AD's English Literature : The Relationship between Poetry and Music as Stated in Plato’s Republic

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Relationship between Poetry and Music as Stated in Plato’s Republic


Plato, who makes his famed The Republic the entreaty of all possible discussions on all the aspects of citizenship and an inquiry into the nature of justice and the organization of a perfect society, brings both poetry and music within his preview. Book III of the Republic, in particular, is concerned with the education of the ideal civilization for his ideal republic. The two kinds of education are mental and physical, and mental education includes the cultivation of both music and poetry. Criticizing the doctrines of atheism and materialism, Plato reaffirmed his idealistic position and asserted his belief in the moral government of the universe and the immortality of the soul. Yet, Plato’s attitude is not of ecstatic enthusiasm but rather of a subdued and resigned acceptance. Music and poetry, if they are finding a place in his somewhat Utopian republic, must not exist as parries. They must subserve, the kind of education Plato seeks, and for that, many aspects of music, as of poetry, must be pruned. It is with this didactic intention that Plato finds a harmony and co-relation between music and poetry. In his The Republic, Plato went so far as to banish some types of artists from his ideal society because he thought their work encouraged immorality or portrayed base characters, and that certain musical compositions caused laziness or incited people to immoderate actions.Plato attacks poetry and music on four basic grounds: moral, emotional,intellectual and utilitarian.

            In Plato’s system music and poetry were not two dichotomous entities. In the broad classical sense ‘Music’ concerned the entire domain of the Muses and consisted of all that we today call the fine arts. Further, in the classical ages, instrumental music was very closely related to verbal poetry since they both had the same provenance: they originated in the common historical sources of primitive prayers and working chants. Consequently none of them could be monastic. The old nation of Mousike therefore included the triumvirate of music, poetry and dance. Even if dance did not always exist with the others, they poet and the composer were the same person and practiced the same art. At this point it may also be pointed out that both poetry and music affect the listener in a sub rational fashion, and that both are concerned with the communication of feelings rather than of knowledge. The bifurcation of lexis and melon, verbal poetry and pure music, occurred only in the Attic phase of the Grecian civilization. But both Plato and Aristotle believed in their traditional identity and attacked textless music and musicless poetry.

            Plato begins his consideration of ‘music’ with ‘songs and tunes’, and by declaring that these consisted of three elements: words, mode and rhythm. In a way, words are the common constituents of both poetry and music, and therefore Plato enjoined the same conditions for both. Therefore dirges lamenting the dead are to be entirely prohibited. Similarly drinking songs which like poetry about lasciviousness and lavishness, promote intemperance and moral laxity must be avoided words, which reflect either the immoral nature of the gods or injustices being rewarded, must be similarly avoided. Again, in the ideal state, harmonies which expressed excessive sorrow and relaxation were to be banished completely.

Plato next proceeds to discuss the various modes to be used in music. He rejects mixed Lydian and Extreme Lydian because they are modes suitable for dirges, and since of their weak and sentimental quality. Since, drunkenness softness and idleness have already been criticized in poetry as in the texts of music, the relaxing modes – certain Ionian and Lydian modes described as ‘languid’ – are to be rejected, especially because they are of no use in training soldiers only the Dorian and the Phrygian modes may be brought into play in his republic and Plato would also emphasizes that not only the mode but even the musical instruments must be selected in accordance with the need to mature soldiers. He emphatically declares:
     “We shan’t need for our music and song a multiplicity of strings or a wide harmonic range. “(Book III).

Many stringed instruments such as harps and the zithers would be banned only the lyre, the cythera and the shepherd’s simple pipe would be acceptable. Plato does not discuss ‘rhythms’ at length since his mentor Socrates lacking in musical knowledge blindly favours all rhythms which are smooth, graceful and in harmony with the words.

            It is noteworthy that much more than in the case of poetry – implying literature in general – Plato considers music to be of great importance in the education of the soul. Beauty and grace are the gifts of music, and since even the soul of the guardian ought to be beautiful and graceful, music would be of great value. Here Plato does not give up aesthetic judgment though he makes aesthetic subservient to morality both in the case of music and of poetry.

            Thus, in Plato’s Discourse poetry and music are not only cognate in nature, but also interpenetrate each other as co-existent arts. Further, the kinds of poetry and music to be fostered must be selected according to the principle of education ideal citizens. As in the case of enervating or sentimental poetry, music must not ‘soften a man as iron is softened in a furnace’ or make him ‘a feeble fighter’. They must both produce ‘a proper adjustment’. Just as Plato would banish all poets who are not didactic, he would not ‘allow’ those musicians who weaken the spirit.Plato's attack has caused more misunderstanding than light . Different parties of different ages have used or misused such a critical views. nevertheless Plato's views were conditioned by his age and by certain specific circumstances of his time. And therefore , his condemnation is not of universal one.


Reference: Plato The Republic. trans. Desmond lee. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974 

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