Harmony

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One way to ensure (or at least greatly contribute to) marital bliss is to frequently employ that most effective of weapons, the Date Night. Love may cover a multitude of sins, but Date Night can cover over the myriad annoyances, bouts of forgetfulness, and simple obliviousness that assaults most men in their attempts to find peace and harmony in home and hearth with the women they love and certainly do not deserve.

On a recent date night Megan and I went to the Nelson-Atkins Art Museum, which is one of our frequent haunts. Even though we’ve seen just about everything in there, great art is something that actually doesn’t really get old, and most of us would be well served to occasionally polish off the rough edges with the refinement fine art can bring.

During this excursion I happened upon an interactive piece that I hadn’t noticed before. It was in the section on Japanese carpentry, and the interactive piece was comprised of a bunch of blocks of wood that were shaped like the joints used in the furniture of the period in question. It turns out that the craftsmen of this particular era (I don’t recall which) did not use any sort of nails or adhesive to hold their furniture together, but rather valued the portability that easily disassembled furniture offered. Thus, every joint had to fit together with its neighbor seamlessly so as to not slip, while also giving the piece structure and stability.

Some of the joints are quite ingenious, and the precision and foresight required to construct furniture in a such a way  is somewhat awe-inspiring; no doubt why such pieces are at home in a museum of fine art. To get two things that are separate to come together and function as one- to work in perfect harmony- is art in itself.

When we think of harmony we most often are thinking of music, and for good reason. However, the term itself was originally more indicative of carpentry than of music. The classical Greek harmonia, from which we get ‘harmony,’ came from the verb harmozo, which had the sense of joining, fastening or fitting together. (It was also used in later Koine Greek as a term for betrothal.) Harmozo itself comes from the earlier word harma, which was used in reference to chariots, especially the wheels.

It is a bit of etymological curiosity that the later word harmonia (and harmozo) shift the form of the word (from ‘-a’ to ‘-o-‘), but the reason lies in how harma was employed. Ancient chariots, much like later Japanese furniture- were meant to be easily assembled and disassembled. Leaving the wheels on a chariot meant that the stress from the weight of the chariot would continually be on the joints where the wheels met the chariot; this could lead to imperceptible damage, which of course could be disastrous on the battlefield. Leaving wheels off of the chariots also helped to protect them from the elements as they were transported and stored. Chariots were most likely not actually ridden to a field of battle like in the movies, but rather transported in pieces on carts and then assembled in preparation for battle.

But back to the grammar. Since the wheels were vital to the tactical advantage of the chariot, the wheels themselves stood as a linguistic shorthand for the chariot as a whole. The ancients were often fond of treating the parts of something as a stand-in for the whole, and thus harma (wheel) came to mean chariot. But since everyone in the ancient world understood that chariots had to be assembled, this notion of the wheels fitting onto the chariot was retained within the meaning of the term, and thus harma came to entail a fitting together or a joining, the harmozo from which harmonia was derived. And since the Mycenaean technical term for chariot wheel was amo, this rendering of the term seems to have led to shift in form from harma to harmo.

As such, the root harmo came to mean joint work, both in the sense of carpentry but also more fundamentally as an allusion to the joints in the body. The notion was that the bones of the arm or the leg, for example, are fitted together to work as one, disparate pieces that form a unity of function. Arms and legs had from time immemorial been the locus of work and motion:

The arm is an organ with which one can carry, pull or push a load. The wheel is a kind of substitute for the arm. With the help of wheels a man and a horse were able to pull a load many times greater than what they could carry on their backs. A more convenient name for such a useful invention could not be imagined than {h)armo…(Petar Hr. Ilievski, The Origin and Development of the Term Harmony, p. 23)

Further:

The idea of fastening the parts of a wheel and other jointed things is, in fact, an imitation of natural joints. The joint represents a perfect functional junction of two bones, because one is at that point concave and the other convex, strongly bound with special fastening texture. The joints are the most important factors that make it possible for living beings to move. (ibid.)

Thus, the body itself provides a fitting example of the harmonia that is inherent to nature, the coming together of distinct things to function as one.

Of course, in the modern world we tend to think of harmony mainly in reference to music, and even though harmonia was originally a word for craftsmen it too eventually took on musical overtones, and the Pythagoreans were especially influential in this regard. Their philosophy generally divided the cosmos into two types of things: the unlimited and the limiters (the apeiron and the peiron). Philolaus understands this harmony in dichotomy as underpinning the order of the cosmos:

…since these beginnings [i.e. limiters and unlimiteds] preexisted and were neither alike nor even related, it would not have been possible for them to be ordered, if a harmony had not come upon them… Like things and related things did not in addition require any harmony, but things that are unlike and not even related … it is necessary that such things be bonded together by a harmony, if they are going to be held in an order. (Philolaus, Fragment 1)

The musical scale itself provides a fitting illustration. After all, there are potentially any number of tones that can exist, but the mere sequence of random tones or simultaneous sounding of two unrelated notes does not result in a pleasing sound. The unlimited nature of the tonal scale must be brought into order by limiters, which in music function as the ratios between tones in the scale. These limiters impose order upon the unlimited, and this imposition of order is the harmonia of not only the musical scale but also of the cosmos as a whole.

Later in the Christian era, St. Augustine brought this multifaceted approach to harmonia to bear upon his explication of the essential harmonia in the work of salvation. The question had been asked since the first moments of Christian history: why did God become man? Other eminent lights had answered this question, some in a more theological fashion and others  by means of philosophical speculation. St. Augustine here inclines towards the latter, but seeks to find something within the fabric of the cosmic order itself that betokens the redemption of man, sort of a cosmic history of salvation. While this would be most strikingly accomplished in his City of God, here he takes note of the essential harmonia between the God-man and the men whom he would save and divinize:

Yet we were absolutely incapable of such participation [in life] and quite unfit for it, so unclean were we through sin, so we had to be cleansed. Furthermore, the only thing to cleanse the wicked and the proud is the blood of the just man and the humility of God; to contemplate God, which by nature we are not, we would have to be cleansed by him who became what by nature we are and what by sin we are not. By nature we are not God; by nature we are men; by sin we are not just. So God became a just man to intercede with God for sinful man. The sinner did not match the just, but man did match man. So he applied to us the similarity of his humanity to take away the dissimilarity of our iniquity, and becoming a partaker of our mortality he made us partakers of his divinity. It was surely right that the death of the sinner issuing from the stern necessity of condemnation should be undone by the death of the just man issuing from the voluntary freedom of mercy, his single matching our double. (Saint Augustine, On The Trinity, Book 4.4.4)

His initial point is that in the question of the Incarnation, there exists a sort of ratio between the God-man and the men he came to save. Jesus was a man just like all men, but unlike all other men he had no sin. There is a correspondence in the nature, but not in the condition. It was the similarity of nature that was used to deal with the dissimilarity of condition, and by becoming a partaker of humanity he allowed us to partake of divinity. There is this 2:1 ratio that St. Augustine sees running throughout the Incarnation, which forms the essence of the harmonia. Even though he doesn’t say it, one might even locate the limited nature of humanity as (in a sense) limiting the unlimited nature of God in the Incarnation, thus underpinning and betokening the order of creation in its ratio-nal harmonia. St. Augustine goes on to explain how this harmonia is built into the very fabric of our being:

This match—or agreement or concord or consonance or whatever the right word is for the proportion of one to two—is of enormous importance in every construction or interlock—that is the word I want—of creation. What I mean by this interlock, it has just occurred to me, is what the Greeks call harmonia. This is not the place to show the far-reaching importance of the consonant proportion of the single to the double. It is found extensively in us, and is so naturally ingrained in us (and who by, if not by him who created us?), that even the unskilled feel it whether singing themselves or listening to others. It is what makes concord between high-pitched and deep voices, and if anyone strays discordantly away from it, it is not our knowledge, which many lack, but our very sense of hearing that is painfully offended. To explain it would require a long lecture; but anyone who knows how can demonstrate it to our ears with a tuning string, or tonometer. (ibid.)

This proportion of the one to the two is essentially the octave, for the 2:1 ratio marks the span between the highest and lowest notes of the scale. This harmonious ratio is the limiter which allows the two disparate tones to actually be one and sound pleasing to the ear. In a sense, each tone is contained within the other even though they are distinct, for by virtue of being the same tone they can be sounded at different octaves and yet still sound in harmony.

St. Augustine makes an interesting linguistic move here by essentially creating his own word (interlock is the rendering of coaptatio, which he indicates is meant to capture the sense of harmonia in both the sense of how a craftsman would use it (hence interlock) and in the sense of how a musicologist would use it. The linguistic flexibility here is of course intentional, for he sees this interlock as constituent of the cosmos as a whole, woven into our being and the order of the universe around us. It is for this reason that even if we cannot sing, as he mentions, we can still perceive the proportion between tones and the 2:1 ratio of the octave.

As a bit of an aside, it actually is somewhat interesting to take up his challenge and employ a tonometer. You can find one here and see how great of a tonal range your ears can perceive.

But how does St. Augustine see this proportion of 2:1 effecting itself in the actual work of salvation? He continues by noting that in the case of sinful men there is a death on two fronts: death in the soul because of sin and death in the body as a punishment for the same. Body and soul are two things that belong to man by nature, and this two-fold death encompasses us all:

Each thing of ours, that is, both soul and body, was in need of healing and resurrection, in order to renew for the better what had changed for the worse. Now the death of the soul is ungodliness15 and the death of the body is perishability, which ends in the soul’s departure from the body. Just as the soul dies when God leaves it, so does the body when the soul leaves it. (Saint Augustine, On The Trinity, Book 4.4.5)

This two-fold death of man is set off against the one death of Christ, who though he died in the body was not dead in the soul, for he had no sin about him. His sinless soul which was nevertheless united to a mortal body provides the octaval proportion to our two-fold death in soul and body:

To balance this double death of ours the savior paid in his single one, and to achieve each resurrection of ours he pre-enacted and presented his one and only one by way of sacrament and by way of model. For he was not a sinner or godless, and so he had no need to be renewed in the inner man as though he were dead in spirit, or by regaining wisdom to be called back to a life of justice. But being clothed with mortal flesh, in that alone he died and in that alone he rose again; and so in that alone he harmonized with each part of us by becoming in that flesh the sacrament for the inner man and the model for the outer one. (Saint Augustine, On The Trinity, Book 4.4.6)

Thus, in Jesus we have the one death of body and the one resurrection of the body, which, because this body is hypostatically united to the one who is Life itself, mystically stands-in for our double death in the body and soul and double resurrection in the body and soul. He may seem to be equivocating here, taking one thing (i.e., the body) and applying it to something dissimilar (i.e., the soul), but that seems to actually be his point. Much like the 2:1 ratio of the the octave involves the same tone at different pitches, so the one death and resurrection of Christ stands-in for the double death and resurrection men in the work of salvation. Seen in a musical way, as a middle C can stand-in for any C (in that, whatever the pitch, it is still a C), so the death and resurrection of the body in Jesus is a mystical indication of the death and resurrection of the soul in the redeemed:

So then, the one death of our savior was our salvation from our two deaths, and his one resurrection bestowed two resurrections on us, since in either instance, that is both in death and in resurrection, his body served as the sacrament of our inner man and as the model of our outer man, by a kind of curative accord or symmetry. (ibid.)

And since this proportion of the two to the one is what St. Augustine understands as underlying all of the created order and especially the mystery of salvation, one could end by saying that it is nothing less than music to our ears.

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Jason Watson

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