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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
170 occurrences of ideology
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170 occurrences of ideology
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3. Music and Spirit. Speculative ideas of music in
the Renaissance also had intricate relationships with
Spirit. The harmony of the universe was sometimes
attributed not to World Soul but to World Spirit. By
association with Spirit, it was said, music has its effects,
not on the soul of man, but on his spirits.

No greater muddle faces the modern reader than
the many older meanings of “Spirit” and “spirits,” all
of which were involved in theories of the nature and
effects of music. From the early Greeks came the idea
of World Spirit, a unifying element in the universe,
sometimes equivalent to World Soul, sometimes an
intermediary between Soul and matter. This concept
is related to Aristotle's postulation in De caelo (269a
30-270b 20) of a fifth element (which came to be called
the quintessence), an aether, more subtle than fire or
air, a substance similar to that of the stars, immortal
and eternal, which pervades all things (as in the Stoic
World Soul—anima mundi). It exists in its purest state
outside of the spheres, Aristotle theorized, but with
increasing impurity it spreads down through spheres
and elements to lowest earthly matter. Every form or
body depends on the nature of its spirit: in ascending
scale, body becomes more pure and aethereal; celestial
Intelligences have no material body at all but are souls
clothed in pure spirit. (This pervasive fifth element
explained for astrologers the pathway by which stars
and planets transmit their influence. Alchemists hoped,
by infusing superior spirit into lower forms, to convert
base metals to gold.) Spirit might indicate, also, an
astral or sidereal vehicle given to souls by the stars.
Hebrew theology introduced, further, the transcendent
Spirit of God, which brought order out of Chaos and
breathed life into man. Spirits in the form of angels
or demons, good or bad—souls with spiritual bodies—
inhabited the empyreal heavens, planets, or elements.

There were also the aerial but corporeal spirits of
man—natural, vital, and animal—which were ex-
pressed from the blood, refined in the heart, further
subtilized in the brain, each serving a function of the
tripartite soul, and linking soul to body as World Spirit
mediated between World Soul and matter. They were
usually discussed in a purely medical sense, but they
were, even so, related to the quintessence, by which
they were nourished, and occasionally to astral Spirit,
whose nature they shared. However described, they
were considered quite distinct from the Spirit of God,
a spark of which resided only in the rational soul.

Pagan and Christian, materialistic and occult ideas,
were confused or interrelated so as to baffle the most
earnest scholar then as now. Every writer made his
own interpretations, which varied in different works,
or even in the same work. Sometimes “soul” and
“spirit” were used synonymously. Any brief review,
then, of the relation of music to spirit must be simpli-
fied, ignoring, as it must, historical evolution of ideas,
variation in individual philosophies, and specific theo-
logical controversy.

In writing influenced by Platonic tradition, however,
one view remains constant: spirit is musical. World
Spirit is the harmony of the universe and shares that
of the planets. “Th'all-quickning Spirit of God,” in the
imagery of Du Bartas, in Divine Weekes and Workes
(1621, p. 301), turns the “whirling wheels” of the
universe to make a music like that made by a blast
of air in a great organ. In George Herbert's “Easter,”
the “blessèd Spirit” of God is called to “bear a part”


in the music of “heart and lute.” Angelic Spirits sing
in heaven; “Millions of spiritual Creatures,” described
by Milton in Paradise Lost (IV. 677-82), “walk the
Earth/ Unseen,” raising “Celestial voices to the mid-
night air.” Spirits in man, moving harmoniously, make
a harmony of soul and body. Music itself has and
breathes spirit (Finney, p. 106), which affects other

Everyone agreed that music moves human spirits.
The most common explications, being basically physi-
ological, are only indirectly related to ideas discussed
in this article and need be reviewed only briefly. Since
the species or forms of sense impressions were thought
to be carried to the soul by spirits, and all psychological
or emotional response to be reflected in predictable
motion of spirits in the body—especially in the heart,
the center of emotion—it could be assumed that per-
ception of musical sound inevitably alters the spirits.
Music can move spirits, also, it was believed, by physi-
cal contact. Hearing, more than any other sense, wrote
Ficino (Walker [1958], pp. 7-10), has immediate effect
on the spirits, because moving air, the vehicle of sound,
strikes directly the innate air in the ear, which is or
has in it aerial spirit, and sets up a motion that pene-
trates to the innermost parts. The effect of music is
thus corporeal, but it is psychological, too, for harmony
shapes the spirits to its own motions and moods. Francis
Bacon having explained, in his Sylva sylvarm (Cen-
tury II, exp. 114) that “the sense of hearing striketh
the spirits more immediately than any other senses,”
continued to an accepted analysis of musical effects:
“Harmony, entering easily, and mingling not at all, and
coming with a manifest motion, doth by custom of
often affecting the spirits and putting them into one
kind of posture, alter not a little the nature of the
spirits,” and thus communicates the feelings of gaiety
or sadness of “musical tunes and airs.” Even without
perception, argued Thomas Wright, in The Passions
of the Minde
(1604, p. 170), motion can be transmitted
from the ear to spirits in the heart to induce a “pos-
ture” of the spirits there that produces a “semblance”
of passions in the mind.

According to still another theory popularized by
Neo-Platonic philosophers of love, air entering the ear
carries with it not only harmonious sound or moving
air, but also the spirits of the singer. That voice is
caused by breath and spirit striking the windpipe, and
that living spirit issues with breath, were established
beliefs in the inherited physiology of the Renaissance.
Song, then, is animated breath carrying with it the
feelings and temperament of the singer, which are
communicated to spirits of the listener, just as spirits
from the eye of a beloved alter those of the lover, or
as spirits from an “evil eye” infect with disease.

Occult philosophers, however, believed that music
could also transmit World Spirit and thus alter the
“quintessential” or astral spirits of man. As a man's
spirits could be fed by those in plants or wine, or
altered by spirits of the singer, so they could be affected
by celestial Spirit, which carries influences of the stars
and planets. From Hermetic works, early Neo-Platonic
texts, and medieval writings on magic, came belief in
the use of talismans, odors, lights, and music to invoke
this influence—ideas especially related to music by
Ficino and by the chief disseminator of his ideas, the
peripatetic German philosopher, Cornelius Agrippa.
Because music has the same numerical proportions as
the heavenly bodies, Ficino argued, it has power to
make the spirits of man similarly proportioned, so that
they vibrate in sympathy with the planets and are able
to breathe in more copiously the heavenly Spirit and
influence (Walker [1958], p. 14). Music could, in this
way, alter dispositions and manners; it was a kind of
Philosopher's Stone by which the spirits of man, by
spiritual alchemy, could become angelic. Music “doth
wonderfully allure the Celestial influence,” wrote
Agrippa, in his Occult Philosophy (trans. 1651, p. 255),
so as to “change the affections, intentions, gestures,
motions, actions and dispositions of all the hearers.”
And again (p. 278): “Wise ancients... did not in vain
use Musical sounds and singings, as to... make a man
sutable [sic] to the Celestial Harmony, and make him
wholly Celestial.” Ficino himself, in a rare union of
speculative and practical music, composed songs,
adapted to the aspects of the stars and to the tempera-
ment of the person to be affected, which he supposed
to resemble the Orphic Hymns, and by which he hoped
to approach the magic of Orpheus, who had moved
trees and stones and charmed Pluto by his singing
(Walker, pp. 19-24).

The power of music to attract or infuse World Spirit,
implicit in Ficino's theory, was further emphasized in
his interpretation of a passage in the Asclepius, attrib-
uted to the ancient Egyptian theologian, Hermes Tris-
megistus, a work that Ficino had translated. There he
found an account of the art of making gods by infusing
into idols or statues the souls of demons and angels
with the aid of talismans, odors, and music. This pas-
sage he assumed to be the source of one in the Enneads
of Plotinus (IV. 3. 11), which he interpreted to mean
that by music “one can attract into and retain in a
material object 'something vital from the soul of the
world and the souls of the spheres and stars'” (Walker,
pp. 40-41). Life could be given to inanimate matter.
Ficino did not envisage the invoking of Spirit in the
form of demons and angels, who presumably had souls.
He disclaimed use of any such “demonic magic”—
“black magic”—a practice condemned by the Church.


He was firm in insisting that talismans and music infuse
only impersonal World Spirit and that they affect only
the spirits and not the soul of man (ibid., p. 45). Certain
of his followers, however, were less cautious. His pupil,
Francesco da Diacetto, gave serious consideration to
attracting planetary demons or gods by music, as did
Agrippa, more influentially, in his Occult Philosophy
(ibid., pp. 30-35, 94-96). Through Agrippa's writing,
especially, Ficino's theories were carried into the realm
of forbidden magic and brought into disrepute.

Invocation of planetary gods and demons was clearly
heretical, a return, contended orthodox Catholics
throughout the sixteenth century, to Egyptian myster-
ies and medieval magic. This practice was thought to
disregard the supreme power of God, who alone con-
trolled Heavenly Spirits and alone gave life. English
Protestants found even more to condemn in the use
of ritualistic scents, images, or music to attract Divine
Spirit. That the mind might be directed to God by
contemplation of universal harmony imaged in music
had defense; that the Spirit of God could be attracted
by earthly music rarely did. Even the biblical parallel
to be found in the account of God's Spirit descending
to the accompaniment of psaltery and pipe, to inspire
Elisha to prophecy (II Kings 3:51), noted by Wither
in his Preparation to the Psalter (1619, p. 83) and by
Charles Butler in The Principles of Musik (1636, p. 115),
as proof of music's force, was usually interpreted as
a miracle attributable not to music but to the “extraor-
dinary Interposition” of God Himself.

Yet all of these esoteric Ficinian ideas contributed
to English thought. Belief in the power of music to
attract stellar influence and even to call down demons
and angels enjoyed a vogue in occult writing, especially
in the 1650's, following the translation of Agrippa's
Occult Philosophy in 1651, but earlier, too—in writings
consistently attacked as religiously unorthodox.
William Ingpen, in The Secrets of Numbers (1624, pp.
94-95), repeated Agrippa's enthusiastic account of the
force of music: “Musical harmony” has such “power
and vertues... that shee is called the Imatatrix of
the starres,... And when she followeth celestiall
bodies so exquisitely, it is incredible to think, how shee
provoketh those heavenly influxes.” By means of har-
monious and pervasive World Spirit, wrote the Rosi-
crucian, John Heydon, in The Harmony of the World
(1662, p. 115), “man is made subject to the influence
of the Stars.” Through this medium, lights and sounds—
which share the same “Harmonicall proportions” as
the planets—can draw down souls from the moon to
be “effectual in the operations of nature” (p. 75). These
notions explain the imagery of Edward Benlowes'
poem, “A Poetic Descant upon a Private Musick-
Meeting” (1652), in which he describes each musical
instrument as a planet, possessing the same capacity
to move emotions or to “Re-inspire our lumpish clay.”

Occult ideas of the power of music to control Spirit
or to infuse life found most subtle expression, however,
in the charming imagery of earlier verse. Freed of
specific explication and theological association, poetic
elements remained, to add incalculable richness to the
verse of Shakespeare, Milton, and many lesser men.
The “Sphear-born harmonious Sisters, Voice, and Vers,”
of Milton's “At a Solemn Musick,” “Wed... divine
sounds” to pierce “Dead things with inbreath'd sense.”
Sabrina, the water spirit in Comus (lines 817-920),
invoked by song, by song gives life to the Lady “in
stony fetters fixt.” Hermione, in Shakespeare's The
Winter's Tale
(V. iii. 98-111), who seems turned to a
statue, is given life, as were the statues in the Asclepius,
by music. By her voice, Chapman's Corynna, in Ovids
Banquet of Sence
(1595, stanza xi), as she bathes near
statues of Niobe and her children, woos the gods to
add their power to hers to “try if with her voyces vitall
sounde/ She could warme life through those cold
statues spread.” Later poets, as did Thomas Stanley,
in “Celia Singing” (1651), imagined the beloved pos-
sessed by an angel who disposed her breath to harmony
that could not only draw soul from body but also infuse
into “Plants and Stones,” a new life “that Cherubins
would choose;... Kill those that live, and dead things

By mid-seventeenth century, however, ideas of world
harmony imaged in music, and of the power of music
to exert divine influence, long under attack, had, with
rare exception, lost both actual and symbolic signifi-
cance. With the sun made the center of the universe,
with planets moving in what seemed to many, as to
John Donne, a “various and perplexed course,” man
found himself bewildered and alone in a fragmented
universe, no “commerce” left between his world and
heaven. Music itself came to be judged as acoustically
measured sound, its universal mathematics reduced to
physics or technical practice, with no direct rela-
tionship to world harmony and no hidden power to
move the soul of man. There were those, late in the
century, who stood against the flood of scientific
change, and who claimed still, as did Thomas Mace,
in Musick's Monument (1676, p. 3), that music has
“wonderful-powerful-efficacious Virtues and Opera-
tions... upon the Souls and Spirits of Men Divinely-
bent,” or as did Charles Hickman, in a sermon
preached on St. Cecilia's Day, 1695 (1696, pp. 16-17),
that musical sound “is an Inlet... to Divine Visions
and Revelations,” that it “carries such extasies, and
Raptures,... as to elevate the Soul of man into a
higher Region.” But, in the main, imagery inspired by
old ideas had fallen to the level of poetical conceit


or subject of jest. For many years, however, it provided
men with words and symbols by which to express
their belief in universal harmony, order, and unity.