Aquinas’s Kantian Music

Metaphysics of the Music, part 16

One of the implications of the abstract formalism of Thomas’s theory of music, and a point that will also have an important application to the Ainur’s Music of Tolkien’s creation-myth, concerns what some scholars have suggested is a kind of proto-Kantian, metaphysical “disinterest” involved in Thomas’s view of music in particular and his aesthetics in general. The concept of disinterest is a central tenet in the idealist aesthetics of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant. According to Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in epistemology, since we can never know things as they exist in themselves and apart from us (the noumena), but only as they appear to us (the phenomena), if true objectivity in knowledge is to be possible, it is to be found not in the mind’s conformity to the objects of its knowledge but in the known object’s conformity to the mind’s particular ways of knowing. Kant was led to a similarly extreme and idealistic theory of beauty, according to which the “pure” aesthetic experience is one that is entirely “disinterested” in the question of the object’s mind-independent existence, which can’t really be known and which therefore must be held to be irrelevant to the question of beauty. In detaching pure aesthetic pleasure from the question of the object’s existence in this way, Kant’s goal was to allow the object’s beauty to be enjoyed for its own sake and without threat of being subsumed within and exploited by what Kant held to be the alien, heteronomous needs or ulterior purposes of the perceiving subject. An example of such an “impure” aesthetic experience for Kant was what he called the “agreeable,” defined as anything that pleases the senses. By referencing the aesthetic experience to the senses, the agreeable causes the subject to take an “interest” in the thing’s existence, inasmuch as a thing must exist for it to have an effect on the senses. The consequence of such interest, however, is that in referencing it to one’s own self via the senses, the aesthetic experience ceases or fails to be something truly universal, autonomous, free, and rational, and becomes instead something narrowly human, subjective, heteronomous, and constrained. In such cases, the aesthetic object is treated not as an end to be contemplated, but as a means to be subordinated to dictates of the human subject’s sub-rational inclinations, with the result being that the independence of the aesthetic object is negated. For Kant, the pure aesthetic experience, by contrast, is one that is concerned only with the sheer structural or formal qualities of the object’s appearances and the state of cognitive free-play or balance these appearances help establish between the mind’s faculties of imagination and understanding.[1] Such objects or appearances are said to be truly “beautiful.” Over against the simply beautiful, however, Kant also distinguished an even more ineffable aesthetic experience which he labeled the “sublime,” in which the imagination is entirely, even violently overwhelmed by the immensity of the aesthetic object, or more accurately, by the immensity of the mind’s capacity to present an appearance in this concept-defying and awe-inspiring way.[2] In both the sublime and the beautiful, therefore, and consistent with Kant’s broader idealist epistemology, yet arguably revealing what we shall see for Tolkien is the metaphysically tragic motive latent within it, pure aesthetic pleasure is a function of the mind alone rather than of any supposed, extraneous and (aesthetically speaking) unnecessary relationship between the mind and an externally existing, mind-independent reality.


[1] On Kant’s aesthetics, see Wood, Placing Aesthetics: Reflections on the Philosophic Tradition, 117-151. As Kant himself explains his concept of disinterest: “But if the question is whether something is beautiful, what we want to know is not whether we or anyone cares, or so much as might care, in any way, about the thing’s existence, but rather how we judge it in our mere contemplation of it (intuition or reflection)…. All he [i.e., the inquirer into things concerning beauty] wants to know is whether my mere presentation of the object is accompanied by a liking, no matter how indifferent I may be about the existence of the object of this presentation. We can easily see that, in order for me to say that an object is beautiful, and to prove that I have taste, what matters is what I do with this presentation within myself, and not the [respect] in which I depend on the object’s existence. Everyone has to admit that if a judgment about beauty is mingled with the least interest then it is very partial and not a pure judgment of taste. In order to play the judge in matters of taste, we must not be in the least biased in favor of the thing’s existence but must be wholly indifferent about it.” Kant, The Critique of Judgment,45-6.

[2] “When we speak of the sublime in nature we speak improperly; properly speaking, sublimity can be attributed merely to our way of thinking, or, rather, to the foundation this has in human nature. What happens is merely that the apprehension of an otherwise formless and unpurposive object prompts us to become conscious of that foundation, so that what is subjectively purposive is the use we make of the object, and it is not the object itself that is judged to be purposive on account of its form.” Ibid., 142.

Boethius, Music of the Spheres, and the Music of the Ainur

Metaphysics of the Music, part 6

The next influential Christian thinker after Augustine to turn his attention to the significance of music, in terms of both its own principles as a science and as a metaphor for cosmic harmony, is the sixth-century Boethius, whose views on music Bradford Lee Eden has compared at some length with Tolkien’s narrative (Eden, “The ‘Music of the Spheres’: Relationships between Tolkien’s The Silmarillion and Medieval Cosmological and Religious Theory,” 183-193). Possibly the most influential treatise ever written on the subject of music, it was through Boethius’s De institutione musica that classical musical theory was primarily transmitted to the Middle Ages and Renaissance (Godwin, The Harmony of the Spheres: A Sourcebook of the Pythagorean Tradition in Music, 86). Toward the beginning of his treatise, Boethius distinguishes three kinds of music: cosmic (musica mundana, or “music of the spheres”), human (musica humana, the music of the human body and soul), and instrumental (musica instrumentalis) (Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, 1.2, trans. Bower. See also Godwin, The Harmony of the Spheres, 86). The three primary examples of the cosmic music distinguished by Boethius include the movement of the heavenly bodies, the combination of the physical elements, and the changing of the seasons. Of the heavenly bodies, for example, Boethius thinks it impossible that “so swift a heavenly machine moves on a mute and silent course” and “that such extremely fast motion of such large bodies should produce absolutely no sound…,” and in a later chapter Boethius even correlates each of the planetary spheres with the various standard musical strings (“the hypate meson is assigned to Saturn, whereas the parhypate is like the orbit of Jupitor,” etc.) (Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, 1.27).

Although it is with the classical idea of the “music of the spheres” that commentators have most often compared the Music of the Ainur, it is worth noting that the Ainulindalë itself does not in fact ever refer to the heavenly bodies, nor are they elsewhere in Tolkien’s mythology ever described as producing any kind of sound or music. Of greater relevance to the Ainulindalë, therefore, it would seem, are Boethius’s second and third examples of cosmic music, namely the harmony of the elements and seasons. Of the former, for example, Boethius asks: “If a certain harmony did not join the diversities and opposing forces of the four elements, how would it be possible that they could unite in one mass and contrivance?” (Boethius, Fundamentals of Music, 1.2). Similarly, in the Ainulindalë it is in a state of Boethian harmony that the four elements first appear to the Ainur in the Vision:

And they observed the winds and the air, and the matters of which Arda was made, of iron and stone and silver and gold and many substance: but of all these water they most greatly praised. And it is said by the Eldar that in water there lives yet the echo of the Music of the Ainur more than in any substance else that is in this Earth; and many of the Children of Ilúvatar hearken still unsated to the voices of the Sea, and yet know not for what they listen. (Silmarillion 19)

As for his third category of cosmic music, Boethius compares the “consonance” of the four seasons with the attunement of lower and higher strings of an instrument, so that “the whole corpus of pitches is coherent and harmonious with itself”: “For what winter confines, spring releases, summer heats, and autumn ripens, and the seasons in turn either bring forth their own fruit or give aid to others in bringing forth their own” (Ibid.1.2). In a comparable expression found in the Ainulindalë of the accord between seasons and weather patterns, upset only by the disruptions of Melkor, Ilúvatar informs the Valar Ulmo:

‘Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth! And in these clouds thou art drawn nearer to Manwë, they friend, whom thou lovest.’

            Then Ulmo answered: ‘Truly, Water is become now fairer than my heart imagined, neither had my secret thought conceived the snowflake, nor in all my music was contained the falling of the rain. I will seek Manwë, that he and I may make melodies for ever to they delight!’ (Silmarillion 19)

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.