Music Opening the Road to Truth and Beauty: Plato and Marcel


In the construction of the theoretical city in The Republic, Socrates argues that when the appropriate kind of music is employed for the training of the youthful guardians of the city, they will be more inclined toward the love of reason. Like a fresh breeze blowing into a field, so music will bring health and life to the soul. Socrates eloquently describes:

Let our artists rather be those who are gifted to discern the true nature of the beautiful and graceful; then will our youth dwell in a land of health, amid fair sights and sounds, and receive the good in everything; and beauty, the effluence of fair works, shall flow into the eye and ear, like a health-giving breeze from a purer region and insensibly draw the soul from earliest years into likeness and sympathy with the beauty of reason.[ref]Plato, The Republic, trans. by Benjamin Jowett, In Philosophies of Art and Beauty, ed. by Albert Hofstadter and Richard Kuhns (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976), Book III, 401, pg. 27-28.[/ref]

As they grow up, the youth of this theoretical city will only be exposed to music, which uses the proper words, melody and rhythm to foster a love of reason. Music will be carefully filtered to make sure that only certain words, which tell stories of good virtues, are allowed to be sung, certain melodic sequences, which are only found in the Dorian and Phrygian modes, are allowed to be used in composition,[ref]The Greek Dorian and Phrygian modes are not the same as our modern Dorian and Phrygian modes. The Phrygian mode went from the note d-d’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between and the Greek Dorian mode went from e-e’ built on two tetrachords with a whole note in between. The sounds, however, could differ greatly as the tetrachords could be either diatonic, enharmonic or chromatic meaning that the number of whole steps, half steps and even quarter steps composing the tetrachord could vary. Along with the patterns of notes, these modes included other characteristics coming from the people groups after which they were named. The important point here is that these two modes were seen as promoting positive values for the youth. See Don Michael Randel, Harvard Concise Dictionary of Music (Cambridge: The Belknap Press, 1978) for a very brief reference to these ideas and the article Mode (music) on Wikipedia for a more detailed overview.[/ref] and certain rhythmic patterns, which incite only the appropriate emotions, are accepted. All of this is for the sake of cultivating a love of reason so that the youth will better be able to discern the “true nature of the beautiful and graceful.” “For,” Socrates asks, “what should be the end of music if not the love of beauty?”[ref]Plato, The Republic, Book III, 403, pg. 29.[/ref] The goal for the restrictions on art and music in the city is not to deprive the guardians of pleasure for the sake of some kind of asceticism, but to use art to all the more foster an environment which allows the youth to fall in love with reason and to go after the beautiful.

In one of his more autobiographical lectures, “Music in My Life and Works,” the 20th century existentialist philosopher, Gabriel Marcel, relates his own journey directed by music toward the love of the beautiful and the love of truth.[ref]Marcel would claim, however, that all of his works are autobiographical as one cannot divorce his life from his writings.[/ref] Music, for him and for his family, was more than a hobby, as it played a significant role in establishing familial relationships as well as expressing life values. Marcel’s childhood mirrors Plato’s hopes for the youth of his city since he is surrounded by music from birth, by his mother, his father, his aunt and his own playing, which then “opened the road to Truth.” He recounts:

On this level my thought continues in the tradition of Schopenhauer . . . Of course, I admit his pessimism, against which I have always protested without ever forgetting that the world does seem on all sides to invite us to despair. But . . . it seems to me that it is music and music alone that has caused me to discover the saving light. It is music that has opened the road to Truth for me, towards which I have not ceased striving, this Truth beyond all the partial truths that science demonstrates and expounds, the Truth that illumines the work of the greatest composers like Bach or Mozart.[ref]Gabriel Marcel, “Music in My Life and Works,” In Music and Philosophy, trans. by Stephen Maddux and Robert E. Wood (Milwaukee: Marquette University Press, 2005), 53.[/ref]

Marcel finds that music revealed the notions of truth to him from an early age and though he did not consciously understand this till much later, he is able to look back and see how music was one of the primary stepping stones leading him toward his idea of truth. To apply Plato’s terms, music was a use to him in that it refined his rational abilities to follow after the beauty and the truth.

Marcel, however, would not apply the same type of restrictions to music (or art) that Plato puts forward in The Republic. He often gravitated toward art that expressed the despair that he found in his own life and in the world around him which included many diverse art forms. Not that he would make no distinctions between good and bad art, but he would argue that art promoting a multiplicity of values was what gradually allowed him to discover hope and truth. The exploration of other values allowed him the freedom to be gently led toward what he called, “the saving light.” Nevertheless, the common thread between both Plato and Marcel is significant: though the scope of music (and art) may be different, both recognized that a greater love of truth and beauty can be gleamed from music.

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