Music and Drunkenness, Part 1

Perhaps it is because I am a musician that I have always found Ephesians 5:18-19 so arbitrary. But isn’t it a little odd to contrast music and drunkenness? Perhaps it is not obvious that that is what Paul is doing; I know, for myself, that it is remarkably easy to read Paul (and the Bible, generally) in such a fragmentary way that it is my default to interpret a passage as a series of unrelated bits. But if we assume, instead, a reasonable assumption of hermeneutics, that passages are structured and connected intentionally by their authors, what is the logic of the following passage?

And do not get drunk with wine, for that is debauchery, but be filled with the Spirit, addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart….

The grammar is perfectly straightforward: do not do this, but do this instead. Being drunk is like being “filled with wine,” and it could be opposed to being “filled with the Spirit.” Perhaps this is not counterintuitive. But then, with a few participles trailing after “filled with the Spirit,” we have Paul’s most famous treatment of music, besides perhaps I Corinthians 13-14. Paul is specific and even opinionated: his choice of words here is a thinly-veiled endorsement of musical instruments in worship, often unnoticed amongst commentators, who tend to go to great lengths to ignore passages in Scripture endorsing instruments (famously Chrysostom and Calvin).1 Christians have tended to do grievous violence to the plain meaning of the text, particularly in translating the Greek psallontes as “making melody”. Nowhere else (at least insofar as Liddell can tell us) does psallontes mean anything like “making melody”; the verb literally means “to pluck”. It is often used to refer to a bow being strung or let go, and, musically, it is of course referring to playing the harp. This is not totally surprising to students of Homer, who may remember that Odysseus is said to have been able to string his bow as easily as a harp player strings his harp (Od. 21.406-9).2 This word, combined with adontes, makes a nice pair: singing (with the voice) and plucking (an instrument), two equally important (dare I say? not even hierarchized) aspects of music in Christian life.

But why does this come after an exhortation not to be drunk? Perhaps I am making something of nothing, but it is not an intuitive sequence of discussion to my modern sensibility. As it turns out, however, it may be more intuitive to an ancient Greco-Roman sensibility. The abrupt shift reminds me of another similar abrupt shift in Plato’s Republic, when Socrates and his companions discuss what musical modes should be used to educate the guardians of the state.

“At all events,” I said, “you are, in the first place, surely capable of saying that melody is composed of three things—speech, harmonic mode, and rhythm.”

“Yes,” he said, “that I can do.”

…”What are the wailing modes? Tell me, for you’re musical.”

“The mixed Lydian,” he said, “and the ‘tight’ Lydian and some similar ones.”

“Aren’t they to be excluded?” I said. “They’re useless even for women who are to be decent, let alone for men.”


“Then again, drunkenness, softness, and idleness are most unseemly for guardians.”

“Of course.”

“What modes are soft and suitable for symposia?”

“There are some Ionian, ” he said, “and some Lydian, too, which are called ‘slack.'” (398d-399a)

Here, in the middle of one of Plato’s longest discussions of music and the suitability of this or that musical “mode” (Lydian, Ionian, and so forth), he moves immediately back and forth between music and “drunkenness, softness, and idleness.” Aristotle, commenting on this passage, also finds it odd, but curiously he finds it odd “not because [Socrates] supposed [modes] to be intoxicating, and to have a power like that of drinking (since drinking is more inclined to make a man riotous), but because he thought them enfeebled.” Aristotle is right, that it is odd that a man would be thought to become weaker through drinking rather than more riotous, but Aristotle assumes as correct the idea that music has “a power like that of drinking,” (Politics, 1342b).3 Something similar happens in Plato’s Laws, where the Athenian concludes a discussion of “the laws of melody and rhythm” by saying that, without education in music, the guardians of the state “will never be able to charm the souls of young men in the way of virtue,” (671a). But immediately afterward he says, “I should imagine that a drinking assembly is likely to become more and more tumultuous as the drinking goes on: this, as we were saying at first, will certainly be the case.”4 He then goes on to discuss the “laws of the banquet”, which in Greek is nomous sumpotikous, a curious phrase that could be a technical term in music and also, more generally, “rules for partying”.5 After talking about drinking for a long time, he claims that “Music, which was one half of the choral art, may be said to have been completely discussed.” So what is it that allows these authors to move so easily between these two unrelated topics?

It has long been noted that the ancient Greeks believed music to have “ethical effects”, that is, they believed that certain musical melodies or rhythms could make one undergo different emotions and behave in different ways. This makes sense of Plato’s passage in Republic, since his concern seems to be that the Lydian would make men effeminate (“useless even for women who are to be decent, let alone men”) and perhaps the Ionian make them act as if inebriated (“suitable for symposia”). But drinking and music enjoy a special relationship, going back to Homer who spoke of “singing and dancing, the ornaments of a feast,” (Od., I.152). By this, according to Pseudo-Plutarch, Homer did not mean “that music is of value only as an aid to pleasure,” but instead “music was introduced because it is able to counteract and mollify the inflammatory power of wine…. While it is of the nature of wine to send reeling the bodies and minds of those who indulge in it to the full, music, through its own order and proportion, calms them and leads them into the contrary condition,” (Ps.-Pl. De Musica, 1146f-1147a). Athenaeus, another ancient author, agrees: music accompanied drinking “first so that those who were intent on getting drunk and filling themselves with food might have music as a cure for intemperate excess and disorder, and secondly because it softens boorishness,” (Deipnosophistae, 627e).6 In all of these authors, there is some similarity to Paul’s passage, in that they all place the two things, music and drunkenness, in relation to one another. But so far, unlike the other authors, Paul does not suggest that music is good because it cures people who are already drunk. Hopefully it should be obvious that Paul is not suggesting Christians have Bacchic frenzies but have someone play hymns on the side to keep everyone sober  or mild-to-medium drunk. He is not appropriating, but significantly modifying, some aspect of this tradition.

Particularly important for an understanding of Paul’s passage is Boethius’ anecdote about Pythagoras in his De Institutione Musica.

For who does not know that Pythagoras calmed a drunk adolescent of Taormine who had become incited under the influence of the Phrygian mode, and that Pythagoras further restored this boy to his rightful senses, all by means of a spondaic melody? For one night this frenzied youth was about to set fire to the house of a rival who had locked himself in the house with a whore. Now that same night Pythagoras was out contemplating the course of the heavens, as was his usual custom. When he learned that this youth under the influence of the Phrygian mode would not be stopped from his crime…he ordered that the mode be changed; and thus Pythagoras restored the frenzied mind of the boy to a state of absolute calm. (Boethius, De Inst. Mus., 1)7

What is fascinating about this anecdote (and it is a common anecdote, appearing in Cicero and Quintilian at least) is the detail Boethius adds, “Pythagoras was out contemplating the course of the heavens, as was his usual custom.” From Boethius’ perspective, Pythagoras has not fundamentally changed topics when he goes from contemplating the heavens to curing a drunk man—both are, for Pythagoras, musical activities. Leo Spitzer, describing the early Pythagorean relationship between the heavens and music, says, “Observing the wondrous regularity of the movement of the stars, [the Pythagoreans] may have come to imagine a musical harmony in them….” But this harmony, for Pythagoras, Plato, and subsequent philosophers of music, was not audible to humans, except through a careful study of mathematics and philosophy. “World harmony appeared as musical harmony, in accessible to human ears, but comparable to human music and, since reducible to numbers, to some degree accessible to human reason.” This idea “prompted the identification of world soul and world harmony,” and the further corollary that “the human soul could be patterned only on the world soul.” The logical conclusion of this line of reasoning is that, if the world’s soul is governed by laws of harmony and mathematical proportion, then the human soul might too be affected by a manipulation of the laws of musical harmony. “It is,” Spitzer concludes, “only logical that music was considered by the Pythagoreans to have a curative effect on body and soul.”8

So now we have three even more disparate things to deal with: music, drunkenness, and the cosmos—and that last one is, seemingly, not even present in Paul’s original passage. Or is it? His earliest commentators might disagree. In the next part, I will take up the commentaries of Origen, Jerome, and Chrysostom.

John Ahern is a graduate student pursuing a PhD in musicology from Princeton University. He is also an organist and choir director at Hope Lutheran Church in Freehold, NJ. He loves his wife and son, and they all frequently sing, to greater and lesser degrees of success, Renaissance bicinia over dinner.

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References   [ + ]

1. Instruments were held in suspicion even (especially) in Greek thought, and they also had a troubled history in synagogues. For more on this, see James McKinnon, The Temple, the Church Fathers, and Early Western Chant, Ashgate Variorum (1998), V 8. For Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 5, see
2. Cf. Warren D. Anderson, Ethos and Education in Greek Music: The Evidence of Poetry and Philosophy, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966), 5.
3. Greek Musical Writings, Volume I: The Musician and his Art, ed., trans. Andrew Barker, Cambridge University Press (1984), 181.
4. Plato, The Dialogues of Plato, tr. B. Jowett, Random House (New York: 1920), 448.
5. In fact, Plato’s words in Republic when describing modes “suitable for symposia” is exactly that: sumpotikous. Nomos is, like harmonia, used musically to mean something like “melodic scheme”, cf. Marco Ercoles, “Notes on the Aulodic nomoi Apothetos and Schoinion”, Greek and Roman Musical Studies, vol. 2/no. 1, (2014), 177-183.
6. Greek Musical Writings, 286.
8. Leo Spitzer, Classical and Christians Ideas of World Harmony: Prolegomena to an Interpretation of the Word ‘Stimmung’, ed. Anna Granville Hatcher, The John Hopkins Press (Baltimore: 1963), 8-16.
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