The beginning of musical discrimination comes from consideration of the faculty of judgment. Simply, one judges and then orders. However this is not the entire story, but only the beginning of an awareness of intrinsic difference. One problem typically encountered when making an aesthetic determination is the supposed lack of objective criteria upon which to base one’s judgment. This view of the subjective nature of aesthetics is primarily due to a misunderstanding of what can be called “objective,” and the misunderstanding’s genesis can be traced back to the so-called scientific revolution, for example the comparative method of Galileo. An explanation taken from the Galileo Website of Buffalo SUNY states:
In sharp contrast to the absolute, categorical and hierarchical world of Plato and Aristotle, the world of science is relative and comparative. An object is not large, but large compared to some other thing. A work of art is not beautiful in an absolute sense, but it is more or less beautiful than some standard.
But in our modern world it is this very standard that is missing. And it is not clear how there could even be a “standard” unless there was an objective hierarchical order that one could identify and use as an arbiter. Many under the spell of modern science have not surprisingly come to believe that Beauty is, in fact, a rather meaningless concept apart from whatever one happens to like at any given moment. And what one happens to like is itself subject to change, and may even change again, back to whatever came before with just as much legitimacy. Of course it would be wrong to lay the blame for the entire state of affairs on modern science inasmuch as we may also cite the epistemological ground found in late medieval nominalism, which at its extreme denied the ontological ground for universals. This, coupled with the idea that at its ultimate level matter (that is, the composition of substance) is the same for all and everything, a throwback to Democritus, leads to the conviction that the very idea of objective ordinal categories are chimerical. If everything is ultimately the same, how is it even possible? Thus it is that nowadays we have folks arguing that aesthetics, as a science, is pointless, and in the extreme absurd. But in order to understand the solution to this problem, and in order to recover an aesthetic foundation, it is necessary to confront an earlier way of thinking.
It cannot be denied that from the time of David Hume our rational nexus with experience has been shaken. The entire ground for causation was lost, and the link between what is discovered, and what ought to be, was divorced. Too, with modern science and the drive for reductionism it was understood by many that the generation of things in matter, and even life itself, was purely a random occurrence [ex: speciation through natural selection in biology; the so-called Uncertainty Principle in quantum physics; etc.]. Missing in it all are understandings previously known, yet abandoned from at least the 16th Century onward. To wit: a notion of telos— an idea of nature (as in a thing’s nature or natural end); essentialism (the idea that everything has an essence and its essence is intrinsic to that particular thing); and finally, that all of this can be known through reason in conjunction with empirical observation.
The Classical world view was fundamentally different from modern thinking. In spite of their differences Plato and Aristotle lived in the same world, and understood it in a way that makes a recovery of their thinking particularly troublesome for moderns, however necessary it is for us to recover. For Plato, Beauty was a real thing, and particular aesthetic artifacts participated in Beauty to a greater or lesser degree depending upon their perfection. How is Beauty a real thing? Its ontological status consists of it being a universal exemplar, and its psychological status consists of the fact that it is not known empirically as an individual thing, but rather is known rationally, through our understanding of the universal. And as a universal, Beauty exists prior to any particular instance of its manifestation. Turning to Aristotle we see that a particular thing’s existence can be expressed four ways: what it is made of (its matter, or material cause); how it manifests in the world as a particular example of a class of things (its formal cause); how it is affected by other things (its efficient cause); and its end according to its nature (the final cause).
To understand Classical notions of Beauty and to understand music objectively one must have a firm grasp on these concepts. To contrast, modern science would approach music empirically, and in a disinterested manner. It would count the number of notes in a work, weigh the type of notes and their shapes, figure out scales and the harmonic relationships, and so on and so forth. Then it would proclaim that because both the Beatles and Bach use the same notes, an equivalence between the two exist at music’s most basic and fundamental level. In fact, modern science might consider the Beatles superior because they created sounds that were not available to Bach.
Classical aestheticians would approach their study of music differently. First, they would ask, what is the nature of man, and what of his end? And how does the particular piece of music, an artifact of human invention, relate to that end? They may discover that there are different natures for different types of men, and hence different possible ends. They would then ask how music affects or influences each nature differently?
The first thing to notice is that of different human natures. Today, with the advent of Marxism, human nature is really a misnomer. Men, indeed the entire social order, are understood simply as a product of a contingent material cause differentiated by economics. If there is found a difference among men and societies it is not intrinsic and discoverable through an understanding of unchangeable natural law, but is rather something fluid, and amenable to metamorphosis by modification of positive law. However, this latter understanding is really not an understanding, but simply the imposition of an ideology upon nature. To suppose that, for instance, sub-Saharan African tribal dance is aesthetically equivalent to the Chinese Kun opera, or the Western classical ballet, and that with some social tweaking one group could adopt the form of the other, is to lose sight of the nature(s) of men. In fact, each of these forms developed as an outward expression of the essence of racial characteristics within different groups, and it is impossible think that one group could have ever created the other’s art. Bantu gyrations are the natural expression of savage negro nature, just as the formal, precise, almost slow-motion movements of Kunqu express a reserved and introspective nature intrinsic to Far Eastern sensibility.
We now rightly ask, what is the musical nature of Western man? Without offering a direct answer, one must be reminded to always look toward our end, or final cause. Aristotle understood that men (Greek men) had a political end. For Aristotle the polis, not a universal democracy where everyone is equal, but an organic state of equal citizens where only the few could be citizens [Politics 1259b 5], exists logically prior to the individual [Politics 1253a 20]. Thus we may wonder, should not music promote a certain political theme? Here, the word “political” can be understood in an expanded sense encompassing the entire social-economic-religious-political regime. That is, we must expect to find a music that both underscores and attempts to generate a cohesive social order through citizen participation, but one that includes all aspects essential to an organic order. From this understanding it is clear that within our present multicultural pluralist “order” (really, a lack of order) that the music we encounter on a day to day basis is noxious, comprised as it is of alien and subversive influences that exist contrary to the needs of our indigenous, but now dispossessed, race.
Finally we understand that men have multiple needs, yet these needs must be legitimately ranked. What is good is whatever supports these needs. Within Western tradition we find this realization as a basis of a long forgotten scholastic philosophy stemming originally from the Classical period. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “Goodness is that which all things desire…” [ST I.5.4], but here it must be understood that a thing is only desirable to the degree that it approaches perfection. But where can we look to find perfection? Again, it is only through the intellect (not through sense perception or imagination) that perfection can be known. Thus we find that any instance of a triangle approaches perfection to the degree that it participates in, or mirrors, or instantiates the mental understanding of triangularity. Alternately, any instance of art approaches perfection inasmuch as it participates in our idea of Beauty. And Beauty fulfills a need occasioned by our final end, or telos. Symposium tells the story of the ascent of desire toward what should be our highest end. The priestess of Zeus, Diotima, schools the young Socrates through the stages of Eros. But her knowledge is only revealed after the common flute girls have been sent away, and only after the explication of the purpose and proper use of both the vulgar Muse Polyhymnia, and her divine sister, Urania. To achieve our proper end, one must progress. But first one must know where one is going, and one must know what is most helpful along the way, and what is not.