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The Influence of Greek Thought on Martin Luther’s Aesthetics

When Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of the church at Wittenburg in 1517, he not only sparked a theological reformation in the Church, but he also led the way for reforms in the Church’s music. Luther’s primary objections were with the Roman Church’s theology, yet the church reforms he began had implications in politics, language, and even art. Throughout the rest of his life, Martin Luther filled the pages of books with his treatises on various church-related subjects, and these writings sparked a Reformation whose impact can be felt still today.

Unfortunately, Martin Luther never fully formulated his thoughts on music in any systematic fashion. This does not imply, however, that Luther had nothing to say on the issue. On the contrary, Luther held strong convictions about music–his writings are replete with references to the subject. Luther held music in the highest regard and considered it an important tool in his reforms. Due to this fact, Luther also expressed very strong opinions about aesthetics in general as it relates to music in the Church.

plato2This essay will examine the influence of Greek aesthetic thought in particular on Martin Luther’s philosophy of aesthetics as it relates to his reforms in church music. Luther’s rich educational background would have exposed him to the aesthetic philosophies of men who came before him1 and would have certainly influenced his own views of aesthetics.

Pythagoras (6th century BC) is credited as the first to treat music as a science. Tradition says that he discovered the numerical relationships governing the basic intervals of music. No extant writings of Pythagoras exist; only legends and writings of his followers shed some light into his findings. The most common story relates Pythagoras’ notice of the consonant pitches produced by hammers of various weights in a smith’s shop. This led him to experimentation by which he related the weight ratios of the hammers to length ratios of plucked strings, thus discovering the proportional aspects of consonant harmony.2 Pythagorean ideas expanded to teach that these ratios are embedded into the fabric of the universe and that even the celestial spheres produce sounds based on the ratios of their distances from the supposed center of the universe–planet earth.

Pythagorean theories had significant impact upon aesthetics for centuries to follow. The well-known Greek philosopher Plato used Pythagorean thought to develop the numerical foundation for music’s communicative power. Pythagoras’ ideas founded the basis for objective discussions of musical communication since he taught that music could be measured in terms of numbers.

Luther was no doubt aware of Pythagoras’ views, evidenced by this comment from his lectures on Genesis:

We do not marvel at the countless other gifts of creation, for we have become deaf toward what Pythagoras aptly terms this wonderful and most lovely music coming from the harmony of the motions that are in the celestial spheres.3

Although Luther was aware of Pythagoras’ views, he would have been influenced to a significantly greater extent by the most important exponent of Pythagorean ideas–Plato (427-347 BC). Luther knew well of ancient Greek philosophies of music and often referenced them in defense of his own philosophy:

If I had children and could manage it, I would have them study not only languages and history, but also singing and music. . . . The ancient Greeks trained their children in these disciplines; yet they grew up to be people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything.4

Plato developed Pythagoras’ “Music of the Spheres” theories into what is know as the “Doctrine of Ethos.”5 This set of teaching deduced that since music was “central to the creation and ordering of the universe,”6 humans could align themselves with the fabric of the universe and thus improve themselves by participating in good music.7 Plato held that music had powerful impact upon the soul and could either ennoble people or debase them, depending upon whether the music correctly reflected universal harmony:

Now don’t we say that all music is representational and imitative? Yes . . . Then those who are looking for the best kind of singing and music must look not for the kind that is pleasant but that which is correct: and as we have said, an imitation is correct if it is made like the object imitated, both in quantity and in quality.8

Plato believed that since music had such a powerful potential to affect men’s souls, its primary use should be for the formation of good character. He believed strongly in the use of music for the education of young people, not just academically, but spiritually.9 Likewise, since Plato believed that music could influence either good or bad character, he believed that its use should be regulated.10 Quentin Faulkner (1996) summarized Plato’s teaching well:

Plato himself (speaking through Socrates) expressed it [the idea that music forms good people] as the ability to recognize and to rejoice in that which is fine and good, an ability that is the result of the development of good character; that development is in turn the result of proper training in  mousike (music and poetry), training that allows it to penetrate and “harmonize” the soul. Thus there is both good music and bad music: Plato held that certain modes (namely, the Dorian and Phrygian) infuse the soul with life and health, while others (such as the Mixolydian, Syntonolydian, and Iastian) enervate it. It does not matter that we no longer know the musical substance of these modes; the important thing is that Plato considers the modes to have specific characters and these characters to have particular effects on the soul of the listener. Plato is vague as to exactly how music accomplishes its effects on the soul, though it has something to do with music’s ability to represent or imitate either noble or base states of mind which by continuous exposure are supposed to “rub off” on the listener.11

In addition to his belief that music had the power to foster good character through its emotional impact, Plato also believed that music could communicate emotional content, evidenced by his teaching that the harmonic and rhythmic structures of music must emotionally match the words they accompany.12

Plato’s ideas about music were disseminated widely and were eventually adopted as part of the classical educational curriculum. Thus, as a product of classical education, Martin Luther’s own writings clearly manifest neo-Platonic thought. For instance, in the preface to Georg Rhau’s Symphoniae iucundae (1538), Luther writes:

. . . looking at music itself, you will find that from the beginning of the world it has been instilled and implanted in all creatures, individually and collectively. For nothing is without sound or harmony [lit. “sounding number”].13

Ironically, Plato’s greatest student–Aristotle (384-322 BC)–was also his greatest critic. Aristotle had little patience for Pythagorean numerology as the basis for the science of music. Neither did he agree with Plato’s belief that the heavenly spheres produce musical tones.14 Interestingly, Martin Luther had little patience for Aristotle. In fact, one month before the famed ninety-five theses against indulgences, Luther published ninety-seven theses “calling into question the value of Aristotle’s works as textbooks.” He “calls Aristotle’s Ethics bad and inimical to grace.”15 Later, when expressing his grievances at the Diet of Augsburg in 1518, Luther argued,

The universities need a good, stiff reform; I must say it, let it offend whom it may. . . . It is my advice that the books of Aristotle, C Physics, Metaphysics, The Soul, and Ethics, C which have hitherto together with all others which boast that they teach natural science, although from them one learns neither natural nor spiritual things. No one has ever understood Aristotle’s meaning, and yet this study is kept up to waste time and burden the soul. . . . But I would gladly allow Aristotle’s books on Logic, Rhetoric, and Poetics to be kept . . .16

An additional irony lies in the fact that in Aristotle’s Poetics, of which Luther seems to have approved, Aristotle expresses agreement with certain other of Plato’s teachings on music. The purpose of the work is to explain how certain poetic forms should be constructed in order to best affect the audience.17 Likewise, Aristotle agreed with Plato concerning the power of music to move and benefit participants. In The Politics, Aristotle explains how various musical forms should fit their intended purposes of impact upon the listener. He argued that since different forms of music communicate different emotions, only music that communicates emotion fit for a given purpose (education, relief of tension, relaxation, etc.) should be used for that purpose.18

Therefore, while Aristotle rejected the numerological and metaphysical teachings of Plato’s music theories, he assented to the teachings regarding music’s impact on the emotions and the fact that certain forms accomplish specific functions. Additionally, notable here is which of Aristotle’s works Luther rejected (those disagreeing with Plato in issues of aesthetics) and which ones he accepted (those agreeing with Plato).

Luther’s Aesthetics

These and other influences (including, of course, Scripture) combined to form Martin Luther’s aesthetics, and while he never fully developed his aesthetics systematically, his thought on the issue can be synthesized simply.

Luther gave the Words of Scripture the highest place in his estimation; he believed that theology deserved greatest honor in the life of a Christian. However, Luther also acknowledged that words alone are not sufficient for the formation of godly character. For Luther, intellectual knowledge and moral behavior are not the only considerations for a Christian–he must also give consideration to his emotional development. Indeed, even the words of Jesus Christ testify that the greatest of God’s commandments involves the Christian’s affections.19 Thus for Luther, church music provided the perfect synthesis of theology, morality, and right affection for God.

Luther knew that words alone were deficient as emotional enrichment; he needed music to encourage true piety and religious fervor. He believed that “notes bring the text to life.”20 Here he interprets Neo-Platonic thought through the eyes of Scripture and forms a basis for an aesthetic philosophy of church music. Since music can enhance the emotions and ennoble the soul, it can–when united with sound theology–provide adequate means for expressing right piety for God:

After all, the gift of language combined with the gift of song was only given to man to let him know that he should praise God with both word and music, namely, by proclaiming it through music and by providing sweet melodies with words.21

Luther turned to the words of the Bible for examples of music’s power in this regard. The Book of Psalms itself, when set to fine music, “helps greatly to produce this effect, especially when the people sing along and do so with fine devoutness.”22 Luther cited men such as Elijah (2 Kings 3:15.) and David (1 Sam. 1:17ff.) as biblical examples of using music to enrich the emotions.23 Luther’s sermons and other writings are replete with advice to use music as a means to encourage right emotions such as “a calm and joyful disposition.”24 To an organist in Freiberg, Luther wrote,

When you are sad, say to yourself, “Come! I will strike up a song to my Lord Jesus Christ on the regal, be it Te Deum Laudamus or Benedictus, for the Scriptures teach me that He rejoices in glad song and the sound of strings.” So with renewed spirit reach for the claves and sing until your sad thoughts are driven away, as did David and Elisha.25

This kind of emotional enrichment drew Martin Luther to relish fine music for use in the church, because Luther knew that this impact would harmonize the soul with true reality–not reality in the universe as Plato taught–but reality in spiritual oneness with the Creator of the universe. Indeed, he saw music as a gift from heaven, “an endowment of God, not a gift of men,”26 to be used “in the service of Him who has given and created [it].”27 Luther had no patience for those who would not submit themselves to the benefits of musical enrichment for the betterment of the soul. He called them “stumps and blocks of stone.”28

This power of music to stimulate right emotions and elevate the soul, in Luther’s mind, created better people. Luther noted that good music developed “people of wondrous ability, subsequently fit for everything,”29 for “he who knows music has a good nature.”30 This is why he believed so strongly that young people should be educated in music, so that they “might have something whereby [they] might be weaned from the love ballads and the sex songs and, instead of these, learn something beneficial and take up the good with relish, as benefits youth.”31 Luther wanted good people, rightly conformed to the teachings of Scripture in knowledge and affection, and he found in music the perfect gift from God for this task.

Martin Luther’s belief that music could educate the emotions and enrich the soul–that it could make better people–informed his aesthetics. Luther believed that this kind of impact could be accomplished only through music that possessed intrinsically good qualitites. Blume notes that Luther “demanded that the ‘musica artificialis’ of ‘fine musicians’ and ‘learned people’ be used for the worship service.”32 He insisted that only the finest music be used in the Church because he knew that only music composed with artistic excellence had the potential to accomplish his goals. His acclamation of Josquin provides the perfect illustration of such aesthetic consideration. Hoelty-Nickel (1960) notes that Luther’s observations of Josquin’s music reflect the writings of Henricus Glareanus, “one of the first theoreticians of the musica reservata [Aesthetics of music as against ethics of music],”33 who was a contemporary of Luther and who used Josquin’s music as a test-case for his theories. According to Hoelty-Nickel, Glarean taught that

a work of art requires two prerequisites: ars and ingenium. Ars he interprets as the laws and rules of music that can be taught and learned. Ingenium to him means the original and creative impulse of the musician, which is purely a gift. Where ars and ingenium meet in the process of composing, there will necessarily ensue a perfect work of art.34

Hoelty-Nickel argues that Luther’s comments about Josquin being “a master of the notes” reflect Glarean’s discussions of “art and genius.”35 Another example of Luther’s insistence upon objectively good art being used for church music involves his critique of the music of Lukas Edemberger. Luther remarked, “He has enough of art and skill, but is lacking in warmth.”36 Luther insisted that “if anyone wishes to compose German hymns, let no one presume to do this unless he is endowed with grace for it.”37

Thus Luther’s aesthetics is fueled by a desire for church music to make better Christians, and in Luther’s thought this can be accomplished when good theology is set to skillful music. Then, music will serve as the constant resounding praise of God and his creation   . . . [that which] leads the man who practices it to God, teaches him to understand better God’s Word, . . . and prepares him for the reception of divine grace, while making him a better man and a happy Christian and driving out the devil and all vices.38


The important implications we find for the contemporary church from Luther’s aesthetics center on his masterful balance of intrinsically good yet profoundly accessible art forms. The Church should learn from Luther’s use of music to ennoble the souls of men–music which must be both artistically good and understandable.

The emotions of men are arguably as wild and distorted today as they were in Luther’s day. Therefore, just as the Church is responsible to educate and uplift the minds and morals of humanity, so must it promote right emotion, and music may serve as the arbiter of the passions of men. For in the words of Martin Luther,

Next to the Word of God, music deserves the highest praise. She is a mistress and governess of those human emotions . . . which govern men as masters or, more often, overwhelm them. No greater commendation than this be found–at least, not by us. For whether you wish to comfort the sad, to terrify the happy, to encourage the despairing, to humble the proud, to calm the passionate, or to appease those full of hate . . . what more effective means than music could you find?39

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is director of doctoral worship studies at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

  1. See Frederick B. Artz, The Mind of the Middle Ages, A.D. 200‑1500: An Historical Survey, 2nd ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1954), 310. []
  2. Piero Weiss and Richard Taruskin, Music in the Western World: A History in Documents (Schirmer, 1984), 3B7. []
  3. Helmut T. Lehmann, ed. Luther’s Works, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1965), 126. []
  4. Ibid., Vol. 45, 369-70. []
  5. Quentin Faulkner, Wiser Than Despair: The Evolution of Ideas in the Relationship of Music and the Christian Church (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1996), 36. []
  6. Ibid., 46. []
  7. Ibid., 36. []
  8. Plato, Laws 668, in Barker, Greek Musical Writings, vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 152. []
  9. Plato, Laws 659; 664, in Barker, 147-148. []
  10. Faulkner, 46. []
  11. Ibid., 36-37. []
  12. Plato, The Republic of Plato, trans. Francis MacDonald Cornford (London: Oxford University Press, 1945), 86. []
  13. Lehmann, vol. 53, 322. []
  14. Faulkner, 47. []
  15. Preserved Smith, The Life and Letters of Martin Luther (N. P.: Frank Cass & Co., 1968), 25. []
  16. Ibid., 84-85. []
  17. Lane Cooper, The Poetics of Aristotle, Its Meaning and Influence (Boston, MA: Marshall Jones Company, 1923), 15. []
  18. Aristotle, The Politics, trans. T. A. Sinclair, revised and re-presented by Trevor J. Saunders (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics, revised ed. 1981), 307-316. []
  19. Matthew 22.34-40. []
  20. Tischreden 2345 in Blume, 14. []
  21. Lehmann, Vol. 3, 321-24. []
  22. Plass, 981. []
  23. See Nettle, 16. []
  24. Lehmann, vol. 49, 427. []
  25. Nettle, 16. []
  26. Plass, 980. []
  27. Martin Luther, Works. Spiritual Hymn Book, vol. 6, 284. []
  28. Lehmann, vol. 49, 427-29. []
  29. Ibid., vol. 45, 369-70. []
  30. Plass, 980. []
  31.  Ibid., 980-81. []
  32. Blume, 13. []
  33. George W. Forell, et al, Luther and Culture (Decorah, IA: Luther College, 1960), 147. []
  34. Forell, 149-50. []
  35. Ibid. []
  36. Buswin, 89. []
  37. Lehmann, vol 40, 300. []
  38. Blume, 10. []
  39. Lehmann, vol. 53, 321B23. []