pythagoras discovered that the most commonly used (and most singable) musical intervals had intelligible mathematical counterparts.

Let’s use the octave as an example. To the musician, notes that are one octave apart sound alike—the only difference is that one is higher, or lower, than the other. Modern science tells us that an octave is a musical interval in which one note has either double or half the frequency of another note—if one note has a frequency of 400 Hz (hertz or cycles per second), the note an octave above it has a frequency of 800 Hz and the note an octave below has a frequency of 200 Hz. So, the ratio for an octave is 2:1.

Pythagoras discovered this connection without the knowledge of frequencies: He simply divided a string in half and, to his utter amazement, heard that this division produced the octave. Likewise, he discovered that when one string is two-thirds the length of another, it will produce a higher note that fits another common musical interval, a perfect fifth (the first melodic interval in “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”). This discovery – that notes that sound good together can be represented mathematically with ratios of small whole numbers – was far-reaching; it suggested that great music was not just a matter of taste and convention, but was grounded in the very nature of the physical universe – which could explain why humans respond to it. Our sensuous experience of music might, in fact, be a deep if unconscious response to an intelligible order: The most common and singable musical intervals might be ratios that we automatically sense. Moreover, it suggested the possibility of a mathematical physics. If precise, discoverable, numerical ratios were at work in the relationships between notes separated by common musical intervals, then wouldn’t they also be at work in, say, the relationship between distance and the time it takes for an object to fall to the ground?

It is easy, and fun, to recreate the Pythagorean discovery by experimenting with different divisions of a string on a device known as a sonometer or “measurer of sound.” Sometimes it is called a monochord because you need only one string to do Pythagorean experiments. But the device works best when it has two strings: one that is divided and another that is not, so that it can serve as a reference pitch. A sonometer is very easy to make, as I discovered when my son and I constructed one for his high school science project. All you need is a thick board, metal strings, a few screws, two small bridges to anchor the strings at both ends, a small moveable “bridge” that is used to divide the string at various points, and a meter stick to take measurements. High school students can use this simple musical instrument to verify that the most common musical intervals do indeed correspond to ratios of small whole numbers. They can do this in two ways. One way is to measure off a length of the string that corresponds to a given ratio (say, 3:2, or two-thirds the length of the undivided string), move the bridge into place, and then pluck the resulting partial length (the two-thirds length) to hear if the predicted interval sounds (the perfect fifth). The other way is for the students to move the bridge around under the string, plucking and listening at each point, until they reach what sounds like a given interval and then use a meter stick to determine the ratio into which the string has been divided. The octave is especially interesting because of its simplicity and familiarity. Knowing that its ratio is 2:1, students can divide a string exactly in half without ever using a visual measuring device. All they have to do is listen for the division that sings the octave.

This simple Pythagorean experiment is a real treat for students, who invariably experience amazement at the mathematical grounding of music in nature. The experience helps their learning in a number of ways. It makes them realize that the musical intervals and the scale acquire a precise definition only through the power of mathematics (ratios); that the practical problem of tuning a stringed instrument like a guitar or a piano is a mathematical problem of getting different ratios to fit with one another in a consistent scale; and that the tuning they have inherited (the 12-toned equal temperament in which an octave is divided into 12 equal half-steps) is the product of a rich, complex history marked by incredible ingenuity and laborious effort.

Music Shapes Us

Even apart from this profound connection with mathematics, music is pre-eminent among the arts for the order and clarity, the sharply defined character, of its elements. Music moves us, sometimes to overpowering emotion. It does so through well-defined structures, through an order of tones and rhythms. It is not the mere sound of drums but their rhythmic beating that stirs us. Here we come upon the central paradox of music, the paradox that defines music as a worthy object of sustained intellectual wonder: Music is the union of the rational and irrational, of order and feeling.

Ultimately, by shaping feeling, music shapes the whole human being. For a proper understanding of this, we turn to the ancient Greeks, for whom music, far from being morally neutral, played a decisive role in moral education. Aristotle’s Politics ends with an extensive discussion of the proper moral and political uses of music and the effect of music on the souls of citizens. In the Republic, Plato draws our attention to the power music has over the young. He places special emphasis on the danger of music. The severity of his critique underscores what we, in our effort to excuse or defend music, often fail to acknowledge: that music is a great power and, like any great power, can be used for great good or great evil. Why is music so emotionally powerful, far more powerful than the visual arts? Plato provides a possible answer. In the Republic, he calls upbringing in music “most sovereign” because rhythm and concord “most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously.” In experiencing music, we do not behold from a distance but drink in and incorporate. Some forms of music, so Plato claims, are conducive to orderliness of soul and the love of grace and beauty; others indulge the baser passions and feed the lust for disorder and self-indulgence. Studying music as a liberal art gives students the opportunity to consider the possibility that Plato is right – that music is not limited to taste and enjoyment, but has a powerful influence on who we are and whether we are ennobled or debased.*

This leads me to the observation that we are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions—and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.

Cultivating Musical Taste

By studying music, we want to cultivate our students’ taste, encourage their appreciation of beauty. But what is this beauty? Why do we say that an aria from Mozart’s Magic Flute or a movement from Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony is beautiful? Although a complete definition of beauty is beyond the scope of this essay, I will venture a few remarks on this topic.

I begin with the old saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (or the ear of the listener). This saying is both obviously true and obviously false. True because beauty exists only in relation to a responsive subject: It must appear beautiful to someone. False because merely thinking that something is beautiful does not make it so – judgments of beauty are not relative. Thinking that they are confuses judgments of mere subjective liking with judgments of aesthetic taste, which always claim to be objective and universal. After all, beauty is not the same as pleasure. Just as beautiful things do not always immediately please, pleasures are not always beautiful. We can take pleasure in something ugly and base. Beauty is not a feeling in a human subject but a quality we perceive in an object. The perception comes first, then the emotional response. Beauty can take us by surprise. It strikes, pierces, even transforms us. This would not be possible if beauty came from us. Beauty educates us by taking us outside ourselves. It compels us to transcend self-interest and self-feeling. We do not merely behold beauty, but look up to it. In appreciating beauty, we admire that which deserves to be admired. To cultivate taste is therefore to cultivate judgment. Beauty, in short, is in the eye of the educated beholder.

Moreover, the beauty of a great musical work is not always immediately evident. Sometimes it takes time, and training, to realize that it is beautiful. Students often say that a piece they did not like at first became one of their favorites with repeated experience of it. Their taste changed, not because they got used to something they didn’t like, but because an inherent quality eventually became apparent to them. There is an ancient Greek saying: “Beautiful things are difficult.” This is true to our experience of beauty, which sometimes comes to us only if we make an effort to go to it.

In order for beauty to be admired, it must first be recognized. As discussed in the previous section, there is a long tradition that connects beauty and order, especially mathematical order. The musician and mathematician Edward Rothstein, in his book Emblems of the Mind, shows how mathematical relations underlie the beautiful in music. He writes: “A composition is a construction of patterns and proportions, resembling an argument in mathematics.” Relations like symmetry and various sorts of proportion are, in fact, evident in the works of the great composers.

But mathematics, though beautiful in its own right, cannot fully explain the beauty of music. By itself, it cannot explain our response to a Mozart aria or a Beethoven symphony. Why do these pieces continue to attract listeners who become familiar with them all around the world, not just in the West? These pieces seem not to have been written for one country, people, or time. They are universal and belong to everyone. They strike us with their amazing wholeness and perfection. Everything seems to fit and cohere in a carefully worked out scheme. The orderliness is not merely correct but inspired. With time and effort, most of us can detect the layers of order and the balance of forces at work in these pieces: the architecture of the whole. We can detect how tensions build and are sustained, and how they are satisfyingly resolved. We can even learn to identify the technical means by which these effects are produced. We hear how a theme is announced and then developed, how it seems to take on a life of its own, occasionally even seeming to spin out of control only to be brought back into the economy of the musical whole.

Beautiful music pleases and sometimes challenges us with its intelligence, depth, and complexity. It does not please for the moment, but invites endless re-experience and return. The more we listen, the more we hear. And the more we study the music, the more reason we have to find it beautiful. Music unfolds in time and exhibits a delightful play of forces or tensions. In music, the question of beauty comes down largely to this perception of how musical forces conspire to form a whole.† These forces or tensions are at work in the familiar major and minor scales, and in the chords of harmony. Great musical works exploit these tensions to the fullest. That is why they are both maximally ordered and emotionally potent, why, as we say, they are beautiful.

Learning from a Simple Melody: Scarborough Fair

Music education that aims at real knowledge requires careful attention to the elements of music: tones, time-values, intervals, etc. Students must learn to read music and correctly identify notes on a staff. Soon after this “basic training,” they should look closely at how the elements conspire to form significant musical wholes. These wholes need not be impressive compositions by well-known composers like Bach and Mozart – they demand way too much all at once. A better way to begin is with a folk song.

Scarborough Fair, the very old folk song made popular by Simon and Garfunkel in the ’60s, is a good example of a beautiful, simple melody that lends itself to close analysis. With the right guidance and materials, even the most musically naive students can begin to engage in a deep and thorough analysis of this haunting melody.

One of the problems in getting students to think about music is that it comes to us too easily. It seems to be right there for our immediate pleasure. Music does not, by itself, raise questions. One way to generate questions is with a series of “experiments.” Play the melody on the piano several times and have the students sing along. Then change one note and get the students to state, to the best of their ability, how they think the melody has changed in sound and “feel.” Do this with different notes in the melody and examine each change in turn. At each point, ask, “What happened? What was the effect of the change?” Changing a note in a melody – in effect, disrupting a familiar whole – is also a good way to get students to become aware that there is a whole. What is right sounding about a melody comes to light when we cause it to stray from its intended path and sound “wrong.” Students then begin to realize that the melody consists of carefully made choices, and that a change in one part is a change in the whole. Such experiments become even more revealing when we alter the melody’s rhythm.

Next, students should explore the connection between the notes of the melody and the words. To do this thoroughly, they should have access to the complete text (whose story is very sad). Does the sound of the melody fit the meaning of the words? What do the words gain in being sung? Does the melody make certain words stand out? How does the rhythm affect the mood of the song, the meaning of the words, and the story they tell?

Finally, students can compose a variation of Scarborough Fair, perhaps with their own lyrics. In this exercise (which I have found works beautifully in class), students learn, through direct experience, that composition involves revision: that certain musical choices don’t work, that some work better than others, and, more generally, that a piece of music (like a piece of writing) can be improved.

A simple, familiar folk song is a musical education in itself. The examination of simple melodies encourages students to give reasons for what they feel. This liberates them from the erroneous and stultifying opinion that a response to beauty is based solely on subjective feeling (that beauty is “relative”) or habit (that we hear musical events as we do only because we’ve heard them repeatedly). It reveals, in highly specific ways, that human feeling is complex, that our emotional response to beautiful sound is grounded in a remarkably precise, if usually unconscious, perception of order. Similarly, examination of simple melodies reinforces the trust that analysis, however abstract it may seem at first, can lead us back to our musical experience with renewed wonder, a keener sense for the details of a beautiful whole, and a more intense and discerning pleasure. By analyzing Scarborough Fair, we get a better idea of what to listen for in this melody. We also come to understand it better and, as a result, appreciate it even more. To borrow from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s famous poem, it is like being able to “count the ways” in which we love someone.

Music as a Liberating Art

The study of music has several goals. One of them is to improve, through education, students’ aesthetic taste: to introduce them to truly great music in an effort to beget a love for all things graceful and well formed. As a music teacher, I hope that the study of music begets in my students a habit of searching for the causes and details of beautiful things, and that the love of beauty will nourish the love of knowledge and truth. As students’ intellects are opened to the power of music, I hope they will strive to imitate in their day-to-day lives the musical virtues of harmoniousness, proportion, good timing, appropriate flexibility or grace, and “striking the right note” in thought, speech, feeling, and action.

Music, as I noted earlier, is one of the traditional liberal arts. It liberates us from vulgarity, intellectual rigidity, and the tyranny of unexamined, popular opinions about music and beauty. Music does this by encouraging human fellowship (in singing), by inspiring a love of beauty that transcends the mere gratification of desire, by making us more attentive to the elements and causes of our emotional response to beauty, and by compelling us to test conventional opinions against the standard of our own experience.

Music, alas, is the neglected Muse of educational programs across the board, from kindergarten to college. One reason for this is a failure to perceive the importance of music in the education of the young and in human life generally. Another is the tendency to regard music as a “soft” subject– there for the sake of amusement or a vague sort of “music appreciation.” Yet another is the opinion that music is not basic to our human nature, but is the prerogative of a trained or gifted elite – something that only those with the potential to be professional musicians need study. I have endeavored to show that none of these is true.

If studied as a liberal art (i.e., in order for the student to become more inquisitive and reflective and more aware of music’s power) rather than as a fine art (i.e., in order for the student to become a musician), music gets students to look beyond surface distinctions in order to seek out deep, underlying harmonies or bonds between things apparently remote. In the breadth of its domain, in its union of the mathematical and the poetic, and in its involvement of the whole human being (body, heart, and mind), music is an essential liberating art.

*It is interesting to note that the Greek word for beautiful (kalos) also means noble just as the word for ugly (aischros) also means base.

†For discussion of the treatment of tones as forces, see the Sense of Music by Victor Zuckerkandl, Princeton University Press, 1959.


Music and the Idea of a World, Part II

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is the second part of a three-part series.
You can read the first part here.

From Divine Circles to the Wheel of Ixion: Music in a World of Woe

The first and main volume of The World as Will and Representation is divided into four books.1 Thomas Mann, the greatest admirer of Schopenhauer in the 20th century, called it “a symphony in four movements.”2 Mann, himself a cosmological pessimist, was keenly sensitive to the role that music plays in the work. In his essay on the philosopher, he observes that Schopenhauer, who was very musical, “celebrates music as no thinker has ever done” by making music metaphysically significant. Mann proceeds to speculate: “Schopenhauer did not love music because he ascribed such a metaphysical significance to her, but rather because he loved her.” For Mann, will rather than intellect is the source of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music, where will signifies everything in us born of passion and feeling. The supremacy of will over intellect is the most important respect in which the world of Schopenhauer differs from the world of Timaeus.

As its title indicates, The World as Will and Representation depicts the world as having two distinct sides or aspects. One side, representation, is the topic of Book One. As representation or Vorstellung, the world is everything that is vorgestellt, “placed before” us and made present in the daylight of consciousness. Although a more accurate rendering of the word would be “presentation,” which suggests original coming-to-presence as opposed to derivative imitation, I have chosen to keep the traditional term. Representation is the realm of perceived objects – finite determinate things and all their properties, which appear in space and time and interact according to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, through the relation of cause and effect. Representation is the world as a well-ordered surface. It is what most of us would call the world simply.

Schopenhauer turns to the other, inner aspect of the world in Book Two. He uses terms from Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason: whereas representation is the world as appearance or phenomenon, will is the world as thing-in-itself or noumenon. Will, here, is not a psychic faculty. It is not my will or your will, or God’s will, since for Schopenhauer there is no God. Will is the universal force and infinite striving that underlies all things and rises to self-awareness in man. Schopenhauer calls the will “eternal becoming, endless flux” (164). As the world’s “innermost being” and “kernel” (30-31), will is the source of meaning (98-99).3 Will reminds us that life is more than the cool perception of objects: it is also feeling and care. Objects of representation are vessels of my care. They are meaningful, important to me in all sorts of ways. This object I desire and strive to possess, that one I avoid. This event I hope for, that one I dread. This human being I love, that one I despise. My body is the embodiment of my care. It is the seemingly concrete reality to which I am intimately joined and which I care about in a thousand ways. My living body reminds me that I am constantly in the condition of seeking to preserve my life and to stave off harm, pain, frustration, and death. My being and my life consist in striving to be and to live. I cannot escape striving, not even when I sleep, for it is more obvious in dreams even than in waking life that representations matter to me and are the creatures of my care. Dreams are my hopes, fears, anxieties, and desires made into a private movie, often a surreal one. Most of us would say that as a human being with a certain nature I am subject to this care. Schopenhauer is far more radical: for him, I am this care, this infinite striving to be and to live as this individual with this body.

Dreams are to desire what the whole phenomenal realm is to the noumenal will. Schopenhauer reminds us repeatedly that what we call life is a dream. The will is not the cause of the world, since causality operates only within the dream world of phenomena or appearances. There is no intelligible principle or intelligent god (as there is for Timaeus) that is responsible for the natural order. Nature is unaccountably there, just as human beings are unaccountably there, “thrown” into existence. The will does not cause nature but rather objectifies itself as nature – just as our care objectifies itself in dreams. Hence the phrase, “the world as will and representation.” The self-objectification of the will is the basis of Schopenhauer’s cosmology. The will objectifies itself in a fourfold way: as inorganic nature, plant life, animal life, and human life. Schopenhauer constructs an ingenious isomorphism or analogy between these four grades of nature and the tones that make up the major triad with its octave (153). The work of the will is especially noteworthy in the case of our bodily parts, which are so many ways in which the will objectifies itself: “Teeth, gullet, and intestinal canal are objectified hunger; the genitals are objectified sexual impulse; grasping hands and nimble feet correspond to the more indirect strivings of the will which they represent” (108). This striking rendition of the human body is a modern counterpart to Timaeus’s outrageous stories about our bodily parts, which are mythically represented as manifesting, and ministering to, our souls. But whereas Timaeus is tongue-in-cheek, Schopenhauer is in deadly earnest.

The identity of will and meaning shows why music is metaphysically significant. As Schopenhauer writes in another work, music, especially melody, “speaks not of things but simply of weal and woe as being for the will the sole realities.”4 From the standpoint of the will, being is meaning. Music is unique among the arts because it depicts the inner world of care – pure meaning apart from all objectivity. It represents not the rational world soul but the passionate world heart.5 Music, moreover, is not an elitist Pythagorean who speaks only to her learned inner circle but rather the “universal language” that is “instantly understood by everyone,” intuitively and without the aid of concepts (256).

In my account of the Timaeus I highlighted the therapeutic function of astronomy and music, both of which minister to fallen man. They are a corrective to the cosmic necessity of our having been born as mortal beings subject to mortal flux and mindless desire (42A ff.). Being born, for Timaeus, is in one sense a gift – the gift of organic life. But it is also, for the reasons I mentioned, our burden and our fate. Being born is a mixed blessing. For Schopenhauer it is an outright curse. To be born is to become an egocentric individual afflicted with insatiable desire, in particular sexual desire. To be is to be subject to “the miserable pressure of the will” (196). The will, as I noted earlier, is infinite striving – striving with no ultimate good or end. Moments of contentment and joy appear, but only as passing tones, ripples in a sea of frustration, ennui, and renewed desire. To live is to suffer. Schopenhauer here reveals the hard edge of his pessimism and his “tragic sense of life.”6 He cites approvingly poets like Calderon who define original sin as “the guilt of existence itself,” and who affirm that it would be better never to have been born.7

Schopenhauer’s recurring image of life as suffering is the wheel of Ixion. Ixion was King of the Lapiths. After being shown hospitality by Zeus, he lusted after Hera and tried to seduce her. For this attempted outrage Zeus bound Ixion on a wheel of fire and consigned him to Tartarus. Only once did the wheel of torment stop – when Orpheus descended to the Underworld and charmed its inhabitants with his song.8 This, for Schopenhauer, is the human therapy that all fine art offers, in particular the art of music. Music represents the will as thing-in-itself, meaning apart from all things and pictures, and is for this reason metaphysically significant. But music also gives us momentary relief from the fiery wheel on which we are bound, the wheel of infinite longing. In music, as in all aesthetic contemplation, we are no longer self-interested individuals but “pure, will-less subject[s] of knowing,” subjects who are “lost in the object” (209). In art, as Schopenhauer puts it, “We celebrate the Sabbath of the penal servitude of willing; the wheel of Ixion stands still” (196).

The third part of Schopenhauer’s book is devoted to the arts, which are beyond the principle of sufficient reason. This is evident in music, where tones, though tightly connected, have no causal relation to each other. The opening phrase of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, for example, does not cause the second.9 Unconcerned with causality and deduction, art is the intuitive apprehension of the Ideas, which Schopenhauer takes from Plato, for the most part from the Timaeus. The Ideas are the eternal archetypes of nature – the four grades of the will’s self-objectification that I mentioned earlier.10 In the human realm they are the universals of experience. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, are a distillation of what is eternally true of human life. In the complex ambition of Macbeth, jealousy of Othello, and tragic integrity of Cordelia, we behold archetypes of will at its highest grade.11 Art is therapeutic because, as the aesthetic contemplation of universal Ideas, art detaches us from the particular objects of our care. That is why we take pleasure in even the saddest music, which calls upon us not to weep but to listen.

Art, however, is not an enduring release from Ixion’s wheel and offers only “occasional consolation” (267). The fourth part of Schopenhauer’s book takes us from artist to saint, who alone is truly happy – if one can call resignation happiness. The saint has neutralized the will to be and to live through the knowledge that objects of care are nothing but illusion (451). He needs no artworks. This neutralization of the will makes the saint good. In the obliteration of his ego, he is released from his private sufferings and free to take compassion on the suffering of other human beings and even on that of animals (372).

I now turn to Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music, which appears in Volume One of his book and again in Volume Two. These chapters contain the most fascinating discussions of music one will ever read. They are an attempt to identify music as a source of truth, indeed the deepest truth: “The composer reveals the profoundest wisdom in a language that his reasoning faculty does not understand, just as a magnetic somnambulist gives information about things of which she has no conception when she is awake” (260). Schopenhauer illustrates his general ideas with many references to specific musical phenomena. I shall address only a few of them.

I begin with music as imitation. According to Plato and Aristotle, music, in its tones and rhythms, imitates the dispositions and passions of the soul. As Aristotle observes in the Politics, melodies and rhythms are “likenesses of the true natures of anger and gentleness, and also of courage and moderation and all the opposites of these and the other states of character” (8.5).12 Aristotle is referring to the Greek musical modes – Dorian, Phrygian, Mixolydian, etc., which achieve their different effects through a different placement of half steps in their scales. The Dorian mode, Aristotle says, gives the soul “a moderate and settled condition,” whereas the Phrygian “inspires.” A difference in mode can be heard in our familiar opposition of “bright” major and “dark” minor. This huge musical difference hinges on no more than whether there is a whole step or a half between the second and third degrees of the scale. It is gratifying to hear Schopenhauer, a philosopher, respond to this fact with fitting amazement (261).

What Timaeus and Schopenhauer add to the imitative relation between music and soul is the connection between music and world. We are responsive to music because the so-called external world has an interior, as do we, and is always already music-imbued. For Timaeus, music in the form of the diatonic pattern – the recurring order of whole and half steps – is woven into the fabric of the cosmic soul, of which our souls partake. That is why we respond to the diatonic modes. We look with longing at the stars because that is where our souls come from, and we take delight in identifying Same and Other in the things of the world because our souls are made of Same and Other. So too, we welcome music into our souls because we detect in it the inflections of our psychic modalities – our various soul possibilities. Where there is music and listener, music calls to music. It is a case of sympathetic vibration grounded in the nature of the ensouled cosmos.

Schopenhauer differs from Timaeus in his understanding of interiority. He rejects the soul as a principle of being on the grounds that it makes real what is in fact illusory, namely, our individuality.13 The principle of individuation in general, like the principle of sufficient reason, applies only to the world of phenomena, which Schopenhauer regularly calls the “veil of Maya” or illusion. In listening to music, we suspend our individuality and are in touch with will as process rather than with a stable mode of soul and character.

From a musical standpoint, Schopenhauer differs from Timaeus by going beyond the Pythagorean idea of interval as sensed ratio and treats music as the embodiment of tension or force. This modern concept of force, also known as conatus or endeavour, is prominent in the physics of Newton and Leibniz and was introduced into natural science by Hobbes, who, like Schopenhauer, rejects a highest good and depicts desire as an infinite striving “that ceaseth only in death.”14 Dissonance in music is a kind of tension or force. As the vector-like impulse to move in a definite direction, it is the analogue of desire.15 The suspension is a good example of how dissonance works in music. In a suspension, two lines or voices start out in consonance but then produce dissonance when one of the voices moves while the other holds its note. A resolution of the dissonance then follows. Schopenhauer writes: “[Suspension] is a dissonance delaying the final consonance that is with certainty awaited; in this way the longing for it is strengthened, and its appearance affords greater satisfaction. This is clearly an analogue of the satisfaction of the will which is enhanced through delay.”16

The word “analogue” is important here. The suspension is not the image or likeness of a specific desire that is eventually gratified but rather a tonal event that communicates, in a purely musical way, a universal truth about the will. When Schopenhauer says that music is the universal language, he is not being poetic. He means that although tones are not words, they function intuitively in the same way that words function conceptually – not as likenesses of the things they signify but as symbols, bearers of universal meaning. In the case of music, this meaning is perceived and felt rather than inferred. Listening to music is non-verbal symbol-recognition.

Music as force flourishes in the tradition of modern tonal harmony. This long and glorious tradition reaches from Bach and Handel, through Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven, up to Brahms and Wagner, and continues in our own century. Tonal music, as opposed to the mode-inspired music of the Middle Ages and Renaissance, exhibits the directed tension I mentioned earlier. There is a play of forces – tonal dynamism. Needless to say, such music is friendly to the language of will, for will is tension, and force is will that has not yet attained self-consciousness. The musicologist Heinrich Schenker applied this very term to music: Tonwille, the will of the tones. In tonal harmony tension is not confined to isolated events, like the suspension, but pervades the whole of a musical piece and constitutes its unity. The term “tonal” refers to the rule of a single tone, the tonic or keynote, to which all the other tones in a tonal work point or, as some theorists prefer to say, the centrality of the tonic triad, the I-chord. These tensions – Victor Zuckerkandl calls them dynamic qualities – compose the major scale and cause it to sound like a journey with clearly defined stages and a predetermined end: 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8.17 Tension is especially urgent in degree 7, which strives toward 8, as desire craves its satisfaction. Degree 4 tends, less urgently, down to 3. Together, degrees 4 and 7 produce the dissonant interval of the tritone. This is the best example of directed tension in music, since the tritone, when combined with degree 5 in the bass, makes up the dominant seventh chord, which points to the tonic triad and so fixes the music in a key. Thanks to their dynamic relations, which operate at many levels, tones and the triads they form generate musical wholes through the artful prolongation and eventual resolution of their will-like tension.

I cannot leave the topic of musical tension, and of tone as the symbol of desire, without citing Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde. In this work we hear extreme chromaticism, constant unresolved cadences, and the deceptive shifting of tonal centers. These phenomena form the tonal analogue of eros as infinite longing. As others have noted, the work pushes tonal harmony and musical tension to the absolute limit by extending the striving of tones over the course of several hours. The historical connection between Wagner’s musical drama and Schopenhauer’s book, although fascinating, is beyond the scope of this lecture. Here I simply observe that the opening phrase of the Prelude, with its famous “Tristan chord” resolving to a dominant-seventh chord, is perhaps the most powerful evocation of tension-as-desire in all of music. Wagner’s phrase sets up a cadence that is not completed until the very end of the work, when the crashing waves of the orchestra overwhelm the transfigured Isolde before settling into the blissful, post-climactic froth of B major. In Schopenhauer’s terms, this immense prolongation of musical tension is the noumenal interior of the lovers’ prolonged phenomenal eroticism. More cautiously stated, it is the analogical, symbolic representation of that interior. The universal, undying truth of the story is not in the death-bound characters but in the tones.

The central teaching of Schopenhauer’s metaphysics of music is that music is “a copy [Abbild] of the will itself,” not of the Ideas of the will, as in tragedy (257). To be sure, all the arts objectify the will, but the non-musical arts do so “only indirectly.” They present universality through the medium of things, whether the Parthenon or the complex individuality of Cordelia. Music, by contrast, makes no such appeal and represents, imitates, the world’s pure subjectivity. It does so through tones all by themselves.

We must bear in mind when reading Schopenhauer that by music he means “the sacred, mysterious, profound language of tones.”18 This signals the primacy of what Wagner called “absolute music” and we now call instrumental music.19 Music as the language of tones, captures, for Schopenhauer, the Absolute through non-visual representations. It is the will “speaking to us” through the medium of composers, who are the will’s symbolists, somnambulists, and high priests.20 Because tones are meaningful all by themselves, Schopenhauer can make the astonishing claim that music, in passing over the Ideas and everything phenomenal, “to a certain extent, could still exist even if there were no world at all” (257). The reason is that music, in negating the world as thing, contains that world from the perspective of its deepest interior, its immortal heart. Schopenhauer states this with maximum concision in the other work to which I referred earlier: “Music is the melody to which the world is the text.”21 In other words, tones all by themselves represent the indwelling, immortal spirit of the world. If we imagined the phenomenal world as a staged opera or a movie, then the orchestral parts and score would stand to it as inner to outer, essence to appearance, truth to seeming. As I observed in the case of Wagner’s Tristan, the real drama, the world in its truth, would be taking place not in what we see but in what we hear. It would be a drama of tones.

But although music transcends the world as thing, it also has a profound connection with that world – again, by analogy. Schopenhauer is fascinated by this analogism and speaks like an Archimedes who has just made remarkable discoveries and cries “Eureka! I have found it!” As I mentioned earlier, the major triad with its octave captures in symbolic form the four natural grades of the will’s self-objectification and is a mirror of the Whole. The ground bass mirrors inorganic nature. Each note of this bass functions as the fundamental to the overtones that faintly sound above it (258). This mirrors what happens in nature as a whole, where higher grades of being develop out of the lowest, and where organic nature constantly depends on the inorganic, as the upper partials depend on their fundamental. The tones between the bass notes and the melody that floats above are the musical analogue of plant and animal. These tones form the harmonic organism that binds lower bass and higher melody. They mirror the way that plant and animal life mediate between the inorganic realm and our higher, human nature. This analogy exists within the scale itself, where the hierarchy of tones mirrors “the whole gradation of the Ideas in which the will objectifies itself” (258). To hear an ascending scale is, in a sense, to hear the entire cosmos. Even the inevitable impurity of intervals that exists in all tuning or temperament is an analogue of phenomenal nature. An interval that is slightly “off,” say an equal-tempered major third, mirrors natural idiosyncrasy – “the departure of the individual from the type of the species” (258-9). The incompatibility of some intervals with others, the very problem that makes temperament necessary, is also an aspect of the will: it is the musical analogue of the will’s “inner contradiction,” which is the whole concern of tragedy (266). Even death finds its way into the world of tones. Death occurs, says Schopenhauer, in modulation, where a change of key “entirely abolishes the connection with what went before” (261).

Finally, there is melody as the musical analogue of phenomenal man: “in the melody, in the high singing, principal voice, leading the whole and progressing with unrestrained freedom, in the uninterrupted significant connexion of one thought from beginning to end, and expressing a whole, I recognize the highest grade of the will’s objectification, the intellectual life and endeavour of man” (259). Melody, the ultimate mythos and symbol of human life, “relates the story of the intellectually enlightened will, the copy or impression whereof in actual life is the series of its deeds.” But melody, for Schopenhauer, “says more” because it goes beyond outward deeds and events. It also “relates the most secret history [my emphasis] of the intellectually enlightened will, portrays every agitation, every effort, every movement of the will, everything which the faculty of reason summarizes under the wide and negative concept of feeling, and which cannot be further taken up into the abstractions of reason” (259).

To sum up, there is nothing in the natural world, or in the inner and outer life of man, that does not find its counterpart in the all-embracing realm of tones. Music as symbol is the whole of all things. It is the world. That is why, as Schopenhauer says, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will” (262-3).

Continue to the final part here.


1 The second volume consists of supplements to the four books in Vol. 1.
2 “Schopenhauer,” Thomas Mann: Essays, tr. H. T. Lowe-Porter, New York: Random House, 1957.
3 Numbers in parentheses refer to page numbers in the edition by E. F. J. Payne, New York: Dover, 1969.
4 Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, tr. E. F. J. Payne, Oxford: Clarendon, 1974, p. 430.
5 “The heart, that primum mobile of animal life, has quite rightly been chosen as the symbol, indeed the synonym, of the will…” (Vol. 2, p. 237). The atheist Schopenhauer says at one point: “…like God, [music] sees only the heart” (Vol. 2, p. 449).
6 The title of Miguel de Unamuno’s book.
7 Schopenhauer quotes from Calderón’s Life Is a Dream: “For man’s greatest offence is that he has been born” (Vol. 1, 254). This is “the guilt of existence itself”—original sin. Death is, in effect, the correction of an error. Schopenhauer would say to the dying individual: “You are ceasing to be something which you would have done better never to become” (Vol. 2, p. 501).
8 Ovid, Metamorphoses 10, 42.
9 Schopenhauer makes this point in The Fourfold Root of the Principle of Sufficient Reason: “In just the same way, the succession of sounds in a piece of music is determined objectively, not subjectively by me the listener; but who will say that the musical notes follow one another according to the law of cause and effect?” (p. 127, tr. E. F. J. Payne, La Salle: Open Court, 1974)
10 It is important to note how the Ideas for Schopenhauer differ from how Plato describes them. For Schopenhauer, the Ideas cannot be genuine beings, for that would undermine the ultimacy of the irrational will. They are simply eternal modes or ways in which the will objectifies itself. The Ideas are more like adverbs than nouns.
11 These archetypes recall Vico’s “imaginative universals.” See The New Science of Giambattista Vico, tr. Thomas Goddard Bergin and Max Harold Fisch, Cornell NY: Cornell University Press, 1988. See Paragraphs 381 and 460.
12 Translations of Aristotle’s Politics are from the edition by Joe Sachs for Focus Press, Newburyport MA, 2012.
13 “…soul signifies an individual unity of consciousness which obviously does not belong to that inner being …The word should never be applied except in a metaphorical sense” (Vol. 2, p. 349).
14 Leviathan XI.1.
15 “Hitherto, the concept of will has been subsumed under the concept of force; I, on the other hand, do exactly the reverse, and intend every force in nature to be conceived as will” (Vol. 1, p. 111).
16 Vol. 2, 455-6. An even better instance of the connection between dissonance and will is the appoggiatura or leaning tone. This unprepared dissonance on a strong beat delays a tone of the melody and intensifies expectation. It is the perfect musical imitation of longing. A fitting example occurs in Tamino’s love song in the Magic Flute. Tamino gazes on a picture of Pamina and falls in love with her. By singing in response to a picture, he moves from the world as representation to the world as will. His repeated leaning tones on the words “I feel it,” “ich fühl es,” embody the universal truth of erotic love.
17 The Sense of Music, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1959, pp. 18-28.
18 Parerga and Paralipomena, Payne, Vol. 2, p. 432.
19 See Wagner on Music and Drama, selected by Goldman and Sprinchorn, New York: Da Capo Press, 1988, p. 171.
20 For a critique of the thinker’s claim that “through him speaks the essence of things itself,” see Jonas, ibid. In his chapter “Heidegger and Theology,” Jonas connects Heidegger with Gnosticism and finds in Schopenhauer’s theory of music the sole philosophic precedent for Heidegger’s claim that poets and philosophers embody “the voice of Being” (p. 257). Jonas comments: “Schopenhauer’s fantasy [unlike Heidegger’s] was innocent, for music is nonresponsible and cannot suffer from the misconception of a duty it does not have” (p. 258). There is good reason to think that music is not as “innocent” or “nonresponsible” as Jonas thinks.
21 Parerga and Paralipomena, Vol. 2, Payne, p. 430.


The Music of the Spheres, or The Metaphysics of Music

EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay is reprinted here with the gracious permission of Intercollegiate Studies Institute, who first published it in their Fall 2001 issue of Intercollegiate Review.


[In] sound itself, there is a readiness to be ordered by the spirit and this is seen at its most sublime in music.

—Max Picard

Despite the popular Romantic conception of creative artists as inspired madmen, composers are not idiots savants, distilling their musical inspiration from the ether. Rather, in their creative work they respond and give voice to certain metaphysical visions. Most composers speak explicitly in philosophical terms about the nature of the reality that they try to reflect. When the forms of musical expression change radically, it is always because the underlying metaphysical grasp of reality has changed as well. Music is, in a way, the sound of metaphysics, or metaphysics in sound.

Music in the Western world was shaped by a shared conception of reality so profound that it endured for some twenty-five hundred years. As a result, the means of music remained essentially the same – at least to the extent that what was called music could always have been recognized as such by its forbearers, as much as they might have disapproved of its specific style. But by the early twentieth century, this was no longer true. Music was re-conceptualized so completely that it could no longer be experienced as music, i.e. with melody, harmony, and rhythm. This catastrophic rupture, expressed especially in the works of Arnold Schoenberg and John Cage, is often celebrated as just another change in the techniques of music, a further point along the parade of progress in the arts. It was, however, a reflection of a deeper metaphysical divide that severed the composer from any meaningful contact with external reality. As a result, musical art was reduced to the arbitrary manipulation of fragments of sound.

Here, I will sketch of the philosophical presuppositions that undergirded the Western conception of music for most of its existence and then examine the character of the change music underwent in the twentieth century. I will conclude with a reflection on the recovery of music in our own time and the reasons for it, as exemplified in the works of two contemporary composers, the Dane Vagn Holmboe and the American John Adams.


According to tradition, the harmonic structure of music was discovered by Pythagoras about the fifth century BC. Pythagoras experimented with a stretched piece of cord. When plucked, the cord sounded a certain note. When halved in length and plucked again, the cord sounded a higher note completely consonant with the first. In fact, it was the same note at a higher pitch. Pythagoras had discovered the ratio, 2:1, of the octave. Further experiments, plucking the string two-thirds of its original length produced a perfect fifth in the ratio of 3:2. When a three-quarters length of cord was plucked, a perfect fourth was sounded in the ratio of 4:3, and so forth. These sounds were all consonant and extremely pleasing to the ear. The significance that Pythagoras attributed to this discovery cannot be overestimated. Pythagoras thought that number was the key to the universe. When he found that harmonic music is expressed in exact numerical ratios of whole numbers, he concluded that music was the ordering principle of the world. The fact that music was denominated in exact numerical ratios demonstrated to him the intelligibility of reality and the existence of a reasoning intelligence behind it.

Pythagoras wondered about the relationship of these ratios to the larger world. (The Greek word for ratio is logos, which also means reason or word.) He considered that the harmonious sounds that men make, either with their instruments or in their singing, were an approximation of a larger harmony that existed in the universe, also expressed by numbers, which was “the music of the spheres.” As Aristotle explained in the Metaphysics, the Pythagoreans “supposed the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be a musical scale and a number.” This was meant literally. The heavenly spheres and their rotations through the sky produced tones at various levels, and in concert, these tones made a harmonious sound that man’s music, at its best, could approximate. Music was number made audible. Music was man’s participation in the harmony of the universe.

This discovery was fraught with ethical significance. By participating in heavenly harmony, music could induce spiritual harmony in the soul. Following Pythagoras, Plato taught that “rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful.” In the Republic, Plato showed the political import of music’s power by invoking Damon of Athens as his musical authority. Damon said that he would rather control the modes of music in a city than its laws, because the modes of music have a more decisive effect on the formation of the character of citizens. The ancient Greeks were also wary of music’s power because they understood that, just as there was harmony, there was disharmony. Musical discord could distort the spirit, just as musical concord could properly dispose it.

This idea of “the music of the spheres” runs through the history of Western civilization with an extraordinary consistency, even up to the twentieth century. At first it was meant literally, later poetically. Either way, music was seen more as a discovery than a creation, because it relied on pre-existing principles of order in nature for its operation. It is instructive to look briefly at the reiteration of this teaching in the writings of several major thinkers to appreciate its enduring significance as well as the radical nature of the challenge to it in the twentieth century.

In the first century BC, Cicero spelled out Plato’s teaching in the last chapter of his De Republica. In “Scipio’s Dream,” Cicero has Scipio Africanus asking the question, “What is that great and pleasing sound?” The answer comes, “That is the concord of tones separated by unequal but nevertheless carefully proportional intervals, caused by the rapid motion of the spheres themselves…. Skilled men imitating this harmony on stringed instruments and in singing have gained for themselves a return to this region, as have those who have cultivated their exceptional abilities to search for divine truths.” Cicero claims that music can return man to a paradise lost. It is a form of communion with divine truth.

In the late second century AD, St. Clement of Alexandria baptized the classical Greek and Roman understanding of music in his Exhortation to the Greeks. The transcendent God of Christianity gave new and somewhat different meanings to the “music of the spheres.” Using Old Testament imagery from the Psalms, St. Clement said that there is a “New Song,” far superior to the Orphic myths of the pagans. The “New Song” is Christ, the Logos Himself: “it is this [New Song] that composed the entire creation into melodious order, and tuned into concert the discord of the elements, that the whole universe may be in harmony with it.” It is Christ who “arranged in harmonious order this great world, yes, and the little world of man, body and soul together; and on this many-voiced instrument he makes music to God and sings to [the accompaniment of] the human instrument.” By appropriating the classical view, St. Clement was able to show that music participated in the divine by praising God and partaking in the harmonious order of which He was the composer. But music’s end or goal was now higher, because Christ is higher than the created cosmos. Cicero had spoken of the divine region to which music is supposed to transport man. That region was literally within the heavens. With Christianity, the divine region becomes both transcendent and personal because Logos is Christ. The new purpose of music is to make the transcendent perceptible in the “New Song.”

The early sixth century AD had two especially distinguished Roman proponents of the classical view of music, both of whom served at various times in high offices to the Ostrogoth king, Theodoric. Cassiodorus was secretary to Theodoric. He wrote a massive work called Institutiones, which echoes Plato’s teaching on the ethical content of music, as well as Pythagoras’s on the power of number. Cassiodorus taught that “music indeed is the knowledge of apt modulation. If we live virtuously, we are constantly proved to be under its discipline, but when we sin, we are without music. The heavens and the earth and indeed all things in them which are directed by a higher power share in the discipline of music, for Pythagoras attests that this universe was founded by and can be governed by music.”

Boethius served as consul to Theodoric in AD 510. Among his writings was The Principles of Music, a book that had enormous influence through the Middle Ages and beyond. Boethius said that

music is related not only to speculation, but to morality as well, for nothing is more consistent with human nature than to be soothed by sweet modes and disturbed by their opposites. Thus we can begin to understand the apt doctrine of Plato, which holds that the whole of the universe is united by a musical concord. For when we compare that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together within our own being with that which is coherently and harmoniously joined together in sound – that is, that which gives us pleasure – so we come to recognize that we ourselves are united according to the same principle of similarity.

It is not necessary to cite further examples after Boethius because The Principles of Music was so influential that it held sway for centuries thereafter. It was the standard music theory text at Oxford until 1856.


The hieratic role of music even survived into the twentieth century with composers like Jean Sibelius. Sibelius harkened back to St. Clement when he wrote that “the essence of man’s being is his striving after God. It [the composition of music] is brought to life by means of the logos, the divine in art. That is the only thing that has significance.” But this vision was lost for most of the twentieth century because the belief on which it was based was lost.

Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. John Adams, one of the most popular American composers today, said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. If there is no God, Nature no longer serves as a reflection of its Creator. If you lose the Logos of St. Clement, you also lose the ratio (logos) of Pythagoras. Nature is stripped of its normative power. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.

The systematic fragmentation of music was the logical working out of the premise that music is not governed by mathematical relationships and laws that inhere in the structure of a hierarchical and ordered universe, but is wholly constructed by man and therefore essentially without limits or definition. Tonality, as the pre-existing principle of order in the world of sound, goes the same way as the objective moral order. So how does one organize the mess that is left once God departs? If there is no pre-existing intelligible order to go out to and apprehend, and to search through for what lies beyond it – which is the Creator – what then is music supposed to express? If external order does not exist, then music turns inward. It collapses in on itself and becomes an obsession with technique. Any ordering of things, musical or otherwise, becomes simply the whim of man’s will.

Without a “music of the spheres” to approximate, modern music, like the other arts, began to unravel. Music’s self-destruction became logically imperative once it undermined its own foundation. In the 1920s, Arnold Schoenberg unleashed the centrifugal forces of disintegration in music through his denial of tonality. Schoenberg contended that tonality does not exist in nature as the very property of sound itself, as Pythagoras had claimed, but was simply an arbitrary construct of man, a convention. This assertion was not the result of a new scientific discovery about the acoustical nature of sound, but of a desire to demote the metaphysical status of nature. Schoenberg was irritated that “tonality does not serve, [but] must be served.” Rather than conform himself to reality, he preferred to command reality to conform itself to him. As he said, “I can provide rules for almost anything.” Like Pythagoras, Schoenberg believed that number was the key to the universe. Unlike Pythagoras, he believed his manipulation of number could alter that reality in a profound way. Schoenberg’s gnostic impulse is confirmed by his extraordinary obsession with numerology, which would not allow him to finish a composition until its opus number corresponded with the correct number of the calendar date.

Schoenberg proposed to erase the distinction between tonality and atonality by immersing man in atonal music until, through habituation, it became the new convention. Then discords would be heard as concords. As he wrote, “The emancipation of dissonance is at present accomplished and twelve-tone music in the near future will no longer be rejected because of ‘discords.’” Anyone who claims that, through his system, the listener shall hear dissonance as consonance is engaged in reconstituting reality.

Of his achievement, Schoenberg said, “I am conscious of having removed all traces of a past aesthetic.” In fact, he declared himself “cured of the delusion that the artist’s aim is to create beauty.” This statement is terrifying in its implications when one considers what is at stake in beauty. Simone Weil wrote that “we love the beauty of the world because we sense behind it the presence of something akin to that wisdom we should like to possess to slake our thirst for good.” All beauty is reflected beauty. Smudge out the reflection and not only is the mirror useless but the path to the source of beauty is barred. Ugliness, the aesthetic analogue to evil, becomes the new norm. Schoenberg’s remark represents a total rupture with the Western musical tradition.

The loss of tonality was also devastating at the practical level of composition because tonality is the key structure of music. Schoenberg took the twelve equal semi-tones from the chromatic scale and declared that music must be written in such a way that each of these twelve semi-tones has to be used before repeating any one of them. If one of these semi-tones was repeated before all eleven others were sounded, it might create an anchor for the ear which could recognize what is going on in the music harmonically. The twelve-tone system guarantees the listener’s disorientation.

Tonality is what allows music to express movement – away from or towards a state of tension or relaxation, a sense of motion through a series of crises and conflicts which can then come to resolution. Without it, music loses harmony and melody. Its structural force collapses. Gutting music of tonality is like removing grapes from wine. You can go through all the motions of making wine without grapes but there will be no wine at the end of the process. Similarly, if you deliberately and systematically remove all audible overtone relationships from music, you can go though the process of composition, but the end product will not be comprehensible as music. This is not a change in technique; it is the replacement of art by ideology.

Schoenberg’s disciples applauded the emancipation of dissonance but soon preferred to follow the centrifugal forces that Schoenberg had unleashed beyond their master’s rules. Pierre Boulez thought that it was not enough to systematize dissonance in twelve-tone rows. If you have a system, why not systematize everything? He applied the same principle of the tone-row to pitch, duration, tone production, intensity and timber, every element of music. In 1952, Boulez announced that “every musician who has not felt – we do not say understood but felt – the necessity of the serial language is USELESS.” Boulez also proclaimed, “Once the past has been got out of the way, one need think only of oneself.” Here is the narcissistic antithesis of the classical view of music, the whole point of which was to draw a person up into something larger than himself.

The dissection of the language of music continued as, successively, each isolated element was elevated into its own autonomous whole. Schoenberg’s disciples agreed that tonality is simply a convention, but saw that, so too, is twelve-tone music. If you are going to emancipate dissonance, why organize it? Why even have twelve-tone themes? Why bother with pitch at all? Edgar Varese rejected the twelve-tone system as arbitrary and restrictive. He searched for the “bomb that would explode the musical world and allow all sounds to come rushing into it through the resulting breach.” When he exploded it in his piece Hyperprism, Olin Downes, a famous New York music critic, called it “a catastrophe in a boiler factory.” Still, Varese did not carry the inner logic of the “emancipation of dissonance” through to its logical conclusion. His noise was still formulated; it was organized. There were indications in the score as to exactly when the boiler should explode.


What was needed, according to John Cage (19121992), was to have absolutely no organization. Typical of Cage were compositions whose notes were based on the irregularities in the composition paper he used, notes selected by tossing dice, or from the use of charts derived from the Chinese I Ching. Those were his more conventional works. Other “compositions” included the simultaneous twirling of the knobs of twelve radios, the sounds from records playing on unsynchronized variable speed turntables, or the sounds produced by tape recordings of music that had been sliced up and randomly reassembled. Not surprisingly, Cage was one of the progenitors of the “happenings” that were fashionable in the 1970s. He presented concerts of kitchen sounds and the sounds of the human body amplified through loudspeakers. Perhaps Cage’s most notorious work was his 4’33” during which the performer silently sits with his instrument for that exact period of time, then rises and leaves the stage. The “music” is whatever extraneous noises the audience hears in the silence the performer has created. In his book Silence, Cage announced, “Here we are. Let us say Yes to our presence together in Chaos.”

What was the purpose of all this? Precisely to make the point that there is no purpose, or to express what Cage called a “purposeful purposelessness,” the aim of which was to emancipate people from the tyranny of meaning. The extent of his success can be judged by the verdict rendered in the prestigious New Grove Dictionary of Music, which says Cage “has had a greater impact on world music than any other American composer of the twentieth century.”

Cage’s view of reality has a very clear provenance. Cage himself acknowledged three principal gurus: Eric Satie (a French composer), Henry David Thoreau, and Buckminster Fuller – three relative lightweights who could not among them account for Cage’s radical thinking. The prevalent influence on Cage seems instead to have been Jean Jacques Rousseau, though he goes unmentioned in Cage’s many obiter dicta. Cage’s similarities with Rousseau are too uncanny to have been accidental.

With his noise, Cage worked out musically the full implications of Rousseau’s non-teleological view of nature in his Second Discourse. Cage did for music what Rousseau did for political philosophy. Perhaps the most profoundly anti-Aristotelian philosopher of the eighteenth century, Rousseau turned Aristotle’s notion of nature on its head. Aristotle said that nature defined not only what man is, but what he should be. Rousseau countered that nature is not an end – a telos – but a beginning: man’s end is his beginning. There is nothing he “ought” to become, no moral imperative. There is no purpose in man or nature; existence is therefore bereft of any rational principle. Rousseau asserted that man by nature was not a social or political animal endowed with reason. What man has become is the result, not of nature, but of accident. And the society resulting from that accident has corrupted man.

According to Rousseau, man was originally isolated in the state of nature, where the pure “sentiment of his own existence” was such that “one suffices to oneself, like God.” Yet this self-satisfied god was asocial and pre-rational. Only by accident did man come into association with others. Somehow, this accident ignited his reason. Through his association with others, man lost his self-sufficient “sentiment of his own existence.” He became alienated. He began to live in the esteem of others instead of in his own self-esteem.

Rousseau knew that the pre-rational, asocial state of nature was lost forever, but thought that an all-powerful state could ameliorate the situation of alienated man. The state could restore a simulacrum of that original well-being by removing all man’s subsidiary social relationships. By destroying man’s familial, social, and political ties, the state could make each individual totally dependent on the state, and independent of each other. The state is the vehicle for bringing people together so that they can be apart: a sort of radical individualism under state sponsorship.

It is necessary to pay this much attention to Rousseau because Cage shares his denigration of reason, the same notion of alienation, and a similar solution to it. In both men, the primacy of the accidental eliminates nature as a normative guide and becomes the foundation for man’s total freedom. Like Rousseau’s man in the state of nature, Cage said, “I strive toward the non-mental.” The quest is to “provide a music free from one’s memory and imagination.” If man is the product of accident, his music should likewise be accidental. Life itself is very fine “once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord.”

But what is its own accord? Of music, Cage said, “The requiring that many parts be played in a particular togetherness is not an accurate representation of how things are” in nature, because in nature there is no order. In other words, life’s accord is that there is no accord. As a result, Cage desired “a society where you can do anything at all.” He warned that one has “to be as careful as possible not to form any ideas about what each person should or should not do.” He was “committed to letting everything happen, to making everything that happens acceptable.”

At the Stony Point experimental arts community where he spent his summers, Cage observed that each summer’s sabbatical produced numerous divorces. So, he concluded, “all the couples who come to the community and stay there end up separating. In reality, our community is a community for separation.” Rousseau could not have stated his ideal better. Nor could Cage have made the same point in his art more clearly. For instance, in his long collaboration with choreographer Merce Cunningham, Cage wrote ballet scores completely unconnected to and independent of Cunningham’s choreography. The orchestra and dancers rehearsed separately and appeared together for the first time at the premiere performance. The dancers’ movements have nothing to do with the music. The audience is left to make of these random juxtapositions what it will. There is no shared experience – except of disconnectedness. The dancers, musicians, and audience have all come together in order to be apart.

According to Cage, the realization of the disconnectedness of things creates opportunities for wholeness. “I said that since the sounds were sounds this gave people hearing them the chance to be people, centered within themselves where they actually are, not off artificially in the distance as they are accustomed to be, trying to figure out what is being said by some artist by means of sounds.” Here, in his own way, Cage captures Rousseau’s notion of alienation. People are alienated from themselves because they are living in the esteem of others. Cage’s noise can help them let go of false notions of order, to “let sounds be themselves, rather than vehicles for man-made theories,” and to return within themselves to the sentiment of their own existence. Cage said, “Our intention is to affirm this life, not bring order out of chaos or to suggest improvements in creation, but simply to wake up to the very life we’re living, which is so excellent….”

That sounds appealing, even humble, and helps to explain Cage’s appeal. In fact, Cage repeatedly insisted on the integrity of an external reality that exists without our permission. It is a good point to make and, as far as it goes, protects us from solipsists of every stripe. Man violates this integrity by projecting meanings upon reality that are not there. That, of course, is the distortion of reality at the heart of every modern ideology. For Cage, however, it is the inference of any meaning at all that is the distorting imposition. This is the real problem with letting “sounds be themselves,” and letting other things be as they are, because it begs the question, “What are they?” Because of Cage’s grounding in Rousseau, we cannot answer this question. What is the significance of reality’s integrity if it is not intelligible, if there is not a rational principle animating it? If creation does not speak to us in some way, if things are not intelligible, are we? Where does “leaving things as they are” leave us?

From the traditional Western perspective, it leaves us completely adrift. The Greco-Judeo-Christian conviction is that nature bespeaks an intelligibility that derives from a transcendent source. Speaking from the heart of that tradition, St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans said, “Ever since the creation of the world, the invisible existence of God and his everlasting power have been clearly seen by the mind’s understanding of created things.” By denigrating reason and denying creation’s intelligibility, Cage severed this link to the Creator. Cage’s espousal of accidental noise is the logically apt result. Noise is incapable of pointing beyond itself. Noise is the black hole of the sound world. It sucks everything into itself. If reality is unintelligible, then noise is its perfect reflection, because it too is unintelligible.


Having endured the worst, the twentieth century has also witnessed an extraordinary recovery from the damage inflicted by Schoenberg in his totalitarian systematization of sound and by Cage in his mindless immersion in noise. Some composers, like Vagn Holmboe (19091996) in Denmark, resisted from the start. Others, like John Adams (b. 1947) in America, rebelled and returned to tonal music. It is worth examining, even briefly, the terms of this recovery in the works of these two composers because their language reconnects us to the worlds of Pythagoras and Saint Clement. Their works are symptomatic of the broader recovery of reality in the music of our time.

In Vagn Holmboe’s music, most particularly in his thirteen symphonies, one can once again detect the “music of the spheres” in their rotation. Holmboe’s impulse was to move outward and upward. His music reveals the constellations in their swirling orbits, cosmic forces, a universe of tremendous complexity, but also of coherence. Holmboe’s music is rooted and real. It reflects nature, but not in a pastoral way; this is not a musical evocation of bird songs or sunsets. Neither is it an evocation of nature as the nineteenth century understood nature – principally as a landscape upon which to project one’s own emotions. To say his work is visionary would be an understatement.

Holmboe’s approach to composition was quite Aristotelian: the thematic material defines its own development. What a thing is (its essence) is fully revealed through its completion (its existence) – through the thorough exploration of the potential of its basic materials. The overall effect is cumulative and the impact powerful. Holmboe found his unique voice through a technique he called metamorphosis. Holmboe wrote, “Metamorphosis is based on a process of development that transforms one matter into another, without it losing its identity.” Most importantly, metamorphosis “has a goal; it brings order to the process and enables it to create a pattern of the same perfection and balance as, for example, a classical sonata.” Holmboe’s metamorphosis is something like the Beethovenian method of arguing short motives; a few hammered chords can generate the thematic material for the whole work.

Holmboe’s technique also has a larger significance. Danish composer Karl Aage Rasmussen observed that Holmboe’s metamorphosis has striking similarities with the constructive principles employed by Arnold Schoenberg in his twelve-tone music. However, says Rasmussen, “Schoenberg found his arguments in history while Holmboe’s come from nature.” This difference is decisive since the distinction is metaphysical. History is the authority for those, like Rousseau, who believe that man’s nature is the product of accident and therefore malleable. Nature is the authority for those who believe man’s essence is permanently ordered to a transcendent good. The argument from history leads to creation ex nihilo, not so much in imitation of God as a replacement for Him – as was evident in the ideologies of Marxism and Nazism that plagued the twentieth century. The argument from nature leads to creation in cooperation with the Creator.

Rasmussen spelled out exactly the theological implications of Holmboe’s approach: “The voice of nature is heard … both as an inner impulse and as spokesman for a higher order. Certainty of this order is the stimulus of music, and to recreate it and mirror it is the highest goal. For this, faith is required, faith in meaning and context or, in Holmboe’s own words, ‘cosmos does not develop from chaos without a prior vision of cosmos.’” Holmboe’s words could come straight from one of Aquinas’s proofs for the existence of God. For Holmboe to make such a remark reveals both his metaphysical grounding and his breathtaking artistic reach. This man was not simply reaching for the stars, but for the constellations in which they move, and beyond. Holmboe strove to show us the cosmos, to play for us the music of the spheres.

Holmboe’s music is quite accessible but requires a great deal of concentration because it is highly contrapuntal. Its rich counterpoint reflects creation’s complexity. The simultaneity of unrelated strands of music in so much modern music (as in John Cage’s works) is no great accomplishment; relating them is. As Holmboe said, music has the power to enrich man “only when the music itself is a cosmos of coordinated powers, when it speaks to both feeling and thought, when chaos does exist, but [is] always overcome.”

In other words, chaos is not the problem; chaos is easy. Cosmos is the problem. Showing the coherence in its complexity, to say nothing of the reason for its existence, is the greatest intellectual and artistic challenge because it shares in the divine “prior vision of cosmos” that makes the cosmos possible. As Holmboe wrote, “In its purest form, [music] can be regarded as the expression of a perfect unity and conjures up a feeling of cosmic cohesion.” Arising from such complexity, this feeling of cohesion can be, he said, a “spiritual shock” for modern man.


Just as Holmboe, whose magnificent works are finally coming into currency, represents an unbroken line to the great Western musical tradition, John Adams is an exemplar of those indoctrinated in Schoenberg’s ideology who found their way out of it. Adams ultimately rejected his college lessons on Nietzsche’s “death of God” and the loss of tonality. Like Pythagoras, he “found that tonality was not just a stylistic phenomenon that came and went, but that it is really a natural acoustic phenomenon.” In total repudiation of Schoenberg, Adams went on to write a stunning symphony, entitled Harmonielehre (“Theory of Harmony”) that powerfully reconnects with the Western musical tradition. In this work, he wrote, “there is a sense of using key as a structural and psychological tool in building my work.” More importantly, Adams, explained, “the other shade of meaning in the title has to do with harmony in the larger sense, in the sense of spiritual and psychological harmony.”

Adam’s description of his symphony is explicitly in terms of spiritual health and sickness. He explains that “the entire [second] movement is a musical scenario about impotence and spiritual sickness; … it has to do with an existence without grace. And then in the third movement, grace appears for no reason at all … that’s the way grace is, the unmerited bestowal of blessing on man. The whole piece is a kind of allegory about that quest for grace.”

It is clear from Adams that the recovery of tonality and key structure is as closely related to spiritual recovery as its loss was related to spiritual loss. The destruction of tonality was thought to be historically necessary and therefore “determined.” It is no mistake that the recovery of tonality and its expressive powers should be accompanied by the notion of grace. The very possibility of grace, of the unmerited intervention of God’s love, destroys the ideology of historical determinism, whether it be expressed in music or in any other way. The possibility of grace fatally ruptures the self-enclosed world of “historically determined forces” and opens it up to the transcendent. That opening restores the freedom and full range of man’s creativity.

Cicero spoke of music as enabling man to return to the divine region, implying a place once lost to man. What is it, in and about music, that gives one an experience so outside of oneself that one can see reality anew, as if newborn in a strange but wonderful world? British composer John Tavener proposes an answer to this mystery in his artistic credo: “My goal is to recover one simple memory from which all art derives. The constant memory of the paradise from which we have fallen leads to the paradise which was promised to the repentant thief. The gentleness of our sleepy recollections promises something else. That which was once perceived as in a glass darkly, we shall see face to face.” We shall not only see; we shall hear, as well, the New Song.


The Trouble with Goodness

Nothing Is a Matter of Course

Reports on the life and mission of orchestras and other institutions of classical music in our time make for vexed, sometimes dispiriting, reading. If you attend to them, as I have of late, you are likely to come across ledes like the following:

Orchestras Feeding America is a project that has seen over 250 orchestras from across the country collect nearly 450,000 pounds of food. The efforts of these orchestras have helped spread the word about how and why orchestras are so necessary to their communities, beyond providing amazing music.

Another press release from early this year reports on an orchestra that has received a grant in “recognition” of its “innovation and dedication to increasing its relevance to the community.” The increase in relevance specifically refers to a partnering of Music in the Mountains (an orchestra) with the Sierra Streams Institute to work with young people in order to compose “a piece of music that responds to their experience” of learning about the plight of wild salmon. Elsewhere, one hears calls for orchestras to “reinvent” themselves in the face of “diminished legitimacy and relevance in a world that has changed more in the last 30 years than at any time in the last 5,000.” We must turn “the whole edifice on its head,” by “redistribut[ing] musicians’ activity from the central concert hall to the communities where people live.” This will “democratiz[e] the art form and tak[e] it away from its elitist roots.”

Jesse Rosen, the President of the League of American Orchestras, comments on these innovations as a turning from a “self-referential, inward-facing assertion of excellence” as the mission of orchestras toward “statements of value and impact for people in orchestras’ communities.” In the League’s magazine, Symphony, Polly Kahn gives us a fuller sense of how this recalibration of mission finds concrete expression. She writes that increasing numbers of American orchestras

have transcended the traditional role of orchestras in communal life. These institutions, of course, stay true to their core purpose of sharing a great body of musical literature. But they are driven simultaneously by a growing sense of connectivity and responsibility to community, along with a desire to engage actively with an ever-more-diverse populace.

This engagement includes the deployment of musicians to hospitals and other places of care for music therapy; the mingling of the professional with the late-in-life amateur; drum circles as part of correctional programs for youth; and programs to commemorate wounds in the American political fabric, to console communities in the wake of natural disasters, and to bring about social change. Of this last role, Kahn opines,

it’s perhaps too easy to think of orchestras as solely inhabiting the world of Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Stravinsky. But just as these artists responded to and challenged the cultural and political assumptions of their times, orchestral music today increasingly crosses musical genres and addresses significant social issues of our time.

Elsewhere, two scholars of music education (Carlos R. Abril and Brent M. Gault) offer advocacy strategies for the establishment or defense of music programs in schools, recommending that interested parties “highlight the transferability of skills” gained from training in music to “extramusical” contexts. Most of us are familiar with the old claims that training in the performance of musical instruments may enhance a child’s math abilities. These authors indicate other transferable skills, ranging from the “promotion of cultural understanding,” listening skills, and physical coordination, to language literacy, “sensitivity to unique individuals,” and the cultivation of creativity.

To list these revisionist accounts of orchestras’ missions and strategies for gaining a foothold in communities and schools in this manner is, I think, to invite cynicism. We hear that orchestras are amazing as they solicit food donations for the hungry, and wonder whether there are not less amazing but more efficient means of accomplishing that goal that, on balance, render musicians superfluous to the enterprise. Is it not the case that anything orchestras do “beyond producing amazing music” is an extrinsic rather than intrinsic, “core,” or essential activity? By definition no quantity of extrinsic activity, no matter how much we admire it, could tell us much of anything about the worth of the intrinsic one. We are left unsure how orchestras could be “necessary to their communities” if it is not in virtue of the main thing they do, and if “providing amazing music” is not the one thing necessary to an orchestra, then we wonder if what we call an orchestra might in fact be something else. So also, on hearing of grant dollars for an orchestra to help young composers tied to a very specific ecological project, we wonder whether the cultivation of the art of composition and the public interest in efficiently saving the salmon are not both vitiated in one fell swoop.

We sense indeed the rightness of Rosen’s, Kahn’s, and others’ observations, which imply that just as music would not be performed if there were no one to hear it, so should the communal work of an orchestra be ordered in a meaningful way to the life of the community that properly constitutes its audience. But these authors worry, as do we, when we hear musical “excellence” replaced by communal engagement, as if these were necessarily opposed missions. If that were the case, then there is something wrong either with the canons of musicianship or with the communities they are meant to serve. It does not lay this anxiety to rest to hear the president of a conservatory proposing orchestras should hire performers based on “virtuosity, of course” but also on “a whole magical package” of other skills, such as “entrepreneurship,” that might be offered to “an institution and its community.” In an orchestra’s effort to serve “as an agent of social change,” to quote Kahn again, will it also screen musicians for not just virtuosity but a commitment to the hour’s particular sense of what in society must be changed? If so, the perceived social function of music will inevitably come to determine what kind of music orchestras perform: only those with a political valence supposed to bring “change” to an “evolving” society will be played. The canons of great music will not disappear, but will simply be reconfigured to exclude whatever the imaginations of conductors cannot harness for a specific didactic or political movement.

A similar ambivalence haunts the strategy of selling schools on the “transferability” of skills first gained in musical education. If learning the violin helps one’s skills in mathematics – to return to an example with which, as we shall see, I am finally sympathetic – might we not also say, “Very true, but what also helps with a child’s math skills – even more so and more directly – is the study and practice of mathematics.” That objection admits no answer, while the notion that “sensitivity to unique individuals” is a skill acquired through music would seem to rely on a cloudy understanding of the word “skill” and a stereotyped one about both the lives of composers and musicians and the relationship of their lives to their art form.

As I have admitted, this style of listing invites cynicism, but so do, it must be said, many of the formulae used to express these accounts of the new mission and strategy for orchestras in an age supposedly characterized by “democracy,” “diversity,” and demands for “[r]elevancy and legitimacy.” The authors I cite face a daunting task in which they acquit themselves honorably: to insist upon the essential function of orchestras while casting their work in a manner that will draw needed grant dollars from philanthropic organizations unhappily settled on seeing their generosity validated by quantifiable fruits. In most cases, they do not fail to underscore or at least mention, in Kahn’s words again, that “the creation and presentation of music is, of course, the core of what orchestras are.” That phrase, “of course,” appears elsewhere in Kahn’s article and in others I have cited. It means, “goes without saying,” “a matter of course,” something that can be taken for granted by everyone.

But, and here is why such words can be dispiriting, the whole occasion of these apologetics in our time is that the intrinsic goodness of orchestras is not a matter of course. If it is something that usually passes unexamined, it is not something that carries much evidential power in our day; it is not something simply understood, but rather an assurance that crumbles in our fingers as soon as we handle it. I envy no one the task of having to articulate to the satisfaction of a granting institution why the “core” or essence of an orchestra is something worthy of its dollars. Far easier would it be to appeal in passing to residual sentiment about the “joy,” “vitality,” and “health” wrought by orchestral music, or to make half-literal, half-metaphorical appeals to music’s power to involve “the brain, body, and heart,” as one hurries on to enumerate the various assessable goals that will be realized beyond them: the violent will be pacified, the sick consoled, the salmon saved, the hungry fed, the backward reformed, the children sensitized, the elite diversified, and the stodgy made relevant. We simply have more words to describe such things and, more to the point, their goodness really does go without saying – because who among us does not value “change” or “relevance,” those empty words into which anyone can pour his dreams? Furthermore, we do not even need to say them; all we have to do is count them.

My concern this afternoon is not to deprecate these or other strategic efforts to preserve the life of orchestras in our straitened times. I have benefited from reading about them. Rather, I would like to consider the climate of opinion that has made such strategies seem necessary in the first place. Thanks to developments that have been underway not for years but centuries, persons in our time find it impossible to credit the idea of intrinsic goods. Things may be good for something, this we readily see, but we become at best uncomfortable and at worst incredulous that anything should be good in itself. If this is correct, then orchestras are in a dire condition indeed. We cannot appreciate those things that are most properly good simply because they are good in themselves. Faced with this often evasive denial of the goodness of things, we scramble to achieve the impossible: to establish what was formerly held as an intrinsic good exclusively by appealing to effects extrinsic to it. Lacking a qualitative hierarchy of goods, we multiply quantities of useful outcomes. In such an effort, we may generate many words, words that flatter our sentiments, but words that will not bear reasoned examination and so invite our cynicism.

I wish to explore the origins and reasons behind this lamentable modern incredulity and to help us understand the traditional alternative to it, which insists that those things are greatest and most worthy of our support – loving, intellectual, and financial – that are good in themselves and good in their effects. My first task is a general one then: to explain what it means for something to be good, so that goodness might cease to give us such stuttering trouble and embarrass us into hasty appeals to things outside it.

My second task will be to consider the particular goodness of orchestral music. As it happens, music has historically been thought to be one of those intrinsic goods known as the liberal arts that does indeed transform its listeners. On more than one classical account, it liberates the mind – but to what end? To effect political or social change? Sort of. For, according to the tradition on which I shall draw, music transforms the soul and liberates the mind so as to make it capable of recognizing and adoring what is most truly good in itself. If ours is an age that cannot recognize things as good in themselves, then the most radical social change in which advocates of music can engage will to be just this: to help others to see, to desire, to seek, to become adequate to, and to rest in that which is simply good. Music provides us one powerful instance in which good effects, fruits as they are called in the tradition, can be realized only because they are what I shall call a further diffusion of what is already a good sufficient unto itself.

The Three Kinds of Goodness

Let me begin by recalling the classical account of goodness, with which many of you will be familiar. According to the ancients, we generally recognize three basic kinds of goods in the following order: the pleasant, the useful, and, finally, that which is good in itself.1 The lowest and most common species of good is the pleasant; whatever gives the mind or body a pleasing sensation, insofar as it pleases, must be good. No one asks, “Why would you want to feel pleasure?” because pleasure in itself provides its own validation. We simply enjoy the taste of good food and drink, the feeling of exertion in sport and the caress of another. For all that it sounds as if the pleasant were ultimate, however, we see that pleasure is neither the only type of good nor even a sufficient denomination of goodness to allow us to understand the various competing goods among which even someone given over to a life of pleasures would have to choose.

I said a moment ago that pleasure is low and common, and for several reasons. First, and perhaps least compelling in our day, for reasons to which I shall return, pleasure is thought a low good because it can be had in common with all persons and with other animals. Aristotle complains that the life of pleasure is “completely slavish,” belonging more properly to “fatted cattle” than to free men.2 Second, we treat pleasure as “for the sake of activity and not conversely” in at least two respects.3 On the one hand, some pleasures are had only so that we can resume some activity in which we are primarily engaged; we may take, for instance, a cold drink, before returning to our labors on a hot day. On the other, those pleasures apparently enjoyed for their own sake we do not hesitate to set aside for the sake of other activities which we find to be either presently more necessary or absolutely more important. If that were not the case, our age would know only permanent weekends and would know – happily – far less about the abysmal humor regarding Mondays, when we wrench ourselves from rest back into the grind of necessity. Third, we can recognize that some things that genuinely give us pleasure, and therefore are good in that respect, are bad in another; pleasure therefore must be under- or even uninformative about the goodness of the thing that pleases. We do not purposefully drink cyanide, for instance, just because it happens to be laced with sugar and lemon, as do we forbid ourselves many other pleasant goods because they come as mere effects of things we positively identify as evils. In general, we often easily choose between two things equally pleasant based upon a perception of some other differentia of goodness.

This last point leads us to a vista where a higher form of goodness emerges. For, if pleasure is under-informative about the thing we denote as good insofar as it pleases, then it is probably the case that there is a kind of good beyond pleasure. The category of the useful comprises all those goods whose chief attribute is their pointing beyond themselves. They are not good in themselves, or not sufficiently, but are primarily desired for the sake of something else. We can recognize a purely useful good by the fact that we would not pursue it were some further good removed from view. It is hard for us, for example, to imagine anyone performing the tasks of a certified public accountant were it not that some reward, or the avoidance of some punishment, lies at the end of them. Thus, useful goods lack some of the self-evidence of the pleasant. We need to know what it is good for, before we recognize a useful good, whereas pleasures are so self-evident but incomplete in their goodness as to leave seeming inadequate our language and reason alike. We find the question, “Why pleasure?” absurd, and when we try to answer it we usually fail. “I guess you had to be there,” we conclude, throwing up our hands in frustration.

The useful, on the other hand, seems especially communicable. To demonstrate something is a useful good, we have only to propose a purpose beyond it and show how the given thing will help us attain it; this is an easily recognized and an easily explained criterion. A useful good is a means to something, and as a means it may seem to lack in goodness in itself but it is also easier to account for its character. Nearly every occupation in our day, from investment banking to the tying of balloon animals while wearing a clown costume, can be easily justified along these lines. “Why would you do something so unpleasant and humiliating?” someone asks. “It’s a living,” we reply. We have to make a living – though for what reason, I shall contend, we have trouble discerning, but nevertheless. Therefore, whatever is useful in making it is good.

If the useful always stands in reference to some other good beyond itself, it must be pointing to something or it would be neither useful nor good. As Thomas Aquinas observes, not all goods can be useful, because that would involve us in an infinite regress wherein every useful good was in fact useless. There would be no final term for which and to which all other goods are subservient.4 I shall return to this claim further on, but for the moment it will serve to indicate a third kind of good. If we can decide between different kinds of pleasant goods, because they have an element – let us call it X – that makes some of them more desirable always, some of them desirable some of the time, and others undesirable despite the pleasure they afford – we may be tempted to identify X by saying that some pleasant goods are more useful than others. But, if we then say that one pleasant good is more useful than another only for the sake of some further pleasure we are begging the question. There must be some kind of good that is comprehended by neither pleasure nor utility, but, to the contrary, stands essentially above them and comprehends them.

Whatever such a good is, it will not be as self-evident as pleasure, because we must look beyond pleasure to perceive it, and we may even find pleasure obscures it to us. So also, we may more readily understand useful goods, but if we can recognize them, we must also sense, however vaguely, some good in itself that gives them their useful and good quality in the first place. Traditionally this sort of good is referred to as a bonus honestum, a good deemed honorable or moral in itself.5 But how can this be? we ask. What is a good in itself good for? The only possible answer has to be that an honest good has the character of a term or end: it is the place where a chain of for-sake-of-whiches finds its end. Anticipating our resistance to this notion, Aristotle proposes that something is a good in itself when, in being done for or valued for itself, it is actually valued for the sake of beauty.6

The sufficiently good in itself is beautiful. Just as pleas-ant goods seem at first self-evident and self-justifying, so that which is an unqualified good in itself elicits a kind of immediacy once it has been recognized for itself. On Aristotle’s account, the idea of the beautiful helps us to understand this, because nothing stands between us and our encounter with the beautiful (it is immediate in that sense), but we may not instantaneously perceive something as beautiful; we can be helped to do so by different means of instruction, and once we do it admits of rational explanation.7 Above, we considered accountancy as a useful good; we see examples of honest goods in such things as the courage of the soldier, where there would seem to be something intrinsically beautiful in the power to act in the face of real danger, when it is possible, however unlikely, that such danger can be overcome. That courage, so good in itself, by its own virtue may bear fruit in victory in war, the glory of reputation, or the immortality of remembrance. One would desire to possess courage even if one were not a soldier. So, also, in the case of the professional natural scientist, though his applications for grants may come to an end upon his retirement, he may still continue to study his subject because of the beauty perceived in the acquisition of knowledge. The study seems good in itself and in the new knowledge it breeds.

An honest or intrinsic good is something that is desired for its own sake – for the beauty of it, Aristotle tells us. From this I draw three observations. First, something may be desired primarily for itself, and yet still admit of other goods beyond itself. Thus, an honest good need not be an absolute good, but only absolute in some particular order of reality. The French philosopher Jacques Maritain coined the term “infravalent goods” to define those things that are primarily desired for themselves in one particular order, but which ultimately stand in subordinate relation to a good beyond themselves, all culminating in one absolute and transcendent good that orders all the rest.8 Second, to be an intrinsic good entails above all being the term – the final point – of a sequence. But, third, that which is sufficiently good in itself is often recognized because of a quality often described as gratuitousness, fruitfulness, or self-diffusiveness. That alone which is sufficient unto itself is also ecstatic or self-transcending. Here lies the explanation for why the good in its goodness is beautiful.

Taken together, these observations suggest what it means to talk about goodness per se, and of its specifications as pleasant, useful, or honest. When we talk about goods, we are always talking about ends and the different ways things and actions can stand in relation to ends.9 Though things and actions can be good in different ways, in every case goodness is defined in terms of final purpose: the end of pleasure, the instrumental end that leads immediately beyond itself to another end, or the end that brings to term a sequence, in a certain order or absolutely. Whenever we speak of goods, we have to have in place a conception of purpose or finality – what the ancients called the idea of final causality, where the why or for-sake-of-which of a given thing or action is understood. This holds not just for useful goods, which are good only insofar as they have a purpose beyond themselves, but also, as we have seen, for honest goods which are their own ends. An intrinsic good is not something that is useless or purposeless in the sense of being without-end, but something that is undertaken for itself and to which other things or actions may be ordered as a final cause – a final why. They are their own fruit (frui), and they are fruitful, so that what they give birth to seems to draw us at once beyond and back to their goodness.

Modernity’s Stripping of Goodness from Being

Perhaps already it becomes clear why our age has trouble with goodness. It has been a truism since the seventeenth century that rational or scientific knowledge can tell us nothing about final causes. To wit, in the eyes of our contemporaries, final causality is not even an object of knowledge. As Etienne Gilson wrote, speaking of this revolution, the modern thinker says, “Scientists never ask themselves why things happen, but [only] how they happen.”10 This constitutes a radical shrinking of the sphere of rational knowledge.

Its early advocates converged in this project often with radically opposed intentions. The early modern philosopher and naturalist René Descartes, for instance, would assert that, because our natures are “very weak and limited,” while God is “immense, incomprehensible, and infinite,” our knowledge will always be inadequate to God’s intentions. “For this reason alone,” he writes, “the entire class of causes which people customarily derive from a thing’s ‘end,’ I judge to be utterly useless in physics. It is not without rashness that I think myself capable of inquiring into the ends of God.”11

As I understand Descartes’ larger scientific project, the following ambitions led him to this claim. In his Meditations he sought primarily to establish the existence of an all-knowing and good God in order to vouchsafe the intelligibility of the world. Such a god would give the extra-mental world stability and our knowledge of it reliability. But, he sought also to divide absolutely theology, the knowledge of God made possible by revealed religion, from the knowledge of nature made possible primarily by experimental observation and mathematical analysis. In The World and elsewhere, he sought to provide an account of the natural world and its functioning based entirely on its internal mechanisms. As Blaise Pascal would write, God served as a “fillip” to put the world in being and ensure its knowability; God also must concur in the universe’s continued existence; but, for Descartes, there is no role for God interior to the universe – with one possible exception.12 Closed though it is on three sides, as it were, the Cartesian universe would seem to be open-ended. Its internal mechanisms would seem to reach out to God through their purposiveness.

By shrouding God’s purposes is infinite mystery – and not just his ultimate purposes, but any and all purposes, including even those that seem observable – Descartes is able entirely to enclose his universe. One needs only a knowledge of its mechanisms to understand fully all of its contents. In effect, Descartes excludes from the purview of human reason and physics anything but the knowledge of mechanisms understood as instrumental goods. Scientific research may thereby continue to ask how things operate without impinging on the existence, goodness, or purpose of God. In his effort to preserve these things as transcendent realities, Descartes in fact reduced them to postulates outside of knowledge per se. The first two may help establish the possibility of the knowledge of physics, but the third is not part of that knowledge, and in fact all rational knowledge (i.e. knowledge outside the innate ideas of the necessarily good God’s existence, our existence, and the world in which we may reliably believe) ultimately is reduced to the realm of physics.

Writing during the same period of early experimental-scientific enthusiasm, Thomas Hobbes would also exclude the knowledge of ends from physics, but not because the will of God was for us obscured within the abyss of its infinite mystery. Rather, to speak of ends was an act of absurdity; it was tantamount to misunderstanding the nature of reality as such. “When a body is once in motion,” Hobbes writes early in Leviathan, “it moveth (unless something else hinder it) eternally.”13 The “end” of a body’s movement comes not when it reaches the goal of some intension, the final cause to which it was ordered, but only when some other body reduces its motion to zero by an act of interference. Hobbes was a materialist; he posited that only bodies were real entities, and that therefore reality as such was reducible to material things and their motions. There is no place inside his universe for intentions, purposes, or final causes; and, in contrast to Descartes, there is nothing outside his universe.

What reason could know was only that immanent mode of causality we would identify with instrumental goods. Human beings can only conceive of finite, that is to say material, things, and they can understand them in two possible ways: they can see something has been effected, and so speculate as to what brought it into effect, or they can imagine some material body and speculate as to what effects it might be put.14

We might interject at this point that it is absurd to speak of a world composed exclusively of instrumental goods, because all such goods derive their identity from being good for something that is the end of a train or sequence. Descartes postpones indefinitely this conundrum by putting finality beyond our knowledge. Hobbes precludes it by setting goodness outside knowledge altogether. In Leviathan’s subsequent exploration of human nature, he undertakes to render goodness absolutely relative by making it entirely dependent on an individual body’s will or appetite. A good, he says, is “whatsoever is the object of any man’s appetite or desire.”15 To pronounce something a good tells us nothing of the thing itself, but only of the interior and hidden or exterior and visible movement of a body toward it.16 All the words we use to characterize various kinds of goods operate in this way: they describe not the thing referred to but our evaluation of that thing. So, the worth of a given human being is just so much as one might give for the use of his powers.17 Honor and dignity constitute merely private and public recognitions of this price we place on a person’s capacities. None of these qualities inhere in the person valued, honored, or praised.

Hobbes’ ambition in this reduction of goods to value, and values to the human will, is to inaugurate a new science of politics, and so he ultimately leads his reader to a theory of justice that does not require the identification of anything as in itself a good. Thus, justice, for Hobbes, comes merely to the honoring of contracts: it is strictly “commutative.” To be just is to follow an agreement to which one has previously consented.18 He dismisses as absurd the notion of distributive justice, wherein certain things are owed to a person, not in virtue of a contract, but simply in virtue of who he is in himself. All goods must therefore be instrumental, because a good is always either a means to get what we want, or the thing wanted, but there is no rational reason we should want one thing rather than another.19 Our wills are opaque to reason, in fact. They have no intelligible content. And so, again, we can ask how things come to pass, but to inquire into why is to misunderstand the nature of the human person, of knowledge, and of reality in all its monstrous and mechanical clutter.

In the vision of such modern thinkers, we are shown either a world stripped of intrinsic goodness for us or per se. As the philosopher Iredell Jenkins argued many years ago, Descartes, Hobbes, and others operate from the postulate of an impoverished reality, which he defines as “the settled conviction that nature is in fact much simpler and barer than it appears to us in experience.”20 Quality vanishes; only quantity remains. Whatever cannot be counted cannot be an object of knowledge – and is at best a private appetite and at worst an absurdity. This is the world into which we have been born. As Hobbes reminds us, human beings are indeed full of appetites; we find many things good, in our experience. But we deny that any such things could be rationally defended as good in themselves and for their own sakes.

With Descartes and Hobbes, we tend to look upon the world as a self-enclosed system of mechanisms that we understand as a series of means or instrumental goods, as things we may value but which are stripped of any intrinsic worth. How do we understand the world and our appetites in such a vision? Critics of the modern vision have reached a general consensus on three basic qualities. Firstly, we tend to strip things in reality down to their quantifiable elements. What can be enumerated, subjected to mathematical analysis, counts as knowledge; what does not does not; the realm of mathematical values somehow stands above and free from the dubious valuations of taste and appetite. Thomas Aquinas, centuries ago, explains why. All number entails an abstraction from being and existence, but only being and existence are goods. Therefore “mathematicals,” as he calls them, are neither good nor evil.21 As Jenkins notes, the modern mind tends to understand reality in terms of quantity. Rather than treating number as an abstraction from what is real, we take it as the final determinant of the real. There is no place for goodness in a mathematical universe.

What becomes of our desires in such a world? This question is answered by the second and third qualities, which will at first seem incompatible. We see, secondly, that the modern mind, having lost the sense of intrinsic goods, but needing its pursuit of instrumental goods to be directed somewhere, would seem to have arrived at hedonism. We would seem to pronounce pleasure the highest good. Pleasure, as we considered earlier, has at least the quality of self-evidence about it, and, in our time, it would seem we recognize no higher authority, so that, once a thing is pronounced as desirable because it pleases us to desire it, no rational appeal can be made against this desire. As Gilson and E.F. Schumacher recognized long ago, this leads to an absolutization of desire, in which everything we want becomes an unquestionable good. It becomes in fact a little god, one of myriad idols at whose altar we worship so long as we like, and whose deity deflects the unbelieving with inane indignations along the lines of, “What gives you the right to tell me what I should like?”22

This second quality does not stand alone, but has as its obverse a third: if our desires are absolute, nonetheless their objects are not and, further, the desires themselves are understood as indefeasible by the reason because they are simply outside the reason altogether. This is what most persons mean in our day when they say that goodness is “subjective.” They do not mean that it is a reality that inheres in the intellect rather than in things themselves, but that it does not even inhere in the intellect, because all real knowledge is of quantity. They mean what Hobbes means, that our desires tell us nothing except that we desire. Our understanding of what is good is therefore locked away entirely in the opacity and the privacy of the appetite and can have no public status as something known, shared, and therefore potentially binding on the minds of others. We waste our time trying to understand what we want or what we should want. The only use of reason is to figure out how to get what we already find ourselves wanting or to ensure ourselves against future desires. We feel acutely why Hobbes reduced politics and justice to a relative contract. He saw with clarity that knowledge pertaining to means is clear and communicable, while reason knows nothing about ends, and all talk of them ends in absurdity.23

Taking these two qualities together, we see that goodness in our day is something absolutely worthless and jealously guarded. Our desires are divine and unquestionable for us, and yet empty and insignificant for the world at large. Only instrumental goods slip between this Scylla and Charybdis. They are eminently knowable as means, formulated thus, “Y is a means to attaining X. If you desire X, then you will also desire Y.” We may not know if anyone desires, or should desire, X – indeed, we lack the intellectual equipment even to ask – but we do know that Y is instrumentally ordered to it.

The Finality of Finality

My argument thus far has avoided appeal to a more conventional way of understanding the modern stripping of goodness from reality that ensued from the denial of final causality as an object of knowledge, but I would like to turn to it briefly as a means of arriving at a final understanding of goodness, before I come to consider the particular good of music. Since Aristotle, four types of causes of things have traditionally been acknowledged.

First, the material cause, which comprehends the material substrate of which a given individual thing is made. The material cause of a podium is usually wood, for instance. Second, the formal cause means the idea giving specific form to otherwise formless matter. The idea of podium in the manufacturer’s mind is the formal cause of the podium. Third, there is the efficient cause. The act of the manufacturer in joining form to matter effects, or brings into actual being, the podium itself. And, fourth, there is the final cause – again, the reason for something’s being brought into being, its why or purpose. In Gilson’s formula, the first three causes can be objects of rational knowledge, because they speak of how something comes into being. The final cause – as a why – cannot.

True in a way though it is, such a formulation conceals something from us. All inquiry into causality, all rational inquiry, though it may appear to restrict itself to material, formal, or efficient causes, is ultimately ordered as an inquiry into finality. To put a provocative point on it, all inquiry into truth is in fact a questing after goodness. This includes the inquiry of the physicist’s laboratory as much as that of the engineer, philosopher, or theologian. We would not consider a manufacturer of glass hammers, to use a classic example, to know much about hammers. In post-Darwinian biology, we do not claim to understand a genetic modification until we understand why – for what end – it is selected. As the evolutionary psychologist Stephen Pinker has observed, in his field of inquiry, the criterion of new knowledge is whether a given experiment reveals what he calls a “Darwinian payoff.” Claims about the means of a genetic selection do not suffice; one must be able to show a causal link to some end; every phenomenon must be shown as serving an evolutionary purpose, or the claim does not meet the bar of knowledge. All rational inquiry is into the why of things – into what makes them good. The other three types of causality might best be understood as sub-species of final causality.

Thomas Aquinas reveals this identity of knowledge with value, or rather, truth with goodness, in his discussion of the goodness of things. He says everything may have a threefold perfection or goodness,

First, insofar as it is constituted in its existence. Second, insofar as the accidents necessary for its perfect operation are added to it. Third, the perfection the thing has insofar as it reaches something else as its end.24

When we call something good, we may be saying any of these three things, and here I reverse Aquinas’s order: it has reached the end beyond itself toward which it, by nature, moves; or that it has attained all the incidental qualities necessary to its acting, or moving, fully and according to its nature; or that a thing has been brought into being, that it has become what it is only as the final cause of some anterior intention. In all three cases the good is understood as a kind of end.

What we may find most remarkable is the first sort of goodness he mentions. How can the claim that something is good insofar as it exists be anything more than a postulate or a leap of faith that an incomprehensible God has some secret purpose in mind of all things? That things, of no value in themselves, may yet be harnessed for some end obscure to us? We have the answer already sealed in the concrete example of the glass hammer given above. All forms of causality – the matter of something, its form, the agent that brings it into being – have the bringing into being of something as their own final cause. A glass hammer may be a lousy hammer, given the final cause of hammers to drive iron nails into wood, but it is nevertheless the good sought, the final cause, that leads an agent to dispose the glass into the shape of a hammer. The brute fact of an existent thing is itself always the end of an operation; it is not a reality onto which we may project a value, but an intelligible good in which being and goodness are identical.

We only know as much about the cause of anything as we know the ways – and I underscore the plural here – in which it is good. Goodness is the principle that makes reality intelligible. No goodness, no truth. No truth, no knowledge. Contrary to Hobbes, then, it is absurd to say we could speak intelligently of reality without attending to causes. And, contrary to Descartes, to restrict our knowledge of things to mathematicals is in fact to restrict our knowledge to a world of shadows and abstractions and to say very little about the world in which we actually live. We may have trouble acknowledging intrinsic goods, because we have an at best shaky confidence in our capacity to know the truth about things. But, insofar as we claim to know anything, we should to that same extent be able to affirm the goodness of things and to deliberate about the relative magnitude of the various intrinsic goods that populate our world.

I have asserted that Aquinas solves this modern trouble with goodness for us, and so I shall let him answer two weighty objections to his claim. One might say, with Hobbes, that we know things are in motion, not why they move. It is a law among us now that a body in motion tends to stay in motion. Aquinas would reply that, first, “body” is a genus, an abstraction from individual existing things and not a thing in itself. It may well be that bodies in principle move without end, just as numbers may be counted without being good. Such is the character of abstractions – that they are abstracted specifically from the being that exists in reality as a point within a series of causal relations, of finalities. All actually existing things do move, this we grant, and they move for a purpose, because if there were no end at which to aim, or if the aim were infinitely distant, nothing would begin to move in the first place.25 The specific difference by which we tell one thing from another is also the determinant of the ends toward which different things – bodies or otherwise – move.

To all this, one may reply, what about chance? Cannot all things move endlessly, because set in motion by some fundamental fluke in reality? Aquinas replies, we can only understand chance relative to the normative goodness of nature. We see that a given nature normally pursues a specific end; we know natures primarily by the end that they pursue “always or for the most part.” If all things moved according to chance, then we could say nothing at all about things, because all things would be absolutely different, unrepeatable in their individuality. But, if all things were unique, we could not say that they were caused by chance. We would have no basis for the assertion. We perceive chance only in its departure from a given nature’s norm characterized by its failure to pursue that nature’s end. If we admit as a hypothesis that chance rather than purpose governs all things, we must also admit that we could never know anything about it. But the problem that confronts us is not a world professedly agnostic about all things as such, but only about the goodness of things. I have tried to show that such a world is abysmal, because it is incoherent. It claims you can know the truth without even affirming the existence of goodness. I have countered that the truth of things is their goodness.

Music as Honest Good and Liberal Art

We are now in a position to draw these reflections on goodness per se into the contemporary world of apologetics for classical music and the social value of orchestras. We are accustomed to thinking of music as a fine art, and the actual performance of music is indeed a fine art. The practicing musician produces something outside of his activity, the music itself, so it is by definition an art; and the product is not immediately put to some other use, so it is a fine rather than servile art. But let us distinguish the act of the musician from the understanding of music, whether it be the creative knowledge of the composer or the receptive understanding of the auditor. These have traditionally been understood as among the liberal arts. So, if we are to understand the good of music, we shall have to understand it not primarily in terms of the musician who performs it, but in terms of the minds that come to know it; that is, what makes music one of the liberal arts?

The liberal arts, the arts of the free, are those practices of the intellect that may be learned, are an activity complete in themselves, and do not primarily serve to produce something outside of their activity. They are free from external product, and that suffices to distinguish them from the servile arts. They are also free in a positive sense that we are now prepared to appreciate: they must be good in themselves. The practice of thought of a particular liberal art must be worthy of undertaking for its own sake. One feature of liberal education is, therefore, the training of mind and desire so that we will recognize and seek things that are intrinsically good, with the liberal arts themselves being chief among those goods. Philosophy, for instance, entails the pursuit of true ideas as good in themselves, but their pursuit is itself an orientation and way of life that is also intrinsically good.

One further characteristic of the liberal arts, first intimated in the philosophies of Pythagoras, Plato, and Aristotle, but systematically developed in the early medieval writings of St. Augustine, is that the practice of the liberal arts orders the mind and appetites not only to themselves but to an effect that naturally follow from their own goodness. Like all honest goods, the liberal arts bear fruit. Augustine claims that the ordering of the soul that the liberal arts enact leads not only to an knowing and loving rest in intrinsic goods, but to the soul’s journey through those goods up to the absolute and unqualified good in itself who is God.

This argument of Augustine’s often gets discussed in terms of the liberal art of mathematics. By engaging the intellect in the pursuit of “measure, number, and weight,”26 Augustine proposed, mathematics leads the mind to perceive the qualitatively distinct kinds of numbers out of which are constituted material bodies, abstract thoughts, creative acts, pleasures, memories, and rational judgments.27 This numerical hierarchy leads from bodily creatures to intellectual creatures and prepares the mind for the perception of the uncreated and unconditioned Good of all things. Mention of mathematics may lead us to a conclusion it did not lead Augustine: namely, that this would be a purely intellectual exercise at an abstract remove from reality and from the goodness for which I have been arguing. Rather, Augustine’s argument on this point appears in the De Musica, his study of music as a liberal art. In music, he suggests, we perceive that numbers subsist in form, in order, proportion, and harmony. Attention to music is attention to the manifestation of intellectual order in sensible being. It is perceived by the ear and experienced only through the cooperation of the bodily senses, the reason, and the memory. In this, it stands in contradistinction to, say, a work of sculpture, which might seem to be comprehended whole by the eye alone, and even to ravish the sight to the exclusion of the mind. Although music may sometimes threaten a similar ravishment, it manifests in an especially clear way the union of mind and sense, idea and being, more so than either pure mathematics or any plastic art form.

As is the case with nearly everything, music may first present itself as a pleasant good. But, in its drawing of the numbers that inform reality into a distinct form, it reveals itself as good in itself. This act of ordering number and idea into audible form, first, beguiles the mind and brings it to rest in the form of the musical work, but, second, it helps to order the mind, schooling it in the perception of the measurable heights and depths of reality. This fruitfulness of the good of music aids the mind in its ascent to a knowledge of the Good itself. Like every liberal art, it constitutes a practice good in itself and it initiates our minds into the contemplation of that final cause in light of which alone we can understand the meaning and destiny of ourselves and of all things.

If this classical and medieval account of music is correct, it actually answers many of the criteria implied in the apologetics for classical music and orchestras I reviewed at the outset, but bests them by restoring to its center the essential goodness of music – highlighting what has too often been only glossed over with a hasty “of course.” By considering music as a liberal rather than a fine art, we endorse the revised understanding of the mission of orchestras as centered less on virtuosity and more on engagement of the community in a practice of education and intellectual freedom that is good in itself and good in its effects. It emphasizes that classical music is a distinctive good in its capacity to unite the most abstract powers of the intellect and the experience of the senses into the contemplation of a whole ordered for beauty’s sake. It also emphasizes the “transferability” of the skills music cultivates, explaining perhaps why it is there should be an observable correlation between the understanding of classical music and the understanding of mathematics. One fruit of the intrinsic good of hearing and understanding music is its ordering of the mind to the perception of the full scope of being, to number, to form, and to the Good itself.

Finally, if the modern condition is as I have described it, our society is one that publicly recognizes only useful goods while it privately absolutizes pleasant ones. In such a society, one would expect to find a populace jealous of liberty regarding its own pleasures, while full of anxiety about maximizing utility so as to bring the “greatest good to the greatest number.” It is in concession to that anxiety that apologists for orchestras and classical music attempt to make the case for their usefulness as philanthropic entities and as agents of social change.

Let us conclude with a paradox on this point. In a society that knows only pleasant and useful goods, to insist upon the reality and self-sufficiency of intrinsic goods, to insist upon the absolute truth of such things and upon the necessity of recognizing and understanding them for the sake of human happiness – that strikes me as a profound act of social engagement. Nothing could be more counter-cultural, nothing more shocking, than for the orchestra in the concert hall to arrest the pursuit of mere pleasures and mere utility in our day by bring audiences into the dynamic stillness, the fulfilled rest, the pleasure beyond mere pleasure, and the fruit beyond mere utility, that occurs whenever we are in the presence of that which is genuinely, honestly, simply, good.


1 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1156a.
2 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 10956.
3 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.27.
4 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.25.
5 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.6.
6 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1168a.
7 Cf. Roger Scruton, Beauty (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 8.
8 Jacques Maritain, Collected Works of Jacques Maritain Vol. 11: Integral Humanism, Freedom in the Modern World, and A Letter on Independence (Trans. Otto Bird, et al. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1996),246.
9 Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, 1094a; Cf. Aristole, Politics, 1252a, and Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
10 Etienne Gilson, God and Philosophy Second Edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002): 112.
11 René Descartes, Discourse on Method and Meditations on First Philosophy (Trans. Donald A. Cress. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing), 82.
12 Blaise Pascal, Pensées (), §76-77.
13 Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994): I.ii.2.
14 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.iii.5 and 12.
15 Hobbes, Leviathan,
16 Hobbes, Leviathan,
17 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.x.16.
18 Hobbes, Leviathan, I.xv.14.
19 Hobbes, Leviathan,
20 Iredell Jenkins, “The Postulate of an Impoverished Reality” (The Journal of Philosophy 39.20 (24 September 1942)), 535.
21 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.5.3.
22 See, E.F. Schumacher, A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: Harper & Row, 1977), 59.
23 See, Schumacher, 58.
24 Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.6.3.
25 Aquinas, Summa Contra Gentiles, 3.2.
26 Robert J. O’Connell, S.J, Art and the Christian Intelligence in St. Augustine (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 55.
27 Bonaventure, The Soul’s Journey into God (), 2.10.


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