Posts Tagged ‘Plato’s Laws’

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

December 16, 2016

Should Stupid People Be Allowed to Vote? Locke, pt. 2

 

For when any number of men have, by the consent of every individual, made a community, they have thereby made that community one body, with a power to act as one body, which is only by the will and determination of the majority

 

—– John Locke

 

 

How does “protecting the inalienable right to liberty” translate to obeying the laws of the government, or even paying taxes?   This is what is perhaps the most radical and transformative part of Locke’s political philosophy. Locke follows the same basic formula as Hobbes and many other social contract theorists: we imagine starting in a “state of Nature” prior to all government, and then ask why any individual would move from the perfect freedom of anarchy into an ordered (and ordering) society. How we interpret the natural state of humanity tells us about what sort of debt we owe the State, and by implication what the State owes us citizens. It assumes a quasi-historical moment when the individual voluntarily joined the society, recognizing that this was more implicit and theoretical than actual. In Locke’s view, a free and basically reasonable individual chooses to belong to a civil society because that society preserves his or her basic freedom and rationality better than simply going it alone in a state of natural anarchy.[1] However, to be a functioning society, the group has to be able to act as a coherent unit; so some sort of government must exist. Thus, we all have to agree to give up our right to just do whatever pops into our heads, and instead must cooperate. That means we need some sort of process whereby everyone can be heard, everyone’s interests can be considered, and then the group can decide to act as determined by the will of the majority. Each of us must agree to accept the will of the majority, since otherwise agreeing to live in a society was a hollow promise; either we’re all in this together, or there is no “we” and anarchy prevails. So you may have a “king” but even his policies must be expressions of the collective will of his “subjects.”[2] As part of this society, there may be some property set aside for common use; Locke assumes that every village will have a village green, where anyone may come and harvest turf as needed, for example. And if the group decides on some joint project, as Athens did when Themistocles persuaded them to build a national fleet, they may agree to pay into a common fund to do so, and all citizens are obligated to pay this tax even if the minority didn’t vote for it since it is an expression of the will of the society as a whole, of which they are a part. In exchange, the minority has the right to fight for its voice to be heard and its concerns to be addressed, and to try to persuade some portion of the others to join and support its views as policies for the group.

This really was a revolutionary thought. Most societies in Europe were governed by monarchies that ruled by a presumed divine right. When Thomas Hobbes wrote his Leviathan to propose a secular basis for government, that was already a radical notion. Hobbes acknowledged as much when he wrote that, “This is the generation of that great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god, to which we owe under the immortal God, our peace and defence.”[3] We are not, he is saying, ruled by God; we are ruled by Leviathan, The Beast. God has left us to be ruled by this earthly master, this god that we ourselves have made by forming a social compact or commonwealth. But Hobbes still offered his philosophy as a defense of the privileges of the absolute monarch. Short of randomly torturing or murdering subjects, or failing to actually control and defend the realm, Hobbes put no limits on the sovereign’s power. Locke writes to defend not absolute monarchy, but a republic and limited monarchy. The force that is to determine national policy is not the whim of one powerful king backed by the brute force of an army; instead it is the collective will of the citizens that is to dictate to the government what it should do.

Just how revolutionary this theory is becomes clear when Locke considers the dissolution of the commonwealth.[4] There he argues that when any government attempts to usurp absolute power over its citizens, either by arbitrarily seizing their property, by enslaving them or killing them, then they are freed from their tacit agreement to abide by its laws. The government has broken the social contract, so now the citizens are back in a state of nature. And as free persons in a state of nature, they are once again free to join together for mutual defense, and to form a new government. Locke offers the intellectual and moral justification for political revolution. The government that denies its citizens their inalienable rights has violated the laws of Nature, Reason and God (which are largely equivalent terms for Locke), and thus has lost all legitimacy. It rules only by force, and thus there is no crime in resisting it and overthrowing it by force, either. Only the government that acts as directed by the will of the majority has any binding, legitimate claim to the obedience of the people.
The philosophical foundation for the American Revolution was this very notion. People felt that they were being “enslaved” by the distant crown and parliament, which imposed taxes on them without their consent or even voice. (Yes, it is a tragic irony that they knew what enslavement was so well, owning slaves themselves.) They had come to this frontier land and tamed it, raised crops, built homes and churches and whole cities, and now they felt that this was theirs. They had put their own sweat into this land; as Locke said, they had put part of themselves into it, and thus it was as much theirs as their own flesh. And now a distant government was imposing laws and taxes on them. From the English point of view, they were simply asking the colonies to pay for their own defense; but the fact remained that there were no colonial representatives in Parliament. From a Lockean point of view, they were outside the social contract, since they were denied the fundamental right of any citizen of the commonwealth to be heard. And following Locke, they felt that this gave them the right to revolt. They produced a Declaration of Independence, which detailed their justifications for their break from England, and established the beginnings of their social contract to form a new commonwealth together. This was not like Plato’s failed attempt to bring his ideal republic to life in ancient Syracuse, where conceptual perfection crashed against human realities. Nor was it like the more recent attempt to establish a divine theocracy in Münster, which fell into disorder and was destroyed by its enemies. This philosophical experiment, which we now know as the United States of America, was not based on Biblical or philosophical idealism, but on human reason, on philosophy rooted in observation, experience and reflection. Unlike Plato’s Republic or his later Laws, the empiricist philosophy of Locke did not assume that there was an ideal state which could only change by degenerating. The founders of the United States assumed that their nation would have to change and grow, and they included mechanisms for amending the social contract. They hoped that it would grow and become better as its people chose the best among them to debate and discover new solutions to unanticipated problems. And while Plato’s republic sought to eliminate social conflict, the very notion of Locke’s commonwealth assumes disagreement and conflict. Any nation based on Locke’s principles has to allow for all stakeholders to have a voice, and to resolve their competing claims in a peaceful manner. It hasn’t always worked, as we know, but the trend for over two hundred years has been to channel dissent and conflict, expanding the rights of citizens and the chorus of voices in the marketplace of ideas.

To be continued…

[1] John Locke, Second Treatise of Civil Government, chapter II, sections 4-11

[2] Locke, chapter VIII, sect. 95-99

[3] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, chapter 17

[4] Locke, chapter XIX, sect. 222

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

September 12, 2013

What is Plato’s remedy?  The ultimate cure is to take God, rather than man, as the measure of all things.[1]  Saying that does not help us very much today, however, because there is so little knowledge of God and maybe less shared opinion; anyone who claims to be following God can safely be assumed to be following his or her own fancy.  Plato’s God was a god who was rationally known and philosophically approached, not one who could be created out of literal readings of myths mixed copiously with political slogans and party loyalties.  Before God can be the measure of all things, we need to be the sort of people who can have a possibility of genuinely seeking God or recognizing God once we bump into him/her/it.

Suppose we take Plato’s prescription to heart.  In recent years I have noticed two trends in K-12 education:  an increased interest in “character education,” and a slashing of education in the arts.  But what would good, quality education in the arts, particularly music, give to our children?  They would learn that sometimes it takes time to achieve something.  It takes practice.  And it often takes cooperation with others; the first violinist or first trumpet or first soprano still needs the rest of us if the music is to be as full as possible.  They would learn to admire skill and talent more than auto-tune and YouTube fame, as their own efforts at making music revealed to them just how difficult good music is (and how easy and unimpressive the other sort is).  They would learn to accept the judgment of those who know.  They would be exposed to good music, the music of the ages.  By this I don’t only mean classical music, although this is often part of learning music for the simple reason that it is public domain.  When I was a child in public school, we learned folk songs.  These are simple tunes, easy for a child to understand; they are also part of our cultural heritage, the melodic thread connecting generations.  Now, children don’t know the songs children knew for years or centuries; their parents can instead buy “Kidz Bop” and teach their children to love the musical ephemera of the Top Forty list.[2]

Many children, of course, will not be able to fully participate in music of any sort.  Some are deaf, as I am becoming; some may just be tone-deaf.  Plato didn’t value the representational arts much, but perhaps we should.  Why is drawing in school only sanctioned for kindergarten?  What is gained by subjecting oneself to the discipline of working with hand and eye, learning in the process what is truly beautiful and truly difficult and impressive?  What Plato did value was dance.  Why is our physical education aimed at winnowing out the klutzes through the years, to produce a few star athletes for the high-school teams, instead of making all fit “to dance with head and limb”?[3]

Shows like American Idol are the esthetic versions of “Wikiality.”[4]  “Wikiality” is the idea that reality is whatever the rest of us agree is true.  If we all agree that Africa has more elephants than it did ten years ago, then it is true.  Who is Britannica to tell me that George Washington owned slaves?  I have a right to say and believe whatever I want.    The problem is, however, that sometimes people die because of this attitude.  The whole “Stand Your Ground” law in Florida is based largely on a factual falsehood; it was intended to correct an injustice of a man arrested for killing a looter, except (1) the “looter” seems to have just been a random, lost, drunk construction worker, and (2) the man who killed him was never arrested; traditional “self-defense” law was all that was ever needed to resolve the case.[5]  As a result of this legislative exercise in Wikiality, Florida now has a law that is routinely used by violent criminals to avoid arrest.[6]  I will leave it to the reader to come up with more examples of laws passed and justified by factual untruths; whether you and I agree as to what are convenient lies and what are disputed truths, I don’t doubt that everyone agrees that politicians routinely reject reality and insert their own delusions.  And from the “Stand Your Ground” laws to the county commissioners who eliminated fluoride from the drinking water (apparently believing Dr. Strangelove was a documentary) to dozens of other cases, this sort of epistemological nihilism is not just an individual saying “I have a right to believe what I want;” repeatedly, people who believe what they want to believe rather than what can be shown to be true cause real harm to others, and impose their fantasies on the rest of us.[7] Think of it as the legislative equivalent of the Sanjaya Effect; instead of bad music being forced on viewers of American Idol while good singers are shunted off to obscurity, bad laws are forced on all of us while good policies are buried in partisanship and ideologically-driven relativism.

Did American Idol kill Trayvon Martin?  No, not really.  Did the disregard for any standards or truth beyond one’s own personal preferences, a disregard fostered by the social media/mass media melding of which American Idol is a prime example, lead to the creation of a bad law that ultimately contributed both to his death and to the circus that whirled around it?  Yes.


[1] Laws, book IV, 716 c-d

[2] “Toxic”?  Really?  That’s what you want on a kid’s album?  “Kidz Bop 6”

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pt. 3, “On Old and New Tablets.”

[5] Ben Montgomery, “Florida’s ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law was Born of 2004 Case, but Story Has Been Distorted;”  Tampa Bay Times April 14, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/publicsafety/floridas-stand-your-ground-law-was-born-of-2004-case-but-story-has-been/1225164)

[6] Kameel Stanley and Connie Humburg, “Many Killers Who Go Free with Florida ‘Stand Your Ground’ Law Have History of Violence;” Tampa Bay Times July 21, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/courts/criminal/many-killers-who-go-free-with-florida-stand-your-ground-law-have-history/1241378)

[7] Anna M. Phillips, “Pinellas County Commission Votes 6-1 to Return Fluoride to Drinking Water;” Tampa Bay Times November 27, 2012 (http://www.tampabay.com/news/localgovernment/pinellas-county-commission-votes-6-1-to-return-fluoride-to-drinking-water/1263426).

Plato on Music Education, pt. IV: “American Idol” and the corruption of America

September 6, 2013

     Is American Idol corrupting America, or it is revealing its corruption?  Which came first:  a corruption of esthetic standards that led to moral and epistemological nihilism, or an epistemological relativism that led to a collapse of first moral, and then esthetic standards?  Plato’s Laws suggests that the consumer-based, pleasure-driven culture is the root of all the problems.  People believe they are entitled to say, do and believe whatever they want.  And unlike Plato, I think that politically, they probably are so entitled; but morally, they are not.  Cardinal Ratzinger’s famous sermon against the dictatorship of relativism argues that anyone today who dares to suggest that there is such a thing as Truth risks the ire not only of the mob, but also of the cultured elite.[1]  We are supposed to be postmodern and pluralistic; the idea that some things are just plain true is seen as oppressive.  When I was in college, it was the Left that was generally heard denouncing “cultural oppression” and championing relativism; today, it is more often the Right that denounces the “liberal elite” with their charts and graphs and facts and fossils.  I don’t have to argue about the absurdity of allowing something like human-made climate change to morph from a scientific question to a political shibboleth.  Everything I would argue about the corruption of American society is illustrated in this one news story:  According to a recent political poll, Louisianan Republicans are uncertain whether Barack Obama or George W. Bush is more responsible for the poor federal government response to Hurricane Katrina, which struck in 2005.  In response to a 2013 poll:

Q2 Who do you think was more responsible for the
poor response to Hurricane Katrina: George W.
Bush or Barack Obama?
George W. Bush ……………………………………… 28%
Barack Obama………………………………………… 29%
Not sure …………………………………………………. 44%[2]

So, is it just a matter of opinion which president was more to blame for the response to a natural disaster that occurred four years before Obama took office?  If anything is a matter of fact, shouldn’t it be something that occurred not only in the historical time/space continuum that we all inhabit, but even within the lifetime of most of us?  Yet, faced with the choice between factional, party-driven epistemology and agreeing with the obvious, the vast majority of Republicans are either unsure who was to blame for government actions that occurred in 2005, or are absolutely certain that they should blame someone who was nothing more than a powerless junior Senator at that time.  Sure, maybe they have a legal right to say something obviously false and stupid; but do they have a moral right?  If “morality” means anything more than “I like this,” then surely we have a moral duty to seek truth and to live according to that truth; even a consequentialist ethic must recognize that the likely results of choosing delusion over fact will be disastrous for everyone affected, eventually.

            Clearly, we are never going to adopt the legal system Plato advocates, where music is regulated by the state and only government approved tunes, rhythms and lyrics are allowed.  And I don’t think we would want to, either.  Plato was deeply suspicious of change, unless it was known ahead of time that it would be change for the good.  Like many Greeks, he admired Sparta’s unwavering adherence to the laws and customs of its founders.  But a few years after Plato’s death, Sparta and all the Greek poloi were conquered by the innovative, inventive, upstart Macedonians.  And a few years after that, Alexander the Great continued that innovative and ambitious spirit to sweep aside Egypt and Persia and more.  The paradox is that of course, as Plato said, all change is bad unless it is change from bad to good—-that is a tautology—-but prior to making the change, we cannot really know what will turn out for the best.

            But just because we embrace change and a more dynamic culture does not mean we need abandon all notion of truth and goodness.  And make no mistake, that is just what we have done.  We live in a world where so-called “conservatives,” the people who regard themselves (and are regarded) as defenders of “truth, justice and the American way,” freely and gladly wallow in relativism and nihilism.  There is simply no other explanation for why the vast majority of Republicans in Louisiana would deny that it was a Republican president who was in office in 2005 and therefore was responsible for the federal response to Hurricane Katrina.  They do not want it to be true; “man is the measure of all things;” therefore, it never happened.  But Plato would ask, how could it be otherwise?  How could any people who have practiced self-indulgence and thrown off first esthetic standards, then factual investigation ever do other than fall into full-blown epistemological and moral relativism?


[1] Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, homily at the mass for the Papal Conclave, April 18, 2005 (http://www.vatican.va/gpII/documents/homily-pro-eligendo-pontifice_20050418_en.html)

[2]In Louisiana, Clinton keeps up, Governor Falls”   August 21, 2013 (http://www.publicpolicypolling.com/main/2013/08/in-louisiana-clinton-keeps-up-governor-falls.html#more )

Plato on Music Education, pt. III: The Results

August 29, 2013

            If we accept the idea that pleasure is the only standard of goodness, where does this principle stop?  Plato says that if that is our standard in esthetics, it will become our standard in ethics as well.  One who becomes accustomed to enjoying bad music because it gives pleasure and rejects the notion that there might be standards will also come to reject the idea that there are standards of good or bad deeds, beyond the pleasure they give the doer.[1]  And conversely, one who learns that personal taste must be educated before one can judge beauty will also be prepared to learn that he or she must learn moral principles before he or she can judge virtue.

            And if subjectivism in esthetics leads thus to relativism in ethics, why should it stop there?  Plato argues that things may be valued because they have a “charm,” or for their rightness in some sense, or for their utility.[2]  For example, good food is tasty, but it is also nutritious.  To value food only for its pleasure-giving capacity would lead one to choose cake over fruit every time.  Sure, many of us do this; but do any of us really think this is wise?  We know that we must look to the objective truths of the world, and not merely to how we feel, if we are to judge correctly.  But the pleasure-driven person, by definition, does not do that.  He or she has thrown off all authority, and all self-control.  Without temperance, one becomes a fool as well as wicked, for one will reject unpleasant truths and unpleasing truth-tellers in favor of flatterers and comforting lies.  Moral subjectivism leads inevitably to epistemological relativism.  First beauty, then goodness, and finally truth all cease to have any meaning for the intemperate pleasure-seeker.

            I have no doubt that if Plato were alive today, he would be appalled by American Idol, Dancing With the Stars and all similar programs that allow (nay, encourage) the untutored mob to impose its tastes over the judgment of the knowledgeable.  No one meant any wrong in doing this.  It is just an inevitable result of market forces.  Television networks want to make money, and can do so with cheaply-made “reality” TV and contest programs more easily than with expensive, talent-intensive, quality programming.  They make money by selling commercial time; programs are just sugar-coating to get consumers to swallow the all-important commercials.  Making the programs more interactive is just another way to get people to tune in.  Furthermore, phone companies make money when people use their services to text their votes in.  But what is the effect?  In its extreme, we can call it the “Sanjaya Effect:”  a talentless, comically inept performer beat out many better artists based, allegedly, on votes cast ironically or out of pity or some other motive, rather than for any honest assessment of who was “best.”  Even the producers of American Idol were taken aback, and revamped the voting process to reduce audience input.  A show that was designed to elevate mob taste over expert judgment began to backpedal, as it discovered that not only does the mob not know what is good, it doesn’t even always care.

            Dancing With the Stars offers an even better illustration of the corruption of society.  In 2010, Bristol Palin advanced to third place, despite a manifest mediocrity.  Some voters directly stated that they voted for her out of pity or sympathy, saying things like, “Of course Erin’s a better dancer—she’s a professional.  But look at Bristol, just getting out there and trying her best.”  In Plato’s day, a judge who gave the prize to any but the best would be cursed by the gods; they swore before Zeus, but in today’s “competitions,” respect for standards or the spirit of sportsmanship has been replaced by self-appointed judges who vote whimsically—-or worse yet, factionally.  To Plato, the greatest danger to the state was factionalism; he had witnessed how party politics tore apart Athenian democracy, and his Laws warns repeatedly of the dangers of factionalism.  Party politics were no different than treason, in Plato’s view.  But many of the people who voted for Bristol Palin allegedly did so out of loyalty to her mother and the GOP, rather than to the rules of ballroom dancing (and yes, ballroom dancing is a competition and it has rules, just as much as ice dancing or gymnastics).  They would doubtless answer that, whatever their reasons, those reasons were theirs; they have a right to vote for whomever they wish, and besides, it’s all just a matter of taste and taste is personal:  “there’s no accounting for taste.”  Plato would reply that the rejection of true standards of artistic beauty in favor of politics or the sympathy of one mediocre soul for another is not “just taste;” it is a moral failure, a deliberate preference for the bad over the good.

To be continued….


[1] Laws book III, 699d-701c

[2] Laws, book II, 667-668

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 (http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/observations/2012/07/26/is-pop-music-evolving-or-is-it-just-getting-louder/)

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

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