Music and Morals


Dr. Patrick J. DiVietri, Ph.D., MA, CPC, OCDS

In his book, Music and Morals, Basil Cole, O.P. tracks the history of music as it relates to the moral development of the human person.  In so doing, he addresses not only the relationship of music to morals but also to other disciplines such as philosophy and psychology.  Cole’s discussion is of value for several reasons: first, it addresses the theme of union which for our purposes not only applies to the healing upon the individual soul but also a harmony within the disciplines of the humanities; second, it addresses the question of facility of expression for those things which challenge human expression such as mystical theology and contemplation;  third, it contributes to the discussion of moral development and character.  Cole argues that music may dispose one to the good through less ascetic effort on the listener’s part as one’s senses and imagination are inspired and drawn to the good and beautiful.  This contributes to my premise that music assists the layman in approaching an appreciation of the mystical experience.

The significance of Cole’s contribution is that there are very few resources of this type in regard to all the fine arts and the humanities.  This present age of specialization and independence of the disciplines offers little promise for the immediate future.  As he says, theology needs to take this art more seriously.[1]  The following is a short synopsis of Cole’s work in the areas which apply to this dissertation.

The primary thrust of Cole’s history shows that from Confucius to John Paul II, philosophers, theologians, musicians and churchmen, have acknowledged the role of music within the life of the human person.  They conclude that it shapes and forms moral character.[2]  Music expresses emotions and thoughts.[3]   This effect can be for bad as well as good ends, as reflected in the resistance at various times to musical forms and instruments and the reluctance to acknowledge the nobility of the art.  We find this exemplified in Plato’s association of the flute with various gluttonous and sensual rituals.

Because all the arts imitate the actions, passions and character of men, Aristotle spoke of music as an “imitative art”.[4]  Rhythm and melody supply imitation of anger and all qualities of character.[5]  For Aristotle, music mirrors reality.  Basil Cole comments that “Imitation as a reality, therefore, is analogical…for example feeling pain and delight at these representations of reality is close to feeling them as they are in themselves since they mirror reality itself.”[6]

[1] Cole, Basil OP. Music and Morals. (New York: Alba House, 1993,) p. 81.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, Great Books, The Works of Aristotle,  Ed. Robert Manard Hutching (Chicago: W. Benton Publishing, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1952), Book VIII, 1341-42, pp. 546-548.

[3] Ibid. 1340, 24-25, p. 545.

[4] Aristotle, Poetics, 1447, 28, p. 681.

[5] Aristotle, Politics, 23, p. 545.

[6] Ibid., 1340.

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