VOLUME 1 NUMBER 3.3
Ask the Philosopher
QUESTION: WHAT IS ARISTOTLE’S MUSIC
Plato and his student Aristotle stand together as the founding philosophers of Western philosophical thought. The questions they raised still engage our world today. Aristotle was a remarkable polymath. He studied and wrote on virtually every major subject, and his influence on Western thought is incalculable.
Cosmology, the branch of philosophy that deals with the origin and nature of the universe was one of many subjects that he explored. He conceived of the earth as a sphere and postulated that the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets, plus other heavenly bodies were all spheres as well. Each of them was embedded in a larger sphere that fixed them in space. Aristotle in his assessment of the heavens arrived at a sum of fifty-five such spheres, which enabled him to account for the celestial movements that we observe from earth.
Aristotle also believed that all heavenly bodies were pure, smooth, crystalline structures, perfect in their composition and not subject to decay or change unlike the decaying, changing material bodies of the earth. The celestial spheres were eternal. They were nested within each other and their movement created our visual panorama of the heavens. Nested as they were next to each other the friction of their movement against each other created harmonious sounds. Those sounds were what Aristotle called “the music of the spheres.” What are we to make of these conjectures about the astronomical world above us?
The underlying thread of Aristotle’s assumptions reflects his deep conviction that the world was ultimately a rational structure. It was harmonious, and the eternally unchanging matter of the celestial bodies mirrored his conviction that the form of things in the world was also unchanging.
Individuals in the natural world were varied and different, but each kind of thing was regulated in its being by this fixed form that never changed. That form was the thing’s essence, that which made it what it was.
The species of different animals was determined by this unchanging form. Human beings were human through the form of humanity, which for Aristotle was our rationality. Thus, his reason for defining human beings as rational animals.
Individuals were born, changed, lived, and died, but the form was the guiding, controlling measure of each of those individuals. Form was the eternal constancy. Becoming was ruled by being.
Aristotle’s beliefs dominated the thought of the Western world, and his emphasis on the fixity and finality of forms was not seriously challenged for 2000 years until Darwin’s claims about evolution surfaced. Although Darwin in effect refuted Aristotle, the quest for that which does not change still continues even today.
What Aristotle saw in the heavens and in his allegiance to form, many moderns have transferred to their beliefs about God. We still find we live with deeply rooted resistance to the pervasiveness of change in our lives. We still yearn for something that doesn’t change, something that somehow transcends this ever different from what went before world. Many people find this transcendence in their belief in an infinite God that is perfect. A perfect God is all that it can be, totally realized, complete and therefore beyond change, eternal,and timeless. Many religious traditions have seen our yearning for perfection as our quest to unite with this unchanging, perfect being, God.
However, while we are here on this planet, we are forever embedded in change. We can lament it, resist it, dislike it, but we cannot ever stop it. Aristotle’s world picture has a certain frozen elegance to it, and while we can respect his genius, we ultimately have to move on, and live in a world where there are no full guarantees, where things are similar to what went before, but never exactly the same.
We face the same limits despite our beliefs in a perfect God, for no matter how we strive, we cannot bypass the continuous change of the world we live in day-to-day. The irreducibility of change has a double spin to it. It can be a source of despair and helplessness that things are never fully settled or it can be a reason for excitement and possibility in that whatever has been need not be our destiny. The past need not dominate our futures. Change provides us with the option to recreate ourselves if we so choose.
The question we are faced with then is what do we want the music of our lives to sound like? Do we choose some ethereal, remote sound divorced from the here and now of our life? Or do we choose that the music of our lives will align with and reflect the changes of our lives?
Ultimately, the music you hear depends on what you decide to listen to; it is up to you.