Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Numbers: Harmonic Ratios and Beauty in Augustinian Musical Cosmology

Academic journal article Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy

Numbers: Harmonic Ratios and Beauty in Augustinian Musical Cosmology

Article excerpt


Augustine's interest in numbers pervades many of his writings. The core issues of his early writings were especially shaped by the concepts of numbers borrowed from the Pythagoreans, but he was successful in harmonizing these with his Christian faith. In De Musica, one of his early writings, Augustine specifically discusses the nature of numbers and the unchangeable numerical principles of music theory. In this apologetical treatise, he adopts the Pythagorean musical cosmology in Christian theological context in order to argue that all things were created and measured by God according to the harmonic order. Although number is not the most popular topic among Augustinian scholars, it has gained some attention. In her short article "Measure, Number and Weight in Saint Augustine's Aesthetics," Carol Harrison, without discussing the issue at length, mentions that the terms number, beauty and form, "are used almost synonymously by Augustine, in reference to the Son, the second person of the Trinity" (1) J. Roland E. Ramirez's short article "Augustine's Numbering Numbers" addresses the relationship between the power of numbering and the immortal soul. Ramirez provides an important insight: "It is, however, only because the human soul is incorporeal and immortal that the incorruptible, eternal numbering numbers can be naturally discovered to have a residence in the human soul" (2) Catherine Pickstock's "Ascending Numbers: Augustine's De Musica and the Western Tradition" (3) digresses from the subject of Augustine's music theory, while the word "numbers" in the title is more or less symbolic, as the article addresses neither the topic of number nor the numerical ratios of music theory. Montague Brown's "Augustine on Beauty, Number, and Form" discusses the intrinsic relationship between numbers, beauty and form, and he presents a convincing reading, "Number is spoken of as God's knowledge of and very presence to created things, [which] he has created according to number" (4) Ellen Scully discusses the Pythagorean numerology in her "De Musica as the Guide to Understanding Augustine's Trinitarian Numerology in the De Trinitate" Although she does not address the ratio of musical harmony, she explains the theological analogy of numbers within the Trinity. Further, she points out the significance of numbers in Augustine's metaphysical argumentations. As she notes,

   He is enough of a Pythagorean to understand the beginning of all
   numbers as the beginning of all things, but it is precisely the
   focus on numbers that allows him to pursue this question in the
   intelligible rather than material realm. (5)

Previous research only discusses the concept of numbers without analysing the harmonic ratio and addressing the beauty of God. This article explains how, according to the Pythagorean concept of numbers, Augustine demonstrates his musical cosmology and argues that the progression of the first four numbers (1-2-3-4) is the highest Modus of God that determines both physical and metaphysical beauty.


The numerical truth, according to the Pythagorean tradition, includes four subjects: arithmetic, music, astronomy and geometry. These four subjects are sister-disciplines under one subject, mathematics. Among them, only music is the combination of the principles of both natural science and morality. When applying the unchangeable mathematic truth to searching the morality and the meaning of the world, neither the Pythagoreans, nor Augustine can avoid studying music which is measured numbers moving in the temporal realm. Since the truth of numbers is unchangeable and common to everyone, Augustine holds that to ignore the knowledge of numbers and music would be a great loss for Christians in their pursuit of the knowledge of God. He claims: "Ignorance of numbers prevents us from understanding things that are set down in Scripture in a figurative and mystical way. …

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