Music and Drunkenness, Part 2

For Part 1, click HERE.

How did Paul’s earliest commentators view his juxtaposition of music and drunkenness, and did they connect it to the ancient Greek ideas of musical ethos described in Part I? Origen, one of the earliest commentators on Paul, writes about Ephesians 5:18-19:

One, however, who inquires into the nature of the order of the cosmos and the other created things is engaged in ‘spiritual songs’. One must also ‘sing’ in relation to the study of natural phenomena and ‘make melody to the Lord’ in relation to the discussion of morals, being genuinely well disposed to what is said, for this is to ‘make melody and sing in the heart to the Lord’.1

Here we have almost all of it: Origen has understood “spiritual songs” metaphorically (not to the exclusion of literal meaning, presumably); “spiritual songs” are a kind of celestial apperception; an understanding of natural philosophy is in the domain of singing music to God. On the other hand, music precipitates a “discussion of morals”, effecting ethical betterment in the singer. Drunkenness, absent in Origen, is present more explicitly in Jerome’s commentary Eph. 5:18-19:

One who has abstained from the drunkenness of wine in which there is wantonness, and in place of this has been filled with the Spirit, can take all things spiritually as ‘psalms, hymns, and songs’. …Psalms, moreover, properly pertain to an ethical topic so that we may know what we should do and what we should avoid with the instrument of the body. But the keen disputant who investigates higher subjects and explains the harmony of the universe and the order and concord of all creatures sings a spiritual song. Or perhaps, to say what we wish more clearly for the sake of the simple, a psalm has reference to the body and a song to the mind. …Let the servant of Christ sing in such a way that it is not the voice of the singer but the words which are sung which are pleasing, that the evil spirit which was in Saul may be cast out of those whom he has possessed in like manner to Saul and not be introduced into those who make a public theatre of the house of God.2

Here we have the clearest indication that Jerome is understanding Paul to be engaging with Pythagorean and Platonic traditions of music: the body is an “instrument” which can be behaviorally affected by “an ethical topic”; spiritual songs allow us to understand “the harmony of the universe” (a decidedly Greek concept, but with some resonance in Scripture and Jewish thought, cf. Job 38:7, Wisdom 19:17) and also “the order and concord of all creatures” (a much less Greek, more Jewish thought, cf. Rev. 4-5). And, most explicitly, drunkenness and music are most clearly contrasted as related opposites: abstinence from drunkenness allows us to be filled, “in place of this,” with a kind of spiritual drunkenness in the form of music. The kind of lack-of-control that is exhibited by drunk people and, in the case of Saul, possessed people, can be mitigated through music. John Chrysostom puts it perhaps most succinctly, commenting on Eph. 5:18-19:

I give you spiritual drink; for drunkenness even cuts off the articulate sound of our tongue; it makes us lisp and stammer, and distorts the eyes, and the whole frame together. Learn to sing psalms, and you shall see the delightfulness of the employment. For they who sing psalms are filled with the Holy Spirit, as they who sing satanic songs are filled with an unclean spirit. 3

Chrysostom’s interpretation seems perhaps the most reasonable to me: whereas I doubt Origen is totally right that psalms are moralistic and spiritual songs are cosmologically significant in Paul’s mind, Chrysostom portrays music as a kind of “spiritual drink”, and here I think we are close to an understanding of how Paul engages with the ubiquitous apposition of music and drunkenness in Mediterranean culture. On the one hand, Paul is implying that music has a sensuous and enjoyable function that need not be seen as a danger but as an alternative: being filled with too much wine is not replaced with an absence of any joy at all, but with the social existence of “speaking to one another” with Christian song and the enjoyment of “singing and playing instruments”. On the other hand, music does represent a totally different kind of sensual pleasure from inebriation, because, as Pseudo-Plutarch points out, music, “through its own order and proportion” leads people into more, not less, possession of their bodies and minds. It is where I think Paul does appropriate certain Pythagorean ideas, which Origen and Jerome pick up on, that music in the Christian life is a way of putting the body and mind in order, of rightly-ordering our loves, as Augustine might put it.

In conclusion, Leo Spitzer points out that it was characteristic of the Greeks that they would have a high view of music and never bother to actually leave us any of it; for them, music was intellectual contemplation, and the actual activity of music-making nothing but a metaphor. But for Christianity, music had a different place.

The Greeks…ascribed to music the highest place in the universe; and yet, though we are indebted to them for much philosophical speculation about music, it could be said that they have left us comparatively little of the music which should illustrate their philosophy. But in the hymns of Ambrose, we have a ‘performance,’ an ‘incarnation’ of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated; and the Church, which was represented in his hymns as echoing the music of the universe, served, actually, as the theater for the performance of these hymns….4

In a nutshell, what I think Ephesians 5 shows us is that we could replace “Ambrose” in Spitzer’s paragraph with “Paul” and we would not be far wrong. In invoking this traditional association of music and drunkenness, Paul is being quite radical in his treatment of the pagan philosophers: whereas Plato, Aristotle, and Aristoxenus all spend a great deal of time speculating about music as philosophy and make it quite clear they have little respect for music making itself,5 Paul is advocating Christian life as a “performance” and “incarnation” (in Spitzer’s words) “of that world harmony about which the Greeks had speculated.” This would undoubtedly be offensive to these Greek thinkers: the music of the spheres, perfect, changeless, superlunary, was nothing like the lusty, out-of-tune singing of a psalm, a hymn, or a spiritual song sung by a congregation. Paul has appropriated and transformed Greek concepts of music. Music does have immense power and affords great pleasure, but where symposium culture and its dissipation characterized the pagan philosophers, singing culture characterizes Christianity.

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. Heine, Ronald E, Origen, and Jerome. The Commentaries of Origen and Jerome On St Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002, 227-228.
2. Ibid.
4. Spitzer, 25.
5. The one famous exception to this is Socrates in Phaedo, who in his last moments interprets the oracles’ order “Make music and work at it” as literal, not metaphorical (as in, “Do philosophy”), and decides to actually make music. Much to the befuddlement of his disciples (and the Phaedo’s critical reception), he composes hymns in his last hours.
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