My current reading is the fancy new reprint of Leszek Kołakowski’s Main Currents of Marxism. Terrific book, although I kind of wish they had kept the original three-volume division—trying to keep this thing propped open on my lap is like a Pilates workout. Anyway, Kołakowski sets the stage for Marx’s appearance with a quick history of the philosophical traditions that fed into his thinking. This includes Neo-Platonism, so he discusses Plotinus, generally considered the first Neo-Platonist (and no, not because it’s kind of a pun on his name). Here’s how Kołakowski paraphrases Plotinus:
The attenuation of existence is measured by the descent from unity to multiplicity, from immobility to motion and from eternity to time. Movement is a degradation of quiescence, activity is enfeebled contemplation, time is a corruption of eternity.
To which, as a musician, I can only respond oh, great—no wonder we’re always the red-headed stepchild of the visual arts. Let me explain.
Most analyses of Plotinus talk about the three hypostases, or underlying realities, that form the basis of his concept of reality. There’s the One, or the Absolute, something vaguely like either God or a Prime Mover (part of the quality of the One is that you can’t really say anything specific about it)—but since Plotinus says that the One is self-sufficient, that doesn’t explain the presence of non-One reality, so he needs more. He postulates the Intellect as just below the One in his hierarchy; the framework of reality, as we can express it, is the result of the contemplative activity of the Intellect (making the Intellect a creative force in and of itself in this regard was one of Plotinus’s innovations). But the Intellect is merely the foundation of existence, as created by the One. The specific location of that existence is what Plotinus calls the Soul. Although there’s a “higher” part of the Soul that remains in contact with the Intellect, the Soul is the medium by which the Intellect interacts with the physical and the temporal, and it’s corrupted as a result. Here’s how Plotinus lays it out in his main work, the Enneads:
Now if there is a coalescence, the lower is ennobled, the nobler degraded; the body is raised in the scale of being as made participant in life; the Soul, as associated with death and unreason, is brought lower. How can a lessening of the life-quality produce an increase such as Sense-Perception?
No: the body has acquired life, it is the body that will acquire, with life, sensation and the affections coming by sensation. Desire, then, will belong to the body, as the objects of desire are to be enjoyed by the body. And fear, too, will belong to the body alone; for it is the body’s doom to fail of its joys and to perish.
Picking up on this note of transience, Kołakowski does something really interesting: he frames his whole survey of this head-scratchingly esoteric business around the idea of man’s contigency, an Aristotelian term that refers to the fact that even though we exist, it isn’t strictly necessary that we exist. This is bound up with our experience of time; as Kołakowski puts it, “Every created thing has a beginning in time; there was a time when it did not exist, and consequently it does not exist of necessity.” What’s more, the fact of time is what separates us from the One; because time continually passes, we can remember what we were, or imagine what we will be, but we can never know what we are—we’re permanently alienated from a unified sense of our own existence. Hence the relative philosophical shoddiness of movement, activity, and time itself.
You may be saying to yourself: bending one’s mind around these ideas is perhaps a not unpleasant way of avoiding actual work, but ultimately, why should I care? Here’s why you should care: because St. Augustine read Plotinus. In fact, Book XI of the Confessions is pretty much Plotinus run through a Christian filter. The big difference? Plotinus says that our alienation will end when the contemplations of the Intellect raise the Soul back into unity with the One. But Augustine says that the only cure for the temporal blues is the salvation of a loving God.
Thus through [the Lord] I may lay hold upon him in whom I am also laid hold upon; and I may be gathered up from my old way of life to follow that One and to forget that which is behind, no longer stretched out but now pulled together again—stretching forth not to what shall be and shall pass away but to those things that are before me. Not distractedly now, but intently, I follow on for the prize of my heavenly calling, where I may hear the sound of thy praise and contemplate thy delights, which neither come to be nor pass away.
But now my years are spent in mourning. And thou, O Lord, art my comfort, my eternal Father. But I have been torn between the times, the order of which I do not know, and my thoughts, even the inmost and deepest places of my soul, are mangled by various commotions until I shall flow together into thee, purged and molten in the fire of thy love.
Contemplation of the passage of time has become something that mangles the soul until it can be purified in the Refiner’s fire. Now, Augustine’s writings became the foundation for the entire edifice of Christian theology. And Christian theology was, for the better part of the millenium, one of the driving engines of Western civilization. Even in this nominally secular age, those threads have been woven pretty deep into the fabric of society.
What does all this have to do with music? Think about it: the fundamental subject of music is the passage of time. I mean, yes, the visual arts are experienced in time, but music actually rubs your nose in it. Paintings, sculpture, architecture—they all create an illusion of timelessness, of being outside our poor alienated sense of the world. It’s all there at once; it provides the comfort of knowing that, at least in theory, there’s a unified reality, even if we can’t quite grasp it. But music is not only not all there, it’s not even there at all. It’s constantly on the move, shifting, disappearing into the past and running off into the future. It not only reminds us of our fractured experience of time, it is our fractured experience of time, made manifest and explicit. It’s a soul-mangling extravaganza.
My sense is that, throughout Western history, music has been the recipient of an unfair share of pious horror. Whenever you chance across a commentary, old or new, warning you about music because it’s too sensual, or too overwhelmingly emotional, or too likely to corrupt the morals of young people, etc., ask youself: aren’t other art forms guilty of all these sins? What is this really about? I think they’re all distant echoes of an Augustinian big bang. The real scare is this: music is the slippery temporal nature of our worldly existence acknowledged, brought to the fore, and most dangerous of all, rendered damned beautiful.