An Association over Melodies

What kind of association is it that people enter into for which a moral person is a better associate than a builder or a musician? I mean, analogously to how a musician is better than a moral person when it comes to an association over melodies?”
– Plato, Republic, I, 333b (translated by Robin Waterfield, OUP, 1993)

Along the short road to the earliest significant conclusion reached near the beginning of Plato’s Republic, the philosopher frames the question I have quoted at the beginning of this article. Twelve paragraphs later, he sums up – almost in passing – by having Socrates say that ‘it is never right to harm anyone’.

The suggestion, ultimately, is that it is impossible to remove the core of right conduct from any activity – without losing the most mutually beneficial, appropriate and, indeed, ‘moral’ outcome from any undertaking. Completed work after engaging an immoral builder, for example, may result in waking one morning with a girder across your chest (assuming you wake). A moral builder is more likely, that is, to produce a sturdy structure; an upright structure, one could say. In an association over music, eventualities are seemingly less fatal. But in light of this, how should we frame a question concerning ‘moral music’?

Firstly, I think it is necessary to clarify what could be inferred by the phrase ‘an association over melodies’. It seems to me that this is a different scenario from that which Plato goes on to discuss about associations between people involving money, for example.

If we strip away the formalities of the contract that cultural practices bring to musical activities, we could begin to approach the origins of song – and, as a result, to understand better the nature of the exchange between executant and listener (or rather, between participants in the cultural exchange in question). From a broad perspective, we are dealing with a conversation; nothing more, nothing less – in reality. And none of us would wish to spend much time in dialogue with people it may turn out we cannot trust. Any subterfuge that may be revealed during the conversation, or later, would call into question anything that was said or could be said later. (A lengthy aside could be followed up, that addresses the question of irony in music – but that would be for another article.) It appears to be the case that it is important for the inner drive, the ‘germ’, or the idea, behind a musical utterance to be in some sense ‘pure’. At the risk of broaching notions of philosophical truth, I think it is possible for music (more than language, very often) to be best placed for discovering ways of establishing stronger bonds of association. Such bonds, in the absence of the greater propensity for perversion that words have assumed, could well be imbued with the morality that Plato searches after, to a greater depth and extent. Perhaps this is due to the primal nature of music in human culture: closer to that first step away from the antediluvian concerns of survival – closer, certainly, to the vain search for a paradigmatic, ‘perfect’, Edenic – even de-politicized – lost beginning.

But we have never lived in a perfect world (the cliché so often, yet so truthfully, delivered to counter ideological simplicity – maybe in the end a dangerous simplicity, in any case). Plato’s audit of the musical modes and the immorality of poetry (Republic, III, 386a-403c) reveals his own ideological crusade; but it is my belief that an association over melodies may offer a greater general hope for morality – without generating the ghastly product of a ‘moral music’.

Copyright (c) 2011 by David Lewiston Sharpe.


About davidlewistonsharpe
Composer, poet, harpsichordist and artist.

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