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Beauty and Science: What we can learn from the Middle Ages

Beauty and Science: What we can learn from the Middle Ages

Dominic McGann on how science and beauty have been intimately related for centuries. 30/01/23

From our days in primary school, most people become acquainted with science, whether through playing with colour–changing liquids or the lower abdomen of some poor amphibian. Alongside, yet separate from, these early scientific steps, most of us became familiar with art too, and later on, through lessons in art, music, literature, and drama, we encounter the subject of beauty, of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ art. Following the split of these lesson plans, it may seem obvious that these two subject areas are distinct from one another, but this has not always been the case.

The modern term ‘science’ was only adopted in its current form in the nineteenth century. Before this, in the middle–ages, the common term was the Latin virtue of scientia, which translates as something close to ‘understanding’. In the western mediaeval world, all subjects that engaged our faculties of reason to understand the world better were considered ‘sciences’ in this sense. It is a far more liberal use of the term that we employ today, but one that can be very helpful in understanding the links between beauty and science. 

The mediaeval university curriculum was generally split into seven major subjects, which were grouped into two sets. One of them, the quadrivium, comprised mathematics, geometry, astronomy, and music. To our modern minds, the first three of these subjects seem closely related, but the fourth, music, is the odd one out. What does music, with its capacity to stir the passions and move the heart, have to do with geometry, let alone astronomy? To the mediaeval mind, however, the connection between music and these subjects was as apparent as that between mathematics and geometry. 

For the mediaeval scholar, beauty, moral goodness, and justice could all be understood in terms of ‘fittingness’ or ‘propriety’. This idea was simple. All things, mediaeval scholars believed, had some form or purpose that they are ultimately intended, by a divine creator, to achieve. A hand, for example, was believed to be created to fulfil human needs that can only be fulfilled through manual dexterity. A hand that grabs, holds, opens jars, etc, is said to ‘fit’ with its ultimate purpose, and it is from this sense of fittingness that it could rightly be called a ‘good’, or even a ‘beautiful’, hand. 

The idea of how well something ‘fits’ its purpose sounds helplessly subjective. However, so consequential was it to the mediaeval worldview, that it was not abandoned to subjectivity but granted some objective content by means of the thing that united the four subjects of the quadrivium: numbers. 

Mediaeval minds were obsessed with mathematics. Mathematics, with its ability to express functions and relations between things in the world, was like a language that could be used to discuss the fittingness of an object or situation to its God–given purpose. This explains, for example, why mediaeval theologians like Anselm were so concerned to find the correct ways to calculate the number of angels that God would create to serve him in heaven; it was seen as important to know a definite number such that scholars could talk in objective terms about the divine fittingness of the heavenly host.

With this in mind, the mediaeval way of appreciating music can be understood. Far from the contemporary notion that emotion and passion somehow drive the beauty of music (an idea which doesn’t appear until the late middle ages in the works of music criticism, such as the Heinrich Glarean’s Dodecachordon), mediaeval Europeans appreciated music for its fittingness in comparison to an understood set of musical conventions, which were often expressed as mathematical relationships between tones and notes. In this way, mediaeval music was judged to be beautiful when it was composed to fit with the mathematical rules that governed it; its beauty was ultimately an expression of numerical structure, ratio, and proportion. 

This mathematical understanding of music, referred to historically as the ‘Plato–Pythagorean Conception’, also helps us to explain the link mediaeval scholars saw between astronomy and music. It is the business of astronomers to observe celestial bodies and explore their relationships to one another through mathematical ratios and formulae. What should be noticed in referencing these astronomical relationships, however, is how similar they are to the mediaeval understanding of music. 

Mediaeval composers crafted their pieces according to the mathematical relationships and symmetries that can be observed in the various tones of music. Music was an expression of the mathematical beauty that can be ‘heard’ in the world around us – it used these relationships to express sonically the fittingness of mathematical relations. In a similar way, astronomy made it its business to learn about a similar fittingness within God’s created universe. To practise astronomy was to listen to the ‘music of the spheres’, to focus one’s rationality on the task of understanding the mathematical beauty in the world around us. 

Mediaeval music and astronomy, then, were two sides of the same coin. Whilst astronomy observed the heavens to learn about the fitting beauty of creation, music used similar mathematical relations, applied to tones, to express such fittingness through sound. Furthermore, this understanding helps to explain why both music and astronomy were included in the quadrivium. They are as related to one another as engineering and physics; one provides the theory, while the other uses that theory to create things and add to the world around us. 

The relationship between music and astronomy in the mediaeval mind reminds us that, until fairly recently in Western history, beauty and science were intimately related to one another. To ask a mediaeval scholar ‘What does beauty have to do with science?’ would likely sound as silly to them as asking ‘What does the past have to do with history?’. The beauty of the world around us, observed through science and expressed mathematically, has been a source of inspiration for the creation of beautiful works of art for centuries, which gives us a good indication that a similar relationship between science and beauty continues to exist to this day.

Dominic McGann is a DPhil Candidate and Arthur Peacocke Graduate Scholar in Science and Religion at the University of Oxford.


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Dominic McGann

Dominic McGann

Dominic McGann is a DPhil Candidate in Theology & Religion at the University of Oxford, and the Arthur Peacocke Graduate Scholar in Science and Religion at Exeter College, Oxford. He is currently writing a PhD thesis on the ways in which the scientific study of music impacts our understanding of religious practice.

Watch, listen to or read more from Dominic McGann

Posted 30 January 2023

Beauty, Beauty and Truth, Belief, Faith, Science, Truth


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