Posts Tagged ‘Plato and Education’

Plato on Music Education, pt. II: Standards

August 22, 2013

Plato on Music Education:  How American Idol is Destroying America (pt. II)

            If choral singing is to be universal, the obvious question then is, what are all these citizens going to sing?  As Plato discusses, the Greek poets generally wrote their songs to please their audience and themselves.  They might challenge accepted beliefs, or worse, they might repeat some of the old myths about gods committing adultery or deceiving each other or destroying good men out of petty rage.  Plato felt that the poets should not be allowed to write words that were not morally uplifting.  Furthermore, he was concerned with the music and rhythms, lest they be too wild and lead to uncontrolled, ungraceful and intemperate dancing.  When the poets wrote to please the crowd, the unlearned mob will pick the best music based solely on what gives them pleasure at the time.  However, nothing should be judged based primarily on pleasure, unless it has already been established that it neither serves no higher purpose, nor causes any harm.[1]  Since music is to serve very important functions besides being pleasant, it is these qualities that must take precedence:  “As they aim at the noblest kind of song, they will also have to aim not at a music which is pleasing, but at one which is right.[2]  By “right” Plato here means artistically correct, with the rhythms and tone matching the content and so on, as well as being morally and intellectually correct in content.  For this to be, the common Greek practice of letting the audience choose the winner must be dismissed.  Instead, Plato mentions with approval the Egyptian practice of direct government control to allow or ban certain songs, tunes, and rhythms according to what was deemed fitting for the community and pleasing to the gods. [3]   In music, as in everything else, only those who have experience and knowledge can really judge what is done rightly or not; therefore, the only proper judges of music must be those with the education and the years necessary.  Plato writes:

The standard by which music should be judged is the pleasure it gives—-but not the pleasure given to any and every auditor.  We may take it that the finest music is that which delights the best men, the properly educated, that, above all, which pleases the one man who is supreme in goodness and education.  And the reason why we say judges in such matters need goodness is that they require to be equipped not only with wisdom, but particularly with courage.  A judge who is truly a judge must not learn his verdict from the audience, letting himself be intimidated into it by the clamor of the multitude…  To tell the plain truth, the judge takes his seat not to learn from the audience, but to teach them, and to set himself against performers who give an audience pleasure in wrong and improper ways.[4]

            Plato considers proper judging of musical performances to be supremely important, because he considers character to be important, and music is the primary character education for the children of citizens in his proposed society.  Enjoying wrong and bad things will corrupt the individual.[5]  Learning true standards of judgment will enable one to enjoy truly good performances, and be mentally and morally improved as a result. 

            But how so?  This sounds like something between snobbery and nonsense in today’s ears.  How could enjoying bad music possibly corrupt the soul?  Well, either there are standards of judging good and bad music, or it is simply a matter of personal pleasure.  Plato believes there are standards that an educated listener will note, that an uncultured person cannot.  An article from Scientific American seems to argue much the same thing.[6]  This article discusses the research of postdoctoral scholar Joan Serrà and his colleagues, who examined such qualities as timbre, pitch and loudness of popular music over the last six decades.  They found that the variety of popular music appears to have shrunk:  more recent songs are less original in how they shift notes or keys, variations in volume have largely vanished and so on.  In short, they argue, popular music has become blander, more homogenous, as every would-be hit follows in the well-worn paths set by earlier hits, seeking primarily to be much the same, but louder than what went before.  Plato points to other qualities that he feels should be in good music, but which are often lacking in music that plays to the untutored audience:  consistency of form and content, grace and harmony, and so on.  When it comes to music, I am probably not much better than those uneducated boobs Plato decries; in addition to having been a poor student of music, I suffer from lifelong tinnitus which is slowly rendering me deaf (the same thing got Beethoven, so at least I’m in good musical company; and perhaps that explains why I am drawn to his music).  But while I may not have the auditory acuity or training to hear music as skillfully as my children (both professional musicians and music majors), I do understand writing; and the standards of “good music” that are being suggested here are not unlike the standards of “good writing:” varieties of expression (vocabulary, good command of syntax and grammar), coherence of form and content (a sad poem should not have a bouncy rhythm, etc.) avoidance of clichés, and so on.  We generally admit that there are objective standards whereby we can judge verbal writing; why not music? 

            The contrasting argument is that if I enjoy it, it is good to me and that is all that matters.  Those NPR snobs who say Mozart is better music than Kid Rock are just trying to put us down.  Who cares if all the music sounds the same, if I like it?  By the same argument, who says The Old Man and the Sea is a better book than Fifty Shades of Grey?  Or that Inherit the Wind is a better movie than Saw IV?  Who cares about anything other than the pleasure it gives, regardless of whether it was created by skillful craft and original artistry versus simple rote imitation of other people’s creations?  It is certainly possible to deny standards of judgment in esthetics; people do so all the time.  And insofar as the “Marketplace of Ideas” is manifest in the actual marketplace, the fact is that so-called “mediocrity” sells. 

To be continued…..

[1] Laws, book II, 667-670

[2] Laws, book II, 668b (italics author’s)

[3] Laws, book II, 656d-657b

[4] Laws, book II, 659a-b

[5] Laws, book II 656a-c

[6] John Matson, “Is Pop Music Evolving, or Is It Just Getting Louder?”  July 26, 2012 (

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

August 13, 2013

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