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We Are the Champions : Mousikē and Cultural Chauvinism in Plato's Republic

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This paper contributes to our understanding of the role of poetry in Plato's thought by examining the treatment of non-Greek poetry in Plato's Republic.
  [  Expositions  11.1 (2017) 157–175]  Expositions  (online) ISSN: 1747–5376 “We Are the Champions”:  Mousik  ē   and Cultural Chauvinism in Plato’s  Republic   REBECCA LEMOINE  Florida Atlantic University “Where then, oh Socrates, will we find a good singer of such things, when you leave us?” “Hellas is large,” he replied, “oh Cebes, and there are doubtless good men in it, and many barbarian races. Among them all seek and examine such a singer, sparing neither money nor toil, as there is nothing on which you could more favorably spend money.”  –  Socrates, Plato’s  Phaedo  78a Scholarship on Plato and the poets often approaches the topic at the meta-level, investigating the reasoning behind the censoring of poetry in the  Republic as well as the consistency of Plato’s treatment of poetry. Much ink has been spilt making sense of such tensions as Socrates’ selected  purging of the contents of Greek poetry in Books II and III of the  Republic  and his apparent  banning of all poetic mimesis  in Book X, 1  the censure of poetry in the  Republic  yet the celebration of poetic madness in the  Phaedrus , 2  and the incongruity of a writer as poetic as Plato condemning  poetry. 3  Not all commentaries focus on poetry in the abstract, however; some analyze Plato’s use of particular poets, notably Homer, Hesiod, Pindar, Solon, Simonides, Aeschylus, and Euripides. 4  Yet in the vast scholarly literature on Plato and the poets, Plato’s engagement with non- Greek  poetry has largely gone unexamined.  Mousik  ē  and Cultural Chauvinism in Plato’s  Republic  158 In the case of the  Republic , this represents a major oversight. After all, the dialogue opens with Socrates sharing his judgment on Greek versus non-Greek music. As later discussed in greater detail, it is appropriate when investigating poetry in the  Republic  to consider the role of music more broadly, for the Greek word mousik  ē   (for which I will use the translation “music” or “the arts” interchangeably) encompasses poetry. Recalling how yesterday he went down to the Piraeus—Athens’ bustling port city and home to its massive population of mostly non-Greek slaves and metics  or resident aliens—Socrates explains he was there to witness the inaugural staging of the Bendideia and “pray to the goddess,” presumably the Thracian (non-Greek) goddess Bendis. 5  Socrates says he found both the procession of the Athenians and that of the Thracians “beautiful ( καλὴ )” (327a). Though little is known of what these processions entailed, Athenian  processions typically involved Athenians of all ages and sexes weaving their way through the city in colorful costume while carrying symbols and ritual objects. Along the way, or upon reaching the sanctuary, there would be performances of music and dance in connection with ritual acts of sacrifice. Socrates’ judgment of the Athenian and Thracian processions therefore likely reflects his attitude towards the Greek and non-Greek mousik  ē    each emblematizes. By thus opening the dialogue, Plato alludes to the importance of the intersection between politics, culture, and the arts. He invites readers, in effect, to consider the dialogue’s treatment of poetry, and mousik  ē    more generally, in terms of the arts’ embeddedness within particular cultures. Plato’s interest in the political effects of foreign music re-emerges during the crafting of the city of speech. Despite Socrates’ positivity at the beginning of the dialogue towards incorporating Thracian mousik  ē    into Athenian society, when it comes to Kallipolis he recommends guarding against changes to a new form of music. This is because it is essential to expose citizens to the right music, so once that music is discovered and set down in law there must be no innovation. If the music of Kallipolis is truly ideal—that is, if it is best at creating good characters—then it must  be preserved; for change from the ideal form of music is necessarily change to a worse form of music. Though the guardians must watch for the internal development of any new forms of music, Socrates implies that the greatest danger comes from visitors from abroad when he says that if a man “should arrive in our city” expressing the desire to exhibit his skill in imitating all things, he “should be sent away to another city” because “there is no such man in our city among us, nor is it lawful for such a man to arise among us” (398a–b). Any poet whose poetry does not conform to the strict musical requirements of Kallipolis must, in other words, become or remain a foreigner.  159 LeMoine How does one reconcile Socrates’ expressed approval of foreign music at the dialogue’s opening with his hostility towards it during the discussion of Kallipolis? This article argues that, upon close examination, the music   of Kallipolis blends Greek and non-Greek elements. This suggests Socrates intends not to exclude foreign poetry, but, conversely, to ensure its inclusion. Socrates’ insistence that the ideal city not change from a form of music that, as it turns out, harmonizes the Greek and the non-Greek makes sense as a response to the Athenians’ segregation of Athenian and Thracian mousik  ē    during the Bendideia. In light of evidence that Athenians were motivated to sanction the cult of Bendis less out of appreciation for Thracian culture than out of desire to shore up their own domination, and that Greek poetry played a major role in fostering this attitude of cultural chauvinism, Kallipolis’ harmonizing of Greek and non-Greek represents an improvement upon Athens’ approach to music. It reveals the sanctioning of the Bendideia to be  but a half-measure, a token gesture that in actuality betrays the Athenians’ unwillingness to harmonize with other cultures. Against the backdrop of this false harmony, Socrates recommends a musical education that promotes a simple harmony of two cultures. Kallipolis is not Socrates’ final word, however. Rather, it represents a stepping-stone on the way towards the image of the cosmos that replaces the Homeric model: the eight distinct notes of the Sirens—matching the eight notes of the diatonic scale, each corresponding to a particular culture—forming a perfect harmony as presented in the Myth of Er. As the reference to the death-luring Sirens indicates, such a complex and divine form of mousik  ē    may represent the peak of philosophic education rather than its beginnings. Nonetheless, this suggests the philosopher brings to political education the goal of  promoting harmony between cultures, if only on a limited scale. I.  Mousik  ē  , Education, and Politics The topic of music first arises when discussing the education of the class of citizens whose job it is to guard the city. Socrates has just elicited his interlocutors’ agreement that the character of the guardians is like that of a noble dog—spirited when defending its master from enemy attacks, yet gentle towards friends. To this end, Socrates proposes that guardians receive a dual education consisting of “gymnastics for bodies, and music ( μουσική ) for the soul” (376e). The goal of the guardians’ education is to cultivate the proper character by tuning the spirited and philosophic  parts of the soul “to the proper degree of tension and relaxation” (412a). If the thumos or spirit is tuned too high, then the logistikon or philosophic part will be drowned out and the guardian will  Mousik  ē  and Cultural Chauvinism in Plato’s  Republic  160  be savage and cruel. Conversely, if the philosophic part is tuned too high, then the guardian will  be soft and weak-willed owing to a lack of spiritedness. It is important, therefore, that guardians receive the proper exposure to music. The assumption that music can be used to shape character would not have seemed strange to most Greeks. To understand why, it is necessary first to grasp the meaning of “music” in the ancient Greek world. Any art over which the Muses preside, “music ( μουσική )” in the ancient sense refers to a union of instrumental music, poetic speech, and dance. 6  Hence, when Socrates first proposes education in music, he reminds that music consists not merely of rhythm and melody,  but also “speeches ( λόγους )”— both “true ( ἀληθές )” speech and “myths ( μύθους )” (376e–377a). Asserting the importance of the latter form of speech in educating children, Socrates launches into a discussion of “myth makers ( τοῖς   μυθοποιοῖς )” occupying most of Books II and III and reappearing in Book X. These mythmakers turn out to be the poets whose stories Socrates finds in need of censorship. Modern readers often struggle to make sense of why during a discussion on music Socrates quickly shifts to talking about poetry, yet for Plato’s contemporaries the transition would have seemed seamless. While purely instrumental music existed—often accompanying libations, sacrifices, supplications, and other ceremonial rites—music was more commonly thought of in conjunction with poetry, as poets typically performed their stories to musical accompaniment. This is seen in Homeric epic, which depicts bards singing the stories of famous heroes. Even with the growing popularity of written work in Plato’s day, poems were generally still sung in public, performative contexts, such as at  symposia  or festivals. Consequently, when Greeks thought of music, they inevitably thought of the performance of famous poems. It is therefore appropriate to think of the dialogue’s censorship of poetry within the larger context of the censorship of music, for poetry is subsumed under the broader category of music. 7  Both the lyrical and the sonic aspects of music are regarded in the  Republic as capable of exercising immense influence on the soul. In terms of a musical work’s speeches or lyrics, Socrates details at length the damage done to souls exposed at a young age to myths that depict gods and other heroes committing injustices such as egregious acts of violence and deception. Hearing repeatedly that the most celebrated beings engage in unjust behaviors habituates one to delight in these behaviors. It is important, therefore, that those training to be guardians hear tales that only celebrate truly just characters so they will gravitate towards good behaviors. Equally important, however, is the musical mode or the manner of rhythm and melody. In fact, it may be more  161 LeMoine important. As Nina Valiquette Moreau argues, in Platonic thought “music assimilates itself to the soul as a kind of extra-rational perception or recognition that, in turn, prepares the soul for reasoned  judgment.” 8  This occurs owing to the structural similarities of music and soul. Even if good tales are told, they cannot have the proper effect if the wrong musical mode accompanies them. Singing of a hero’s just actions to a tune that elicits feelings of displeasure would likely orient guardians to develop distaste for justice. Hence, both components of music—the lyrics and the musical mode—must work together to produce harmony. Without guardians who possess harmonious souls, the city itself cannot be in harmony. Socrates makes clear the direct connection between music and politics in the following passage in Book IV: So therefore, to put it briefly, the guardians of the city must cleave to this, so that they are not corrupted unawares but may in every way be on guard against it: not to allow innovations concerning gymnastics or music contrary to the established order. […] For one must be aware of changes to a new form of music, taking it to  be a danger to the whole. For nowhere are the ways of music ( μουσικῆς   τρόποι ) moved without the greatest political laws being moved, as Damon says and I am  persuaded. (424b–c) Drawing on the work of Damon—an Athenian music theorist considered the leading authority on the moral effects of music—Socrates claims that music is not mere “entertainment,” but rather the foundation on which the entire social order rests. If guardians are not exposed to the right music, their society will develop bad nomoi , i.e., bad laws and customs. 9  As Robert Wallace explains, “in Damon’s view (as Plato represents it), musical styles not only ‘fit’ behavior, they also determine or shape it, both for individuals and for society.” 10  The closest Plato comes to explaining the mechanisms by which music influences politics is through Adeimantus’ comment that music “ever so little establishes itself, gently flowing underneath into the characters and habits; and from there it emerges larger in contracts among one another, and from the contracts it attacks the laws and regimes with much, oh Socrates, licentiousness, until ending with everything private and public turned upside down” (424d–e). This statement accords with the anthropological principle that the city is man writ large. Individual education matters because individuals are responsible for making and practicing the rules of their society, and they bring their education to bear on these political
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