Augustine’s metaphysics of music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 5

It was principally through the works of Plotinus that the thought of Plato was mediated to St. Augustine, whose treatise De musica was the first Christian work to shape significantly the way music was studied in the Latin West. Although the bulk of Augustine’s De musica is devoted to matters of musical theory, the sixth and final book of his treatise addresses some of the more psychic and cosmic implications of music. As the title of book six has it, Augustine discusses the Neoplatonic “ascent from rhythm in sense to the immortal rhythm which is in truth” (Augustine, De musica, trans. Knight). In the course of his discussion Augustine enumerates five different kinds of rhythm, the highest and most “immortal” of which he calls “Judicial Rhythm” (iudiciales numeri), a form of rhythm that, “if not entirely without limitation by durations of time,” is nevertheless in some sense “eternal,” and resides “in the soul,” enabling it “to judge what is presented, approving the rhythmic and condemning the irregular…” (6.7.17-18). The Judicial Rhythm within the soul enabling it to judge the presence or absence of rhythm outside of the soul, however, is also a property of the cosmos as a whole:

Every living thing in its own kind, and in its due relation to the whole, proportione uniuersitatis, has been endowed with a sense of magnitude in space and time, so that as its body is in a certain proportion to the universal body of which it is a part, so its permitted life-time, aetas, is proportional to the whole duration of the universe, universi saeculi, of which it is a part… It is by such an organization of parts according to scale that our world achieves its vast size, sic habendo omnia magnus est hic mundus: the world which in the Scriptures is called “heaven and earth”…(6.7.19)

In book 11 of his Confessions, Augustine’s idea of “Judicial Rhythm” in the cosmos, similar to the Ainur’s Music, is represented as the creature through which the Creator’s own act of creation is somehow mediated. As Augustine inquires of God:

But how did you speak [in creation]?… [T]he utterance came through the movement of some created thing, serving your eternal will but itself temporal. And these your words, made for temporal succession, were reported by the external ear to the judicious mind whose internal ear is disposed to hear your eternal word. But that mind would compare these words, sounding in time, with your eternal word in silence…(Augustine, Confessions 11.6, trans. Chadwick)

Another well-known passage from Augustine dealing with music as a metaphor for cosmic order comes from a letter in which he compares the way a good song-writer “knows how to distribute the length of time allowed to each word so as to make the song flow and pass on in most beautiful adaptation to the ever-changing notes of the melody,” to the way that God in his wisdom ensures

that not one of the spaces of time allotted to natures that are born and die—spaces which are like the words and syllables of the successive epochs of the course of time—shall have, in what we may call the sublime psalm of the vicissitudes of this world, a duration either more brief or more protracted than the foreknown and predetermined harmony requires!… [E]very man’s life on earth continues for a time, which is neither longer nor shorter than God knows to be in harmony with the plan according to which He rules the universe. (Augustine, Letters of St. Augustine 166.5.13, trans. Cunningham, emphasis added. See also Houghton, “Augustine in the Cottage of Lost Play,” 178)

As these passages also illustrate, Augustine is significant in that his concept of creational music adds a linear or progressive element to the idea of cosmic music that we also find in the Ainulindalë but which is absent in the comparatively a-temporal and static “music of the spheres” tradition of the Pythagoreans and Platonists. (Leo Spitzer points to another important shift from the pagan to the Christian and especially Augustinian understanding of world harmony: “According to the Pythagoreans, it was cosmic order which was identifiable with music; according to the Christian philosophers, it was love. And in the ordo amoris of Augustine we have evidently a blend of the Pagan and the Christian themes: henceforth ‘order’ is love.” Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 19-20. See also Hart, Beauty of the Infinite, 276.) Thus, in his commentary on the above letter of Augustine, whose application to Tolkien will be evident, Spitzer describes Augustine’s notion of a transcendent, cosmic pattern both behind and unfolding within creation as a “hymn scanned by God” and a “poem of the world” which, “like any poem, can only be understood in time by a soul which endeavors to understand the action of Providence, which itself unfolds in time… The God-Artist, creating in time, realizes his idea, his providential decisions, like a musician…” (ibid., 31).




1 thought on “Augustine’s metaphysics of music

  1. Pingback: This Is My Father's World Systematic Hymnology

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