12th Grade: Bad Music Begets Bad Government

This week we continued in our reading of Plato’s Republic.  In class we have simply been reading and discussing excerpts from this great philosophical treatise, and I have enjoyed seeing them to react to Plato and responding to him.

As we hinted last week, The Republic has political implications, but the dialog begins with a discussion about justice.  The participants realize that to see justice more clearly, they had to talk about something larger than justice in individuals.  “If we look at justice in the state we will see justice more clearly,” they suppose, “for the state has a much greater size than any one individual.”  But justice itself becomes a vehicle for larger questions of truth.  Thus, the dialog always has immediate application for individual lives even as we consider their political implications.  Plato writes The Republic, I think, not so much to create a better state but to hopefully make better people, who will then make a better state.

The dialog starts early on discussing the origins of the state.  No matter their talents, everybody at one point realizes that they need others even to meet basic needs.  We then divide up tasks to accomplish them more efficiently.  Providing for our basic needs is relatively natural and easy, but then we begin to want “luxuries,” which Plato terms anything more than what we need for a decent, ordinary life.  This desire for luxury corrupts the soul and creates problems in the state itself, because now the state will have to provide for something beyond the “natural,” and at times the only way to do this involves taking from others.  Hence, war and the attendant expansion of the state come into being.

How to avoid this?  Some see the state as a mere conduit of whatever the people desire.  The government’s job, in this view, is to actualize our choices.  Plato feels differently, and like many Greeks believed that the state should help us live the good life, which might sometimes mean giving us what we might even dislike.  In Plato’s famous analogy of the cave he imagines humanity bound in chains underground.  All they can see are their shadows cast on the cave walls made by the fire behind them.  They believe the shadows are reality, and the fire true light.  But eventually some break free and walk out of the cave to see true light and true reality.  Their discovery brings pain — we shrink from the sun’s light, and the reality we discover will be so much different than what we imagined.  When these people go back to the cave, few if any believe them, and nearly all prefer to live in the shadows.

Plato asks us to understand that just because we fail to immediately appreciate the truth might even point to the truth of what he argues.

Plato may surprise his modern readers at least with going from war as a result of greed to a discussion of music and the arts.  But political problems for Plato begin with disordered souls, and Plato believes that little has more power to shape the soul than music.  Plato relates a common anecdote of the time of Sparta banning certain kinds of music altogether.  Perhaps even Plato thought the Spartans too severe, but he agrees with the fundamental idea that musical change brings  political changes.

Many moderns think of music as a matter of personal taste and personal enjoyment.  We listen to the music we like, and imagine ourselves having control over the music.  Plato asks us to think more carefully about the music we hear, and wants us to admit that “gets under our skin” in ways we might not even notice.  Upon reflection some of us might testify to the power of music.  It can move us even when we might not want to be moved.

Understanding Plato’s doctrine of the soul helps explain his views here.  Some think of the soul as encompassing the merely moral part of us.  Plato went further.  For him the soul was the “heart” of man in the Hebraic sense, encompassing everything about someone.  Our moral acts do define, mold, and shape us, but we are more than our moral acts.  So for Plato, a beautiful soul would be one that not only loved truth, but also had it itself shaped by beautiful things.  Separating truth from beauty never occurred to Plato.

So if we want to concern ourselves with “doing right” we need first to provide the necessary surroundings, the necessary training, for our souls.  Plato admits that this means certain music can stay, and other forms must go in the ideal state.  The state has a vested interest in the arts because the arts shape the soul.  Badly formed souls will create badly formed governments.  He writes,

Philosophy, [said Socrates], tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, . . . is the only saviour of his virtue throughout life.

Justice for Plato means having all things in their proper place, or giving each thing its proper due.  This leads to Plato’s prescription that only music that emphasizes balance and proportion should be allowed.  If we want harmony in the state we must have proper training of the soul, and that means the right harmonies in our music.  The rhythm must not over-excite, nor should it be too “soft.”  Curiously for the students, Plato seemed to link rhythm with the idea of grace.  He writes,

But there is no difficulty in seeing that grace or the absence of grace is an effect of good or bad rhythm.

and,

Then beauty of style and harmony and grace and good rhythm depend on simplicity, — I mean the true simplicity of a rightly and nobly ordered mind and character, not that other simplicity which is only an euphemism for folly?

What can Plato mean here?

When we see the word “grace” we immediately put it in a distinctly Christian context.  The Greek word for grace is “charis,” which had different connotations.  The basic meaning had roots in something like “power” or “movement” — hence a “charismatic” man has the ability to “move” people.  The Greeks also used the word in the context of the social graces, which can have the sense of proper “movement” in society.  But Plato, I think, has something more in mind besides mere politeness.  If we think of a gracious hostess, for example, we think of how she controls, or “moves” a social event.  She will possess a certain rhythm of movement and speech.  She’ll have impeccable timing, she’ll neither be overbearing nor invisible, like a symphony conductor.  Thus, for Plato, if we immerse ourselves in proper rhythm and harmony, we will train our souls towards “graciousness.”^

Plato has an ulterior motive for his seeming harshness about music.  Problems in the state arise from the people’s desire for luxury.  This desire is almost inevitable given human nature, but Plato believes the state can curb it (thereby saving everyone lots of trouble) by proper training of the souls of the young.  If we purge the person of luxurious taste in music, or the desire for too much variety in music, we can form the soul to desire less.* This can get into a “chicken or the egg” argument.  Does music reflect or shape the culture?  Well, we can say  perhaps that it performs both functions, but which primarily?  Here, I at least agree with Plato (and Francis Schaeffer, Kenneth Clark, and others) who feel that in general, artists work ahead of culture and do more to shape it than reflect it.

If all this seems hopelessly idealistic, I think Plato would respond by saying that,

  • You have to aim for something to hit anything, and
  • My point here is not to create the perfect state so much as it is to use the state to better see Justice and apply that understanding to how we live our lives.

For all his fans, Plato probably has more critics. To achieve anything resembling this we would have to appoint leaders with a great deal of power, and some see Plato as the forerunner of modern tyranny.  I think this goes too far, but Plato clearly challenges many modern western notions of government and life itself.  I see it as my task first and foremost to help students understand Plato and to get the full force of his arguments.  Just because he is old and famous doesn’t mean that he is right, and just because we are modern Americans doesn’t mean that we are right either.  After we conclude Plato, students will have a chance to formally respond to his ideas.

Next week we will look at Plato’s ideas of how different souls create different forms of government.

*Many in the modern world make the argument that classical music makes one smarter.  Plato did not focus so much on classical music (it didn’t exist) or increased intelligence.  Rather, the right music would help form the right kind of soul, not brain.

^Since the New Testament writes use “charis” to denote grace in the Christian sense, we may wonder whether or not a certain “rhythm” exists in God’s grace — a certain pattern, timing, or tempo, perhaps?

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