Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Plato on Music as a Threat to Order

I'm teaching Mladen Dolar's excellent book A Voice and Nothing More, and came across a passage that I had unforgivably forgotten, in which Dolar joins with Plato in laying out the fundamental reason I study music - because it has profound anti-authoritarian potential.  Remember, of course, that Plato himself is rather a Machiavellian apres la lettre.

A change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes.  For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions . . . it is here, then, I said, that our guardians must build their guardhouse and post of watch.

It is certain, he said, that this is the kind of lawlessness that easily insinuates itself unobserved.
Yes, said I, because it is supposed to be only a form of play and to work no harm.

Nor does it work any, he said, except that by gradual infiltration it softly overflows upon the characters and pursuits of men and from these issues forth grown greater to attack their business dealings, and from these relations it proceeds agains the laws and the constitution with wanton license, Socrates, till finally it overthrows all things public and private.  (Republic IV, 424c-e)

As Dolar demonstrates, the greatest risk of music comes (according to Plato) when it doesn't match the words, when its meanings are ambiguous or its tone feminine.  Plato elaborates on what follows unregulated music:

So the next stage of the journey toward liberty will be refusal to submit to the magistrates, and on this will follow emancipation from the authority and correction of parents and elders; then, as the goal of the race is approached, comes the effort to escape obedience to the law, and, when that goal is all but reached, contempt for oaths, for the plighted word, and all religion.  The spectacle of the Titanic nature of which our old legends speak is re-enacted; man returns to the old condition of a hell of unending misery. (Laws III, 701 b-c)

Right on, brother.  Right on.

No comments: