Involuted Mysteries, II: A Grammar of Symbols and Ideas. Some Perennial Themes, Image-complexes, Mythic Archetypes, and Philosophical Topoi in Literature and Art before 1800, Part IX

The Image-Complex of Harmony, Justice, and Cosmic Order…

Shakespeare’s Ulysses on “Degree”

Ovid’s Cosmogony…

Music as the Substance of the Cosmos…

Music as the Cosmogonic God…

     The “reparation” paid by the tragic hero for the crime of aspiring above his mortal station is only the most spectacular instance of that distinctly unmodern respect for hierarchy and decorum that is extolled thoughout the history of Western literature and thought, in which there is nothing more sacred than what Ulysses describes in Shakespeare’s Troilus and Cressida as man’s obligation to observe “degree, priority, and place”.

     The man who fails to respect the social order commits an act of injustice that is as primordial as the elemental opposites’ overstepping of their bounds, and it has cosmic consequences for this reason:

The heavens themselves, the planets, and this centre [i.e., earth]
Observe degree, priority, and place,
Insisture, course, proportion, season, form,
Office, and custom, in all line of order.
And therefore is the glorious planet Sol
In noble eminence enthroned and sphered
Amidst the other; whose med’cinable eye
Corrects the influence of evil planets,
And posts, like the commandment of a king,
Sans check, to good and bad.  But when the planets
In evil mixture to disorder wander,
What plagues, and what portents, what mutiny,
What raging of the sea, shaking of earth,
Commotion in the winds, frights, changes, horrors,
Divert and crack, rend and deracinate
The unity and married calm of states
Quite apart from their fixture?  O, when degree is shaked,
Which is the ladder of all high designs,
The enterprise is sick.  How could communities,
Degrees in schools, and brotherhoods in cities,
Peaceful commerce from dividable shores,
The primogenity and due of birth,
Prerogative of age, crowns, scepters, laurels,
But by degree, stand in authentic place?
Take but degree away, untune that string,
And hark what discord follows.  Each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.  The bounded waters
Should lift their bosoms higher than the shores
And make a sop of all this solid globe;

Strength should be lord of imbecility,
And the rude son should strike his father dead;
Force should be right, or rather right and wrong—
Between whose endless jar [i.e., discord] justice resides—
Should lose their names, and so should justice too.

Then everything include itself in power,
Power into will, will into appetite,
And appetite, an universal wolf,
So doubly seconded with will and power,
Must make perforce an universal prey
And last eat up himself.  Great Agamemnon,
This chaos, when degree is suffocate,
Follows the choking.
(Troilus and Cressida, I.iii, 85ff.; my italics)

      As usual, Shakespeare manages to compact the entire tradition into the narrow scope of these lines.  The violation of “degree” in the macrocosm reverberates into the microcosm, and vice-versa.  Should the planets “in evil mixture to disorder wander”–should, that is, they stray out of their proper courses into the orbits of each other–, all of nature is discomposed, and nature’s commotion soon infects the “unity and married calm of states”.  Conversely, should the hierarchical order of human society be disturbed, the string of the universe itself is “untuned”:  the elemental opposites of sea and land transgress their boundaries and invade each other’s provinces “in mere oppugnancy”, and everything dissolves back into chaos.

     Here, again, needless to say, one sees the assimilation into a unitary image-complex of the ideas of music, justice, and cosmic order.

     In these lines, Shakespeare is rehearsing a topos that is already two thousand years old, according to which the creation of the world involves the Deity’s imposition of order upon an original chaos in which the elemental opposites are at each other’s throats–a state perennially described as “war”, “strife”, “discord”, “disharmony”, or “injustice”.

     We have discussed it already, I know, but I must draw your attention one more time to that text at the beginning of Ovid’s Metamorphoses that so perfectly inflects the theme.

Before the sea was, and the lands, and sky that hangs over all, the face of Nature showed alike in her whole round, which state have men called chaos:  a rough, unordered mass of things, nothing at all save lifeless bulk and warring seeds of ill-joined elements [discordia semina rerum] …No form of things remained the same; all objects were at odds, for within the one mass cold things fought [pugnabit] with hot, and moist with dry, soft things with hard, heavy things with weightless.  God—or kindlier Nature—composed all this strife by restoring everything within its limit; for he rent asunder land from sky, and sea from land, and separated the ethereal heavens from the dense atmosphere.  When thus he had released these elements and freed them from the blind heap of things, he set them each in its own place and bound them fast in harmony [concordia].

     For Ovid, as for most of the later poets, Anaximander’s The Infinite is identified with Hesiod’s Chaos, a state in which the elemental opposites are interfused in a formless, homogenous mass.  Ovid describes them as being at war, invading each other’s provinces, until God or “kindlier Nature” restrains their aggression, separates them out of the fray, and sets them within their proper jurisdictions in justice, order, and harmony.

      In the language of poetry, what this means, of course, is that Justice, Order, and or Harmony–whatever name the poet confers upon it–is the very divine agency that creates the world.  That is to say, it is not merely that the universe exhibits the quality of justice, or that the orderly revolution of the spheres intones a kind of harmony that metaphorically evokes the order and harmony of their movements; it is rather that Justice or Music is the actual cosmogonic agent that brings the world into being.

     So, the seventh-century encyclopedist and biblical exegete Isidore of Seville writes that

Nothing exists without music.  For the universe itself is said to have been framed by a kind of harmony of sounds, and the heaven revolves under the tones of that harmony. (Etymologiae)

     As late as 1687, Dryden gave the idea its best-known rendering in English poetry, while cleaving strictly to the ancient pagan cosmogonic tradition that begins with Anaximander and has its locus classicus in Ovid:

From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began:
When nature underneath a heap
Of jarring atoms lay
And could not heave her head,
The tuneful voice was heard from high:
Arise, ye more than dead.
Then cold and hot and moist and dry
In order to their stations leap
And music’s power obey.
From harmony, from heavenly harmony,
This universal frame began;
From harmony to harmony
Through all the compass of the notes it ran
The diapason closing full in man.

     The world, then, is literally brought into existence by Music.  Music is the cosmogonic God, or at least an aspect of God the Creator, and in this, Dryden, once again, merely rehearses an ancient pagan tradition.