Music has a body.

Or, as Jeremy Begbie argues in the latest Books and Culture, the expression of music is inseparable from corporeality.

Music making and music hearing are ways we engage the physical world. Even in the case of electronically generated music, the body is often involved through, say, a keyboard, and patterns of vibrating air are mediated through physical speakers. The physical things we involve ourselves with in music have ultimately arisen through the free initiative of God’s love—they are part of the ordo amoris.

Yet the Church, Begbie points out, has been reticent to acknowledge and value this corporeal aspect:

Sadly, this is often just where the church has been most hesitant about music. It is not hard to trace a double tendency marking much thought about music in the Christian West: a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical. The outcome is that music, along with the other arts, has frequently been seen as fulfilling its highest function insofar as it denies, shuns, or leaves behind its own materiality.

Of course, as he proceeds to point out, this problem isn’t entirely the Church’s. Schoenberg, who see music strictly as a vehicle for ideas, has a distinctively “disembodied” sound that often fails to resonate with his embodied audiences.

Yet Begbie highlights Platonism as one culprit in the trend toward devaluing the corporeality of music:

This twin tendency surfaces prominently in the ancient Greek tradition, not least in some Platonic music theory: as part of this material world, music can be of serious value only insofar as it directs our attention to the ideal and enduring harmonies beyond the material.

But for Plato, music is probably better viewed as a means of restoring the physical–and hence, the political–realms to their proper functioning. It’s for this reason that the education that he commends in The Republic has music at its core. Plato recognizes that the material realm (in its current state) is an unruly realm, and it is music that helps redeem it.
***One minor critical point that doesn’t fit the above. Unfortunately, his essay takes a turn toward understanding music through the relationship between individuals and a group. It’s unfortunate not because what he has to say is wrong or uninteresting, but because it’s connection to the foregoing section is left unclear. The omission is disappointing since I think the two problems–corporeality, that is, and the relationship between individuals and community–are closely related.


Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.


  1. Having in the last year read Plotinus’ Enneads, and Volume II of the recently published five volume Philokalia , and now recently starting Proclus, I would like to ask Begbie and the many others who casually and dogmatically mention “the ancient Greek tradition” of denigrating the body, if they have personally read any of the source material from this Greek tradition. If so, what cites from a church father, from a neo-platonist, from Plato for that matter,  support the doctrine that the material world is “valueless apart from acting as a signpost to another world”?

    The Church Fathers universally avoid this simple mistake with intellectual acuity. They have the kind of wholistic theology we Protestants are just beginning to rediscover. Further, Plato himself, though he probably held a view of matter as “lower-than” other things, he did not hold a view of matter as unqualifiedly “low” or “totally base,” in the sense of “evil.” But Plato’s actual doctrines are difficult to discern; let’s look at some Neo-Platonists. Plotinus (AD 205-270) simply views reality as having (at least) three layers; the intelligible, the psychological, and the material, (the good itself being above the intelligible and therefore beyond predication qua description of being or beings). Now, the material world is lower than the psychological world, and the psychological world is lower in turn than the intelligible. The material world attains shape by means of psyches (or simply, “people.”) And the psychological world attains shape by means of intelligence. What does this mean?

    It is no great puzzle. Consider a product manufactorer.  So, the product-designer  moves matter around and turn cotton into pillows, or petroleum into plastic cups. But he does not merely move matter around randomly; He moves matter into pre-determined shapes and patterns. The squares for the pillow and circles for the cup are the patterns lifted from intelligible reality. Geometric shapes endure over and above the square moniters and round mice that exemplify them. Where do they endure? This is not the right question. “Where” is a demand for the spatial location for a thing. But the intelligible is, by definition, non-spatial and non-temporal. “How much time does a square take up? How many feet is it?” This can be asked of squares that have been instanced into matter, but not of squares themselves.

    Now, the pattern of a pillow is not “more important” than the material. The square is no more or less important than the cotton. Is the square more “real”? Probably. But this does not necessitate a moral difference, that is, a difference in value. To say that one thing is “lower than” another does not imply “worse than.” Is the lower half of the Mt Everest worse than the higher half? Or does the higher depend on the lower for its very status? Is the first floor of the Empire State Building as majestic as the top floor, from which one has a view of all of Manhattan? No, it is not as majestic, but to call it “worse than” is to recommend getting rid of it, which is to destroy the very top floor which rests upon it! To call it “lower than” is simply literally true, not morally judgmental. That matter is “lower than” mind is simply a fact, not a feeling or an opinion or a moral judgment. Begbie said, “a proneness to doubt the full goodness, and with it sometimes the full reality, of the physical.” It’s actually the other way around. Plotinus insists upon the lesser reality, but just as firmly insists upon the similar goodness of the physical.  The implication that “less real” suggests “less worthwhile” is a misunderstanding, and a stubborn one. I beg Mr. Begbie and my readers to furnish any example from the “ancient Greek tradition,” Christian or pagan, that commits itself to that error.

    In my reading, Plotinus and other sources in the “ancient Greek tradition” easily avoid by a careful distinction of ‘being’ and ‘value.’ Though certain Gnostic writers seem to denigrate matter itself as evil, they are better off following Plotinus and denigrating the people who are deceived into believing geometric squares are material objects somewhere in time and space rather than intelligible objects. For us as intelligent material creatures, it is important not to get too caught up in the lower layers of reality, but to spend time with intelligible reality by doing math, science, philosophy, theology, and the arts. But the goal is not to disregard matter, but to see it as what it is, without confusing it for something it is not.

    To apply Plotinus’ model to music, we would say a person (psychological) manipulates the wood or brass (material) of an instrument to effect the surrounding air with vibration according to some pattern (intelligible). What pattern? A pattern of ratios from the intelligible world.  For example, I play one note, followed by a fifth, followed by an octave (twice as high), followed by the first note again. 1 then 1/5 of 1 then 1/5 x2 then 1 again. (I’m not a musician, but that’s the rough idea.) The pattern depends on the air and vibration for body; the body depends on the pattern for meaning and structure. There is no competition, only sympathy; no war, only concord.

    This is something the Greek Philosophers (at least the ones mentioned) understood quite well and something even more so that the early Fathers had no trouble with. The Idealists or Materialsts, modern or ancient, who have trouble with this would do well to study Plotinus or the Church Fathers to understand and value the fullness of the plenitude of being, without passing judgment upon and subsequently ignoring either part of reality.



  2. That might be the wisest comment ever left on a blog. The equivalence of “lower than” with “worse than” is so prevalent today it is nearly impossible for people not to think that way.

    Seemingly inherent in the postmodern (oh yes I did just use that word!) reduction of the world into pairs of binaries — itself usually simplistic — is that it presumes superior and inferior relations are ethical labels or judgments of value, and furthermore that such labels are applied oppressively, or at least to the denigration of the inferior member. But as Keith points out, “lower than” does not imply “less than”.

    Unfortunately, how “inferior” can ever be extricated from its connotations of value in the modern mind, I have no idea. It is axiomatic that anything that smacks of hierarchy, however innocuous, deserves suspicion. Therefore Enthusiasmos’ examples of the mountain and skyscraper are ingenious counter-images, which have now been logged in my permanent mental file as go-to examples. Thanks, Enthusiasmos!


  3. Matthew Lee Anderson September 27, 2007 at 11:58 pm


    I agree with you wholeheartedly. I was more interested in qualifying his view of Plato in a different direction than yours (hence my closing comment), but your point is crucial as well.

    In Begbie’s defense, while his identification of the source may be faulty, I agree with his analysis of the problem of modern music. Regardless of whether Plato is responsible for it, there is always a Gnosticizing tendency lurking beneath culture and in this century, it seems to have come to the forefront (in more than just music). While that probably has more to do with the confluence of philosophical naturalism and German idealism (as you pointed out) than Plato, it still makes Begbie’s overall point an important one.

    That said, two more comments:
    1) I’ve read a little Plotinus and don’t pretend to understand him. However, what I remember is that he really emphasizes the ascent to “the One,” and (unlike Plato and Augustine) seemed to think that the ascent involved the rejection of the lower realms. What should I re-read to correct that interpretation?
    2) I think the notion of “the lower” not entailing “less valuable” has important ramifications for bioethics (another realm where Gnosticism has triumphed). I’ve been meaning to write about that for some time–your post is a good impetus! Thanks!


Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published.