About this blogger:
A graduate of Thomas Aquinas College (B.A. in Liberal Arts) and The Catholic University of America (M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy), Dr. Peter Kwasniewski is currently Professor at Wyoming Catholic College. He is also a published and performed composer, especially of sacred music.
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"When a friend speaks of his accomplishments and triumphs, he stands at a distance from our heart. When he shares his weaknesses and failings, he’s very near."
— Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen
The Grand Debate Over Music and Morals
published 26 September 2013 by Dr. Peter Kwasniewski
It should not be cause for surprise that my posts on the moral dangers of rock music (part 1 and part 2) generated so many and such strong comments, with some commenters in full or partial agreement and others ready to place a bounty on my head.

In addition to helping me think through the relevant issues and offer needed clarifications, the comments prompted me to consider anew the overall shape of the argument on music that I have been pursuing here at Corpus Christi Watershed for a few months, and especially in the last four posts. It will be helpful, I think, to take a step back and try to see that overall shape.

NE CRITICISM made against my analysis of rock is that I was effectively insulting people’s intelligence and casting aspersions on their moral character.

A discussion of aesthetic sensibilities necessarily deals with generalities, and at this level, one can examine whether musical tastes are well-founded and well-formed or not. Lacking further evidence, however, one cannot then call into question people’s moral character, which has to do with particulars. Character is formed by a thousand influences, and it is always possible for a person who listens to Bach and Mozart to be a complete hedonist (as are many professional musicians), and for a person who performs or listens to rock or atonal music to be a morally upright person. I do think some kinds of music are spiritually dangerous while others are spiritually beneficial, but music is obviously only one of many elements that make up a human being’s moral, intellectual, and spiritual identity.

In my post On the Connection Between Good Art and Good Morals, I showed that while art and ethics are somewhat distinct, they cannot help influencing one another over time—a reason all of us should be vigilant, even scrupulous, about the influences we allow into our souls. This would always have been true and will always be true: no matter how “different” modern man may be, he still has a soul to save, and that soul will be saved through the same virtues, the same harmony of faith and reason, reason and passions, as that of pre-modern man, post-modern man, and any other man there may ever be.

Thus, my argument is not limited to certain contemporary genres but extends over the whole history of music in all cultures. There have always been deviations in the fine arts, just as there have always been clothing, dances, and language of questionable modesty. Due to the profound influence of Catholicism, a sense of order, decency, and gracefulness generally prevailed for many centuries in Western fine art, and this cultural force was strong enough to carry into the twentieth century, although it was already weakening considerably in the nineteenth century.

The post after that, Nourishing Our Souls on Beautiful Music: A Moral Imperative, took the argument a step further: human beings as rational animals, and even more, Christians who worship the crucified and risen Logos, ought to nourish their souls, to the extent possible for them, on the best of the fine arts, giving less room to what is mediocre, and none at all to what is harmful. There is a kind of moral imperative to pursue excellence in all aspects of life, including our leisure and recreational activities.

This post gave rise to a wonderful email exchange with a Catholic educator, who reacted to my thesis in this way: “Hmm…something’s not quite right with your argument. By your assessment we will never listen to what is less perfect. So is it always Bach, even at a barn dance? And there are levels of perfection, too. ‘Tea for Two’ is not Gerard Manley Hopkins, but its delightful rhymes and cadences do bring joy. And when I’m stuck in traffic I can belt out ‘Chatanooga Choo Choo’ all by myself, but Beethoven’s ninth symphony would need some help. Yes, one should stop one’s ears to the perverse and the subversive, but one should also be attentive to the beautiful wherever it resides.”

As I never intended to disparage or exclude all the types of music he mentioned, his objection gives me a welcome opportunity to clarify my position.

We have a duty to pursue excellence in every circumstance. In keeping with traditional ethics, we know that as circumstances themselves vary, we must vary what we are doing and how we are doing it in order to be virtuous. Square dancing music is perfectly appropriate for square dancing, a folk song or a lullaby for the family circle, campfire songs around the campfire, and an appropriately moody soundtrack for a movie. All of those genres can be done well or badly, in a way that accords with our rational dignity or not.

I see how some of my language might have caused a reader to think I was saying that only the artistically best will be morally choiceworthy and praiseworthy in any and every situation. This is true, in a way: it would be better to have a well-written and well-performed square dance, if one could manage it, than a poorly-written and poorly-performed one. But it’s not true if one means artistically best, simply speaking. One may indeed sing, perform, or listen to something that is less than the best, as long as it embodies good principles and therefore is in a line of continuity with the best. I agree with Eric Gill that the whole of life should be beautiful, a work of art, all the way down to forks and knives and spoons.

Another friend of mine said that my argument was too simplistic and committed the fallacy of equating the good with the perfect.

My response to him was that I am espousing the search for excellence in every domain of human life, in all the appropriate media and venues and registers, and that there is a sense in which the good of rational human nature directs us to and compels us towards perfection, even if none of us will attain it completely in this life.

My great concern is with our culture’s seemingly irreversible slide into mediocrity, banality, ugliness, violence, sensuality, and (fill in the blank with any other negative concept). This slide has destroyed high culture and authentic folk culture, both of which are very beautiful in their distinctive ways.

It was after those two posts, and within the context they established, that I broached the question of the moral problems of rock music (part 1, part 2). Readers, therefore, who are startled or dismayed by what I have argued regarding rock should read or re-read the two posts in which I attempted to shed light on the relationships that exist among music, morals, culture, and the perfection of the Christian spiritual life.

That brings us squarely to the spiritual dimension of this whole question. Is there any evidence that Christians have a moral imperative to pursue an all-embracing excellence in the fine arts and to avoid the contamination of worldliness, whether it be in lyrics, themes, aesthetic styles, or lifestyles? I believe the answer is a resounding YES. Although a full answer will require a treatment of its own, one may meditate profitably on the following verses.

“I appeal to you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may prove what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” (Romans 12:1-2)

“Brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Philippians 4:8)

“Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might understand the gifts bestowed on us by God.” (1 Corinthians 2:12)

“For the grace of God has appeared for the salvation of all men, training us to renounce irreligion and worldly passions, and to live sober, upright, and godly lives in this world, awaiting our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all iniquity and to purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:11-14)

“Unfaithful creatures! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is in vain that the scripture says, ‘He yearns jealously over the spirit which he has made to dwell in us’?” (James 4:4-5)

“His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, that through these you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of passion, and become partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3-4)

“[T]he Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trial, and to keep the unrighteous under punishment until the day of judgment, and especially those who indulge in the lust of defiling passion and despise authority. … But these, like irrational animals, creatures of instinct, born to be caught and killed, reviling in matters of which they are ignorant, will be destroyed in the same destruction with them, suffering wrong for their wrongdoing. They count it pleasure to revel in the daytime. They are blots and blemishes, reveling in their dissipation, carousing with you. They have eyes full of adultery, insatiable for sin. They entice unsteady souls. They have hearts trained in greed. … For, uttering loud boasts of folly, they entice with licentious passions of the flesh men who have barely escaped from those who live in error. They promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved. For if, after they have escaped the defilements of the world through the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overpowered, the last state has become worse for them than the first.” (2 Peter 2:1-20)

“Do not love the world or the things in the world. If any one loves the world, love for the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life, is not of the Father but is of the world.” (1 John 2:15-16)

The world of rock music, and, more broadly, the world of contemporary entertainment, is permeated with “the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.” Not all of it, thanks be to God, but far more of it than the sophisticated defenders of popular culture have persuaded themselves to believe. The human person seeking moral virtue, wisdom, and fine art, the Christian seeking holiness, contemplation, and beatitude, would do well to be supremely vigilant, keenly discriminating, and ready to avoid or repudiate all that is not true, honorable, just, pure, lovely, and gracious (cf. Phil 4:8). Such behavior, far from showing a pusillanimous fear of the world or a failure of apostolic engagement, manifests a righteous fear of the living God and an intense love of His beauty. This is the beauty that must permeate our whole lives, from logos to pathos — from the pinnacle of reason to the very depths of emotion.

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