The Pagan and the Priest: An agreement over Music’s Unique Access to the Soul

With an attentive ear, music may be heard everywhere. It can be heard in a babbling brook, in the song of birds, in the whistling of the wind, and even in the laugh of a loved one. It is difficult for human bodies to create visual images with only ourselves, whereas it is relatively easy to create sounds. However, music and the creation of sound seems not to stop at only the natural. For Plato, sight was given to humans most fundamentally for the observation of heavenly bodies, and inquiry of the natural universe. Plato believes that it is from such observation that philosophy began, which is of course his end all be all. He goes on to say that the same may be said for speech and hearing, for in a similar manner as our eyes observe the harmony in the rotation of the heavens, music and hearing allow us to access to this harmony by regulating the rotation of our souls. Plato even grants a healing quality to rhythm, that it was given us to counter “the graceless and irrational” ways in which humans so often act. From a Platonic perspective, music would be valuable in worship for the healing properties it has for the wayward soul. Music could also serve as a vehicle with which to give thanks to the gods for the gift of the senses.

Although Athens may have little to do with Jerusalem, Platonic ideals of music were not lost on St. Augustine. Augustine is quite explicit when describing the power music had over him. Music seems for Augustine one of the few ways in which he was able to access the joy that was to accompany right faith in Christ. Augustine even goes so far as to say “A man rejoicing in his own exultation… burst forth into sounds of exultations without words, so that it seemeth to he, filled with excessive joy, cannot express in words the subject of that joy.” (Weisse-Taruskin, p. 25) For Augustine, music done in the right manner could express more adequately than mere speech the impact God could have on the soul. In Augustine’s perspective too it seems fitting that contemplation of the divine should be accompanied by music.

Few people have theologies that differ as grandly as that of Plato and Augustine. However in both their perspectives, music in its proper form is uniquely empowered to access the soul, which is why both a Greek pagan and medieval Christian can agree on music’s importance in worship.   

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