Plato and Music Education, pt. 1: The Importance of Music Education

Plato on Music Education:  How American Idol is Destroying America

            I’ve had to interrupt my work on “Work and Philosophy,” this time to grade research papers.  I also made the mistake of doing something I’ve avoided my whole life:  reading Plato’s Laws.  I say “mistake” because I thought it would be a lot less interesting than it is turning out to be, so it is sucking up a lot more of my time.  I had heard that it was the product of Plato’s later period, in fact his last writing, and that by this point he had pretty well rejected using literary artistry to make philosophical points; so I was expecting something dry and abstruse.  I had also heard that it was written after his disappointing experience at Syracuse, where he attempted to educate the tyrant and turn him into a philosopher-king; so I was expecting something bitter and, if anything, even more oppressive than his ideas for a republic.  Instead, I found something fairly pragmatic, as much a successor to early theory like the Crito as it is to the Republic.  Yes, there are long passages where he discusses hunting and farming principles appropriate to a citizen, gathering fruits and so on; but there are also some interesting insights to his political thought in general, and what survived from his early days as a student of Socrates until his later days as founder of the Academy.

            Just to focus on one element that intrigued me, let me discuss Plato’s views on music education.  In the Republic he famously argued for state censorship of the arts, and denounced certain rhythms as leading to wild, uncontrolled dancing instead of the harmony of body and mind which he thought best.  His reasoning for these arguments were thoroughly rationalist; he had his ideal of Justice, and based on that he sought to create the most orderly, rational society imaginable.  His procedure in the Laws is different.  Here, he is not writing for ideal people, although his ideas are fairly radical (asking Greeks to give up seafood?  Really, Plato?).  While the Republic was presented as a thought experiment by Socrates at a dinner party, the Laws is a conversation between three Greek men from three cities, one of whom has been tasked with writing the laws for a new colony.  If the first was utopia, this is merely “new topia.”  In some ways, it is similar to the Torah in that respect:  not quite ideal and utopian, but not a real, established community either; instead, it is a set of legal principles intended to create a nearly ideal society, still believable but probably not really attainable.[1] Because it is a colony, it is legally a blank slate, but the people are not ideal or completely malleable; so expedients like inventing new mythologies or establishing a rigged marriage lottery (prominent in the Republic) are not possible.  Thus, when he discusses the education of children, the ideas that no one knows his or her parents, that some believe they have gold in their veins and receive a different education, and so on have little place.  But Plato does retain the idea that the education of the children is an important work of the State; though he allows for more parental control in the Laws, he also affirms “that the child is even more the property of the state than of his parents.”[2]

            In the Laws, the primary purpose of education is to make lead the child to grow to be a good person.  This includes producing good citizens, since a well-ordered state is essential for human fulfillment; but moral education is important to the individual as well.  Just as the state must avoid internal division and conflict, the individual can only be truly happy when he or she avoids conflicting passions and desires.  Thus, the rational and temperate person is not only a good neighbor and citizen, but also the most truly happy.[3]  For the state to fulfill its function, it must aim both at social order (by avoiding conflicts and reconciling neighbors) and at the education of citizens (promoting temperance, justice and reason).

            Plato’s educational proposals all intend to promote this sort of society which is fulfilling for the citizens and able to preserve itself from all threats foreign and domestic.[4]  For this reason, he says the most important courses for young children are gymnastics and music.[5]  Physical training is to lead to overall health, and in particular to fitness for military service; therefore, Plato says that all athletic competition and training must be in realistic armor, and must focus on martial skills such as archery, riding, running, throwing javelin and so on.  He also includes dancing in physical education, seeking here to teach grace and agility of movement.  Furthermore, as he says earlier, dancing is an essential element in the chorus, which is essential as a religious and communal activity.[6]  Music (particularly singing) is important for mental training, just as physical culture is essential for bodily training.  Music trains the person to patience and skill, and it trains the character by its stirring rhythms as much as by its words:  valorous songs to encourage bravery, hymns to foster piety, gentle songs to promote caring and mutual support.  And choral singing in particular honors the gods and brings community members together in harmony (in more ways than one); therefore Plato considered choral singing so important that he suggested it be mandatory for all citizens from childhood through old age.

To be continued….

[1] Historically, we know much of the Torah was written in the post-exilic period, and was as much an idealization of what should have been as it was a recounting of what had been; certainly, even internal evidence from the Bible shows such strict monotheism as described in the Pentateuch never really existed.  But the emphasis on social harmony and justice is striking in both Mosaic and Platonic Laws.

[2] Laws book VII, 804 d-e

[3] Laws book I, 626-628; book II, 663d

[4] This is in contrast to the earlier Republic, where the goal is explicitly said to be the overall harmony of the state, not the greatest happiness of any individual or class.  Plato, Republic, book IV, 419-421c

[5] Laws, book VII, 795-796

[6] Laws, book II, 654


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2 Responses to “Plato and Music Education, pt. 1: The Importance of Music Education”

  1. Nemo Says:

    Have you read Plato’s Statesman and Sophist? Those two and Laws are a trilogy of sort.

    • philosophicalscraps Says:

      I never read Statesman as far as I can remember. I don’t believe I read Sophist; if I did it was long ago, and I’m likely confusing it with Protagoras. I’ll try to get to those two soon. Thanks!

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