Augustine on music: an apologia

Augustine certainly has a point to say when he writes on music in his Confessions. He says that when he sings it is tempting to let music distract him from directing his heart to God, and control his emotions such that they run before reason. In such cases, he says that it is perhaps better to sing without any music or with just a simple melody. It may be said that Augustine has a negative view of music. I do not think the claim is justified, however. Augustine is just being honest with God and with himself that that was what he sometimes experienced when he sang. In this regard, he is humble in that he realises his weakness. Some of us who have the same weakness surely can identify ourselves with Augustine. This weakness does not of course necessarily describe something that is inherent in human beings. At least, we do not have to read that into Augustine’s confessions. What we know from reading it is just that singing accompanied by music in certain settings can tempt him to sin. This honest exploration into the depth of his human nature is truly exemplary, for some of us often do not realise that such things as music can be a stumbling block. And surely he has served to point to us a thing that could have been missed by many.

Moreover, we should remember that he writes not about music in general, but in a particular setting, that is the church, and more specifically the church in his time. Although I do not have a concrete idea about how the congregations sang at that time, it is safe to say that the way they sang was different from us today. That which may not be a temptation to us today could have been a temptation then. But what to us seemed to be a sign of paranoia in Augustine could exactly be the consequence of his utmost devotion. For how could he be so much troubled with a thing unless he was very sensitive to that which could serve as a hindrance to his devotion? Does not the fact that we are seldom, if not at all, troubled with the kind of music and the way it is played in the church reflect something about the condition of our spirituality today? It is likely that we do not feel tempted simply because we are not aware of the temptation. We indulge ourselves in it, without being aware of it.

Even if what Augustine discusses is specifically about music, his principles are certainly in line with what Paul says about the Lord’s supper in 1 Cor. 11. We do not have to assume the distinction of reason and emotion as used by Augustine, but we can understand his point. When what is supposed to be an experience of God and his goodness becomes a self-centred indulgement, God is no longer the focus of worship. The worship is no longer sacramental. As those who eat and drink in an unworthy manner are guilty (v. 27), so are they who sing in an unworthy manner. For surely it is not the bread and wine alone that are sacramental, but the worship as a whole, which comprises many elements, each no less important than the others. It is exactly this that Augustine points out. Men are so weak, that even in a church worship, the occasion for sinning abounds.

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