«Composer Felix Mendelssohn once remarked that music is more specific about what it expresses than words written about it could ever be. That music ...»
Music as a Moral and Ethical
Force in Society
(Originally published in 2000 under the title “The Influence of Music on Self
and Society” for the International Conference on the Unity of the Sciences in
Seoul Korea, February, 2000 and later revised under its new title for the: God and
World Peace: An Exploration of the Significance of God for a World in Crisis,
Conference in Washington, DC, December 2002, and edited again in 2012.)
Music as a Moral and Ethical Force in Society by David Eaton Composer Felix Mendelssohn once remarked that music is more specific about what it expresses than words written about it could ever be. That music has the power to express, convey and illicit powerful emotions is without question. Musicologist, David Tame opines: "Music is more than a language; it is the language of languages. It can be said that of all the arts, there is none other that more powerfully moves and changes the consciousness.” As perceptive as these statements may be, the issue of music's moral and ethical power and how that power affects individuals and society is one that receives too little attention in our post-modern world. Assessing art from an axiological, as well as a theoretical and/or aesthetic perspective, is an approach that too few artists consider in our postmodern society. Indeed, deconstructionist rationale makes such assessments highly vexatious.
Questions with regard to the origin of music, its spiritual, religious and mystical properties, its moral and ethical power, its transcendent qualities, as well as the role of the arts and artists in creating a culture of peace, are questions that we shall explore in the context of the theme of this conference: God and World Peace: An Exploration of the Significance of God for a World in Crisis.
At the outset of the twenty-first century it is undeniable that the pervasiveness of popular culture and the values it engenders has had a significant, and in many ways troubling effect on societies. In light of the current climate of Western popular culture, "art music" has become increasingly marginalized. In fact, the word "art" has been greatly trivialized as the lines between trend and tradition, the profound and the superficial, truth and cliche, have become increasingly indistinct. In this condition it has often become the case where the most inane works created by self-absorbed individuals of dubious talent are now considered important works of "art." To this unfortunate situation it must be noted that though all art may be a form of self-expression, not all self-expression is art.
In ages past, music was not considered merely a form of entertainment, but was associated, in fact, interlocked with religious and philosophical beliefs and as such was viewed in the context of its socially redeeming potentialities. Examining the perceptions and understandings of the ancient's attitude about art and music can be most enlightening and instructive for our spiritual and social development as we begin our quest for a culture of peace in the new millennium.
Attitudes About Music in Ancient Cultures:
The Musical Philosophy of Ancient China Any study of ancient cultures reveals that the ancients held strong beliefs in the moral and ethical power of art and music, thus it was imperative for artists working within those cultures to exercise a certain moral and ethical responsibility in their creative endeavors.
It is not at all implausible to suggest that contemporary attitudes about music might be surprising, even dismaying to the likes of Confucius, Aristotle, Plato, St. Augustine and Boethius. To the ancients, music and values were juxtaposed in ways that many today might find either elitist or politically incorrect. Yet the axiological and metaphysical aspects of music---as both indicator and measure of social values---were readily accepted notions in the ancient cultures of China, Egypt, Greece and India, There existed a common belief in those cultures that music had a fundamental power that could either uplift or degrade and therefore could contribute to the enhancement or corruption entire civilizations.
Chinese musical philosophy reveals a highly developed system of theory and mysticism that was most prescient in its attitudes about music. The Chinese attached a great deal of importance to the transcendent and therapeutic power of sound and music. Individual pieces of music were believed to possess an "energy formula" which in turn had the ability to exert powerful influences over those who listened to it. This metaphysical concept of music also had religious connotations and as such, moral and ethical implications. To the ancient Chinese the issue of how music was utilized was of great
importance. As David Tame obverses:
Of particular significance is the issue of freedom and its correlation to responsibility in the context of how music was utilized. Chinese philosophers understood that music was not composed or performed in a social vacuum, therefore there were significant social implications in the creation and presentation of music. Due to this heightened awareness of the influence of music on self and society, Chinese philosophers and educators directed a great deal of attention to the music of their culture. As a result of this awareness, appreciating music primarily as entertainment had little redeeming social value.
Music that endeavored to express or convey universal truths, which in turn could benefit the development of a person's character thereby making that person an asset to the society at large, was music that was considered good and proper. Conversely, music that was deemed to be sensual or exotic was seen as being immoral and was thought to have negative effects on ones spirituality and character. Consider Confucius' remarks about the
music of certain composers of his time:
It is intriguing to note Confucius' highly subjective views vis-a-vis the moral and possibly corrupting aspects of the music of his countrymen. His view reveals a explicit concern about the effects of good (moral) music on a person's character.
As previously mentioned, two significant aspects of the ancient Chinese' philosophy of music were the effect of music on one's psyche and the issue of freedom and responsibility in musical pursuits. When compared to the rationales and motivation of artists of our modern age the Chinese ideal of music-making seems highly enlightened as evident in the consideration given to the effect of music upon the character of the listener.
If individuals were affected by music it stood to reason that society as a whole could be influenced (positively or negatively) as well. Confucius' comment on this topic is most
If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.
The ancient Chinese text The Memorial of Music states: "Under the effect of music, the five social duties are without admixture, the eyes and the ears are clear, the blood and the vital energies are balanced, habits are reformed, customs are improved, the empire is at complete peace." It becomes highly evident that the Chinese believed that social order was juxtaposed to music in a significant fashion and this concept played heavily into its philosophical ideals. The connection of the tonal arts to the ordering principles of physical laws and metaphysical ideals was considered important owing to the belief that the same laws and principles contained within music the were present in the celestial order that governed the entire universe.
In the Chinese philosophical tome, the I Ching, the Taoist axiom of harmonizing the polarities of Yang and Yin is a central tenet. The fusion of Taoist principles and Confucian ethics gives rise to rationales that guided the Chinese in matters of art and social governance. Confucianism, primarily concerned with ethical relations, sought to
promote humane relationships among family, friends and associates. The Five Relations:
sovereign to subject, father and son, elder brother and younger brother, husband and wife and friend and friend, were to be based on the ethic of humaneness and social responsibility.
The cosmology of Yang and Yin is germane to both Confucian and Taoist doctrine and was considered elemental in humankind's pursuit of harmony and peace. Taoism promotes the concept of seeking a mystical identification with the patterns of the natural world ("the impersonal Tao”) through meditation and trance. With its emphasis on the individual's harmonization with nature in a pliant fashion, it stands as a complimentary philosophy to Confucianism's strenuous efforts to mold society according to social archetypes and ethical standards. Since harmonization is a central goal of these two philosophies it is easy to understand the importance the Chinese placed on the role of music as a potential harmonizing agent. Consequently, the ancient Chinese believed such music must embody the attributes of truth, beauty and goodness in a sublime balance of content and form. The moral and ethical aspects of that equation were not to be minimized.
Beauty could be realized when the complimentary opposites of intellectual and emotional, masculine and feminine, metaphysical and physical were harmonized. If one could be harmonized in mind and body such a person would be able to achieve inner peace and tranquility and become one with the cosmos and thus attain a "perfected" statea state of harmonized relatedness to the world in which one exists. The Chinese text
The Spring and Autumn Annals gives further insight into this concept:
This is concomitant with the view of musicologist, Julius Portnoy, who affirmed that "music is the releaser into the material world of a fundamental, super-physical energy from beyond the world of everyday experience" and that "the voice of the priest within the realm of time and space becomes a vehicle for the energizing Voice of the Creator to manifest its forces through." The emphasis of harmony and relatedness and its genesis from "the Great One" is underscored countless times in Chinese writings. Tame alludes to the ancient text, Li Chi, and its view that "the harmony and sacred proportion of heaven is viewed as entering the earth through the mediation of music and ritual." The Li
Music is the harmony of heaven and earth while rites are the measurement of heaven and earth. Through harmony all things are made known; through measure all things are properly classified. Music comes from heaven; rites are shaped by earthly design.
Manifesting balance, harmony and relatedness was to be the motivation and purpose of a musicians' work. By bringing these attributes to a performance it was thought that the musician was interfacing spiritually with the cosmic forces of heaven and personifying celestial order. For Confucius the harmony/relatedness paradigm was important, in that "...ceremony established the correct manner of physical movement in man, while music perfected man's mind and emotions." The moral inculcation of a person's character and the development of an ethical society are continually linked to the Confucian view of music. The ancient Chinese philosophy of "music as a microcosm,” would be echoed by
Pythagoras and Greek philosophers. As Catholic theologian E. Michael Jones obverses:
"Indeed, love, divine order, music and mathematics are simply four different ways of saying the same thing."
An interesting by-product of the harmony/relatedness paradigm was the intolerance in classical Chinese music for anything that was a result of chance or improvisation. These characteristics were considered antipodal to the reverence for order and balance. The intimate relationship of music and universal, cosmic order was not to be left to chance being that discipline and proficiency were hallmarks of the classical Chinese musical tradition. The dichotomy between traditional discipline and expressive freedom, it seems, has been a topic of debate from the earliest times.
To a society that was based largely on the philosophy of balance and harmony, the notion of expressive freedom would almost certainly be viewed as threatening and possibly corrupting. Innovation has challenged the status quo of all cultures and in ancient China this was especially vexatious due to the belief in the transforming power music. As David Tame points out virtually every major civilization of antiquity held this view.
By invoking the balance/relatedness paradigm in the deliberations over the issue of innovation and progress in music, the Chinese possessed a viable philosophy to reconcile the over-rigidity/over-innovation dilemma. Tolerance without discretion could potentially lead to artistic license and inevitably, moral anarchy. Conversely, a zero-tolerance stance towards spontaneity would impinge on freedom of expression. Allowing artistic freedom within the confines of a highly developed tradition and discipline would be a crucial and daunting challenge.
The Chinese, like other civilizations, would adopt a system that would allow for expressive freedom within a set of well-defined "rules,” not unlike those found in the Western tonality of the great J.S. Bach and his successors. New compositions were to conform to certain "rules" that were deemed to be in alignment with the higher order of the universe. Allowing new works with new compositional schemes that adhered to traditional ideals, would in turn reduce the likelihood of a static compositional landscape thus increase the likelihood for greater variances and degrees of emotional expressiveness.
This Confucian compromise is in accord with the Oriental concept of Ih Bup (reasonlaw), which is the correlation of reason and lawfulness, centered on purpose (Logos), which originates in God. This concept allows for freedom (choice) based on sensibility and reason (rationale) to work in accordance with natural law and mathematical principles (necessity). One is subject, the other is object and their harmonious union results in the incarnation of the Logos. Reason in Logos works freely as it influences the direction of the development of the universe, while preserving the efficacy of laws.