Music and the Idea of a World, Part I

St. John's College

“Music, too, is nature.”
—Victor Zuckerkandl, Sound and Symbol


This lecture explores the differences between two perspectives on music: one ancient, one modern. The texts I have chosen are Plato’s Timaeus, a dialogue that freshmen will read in seminar toward the end of the year, and Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation, a great book not on the program. Each of these works presents an all-embracing account of the world – a cosmology – that highlights the bond between world and music. I hope that my study in contrast will lead us to a deeper understanding of music as it relates to the whole of all things, our human condition and our happiness. I also hope that it will show why music is the most comprehensive of the liberal arts, and why it is the case that to speak about music is to speak about everything.

My talk has three parts. In the first, I focus on the central role that music plays in Timaeus’ cosmological optimism. According to Timaeus, the world of Becoming is a beautiful work of art ruled by the supreme goodness of intelligent divinity. In Leibniz’s phrase, it is the best of possible worlds. In the second part, I turn to Schopenhauer’s cosmological pessimism, according to which the world is not the shining forth of intelligent purpose but the work of a blind urge that Schopenhauer calls the will. Music, for Schopenhauer, is the most potent and truthful of the arts because it is a “copy [Abbild] of the will itself.” In the third part of my talk I offer, by way of a coda, some thoughts on music and world in the context of the Bible.


Rootedness and Musicality

The Timaeus is Plato’s most overtly musical work. Music is prominent in other dialogues as well, notably in the Republic and Laws, and in the Phaedo, where Socrates calls philosophy “the greatest music” (61A); but it is so much a part of the form and substance of the Timaeus that the dialogue may be said to be all about music.

The projected drama of the Timaeus is a performance by three illustrious political men, whose task is to entertain Socrates with a feast of speech: Timaeus of Italy, Hermocrates of Sicily, and Critias of Athens. A fourth was supposed to have joined them, but he is a no-show. The men who did show up form a trio of poet-rhetoricians, who have agreed to gratify Socrates’s desire to behold his best city, which he had described on the previous day, engaged in the words and deeds of war (19B-20C). The star of the show is officially Critias, who boasts about how he will harmonize the particulars of Socrates’s city in speech with those of an ancient unsung Athens. This Athens of old, Critias claims, really existed once upon a time and nobly fought against the insolent kings of Atlantis. But Timaeus upstages Critias with his long speech about the cosmos and proves the superior poet. How can one top a magnificent, richly detailed speech about the whole of all things – the cosmology that is the unmatched model for all cosmologies to come?

Early in the Timaeus, we hear about the importance of music in human communal life, as Critias recollects what his great-grandfather and namesake experienced when he was a young boy. This Critias joined other boys in a music contest in which they sang poems recently composed by the lawgiver Solon (21B). The contest was part of the boys’ initiation into their family tribe and took place during a festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of intoxication. It depicts the very moment in which impressionable youths are officially rooted in their tribe, and by extension their city. Through the act of singing, the opinions of Solon take root in these young souls and become authoritative. They become things not merely heard and obeyed but imbibed, incorporated and cherished. A similar ritual enrooting is at work, as we shall see, in the speech of Timaeus.

We know from the Republic that music, which for the Greeks includes poetry, is dangerous. Because music has the power to shape the soul for good or ill, to make it orderly or disorderly, an account of the best regime must include a critique of music as one of its prime components. At one point Socrates tells us why:

So, Glaucon…isn’t this why nurture in music is most sovereign? Because rhythm and concord most of all sink down into the inmost part of the soul and cling to her most vigorously, bringing gracefulness with them; and they make a man graceful if he’s nurtured correctly, if not, then the opposite.[3. 401D5-E1]1

The passage underscores the tremendous power of music and shows why music is crucial to moral-political education. It recalls the final book of Aristotle’s Politics, which treats the musical education of those who are to be free human beings and good citizens.

Plato and Aristotle realize that we are on intimate terms with music. The intimacy verges on the supernatural, since music seems to be a kind of magic that causes the listener to be held and spellbound. Music, like Orpheus, enthrals. Aristotle observes at the beginning of his Metaphysics that sight is the privileged sense, the one that we hold most dear and that most reveals the differences of things. Musical hearing can lay claim to another kind of privilege. Music has an intense personal inwardness, an immediate emotional effect and a power to form our character, opinions, and way of life. In moving our affections it moves our whole being. This is the ground of the danger that music poses. In music there is no safe distance between perceiver and perceived, as there is in sight. There is also no refuge: we cannot turn away from music as we can from a thing seen, since music is not spatially bounded but sounds everywhere. Moreover, in listening to a piece of music, we are not free to survey its parts at will, as we can with an object that is seen, but must wait for a moment to sound.2 The tones come when they want to. And yet, listening to music is more than mere passivity, for it affects us by virtue of its forms and structures. Listening, in other words, is an act, in which we not only feel but also perceive. This is the paradox that is music, which can overwhelm our reason and self-control but always through the order and precision of its tones and rhythms. To borrow terms made famous by Nietzsche, music could not be Dionysian if it were not thoroughly Apollinian, which it must be if it is to be an art at all.

As I mentioned earlier, Timaeus’ speech – or, as he famously calls it, his “likely story” (29D) – is an effort to put the world of Becoming in the best possible light. It is a defence of Becoming in response to Socrates’s indictment in the Republic. In that dialogue Socrates tells Glaucon that genuine education turns the soul away from Becoming or flux and toward the changeless realm of Being (7.518C). It leads the potential philosopher out of the cave of opinion and up into the sunlight of truth. The likely story takes us in the opposite direction – from Being down to Becoming. It tells us how a craftsman-god, who is without envy and very ingenious, and who gazed on archetypal Being, brought order to the primordial chaos through a combination of providence and the beautiful structures of mathematics. Timaeus calls his speech both a mythos or story and a logos or account. Socrates calls it a nomos, which in Greek means law and song, as well as custom and convention (29D). The word implies that Timaeus’s cosmology is a form of quasi-political music. This music establishes our right relation to the cosmic whole whose offspring we are. It makes us law-abiding citizens of the world—good cosmopolitans. By playfully re-enacting the birth of the cosmos, Timaeus is attempting to persuade his listeners, Socrates in particular, that the world of body and flux, properly understood, is worthy of our serious attention, emulation, and praise. All the mathematical constructions and stories are songs that commemorate the Great Founding. By “singing” these songs of law and order, we celebrate our cosmic roots. Moreover, since the world for Timaeus is a god (34B), physics comes on the scene as the truest act of piety.

Musical references abound in the likely story. The primordial chaos is said to be unmusical or out of tune (30A), and the movement of the stars resembles a choric dance (40C). The elusive receptacle or matrix – the cosmic “mother” who shakes the four elemental bodies into their proper places when they wander, like wayward children – gives the world a rhythmic sway (52C-53A). The sway is evident in all cyclic movement: our heartbeat, breathing and walking, in the vibrating string and pendulum, swings and cradles, and the undulating surface of the sea. The construction of the regular geometric solids is also music. Here Timaeus ingeniously harmonizes these beautiful sphere-like shapes – tetrahedron, octahedron, icosahedron and cube – with the observable properties and behaviour of the four elements: fire, air, water and earth (53D-E).

The greatest musical moment in the story is the construction of the musical scale out of ratios of whole numbers (35A-36B). It is based on the Pythagorean discovery that the intervals that make up melody – octave, perfect fifth, perfect fourth, etc. – are produced by string-lengths that are in small whole number ratios. Much can be said about the god’s act of scale building, especially in light of the problem it solves, namely, the natural incompatibility of some intervals with others. Here I must rest content with a brief summary. Timaeus’s god builds the world soul out of musical ratios, having first mixed together forms of Being, Same, and Other. He then cuts and bends the scale-strip to form the rotation of the celestial sphere and the orbits of the planets (36B). These periodic movements, which constitute time, are not only the music in the sky but also the reflections of divine thought, whose image we carry around in our sphere-shaped heads.

For Timaeus, musicality is the sum of human virtue and the ground of happiness. By musicality I mean the adjustment of all our actions to the regular, periodic movements of the heavens. To be virtuous and happy is to conform to the cosmic law and to move in sync with the music of the whole. It is to live a life that is in every respect well timed, symmetrical, and balanced – the life of a star. We achieve balance when, for example, in devoting ourselves to study, we also make sure we get enough rest and physical exercise (88A). The most essential human musicality comes from astronomy. This is not because the beauty of the whole is most apparent in the visible heavens, but because the heavens are the home of thought in its healthiest, most regular form. To think the heavenly motions, to discern the ratios in the sky, is to be one with that condition of intellectual health and consummate musicality enjoyed perpetually by the world soul.

I have said that the likely story is a song that celebrates our cosmic roots. But it is also the story of a fall. In the book of Genesis, there is creation and fall; in the Timaeus creation is fall. As I noted earlier, world building starts at the top and goes down – just like a Greek musical scale. It goes from Being to Becoming and from the best things in the world to the worst. The lower, subhuman animals are generated by intellectual devolution. This is the process in which human beings lose their divine intelligence by having lived an acosmic, disorderly life and must re-enter Becoming in an animal form suited to their moral and intellectual degradation. The likely story begins with the heavens and ends with shellfish, creatures that contain the souls of humans who in their previous lives exhibited what Timaeus calls a “total lack of musicality” (92B).3 But even these lowest beings enhance the beauty of the whole, since without them the cosmic scale of life would lack its lowest notes and be incomplete.

According to Timaeus, our souls originated as pure intellects, each living in its own star. In being born, we become profoundly disordered. We leave off being star-lords and become mindless, inarticulate babies, beings incapable of controlling any of their movements. That is why education is necessary – because, as fallen stars, we must recover “the form of [our] first and best condition” (42D). Mathematical astronomy is the most important part of education because it is the means by which we humans, whom Timaeus calls heavenly plants, return to our roots in the sky (90A). It is also the highest form of therapy. By engaging in astronomy, the human intellect, which grew ill at birth, comes to itself and recovers its circular movement, former health, and proper functioning as the guide and navigator of daily life. We study astronomy so that by “imitating the utterly unwandering circuits of the god [Cosmos], we might stabilize the wander-stricken circuits in ourselves” (47C). Music that is heard and felt plays a similarly therapeutic role. The gods gave us music “not for the purpose of irrational pleasure…but as an ally to the circuit of the soul within us when it’s become untuned, for the purpose of bringing the soul into arrangement and concord with herself” (47D-E).

On this note of music as therapy, I conclude the first part of my talk. I next turn to a very different account of music and world.


1 I have slightly modified the translation by Allan Bloom, The Republic of Plato, Basic Books, 1991.
2 For a discussion of the difference between seeing and hearing, see Hans Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966: “For the sensation of hearing to come about the percipient is entirely dependent on something happening outside his control, and in hearing he is exposed to the happening…he cannot let his ears wander, as his eyes do, over a field of possible percepts, already present as a material for his attention, and focus them on the object chosen, but he has simply to wait for a sound to strike them: he has no choice in the matter” (p. 139).
3 Translations of the Timaeus are from my edition for Focus Press, Newburyport MA, 2001.

About the Author

Peter Kalkavage has been a tutor at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland since 1977. He is director of the St. John’s Chorus. Dr. Kalkavage is the author of “The Logic of Desire: An Introduction to Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit”, and has produced editions of Plato’s “Timaeus” and “Statesman” for Focus Philosophical Library. He is also author of two texts that have been used in the St. John’s music program, including “On the Measurement of Tones and Elements: A Workbook for Freshman Music”.

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