does The Sound of Music echo Christian or Epicurean thought?

The Sound of Music, a Broadway production that opened in 1959 and then became a massively successful movie released in 1965, includes Rodgers and Hammerstein’s song “Something Good.” That song readily prompts grave scholarly thoughts in the mind of the learned. The issue is the nature of creation and a fundamental philosophical divide between Christians and Epicureans.

Maria is a young nun sent on leave from her abbey to serve as a governess to Captain von Trapp. She and the Captain fall in love. That’s mundane normative heterosexuality under the authority of the goddess Venus and her dart-shooting son Cupid. It’s completely uninteresting. But consider a verse that Maria sings to the Captain:

Nothing comes from nothing
Nothing ever could
So somewhere in my youth or childhood
I must have done something good [1]

That reasoning in part echoes the thought of Parmenides of Elea early in the fifth-century BGC. About the time of Cicero, Lucretius described the first axiom of what had become the Epicurean school of thought:

nothing can come of nothing, not even by will of the gods.
Mortal men are afraid as they look about them and see
the many things that happen on earth and up in the sky,
and they cannot tell why or how and therefore think that gods
must bring them about by fiat. But if our axiom holds
and nothing can come of nothing, then we are obliged to look further,
to learn what what we want to know — how each thing was created
and how, without the gods, all things came to be.

{ nullam rem e nilo gigni divinitus umquam.
quippe ita formido mortalis continet omnis,
quod multa in terris fieri caeloque tuentur,
quorum operum causas nulla ratione videre
possunt ac fieri divino numine rentur.
quas ob res ubi viderimus nil posse creari
de nilo, tum quod sequimur iam rectius inde
perspiciemus, et unde queat res quaeque creari
et quo quaeque modo fiant opera sine divom. } [2]

By the time of Tertullian late in the second century GC, Christians strongly opposed the view that nothing comes from nothing. Tertullian declared that Christians believe:

there is but one God, who is none other than the Creator of the world, who produced everything from nothing through his Word, sent forth before all things

{ Unum omnino Deum esse nec alium praeter mundi conditorem qui uniuersa de nihilo produxerit per uerbum suum primo omnium emissum. } [3]

From Tertullian’s Christian perspective, the nun Maria’s view of creation is Epicurean, not Christian.

Yet in the song “Something Good,” Maria also sings of non-material, moral causation. She believes that she must have done something good in her childhood to merit the good of the Captain loving her. From both Epicurean and Christian perspectives, that’s delusional. Neither atoms nor God the Creator provide present-world rewards based on ongoing judgment about past behavior. In conjunction with adhering to the Epicurean account of creation, the nun Maria apparently also believed in the folk morality “what goes around, comes around.”[4]

Maria inconsistently practiced an Epicurean approach to dealing with pain. Throughout her mundane life, she imitated Epicurus on his deathbed:

When the dog bites, when the bee stings
When I’m feeling sad
I simply remember my favorite things
And then I don’t feel so bad. [5]

However, when the Baroness forced her to recognize that she was in love with the Captain, the deeply distraught Maria fled back to her abbey to live again as a chaste nun. That action violates the poetic logic of orthodox Epicurean advice to lovesick men:

Your love’s not around, for a change? But still her image
is, and her sweet name echoes in your ears.
Then we ought to flee these shadows and scare off
the food of love, and turn our thoughts to another —
shooting the juice into any available body,
not holding it all in for a single lover,
saving up for ourselves sure pain and sorrow.
If you feed the sore it’ll put down roots and fester
and blister over and drive you made with trouble —
better dull down the old wounds with new interests,
stroll after a street-strolling trollop and cure yourself,
shift your thoughts to another while you still can!

{ nam si abest quod ames, praesto simulacra tamen sunt
illius et nomen dulce obversatur ad auris.
sed fugitare decet simulacra et pabula amoris
absterrere sibi atque alio convertere mentem
et iacere umorem conlectum in corpora quaeque,
nec retinere, semel conversum unius amore,
et servare sibi curam certumque dolorem.
ulcus enim vivescit et inveterascit alendo,
inque dies gliscit furor atque aerumna gravescit,
si non prima novis conturbes volnera plagis
volgivagaque vagus Venere ante recentia cures
aut alio possis animi traducere motus. } [6]

Women can acquire lovers much more easily than men can. If Maria truly believed in Epicureanism, she would have simply found another rich, middle-aged captain for a discreet sexual affair.

Although a good singer and a child-pleasing governess, Maria was an ignorant nun and an incoherent philosopher. One might well question Captain von Trapp’s judgment in marrying her. At least the Nazis of the mid-twentieth-century didn’t persecute that forty-seven-year-old retired naval captain for marrying his twenty-two-year-old domestic helper.[7]

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[1] Stanza 3 from the song “Something Good” in the musical The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II).

[2] Lucretius, De Rerum Natura {On the Nature of Things} 1.150-8, Latin text from Rouse & Smith (2002) pp. 14, 16 (nearly identical with that in the The Latin Library), English translation from Slavitt (2008) p. 7. Lucretius lived from about 94 to 49 BGC. He was a follower of Epicurus.

The Epicurean view of creation is commonly known as ex nihilo nihil fit {nothing comes from nothing}. The Christian view tends to be expressed as creation ex nihilo {from nothing}. Opportunities for conceptual confusion are obvious. The issue has been discussed in a wide range of intellectual traditions for millennia.

[3] Tertullian, De Praescriptione Haereticorum {On the Prescription of Heretics}, from Latin trans. S.L. Greenslade (1956).

[4] Faulty understanding of Galatians 6:7 may have contributed to the popularity of that folk wisdom. Galatians 6:7-8 declares:

Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.

The metaphor “you reap whatever you sow” applies here to trans-worldly judgment, not present-day affairs.

[5] Stanza 4 from the song “My Favorite Things” in the musical The Sound of Music (music by Richard Rodgers, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II). On Epicurus on his deathbed, see Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers, 10.22 (quoting Epicurus’s letter to Idomeneus). For related scholarly discussion, including a citation to The Sound of Music, Procopé (1998) p. 185.

[6] De Rerum Natura 4.1061-72, Latin text from Brown (1987) p. 150 (nearly identical that that from the Latin Library), English translation from Esolen (1995) pp. 151-2, with my adaptations. In l. 1063, Esolen translated sed as “but”; the sense seems to me closer to “then.” For l. 1073, Esolen translated “Better write off the old wounds with new business.” That commercial metaphor is jarring. I’ve replaced it above.

Slavitt’s translation is much looser. It includes the advice, “Do mathematics. Or at least shoot your wad elsewhere.” Slavitt (2008) p. 179. I prefer Esolen’s more literal translation.

[7] The Sound of Music is based on the real-life story of the von Trapp family. The forty-seven-year-old widower Captain Georg von Trapp married his twenty-two-year-old domestic helper Maria. She was actually a tutor to one of his children, rather than a governess.

Georg von Trapp was in reality a warm and loving father to his children. He helped them to develop their musical talents long before Maria entered his household. Maria, in contrast, came to the family with a colder personality than that of the father Georg:

It was actually Maria herself (called “Gustl” by the children), with her emotionally stunted upbringing, who needed thawing.

Santopietro (2015) p. 11. The characters of Georg and Maria apparently were adapted to support the dominant gynocentric ideology.

[image] Video of Maria and the Captain singing “Something Good” from the 1965 movie production of The Sound of Music.


Brown, Robert D. 1987. Lucretius on love and sex: a commentary on De rerum natura IV, 1030-1287, with prolegomena, text, and translation. Leiden: E. J. Brill.

Esolen, Anthony M., trans. 1995. Lucretius. On the nature of things: De rerum natura. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Procopé, John. 1998. “Epicureans on Anger.” Pp. 171-196 in Sihvola, Juha, and Troels Engberg-Pedersen, eds. The emotions in Hellenistic philosophy. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Rouse, W. H. D. , and Martin Ferguson Smith, ed. and trans. 2002. Lucretius. De rerum natura. Loeb Classical Library 181. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press.

Santopietro, Tom. 2015. The Sound of music story: how a beguiling young novice, a handsome Austrian captain, and ten singing Von Trapp children inspired the most beloved film of all time. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Slavitt, David R., trans. 2008. Lucretius. De rerum natura: the nature of things. Berkeley: University of California Press.

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