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Plato and the Science of Harmony

August 19, 2008

This extract is from Plato’s Republic, Book VII, 530d- 531c.

It appears, I said, that as the eyes are designed to look up at the stars, so are the ears to hear harmonious motions; and these are sister sciences – as the Pythagoreans say, and we, Glaucon, agree with them?
Yes, he replied.
But this, I said, is a laborious study, and therefore we shall inquire what they have to say on these points, or on any others. For our own part, we shall in all this preserve our own principle.
What is that?
There is a perfection which all knowledge ought to reach, and which our pupils ought also to attain, and not to fall short of, as I was saying that they did in astronomy. For in the science of harmony, as you probably know, the same thing happens. The teachers of harmony compare only the sounds and consonances which are heard, and their labour, like that of the astronomers, is in vain.
Yes, by heaven! he said; and ’tis as good as a play to hear them talking about their close intervals, whatever they may be; they put their ears close alongside of the strings like persons catching a sound from their neighbour’s wall – one set of them declaring that they distinguish an intermediate note and have found the least interval which should be the unit of measurement; the others insisting that the two sounds have passed into the same – either party setting their ears before their understanding.
You mean, I said, those gentlemen who tease and torture the strings and rack them on the pegs of the instrument; I might carry on the metaphor and speak after their manner of the blows which the plectrum gives, and of accusations against the strings, and of their reticence or forwardness; but this would be tedious, and therefore I will only say that these are not the men, and that I am referring to the Pythagoreans, of whom I was just now proposing to inquire about harmony. For they too are in error, like the astronomers; they investigate the numbers of the harmonies which are heard, but they never attain to problems – to inquiring which numbers are harmonious and which are not, and for what reason.
That, he said, is a thing of more than mortal knowledge.

The Dialogues of Plato, translated by Benjamin Jowett, Volume Four, The Republic, edited by M Hare & DA Russell, Sphere Books Ltd., 1970, Book VII (530d- 531c), p.315-316.

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