Beauty Will Save the School

What role does beauty play in a school’s development? In what ways does attention to beauty help a school fulfill its mission and vision? This seminar will consider the nature of beauty in a school setting, as well as practical means for incorporating beauty at every level of school life.

Jaimie Cain

Following a career in higher education and publishing, James Cain became Dominion Classical Christian Academy’s first headmaster in 2007. He and his wife, Kristi, who teaches upper school science at Dominion, have made education and discipleship their life’s work. They live in Buford, Georgia, with their three children.

Educational Splendor

C.S. Lewis believed that at the heart of our current moral and spiritual crisis there was the loss of objective values. Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are today a matter of mere subjective preference. This workshop will explore the historic nature of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, how the objective values have been lost in modern secular society, and how to foster classroom practices that awaken a love for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful in teacher and student alike.

Steve Turley

Steve Turley (Ph.D., Durham University) is a theologian, social theorist, classical Christian educator, and prize-winning classical guitarist. He is the author of The Ritualised Revelation of the Messianic Age: Washings and Meals in Galatians and 1 Corinthians, and Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. Steve blogs on the church, society and culture, education, and the arts at He is a faculty member at Tall Oaks Classical School in New Castle, DE, where he teaches Theology, Greek, and Rhetoric, and Professor of Fine Arts at Eastern University. Steve lectures at universities, conferences, and churches throughout the U.S. and abroad. His research and writings have appeared in such journals as Christianity and Literature, Calvin Theological Journal, First Things, Touchstone, and The Chesterton Review. He and his wife, Akiko, have four children and live in Newark, DE, where they together enjoy shing, gardening, and watching Duck Dynasty marathons.

Medieval Beauty

Wise men have said that if one rejects beauty, he also rejects truth, and vice versa, and perhaps they are right. Beauty has to do with the correspondence of various disparate elements that make a whole: diversity combined with unity. If that is the case, then to dismiss the truth claim that there is a God, and therefore no super-natural realm, does a great disservice to beauty by rejecting the notion that material things can correspond to the invisible supernatural world. The medieval mind had no such difficulties (they could not imagine a strictly naturalist world). They looked for correspondences in numbers, proportions, symbols, and the relation of spiritual and natural worlds, then dedicated themselves to reflect their findings in their arts. Beauty was to be found in the Creator and in His creation. For several centuries, philosophers and mathematicians pondered the relations of material and spiritual things by way of what has come to be called the “Medieval Synthesis,” an approach that sought to bring harmony to the material and spiritual, the vertical and horizontal, the light and dark, the quantitative and the qualitative…without dismissing either element. The rejection of the supernatural part of the cosmos is a relatively recent event in the history of Western Civilization. What effect would that rejection have on our definition of beauty?

In the Middle Ages, there were three key ways to approach the notion of beauty, all of which found their sources in both Greek and Jewish thought. Think of them as number, light, and symbol.

Number: Quantity

“Congruentia” is the word used by many of the classical and medieval philosophers to describe beauty found in the congruence of proportion and number. The study of numerical proportion was essential to 12th and 13th century aesthetics. Umberto Eco, in his book, Art and Beauty in the Middle Ages, quotes both Augustine and Cicero as sources for the medieval understanding of congruence as beauty. The notion is that beautiful objects (human beings included) have a certain symmetry, proportion, order of elements that create unity from variety.

The medieval mind was thoroughly steeped in an understanding of the world by way of number. The Quadrivium (as taught in the cathedral schools of the 12th century, and the University of Paris formed in the beginning of the 13th century), was a study of number and its applications. Arithmetic, Geometry, Astronomy, and Music made up the Quadrivium, and the subject of Music was first and foremost a study in proportion and harmony. But the severity of number alone did not fully describe the notion of the beautiful in music, or in other arts. The medieval mind called on a combination of numerical purity and practical experience. Harmony was more than the perfect ratio of numbers, including the pleasure of the ear, but it did require the numbers to work. In this way, the medieval approach protected the people of their day from the tyranny of personal preference that results from a purely introspective definition of beauty.

Another example of the medieval understanding of proportion was the ‘Golden Mean’ (the approximate proportion of any two consecutive numbers in the Fibonacci Series, represented by the Greek letter Phi), a proportion found in nature (sunflowers, nautilus shells, some say human beings), and in the application of other mathematical and geometric patterns in the architecture of the time. The designers of cathedrals such as Chartres, which helped usher in the great period of the Gothic in the 12th and 13th centuries, made brilliant use of the circle, square, equilateral triangle, and the assorted shapes that can be taken from their combination to build stone edifices without the use of steel. The symmetry, order, regularity, repetition, and carefully balanced weight ratios in the Gothic cathedral were all the result of the medieval love of the beauty of proportion.

Of course, this definition of beauty as proportion is nearly entirely based on quantity rather than quality, and even the philosophers of the time insisted that there was also a qualitative aspect to beauty, so more consideration was needed to fully define beauty.

Light: Quality

There is a quality to beauty. The medievals reveled in the color of things: flowers, birds, gemstones… they delighted in the purely sensual aspect of color. This second approach to beauty in the Middle Ages was light. Light is not just the opposite of dark; light is a presence and dark is its absence. White light can be broken into all the colors the eye can perceive. Light has always been held to symbolize perception and sight so it is easily connected by way of the imagination to truth and reason. In the early Middle Ages large buildings had to have strong walls to hold up their heavy roofs, so these stone walls needed to be thick and have few windows. This meant that the interiors of these buildings were usually very dark, requiring candles even in the daytime. But medieval geniuses such as Abbot Suger worked to find ways to get light into cathedrals expressly to represent the beauty of light indoors. This desire for light led to the invention of the Gothic arch, the flying buttress, and the ribbed vault that together allowed the walls to be thinner and roofs higher making it possible to have larger windows which of course illumined the cathedral.

The beauty of light is also connected to the beauty of numerical proportion, since white light contains a combination of all colors. So light is a kind of unity in diversity. This makes light the perfect symbol for beauty and the presence of God, which leads to the third kind of medieval beauty.

Symbol and allegory: metaphor

Light can represent truth, or God’s presence. This metaphoric relationship is a symbolic relation of a natural phenomenon to a spiritual reality. There was a difference in the medieval mind between a sign and a symbol. A sign points the way to the signified, while a symbol participates in the signified. A sign might read, “Memphis 12 miles” but could never be mistaken for either Memphis or 12 miles. On the other hand, a symbol resembles what it points to. A cross that one wears on a necklace, for example, resembles the object it refers to. Both the necklace and the cross are in the same shape. Light, in the case of the Gothic cathedral, doesn’t just signify but symbolizes the presence of God. Light literally illuminates. Light makes it possible to see. Light is a real presence that dispels darkness (which is only light’s absence). Light can be broken into all colors, and so can represent unity and diversity. God brings wisdom, God helps us see in the dark of our sin, He dispels evil (which, like darkness, is not a real thing, according to Augustine). Light is beautiful; God is beautiful. So the medievals looked for things in this world that could symbolize eternal spiritual realities that they often took as more real than the material world.

Other symbols are found in Communion, where the sacrament of bread and wine symbolizes body and blood. Jesus would tell His disciples in the parable of the Sower that the seed the farmer sows is the Word of God. All the organic development of seeds into plants becomes an allegory for the healthy spiritual life of the good soil. This metaphoric relation of seed to Word goes quite deep, extending to the deepest mysteries of how seed becomes grain, grain becomes bread, and then, in the deepest mystery of all, bread becomes Body — Body of the Word — in the Sacrament, proving that the seed is the Word of God.

In the cathedrals, the combination of the first two kinds of beauty, proportion and light, are joined with the third, allegory and symbol, in the magnificent art of the stained glass window. In it, a Bible story might be presented and even wordlessly interpreted while simultaneously providing light, an example of unity and proportion as well as the qualitative color that delights the eye. These great windows are far more than pretty; they are profound.

Conclusion: truth and beauty

The question asked at the beginning was, what might happen to beauty if we dismiss God and the supernatural from our view of the world? Without a supernatural realm to refer to, we can no longer relate natural phenomena to the Trinity, the beauty of God’s wisdom and His presence. We can still manipulate materials, such as paint, stone, glass, and light, into shapes we encounter in the material world, but we can no longer shape them to reflect something symbolic of the spiritual realities. This does not end our human creativity, but it limits and cripples it greatly, and eliminates a key aspect of the definition of beauty. Without the truth, we lose a great deal of beauty. Great artists will be reduced to using their various crafts to speak of the tragedy of human existence, and will be well rewarded for doing so. Without God, we eventually lose our ability to craft as well, and the combination of those lost abilities with debased tastes over time inevitably leads to art that is little more than grunts and gestures. Without God we lose both beauty and our humanity.

It is all the more important that we exercise the imaginations of our students. The medieval approach to reason included reference to the imagination, knowing that the imagination is a gift from God to mankind; an organ given for the appreciation of harmony, proportion, light, symbol, and the connections between the material and the spiritual worlds.

Book Review: Beauty Will Save the World

If the too obvious, so straight branches of Truth and Good are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light – yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way perform the work of all three. And in that case it was not a slip of the tongue for Dostoevsky to say that ‘Beauty will save the world’, but a prophecy.” Inspired by these words from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Nobel Laureate lecture, Gregory Wolfe’s book, Beauty Will Save the World, is an extended meditation on the soteriological significance of beauty. The book comprises a series of essays organized in five parts. Parts One and Two constitute the theoretical foundation of the book, while Parts Three to Five are devoted to a survey of writers, poets, and artists who embody the theoretical insights specific to Christian humanism.

Part One, “From Ideology to Humanism,” recounts Wolfe’s aesthetic journey from right wing politics to editor of a journal devoted to the analysis of art and culture. Having graduated from Hillsdale, where he sat in the classrooms of Russell Kirk and Gerhart Niemeyer, Wolfe began his professional career with National Review during the time of the Reagan Revolution in the early 1980s, only to find an irreconcilable dissonance between the spiritual and intellectual depths of the Western tradition and those who purported to defend that tradition in the political arena. Wolfe found increasingly that modern politics constituted an economy of power and coercion that affected corrosively the aesthetic nature of classical humanism. Eventually, Wolfe turned to a different state of affairs, one constituted by culture and art, which operated according to the grace of beauty and imagination. Here, in this aesthetic economy, one acts not in response to the consequentialism and compulsion inherent in statist practices, but rather according to the physics of beauty, the attraction that awakens wonder and draws one to encounter divine life through the evoking of a moral imagination.

Wolfe began to see the contemporary conservative political movement as a microcosm of a larger cultural crisis that centered on the loss of the metaphysical and transcendent. Citing Elaine Scarry, he notes that if the metaphysical realm has vanished, “one may feel bereft not only because of the giant deficit left by that vacant realm but because the girl, the bird, the vase, the book now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems more self- centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard” (15). This is coupled with the observation of Hans Urs von Balthasar, who noted that the modern age has pursued the quest for truth and goodness at the expense of beauty and, as a result, has lost the primary agency of love. Wolfe concludes: “Taken together, these two statements suggest not only the enormous challenges facing our politicized society, but also the possibility of a theological aesthetic that can heal and unite” (15).

With the loss of beauty as an objective value, like truth and goodness, the American West has increasingly turned to power in order to influence cultural outcomes, resulting in the so-called ‘culture wars’. The problem here, as Wolfe observes, is that politics was appropriated classically as growing out of culture, not determinative of it. Said differently, liturgy, art, music, education, and science were properly basic to politics, such that the power of the state was relativized to and shaped by a collective moral imagination gifted to humans by God to perceive the divinely-infused meaning of the cosmos.

Reflecting on and contributing to the formative nature of culture was the task of the classical Christian humanist, who conceived of culture as the point of integration between the social and the transcendent, where eternal values are made palpable and substantial within the nexus of social practices. Quoting Virgil Nemoianu: “Culture is seen as a kind of tumbling ground for the spiritual, the social, the historical and the psychological…. the human being individually, and the human species collectively, act as a key, as the intersectional locus where all areas of the cosmos can meet … According to [the Christian humanists], aesthetic culture is that which seeks to articulate the opening toward transcendence that appears as a human constant in all human societies known to us” (34). Culture in the classical sense, as differentiated from the more mechanistic modern socio-anthropological sense, involves the development, nourishment, and exercise of what makes us distinctly human, namely, the embodiment of the Socratic trinity: the true, the good, and the beautiful.

For Wolfe, at the heart of this project is a sacramental vision of art. “To the Christian humanist, culture and art can become analogues for the Incarnation: a union of form and content, the inherence of divine meaning in the crafted materials of this earth” (45). He cites David Jones who writes in his essay, “Art and Sacrament,” that the Eucharist, consisting of culturally transformed grain and fruit, is the foundry for a sanctified and redeemed culture. And because culture is that which nourishes our humanity, the redemption of culture reciprocally fosters sanctified senses and souls. In the words of the art historian Hans Rookmaaker: “Christ didn’t come to make us Christians. He came to make us fully human” (46).

In Part Two of the work, “Christianity, Literature, and Modernity,” Wolfe maps out how such a Christian humanism can effectively engage a world constituted by secular modernity. Wolfe highlights several Catholic writers who seek to recover the sacred in the modern context, that is, a new vision of the transcendent that reveals itself through the frames of reference specific to the modern age. For example, Walker Percy’s last novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, depicts a futuristic world where human free will has been superseded by a scientific elite that manipulate the masses through dumping quantities of heavy sodium isotope in the water supply. When confronted on the devastating effects of heavy sodium on cortical function, the lead scientist defends his experiment:

What would you say, Tom … if I gave you a magic wand you could wave over there [Baton Rouge and New Orleans] and overnight you could reduce crime in the streets by eighty-seven percent…. Teenage suicide by ninety-five percent…. Teenage pregnancy by eighty-five percent…. (68)

Percy’s novel thus probes how the modern age has combined intellectual brilliance with unprecedented brutality: the key to comfort, peace, and security is the elimination of human free will. “The twist to this arrangement, which the Devil is careful not to divulge, is that by reducing man to the level of cattle – taking away the sacred dignity of human personhood – men become as expendable as cattle” (69).

In Part Three, “Six Writers,” Wolfe highlights the work of Evelyn Waugh, Shusako Endo, Geoffrey Hill, Andrew Lytle, Wendell Berry, and Larry Woiwode. Wolfe’s analysis of the latter three, who share an affinity with the great Southern Agrarian writers such as Allen Tate and William Faulkner, is particularly penetrating. Lytle, one of the “Twelve Southerners” who defended the South’s traditional agrarian culture in the 1930 publication, I’ll Take My Stand, believed that historical consciousness is inseparable from attachment to place and family. Wolfe writes: “For Lytle, the essence of Christendom is the family: it provides us with identity and schools us in love and self- sacrifice. Modernity, on the other hand, is characterized by the desire for power, a lust which leads man to wander, alone, separated from the community in the monstrosity of his ego. Technology without limits, the secular welfare state, the arts dominated by pornography and neurosis – all these are the effects of power without love, the individual without community” (143). In the writings of Berry and Woiwode, the distinctly sacramental vision of the landscape awakens the moral imagination to the ways in which the land mediates a quality beyond itself. Wolfe contrasts such a vision with the relation of a technician to nature, which is one of power and manipulation, and thus represents a fundamentally different economy than that constituted by the reciprocal love between the gardener and his garden. “It is not without significance,” Wolfe observes, “that the gardener is usually on his knees” (166).

In Part Four, “Three Artists,” Wolfe takes us past those who are satisfied with lamenting over the loss of classical Christian culture (‘declinists’, he calls them) and into an encounter with artists who have embraced the redemptive possibilities of modern art, such as Mary McCleary, Fred Folsom, and Makoto Fujimura. His analysis of Folsom’s Last Call (at the Shepherd Park Go-Go Club) is nothing less than Taboric. Wolfe’s exegesis transfigures a painting of a strip-tease scene into a sacred encounter with the grace of God: “Her [the stripper’s] arms are in the process of lifting up to an outstretched position, an implicit crucifixion …. In the lower left corner sits Pascal. Moving across the baseline we come to Folsom himself, almost directly underneath the stripper. Following his pointing hand we come to the lower right corner … which presents us with the wounded hand holding a glass of wine… It is the hand of the one who issues the ‘last call’ to all of us” (190).

The book concludes with Part Five, “Four Men of Letters,” where Wolfe surveys the contributions of Russell Kirk, Gerhart Niemeyer, Malcolm Muggeridge, and Marion Montgomery. Kirk and Niemeyer are singled out for their contributions to the moral imagination. “There is no more pressing need,” Wolfe writes, “in the moral and spiritual crisis of our time than the need to recover the imagination.” (206). For Kirk, inspired by Edmund Burke, the moral imagination is constituted by a symbolic universe where the images recorded by the senses are stored in our memory and are in turn constructed into analogies, metaphors and paradigms by which the totality of our experience can be synthesized and expressed in a coherent intellectual, moral, and spiritual life. In short, the moral imagination is the means by which we commune with divinely-infused meaning in our human experience and conform our lives accordingly.

If there is a refrain throughout this catena of essays, it would be that of invitation, for this is the nature of the soteriological significance of beauty. It has long been recognized that the Greek term for beauty, kalon, is related to the verb kalein, ‘to call’. Beauty is the effulgent or illuminative manifestation of the loveliness, the delectableness, the delightfulness of the true and the good, which awakens eros or a loving desire within the human person. Thus, beauty serves the indispensable role of momentum or motivation in intellectual, moral and spiritual pursuits, which stands in stark contrast to the coercion and manipulation inherent in political power. Wolfe’s essays are a collection of exhortations calling us to jettison our ideological abstractions and instead embrace a sacramental imagination that through a sanctified culture lifts us up into an indissoluble union with the divine source of life. With Beauty For Truth’s Sake, we encounter the redeeming nature of art and are thereby reminded that regardless of the secular eclipse of truth and goodness, beauty still shines through.

Beauty in Music: Inspiration and Excellence

Beauty in Music

Genesis 2:7 “and the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and he became a living soul.”

Rhythms, melodies, harmonies speak to us of immaterial things. The modern world is full of false dichotomies. There are divisions between reason and revelation, fact and value, and male and female that require careful definition so that the desired joining of the two is possible. The division between the material and the immaterial, that is, the body and the spirit, is one of these. Genesis 2:7 speaks of forming Adam from the ground, and breathing into him the breath of life, or the spirit. Two things indeed, but curiously, the result of the combination of these two is the living soul. The one thing that seems clear here is that the soul is alive, and that it somehow is the combination of the two elements of matter and spirit.

The manner in which one walks can show the point of intersection between the physical and the spiritual — that is, the interface between the sensation of literal movement in sight and sound and the conclusions drawn about the intangible personality, mood, and emotional state of the walker. When the tempo of the walk is varied, observers draw different conclusions about the walker’s state of mind. What does tempo have to do with intangibles such as intention, friendliness, or confidence?

Plato’s famous lines in the third book of The Republic speak of how the musical modes are linked directly to the various character traits he is either for or against in his ideal City.

‘And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical, and you can tell me.’ ‘The harmonies that you mean are the mixed and tenor Lydian…and such like.’ ‘These then, I said, must be banished…’

These modes are the basis for both melody and linear harmony, and when combined with rhythm made a place for music that was far larger in scope than that we offer today. That scope is nothing short of soul-shaping. In the conclusion to the Preface of his thoughtful book on musical aesthetics, philosopher Roger Scruton sees this scope:

It came as a surprise that so dry a question as “what is a sound?” should lead at last to a philosophy of modern culture. Had I thought more about the Pythagorean cosmology, and the true meaning of harmonia I should perhaps have known beforehand, that the ordering of sound as music is an ordering of the soul.

Plato seems to be recommending nothing short of government-run musical censorship. Our present-day enlightened embrace of all musical expressions is not so much the result of a hard-fought battle for individual freedom as a belief that music has no such powers to shape and affect the soul. If we really believed that music had the effect of training the next generation to be dissolute, irresponsible, and cowardly, we might find ourselves censoring music.

Listening to music is not the same activity as listening to sounds in general. The difference between them is that we listen to sounds in order to know the thing making the sound (sound of a car, or the sound of a baby crying), but we don’t listen to the sound of music to hear an oboe playing, or a guitar strumming. Rather, we listen to hear the sound it is making. We may recognize the sound comes from an oboe, but we want to hear what the oboe is playing. There is the source, but there is meaning in the order of the sounds themselves. The goal, when we listen to music, is to hear what it is saying: the contours of the melody, the harmony, the rhythm speak to us of a musical event. These elements are the medium by which the communications come — these elements are the language of the composer/performer.

Beauty is partly the correspondence between the material and immaterial. When we do hear these elements, we verbalize the experience in terms that are similar to other aspects of life.

We describe personality traits, emotions, ideas, moods. Often unconsciously our minds are looking for patterns, symmetries, orders, and expressions that will speak to us of meaning. These physical sounds correspond to these intangible aspects of human experience. If there is a shape or trajectory to the experience of hurt in a broken heart, or the experience of awe before a King, it may be that composers can capture something of it in the various elements of a composition. The beauty of the work is partly the result of this perceived correspondence. There is something fitting, right, correct, or profound in a successful work that is beautiful, but to be able to perceive this correspondence, we need another element.

The imagination exists not so much for the purpose of making things up, but for recognizing correlation, relation between things — seeing connections. It is not by accident that we agree that the rhythm discovered in a brisk walk to the podium reflects confidence, or urgency, while a broken rhythm implies indecision, distraction, anxiety. We have experienced the connection between these things so often that we have learned to become fluent in this language.

Imagination is an organ of perception with which we can make this correlation: it pairs the physicality of
a perceived music with human moods, characteristics, states of mind or personality. Just as we have linguistic metaphors, we also have musical metaphors. We describe the aspects of music in non-musical terms all the time: loud sudden outbursts may imply anger; melodies can be described as languorous, angular, smooth, tender, demanding, or questioning. These are by their linguistic nature metaphoric — the sounds themselves have none of these characteristics. Music is by its nature disembodied so if we are to speak of what it expresses, we are forced to use metaphoric language. The imagination grasps these relations. Could it be that our imaginations are not “making things up,” as much as recognizing a truth in correspondence? When we find just the right metaphor, when we hit on the right combination and communicate it precisely, it is part of the experience we call the perception of beauty.

The telos of music

Music is thought to be an entertainment, a diversion, a mood-setter, or a time-filler. But for the ancient and medieval scholars, music was a window through which one could see the created order, as well as a way of training the soul toward integrity.

The beauty of music is one of the sources of Plato’s hierarchy of love in the Symposium and in The Republic:

And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful; and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good,

he will justly blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he is able to know the reason why; and when reason comes he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar…

…Thus much of music, which makes a fair ending; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?

Plato taught that a love of music instilled a love
of beauty that spilled over into all areas of life, leading up the hierarchy to love of justice. Roger Scruton has written, “…beauty is not simply a redundant addition to the list of human appetites. It is not something that we could lack and still be fulfilled as people. It is a need arising from our metaphysical condition as free individuals, seeking our place in an objective world.”

If the telos of music is beauty, how then do we teach music? By training our students’ imaginations, starting with how to hear the elements of music. The elements of Adam were matter and spirit, fused together to make a living soul that reflects the Imago Dei. The elements of music are: rhythm, melody, harmony, form, texture, and timbre, fused together to make a composition that can reflect the ideas, experiences, the very humanity of both composer and listener. Knowing what to listen
for, we begin a new way of listening for the student. The ability to discern, to distinguish, to perceive the language of music is the beginning of genuine taste about music, and taste is a facet of wisdom. So music is forming our souls; it really does matter what we listen to, and what we offer in our services, just as it matters what our churches look like, and how our liturgies are designed, not only for didactic purposes — to have our theology correct — but to link the harmony of the Trinity with our daily lives.

So where does music come from? Is there more to music than emotional expression or mood setting?

II. Inspiration

…I have called by name Bezalel…and I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, and in understanding, and in knowledge…Exodus 31:2

The Greek Muses

Many of the Greek writers mention the Muses. Homer, Socrates, and others speak of them, but Hesiod is the one who speaks of the specifics that are commonly held. There are nine:

Calliope – eldest, epic poetry Clio – history
Erato – love poetry
Euterpe – music

Melpomene – singer of tragedy Polyhymnia – sacred poetry and geometry Terpsichore – dance
Thalia – comedy and pastoral poetry Urania – astronomy/astrology

These nine sing their inspirations. The Muses inspired far more than the subject of music only. Their subjects include all of our human artistic and intellectual pursuits, and the inspiration for each was conveyed by way of song. The very word MUSIC is taken from Mousike Techne (the work of the Muses). Nearly everything that
we today refer to as “the arts and sciences” were, in
the Greek mind, inspired through song by the Muses,
and that inspiration leads Homer to compose The Illiad, leads Thucydides to write The Peloponnesian Wars, leads Sophocles to write Oedipus Rex, and leads Pythagoras to discover musical harmony and the music of the spheres. What comes is an approach which is so inspired, that is, that resonates with the truth to such a degree, that it will feed philosophers, scientists, and artists for millennia:
the prerequisite for beauty is harmonia – the fitting, right, and mathematically sound interrelations of disparate objects. These Nine Muses were the keepers of the secret knowledge of harmony, and the significance of this knowledge and its power and influence over all of life are symbolized by the fact that they are the daughters of Zeus himself.

Beauty can be reflected in painting, sculpture, photographs, but there are arts such as plays, films, and music that include another aspect of human experience: time. As soon as you introduce the element of time, one’s perception of the work requires the ability to remember what has already occurred. Memory thus becomes a significant aspect in the immediate apprehension of these arts. To lose your memory is to lose yourself. If you can’t recall your identity, every effort must be made to rectify the situation. Memory is essential to identity. It is also essential to apprehending music, for exactly the same reason.

Music traces a pattern in the mind that lingers after the music moves on. The memory holds that trace, and the composer counts on our capacity to do so in order to describe the pattern fully. Like words in a sentence,
we encounter music as moments in linear succession,
but musical patterns are made without words; that is,
the pattern is not literal but rather more like patterns
in architecture or a garden because they too are each apprehended in succession. The Greeks gave one answer for both the questions: Where does music come from, and, what part does memory play in its perception? We know that the father of the Muses is Zeus himself, but we seldom hear about their mother: her name was Mnemosyne: Memory. So, for real inspiration, great knowledge, for our right creative gifts to be released to do their jobs, to comprehend the nature of tragedy, epic, history, science, dance, even theology, we need the authority of Zeus, but we also need the knowledge of what has gone before — we need memory. This memory is not only of the previous words and notes in the artwork to which we presently attend, but the knowledge of our own history. What have great artists of the past done? How are we inheritors of their wisdom?

How then do we teach music? History. We need to remember. But there is one more thing to consider.

III. Excellence

“Finally, brothers, whatever things are true…honest…just… pure…lovely…of good report, if there be any virtue, and if there be anything worthy of praise, think on these things.” Phil 4:8

Our day is as much the product of history as any other day. We are the inheritors of a relatively new field of study called aesthetics. It is a modern word, first coined in the 18th century, and discussed at length by Immanuel Kant and others until eventually the whole line of inquiry was relegated to the subjective world of values, to join her sister faith in that limbo. As a result, in the last 225 years, our culture has assumed that beauty first is only a matter of individual experience, and eventually, a matter of purely personal preference. Once the goal is mislaid, it is impossible to gauge whether a work is growing closer to it, so the loss of a telos requires the loss of a concept of excellence. Innovation and technical ability soon take the place of real imagination, correlation, and beauty.

Thus, the loss of what the ancient Greeks and Christians, as well as the Medieval Christians, thought of as excellence in art in general and music in particular is really a modern loss of confidence. The literal meaning of confidence suggests acting con fide “with faith.” A lack of faith in God leads eventually to a lack of the ability to produce “simple predication” (as Richard Weaver would say). At first we lose the ability to say, “This is the point of art.” Then we lose the ability to say, “That is beautiful and that is not.” Then “that is art and that is not.” And eventually we find we can only say, “There is nothing more to art than the shock of the new; the expression that forces an audience to respond.” Reinstate faith, and we find ourselves led back to a definition of beauty that finds its source in the perfect character of God, and once He is our standard, “better” and “worse” are meaningful categories again. Beauty is the goal of art — I don’t say “prettiness” is the goal — I say beauty.

Then what is this beauty? How many philosophers have run aground making rules about beauty? What we need are not so much cultural standards by which to retroactively judge the beauty of an object; what we need is a useful foundational principle and definition of the word “objective.”

Objective beauty is simply that which is found in the object rather than in the response of the viewer/listener. Thomas Aquinas held that beauty was defined both by
the characteristics of the object AND the effect that object has on the viewer/listener. Ultimately, the Christian view of beauty will include both aspects in imitation of higher models, but when one’s day is dominated by the subjective side of the spectrum, as we are today, a reintroduction
of the opposite side is welcome. We must reintroduce
the study of form. When one describes the contours of
the piece of music itself, the way it is composed, the way it is performed, the form it offers for contemplation,
the meaning of the words chosen, one is describing the object itself, and the resulting opinion offered based on these things should be called “objective.” Don’t make the mistake of hearing “objective” as a synonym for “truth” as some will assume. The truth is far more illusive, and we have hardly scratched that surface with this approach. But what we have done is regain a category for musical discussion that requires thought. What we need is a definition of objective that leads to a fuller understanding of the work instead of considering a work based solely on whether or not we are moved by it. Teaching objectively about music means that we will address three aspects (at least):

Performance (an evaluation of the virtuosity of the performer)
Composition (an evaluation of the means of musical expression)

Content (an evaluation of the message or statement of the work)

All three of these require study, and that study will not only reveal what there is to know about the piece of music in question, but also will hone the sensibilities of the listener to be increasingly able to discern and explicate music. Over time, exposure to this sort of approach feeds our starved imaginations on excellence, and we find that instead of having to tell students not to listen to music that we might consider bad for them, they find they simply aren’t all that interested in the trivial, the base, the coarse. There would be nothing more encouraging for a music teacher than to hear a singer screaming his one- dimensional song of pain and passion, longing to be taken seriously, only then to see his student yawn and change the station.

A Theological basis for excellence

What then would be a basis for a Christian school intent on teaching excellence? We teach that taste is more than personal preference; it is a facet of wisdom. Taste is
the ability to discern between what is good and what is excellent. Discernment comes more by way of regular exposure and experience (as a master trains the wine- taster’s palate or the piano tuner’s ear), then with rules and requirements. What is needed is a master teacher who can not only know music but make connections from music, by the imagination through metaphors, to the realm of human experience, and finally to real theology.
Any work of art requires an element of unity and of diversity combined. The Greeks debated about the
one and the many, but great works have both elements. The reason is that the Creation itself reflects both unity and diversity in each of its categories (such as tree, fish, man), and we find we are only satisfied when the two are present. Too much unity? Tedium. Too much diversity? Chaos. Why should it surprise us that both the Creation and our tastes are created by a God who is ultimately both perfect unity and harmonious diversity in His Trinity?

The basis for the work of art-making is found in the doctrine of the Incarnation. We are taking invisible things such as ideas, experiences, feelings, and making them perceivable through the various physical media we use (clay, film, stone, paint, music).

Even the basis for an understanding of why we need musical education is theologically based as well. Even our imaginations are damaged by the Fall. Through the study of music (or art in general) we grow in our abilities to see connections between things. In modern thought the damage done to our tastes is ignored by simply relegating the entire category of beauty to the dustbin of subjectivity, but a kind of human maturity can come as the result of taking the claims of beauty seriously. The reality is that we are aesthetically damaged as well as in every other way, and the only way back to fuller humanity is through prayer and a rethinking of the definition of taste for His glory.

Education is more than teaching about subjects;
it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life. We need to rekindle an appreciation for music in that way, rather than offering either standardless popular music, or esoteric academic music. I am convinced that if we were to take the connections to our theology seriously we would find we could reintroduce the general public to the concert hall again, as the music there would be relevant again.

So, how then do we teach music? We do it by way of comparison. Compare the works of our composers in the past and the present, and offer the foundation of criteria to evaluate the object: beginning with the performance, the composition and the content. Then, include the aspect of MAKING music, by piano, orchestral and band instruments, and choral singing. The composition makes use of the form and elements of music, and that, with a sense of what the music is saying, leads the performer to his interpretation. It is what makes music meaningful to all concerned.

IV. Conclusions: a sacramental view of the world

For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who claim to see shall become blind. John 9:39

The Naturalism that disallows serious consideration of the supernatural has led to many unforeseen consequences, not the least of which is the
loss of the spiritual purpose of material things. When Jesus calls himself the vine and us the branches, he has opened our eyes to an aspect of the Kingdom of God, but in speaking so, he has also given a great honor to vines. Without the supernatural dimension in our thinking, we may still have vines, but on closer inspection, we will find that vines have lost something in the transaction. They are somehow less grand.

In the same way, a sacramental view of music grants a special honor and significance to music — a position that allows us insight into the mind of God and his Creation by way of harmony.

The combination of a sacramental view of the world with a holy imagination can feed the soul with visions of the transcendent through the details of the world. This is beauty — the correspondence of the material object with the transcendent spirit — a resonance of harmony heard through the din of the fallen world. Please note I do not say in spite of the fallen world, although it is that at times, but even by way of the fallen world. This is the power of God, to show His harmony even through the elements of brokenness around us.

A sacramental view of the world suggests a metaphoric relationship between the physical and the spiritual, and this in turn gives rich depth to metaphors of all kinds, including musical ones. It also gives us a purpose for art and music: beauty. Beauty is at least in part the recognition of the correlation of matter and spirit, and we need to teach the next generations to unpack those metaphors — to see sacramentally. This requires
the inspiration of God the Holy Spirit, the true Muse the Greeks could only guess about, and the gift God gives us of an imagination.

Beauty has lost its way in the 20th century in that we have lost our connection with the transcendent — that is, you cannot have the experience of seeing through the objects of this world into the next if you no longer believe there is a next. Naturalism, that seemed so optimistic in the 18th century, now appears a dead-end intellectually. Nature apart from her Creator becomes meaningless matter, and sadly, human enterprise can aspire to nothing higher than that same soul-less existence. The modern man (and I include the post-modern man in this) is haunted by his own humanity, seeing the ghosts of meaning, significance, ecstasy, profundity, joy, in the daily grind of his life. When he stops to reflect, he senses the musical rhythm in his breathing, his heartbeat, his walking pace; sometimes there seems to be more to eating meals than sustenance; he catches the notion of harmony in a well-run football play; perhaps a momentary glimpse of unity where he most expects diversity, say in his marriage; or diversity where he most expects unity, say in his twin children; he may even lift his head from anxiety long enough to find a certain joy in the rhythm of sleeping and working, or maybe looking back on a long life, discern even a kind of melody in his days, a certain beauty in the rise and fall of his fortunes, each connected in a line to the others in ways that couldn’t be seen while going through them.

This is what music is for. More than simply a means of distraction from the hard aspects of life — like a sort of emotional drug used to deaden us or entertain us while we rest — music has the ability to outline something of the actual experience of living. It speaks of the human condition because it is, like any metaphor, the use of the physical material of this world to draw attention to that which transcends our present moment. It has the ability to both reflect our experiences and shape the way we see them.

Music education then, has the ability to remind us of the relation of this matter and spirit, shaping our souls to love the beauty of harmony. This is why the ancients educated by way of music and gymnastics. This is why music has always held the position it does in the quadrivium. Musical education leads to a love of harmony in all things.

How do we teach music? The elements, the history, the comparisons of excellent works, and finally the extension of this harmony — which is the beautiful relation of disparate things — to all aspects of life: to justice, to marriage, to virtuous business relations, to love of those who are different than yourself, to math, science, philosophy, and ultimately to the Triune God Himself. The beauty of harmony tunes our affections to virtue, love, and the mind of God.

Music rightly understood cannot save our
souls, but what writer and critic Donald Drew has said about great literature applies to music as well, “after experiencing it, there will be more of a soul there to save.”

Secrets of a Classical Classroom

The fourth graders were learning about the American Civil War and the Gettysburg Address. The exercise on the day I observed had students re-writing Lincoln’s immortal speech in their own words. A simple, common assignment, but something about it didn’t sit well with me.

After a few minutes, I realized that in learning the speech by re-writing it, the students were losing Lincoln’s words. The ideas in the “Gettysburg Address” are not original. It is a eulogy. I could have written that eulogy, any fourth grader could have written it, if our only concern was to get some ideas across—the sorrow of loss, the hope of a united nation, the symbolic struggle for freedom.

But the Gettysburg Address is beautiful. The words and the way Lincoln strung them together are even beatific. And that’s the point.

The classical classroom is oriented around big ideas and important events. But this is only our starting point. Our focus extends from important content—Who was Abraham Lincoln? What was he doing at Gettysburg?—to the importance of how the ideas that shape events are captured by the great statesmen and poets in our tradition. To lose Lincoln’s words in a flurry of fourth grade paraphrases is to undermine the real educational value of his speech.

In the movie Broadcast News, Holly Hunter’s journalist character recalls how her father developed the habit in her of looking for a better word, a better way to say everything. In the movie character, the constant pursuit of a better word produced neuroses that made her interesting to movie goers. In our students, however, the search for better words, for more beautiful words, is the mark of a classical education.

Next time you read a famous work by a famous person with your students, ask the question: Why is this work famous? Examine the words, and lead your students in a discussion of the beauty of the words and the choices that the author made in order to make them lovely.

The heart of classical learning is eloquence, and the heart of a classical classroom is learning to recognize and use beautiful words.