All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics

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

Originally published in The New Oxford 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

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.

See also: Form and Meaning in Liturgical Art , which deals with the question of pop music in church.

  1. #1 by shrinkingthecamel on August 11, 2011 - 3:21 AM

    Holy smokes. This is beyond me. I just like what I like. I always have, and it’s a pretty broad range with the exceptions of rap and country, both of which I have very little taste for. Everything else is fair game. Jesus music gets in there too, but I think it’s interesting the way this author talks about the contemporary worship music being used to promote middle class tranquility. That is about the size of it, I think. It has a muzak, watered-down, homogenous sound to it, and my daughters pick up on it immediately and reject it because of that. I still like blaring it in the car, though, once in a while.

  2. #2 by Michael Dodaro on August 11, 2011 - 6:51 AM

    I like to have as much fun as anybody, but I think pop music has tipped in a direction that isn’t fun anymore. Were Amy Winehouse and her followers having fun?

  3. #3 by Michael Dodaro on August 11, 2011 - 7:26 AM

    Here’s another piece that deals with the question of pop music in church:
    Form and Meaning in Liturgical Art

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