Part II: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act

In the previous post, I introduced a number of important themes connected with Scotus’s view of a moral act and commented on passages in which he employs musical imagery and terminology to explicate his view. In this post, I want to discuss one additional passage where Scotus once again draws upon musical metaphors and concepts to unpack various aspects of his moral theory. Having highlighted Scotus’s use of the term “consonance,” I then develop his image further, bringing his dynamic view of natural law, as well as his emphasis on the beauty of moral acts and the creativity and practical skill of the moral agent into conversation with my own thoughts on the interplay of contingency and stability and our role as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony which is this world.

In Ordinatio III.37.25-28, Scotus uses the term consonare (“to be consonant”) four times to explain the relationship between natural law in the extended sense and natural law in the strict sense. For example, the Subtle Doctor states, although the precepts of second table of the Law, that is, natural law in the extended sense, “do not follow necessarily” from the precepts of the first table of the Law, that is, natural law in the strict sense, nonetheless, the former are “highly consonant (multum consona)” with “those first practical principles that are known in virtue of their terms and necessarily known to any intellect [that understands their terms].”[1] Building on Scotus’s metaphor, perhaps we might think of natural law in the strict sense as an unchanging melody given by God in order to reveal himself—his love, beauty, goodness and so forth—to his creatures. This divine melody is a theme that reverberates throughout the created order and sounds most strongly in the human heart. Natural law in the extended sense is the harmonic background supporting the divine melody and drawing attention to its beauty. One could imagine a different harmonic background upon which the melody might be played—one could conceive, for example, an alternative consonant or even an extremely dissonant harmonic background.  However, just as with a masterpiece like Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, whose main theme is so distinctive and pronounced yet is so intimately tied to the harmonies, rhythms, and unfolding compositional “story,” if Beethoven were to completely reharmonize the piece, changing the time signature and main tonal center, we would hear the piece as a different, new composition.

Similarly, God as divine master-composer could have, as Scotus might put it, according to his divine power (de potentia absoluta), presented us with a different set of natural laws in the extended sense and with different divine positive laws; yet, he has chosen in his wisdom and creativity, according to his ordained power (de potentia ordinata), to give us the second table of the Law as we have it.[2] That he also chooses to dispense with or reharmonize certain aspects or selected precepts of these laws at different times and with respect to different individuals is his prerogative qua master-composer. Such free activity in no way impugns his character since neither natural law in the extended sense nor divine positive law (for example, circumcision in the Old Testament or certain dietary laws) entails the necessity of natural law in the strict sense.

Developing our musical analogy further and bringing in the two power theme just mentioned, once you are given a specific musical framework, structured according to a particular set of theoretical principles—analogous to the world into which we have been thrown and the natural laws given in the Decalogue—a certain regularity or order is established. As a result, those who live and work within this context must learn to work creatively with rather than against the given structures and principles. Refusal to do so not only alienates the musician from the artistic tradition, but it also hinders his or her own development as a musician and, in effect, silences his or her work, rendering it either obscure or unintelligible. If musicians here represent humans who must live and move and have their being within God’s world and live according to his laws, then one can draw the comparisons relatively easily: human being is lived best when humans live harmoniously with God’s laws—laws which are crafted to enhance, rather than impede their freedom and creativity.

In addition, once a musical framework has been given and established, those working in it are socialized by it. That is, although the musical scales, theoretical rules, harmonic progressions, and so forth could have been otherwise, that they not, creates a “feel” of permanence and attaches a sense of stability to present framework. In other words, this particular framework becomes the framework. Consequently, since the musicians occupy the same framework, shared understandings of consonance and dissonance will develop naturally.  Such shared perceptions also materialize due to commonalities in the very being of the musicians themselves (for example, refined auditory skills), making them well-suited for creative work within this context. Analogously, humans created by God are well-suited for the world in which he has placed them—a world in which they are summoned as co-composers to beautify and better themselves, others, and the world itself. Given our historical and temporal existence, the shared understandings of consonance and dissonance form a continuum of greater and lesser degrees, allowing for many variations on the given themes and much “movement” within the structures. In other words, there is a dynamism built into the framework itself permitting and even beckoning artists to improvise the “original” themes so that they might be heard anew through the passage of time.

Here I want to return to our Beethoven example and engage in a thought experiment. What if Beethoven crafted his masterpiece in such a way that in order for the main theme to sound most beautifully, select themes introduced in the opening movements were meant to be developed, placed within new extended harmonies and set over syncopated poly-rhythms unconceivable to those hearing only the earlier movements? Instead of a static one-time composition, what if Beethoven’s symphony was intended as a multi-authored work, inviting multiple co-composers to co-create a dynamic, ongoing piece? The structure of the piece—its “narrative” or form—as well as its central melodic themes are givens; they remain constant and are the framework within which the performers as co-composers must choose to operate. Nonetheless, within the various movements or epochal periods, the themes may be reharmonized, ornamented, and improvised upon in myriad ways. The main themes and “storyline” must remain identifiable, but the structure itself both fosters and invites (by design) co-composers of various intellectual levels, practical skills, and moral character to contribute to the beauty of the whole. If we can imagine such a state of affairs, then perhaps we can apply the analogy to God’s free creation of the world and his invitation to humans to participate in his, as it were, on-going redemptive historical improvisational symphony, whose last movement continues to be written.

Although I have highlighted the dynamism built into the structures and framework of an artistic composition, I want to emphasize again that choosing to work with the givens is not to forfeit one’s freedom or one’s creativity. The expert musician is well aware of this fact, as she is one who has chosen to devote herself to the study of the masters, the principles of music theory, and the customary practices of the art, both submitting to and innovatively expanding the tradition.

Lastly—and hopefully the Scotistic echoes of this section will be heard—as a freely created structure, the framework itself could have been otherwise; however, the fact that it is not means that a certain level of stability and regularity characterize the present framework (analogous, of course, to the present world). If we acknowledge these givens and work creatively with them as co-composers in an ongoing improvisatory symphony, we do well. Yet, as free beings, we can choose to reject this framework along with its principles and the authority of the person or persons “behind” the givens. To do so is certainly possible, but it is not without consequences for oneself, for others, and for the piece itself.

Notes 


[1] Scotus, Ord. III, d. 27, n.25 (ed. Vat. X 283); Williams, “The Decalogue and the Natural Law,” 603. In Ord. IV, d. 17 Scotus likewise employs the image of consonance to describe the relation between natural law and positive law. See, Wolter, Will and Morality, 197–98.

[2] For Scotus’s discussion of God’s absolute and ordained power, see Ord. I, d. 44 (ed. Vat. VI 633–69); Wolter, Will and Morality, 191–94. God’s ordained power speaks of his self-imposed limitations to act in accord with laws he himself has freely willed to be the case.  God’s absolute power speaks of his ability to non-contradictorily and justly alter, revoke, reconfigure, or transcend such ordained laws. As Scotus explains, to the extent that God “is able to act in accord with those right laws he set up previously, is said to act according to his ordained power; but insofar as he is able to do many things that are not in accord with, but go beyond, these preestablished laws, God is said to act according to his absolute power. For God can do anything that is not self-contradictory or act in any way that does not include a contradiction (and there are many such ways he could act); and then he is said to be acting according to his absolute power” (Wolter, Will and Morality, 192). See also, Courtenay, “The Dialectic of Omnipotence.” Courtenay observes that the two power distinction was based on the “fundamental perception […] that what God created or established did not exhaust divine capacity or the potentialities open to God” (ibid., 243).

 

2 thoughts on “Part II: Scotus On the Harmony, Beauty, and Consonance of a Moral Act”

  1. Brilliant! The epistemology of consonance brings the old tension between the universals and particulars, or the one and the many, to a whole different level. Instead of the never ending pendulum swings between the two, or trying to find the perfect “via media”, the truth is found at the point where the two harmonize. And finding this requires developing the art of listening. Light is both a wave and a particle, depending on one’s point of view, but our experience of light is in the consonance of the two. The divine source of Scripture, and the human particulars of language, culture, audience, authorship, etc. must be kept in consonance, or proper proportion, with each other, rather than emphasizing the one to the detriment of the other. And the examples could go on….

  2. Yes, the art of listening is, to my mind, lost in our day and is something that we must personally and collectively work together to recover. The art of listening is very much related to the biblical notion of applying wisdom; there is no formula or timeless truth application. Thanks for your comment, Sara!

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