Augustine, Music, and the Birds and the Bees

Onsi Kamel has often asked me a very good question, relating to his own scholarly article on Augustine and sexuality. That is, if Augustine considers the pleasures of sex something that, in his fallen state, man will seldom or never be able to enjoy sinlessly so long as his desire rules over his will and his will over his intellect, then where does that leave music? Surely some sort of similar situation pertains there: when the pleasurable melodies flow over us and we pay more attention to the music than the words, this is some similar inversion of the human faculties. Famously in Confessions XXXIII.49-50, Augustine considers this problem, concluding ambivalently that singing the music of the psalms must be beneficial, on the basis of David’s model, but it is probably safer to intone it fairly plainly than make the melody excessively sweet, lest the tune rule over the words and thus (implicitly) desire over intellect.

Another relevant passage to this comes from Augustine’s De musica, a treatise which reveals the large chasm between our definition of “music” and its denotation in Augustine’s time. It is not really about music, as we would call it, but about prosody and poetic meter. But one section does relate to this topic. It is, as many such treatises, structured as a dialogue between pupil (“discipulus”) and master (“magister”).

M. Tell me, then, whether the nightingale seems to mensurate its voice well in the spring of the year. For its song is both harmonious, and sweet and, unless I’m mistaken, it fits the season.

D. It seems quite so.

M. But it isn’t trained in the liberal discipline [of musica], is it?

D. No.

M. You see, then, the noun “science” is indispensable to the definition [of musica].

D. I see it clearly.

M. Now, tell me, then, don’t they all seem to be a kind with the nightingale, all those which sing under the guidance of a certain sense [i.e. intuition], that is, do it harmoniously and sweetly, although if they were questioned about these numbers or intervals of high and low notes they could not reply?

D. I think they are very much alike.

M. And what’s more, aren’t those who like to listen to them without this science to be compared to beasts? For we see elephants, bears, and many other kinds of beasts are moved by singing, and birds themselves are charmed by their own voices. For, with no further proper purpose, they would not do this with such effort without some pleasure.

Augustine, On music (ed. and trans. Taliaferro), 176-77, De musica, 14. Quoted in Elizabeth Eva Leach, Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages, Cornell University Press (2007), 2-3.

This is the brilliant insight of Elizabeth Eva Leach in her (relatively) recent book Sung Birds: Music, Nature, and Poetry in the Later Middle Ages (2007). By using the sounds of beasts and music of birds as a foil in Medieval thought, she is able to tease out some crucial distinctions in their philosophy of music. “Augustine thus outlines many of the concerns that extend through the later Middle Ages,” she says. “He demands that even if the song sounds sweet and well measured, the musician must understand what he is doing; listeners may take morally legitimate pleasure only in music by musicians who know what they are doing, or they are themselves no better than beasts.” Those who sing with intuition but not with understanding are, for Augustine, nightingales. (And this is pre-19th century, so that’s an insult, not a compliment.)

Thus, music as a liberal art, music as scientia, has a way of dignifying music in Augustinian thought, precisely because it manages to elevate the intellect over the will and the desire. (Although, it should be noted, that Augustine’s opinions in De musica are, if I recall correctly, thought to be fairly early and he may have changed them over time.)

Only tangentially related: I have recently become acquainted with the poetry of Baudelaire. Although writing in an era when Augustine’s influence was more scarcely felt than it should have been, he uses some remarkable language to talk about sin in “Au lecteur.”

Sur l’oreiller du mal c’est Satan Trismégiste

Qui berce longuement notre esprit enchanté,

Et le riche métal de notre volonté

Est tout vaporisé par ce savant chimiste.

Baudelaire, The Complete Verse, trans. Francis Scarfe, 53.

Francis Scarfe translates that thus: “Satan the thrice-great soothes our spellbound minds on the pillow of evil, this learned alchemist dissolves the precious metal of our will into vapour.” There is a lot to unpack in that metaphor (which reminds me of Donne’s “Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, \But is captive’d“, very Calvinist of him), but it relates insofar as the Devil is said to be loosening or vaporizing our will’s hold on our desire. Earlier in the poem Baudelaire says “Stupidity, error, sin, and meanness possess our minds and work upon our bodies,” continuing the Augustinian framework. The image in this stanza is a vivid one, of the Devil as a kind of alchemical magician perverting and transmogifrying elemental human faculties.


And now for some music which was felt, in its time, to be a scandalous celebration of the belly, the groin, the ability of music to overpower our better judgment, an alchemical triumph. But golly, if it isn’t constantly stuck in the heads of everyone in my house at the moment.

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