Friday, September 19, 2008

Music and Morality 3: the Passions

I have asserted that music is related to morality by way of the passions, and so some reflection on the nature of the passions and their relation to the moral life is in order.

According to Fr. Jordan Aumann, O.P., "The passions are movements or energies we can use for good or for evil, but in themselves they are neither good nor evil.  When placed at the service of the good, the passions can be of incalculable assistance, even to the point that one could say that it is morally impossible for a soul to arrive at great sanctity without possessing a great energy or passion directed to God.  But when placed at the service of evil, the passions are converted into a destructive force that is truly terrifying ." [Spiritual Theology, p. 184]

The passions are related to what we more normally call 'emotion', which is perhaps the better and more neutral term, derived as it is from the idea of motion or change, in distinction from the word 'passion' which connotes something unwillingly undergone.  In monastic tradition, the word 'passion' usually has this darker connotation, and the goal of the spiritual life for the earliest monastic theorists was in fact 'apatheia', the condition of no longer having to suffer the passions, but instead having control over them by reason.  Th term apatheia is still used in Orthodox moral theology.

St. Augustine contributes to the later Latin moral theology, especially that of Aquinas, with his reflections (perhaps overly grim at times) on concupiscence.*  This is the state in which we find ourselves because of the transgression of Adam: we are not normally able to govern our passions to direct them toward the good; rather, our passions are often out of control and even go so far as to warp our rational abilities.  A person who cannot control his eating is colloquially said to 'think with his stomach', for example.  We lighten the punishment for 'crimes of passion' and distinguish them from crimes committed 'in cold blood', that is, with deliberation.  Of course, I would add to that the deliberation of a cold blooded murderer is usually one in which the passions have been allowed to distort the murderers mind to such an extent that he believes that murder is a good.  Often this happens by the suppression of our consciences when we want something that we know it is not licit to have or when someone stands in the way of our passions' desire.  "Com-passion" would require us to consider the pain we cause our victims and their families, to empathize with the sufferings of others--a good use of emotion, but instead it is possible for us to suppress this natural movement.

This last point is important: we do have some control over our passions.  It is possible to discipline them, so as to eat proper amounts, to make proper use of our sexual energies, to use the energy of anger in order to oppose evil even when such opposition is costly, to feel sorrow with the sorrowing, and so on.  Because of the reality of concupiscence, the disordered present state of our passions, many people today draw the conclusion that we have no control over our emotions: "That's just how I feel!"  Habitually giving in to the passions strengthens their hold on us (we call the eventual stranglehold 'vice'); but the opposite is just as true.  The more we discipline our bodies' energies, the less the passions overrule us.  By consistently choosing the good, we develop the virtues.

One place we have a great deal of choice is in the music to which we listen.  Aside from unpleasant experiences in grocery stores and restaurants, we normally have freedom to decide what type of music we hear, at what volume, and so on.  So if we are willing to admit a connection between music and emotion, then we can help ourselves out, as it were, by choosing to listen to music that strengthens in us appropriate feelings, and we can avoid music that tends to stir up inappropriate feelings.  (I use the words 'appropriate' and 'inappropriate' advisedly, for reasons that I will develop in the next post.)  I have already noted that it is a good for soldiers to hear music that gives them courage and a sense of camaraderie.  If a whole society is listening to this sort of music, however, we might suspect them of being overly bellicose.

I also suggested that much of the popular music of the past 150 years or so tends to generate melancholy feelings, a non-directional sadness of the sort that St. Paul warns against [see 2 Cor 7: 9-11].  Much current popular music can be quite violent.  It should be noted that the phenomenon is not to lead immediately to a dismissal of this music.  Perhaps if we understood better the cultural context of what the performers and listeners to sad or violent music are responding to, we can find a way to redirect the passions appropriately.  For example, as a friend of mine commenting on these posts suggested, gangster rap or contemporary hip hop is in fact often angry at not only perceived injustices in society, but real ones.  That the anger is afterward perhaps misdirected is an obvious social bane, but simply banning violent music will not therefore make us moral people.

Finally, I would add that the passions are often pre-rational indicators of real-life situations.  Most of us have intuitions that tell us when something is wrong before we can identify any tangible danger.  Our initial responses to certain types of persons: attraction, repulsion, warmth, disinterest, are indications of the objective state of our souls and characters.  We must use our reason and conscience to train our feelings to respond lovingly and patiently to all types of people, and the presence of distrust or antipathy can help us to locate the places where we need to grow.  Music can actually help us then in addressing the imbalances of our emotions, used moderately and wisely.

Next: why discernment is necessary in the government of passions and how music is connected to this project.

* The Catechism of the Catholic Church has this to say about concupiscence: "Christian theology has given [concupiscence] a particular meaning: the movement of the sensitive appetite contrary to the operation of the human reason....Concupiscence stems from the disobedience of the first sin.  It unsettles man's moral faculties and, without being in itself an offense, inclines man to commit sins.


Mr. Potato said...

The Civil Rights movement responded to great injustices. Driven by Christian leaders like Martin Luther King, it rooted itself in God. It's musical response were hymns.

Rap and hip hop are responses to real injustices but they often reveal an ugliness that shows what happens when man's response to evil is separated from God: vulgarity and a return to primitive violence.

Mr. Potato said...

There are some forms of rap music which I've thought were close to Gregorian chant in this respect: Unlike "rock", some rap music restores the preeminent importance of words. The words are actually the most important part and language becomes playful. Thus, the intellect can become self-reflective and sharpened such as in the work of the rapping Orthodox rabbi Matisyahu.

Mr. Potato said...

Correction - Matisyahu is NOT a Rabbi.

maria from elmhurst said...

I found myself wondering what you think of people creating solitary comfort cocoons by wearing ipods. What if the content is inspirational? It is an exclusionary practice-but I have found myself in the grocery store wearing an ipod to avoid their goofy music/manipulation. Any thoughts?

Mr. Potato said...

Try it. I did it for a year with J.S. Bach's music on walks through Chicago.

I can't stand the background/manipulation music of the stores. They assault our internal environment without our permission.

As for the rap - I've thought about it and have concluded that it isn't really suited to conveying religious notions. It is intended to reflect the violence of the streets in its rhythms and it just doesn't work as religious music. It often has a narrative and creative plays on words but this form of music has become associated in my mind with vile language and awakening from sleep because some little brat occasionally drives by my house around 1 a.m. with a deep beating bass noise blasting from his auto.


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