“A New Song for an Old World” (excerpt 3)

This week we offer a bit more of Calvin R. Stapert in his book, A New Song for an Old World. Previous excerpts can be found here and here.

“Several themes that we have heard somewhat faintly in the second and third centuries become very strong in the fourth. Two of these will be prominent in later chapters, so I will only mention them here. One theme is positive: the praise of psalmody; a second theme is negative: the polemic against pagan music that James McKinnon characterizes as uniform and vehement. A third theme is one that likely will strike a modern reader as odd because it is so at variance with prevalent notions about music. It is a theme that can be detected at the end of the passage from Eusebius quoted above: Christ cures ‘wild passion.’

Many musical references deal with passion. For example, Isidor of Pelusium warned against misusing music ‘to arouse passion,’ and Basil warned against being ‘brought down to the passions of the flesh by the pleasure of song.’ Such statements sound very strange in a culture such as ours, which places such a high premium on passion, which values intense emotion and the music that stimulates it, and which prizes excitement and the music that provides a ‘high’ or a ‘rush.’ Against this backdrop, the church fathers seem unduly stoical in their low view of the emotions, their fear of sensual pleasure, and their suspicion of music and the other arts. There can be no denying that there is an austerity about the church fathers’ thought, and it is true that it often resembles Stoicism. But before we dismiss them out of hand and view their thinking as nothing but recycled Stoicism, we need to understand what they meant by ‘the passions.’

We would be wrong to simply equate passions with emotions. In the thought of the church fathers, not all emotions are passions, and the passions are not limited to emotions. Insofar as passions are emotions, they are obsessive or ‘unruly emotions like fear, anger, jealousy, an passionate love.’ But they are more than emotions… [86//87] … The passions, he [Peter Brown] adds, ‘were not what we tend to call feelings, they were, rather, complexes that hindered the true expression of feelings. … Clement of Alexandria defined passion as ‘an excessive appetite exceeding the measures of reason, or appetite, unbridled and disobedient to the word. Passions then, are perturbation of the soul contrary to nature, in disobedience to reason.’ Evagrius Ponticus’s list of passions in the fourth century fits well with Clement’s definition: gluttony, avarice, lust, depression, anger, sloth, vainglory, pride. Anger is the only item on the list that is not necessarily ‘excessive’ or ‘unbridled’; all the others invariably carry negative connotations. … [87//88] … Among the Greeks it was the Stoics who aimed to eliminate the passions from their lives; they strove to achieve a state of apatheia. And early Christian views often seem in harmony with the stoic ideal. [Clement, Miscellanies 7; Gal. 5:24] … But Christians cold not simply adopt Stoicism. There were problems, and the key problem was that Stoicism did ‘not give an adequate account of what moves the soul to act.’ The early Christians saw that desire is not only an appetitive drive that is acquisitive and self-centered but that it is also what draws us to God. They needed love to enter the picture to solve this dilemma. Gregory of Nyssa drew a distinction between desire and love, and Robert Wilken explains Gregory’s distinction this way: ‘[A]s one comes into the presence of God desire gives way to love, and what was formerly sought by desire is now possessed in love. ‘If love is taken from us how will we remain united to God?’ he asks. Desire is a restless activity, a yearning for something one craves but does not possess. Love, even though it is passionate, has within it an element [88//89] of repose, of satisfaction, of joy that comes from delight in the presence of the beloved.’

For Augustine, too, the key is love: it is not the state of apatheia that is good, but the state in which the passions are right because love is right. … This condition in which the passions are made right by love is far removed from Stoic apatheia. But if, in the Greek analogy, we designate love to be the charioteer instead of reason [directing the blind horses of appetite and spirit or of desire and anger], we are not far from Augustine’s Christianized view of the passions.

It is thus apparent that, when the church fathers spoke ill of the passions and said they needed to be suppressed, or when they condemned [89//90] music that aroused the passions, they were speaking of the passions in the negative sense—that is, ‘emotions, attitudes, desires’ that are not governed by reason, let alone by love. Each passion on Evagrius’s list is a perversion. For example, gluttony is an obsessive or inordinate desire for food; avarice is an unreasonable desire for resources and an unloving unwillingness to share them; anger refers not to anger in general but to misdirected anger, anger that is beyond reason and unguided by love.”

Calvin R. Stapert, A New Song for an Old World (Eerdmans, 2007), 86-90.