Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part XVI

The “Tuned” and “Cosmic” Soul…

The Cosmic and Psychic War of Opposites…

 Music = Philosophy…

Two Kinds of Hearing and Sight…

The “Courses” of the Heavens and the Soul

     In trying to understand what the early writers meant by the music of the microcosm, let me begin with a passage from Alan of Lisle (12th century) that, as usual, invokes the whole Orphic and cosmological afflatus of the topos.  Here is Alan’s iconographical description of Musica herself, in the treatise on the Seven Liberal Arts that occupies the middle books of his brilliant mythological allegory, Anticlaudianus:

One hand holds a cithara [he writes of the goddess], the other plucks its chords and produces a sweet delight of sound that is a feast for the ears and a prelude to slumber for the eyes. With such music did the Thracian bard [Orpheus] bid the stones become tractable, the woods to run, the rivers to stop, the wild beasts to grow tame, disputes to cease.  By his laments he overcame the inflexibility of the Eumenides…, made Dis show a fatherly kindness and the Furies forget their fury….Dressed in a striking cloak, the maiden shows that she is the foster-child of peace and seeks not the thunderbolts of war.  There a gay and smiling picture disports itself, showing under various forms:  what music can do, what are its bonds, with what ties it joins all things together…, which music joins the parts of the day together, separates the months, establishes the seasons of the years, restricts their vagaries, unites the elements, links the planets, gives the stars motion…which music sets in order the parts of the body of man, that little cosmos, and so adorns him with the form of the greater cosmos…, the smaller to be represented as an image of the greater; which music harmonizes the faculties of the soul, allies the soul with the body…[my italics]

As in the passage we have already discussed from Clement, the music that regulates the orderly processions of the days and seasons and harmonizes the discordant energies of the elemental opposites in the macrocosm, when it resonates in the microcosm, tunes the untuned mind of man.   In the formulation of the Pythagoreans, it renders the soul kosmios—cosmic—and, as the Stoics expressed it, tonos:   composed and harmonious, that is, within itself, and at the same time “attuned” to that rational harmony in which the cosmos is disposed by the Universal Logos, which the Logos-inseminated soul should emulate and echo within.  Like the cosmos, the soul is otherwise in a state of discord, as the violent extremes of the passions—of foolish joy over the transient and illusory gifts of Fortune, or equally foolish repining over their loss–destroy its equanimity.

As the second-century Middle Platonist Maximus of Tyre explains, music moderates those emotional extremes just as the music of the spheres composes the universal opposites in order and harmony:

If we believe Pythagoras, as we ought, the heavens make music too.  They are not struck like the lyre or blown like the pipe; instead the revolutions of the divine and musical bodies they contain, in their symmetry and balance, produce a supernatural sound…As for the human form of music that revolves about the soul, what else can it be but a means of training the soul’s emotions, soothing its violent and impulsive element,…tempering grief and calming anger and restraining passion,…chastening desire and healing pain and moderating infatuation and alleviating misfortune… (Oration XVII, 5)

Once again, then, music is a synonym for, as well as an active component of, the philosophical regime by which the wise man attains that state of apathe (passionlessness) or equanimity in which the salvation of the soul consists.  This is why music plays such an important role in the education of the philosopher king and the guardians in Plato’s Republic, and no doubt why Socrates, in the Phaedo, says that he has had recurrent dreams instructing him to learn that art:

In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams “that I should make music”.  The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words:  “Set to work and make music”, said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music.  The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing…

Music and philosophy are really the same discipline, as Socrates insists, for all the reasons we have already noted.


Of course, just as there is a philosophical music that, like the celestial harmony of the spheres, tempers the passions and composes the soul, so, another kind of music, earthly and vulgar, does the opposite.   As Timaeus explains in the Platonic dialogue named after him, God has given us two kinds of hearing and two kinds of music, just as he has given us the ordinary physical organs of sight with which we perceive corporeal existences but also another, higher kind of sight with which we may penetrate beyond their sensible surfaces of things to the apprehension of the intellectual conceptions that underlie them:

The sight of day and night, and the months, and the revolutions of the years, have created number, and have given us a conception of time, and the power of inquiring about the nature of the universe; and from this source we have derived philosophy, than which no greater good ever was or will be given by the gods to mortal man.  This is the greatest boon of sight:  and of the lesser benefits why should I speak?…Thus much let me say however:  God invented and gave us sight to the end that we might behold the courses of intelligence in the heaven, and apply them to the courses of our own intelligence which are akin to them, the unperturbed to the perturbed; and that we, learning them and partaking of the natural truth of reason, might imitate the absolutely unerring courses of God and regulate our own vagaries… [my italics]

Like the higher faculty of hearing, the higher sight is a modus philosophiae and a vehicle for the assimilation of the soul to God.  By seeing into the rational divine principle that orders the unerring revolutions of the universe (the orderly rotation of day and night, the seasons, the heavenly bodies), we may partake of its “natural reason”, imitate it, and with it regulate our own moral “vagaries” (<vago, vagare, to wander).  There are, as the correspondence between macrocosm and microcosm demands, motions and processes within the soul that, like the planets, need to be kept in a regular orbit, lest they fly off errantly into space.

Similarly, the higher faculty of hearing has, according to Plato, the same psychotherapeutic function:

…the sense of hearing is granted to us for the sake of harmony; and harmony, which has motions akin to the revolutions of our souls, is not regarded by the intelligent votary of the Muses as given by them with a view to irrational pleasure, which is deemed to be the purpose of it in our day, but is meant to correct any discord which may have arisen in the courses of the soul, and to be our ally in bringing her into harmony and agreement with herself; and rhythm too was given by them for the same reason, on account of the irregular and graceless ways which prevail among mankind generally, and to help us against them. (Phaedo 47b f.)

As a human art, music, then, can be put to two antithetical uses:  to excite “irrational pleasures”, as Plato complains is the common wont “among mankind generally” (as it has been ever thus down to our own age of sex, drugs, and rock and roll);  or to regulate and harmonize the discordant and irregular “revolutions” or “courses” of our souls–to encourage them to emulate the regular and orderly “revolutions” and “courses” of the heavens to which the motions of our souls are by birth and nature “akin”.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *