Thursday, September 24, 2009

Plato On Music

So... last night I watching this show on my teevee and one of the subjects of the piece I was watching had this lil homily embroidered and framed on her wall:
Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form (Plato). (Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations, 1991, p. 45).
Now that resonates with me and I can see why the woman... a professional chanteuse with a Big Band... had the quotation framed and hung on her wall.  Music, after all, is her life.  While music isn't exactly my life it most certainly is a large part of life as I know it, and arguably one the most important things in my lil corner of the world.

The quote is ostensibly by Plato (as attributed above) and as referenced by the woman on my teevee who brought this previously unknown quotation to my attention. But since I'd never heard of the quote before... I went googling. And I came upon this fascinating lil bit of inquiry, from which I'll quote briefly:
The Wordsworth Dictionary attributes this quote to Plato, but curiously does not cite from which book of Plato’s writings the quotation is derived. As a music therapist who also practices the Bonny Method of Guided imagery and Music, this quote is particularly appealing to me. It speaks of the essence of music within the moral fibre of a society, as well as the extra-musical attributes, enhancing imagination, creativity, and passion. It is therefore a quote I like to use often. A Google search on "Music is a moral law" unearths hundreds of musicians, politicians, T-shirt vendors, bands, orchestras, churches, and music schools who all confidently attribute the quote to Plato.

I was always taught, however, to check the primary source of quotations. There are good reasons to check the original author’s words rather than cite a middle person, who may have misinterpreted, or inaccurately reproduced the original words. And so I set about confirming that the words of this favourite quote were indeed Plato’s words. The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including Letters, edited by Hamilton and Cairns, (1961, Bollingen Series LXXI), states that Plato was born about 428 B.C. and died at eighty, or eighty-one, in 348 BC (p. xiii). He was a philosopher and poet, but not, according to Cairns, a mystic (p. xv). In the 28 dialogues (and one book of letters), Plato speaks of the arts and specifically about music. He writes that music, as a whole, (and discourses, and tales of imagination), have the effect of delighting us "if they are beautiful" (Hipp maj 298a).
And that just scratches the surface. As I said... the piece is a fascinating bit of inquiry and its twists and turns take the reader on a remarkable journey, not to mention the interesting yet unresolved ending. And speaking of endings... we'll end our digression right here, as I had only intended to find the Plato quote and publish it as something that resonates within me. But there ya go... sometimes you get much more than you expect.


  1. Music definitely sets a mood in life and can move us like no other art form.

  2. Music is life to me and The Oracle. It's at the center of just about everything we do - even just hanging around on a quiet Sunday.

    We are throwing a 50th wedding anniversary party for The Oracle's parents this weekend - and music is a central component. So much so that one of the favors we are giving out to the attendees is a CD of the music we are playing during the cocktail hour - all from the year they were married. Priceless music!

    We both grew up in very musical families. I can't imagine not having music in my life.

    I do love this quote from Plato Buck; very profound.

  3. Lou: Agree wholeheartedly on the "moving us like no other art form" Nothing else comes close.

    Kris: The CD of 50s music is just a VERY cool idea for the anniversary celebration! Good on ya for that. And I hear your other points, as well, and feel the same way.

  4. I picked music from 1958 (the year they dated), 1959 (year they married) and their first year of marriage in 1960. The music is just incredible - Ella, Frank, The Drifters, The Platters, Sam Cooke, Bobby Darrin - the list goes on and on. I have enough for 3 hours! Narrowing all that down to the songs that would fit on one CD was nearly impossible but we managed to make it work. Should make for a fun favor.

    And if you like the music of that era, you have a rough idea of what my Saturday Symphony will be this week. :-)

  5. And if you like the music of that era, you have a rough idea of what my Saturday Symphony will be this week. :-)

    Heh. Saturday will be a real treat, then.

  6. So which dialog did this come from? Google is not my friend in the search. :)

  7. Daggerhart: The quote can't be found in any of the Dialogs according to the linked article.


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