Sunday, April 10, 2005

All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics. By Carson Holloway. A Review

Does music have any influence on character development? Rock music culture is corrosive to ideals most people wish to instill in their children, but perhaps the music can be extracted from the sexual evocation and desultory work ethic apparent in most of it. Would the music itself be harmless if the lyrics celebrated responsible love relationships and achievement instead of casual sex and freakish lifestyles? What are we to make of the praise choruses being sung in many denominations of the church? Carson Holloway's book attempts to gain some perspective on present controversies by surveying philosophical thought since Plato dealing with music. One of his most significant conclusions is that both liberals and conservatives in the present dispute have focused on what, for lack of a better term, might be called middle-class morality instead of virtue. Behavior conducive to social tranquility and affluence was not the main issue for ancient philosophers who dealt with music and its influence on character formation. Modern critics argue about pornographic lyrics, but they miss the dimension of music that is inherent in its form. On this view, rock music says the same thing whether the text is about a nightclub encounter, or a trendy rap that would otherwise read like a gospel tract.

If music has some intrinsic connection with the way we think, historic philosophy might be of help to us. The dialogues of Plato delineate a formal order in the universe with which both good music and human nobility harmonize. Understood in this way, virtue is strength of character in accord with transcendent norms. It is true humanity, not accommodation to power or suppression of desire. In Plato's Republic, Socrates argues that disciplined, orderly music can engender in the young a disposition favorable to ideals that are the basis of virtue and true happiness. On the other hand, prolonged exposure to emotionally provocative music during the formative years obliterates the serenity required for rational thought and contemplation of ideals. Reason and self-control are cultivated in an atmosphere of aesthetic elegance. Preoccupation with passion or pathos lead only to emotional excitability. It requires little imagination to see how most currently popular music would fare if evaluated by Plato’s criteria.

Plato’s metaphysics is not entirely adequate to the exposition of Christian theology as was demonstrated by the controversies of the third and fourth centuries. But the idea of an objectively real moral order at the core of existence is found both in Plato and in the Hebrew Bible. Without this moral realism, the passion of Christ as atonement for the sins of the world is incomprehensible. Western civilization has, in the main, acknowledged its debt to Greek metaphysics, Stoic conceptions of natural law, and law as found in the Pentateuch. This is changing in our era with postmodernism ascendant in popular culture and in the academic establishment. For a hundred years or more art has been captive to modernism and now postmodernism. Aesthetic judgments recognize no objective criteria. But, even after generations of students have been indoctrinated in it, atonal music still sounds austere and pointless. Contempt among “serious” musicians for music with any trace of humanity has cleared the way for the sentimentalists and shock troupes who have expropriated popular music. Usually, the decline of the Western musical tradition is attributed to disillusionment among artists after World War I. Holloway's book demonstrates that the philosophical reasons for the detachment of music from meaning and morals go back much further.

As early as the Enlightenment period, philosophers rejected the nurture of virtue for either individual fulfillment or the good of the community. Holloway shows how they followed Machiavelli “insofar as he seeks to guide political action not on the basis of ‘imaginary republics and principles that have never been seen or known to be in fact,’ but rather on the basis of ‘effectual truth’.” In this view, the cultivation of virtue through reason and art is simply unrealistic. In Machiavelli’s analysis, reason has no higher end than to aid in acquisition. Moral and intellectual excellence and questions of whether music can aid character formation give way to a lower assessment of human nature. Desire and passion are real, ideals only imaginary. Hobbes concurs with Machiavelli when he opines, “The thoughts are to the desires as scouts and spies to range abroad and find the way to the things desired.” John Locke, similarly, makes reason the handmaiden of desire. Thus reason is self serving, and nobility of character is not significant in and of itself. In public life, external restraints must be instituted, using self-preservation and peace as inducements to subdue the passions. In this period it was concluded that the aesthetic elegance of music cannot make virtue appealing. Rational self-control and virtue are, Holloway says, “bereft of natural attractiveness.”

The Romantic era was partly a reaction against Machiavellian notions of politics founded on material self-interest. On the question of music's power over the soul Rousseau affirms its importance but departs radically from the ancient Greeks. Holloway says, "His constant focus is on music's ability to excite the passions. The virtuous or public-spirited politics Rousseau admires is based not on the cultivation of rational thinking, which according to Rousseau is actually destructive of healthy politics but instead upon intensity of passion." Rousseau wrote hundreds of articles on music, composed operas, and even devised a system of music notation. Holloway cites many references in which Rousseau describes music as the most primitive, and most powerful, form of communication. Poetry is thought to be a vestige of earlier times. Not only through convention, but through universal appeal, Rousseau argues, music is able to "imitate the tones of language and the twists produced in every idiom by certain psychic acts." His only contemptuous remarks on music are directed at Jean-Phillippe Rameau, a musical theorist and composer of immensely popular operas, who maintained that music's power is based on harmony's grounding in the laws of physics. This kind of consonance between art and normative order in the natural world, which Plato would have noted with interest, was, evidently, objectionable to Rousseau. Holloway concludes: "Plato and Aristotle want to calm the passions with a view to the cultivation of reason, which they believe is conducive to the well-being of both the political community and the individual, insofar as it fosters moral and philosophic virtue. Rousseau agrees that moral virtue is necessary for the well being of society and the individual, but, for Rousseau, this virtue and this happiness are based, not on reason, but on passion."

Holloway's exploration of the well known conflict between Romantics and Classicists proceeds without recourse to theological considerations. This is one of its strengths. His ideas can be used to stimulate public debate without using arguments based on religion. But for Christians, the doctrine of the Incarnation makes it difficult to throw in unequivocally with the Classicists. The Incarnation of God in human flesh was problematic from the earliest encounters of Christians with those educated in Greek philosophy. Also at issue was the bodily resurrection of Jesus. History has shown that extensive congruence of pagan metaphysics with a Judeo-Christian understanding of the world does not resolve everything. Even Plato's dialogues are quite a distance from the abstractions of Neoplatonism or the metaphysics of medieval Scholastics. Essence may indeed precede existence, as the ancients taught, but many Christian heresies have tended to derogate the humanity of Jesus in a misguided effort to escape the tribulations of being human.

In light of the Incarnation, Music, always a bit suspect in church, gains respectability. Sensory stimulation through art is not just a concession to human worldliness if God has come into the world in human flesh. Aristotle's definition of art as a coincidence of the universal and the particular seems useful, but we can't be too quick to dismiss some of Rousseau's claims that virtue can be inspired through communication based on emotional inflection. Toward the end of his book, Holloway says, "The ancients could prescribe a cure for our pathologies of soul: the serious attempt, including the educational use of the right kind of music, to encourage our pursuit of the highest goods attainable by man, reason's enjoyment of moral nobility and theoretical truth." He is surely correct that good music can aid in the development of the mind, but for Christians, the Incarnation entails more than contemplation of theoretical truth.

Excessive preoccupation with feeling as became the norm during the Romantic era is timid stuff in comparison to what was to come. In the nineteenth century, the music of Richard Wagner became part of a cultural revolution. The ideology of this revolution was articulated by Wagner’s disciple, Friedrich Nietzsche, who explicitly acknowledged Wagner’s influence in radical opposition to the account of music and politics found in Plato and Aristotle. The opposition is stated, in Holloway’s consistently revealing analysis, as follows: “Plato and Aristotle recommend an orderly music that calms the passions and awakens and strengthens reason in the soul. Nietzsche, in contrast, recommends music that inflames the passions, and he seeks to use such music with a view to overwhelming or silencing reason.” To give coherence to human life and its struggles Nietzsche substitutes myth for reason. It is myth, particularly when embodied in Wagnerian music-drama, which Nietzsche says is “to be experienced vividly as a unique example of universality and truth that gaze into the infinite.” In this view “music gives rise to myth through its role in tragedy, which is a hybrid form of art combining a Dionysian element, the music, and an Apollonian element, the drama or story.”

Nietzsche exudes contempt for Platonic philosophy: “Socratism…” he says, “is bent on the destruction of myth.” In contrast, Dionysian art--music--unites us with “primordial being itself,” or “with the inmost ground of the world.” “In its intoxication,” music can mirror desire. It is “an immediate copy of the will itself.” The tragic music of Wagner engenders a “metaphysical comfort,” which Holloway elucidates as “a sense that, in spite of the sorrowful end to which particular beings must come, ‘life is at the bottom of things, indestructibly powerful and pleasurable’. This it does by uniting the listener to ‘primordial being itself,’ the passionate will at the foundation of all things, making him feel its ‘raging desire for existence and joy in existence’.” In the final analysis “for Nietzsche, the cosmos is, in fact, not a cosmos but a chaos. It is not as for Socrates, orderly and intelligible but contradictory and mysterious. Thus Nietzsche claims that the ‘faith’ originated by Socrates, the belief that ‘thought can penetrate the deepest abysses of being,’ is an illusion… . The lyric musician conceives of all nature, and himself in it, as willing, as desiring, as eternal longing.” Life is made worth living only by art that conceals the “will-shattering truth.”

There is much more to this argument in Nietzsche. Holloway’s work is an excellent introduction to elements of it dealing with music. From our perspective a hundred fifty years later, beyond Hitler’s recapitulation of Nietzsche’s superman to themes from Wagner, beyond the shock-troupes of Woodstock, one can only marvel that there was a time in musical history when the chromaticism of the overture to Tristan und Isolda was shocking and erotic. Present-day veterans of the sexual revolution fall asleep by the second act. The music is sensual, but most of us have been inured to its outrages by the artillery rhythms of electrically amplified hard rock. There is little explicit sex in Tristan und Isolda. The lovers die in ecstatic longing. Nonetheless, Wagner’s musical revolution largely succeeded. A music professor, in his later years at the University of Washington, used to say in all his survey classes, “Since the overture to Tristan, every composer has had to contend with Wagner. Every movie score is trying to outWagner Wagner.”

Ideas propounded by Nietzsche and Wagner have become part of popular culture and pursued beyond excess. Nothing is too execrable in art anymore. Doctoral dissertations are written on music that is, in fact, pornography. It's hard to take all this seriously. Fourteen-year-olds know the game is finished. But Holloway manfully dismantles arguments in defense of music gone berserk. In the final analysis, he concludes that liberation in denial of transcendent ideals turns to self-loathing, which is often projected on women. Desire is monstrously transformed into sadism. In another of his quotable phrases Holloway impales the savagery of contemporary rock and rap: “Pop music’s turn to spiritedness as itself a source of satisfaction appears clearly in the fact that its rage is now directed not against those who seek to take sexual pleasure away--they no longer exist--but against the partner who willingly provides it.” Misogyny is among the stranger components of the music now being sold to children. Its perverse partner, implacable self-assertion, takes the defenders of this music into regions beyond the lunatic fringe. Can we demonstrate conclusively that two generations of enculturation in raunchy cacophonous music have marred our souls beyond recognition of the formal order in the universe? Have academic authorities who teach that the ideals found in the Western canon are oppressive made Frank Zappa into a credible source of information?

Plato’s arguments may not be conclusive that music either fosters contemplation of nobility or abets emotional excess, but they do make one stop and consider how our culture no longer equips us to comprehend any transcendent order. It seems to have been a mistake, though, to make emotion the principal foe of truth, especially with regard to music. The music of J. S. Bach is often considered rationalistic, even contrived through devices like retrograde inversion, that is, a melody played backwards and upside down, but the titles of his works suggest intent to embody feeling in music. Bach was no timid soul. The emotions are there, but his skill as a musician and his faith in God deepen and transform anger, sorrow, perplexity, or joy into their artistic equivalent. Like a Platonic dialogue, the counterpoint in Bach’s compositions holds listeners’ interest. And unlike the monody of contemporary praise choruses, counterpoint objectifies a diversity of voices. In churches where pop music supplants Bach, a concomitant uniformity of thinking often prevails. Dialogue and open consideration of ideas can sometimes exist in churches where emotion has supplanted diversity, both within the church, and that created by sustaining tension with contemporary trends. Unfortunately a church that has no substantially articulated points of divergence with its opponents in the surrounding culture will seldom tolerate conflicting points of view among its members. Counterpoint is lost or inaudible but amplification increases.

Appreciation of disciplined, sonorous music does seem to be in decline. Shocking, bizarre musical entertainment is big business. To argue that this has little influence on adolescent character development is absurd. Contemporary rock music is the equivalent of nuclear war against moral and rational thinking. Nietzsche, the fervent enemy of Christian theological premises in Western culture, did not listen to Handel and Mozart to get his juices flowing. His preoccupation with Wagner is an articulate and mature analysis of where certain kinds of art take us. Beethoven and Verdi are emotionally exciting without being nihilistic. Rock music now takes moral anarchy as an undisputed premise. Modern feminists rage against Beethoven, claiming that listening to his music is like being abused by a man. Other critics, like Theodor Adorno, argue that the Western musical tradition perpetuates class oppression. This contempt for good music is being taken seriously it seems. For those of us who have any comprehension of what is at risk, Holloway’s book is an incentive to begin a new theme in counterpoint to the one we’ve been hearing.


Ray A. said...

Interesting comments. Most people don't have any comprehension of the psychology or the philosophy behind music. Music so permeates the fabric of our society we have become inured to the deleterious effects of music that is ungodly in origin.

"one can only marvel that there was a time in musical history when the chromaticism of the overture to Tristan und Isolda was shocking and erotic. Present-day veterans of the sexual revolution fall asleep by the second act." Yes. Back 150 years ago the waltz was considered a very risque form of dance. Today, we use waltz-type music in our churches - ex. "Coming Again". People will sing that song thinking it an old favorite not realizing that the music is rooted in what was once considered a musical style that was the antithesis of what was good, decent, and holy. And people today steeped in CCM will think it hokey or old fashioned - innocuous, boring.

Jason Silver said...

One might suspect you have not actually listened to contemporary rock music. ;)

Dave said...

Mike, I think you and Holloway bite too hard on Plato's affirmation of transcendent moral order, and swallow his Hellenistic dualistic division between reason and the body. A true Christian anthropology affirms a contiuum between the physical and the spiritual. The problem is not, as the Greeks have it, too much passion, but rather, as Dante shows, the orientation of passion. The Christian view sees (or should see) all desiring as intrinsically good and possesing the possibility of ultimate consumation in every respect. The problem sin introduces is the selfish misorientation of desire, not a surplus of desire. The solution is not repression, or the moderation of desire by contemplation of the forms (Plato) or rational ethical balance (Aristotle), but re-orienting ultimate desire to God, and the placing of bodily desire back in context under submission to God, at which point their ultimate consummation can be pursued hedonistically. Christians should stop buying into the pagan view of Bloom, Nietzsche, Rousseau and the Greeks who define an antagonistic, or at best an ambiguous relationship between reason and passion, and recover a fully incarnational view.

Michael Dodaro said...

I think you have not read this review very carefully.
Did you read this? for example:
"Plato’s metaphysics is not entirely adequate to the exposition of Christian theology, as was demonstrated by the controversies of the third and fourth centuries. But the idea of an objectively real moral order at the core of existence is found both in Plato and in the Hebrew Bible. Without this moral realism, the passion of Christ as atonement for the sins of the world is incomprehensible. Western civilization has, in the main, acknowledged its debt to Greek metaphysics, Stoic conceptions of natural law, and law as found in the Pentateuch. This is changing in our era with postmodernism ascendant in popular culture and in the academic establishment."

Or this:
"It seems to have been a mistake, though, to make emotion the principal foe of truth, especially with regard to music. The music of J. S. Bach is often considered rationalistic, even contrived through devices like retrograde inversion, that is, a melody played backwards and upside down, but the titles of his works suggest intent to embody feeling in music. Bach was no timid soul. The emotions are there, but his skill as a musician and his faith in God deepen and transform anger, sorrow, perplexity, or joy into their artistic equivalent."

Dave said...

I did in fact read your essay carefully, as well as your response to Michael Linton in First Things. I'm not clear how either of the passages you cite address the point. They seem to affirm your affinity with Plato rather than qualify it enough to bring your position out of a nascent dualism.

My concern is with the long-standing tension between Plato and a fully incarational, Christian view of human nature. You merely acknowledge the difficulty with a general reference to "the controversies of the third and fourth centruries" while making no indication how you yourself propose to reconcile those tensions. The whole thrust of your view of music seems very comfortable with a Greek, and in my view, non-Christian opposition between reason and the passions of the body. Simply acknowledging the emotional content of Bach doesn't begin to address the basic problem, which runs much deeper.

Dave said...

I think in many ways, we're probably co-belligerents here. I'm in a very traditional Anglican church, and I'm totally opposed to "contemporizing" the worship service. I listen to a lot of classical music in the car or at home, but I also have a deep love for great popular and folk music, from Louie Armstrong, to the great gospel artists of the 20th century, Mahalia, Blind Willie Johnson and Rev. Gary Davis, up through brilliant rock bands like The Band, The Jayhawks, Neil Young and others. If you look at the Greek view of music from Plato through Nietzsche (and it pretty much ends there, everybody is basically restating what's already been said), they cannot provide a place for both Handel and Sallie Martin, Verdi and Gillian Welch, Bach and The Band. But the Christian, incarnational view can. Both Satchmo and Mozart's Great Mass in C Minor are fair game for the Christian.

Michael Dodaro said...

I think we can have a worthwhile discussion on this, but right now I'm at work. Do you have anything online that I can read, or would you rather carry on a discussion in the comment format?
Best regards,

I also have a busy weekend planned with my parents 59th wedding anniversary. Please keep at it though, because I'm very interested in this conversation. You might also look at a piece in which I discuss the opera "Thais" by Massenet, which describes the dilemma you indicate under an erroneous understanding of the Incarnation and the Trinity.

Dave said...

I think in many ways we're probably co-belligerents here. I'm an Anglican in a very traditional parish, in many ways on the run from "contemporary" worship, and I have a deep love for the liturgy and a burgeoning love for classical music. I just bought Bernstein conducting Mozart's Great Mass and I can't stop listening.

But I also have a love for great music in the popular, folk and even rock traditions, although the later must be negotiated carefully. I see a strain from Louie Armstrong through Mahalia and Blind Willie Johnson, up through rock acts like the best of Dylan, The Band (in particular), to contemporary acts like The Jayhawks. There's a gospel strain through all of this music that affirms that the passions of the body are intrinsically good, affirms a persentent rhythm of life that has nothing to do with prurience, but endorses a continuuum between the mundane, everyday physical life and the life of the higher things, the life of the spirit. This is the incarnational element present in the best of the Southern black and poor white folk, blues and gospel. What I find interesting is that neither Plato nor Nietzsche can account for both the Great Mass and Satchmo, but Christianity can.

Dave said...

sorry for the semi double-post. I thought I had lost that first one. I guess not.

Dave said...

ok, have a good weekend. I'd like to continue this as well. I don't really have much of my thoughts written down, but I'd like to. Maybe this discussion can spur that forward. The best I can offer is the implicit aesthetic stance I take in reviews like this:

Michael Dodaro said...

Mozart and Satchmo are both fine with me. Elvis Presley said one of the strongest influences in his music was gospel, and after some experience of my own with black gospel I can see it clearly. I got into this discussion on the World Magazine blog one day, and a fellow related the story of his family who played dulcimers and sang folk hymns. I certainly have no quarel with that. I do have a problem, if not a quarrel, with the big business of CCM. Mick Jagger at the Superbowl is another question. That had to be a parable of the world--with Christians like Shawn Alexander and Matt Hasselbeck playing football and Jagger having a revival with the hand-waving crowd. I can deal with Jagger on his own terms, but not when the church imports his idioms, which I think have meaning. Now most people will disagree and say the meaning is not in the music. I don't think I'm a Platonist for thinking so. But this is one of the significant issues.

Dave said...

I don't think criticising Jagger makes you a Platonist at all. Christians are in big trouble if we can't bring our own moral resources to bear on questions of morality and art. I'm mainly concerned that we not let others do our metaphysics for us, which is what I think happens most of the time when discussing rock music. The classic polarity between reason and passion is rarely questioned, nor the philosophical assumptions that underwrite it. Robert Pattison and Alan Bloom are great cases in point. Both agree that rhythmic music is vulgar. The only debate that remains is whether the vulgar has any place in society. Pattison says yes, absolutely, Bloom says no never, and we're off to the races. It's remarkable to me how many Christians side with Bloom on this issue, never realizing that Bloom himself is essentially Nietzschean and pagan in his view of human nature -- the very antithesis of incarnational Christianity. Bloom ends up having to say that music is the "barbaric expression of the soul" -- music qua music, not just rock, which is essentially Nietzsche's view.

Well, if Bloom is wrong here, he's wrong at a very basic level, the level of his metaphysics and his view of human nature, which are pretty much Platonic and Nietzschean. And if he's wrong -- by Christian lights, that is -- then we need to re-examine his entire critique of rock from the ground up. Holloway, in my opinion, never escapes this basic dichotomy.

But the most objectionable thing about Bloom, Holloway, and to a lesser extent, Pattison, is that they fail to address the music itself. Actual examples of the "carnal" music in question are almost entirely missing from Holloway and Bloom, and Pattison willfully distorts rock history to serve his own purposes. To me, the entire project is suspect if it cannot tell the difference between, say, 50 Cent and Neil Young. A simple song like Young's "Heart of Gold," or The Band's "Long Black Veil," remain completely anomalous under the standard polarities. But a fully incarnational view can do the work that's needed. It can call Jagger to account without, at the same time, doing away with Satchmo, Jolie Holland, or for that matter, great Rolling Stones tunes like "Loving Cup," from _Exile on Main Street_.

scribe said...


Your comments are interesting. Why don't you join us as a contributor to this site? If you would like to write some articles to post here, it would be very much appreciated.

I think you would add a lot to our exploration of music and worship. Please consider it.

Dave said...

Thanks scribe! That's very flattering. Right now my writing duties are full up. I'm already an editor on a blog that I've never posted to, and the part-time freelancing I do for Paste Magazine takes up the sum total of my non-family avocational time. (I'm currently finishing up a review of the entire Talking Heads ouvre -- daunting)

But thanks for the invite. In any case I'm keen to pursue this conversation.

Michael Dodaro said...

I put up a new post that contains some of what I think about Platonism, the Incarnation, and art. Let's move this discussion to the new thread:

Michael Dodaro said...

Plato, Neoplatonism, Music, and the Incarnation