restricted access Singing and Thinking: Gregorian Chant and Thomistic Philosophy
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Roger Duncan Singing and Thinking: Gregorian Chant and Thomistic Philosophy Gregorian chant is popular these days and Thomism is not. "Popular"mightbe stretching it, but the point is that one searches the stands in vain for fast-selling philosophy books analogous to the chant CDs that make it onto the charts and into the New York Times. ' This disparity surprises only after we have become intrigued by the parallel trajectories traced by these two inspired human responses to the Divine over the last seven hundred years. Gregorian chant—in the somewhat inexact sense in which that term is used to denote aWestern style ofintricate, but harmonically unadorned, melodic rendering of sacred texts—flowered in the high MiddleAges, though its genealogy stretches back into the early centuries of Christian worship in the Latin West (for instance, the hymnody of St. Ambrose) and behind that again, into Eastern and possibly Jewish liturgical melodies. St.ThomasAquinas worked out his grand philosophical-theological synthesis in the same medieval period, though again not without a long preparation in the tradition. Christian philosophy had emerged with special brilliance in the work ofAmbrose's convertAugustine, and thoughAugustine hated Greek, LOGOS 2:2 spring 1999 LOGOS his whole enterprise and that ofthose who were to follow him could not help but build on Greek foundations: Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus. Both Gregorian chant and the work of St. Thomas were monuments to such universality as the Roman Church could claim: each integrated elements from the entire tradition of known civilization in a distinctlyWestern manner. New movements eclipsed both the chant and the philosophy of St.Thomas by the end ofthe Middle Ages.Though the Fathers consulted the Summa at the Council ofTrent, the new philosophical styles rooted in the nominalist challenge and the nascent scientific revolution had already taken hold; though Gregorian melodies were no doubt heard at that Council, the new polyphonic music had already trumped the older "plain" chant.2 While both chant and the teaching of St. Thomas continued to play a role in the life of the Church over the next centuries, both became severely deformed. Thomism in fact almost died after the Cartesian sabotage and the displacement of philosophy to the secular arena; by the nineteenth century it was practically buried under a sterile academicism remote from the concerns and insights ofthe times. The scholasticism that prevailed in theology by this time was in something rather like the condition of Gregorian chant (being written in a modern notation completely unsuited to its nuance) at this same time. Both were preserved in the Church, shells of their former selves, their original animating spirit departed. A turning point came by the end of the nineteenth century. At that time the Catholic Church drew itselfup and faced the modern world across a chasm of accumulated difference. Knowing itself to exist for the leavening of the nations it nevertheless had to redefine itself, over against that"world"for which Christ did not pray, on the basis ofa unity ofprinciple and a purity ofcult. Possessed at once of a new sense of universality and a new burden of responsibility the Church found ready-to-hand the potential instruments for the unification and deepening ofits thought and its prayer.The philosophi- GREGORIAN CHANT AND THOMISTIC PHILOSOPHYIIr cal-theological synthesis of St. Thomas Aquinas showed itself, to a sober review ofthe intellectual vicissitudes ofthe preceding six centuries , to be a unique treasure rooted in common sense, flowering in faith, and ramifying into variegated relevance to every sector of human thought—a healing wisdom sorely needed by a world losing its spiritual moorings. Gregorian chant, being resuscitated at Solesmes by monks with musical savvy and contemplative sensitivity , showed itselfagainst the turbulence ofthe musical outpourings of the age to possess a uniquely prayerful quality, suited preeminently for liturgical prayer and the reverent reinforcement ofsacred text. But here is something interesting. Both Thomism and chant received in this"revival"a universality and a standardization along essential lines that they had never before possessed. In other words, the chant and the Thomism encouraged by Pope Leo XIII,3 produced through highlevel historical scholarship as they were, were new realities, forged in confrontation with the intellectual and...