Plato, or music's important role in a political ideal

This summer we bring you a series on philosophy in music, and how philosophers relate to music This final article deals with the role of music in Plato's political ideal.

Plato, or music's important role in a political ideal

Plato may never have devoted a dialogue to music, but music suffused his entire work. Music is everywhere and fed into the construction of his plans for a new city. Athens was exhausted by a century of almost successive wars, and was gradually losing its hegemony over Greek cities. Plato was Athenian and sensed that his city was on the brink of ruin. It was this context of political upheaval (the Thirty Tyrants had seized power and Socrates had been put to death) that led the philosopher to consider an alternative to this decaying political system.

The Republic fulfilled this role: the history of Athens is constantly in the background of the dialogues, where Plato expounds his plan for an ideal city in response to the ongoing political upheavals. Plato takes Socrates' voice to debate about justice, a concept that would subsequently be elevated to the justice of the soul. The philosopher saw the ideal city as regulated, "wise, courageous, moderate and just" (The Republic, Book IV, 424c); it is the incarnation of harmony, like the harmony found in nature.

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What is music's role?

Plato believed that music has an influence on the soul. But this influence is strictly dichotomous: it is either good or bad. Its powerful influence on the human soul stems from the similarity between music and astronomy in the Ancient Greeks' eyes. Based on Pythagorean number theory, music was governed by mathematics, just like the heavenly spheres. This means that the same arithmetic proportions were found in music as in nature, giving music an influence on the soul, insofar as the movements of the stars were considered to be perfect.

However, while Plato took it as axiomatic that music was a vector of harmony, he bore in mind that music, like all of the arts, imitates and copies nature but does not embody it. Accordingly, what poets gave to the masses was only imitations of nature. A harsh, ironic judgement, given the number of tragedies written by Plato.

When he describes his ideal city, Socrates' pupil firmly condemns any musical innovation: "For a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes." The Republic, Book IV, 424c). In fact, what Plato is deploring here is the ever-growing autonomy in the Vth century of instrumental playing, which he considered of little value. Music must necessarily be combined with words (lógos) and, in the present case, poetry.

It is only when music serves poetry that it has any worth, because it then becomes akin to lógos, which is philosophy's weapon. Philosophers are sent by the gods to teach men about Ideas. Poets, too, are here to bring men closer to the divine.

Plato poses certain conditions, though, because there is "good" music and "bad" music. For music to be worthy of interest, it should be simple, free of ornaments and able to enhance poetry, as compared with philosophy, which is "bare discourse". This is why Plato bans any lyrical poets (aède), such as Homer, from his ideal city. He does not want citizens to be duped and he wants to minimise the amount of imitation contained in music. In his mind, beauty, purity and truth go hand-in-hand. Music is beautiful only if it is pure, devoid of anything superfluous, and promotes truth. It helps to clarify the Idea of Beauty.

Plato sees the Good as subordinate to the Beautiful in both art and people. For people to be good, they must be taught what is True. The ideal city is made up exclusively of people who are just and good. With regard to music, Plato believes that it is essential in the education of young citizens, because it influences the soul and makes it good. In Book II of The Laws, Socrates talks about the psycho-somatic education of children: in the simplest of gestures, such as rocking a child, the child is in contact with music; it pacifies and calms the troubles of the soul.

By making it compulsory to learn music (understand "good" music), Plato says he is encouraging people's soul to be good and just. It follows that musicians have a role to play in educating people and must be constantly watchful in their role as "guide". Learning music is not a goal in itself, however, but a means of attaining goodness, and it should be combined with gymnastics (The Laws, Book II). Lastly, unlike the Athenian model of democracy, in which only men who are sons of citizens can attain citizenship themselves, Plato holds that, to protect and maintain the new city, both men and women should receive the same education.