Skip to content
Catholic Online Logo

By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

7/22/2012 (3 years ago)

Catholic Online (

In what ways is the moral life like a dance?

In one of his sermons, St. Augustine of Hippo compares the Christian moral life to a dance, a dance to the song of the Gospel. There is some keen insight in St. Augustine's comparison of the moral life to a dance, and it merits some reflection. 


By Andrew M. Greenwell, Esq.

Catholic Online (

7/22/2012 (3 years ago)

Published in Living Faith

Keywords: morality, natural law, dance, St. Augustine

CORPUS CHRISTI, TX (Catholic Online) - In one of his sermons, St. Augustine of Hippo compares the Christian moral life to a dance, a dance to the song of the Gospel.  "What a song that is, my brothers and sisters!" exclaims the great bishop.  "You've heard me singing it, let us hear you dancing to it; see that you all do, by keeping time with your morals, what dancers do by keeping time with their bodies and their feet.  Do this inwardly; let your moral attitudes match that song."

There is some keen insight in St. Augustine's comparison of the moral life to a dance, and it merits some reflection. 

In what ways is the moral life like a dance?

Perhaps the most fundamental aspect of dance is that it requires movement, the movement of a human body.   Dance is not a static affair, like a completed painting or a finished poem.  It is an art form that is expressed through performance.  It is this movement which expresses beauty.  In Xenophon's Symposium, Socrates comments on the beauty of a body performing a dance.  At rest, the boy may be said to be beautiful (kalos), but when he is in movement following the forms of the dance, he is more beautiful (kallion).  Similarly, the moral life is performed through acts, human movement.

However, the moral life, like dance, is something clearly more than movement.  It would be absurd to compare the spastic and involuntary movements of an epileptic in the throes of his seizures to the methodological movements of a human in a dance.  Random movement is not dance.  Random behavior is not moral.

O body swayed to music, O brightening glance,
How can we know the dancer from the dance?

The something more than movement required to know the dancer from the dance, the something which Socrates observed makes the dancer more beautiful, is form.  Dance is movement subject to a form, which implies a rule or underlying order (ratio or logos).  In dance, there is a reason--a ratio or logos--"behind" the movements, which we "see" with our reason.  Dance to your heart's content in front of your dog or your cat.  The animal will never understand what you are up to.  The brute animal cannot grasp the form behind the movement.  He can only grasp the movement. 

Morality is just like dance in this regard.  The moral life is composed of human acts--movement--that are governed by a form, and that form is the rule of right reason, which is to say the natural moral law.  

That there is a form behind the movement, of course, suggests there is a meaning behind the dance, just as there is a meaning behind the moral life.  Whatever the meaning, it is not utility.  There is meaning behind the movement of a man who goes across the room to switch off a light, or who moves about the kitchen fixing his evening meal.  But in no way are these utilitarian activities dance.

The moral life--like dance--is one of those "useless" human activities that have an intrinsic value, a value just in doing it, not necessarily by the pleasure it brings or the benefits it yields.

Labour is blossoming or dancing where
The body is not bruised to pleasure soul.

Though one may get collateral benefits from engaging in the activity--physical health in the case of dancing, happiness or pleasure in the case of the moral life--the activity is not measured by the benefits. 

We might say the "useless" purpose of dance is to express beauty.  Though it might not be at first apparent, beauty is also fundamental to the moral life.  "Beauty is truth, truth beauty," wrote Keats in his famous poem.  One might also say, "Beauty is good, good beauty," and good is what the moral life seeks. 

Immanuel Kant recognized the relationship between beauty and morality.  Famously, Kant wrote that beauty was a symbol of morality.  He saw four similar elements between beauty and morality that justified this view. 

First, beauty and morality please the sensitive person immediately, though in the first case one must have artistic sensitivity and in the latter case moral sensitivity.  Dance, like the moral life, is often something that involves acts that are fitting, graceful, fluid, and elegant which only the sensitive perceive.  There is such a thing as an aesthetically or morally coarse or obtuse person.  We can have bad taste, and bad morals. 

Second, Kant states that both beauty and morality are disinterested in the sense that beauty and morality are not measured by what we get out of it.  Both dance and the moral life have intrinsic or "useless" value as we mentioned earlier.

Third, Kant points to the fact that both beauty and morality answer to a rule.  In some way, there is a conformity to an underlying law, and ideal, the form.

Finally, though Kant believed that both beauty and morality are universal, he observed that it is very difficult for us to enunciate the universal principle.  It is difficult to define beauty in all times and all places, just like it is to determine the good in all times and all places.  That does not mean beauty in dance and beauty or good in morality do not exist.  To perceive beauty or the good, a certain level of well-formed judgment--both intellectual and practical--is required.  One might say that the beauty in dance and the beauty in morality both require a form of prudence.

That brings us to the next similarity between dance and the moral life: both dance and the moral life seek perfection or excellence, what the Greeks understood as arete, the Romans described as virtus, and we translate as virtue.  And like any human activity, perfection or excellence requires practice.

Since dance is the movement of a body that is subject to an intellectual rule, it must be practiced to gain facility in it.  And this means that there can be improvement: one can dance poorly, and one can dance well, and practice--as well as perhaps native talent, and a good instructor--makes us better.  No one can dance a waltz or the tango well at first, but with practice one gains a facility where it becomes a sort of second nature, an intimate possession.  The movement then becomes connatural.  It is "stored" in us, we have "muscle memory," and becomes what philosophers would call a hexis or habitus, a notion which is only poorly captured by the English word habit. 

In this regard, the moral life is no different than dance.  To become virtuous one must do more than just act natural like Rousseau erroneously advocated.  The virtuous life requires practice, and that requires the formation (learning the form of the dance) and the development of good habits through practice (asceticism, which comes from the Greek word askesis, which means exercise or training) so that these good behaviors become a second nature, habitual.

Additionally, like the moral life dancing is more than a mere intellectual activity.  It requires the commitment of the whole person.  A dancer--at least if he or she strives for excellence--must do something more than exhibit a lackadaisical conformity with an external form.  Dancing is more than just mimicry, routine, or ritual.  The dancer must strive for more than mere technical mastery.  Dancing is more than just going through the motions.  It demands that one be "into" it, that one's heart be "in" it.

The common element of form shared by the moral life and dance means that there must be a formgiver.  In dance, the formgiver is the choreographer.  In the moral life, the formgiver is God, whose will is known through nature and revelation.  The existence of form and formgiver makes dance, like the moral life, not something that "is."  Both dance and the moral life are activities that have an "ought" attached to them.  "The minuet," the dance instructor can say, "ought to be danced like this, and not like this."  For the same reason, the Church can say, "sexual activity ought to be done like this, and not like this." 

The Scriptures and the Saints seem to recognize the relationship between the moral life and dance. 

When the prodigal son returns home to a moral life after a life of dissipation, the Father throws a dance. (Luke 15:25).  

The dance of the moral life participates in the eternal.  After all, the form of the moral life--the natural moral law--participates in the Eternal Form, the Eternal Law, as St. Thomas teaches us.

In the traditional English carol, "Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day," the Son of God becomes incarnate "to call my true love to my dance," is tempted by the Devil in the desert "to have me break my true love's dance," was brought before Pilate and judged "to die to lead to the dance," suffered death on the cross and the piercing of the lance "to call my true love to my dance," and will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead "that man may come unto the general dance."

In one of his letters, St. Basil refers to the dance of the angels in heaven.  And the saints in Dante's Divine Comedy dance in heaven.  The Paradiso is full of dance scenes.  The Greek Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware describes the relationship between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as "an unceasing movement of mutual love - the 'round dance' of the Trinity."  It would seem that in heaven everyone is dancing.

Since we apparently are going to be dancing in heaven, we may as well learn to dance on earth. 
Let us praise His name in the moral dance (cf. Ps. 149:3)


Andrew M. Greenwell is an attorney licensed to practice law in Texas, practicing in Corpus Christi, Texas.  He is married with three children.  He maintains a blog entirely devoted to the natural law called Lex Christianorum.  You can contact Andrew at


Pope Francis: end world hunger through 'Prayer and Action'

Copywriter 2015 - Distributed by THE NEWS CONSORTIUM

Pope Francis Prayer Intentions for October 2015
That human trafficking, the modern form of slavery, may be eradicated.
Evangelization: That with a missionary spirit the Christian communities of Asia may announce the Gospel to those who are still awaiting it.


More Living Faith

Come together this Thanksgiving with a beautiful prayer Watch

Image of Each year thousands of families celebrate Thanksgiving, but make the food their priority. This year, make God and all He has given us your priority.


Each year, millions of people across the United States rush to grocery stores and prepare to visit their families in celebration of Thanksgiving. Visiting loved ones and enjoying a specially prepared meal are both wonderful parts of celebrating, but don't forget to ... continue reading

Pope Francis: Jesus is weeping over a WORLD AT WAR

Image of Pope Francis mourns a world at war.

By Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)

Pope Francis has made it clear, Jesus is weeping over a world at war. It has become obvious that this is a time of extreme danger for all people around the globe. No population is safe from terror. The threats aren't just from terrorist organizations like ISIS and Al ... continue reading

Oxford to begin study of Catholic relics. Here are 5 macabre relics people venerate from around the world Watch

Image of The skull of St. Thomas Aquinas.


The veneration of relics in the Catholic Church has been one of the most debated practices in the faith. While such veneration is actually common in the human experience -even Communists did it with the body of Lenin, the veneration of relics in the Church is the ... continue reading

Nine bishops, one abbot, dine and dialogue with peace activists Watch

Image of

By Tony Magliano

During the recent U.S. Catholic bishops' fall assembly in Baltimore, several bishops and one abbot, decided to skip dinner at the downtown Marriott Waterfront hotel, and walked several blocks to an inner city parish to share a simple meal with about 30 peace ... continue reading

Woman turns her cancer over to Jesus Christ - survives, thrives Watch

Image of Heather King shares her struggles in her new memoir,

By Mary Rezac, CNA/EWTN News

Heather King never cared much for doctors. Los Angeles, CA (CNA) - It's an attitude she partly inherited from her mother, "who classified ginger ale as a medicine, considered Novocain a snobbish extravagance" and somehow managed to avoid a visit to the doctor's office ... continue reading

Top 5 ways to find joy Watch

Image of Find happiness in spite of the darkness.


It is easy to fall prey to depression and sadness with everything that has been going on in the world these days. The trick to maintaining a positive attitude and living in the joy God has for us is as easy as following five simple steps. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic ... continue reading

Want to lose the War on Christmas? Surrender Advent Watch

Image of What millions of Christians do a day after expressing thanks for what they already have.

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (THE CALIFORNIA NETWORK)

Want to lose the War on Christmas? Surrender Advent. We Christians have gone out of our minds, arguing about Starbucks cups and greeters who (correctly) say "Happy Holidays" in place of "Merry Christmas." In all the bustle of the season, we have forgotten that Advent ... continue reading

Cardinal Sarah releases new book, 'God or Nothing,' on civilization's fall from grace Watch

Image of Without God, the cardinal said,

By Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News

At the presentation of his new book, Cardinal Robert Sarah said that Western society is rapidly forgetting God, and expressed his desire to help people rediscover him through both prayer and witness. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - "I would like to help people ... continue reading

Holy Door in St. Peter's basilica to open for first time in 15 years for Holy Year of Mercy Watch

Image of The rite of the opening of the Holy Door is intended to symbolically illustrate the idea that the Church's faithful are offered an

By Elise Harris, CNA/EWTN News

Hidden since the Jubilee of 2000, the Holy Door in St. Peter's Basilica was revealed Tuesday as the brick wall covering it was removed in anticipation of the Holy Year of Mercy launching next month. Vatican City (CNA/EWTN News) - Cardinal Angelo Comastri, the ... continue reading

5 powerful Bible verses you need when fear and terror strike Watch

Image of


Fear is a powerful thing. Fear can completely cripple the body and soul. Since the terrifying Paris terrorist attacks last week the news has been full of death, terrorists, murder and fear. LOS ANGELES, CA (Catholic Online) - Those not in power are left wondering ... continue reading

All Living Faith News


Newsletter Sign Up icon

Stay up to date with the latest news, information, and special offers

Subscribe to Catholic OnlineYouTube Channel

the FEED
by Catholic Online

  • Daily Readings for Saturday, November 28, 2015
  • Evidence mounts: U.S. supplying ISIS, herding fighters towards Syria ...
  • The Miracle Prayer HD Video
  • St. Catherine Laboure: Saint of the Day for Saturday, November 28, 2015
  • A special look into the inspirational meeting between Pope Francis ...
  • Prayer For Courage HD Video
  • Your Daily Inspirational Meme: God is good

Daily Readings

Reading 1, Daniel 7:2-14
2 Daniel said, 'I have been seeing visions in the night. I saw that the ... Read More

Psalm, Daniel 3:75, 76, 77, 78, 79, 80, 81
75 Bless the Lord, mountains and hills, praise and glorify him for ... Read More

Gospel, Luke 21:29-33
29 And he told them a parable, 'Look at the fig tree and indeed every ... Read More

Saint of the Day

Saint of the Day for November 27th, 2015 Image

St. James Intercisus
November 27: James was a favorite of King Yezdigerd I of ... Read More