Augustine on Music: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays

    -- Edited by Richard L. LaCroix, Lewiston, NY: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1988, 113 pages.

St. Augustine had a lot to say about music and art, and on these subjects his personal attitudes and philosophy shaped those of much of the western church for nearly two millennia. This academic book brings together some of his key metaphysical ideas about music and art into one volume with commentary by several authors.

He agreed with the then-current definition of music as “the science of modulating properly,” that is, the knowledge of making controlled variations of sound in the right way. He believed that art objects and sounds are morally neutral. “It is in man’s use of them, interpretation of them and so on that moral issues arise,” summarizes one author. Up through the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Augustine’s ideas influenced discussion of what music is.

He proposed that all art is a kind of knowledge. He set out his case “using Aristotelian logic in a dialogue between Master and Disciple.” He believed that art is a “rational mental activity” and not a physical activity. True art is done for its own sake; its only legitimate end is to discover Truth. Those objects and sounds that we usually refer to as “art” are merely performances and products, in his view. “What the artist discovers through reason are universal truths which can be applied in such a way as to make observable objects of a certain kind. But it is reasoning and understanding which constitute the art, not these objects” (from Chapter One). The mind is most important in art and music.

One chapter concerns early instrument organologies. Unfortunately, the lengthy quotes from Augustine are all in Latin and not translated. He believed that all instruments share a common function: to accompany the voice. Because of this, separation of instruments into distinct groupings was of minimal importance to him. In his view, the human voice is paramount, and musical instruments are “united and subsumed in the human being.”

In his Confessions Augustine acknowledged the overpowering (and therefore dangerous) appeal of music to the senses, which could overwhelm “common sense.” This mistrust of music’s emotional power, combined with the paramount role he assigned to the voice, had a major impact on the development of Christian music (whether positive or negative depends on your perspective).

Art products, such as language, gesture and music, are meant to communicate. “Beauty’s only role is to make the communication more attractive and more persuasive.” In other words, aesthetics should be functional.

Today we can agree with some of what Augustine wrote, while other parts are difficult to grasp or are controversial (the authors disagree with him on various points). However, his work gives us insight into the historical origins and philosophy of ideas that are part of our unconscious assumptions or that may be hotly debated in some circles. There is also no doubt that grappling with his concepts will clarify, deepen, and refine our own understanding of music and the arts. 

    --reviewed by Paul Neeley

Published in Vol.3, No.1 of

Published by
Artists in Christian Testimony