Gordon Clark on Music

Some people think music a primitive art because it has only a few notes and rhythms. But it is only simple on the surface; its substance on the other hand, which makes it possible to interpret this manifest content, has all the infinite complexity that’s suggested in the external forms of other arts and that music conceals. There is a sense in which it is the most sophisticated art of all.
– Wittgenstein

“It is impossible to say . . . one word about all that music has meant in my life,”
– Wittgenstein

Without music, life would be a mistake.
– Nietzsche

I have no pleasure in any man who despises music. It is no invention of ours: it is a gift of God. I place it next to theology. Satan hates music: he knows how it drives the evil spirit out of us.
– Martin Luther

Music, the greatest good that mortals know, And all of heaven we have below.
– Joseph Addison

Music is well said to be the speech of angels; in fact, nothing among the utterances allowed to man is felt to be so divine. It brings us near to the infinite.
– Thomas Carlyle

[Music speaks] the universal imageless language of the heart.
– Schopenhauer

Music can never, regardless of what it is combined with, cease being the highest, the redempitve art.
– Richard Wagner


In his essay, “Christian Aesthetics,” Clark offers his judgment on music. “Music is the lowest form of art.” In what follows I will try to show that Clark’s argument for this conclusion is unsound and then offer some of my own thoughts on music.

Clark presents his main argument in the following paragraph.

“The purpose of art is expression. Of course this short sentence raises many questions. By itself it is uninformative. One should specify what art can and cannot express. One should specify what art should and should not express. These questions cannot be answered without having some notion of the nature of man. Here it is presupposed that God created man as essentially a rational being. This implies that man’s most valuable expressions are rational and intellectual. Therefore, although man can express emotion, by screaming “Ouch,” art becomes more human and valuable in proportion to its intellectual content. This does not deny that excellent technique may express triviality, evil, and insanity. It asserts, however, that what should be expressed is rational and intelligent.”

Drawing from other parts of the essay, Clark’s argument is something like the following.

1. The purpose of art is expression.*
2.1 A thing’s essence determines what is most valuable for it.
2.2 God created man as essentially a rational being.*
2.3 Therefore man’s most valuable expressions are rational and intellectual.*
3. Therefore art becomes more human and valuable in proportion to its intellectual content.*
4. Music is not very expressive; it has no definite meaning (i.e., little intellectual content).*
5. Therefore music has little humanity and value relative to the other arts.
6. Therefore music is the lowest form of art.*

(Asterisks indicate direct quotations from Clark. 2.3 follows from 2.1 and 2.2; 3 follows from 1 and 2.3; 5 follows from 3 and 4; 6 from 5.)

Let us take these premises in order. Clark realizes that (1) is vague as it stands, but thinks that it comes into clearer focus when man’s nature is understood. We shall come to this presently. For now, let us try to unpack this premise.

Since Clark is keen on clear definitions (at one point he accuses even the “better” authors in aesthetics of “not know[ing] the meaning of the words they use”), we should expect him to provide us with definitions for art and expression. Unfortunately he does not. At least no explicitly.

What then is meant by expression? J.L. Austin spoke of the “trailing clouds of etymology” and asserts “that a word never – well, hardly ever – shakes off its etymology and its formation.” Let us start, then, with the etymology of expression and work our way down to current English usage. We will skip over the word in its Middle English and French forms and go right to the Latin. The word comes from expressionem, a noun of action, which in turn comes from exprimere. This is a compound verb formed from premere and the preposition ex. Premere means to press and so the the meaning is literally to press out. (Thus the Italian espresso; of interest to Americans who have recently learned to drink coffee that has been pressed-out.) From this came the increasingly metaphorical to stamp or to be stamped, to copy or portray, and finally to represent or manifest. The Romans used it in the second sense in reference to sculpture and painting and in the third sense to words and sentences. In English the nominal expression still carries the more literal meaning in cooking (“the crushing of the coconut for the expression of the oil)” but it is more commonly used in the last sense. Thus the OED gives as its second entry, representation, manifestation.

What we learn from this is that by saying that the purpose of art is expression, Clark has already placed music in an unfavorable position. For though sculpture and painting are more often than not a representation of some concrete object (a bust of Napoleon) or an abstract object (Dürer’s Melencolia), what is music a representation of? The only two things that come to mind are perhaps emotions and events. Thus the last movement of Beethoven’s Ninth can be said to represent joy and the fourth movement of his Sixth represent a storm. (Holst’s Planets may be used as a counterexample, but what he trying to represent, whether successfully or not, is the feelings or atmospheres of the planets, not the planets themselves.) But this is a stretch. For while the Sixth does sound something like a storm, the Ninth does not really sound like joy – what does joy sound like, after all? Better to say that it is joyous and leave it at that.

Why all the bother over the definition of expression though? We all know what (1) means and it appears innocent enough. My answer to this is, yes, it does appear innocent enough, but in this case, appearances are deceiving. If care was taken when reading through the argument, it will have been noticed that in (4) Clark closely connects, perhaps even identifies, expression with meaning. Thus Clark appears to use expression in the sense of representation (and, as pointed out above, this in itself tips the scales against music), but really means by it something more radical. His meaning, given our study of the word, is possible since expression can mean representation and representation can mean stands for. From stands for it is a short hop to means from which we derive the verbal substantive meaning. But notice that he has stretched the metaphorical meaning of expression close to the breaking point and is so far removed from the literal pressing-out that there is no obvious relation between the two. The unwary will read (1) in its normal sense and so skip to the more controversial premises. But they will have fallen for the trick: Clark has just slipped the rabbit in the hat. More will said about this below

The second word that Clark leaves undefined is art. This is intentional since he states elsewhere, “art itself is defective in intelligibility.” Though awkward, he seems to mean that art is not (fully?) intelligible and therefore art is not (fully?) definable. The parenthetical words are important since without them, Clark’s essay would be self-contradictory. If art were unintelligible, per se, he could not possibly rank the different arts as he does. So let us assume that he holds the more modest and defensible thesis that art is not fully intelligible. This leaves open the possibility that it is at least partially intelligible.

So assuming art is partially intelligible, what kind of thing is it? Clark obliges with an answer that, he admits, is not very helpful. “There is no good objection against classifying art as a form of expression.” Though not a definition, it at least places art in a category; it is a species or subset of “forms of expressions.” We have already seen that Clark is up to some mischief with the word expression, put let us ignore that for now and allow him to use it in any (lexically possible) sense he likes. It may be useful at this point to come up with other disciplines or fields that would, on a broad understanding of the word, also count as “forms of expression.” A few come readily to mind: science, mathematics, history, and theology. Mathematics can be defined, for example, as the representation of numbers, points, lines, angles, surfaces, and solids by means of symbols. Similar definitions can be given for science, history, and theology. The question is, what separates art from these other “forms of expressions”? That art and, say, mathematics are distinct is not the question. What makes them distinct is what we want to know. One may be tempted to say that they differ in aesthetic content. Art is concerned with the beautiful while science is concerned with something else, say truth or, in Clark’s view, utility. But this way is not open to him. For one, he admits that art need not be beautiful. “The ugly can also be artistic.” At a deeper level, though, Clark believes that beautiful is undefinable. Plato, he says, was unable to give an definition of it and so, he implies, it is hopeless for mere mortals do any better. Since beautiful is undefinable it surely cannot be used as the criterion that distinguishes art from mathematics.

And even if Clark did think that the beautiful could be used as a criterion, this would not, by itself, distinguish art from math. For many, mathematics is concerned with objects of highest beauty.

“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty – a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.” (B. Russell, “The Study of Mathematics” in Mysticism and Logic, 60.)

Perhaps, then, art differs from these other fields in having emotional content. Clark sees that this will not do. “This would imply that classical art is not art.” At this point, Clark could claim that the four examples given are not really forms of expression. This would, of course, be arbitrary, but even if we allowed him this, he could not reasonably deny that ejaculations such as “urgh!” and “garn” are forms of expressions. How then do ejaculations and art differ?

Clearly, Clark not only fails to give a definition of art, but he also has no way of distinguishing it from other human activities. Moreover, since math is also a form of expression, it would appear that he is also committed to saying that its purpose is expression. After all, this is what he explicitly says of art — art is a form of expression therefore art’s purpose is expression. Thus, not only is he unable to distinguish math from art, but he confuses their purposes. Furthermore, if art and math have the same purpose (expression) and, as he asserts in (2.3), man’s most valuable expressions are rational and intellectual, then it follows directly that math is more valuable than art. The same could be said for history and science. This is, in fact, does correspond to Clark’s view of the relative values of these subjects. But notice that his whole hierarchy is derivable from vague definitions and questionable propositions concerning teleology. In essence, Clark defends his structuring of human activity — math, then science, then history, then art — by fiat. Clark here, and, incidentally, in many of his other writings, is more guru than philosopher.

Moving on to the last problem with (1), the phrase, the purpose of, is troubling on at least two counts. The first is that it assumes a single purpose. Clark here draws from Plato, who thought every concept stands for one thing, and perhaps from Aristotle, who believed everything has a single purpose or end. After Wittgenstein, though, most contemporary philosophers are leery of such assumptions. What, for example, is the purpose of clothes? The answer is that clothing does not have just one purpose. Clothing covers our nakedness, it protects us from the elements, it signifies our social status, and perhaps other things as well. The same can be said of art. In fact, men who have thought about art have said as much. C.S. Lewis, following the classical and medieval traditions, contends that art has two (legitimate) purposes: entertainment and instruction. (Calvin, by the way, held basically the same view. See Inst. XI 12.) Whether he is right or not is beside the point. For Clark to asset that art has one purpose is already to beg an important question.

The other problem is that Clark assumes that art must have a purpose. But is this necessarily so? Asking this does not entail an endorsement of the cant about art for art’s sake. One can, after all, create a work of art with no particular purpose in mind without being committed to any avant-garde theory of aesthetics. My boys enjoy drawing pictures of knights and dragons. If I were to ask them what the purpose of their drawings was, I am sure they would be at a loss and meekly reply, “we like drawing knights and dragons.” The same can be said of much, perhaps most, art. Why did the ancient Germans and Celts etch rectilinear shapes on their shields and swords? Was it to express something about the world or about themselves? Or did they simply like to draw such such figures? Who knows? It would hardly be surprising, though, if it were for the latter reason. (There is something deep inside man that compels him to make beautiful things.) But whatever the case, their work stands or falls on its own merits. Knowing what their purpose was, assuming they had one, would neither elevate nor diminish the value of their art in the eyes of any modern critic.

The point is that asking what the purpose of art is is probably not be the best question. But then to answer this question, especially in the tendentious way that Clark does, and proceed to order the arts in a hierarchy according to that your answer, is fatuous; and perhaps even evidence of megalomania.

Premise (1), thus, has problems along many lines. Perhaps Clark will do better with his other assertions.

Since I produced (2.1) to make Clark’s argument work, I will not offer an analysis for fear of being accused of misrepresenting him. I will note, though, that this premise, or something like it, is necessary, and that, though reasonable, is not obviously true. Indeed, I believe good arguments could be produced against it.

The next premise, recall, is God created man as essentially a rational being (2.2). As it stands it is ambiguous. It can mean that rationality is an essential part of man; it is a sine qua non. But it can also mean that rationality is the essence of man; it is the sine qua non. To make his argument work, we must take this premise in the second and stronger sense for if rationality were just one aspect of man’s essence it does not follow that his most valuable expressions are merely rational.

The notion that man has only one defining property is, prima facie, implausible. It is implausible for reasons similar for saying that a thing has only one purpose. Here an illustration is helpful. Take woman. The ability to bear children is part of the essence of woman, but her “complete” essence is not exhausted by fecundity. Woman is reflective and passive. She is Femininity as opposed to Masculinity. More could be be said, but this is sufficient for the point. To name one thing as the defining property of woman is almost certainly an oversimplification. The same could be said for man (in the gendered sense) and perhaps most other natural kinds as well (lions, oak trees, planets).

That rationality is an essential aspect of man is uncontroversial. The problem with Clark’s view is that he asserts that rationality alone is essential to man. Or, better said, rationality alone is what distinguishes man from the beasts. This brings us to the heart of the matter. In his book, In Defense of Theology, Clark argues that the image of God is identical to reason. All the other aspects or marks of this image – personality, spirituality, rectitude, morality, authority, immortality, and creativity – are subsumed under it. This is no place for a discussion of the imago dei and I leave it to the reader to consult the Church’s auctores. (See Aquinas, S.T. 1a. QQ. 77-82; Calvin, Inst. I xv; Turretin, Inst. V x; Bavinck, R.D., v. 2 V.12.; compared to such careful and comprehensive accounts, Clark’s discussion comes off superficial.) Still, something must be said about Clark’s view, since it has crucial implications for his theory of art.

If reason is the image of God, Clark must account for morality in terms of it. And this is precisely what he does.

“Since moral judgments are a species of judgment, subsumed under general intellectual activity, one result of the fall is the occurrence of incorrect evaluations by means of erroneous thinking. Adam thought, incorrectly, that it would be better to join Eve in her sin than to obey God and be separated from her. So he ate the forbidden fruit.”

Moral judgments are indeed judgments, but this does not imply they are subsumed under general intellectual activity unless “general intellectual activity” is understood so broadly that it includes the will. This is how Jonathan Edwards’ conceived of the intellect (though he would not put it in these words), but Clark does not follow Edwards. Rather, he (Clark) seems to believe that the will follows the dictates of the understanding. On this account man’s will is not necessarily corrupted since it is the reason that commits the sin (or makes the mistake) and the will has no choice but to follow its directives. Because the will is compelled to choose sin it is not culpable for the sin. And if it is not culpable, it would not necessarily be corrupted. Also notice that this view makes nonsense of the notion of a separate faculty of the will. If the will has no choice, it is not a will.

I realize that this summary dismissal does not pertain to all who hold an intellectualist view of man. St. Thomas and Calvin were both intellectualists and they had the resources to fend off these criticisms as they presently stand. But Clark is no Calvin and no Saint. Nothing in his article from which this quote was taken, offers a successful counter to these arguments (“The Image of God in Man,” JETS, vol 12, p. 4, 1969).

But suppose Clark were to give a fuller account of sin and defend his intellectualism. There are other aspects of the imago that he ignores. I will give just one example. That reason does not exhaust the image is seen also in man’s creative abilities. Man, like his Creator, is able to realize new worlds and new beauties. Not, of course, in the same way that God creates them. Man creates in a derivative way. All his raw materials come from God and he is unable to actualize his creation as God actualizes His. But after all the necessary qualifications have been made, the fact remains that man creates. Or, to borrow from Tolkien, man sub-creates. Tolkien captures an aspect of the imago that Clark completely fails to recognize.

“The human mind, endowed with the powers of generalisation and abstraction, sees not only green-grass, discriminating it from other things (and finding it fair to look upon), but sees that it is green as well as being grass. But how powerful, how stimulating to the very faculty that produced it, was the invention of the adjective: no spell or incantation in Faërie is more potent. . . . The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter’s power – upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes. . . . we may cause woods to spring with silver leaves and rams to wear fleeces of gold, and put hot fire into the belly of the cold worm. But in such ‘fantasy’, as it is called, new form is made; Faërie begins; Man becomes a sub-creator.”

Sub-creation is not a power of the intellect, but of imagination. Or if one prefers to posit the unity of man’s faculties as Edwards does, imagination is an aspect of the intellect or understanding that is distinct from reasons. This power or faculty sets men apart from the beasts just as much as reason. “[W]e make in our measure and in or derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.” Surely, reason is not to be identified with the image of God.

All this to say is that man has an aesthetic nature as well as a rational one. These are, of course, related to one another and man’s aesthetic faculty does not, in principle, conflict with his rational one. (Though man’s sinful nature does often bring discord between his creative and his rational activities, just as brings discord into every aspect of human experience.) Still, man’s aesthetic nature is distinct from his rational nature. Questions of primacy are beside the point. Let the rational faculty be primary and his aesthetic faculty secondary if you like; the aesthetic side of man is still there. This is sufficient to show Clark’s view of the imago is too crabbed.

The strong reading of (2.2), thus, must be rejected. Man essence is not merely rationality. And so the conclusion from (2.1) and (2.2) does not yield (2.3). At best we can conclude that

2.3′ Some of man’s most valuable expressions are rational and intellectual.

This weakened form of (2.3) together with the problems of (1) noted above, show that the inference to (3) is doubly flawed. Without (3), though, the inference to (5) goes by the board; and without (5) so does (6). Thus, Clark’s entire serious of arguments are all failures. Clark has in no way demonstrated that music is the lowest form of art.

But let us extract Clark’s assertion (4) – that music is not very expressive; it has no definite meaning – from his argument and consider it on its own. The first clause strikes us as absurd, especially if we take the word expressive in its loosest sense. What is, we want to ask, more expressive than music? Of course Clark thinks that second clause is merely a gloss of the first. To ask whether something is expressive is, basically, to ask whether it is meaningful. And to the question, “what does this or that piece of music mean?” we are left stumped.

There are at least two ways to answer Clark. The first is obvious. We can reject the pairing up of expressive and definite meaning and thereby remove whatever plausibility his first clause had. The second way is to take Clark’s bull by the horns and answer him on his own terms. Wittgenstein shows us the way. In his discussion of pain-behavior and pain, he famously said , “Sie [Schmerzen] ist kein Etwas, aber auch nicht ein Nichts!” (“[Pain] is not a something, but not a nothing either!”) We can answer Clark in kind. Music has no particular meaning, but from this it does not follow that it is meaningless. It does not mean something, but it does not mean nothing either. The heavens, after all, declare the glory of God, yet there is no speech in them. And while a kindly gesture, such as Mr. Knightly asking Harriet Smith to dance, cannot be fully articulated in language, it can nevertheless be very meaningful, as it was in this case for Emma Woodhouse.

Before the defender of Clark accuses me of equivocating on the word in the last example, he should note that I am merely following Clark’s usage of the word. For had Clark used meaning and expressive as synonyms for having propositional content, his statement would not only be nearly tautologous, but nonsensical. “Music does not have very much propositional content; it has no definite propositional content.” But to say music does not have much propositional content is like saying bourbon does not have much syntax. On the surface, both are true, but at a deeper level both are hopelessly enmeshed in ludicrous category mistakes.

And yet we still want to know what the meaning of music is. I will have something positive to say about this at the end, but for now let us leave off with the, admittedly unsatisfying, words of Aaron Copland. “The whole problem can be stated quite simply by asking, ‘Is there a meaning to music?’ My answer would be, ‘Yes.’ And ‘Can you state in so many words what the meaning is?’ My answer to that would be, ‘No.'”

So much for the meaning of music. What about Clark’s assertion that music is the lowest form of art? To attempt to defend music from such calumnies is a fool’s errand. For one thing, Music is perfectly capable of defending herself. The quotations at the beginning of this article bear ample testimony to this. Men have always recognized music as a high art. Recognized is the right word. Like the canon of Scripture, it is for men to recognize the value of music not establish it value. But it is folly in another sense. To argue that music is a high art (in my opinion the highest, though sharing the laurel with poetry) is to attempt the impossible. One can no more argue that music is higher than, say, sculpture, than one can argue that the rose is more beautiful than the daisy. All one can do is point and say, “look! listen!” If one does not see it (or hear it), there is nothing more to be said. But this, of course, does not mean there is no correct answer.

Wittgenstein makes a similar point, though coming to the question from a different angle.

“If someone were to ask: What is valuable in a Beethoven sonata? The sequence of notes? The feelings Beethoven had when he was composing it? The state of mind produced by listening to it? I would reply, that whatever I was told, I would reject, and that not because the explanation was false but because it was an explanation: If I were told anything that was a theory, I would say, No, no! That does not interest me – it would not be the exact thing I was looking for.”

No theory can explain music’s value just as no argument can demonstrate its value.

[Some philosophers have attempted to argue that music is the highest form of art. Schopenhauer said that all the arts except music are brought under human concepts or ideas and thus were concerned with representation of phenomena. Here he is an orthodox Kantian. Music, though, is an expression of the will and so, here he departs from Kant, comes closest to the things as they are. Hegel organizes the arts in three increasingly subjective (and thus, for him, exalted) categories: symbolic, classical, and romantic. While symbolic art points, however vaguely, beyond itself, the classical arts (represented best by sculpture) realize the ideal in themselves. Romantic art, made possible by Christianity, recognizes the infinite value of the individual and subjectivity and so moves beyond classical beauty and harmony to pure subjectivity and the tumult of self-consciousness. Of the forms of art particularly appropriate to the romantic style (painting, music, and poetry), music ranks just below poetry since it is more subjective than painting and, a fortiori, other arts such as sculpture and architecture. This is so because it abandons not only sight and touch, but the dimension of space altogether.]


Man has always explained the work of the great artists in terms of genius or wit (moderns) or the gods (ancients). This is supremely reasonable since such work calls for an explanation. How were mere mortal able to produce such wonders? Never mind that these explanations explain nothing. We can no more analyze the “faculty” of genius than we can sketch the character of Calliope. And even if we could, we would only be kicking the problem down the road – how did Genius acquire his genius or what was the name of the goddess who exhaled her sweat breath into the Muse? The purpose of such “explanations” is, of course, not to explain but to recognize; to recognize we stand in the presence of something magical, something almost miraculous. The artist has taken raw materials such as stone, pigments and canvas, bare-boned stories of the past, and sounds from vibrating strings and reeds, and, by some sort of alchemy, turned them into sculptures, paintings, poetry, and music.

After a good performance or recitation of a great work (during the performance we ask no such question; we are wholly swept away by it and have entered another world – or at least another plane) we ask ourselves, how was that possible? How could Beethoven have sat down at his piano and compose (one wants to say conjure) the Adagio of the Fifth Piano Concerto or Mozart the Sull’ aria duet? (If this is too high brow, how could the unknown composers from Celtic lands have given us their folk tunes?) How could Homer, left to his own resources, have given us Hector and Andromache at the Scaean Gates (Il. VI) or Dante his vision of Beatrice and the sun (Par. I). No human knows the answer. The movie Amedaus captures something of this in the great scene where Salieri recounts his reaction to reading the score of Mozart’s Wind Serenade.

“Extraordinary! On the page it looked nothing. The beginning simple, almost comic. Just a pulse – bassoons and basset horns – like a rusty squeezebox. Then suddenly – high above it – an oboe, a single note, hanging there unwavering, till a clarinet took over and sweetened it into a phrase of such delight! This was no composition by a performing monkey! This was a music I’d never heard. Filled with such longing, such unfulfillable longing, it had me trembling. It seemed to me that I was hearing a voice of God.”

In great music that is what we hear – the voice of a god. And its effect on us is to produce longing, Sehnsucht, Hoffnungssehnen, or whatever one wishes to call it. Music does not merely express emotion that we then enter into. It shows us there is something more, something higher, something beyond ourselves that is more desirable than any of what Homer called the glorious gifts of the gods – meat, wine, gold, sleep, Venus, even music itself. But it only hints. It does not show us what it is and does not guide us in the way.

2 thoughts on “Gordon Clark on Music

  1. It seems like longing is mainly characteristic of the purely Germanic music. Slavic music is either martial or masslos traurig (as Strauss’ Harlekin would say). French, purely sensuous. English, folkishly complacent. We would either need to distinguish different things all called music, or say that music has several different forms, expressions and purposes. Then in addition to deciding where music as such ranks, we would have to ask whether music that expresses longing is necessarily the greatest form of music.

  2. I think Shakespeare said it best (as he usually does) and Vaughan-Williams set it best, in his ‘Serenade to Music.”

    I am never merry when I hear sweet music.
    The reason is, your spirits are attentive –
    The man that hath no music in himself,
    Nor is not mov’d with concord of sweet sounds,
    Is fit for treasons, stratagems and spoils;
    The motions of his spirit are dull as night
    And his affections dark as Erebus:
    Let no such man be trusted.

    Gordon Clark is that sort of individual. I appreciate his mind. But a mind, divorced from a heart, is like ‘IT’ in Madeline L’Engles’ “A Wrinkle in Time.”


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