Music in Plato’s Republic
This extract is from The Republic by Plato, Book III (398-403).
Then now, my friend, I said, that part of music or literary education which relates to the story or myth may be considered to be finished; for the matter and manner have both been discussed.
I think so too, he said.
Next in order will follow melody and song.
That is obvious.
Everyone now would be able to discover what we ought to say about them, if we are to be consistent with ourselves.
I fear, said Glaucon, laughing, that the word “everyone” hardly includes me, for I cannot at the moment say what they should be, though I have a suspicion.
At any rate you are aware that a song or ode has three parts – the words, the melody and the rhythm.
Yes, he said; so as that I know.
And as for the words, there will surely be no difference between words which are and which are not set to music; both will conform to the same laws, and these have already been determined by us?
And the melody and rhythm will be in conformity with the words?
We were saying, when we spoke of the subject-matter, that we had no need of lamentations and strains of sorrow?
And which are the harmonies expressive of sorrow? You are musical and can tell me.
The harmonies which you mean are the mixed or tenor Lydian, and the full-toned or bass Lydian, and such-like.
These then, I said, must be banished; even to women who have a character to maintain they are of no use, and much less to men.
In the next place, drunkenness and softness and indolence are utterly unbecoming the character of our guardians.
And which are the soft and convivial harmonies?
The Ionian, he replied, and some of the Lydian which are termed “relaxed”.
Well, and are these of any use for warlike men?
Quite the reverse, he replied; and if so the Dorian and the Phrygian are the only ones which you have left.
I answered: Of the harmonies I know nothing, but would have you leave me one which can render the note or accent which a brave man utters in warlike action and in stern resolve; and when his cause is failing, and he is going to wounds or death or is overtaken by disaster in some other form, at every such crisis he meets the blows of fortune with firm step and a determination to endure; and an opposite kind for times of peace and freedom of action, when there is no pressure of necessity, and he is seeking to persuade God by prayer, or man by instruction and admonition, or when on the other hand he is expressing his willingness to yield to the persuasion or entreaty or admonition of others. And when in this manner he has attained his end, I would have the music show him not carried away by his success, but acting moderately and wisely in all circumstances, and acquiescing in the event. These two harmonies I ask you to leave; the strain of necessity and the strain of freedom, the strain of the unfortunate and the strain of the fortunate, the strain of courage, and the strain of temperance; these, I say, leave.
And these, he replied, are the Dorian and the Phrygian harmonies of which I was just now speaking.
Then, I said, if these and these only are to be used in our songs and melodies, we shall not want multiplicity of strings or a panharmonic scale?
I suppose not.
Then we shall not maintain the artificers of lyres with three corners and complex scales, or the makers of any other many-stringed, curiously harmonized instruments?
But what do you say to flute-makers and flute-players? Would you admit them into our State when you reflect that in this composite use of harmony the flute is worse than any stringed instrument; even the panharmonic music is only imitation of the flute?
There remain then only the lyre and the harp for use in the city, and the shepherds in the country may have some kind of pipe.
That is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the argument.
The preferring of Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his instruments is not at all strange, I said.
Not at all, he replied.
Then let us now finish the purgation, I said. Next in order to harmonies, rhythms will naturally follow, and they should be subject to the same rules, for we ought not to seek out complex systems of metre, and a variety of feet, but rather to discover what rhythms are the expressions of a courageous and harmonious life; and when we have found them, we shall adapt the foot and the melody to words having a like spirit, not the words to the foot and melody. To say what these rhythms are will be your duty – you must teach me them, as you have already taught me the harmonies.
But, indeed, he replied, I cannot tell you. I know from observation that there are some three principles of rhythm out of which metrical systems are framed, just as in sounds there are four notes out of which all the harmonies are composed. But of what sort of lives they are severally the imitations I am unable to say.
Then, I said, we must take Damon into our counsels; and he will tell us what rhythms are expressive of meanness, or insolence, or fury, or other unworthiness, and are to be reserved for the expression of opposite feelings. And I think that I have an indistinct recollection of his mentioning a complex Cretic rhythm; also a dactylic or heroic, and he arranged them in some manner which I do not quite understand, making the rhythms equal in the rise and fall of the foot, long and short alternating; and unless I am mistaken, he spoke of an iambic as well as a trochaic rhythm, and assigned to them short and long quantities. Also in some cases he appeared to praise or censure the movement of the foot quite as much as the rhythm; or perhaps a combination of the two; for I am not certain what he meant. These matters, however, as I was saying, had better be referred to Damon himself, for the analysis of the subject would be difficult, you know?
Rather so, I should say.
But it does not require much analysis to see that grace or the absence of grace accompanies good or bad rhythm.
None at all.
And also that good and bad rhythm naturally assimilate to a good and bad style; and that harmony and discord in like manner follow style; for our principle is that rhythm and harmony are regulated by the words, and not the words by them.
Just so, he said, they should follow the words.
And will not the words and the character of the style depend on the temper of the soul?
And everything else on the style?
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 a euphemism for folly?
Very true, he replied.
[Socrates expands on the role of the artist in the ideal State and argues that unsuitable artists should be prevented from practising their art.]
And therefore, I said, Glaucon, musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful: and also because he who has received this true education of the inner being will most shrewdly perceive omissions or faults in art and nature, and with a true taste, while he praises and rejoices over and receives into his soul the good, and becomes noble and good, he will justify blame and hate the bad, now in the days of his youth, even before he will recognize and salute the friend with whom his education has made him long familiar.
Yes, he said, I quite agree with you in thinking that it is for such reasons that they should be trained in music……….
Even so, as I maintain, neither we nor the guardians, whom we say that we have to educate, can ever become musical until we and they know the essential forms of temperance, courage, liberality, magnanimity, and their kindred, as well as the contrary forms, in all their combinations, and can recognise then and their images wherever they are found, not slighting them either in small things or great, but believing them all to be within the sphere of one art and study.
And then nobility of soul is observed in harmonious union with beauty of form, and both are cast from the same mould, that will be the fairest of sights to him who has en eye to see it?
The fairest indeed.
And the fairest is also the loveliest?
That may be assumed.
And it is with human beings who most display such harmony that a musical man will be most in love; but he will not love any who do not possess it.
That is true, he replied, if the deficiency be in the soul; but if there be any bodily defect he will be patient of it, and may even approve it.
[A short discussion of the nature of pleasure.]
Thus much of music, and the ending is appropriate; for what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?
The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Volume Four, The Republic, edited by M Hare & DA Russell, Sphere Books Ltd., 1970, Book III (398-403), pp.165-171.