Santayana on Music. “Music is essentially useless, as life is: but both have an ideal extension which lends utility to its conditions” (LR 315) – these are perhaps the most famous words of Santayana’s philosophy of music. They somewhat remind us of the Stoic wisdom according to which things in life are indifferent, but the use we make of them is not indifferent (cf. Epictetus, 2.5.1). Santayana’s philosophy of music is a combination of naturalism (music is a part of the natural world) and ‘naturalized Platonism’ (music has ideal meanings).
Santayana follows Democritus’ naturalism and says that there is no essential or radical difference in origin between human music and the non-human music of animals (e.g. a melody of birds chirping) and nature herself (e.g. the sound of sea waves, thunder sounds, etc.). It best can be seen in rhythm; it is not music itself, but the rhythm in music that is especially able to evoke emotions, and this is because rhythm has both artistic and biological dimensions. By this rhythm in music our natural or physiological pulsations (heartbeat) can be immediately accelerated or slowed down (relaxation). This is why music appeals most frequently by this one aspect to masses of people: “What most people relish is hardly music; it is rather a drowsy revery relieved by nervous thrills” (LR 317). Of course, music must not be reduced to rhythm; harmony and spontaneity are other crucial examples of this linkage between the natural and the artistic that can be articulated by music, and there are innumerable ways of producing musical compositions according to local cultures and traditions of the given epoch. He compares music to mathematics in its richness of ideal forms, its practical importance to life, and the possible ways of fulfilments, both intellectual and sensual (cf. LR 315). The complexity of the issue makes him say, in the book The Sense of Beauty, that only with musical education can we enjoy the form of music and the richness of its material (cf. SB &41). The other, or the ‘Platonic’ part of Santayana’s philosophy of music deals with ideals; namely, sounds are able to acquire ideal values, which are important ends in whose service our senses may be useful. Sounds have the capability to engross attention, stimulate imagination, and evoke emotions so as to direct the listeners to the external, yet diversified world of sundry stimuli, hence sounds can easily become symbols for those external things. It is by this relation to human affairs that music evokes most emotions.
Controversy. “The earth has music for those who listen.” In many places, especially on the Internet, we can find this sentence as attributed to Santayana and understood as the most famous and most representative claim of his philosophy of music. This is not the case. Nor is Santayana’s poem out of which this sentence is taken.
Criticism. A generality of his remarks about music and avoidance to the reference to particular musicians, composers, and artworks make some to criticize Santayana. Portnoy, for example, writes about Santayana’s “cynical lamentations” about music (Portnoy 1954, 224).
Comparison. William Austin compares Santayana’s philosophy of music to that of Plato’s, Schopenhauer’s, Nietzsche’s, and Susanne Langer’s and says that “Santayana is easier than these other philosophers for a musician untrained in philosophy to comprehend, and those musicians who know him find him more congenial than the philosophers who have intruded themselves more conspicuously into the musical world” (Austin 1954, 497). David Dilworth, while writing about great musical perceptions and the appreciative experience says that many philosophers tried to discuss this: “Pythagoras, Plato, Aristotle, Leibniz, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Santayana come to mind” (Dilworth 1990, 466).
Reception. William Austin reads Santayana as “a moralist’s critical evaluations of music as an activity variously related to other activities” (Austin 1954, 498). Jerome Ashmore, in Santayana, Art, and Aesthetic, writes that “Music is an excellent example of what Santayana denotes as a liberal art (Ashmore 1966, 95). A PhD dissertation by Squire appeared in 1942, entitled: “The Philosophy of Music of George Santayana, Helen Huss Parkhurst and Theodore Meyer Greene.” Also some interest can be seen in the studies of Polish scholars Adam Grzeliński and Krzysztof Wawrzonkowski, who discussed Santayana’s idea of music as an artwork at a philosophy of music conference in 2014.
Contribution. Fred Blum claims that “Santayana offers a major contribution to our understanding of music’s intrinsic value, its place in society, and its contribution to the ‘good life'” (Blum 1958, 20). Ashmore stresses a scientific dimension of Santayana’s philosophy of music: “The factor of science in music is measure in motion. Nothing could be more thoroughly embedded in physical conditions than music since it has no existence unless some physical instrument vibrates (Ashmore 1966, 95). Austin claims that “the application of his luminous thought to music may yet contribute to a general advance in rationality in the discourse of musicians and non-musicians about music. This would perhaps be a greater contribution than answering questions” (Austin 1954, 497). Dilworth, in “Mozart and Santayana” says that “a philosophical access to Mozart can be attained by establishing the essential cast of his mind in relation to the thought of Santayana. Santayana’s thought, in turn, should be seen as a modern amplification of the thought of the ancient Athenian philosopher, Democritus. The minds of Democritus, Mozart, and Santayana appear to illumine each other because they inhabit a common paradigm of philosophical worldview” (Dilworth 1990, 467). Dilworth complements his view, in his book Philosophy in the World Perspective, and ascribes to both Mozart (in music) and Santayana (in philosophy) “‘ethics of cheerfulness’ of the pure materialists” (Dilworth 1989, 170).
A note: This is the first version of the entry on music; a more completed version, having more plots, referring to more material, and including more commentators will be provided after the presentation of the entries on the rhythm, Democritus and Plato on music, and others.
(LR) Santayana, George (1905-1906/1998). “Music,” in: The Life of Reason. Amherst: Prometheus, pp. 315-324.
(SB) Santayana, George The Sense of Beauty.
Ashmore, Jerome (1966). Santayana, Art, and Aesthetics. The Press of Western Reserve University.
Austin, William (1954). “Santayana as a Critic of Music,” in: The Musical Quarterly, vol. XL, No. 4, October, pp. 497-508.
Blum, Fred (1958). “Santayana’s Music Aesthetics,” in: Journal of the American Musicological Society, vol. 11, no. 1, pp. 20-28.
Dilworth, David (1989). Philosophy in World Perspective. A Comparative Hermeneutic of the Major Theories. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Dilworth, David (1990). “Mozart and Santayana and the Interface Between Music and Philosophy,” in: The Monist, vol. 73, no. 3, pp. 464-478.
Epictetus (c. 108 AD). Discourses. Written down by Arrian of Nicomedia.
Portnoy, Julius (1954). The Philosopher and Music: A Historical Outline. New York: Da Capo Press.
Squire, Russel Nelson. “The Philosophy of Music of George Santayana, Helen Huss Parkhurst and Theodore Meyer Greene.” Ph.D., New York University, 1942. 240 p. [73-08783]
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