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The Role of Music in Platos Republic

Emmarlone Salva Ravago

Music has always been part of mans history and everyday life.
From the classical sonatas he hears over the radio on a Sunday morning
to the latest pop songs he sings during a Saturday night drinking session,
the art of sounds, whether he is aware of it or not, has always been part
of his everyday existence. Today, music has become as ubiquitous as
ever. Cellphones, IPods, radios, and even cars blare out sounds that fill
up a passerbys ears, subtly influencing his mood and character,
concocting a cumulative and serious effect.
Sadly, more and more contemporary music are being used for
distorted ends, such as the promotion of anarchy, immoral sexual
conduct, hedonism, Satanism, and even suicide. Given the wrong
direction todays music is heading, this study, then, in the hope of
contributing to what F. Bencriscutto calls, a cultural renaissance,
exposes, through a close reading of primary and secondary texts, the
role assigned by Plato to the arts, particularly to music, in his Republic.
Along the way, it discusses the age-old art of Greek mousik and its role
in the Greek polis, the pioneering philosophical-musical doctrines of the
Pythagoreans, and Platos purification scheme for songs.

Keywords: Music/mousik, mimesis, ethos, homoeopathy, human soul/psyche,

Music has always been part of mans history and everyday life. From the classical
sonatas he hears over the radio on a Sunday morning to the latest pop songs he sings during a
Saturday night drinking session, the art of sounds, whether he is aware of it or not, has always
been part of his everyday existence. It is his means of expression, source of entertainment,
inspiration, and consolation indeed, an indispensable element in his creative and expressive
Today, music has become as ubiquitous as ever. So much so that a simple stroll in the
streets becomes for an everyday man a march to a battleground of random sounds and beats,
blaring from open taps of ear/headphones, cellphones, IPods, radios, and nearby cars. No
doubt, music today has become a commodity enjoying a status higher than any other cultural
Sadly, however, despite its popularity, contemporary music seems to be a displaced art.
Indeed, people, for the most part, have distorted and reduced its noble purpose to mere
entertainment and pleasure-giving, failing to see, as a consequence, its more subtle, deep, and
serious effects. Given its powerful effects, is music really then a mere source of pleasure or
Throughout the history of human thought, musicologists, psychologists, and even
philosophers have always been interested in the riddle of the nature and uses of the arts,
particularly that of the art of music. So much so that philosophers, from Pythagoras to Adorno,
have made countless philosophical accounts and treatises on music. One of the earliest, and
perhaps unsurpassed, of such accounts is Platos.
In his Republic, Plato, the philosopher of music par excellence
, makes fragmentary
and scattered, nevertheless reflective and rich, remarks on music, on Greek mousik to be more
precise. In Books III and IV in particular, he set himself the task of purifying the kind of songs, as
well as the artists, that were to be allowed inside his Kallipolis ()
No doubt, Platos understanding of the nature and effects of music is one of the deepest
among the philosophers. His purification method and appropriation of such a potent art is
ingenious. Though millennia apart, his conception and appropriation of music may yet truly be
the answer to modern mans ignorance and misuse of the divine art.

I. Mousik in Ancient Greece
A. The Greek Mousik
Ancient Greek mousik () was a grand art. Generally a combination of the arts
of the nine Muses, the Greek goddesses of the arts, it was primarily a blending of poetry, music,
and dance. Though there are still some forty-five fragmentary examples of this age-old art,
scholars have concluded that it is lost. Nevertheless, along with such fragmentary examples,
knowledge of this art is still had, though only secondhand, through accounts of performances,
literary descriptions, vase paintings, and even from theoretical-philosophical treatises.

B. The Roles of Mousik
Mousik was everywhere in the Greek world.
Being a comprehensive art, it had
different, and very important, roles in the Greek polis. On one hand, it was a pastime, a source
of entertainment; an accompaniment to religious ceremonies, such as feasts, processions,
weddings, and funerals; an intensifier of dramas; an event in the competitions, as in the
Olympics; a battle cry, a mood-setter, and a signal during wars. On the other hand, and more
importantly, it was an instrument for education and moral formation.

Pythagorean Musical Doctrines
A. The Mathematical Bases of Music
In the Greeks musical tradition, music theory was divided into two kinds. On the one
hand, there were philosophical doctrines on the nature, effects, and proper uses of music. On
the other hand, there were those that dealt with systematic descriptions of the materials and
patterns of musical composition.
Philosophical theories on music began with Pythagoras and his followers. For them,
music, similar to the cosmos and the human soul, had mathematical bases. It was primarily
made up of unlimited and definite notes in the continuum of sound, ordered and held together
by numbers, particularly by the first four integers (i.e. the numbers 1, 2, 3, and 4).

B. The Doctrine of Ethos
In addition to their theory of the mathematical bases of music, the Pythagoreans further
held that music was not merely a passive reflection of the ordered cosmos, but rather it was
also a force that could very much affect it. Indeed, they held that music, apart from being a
representational art capable of imitating certain emotions, states of the soul, good and bad
characters (), had the power to penetrate deeply into the human soul as both music and
the human psyche () were made up and ordered by numbers and that, by habitual
listening, mold it according to its own character.
It was these two Pythagorean philosophical-musical doctrines the theory of the
mathematical bases of music and the doctrine of ethos () that Plato borrowed from the
Pythagoreans, and which he later on systematically expounded and given poetic form in his

II. Music in the Republic
A. Musical Mimesis, Ethos, and Homoeopathy
In Book X of the Republic, Plato held that representational arts i.e. painting, sculpture,
music, poetry, and the like have the power to depict sensible objects; and, as such, were a
third removed from Reality or the Truth, that is, from the Forms or Ideas.
Being one of the representational arts, music, according to Plato, is also capable of
imitating or representing (), through its harmonies and rhythms, certain emotions or
moral characters; and of imparting, through the principle of Homoeopathy, its mimicked
character to the soul or character of its listeners.
Unique among the other representational arts, however, music effectively influences
the soul, as it, according to Plato, following Damon, a famous 5th century BC Pythagorean-
musician, is able to penetrate deeply and unmediatedly into the recesses of the psyche:
Rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul,
on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of
him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated

Indeed, even without the complementary power of words, so powerful is plain music
that even alone it still can very much affect and influence its listeners character.

B. The Effects of Music to the Soul
In Timaeus, Plato held that the human soul, and even the cosmos, was based on the
same mathematical numbers and proportions as musics hence the reason why music is able
to penetrate deeply into the human psyche, and why it can bring a certain delight to a persons
ears. The orbits of the soul, according to him, had akin movements to harmony (), so
much so that he considered the soul as the interlocutor of music.
Plato believed that listening to concordant and harmonious i.e. good music can:
Bring them (i.e. the three parts of the human soul) into accord,
nerving and sustaining reason with noble words and lessons, and
moderating and soothing and civilizing the wildness of passion by
harmony and rhythm.

In other words, good music exalts and reinforces the rational part of the soul, and calms or
curbs the emotions and the lower appetites. Eventually, through time and habituation, it would
produce a certain harmony and balance of character

Conversely, bad music, on the other hand, causes discord, harm, and anarchy. By long
exposure and habitual listening to such kinds of music, an individuals mental energy, should he
persist and not break the enchantment melts and runs, till the spirit has quite run out of him
and his mental sinews are cut
. In the same manner as good music, bad music will eventually
generate its own moral character to its listeners soul.
Indeed, so precarious was the power of music for Plato that he even warned his readers
that, again echoing Damon, it can change the very political and social laws of a city: So Damon
tells me, and I can quite believe him; he says that when modes of music change, the
fundamental laws of the State always change with them.

B. The Purification of Songs
Heeding Damons warning and afraid of changing the laws of his Kallipolis, not to
mention of promoting anarchy and lawlessness in the arts and corrupting the souls of its
populace, Plato set himself the task of purifying the songs that entered into his ideal city by
laying laws that censored its content and form; the accompanying musical instruments, modes
and rhythms; and keep within bounds even the artists themselves.
Following from his previous treatment of literature in Book III, Plato begins by purifying
the theological and moral content of songs, and then the form to be employed in presenting
them. As a general principle, poets and musicians should present god (or the gods) and heroes
as they truly are, that is, as good and just. The form of the songs, on the other hand, can either
be simple narrative or representation, provided that the latter will only represent good
Regarding the musical modes and rhythms to be used in accompanying such songs,
Plato prohibits the use of soft, mournful, and languid ones (i.e. the Lydian and Ionian modes).
He only allows those that promote courage and moderation (i.e. the Dorian and Phrygian
modes). Musical instruments, on the other hand, should not have a wide harmonic range
hence the harp and the aulos () are banned. Only the instrument of the god Apollo, the
lyre and kithara (), and the shepherds syrinx are allowed.
As for all the artists in the Kallipolis, Plato requires them, as a general rule, to represent
only good characters, and never the opposite. Else, they will be escorted outside the citys

Music as a Prelude to Higher Studies
If one examines them closely, Platos remarks on music, in almost all of his dialogues,
are most of the time, if not always, made in relation to the human soul, particularly to its
effects on it. Indeed, Plato only seems to find value in music insofar as it is beneficial to the
soul, insofar as it is able to educate or form it.
The role assigned by Plato to music in his Republic is educational (). By
education, however, he does not mean knowledge building or skills learning. Rather, what he
means is the imbibing of a habit i.e. the habit of preferring what is Harmonious, Noble, and
Beautiful to its opposites to the would-be Guardians of the Kallipolis, as they are still in a
young, tender (and) easily molded stage, unable to distinguish between what is allegory
and what is not.

In other words, the future Guardians of the Kallipolis must be taught to love the Good
and despise the evil, to have a sharp aesthetic and ethical judgment, while still in a tender and
impressionable stage. And in doing so, the medium that must be used must be understandable
or palatable, at the same time attractive, to them such a medium, according to Plato, is what
music exactly is. Eventually, music in Platos Republic becomes a prelude or accompaniment to
any Guardians higher studies in mathematics, harmonics, and dialectics or philosophy.


Basil Cole, OP, Music and Morals, A Theological Appraisal of the Moral and
Psychological Effects of Music (New York: Alba House, 1993), 27.
Translated as the excellent city, it comes from the two Greek words: kalos, meaning
beautiful or excellent, and polis, city. It is the city put up by Plato in the Republic.
Warren Anderson, Ethos and Education in Greek Music, The Evidence of Poetry and
Philosophy (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966), 1.
Rep. 401d (Jowett translation). Italics added for emphasis.
Rep. 442a (Jowett translation).
Rep. 552 (Lee translation).
Rep. 411a-b (Lee translation).
Rep. 424c (Jowett translation).
Rep. 377b-378d (Lee translation).


Anderson, Warren. Ethos and Education in Greek Music, The Evidence of Poetry and Philosophy.
Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1966.

Cole, Basil, OP. Music and Morals, A Theological Appraisal of the Moral and Psychological
Effects of Music. New York: Alba House, 1993.

Plato. The Republic. In The Dialogues of Plato, Volume II. Translated with Analyses and
Introduction by Benjamin Jowett. Fourth ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1964.

____. The Republic. Translated by Desmond Lee with an Introduction by Melissa Lane. 2nd ed.
New York: Penguin Classics, 2007.