The Great Tradition

I’ve been away from my treasured new book, Resounding Truth, by Jeremy S. Begbie, for a little while.  So I was really happy to have time yesterday to pick it up and return to Dr. Begbie’s detailed survey about the history of thought about the relationship between Christianity and the arts, in particular the art of music.  And as I opened the book to the place where I stopped, my eyes landed on these words:

If it never made its way into the Christian world, we would probablynot have mentioned the Great Traditio in this book.  But it did not die with clasical antiquity.  It was injected deep into the bloodstream of the church’s thinking about music and remained there for centuries (p. 82)

I must confess, it had been so long since I had started the current chapter, that I didn’t understand what he meant by “the Great Tradition”.  I thought I was reading a chapter about the concept of the music of the spheres as laid out by Pythagorus.

Wait, I was reading exactly that.  And that is what Begbie (and perhaps others that I don’t know) refer to as the Great Tradition.

If you are a church musician like I am, I know that you have had that moment, sometime in you life, when you have had to defend your musical choice in light of the theological viewpoint of an individual or of your congregation or denomination.  You may have had to justify the purpose of music in worship.  You may have had to defend your position as a staff member.

You can thank Pythagorus, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine, and Boethius for that moment. 

No, seriously.  Pythagorus, Plato, Plotinus, Augustine and Boethius–not Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Paul.  But I get ahead of myself.

Let’s do this as quickly as possible.  Pythagorus (6th Century BCE Greek scholar and philosopher), discovered that number underlies the creation of musical pitch, therefore music is a form of mathematics.    It was Pythagorus who created the concept of the “music of the spheres”, which many of  us probably know better through Shakespearean poetry than through Pythagorean treatise:  the belief that planets and stars  produce different pitches in accordance with their size, shape and movement, an inaudible cosmic music that binds the universe together, and influences all being for better or ill — a series of pitches and sounds and mathematics that underly all relationships in the universe with a single cosmic mathematics of sound.

Next comes Plato (427-347 BCE, another Greek philosopher), who takes these beliefs to the next level, and creates a link between music (again, the ancient world, a kind of mathematics) and morality.  Plato believed that the human soul consisted of three parts:  the rational, the spirited, and the bodily desires or appetites.  For Plato, true virtue depends on the balance among these three elements.  Music can either help create that balance or disturb it. 

And, we have the first appearance of  the dark side of music, which causes Christians and particurlary Christian musicians trouble to this very day.  Oh, yes, and those of us who have suffered through harmony and theory classes in conservatory can think Mr. Plato for the emphasis on those painful modes we had to memorize — he is the first writer to discuss the relationship between different  modes and specific emotions or moods. Yes, here begins the argument that some music is good and some is evil by its very nature.  Yes, Plato began the dichotomy we see today — some music is holy and can be used in worship, some is not; some should not be performed in the service of faith, other music should not be performed for secular reasons. Or, in the worst case, all music is bad because it inflame the emotions and desires of our sinful human nature.  Or is it that only musical instruments are evil?  I do lose track of the argument.

Whatever damage Plato did by introducing the concept of the dark side to musical mathematics, it was the philospher Plotinus (ca. 205-70) who was responsble for bringing these Platonic concepts into the early Christian period.  At least he softened the possible dire affects discussed by Plato.  Though not a Christian himself, Plotinus is an important link to the work of early Christian medieval philosophers and theologians, such as Augustine and Boethius, who will be the stars of  the article “The Great Tradition:  Part 2”.

Plato had defined existence as having two parts:  the real world of eternal ideas, and the less real and subordinate world of material things, a world that could only be a pale reflection of  that world of eternal ideas.  Plotinus saw instead, a multi-level hierarchy in the universe, with material existence at the the lowest level and with “the One” at the highest level.  The main point in Plotinus’ hierarchy, is that you or music or whatever you are discussing, be oriented to “the One”.   He even uses musical imagery to make his point:

We are like a chorus grouped around a conductor who allow their attention to be distracted by the audience.  I(f, however, they were to turn towards their conductor, they would sing as they should and would really be with him.  We are always around the One.  If we were not, we would dissolve and cease to exist.  Yet our gaze does not remain fixed upon the One.  When we look at it, we then attain the end of our desirs and find rest.  Then it is that, all discord past, we dance an inspired dance around it.

His point is simple:  don’t get distracted.  Whatever you do, keep your focus on your reason for being.  Don’t look at the mathematics, look at the source.

I don’t know about you, but that is a lesson that I could stand to remember. More about “The Great Tradition” tomorrow.

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