Plato

Topic

Lionel Noel Royer: The Muses Garden, detail.

We are shaped not only by music, but also by our opinions about music. It is all the more important to revisit the connection between music and moral education in a culture like ours, steeped as it is in self-indulgence and vulgarity. The study of music as a liberal art gives students an extended opportunity to scrutinize their opinions – and to confront the causes and effects of their passions.

Mozart graffiti

The notion that music has properties and powers that can sharpen the mind and transform the soul is ancient. Such ideas formed the basis of Confucian civilization in China. In the West, they are attributed to Pythagoras and his followers and played a central role in Plato’s ideal state.

William Holman Hunt: May Morning on Magdalen Tower, c. 1898.

Music, as a living presence that comes to us, offers itself to us, assures us that we are not alone: that there is something out there in the world that knows our hearts and may even teach us to know them better.

Giovanni Battista Langetti: The Torture of Ixion

Music as symbol is the whole of all things. It is the world. That is why, as Schopenhauer says, “we could just as well call the world embodied music as embodied will.”

Gerrit Dou: Astronomer by Candlelight (detail), c. 1665.

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.

The ruins of Saint-Etienne-le-Vieux in Caen, France.

Not only is beautiful music being written again but, it turns out, beautiful music was written all along, throughout the 20th century. It simply went underground, but it is surfacing once again. And it is glorious. The tremendously good news is that we are living at the time of a major musical renaissance.

Detail of line engraving by D. Cunego: Pythagoras, after R.Meng, 1782.

Philosophical propositions have a very direct and profound impact upon composers and what they do. John Adams said that he had “learned in college that tonality died somewhere around the time that Nietzsche’s God died, and I believed it.” The connection is quite compelling. At the same time God disappears, so does the intelligible order in creation. This is just as much a problem for music as it is for philosophy.

Brussels cafe in the early morning sunshine

The relationship between music and morality is something that has puzzled philosophers and writers for ages. Some – like Plato – believed that music risks to corrupt the soul. Many others though have argued that music awakens humanity in humankind. That it lifts man to higher levels of mutual understanding and that it binds people together.

Afonina Taisia: “Lesson of music”, 1950.

Education is more than teaching about subjects; it is the training of the sensibilities to love that which is worth loving, attaching the heart to the good. Music has been taught in the Classical and Medieval worlds as a means of shaping the soul to live the good life.

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