F A NATURAL rational perfection is attainable to you, then it is a moral fault not to strive for it as much as possible; if you have achieved such a perfection, it is a moral fault not to strive to maintain it and to augment it, if possible.
This is true of any essential rational perfection—that is, not of tulip collecting or astrophysics, which are specialized knowledge and therefore not for everyone, but of such things as the correct use of the faculties of thinking and speaking, and some understanding of the orderliness of reality. These are basically what our forebears called the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music). To the extent that you can attain such essential rational perfections, you should strive to attain them, and a failure to do so, owing not to unavoidable circumstances or pressing obligations but to laziness or distraction or bad appetites, is a moral fault.
A fortiori, this imperative would not include physical perfection, such as weight-lifting or triathlon competency. All that is morally required of us in regard to our bodily nature is a diet and daily regimen adequate to sustaining the higher activities of reason and will. Indeed, if physical exercise were actually to take up so much time and attention that they rendered impossible a life of philosophical leisure or Christian prayer, this would be a manifest imperfection, not a perfection.
Let us apply this principle to music. If one knows that Palestrina or Bach or Handel or Mozart or Beethoven wrote superior music, then choosing consistently to listen to less excellent music would be a moral fault. It could even be a mortal sin if the intention and matter made it so; for example, listening for pleasure to songs about sexual perversion or Satanic heavy metal would be mortally sinful. However, since we must strive to flee even venial sins lest they prepare the way for mortal sin, it is always better to assume that today’s popular music, produced mostly by hedonists who are generally singing about sins, is a slippery slope leading to some kind of intellectual pollution and consent.
I have often heard people make a distinction between listening to music for its entertainment value and listening to it because it is beautiful art. They are trying to find a way to defend their practice of listening to Handel’s Messiah or Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto one day, and their favorite rock band the next day. To a virtuous person, however, that which is most pleasing and therefore most compelling for his attention is that which is most beautiful and most noble in its qualities.
For a person attracted by the goodness inherent in art, there can be no divide between entertainment and profundity or worthiness. We should only want to listen to that which is beautiful; to settle consciously for something less is a lessening of our humanity, of our rationality. It would be like saying that only a church needs to be holy, while a home can be profane. No, the home itself must be made holy, it must be a “domestic church,” a sort of monastic enclosure for the bringing up of saints. The divide between entertainment and fine art is a form of dualism, seen as well in the all-too-common division of worldly events or occasions from religious ones (e.g., Americans celebrate purely political holidays with no connection to the true religion revealed by God, and they celebrate their religious holydays with no connection to their civic life and identity).
If we can, we should elevate our souls to the point where what is intrinsically best or most beautiful is what gives us the greatest pleasure and restfulness. In other words, we should aim at a condition where anything we choose to do—whether for relaxation, leisure, or work—is equally noble, excellent, and praiseworthy. When I am in a serious mood, I should sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer; when I am in a light mood or in need of relaxation, I should also sing, play, or listen to Bach or any other great composer.
THE BEST AND MOST BEAUTIFUL THINGS God has permitted man to produce contain an almost infinite wealth that can be tapped into throughout all the vicissitudes of life. Good music speaks to all the emotions, all the phases of life, all the daily and weekly junctures. If I need to unwind and wish to do so with music, I might put on lute pieces by Dowland or a pleasant Haydn symphony; if I need to work intensely on a certain project, I might put on some surging Bach or bracing Beethoven; if I wish to elevate my soul to God in prayer, I shall put on a Mass of Palestrina or a work by Arvo Pärt. There is no room for “pop” music in a soul that is thoroughly attached to and captivated by the beautiful, the noble, the elegant, the profound. In fact, such a soul will hate the ugliness and triviality of such base music, which does not even deserve to be honored by the hallowed name of the Muses.
We have a God-given duty to sanctify our lives in every respect, including our leisure pursuits, our recreations and entertainments. Only that which, due to its inherent soundness of form, can be sanctified is worthy of a Christian’s choice and favor. Just as we cannot be holy bank robbers, we cannot be holy rock musicians or consumers of unholy music, because all of this is morally tainted, intellectually inferior, and culturally decadent.
Blessed John Henry Newman once said that going to church is our greatest privilege and should be our central desire. Our entire life, then, from top to bottom, should be permeated with the sacred, with order, beauty, purity, light—not excluding at the same time the emotional power and depth that always accompany true greatness. One thinks of the quartets of Beethoven or the symphonies of Bruckner or Mahler in their most sublime moments, where it is as if the veil between time and eternity is lifted, the abyss between creation and the uncreated spanned. It is our greatest privilege as artistic beings to listen to music that is sacred or finely crafted or sublime (or all three, as in the cantatas of Bach); and if we are listening to music for “relaxation,” it should still be of the best quality.
Everything comes down to the question of beauty. Beautiful music is intrinsically worth listening to at any time when music is appropriate. Especially at our juncture in history, when we have behind us the limitless harvest of centuries of the greatest music the human heart has ever produced—music which, for the first time, is easily accessible to all—there can be no possible excuse for debasing oneself with trash, for lowering oneself to the level of the masses who have no taste, no ear, no musical intuition, no discrimination. The masses listen to the music of techno-barbarians, with no other effect than fueling the basest passions and retarding cultural or mental advancement. That most people do not recognize this fact says nothing whatsoever about its truth. You cannot find out what the truth is by taking a poll or going around the marketplace and asking people what they think.
Music is a basic and essential food of the soul. Just as the body can only be as healthy as the quality of the food ingested, so the soul can only be as healthy as the quality of the sensible goods it takes in. Let us then resolve to nourish our souls on the health-giving food of the beautiful—on music that is profound, rich, subtle, varied, and splendid, and in all these ways, worthy of the image of God that resides in our rational nature.