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music of the republic

1a. We shall now show that, like Heracles, Socrates uses music to “civilize” his young guardian. He uses not the traditional music of the poets but his own restoration of true music; he shows how to apply seriously Damon’s thesis that a change in the character of a city’s music produces a change in the fundamental laws (424c5). Socratic music is, as we shall see, philosophical music, the music of truth. Its special force will lie in this, that its logoi are, at the same time, erga, this coincidence being precisely what the poets cannot achieve; they, for all their speeches, leave no true works behind at all (599b3).

By “music” the Greeks mean whatever activity is under the care of the Muses, that tradition consisting of the arts and skills which we call “arts and letters,” and among these especially poetry and melodic music. To be “amusical” is to be an uneducated boor. Accordingly, the upbringing of the guardians of the third city, described in Book III, is to be “that discovered over a long period of time,” namely gymnastic to strengthen the body, and music for the soul (376e2) to make it gentle and “well-arranged.”(401d8) But this available music will have to be purified and purged. Now music is understood to be altogether “image-making and imitative,” mimetic (Laws 668a6), so that the purging consists of condemning the poet’s false and deteriorating representations especially of gods and heroes, and of expunging the passages where he “makes images vilely in his logos.”(377e1) Children must, then, be told myths that will be, on the whole, lies—albeit harmless ones—though they will contain some truths (377a4). Socrates gives a practical demonstration of this purgation in reviewing passages containing myths—as Aristotle did later, he regards poets primarily as “myth-makers” (377b11; cf. Poetics 1451b)—harmful to the tone of the soul. When he has criticized the myths, particularly the Homeric tales, “about gods…and demigods as well as heroes and about those in Hades” (392a4), among them the slanders concerning Theseus’s presence there (391c9), he declines for the moment to go on to correct the myths concerning men. For these are the myths the poets are worst at telling, but we cannot correct them until we know how justice works (392b). We may accordingly expect such a correction of the myths of man later on. Socrates concludes by requiring not only the poets but all imitative artists to devote their works to “the image of the Good.”(401b2)

the republic1b. Not only are the stories of the poets, their logoi (392c6), purged, but their mode of speech, their lexis (ibid.), which corresponds to them to the modes of melodic music, also comes under Socrates’ review. His remarks make the whole dialogue itself the vehicle of a most fundamental reflection on the dialogic mode, for the form of the Republic is a subtle but precise example of the approved lexis. Socrates distinguishes two basic poetic modes. The first of these is straight narration, in which the poet himself is speaking directly while his characters speak in indirect discourse; for example, Homer says that “Agamemnon…said [t0 Chryses] that rather than release his daughter he would grow old in Argos with her.” In the second mode, the narrator drops out entirely and the characters speak in their own persons, as in all drama (392d5). Epic represents a mixture of these two basic styles (394c4). The first mode is honest enough, but the second mode is censured. It is bad because in it the poet, by hiding himself, hides the fictional nature of his work and evades all responsibility for its truth, leaving the actor (or reader) caught in an unwitting imitation. For the actor becomes, as it were, the character—all too often reprehensible—whose direct speech he declaims. But the guardians should be allowed to imitate only good men (395d).

The Republic itself, however, has that form which is exactly designed to provide at once the most complete poetic responsibility, the greatest mimetic force, and the most worthwhile imitation. For the narrator, Socrates himself, is always present and responsible, and he keeps himself before us with the ever-recurring phrases “he said” and “I said” (393c11; contrast Theaetetus 143c); nor is he an anonymous mouth-piece whose work a reader reads, as he does the Homeric epics, without ever learning who the poet was. (We see here, incidentally, one reason why Hesiod, who not only identifies himself but even warns the reader that his source, the Muses, will sometimes lie [Theogony 22, 27], is, if less loved, yet more acceptable to Socrates; Republic 546el, 607c8). The teller is Socrates, backing his own words with the acts of his own life. At the same time the words and arguments are dramatically direct, in the sense that the reader can almost hear them—he may imitate them in the sense of rehearsing them in his own soul and trying them out for truth; he can let the logos turn into an ergon. This text is almost an “unwritten teaching,” having overcome the dead letter. And finally, the Republic as a whole—and this is a feature it shares with other dialogues—is just the required imitation of the activity of the “best of men” (Phaedo 118a16); it is Plato’s imitation of Socrates, an imitation that will prove its authenticity by serving the double function of commenting on the original while representing it. Consequently, we can distinguish between what Socrates says and what the dialogues say; the most striking example of this is the Phaedrus, which is so written that, when rightly read, it casts doubt on Socrates’ assertion within it that the written word cannot teach (274c ff.) We shall see that similar tensions, similarly inviting to thought, are written into the Republic.

1c. Yet in Book VII, when Socrates revises the guardian education for the philosopher city, even this purged music is explicitly and emphatically excluded from the formal plan of education as containing no “learning matter” (mathema, 522a8, 537; cf. 504d1) leading toward being. For such music is merely “ethical” (522a4), i.e., a habituation of the soul that does not lead to knowledge; it is a training but not an education, a conditioning but not a journey to the source, for “the dialectic pursuit alone travels in this way” (533c7). Consequently, the musical training is completed very early and culminates in gymnastics (cf. 376e6, 546d7, S91c5).

Calliope2a. We know from the dialogues, however, that there is a music yet different from both the traditional and the purged music, the philosophical music mentioned above. Evidently it was Pythagoras who first appropriated the oldest of the Muses, Calliope, for philosophy.[1] Socrates gives her, together with the next sister, Urania, the same office in the Phaedrus, where Urania watches over those who make stories about the heavens and the gods, while Calliope cares for those who compose “human stories” (259d6). And in the Phaedo Socrates tells of a dream that has come to him often and in various shapes but always with the same message: “O Socrates, make music and let that be your work” (60e6); he has always taken this dream to mean that he should pursue philosophy, that being “the greatest music” (61a3; cf. Republic 499d4, 548b8).

2b. What then is this philosophical music, this “imitation of inquiry” (historiken mimesin, Sophist 267e2)? In the passage of the Phaedo quoted above, Socrates says: “I myself am not a myth-teller” (61b5). This is literally true, for he is not one who makes imitations of what never was nor will be, producing mere phantasms (cf. Sophist 236c), but he is one who makes images of what is. We must immediately mention an almost paradoxical exception to this: the logos of the cities built “in speech” is, as it were, Socrates’ own myth; he speaks of ”the constitution which we told as a myth in speech” (501e4). But otherwise Socrates, although he is willing enough to act out a myth, avoids telling myths of his own making; the “noble lie” of the guardians is a myth attributed to the Phoenicians (414c4); that anti-Homeric Nekyia or Descent to Hades, Socrates’ substitute for Odysseus’s false and tedious tale to Alcinous (cf. scholion on 614b1 and Note II), which closes the dialogue, is attributed to Er and only “saved” by Socrates (621b8); in other dialogues too Socrates avoids responsibility for myths (e.g., Gorgias 493, Phaedrus 244, Meno 81). Images, on the other hand, are his very own mode; as Adeimantus ironically remarks at one point: “It isn’t the usual thing, I suppose, for you to speak through images” (487e6).

2c. An account of how such images as Socrates makes are formed is given in the Philebus (38e). When someone goes about reflecting much by himself, many true opinions and accounts become written into his soul, as by an inner scribe. This scribe is succeeded by a painter who draws images illustrating these inner accounts, and if the accounts are true, then so are these images.

2d. Socratic images, therefore, differ from myths in being the direct consequence of an inner argument, and not the persuasive counterpart and conclusion of a public conversation. When the dialectic attempt has ended, often in failure, the imagination, as Kierkegaard says, feels fatigued and reacts: “The mythical is thus the enthusiasm of the imagination in the service of speculation…” (Concept of Irony, p. 132); the same faculty, in its vigorous sobriety, produces the images here called Socratic. In their presentation, myths are thus preceded by an argument as nearly the whole Republic precedes the Myth of Er, and dialogic passages precede the myths of, for instance, the Phaedo, the Phaedrus, the Symposium, and the Gorgias; images, on the other hand, are either actually followed by an explication of the interior argument that went into their making, or they themselves give plain hints how the participant in the dialogue should reflect on them. This reflection is of a very peculiar kind, and in inducing it lies the special strength of the Socratic image: each such effort is accompanied by a reflection on the effort itself, for to study a Socratic image always means to study not only its content but the nature of “image” and “imaging” itself. The study of Socratic imagery is then exactly what Socrates himself says music ought to be: the study of true being and its images; as he repeats twice, this is one and the same art and effort (402b7, c7). In Aristotle’s opinion, the making of such images, which are, as we shall see, based on analogy, the chief sort of metaphor (Poetics 1457b16), demands by far the greatest poetic gift, namely “the ability to see what is like” (1459a8). We shall see that this is also the philosophical gift. In Socrates’ images, the “ancient difference between philosophy and poetry” (Republic 607b5) is reconciled.

PlatosCave2e-f. Socrates himself fulfills the demand he makes of all poets, which is to “make an image of the Good” (401b1). His image of the Good is the “sun image” or “likeness” (eikona, 509a9, homoioteta, 509c6), which dominates the center of the dialogue. It is followed by that example of   a “corrected” Myth of Man which Socrates had before omitted (392a8). The myth that he chooses to correct, tacitly but devastatingly, is indeed the most crucial of all stories concerning humans. It is the one dramatized by Aeschylus in the tragedy of Prometheus Bound. It tells how the treasonous immortal Prometheus gave men fire (252), how he opened their eyes (447) and made them see, and how he made them come out of the caves they had been, antlike, inhabiting (452) into the light of day to see the heavens and to become wise (476). As Socrates re-tells this myth in his “image of the cave” (Republic 514), it turns out that the fire Prometheus brought was a counterfeit light (b2); those few who know how to use it only abuse it by allowing it to project deceptions (b8); men’s eyes are as blind as ever (515c9); they continue to live deep in a dark cave and their wisdom is worthless (516c4-7). We might note here in passing that in the Philebus Socrates intimates that the true Prometheus is Pythagoras (16c), and that in the Protagoras the sophist himself, while crediting Prometheus with having brought the other arts to men, claims that he omitted the political art, which Hermes brought later directly from Zeus to all men alike (322c1).[2]

2g. The logos belonging to these images is absent in the Republic, but its terms may be recovered from that tradition dealing with Plato’s oral “Unwritten Teachings,” particularly the lecture—or meetings—Concerning the Good. In these terms, the terms of the Academy, the “image of the Good” represents the One and the “image of the cave” the Indefinite Dyad; this interpretation will be pursued below in somewhat more detail. So much, however, must be said at the outset: While it is a serious enterprise to attempt to bring out what is in the dialogues without being written there, it is a very external approach to discover in the texts some Academic formula, and it is patent folly to think that the wisdom which never would or even could be written (cf. Seventh Letter 341c-d) can be recovered by making such identifications. For what is thus recovered is obviously precisely its dead written image, as found, for the most part, in Aristotle. For Aristotle, here as always, proceeds soberly and sedously to profane the Academic mysteries in the interests of formulable truth. The very “mathematical” nature of the “Unwritten Teachings” supports this point of view, for it is evidence that there was a live community concerned with what is learnable par excellence, a group for whom the terms of the teaching were pregnant with semi-technical meanings, which, bandied about out of context, become exactly what Plato feared: somewhat fantastic fossils of truth. Nor does it signify much that Plato himself on some occasion did speak to the public in the language of the school, giving out such schematisms as anyone may carry away in his memory or his pocket and as everyone would have heard of anyhow—or that for some students “mathematics had become philosophy, although they say that it should be studied for the sake of something else” (Aristotle, Metaphysics 992a32 ff.). It is, after all, a remarkable fact of the tradition concerning the “Unwritten Teachings” that the doctrine that must have been their central matter, the doctrine concerning the order or taxis of the eide as discovered by dialectic (cf. Philebus 16d-e), is divulged by no one, not even by Aristotle.



3. The particular object of Socrates’ music in the Republic, which may be contrasted with the battering ram of his rhetoric in the Gorgias, is to work a gentle and orderly revolution of the soul in respect to the love of wisdom. The musical art is the ability to give an inviting preview of the “marvelous way” that, according to the Seventh Letter (340c3), must be given to any beginner—it is an art which Socrates once refers to as the “art of conversion” (518d3). According to the stated plan of the philosophers’ education, at twenty those chosen to study begin a formal sequence of mathematics culminating in a “synopsis” (537c2). At thirty, after another selection, the young philosophers enter upon the long road of dialectic, which again culminates in a synoptic vision, that of the Good itself (540a8). Just as Socrates had first introduced Glaucon to the Good as the “greatest learning matter” (megiston mathema) poetically, by an image, so he now sets out the plan of study that will prepare Glaucon to reach the Good as a “hymn:” “Don’t we know,” he says, speaking of the mathematical studies they have just surveyed, “that all these things are only the preludes of the hymn which we must study?” (531d7; cf. Timaeus 29d5, Laws 722c6) And a little later, playing on the double meaning of nomos, law or song, he speaks of the “law which the activity of dialectic fulfills” or the “song which it performs” (532a1). Socrates will not turn this song into expository prose, since “no longer, dear Glaucon, will you be able to follow…for you would no longer be seeing an image of what we are discussing but the truth itself, as it appears to me” (533a1). Socrates’ music, as the art of conversion, is nothing but the poetic synopsis of the end as well as the road of the philosophical education itself. It is designed to turn Glaucon into the right course by showing him “what the business as a whole is…. For once he hears this, if he is indeed properly philosophical and worthy of the undertaking—a man divine—he is persuaded that he has heard of a wonderful way and that right now he must concentrate on it, or else life will not be worth living” (Seventh Letter 340b-c). So this was the significance of the omission of music from the plan of education: The very presentation was itself to be the musical overture to learning. We shall see that when the object of study is the “highest learning matter” the images and songs in which it is previewed demand the highest art.

4. Books V-VII, which contain the central images, are again, like the outer books, roughly symmetrical about the center. Upon the completion of the just city, culminating in the discussion of the community of women and children (V, 449-471: VIII, 543a), Glaucon asks his question concerning the possibility of this city. Socrates answers it by introducing the philosopher kings. This question and its answer frame the center of the dialogue (V, 471c-473: VII, 540d; cf. 466d8). The next inner theme is the definition and—here Adeimantus interposes—the defense, temperament, and proper age of the philosopher (V, 474b-VI, 502: VII, 535-540). At the innermost core is Socrates’ initiation of Glaucon into the philosophical education, effected by two great images, the “sun image” and the “cave image,” which are interwoven with explications and with each other, as shown in the table:

We have before us a composition of intricate but clear texture.

This is the fourth essay in this series. The other essays may be found here: I, II, III. Books by Eva Brann may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay originally appeared in the St. John’s Review (Volume 39, Number 1 and 2, 1989 – 1990) and is republished here with gracious permission of the author. Miss Brann welcomes questions/comments via mail: Dr. Eva Brann, St. John’s College, 60 College Avenue, Annapolis, MD, 21401-1655 (she does not use computers).


[1] See Hackforth, Plato’s Phaedrus, Library of Liberal Arts (New York 1952), p. 118. Plato founded a shrine to the Muses in the Academy (Diogenes Laertius IV, I; cf. III, 25).

[2] An otherwise silly ancient story to the effect that the whole Republic was stolen from the writings of Protagoras, in Diels, Fragmente der Vorsokratiker (Berlin 1954) II, p. 265, seems at least to indicate that on matters political there were points of apparent similarity, probably equally shocking to sober citizens, between Socrates and the sophist.

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