Cosmic Music in Plato and Plotinus

The metaphysics of the Music, part 4

Although Aristotle was somewhat dismissive of the idea of the music of the spheres, his teacher Plato’s attraction to the notion is evident in the Timaeus, a work that, as I have argued at some length previously, Tolkien certainly had in mind in the development of his creation-myth. In one of the more challenging passages of the dialogue, the eponymous Timaeus, himself a Pythagorean mathematician and philosopher, alludes to the notion of the music of the spheres when he suggests that an analogous structure was placed by the demiurge in the World Soul: “Now while the body of the heavens had come to be as a visible thing, the soul was invisible. But even so, because it shares in reason and harmony, the soul came to be as the most excellent of all the things begotten by him who is himself most excellent of all that is intelligible and eternal” (Plato, Timaeus 36e-37a, trans. Zeyl). In addition, the way in which the Ainur’s Music antedates and pre-contains the entire history of the world resembles Plato’s famous realm of the forms, in which the physical world of sensible things participates, or, as the Timaeus has it, the eternal model according to which the demiurge-creator has fashioned the material world. As Plato’s disciple Plotinus applied the master’s theory to music some six-hundred years later, “certainly all music, since the ideas which it has are concerned with rhythm and melody, would be of the same kind, just like the art which is concerned with intelligible number,” and thus like the other arts would have “its principles from the intelligible world…” (Plotinus, Enneads 5.9.11, trans. Armstrong).

Tolkien’s Pythagorean “inversion”: reality isn’t “like” music, it “is” music

The metaphysics of the Music, part 3

In addition to the foregoing passages pointing to a the presence of a kind of “cosmic music” in Scripture, several readers have discerned a resonance between the Music at the inception of Tolkien’s mythology and the Logos that is “in the beginning” of the Apostle John’s Gospel. Verlyn Flieger, though typically stressing the differences between Tolkien’s creation-account and that of the Bible’s, observes how the word logos “carried at one time far more meaning than it does today,” having the force of order, principle of organization, and harmony and thus

meant something very close to music in the Pythagorean sense. In Tolkien’s fictive world, the creative principles of Genesis and John are combined. Light and music are conjoined elements made manifest in the visible world sung as the Music of the Ainur. The Word ,which in Elvish means, “It is,” or “Let it Be,” is listed in the Index to The Silmarillion as “the word of Ilúvatar when the World began its existence.” It thus become the imperative form of the Great Music, the vision as both light and logos. (Flieger, Splintered Light, 59)

As for the relevant philosophical background behind the Ainur’s Music, the name of the fifth-century mathematician and philosopher Pythagoras has naturally received frequent mention in discussions of the subject, as the above quote from Flieger illustrates. (For other references to Pythagoras in the Tolkien literature, see also Grubbs, “The Maker’s Image: Tolkien, Fantasy & Magic”; Davis, “Ainulindalë: The Music of Creation”; and Collins, “Ainulindalë”: Tolkien’s Commitment to an Aesthetic Ontology.”) It is to Pythagoras and his school, after all, that the popular idea of the “music of the spheres” has been traditionally ascribed. Aristotle, for example, writes of the Pythagoreans that “they took the elements of numbers to be the elements of all things, and the whole heaven to be harmony and number” (Aristotle, Metaphysics, 1.5.986a., trans. Hope), and that according to them “the movement of the stars produces a harmony, i.e., that the sounds they make are concordant…” (Aristotle, On the Heavens, 2.9.290b12, trans. Stocks). Leo Spitzer has gone so far as to suggest that the Pythagorean concept of world or cosmic “harmony” was more than a mere metaphor derived from human vocal or instrumental harmonies, but was in fact conceived as the reality from which human music was ultimately derived. The Pythagoreans thus

inverted the order by admitting that the human lute (as imagined in the hands of the god Apollo) was an imitation of the music of the stars; human activities had to be patterned on godly activities, i.e., on the processes in nature: human art, especially, had to be an imitation of the gods, i.e., of reasonable nature. Thus we will witness [in Pythagoreanism] a continuous flow of metaphors from the human (and divine) sphere to nature and back again to human activities, which are considered as imitating the artistic orderliness and harmony of nature. (Spitzer, Classical and Christian Ideas of World Harmony, 8-9)

If so, it is a similar kind of Pythagorean “inversion” that Tolkien undertakes by means of his own fictional “gods” when he writes of them in the Ainulindalë how “the voices of the Ainur, like unto harps and lutes, and pipes and trumpets, and viols and organs, and like unto countless choirs singing with words, began to fashion the theme of Ilúvatar to a great music; and a sound arose of endless interchanging melodies woven in harmony that passed beyond hearing into the depths and into the heights…” (Silmarillion 15). As I have suggested previously in discussing Tolkien’s image of the Flame Imperishable, the literary genre of myth or fairy-story allows for a reinvesting of metaphors and images such as fire and music with a degree of ancient, pre-Enlightenment literality, so that the Creator’s power of creation is not “like” fire, but simply is the Fire from which all fires originate; nor is the Ainur’s and Ilúvatar’s Music “like” the music we human beings play and experience, but simply is the Music to which all our music is a remote hearkening and response.

Scripture’s Music of Creation

The metaphysics of the Music, part 2

As I noted in the first post in this series, discussions of Tolkien’s cosmic-music imagery have frequently drawn attention to its classical antecedents. Thus, before we consider how Tolkien essentially synthesizes this tradition with his Thomistic metaphysics of creation, we may wish to review some of the more noteworthy of these classical sources, along with what his commentators have had to say about them. I have noted before the tendency, among some Tolkien readers, to draw contrasts between the Ainulindalë and the biblical creation-account, and Tolkien’s conceit of angelic beings helping to fashion the world through their celestial music—an idea foreign to Genesis—might seem to be a case in point. The idea itself, however, is not entirely without biblical precedent, as may be seen in the book of Job, for example, which describes the heavenly host accompanying the creation of the world with their singing: “Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; When the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:6-7). In the Book of Chronicles, moreover, King David enjoins the entirety of creation to lift up its praises to God: “Sing unto the Lord, all the earth; shew forth from day to day his salvation… Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice… Let the sea roar, and the fullness thereof: let the fields rejoice, and all that is therein. Then shall the trees of the wood sing out at the presence of the Lord…” (1 Chron. 17:23, 31-33; see also Ps. 96:11-12 and 98:4-8). The Book of Revelation, finally, depicts in similar fashion the angels singing and praising God in the company of his martyred saints (Rev. 5:8-12). As David Bentley Hart summarizes the scriptural data on the subject, “[t]here are abundant biblical reasons, quite apart from the influence of pagan philosophy, for Christians to speak of the harmonia mundi: in Scripture creation rejoices in God, proclaims his glory, sings before him; the pleasing conceits of pagan cosmology aside, theology has all the warrant it needs for speaking of creation as a divine composition, a magnificent music, whose measures and refrains rise up to the pleasure and the glory of God” (The Beauty of the Infinite, 275). In the sixth century, accordingly, Pope Gregory the Great, based on his reading of Scripture and Pseudo-Dionysius’s treatise on The Celestial Hierarchy, propounded the influential medieval idea that the redeemed human race, in the final consummation of all things, would constitute with the angels a tenth choir and so make up for the loss suffered from the rebellion of Satan and his company (Forty Homilies on the Gospels, Homily 34). Tolkien would seem to echo this idea in the opening page of the Ainulindalë,where it is already anticipated that “a greater [music] still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days” (Silmarillion 15).