The gods, however, took pity on the human race, born to suffer as it was, and gave it relief in the form of religious festivals to serve as periods of rest from its labors. They gave us the Muses, with Apollo their leader, and Dionysus; by having these gods to share their holidays, men were to be made whole again . . .—Plato, Laws 653c
That Plato1 regarded music as an extremely powerful means to cultivate morality and good citizenship is well-known.2 In the Laws we are told that musical license is the chief reason for political license, and in the Republic Socrates insists that music education is the greatest bulwark of a polis.3 The Platonic corpus is also peppered with striking suggestions that the well-educated soul is, above all, a musical soul.4 In the Protagoras musical, paideia is presented as essential for creating individuals who feel, speak, act, and reflect well—indeed, "all of human life requires rhythm and harmony."5 Plato's work could thus be fruitfully plundered by those interested in finding attractive quips to convince resentful taxpayers of the necessity of increased funding for music education.
And yet, it is highly improbable that these music advocates would turn to Plato's oeuvre—largely because Plato's name is commonly associated with ascetic otherworldliness and with much loathing for artistic creativity and innovation. These associations are not simply alive and well in the popular psyche; they can also be found in some scholarly discussions of Plato's musical thought. In his La musique dans l'oeuvre de Platon, for instance, Moutsopoulos concludes by observing that Plato's musical aesthetics is at base "conservative and traditionalist," a conclusion partially embraced by two well-known commentators of Plato's Laws, Terry Saunders and [End Page 59] R. F. Stalley.6 Quite similarly, James Urmson affirms, in his study of Plato's treatment of poetry, "though philosophically an innovator, [Plato] was in practical matters a committed conservative. He was trying desperately to shore up the old ways, the old morality, the old patriotism, or what seemed such to his nostalgic eyes."7 Warren Anderson (author of two monographs on ancient musical thought and of the Grove Dictionary's entry on Plato), goes further. He affirms not only that Plato was a conservative "out of touch with his own times" but also that the philosopher was quite uninterested in the music of mortals.8 Moreover, in his entry for the Grove, Anderson claims that Plato has a "narrow" and "incoherent" conception of musical pleasure (in part because Plato seemingly discounts pleasure as "irrelevant" while simultaneously making it the basis for musical judgment).9
This article seeks to offer correctives to these interpretative claims. These correctives matter partially because in various social sciences today, Plato's thought is still quickly dismissed because it is said to be too otherworldly and ascetic, or because it is thought to entail a conservative aesthetics and politics.10 Paradoxically, one set of accusations (that Plato is ultimately indifferent to pleasure and to this world) tends to locate his thought completely outside of history, while the other (that Plato is an aristocratic conservative), tends to locate his thought completely in history and tradition. I argue that Platonic thought has in fact a foot in both history and eternity, and that it represents an important intellectual resource for those interested in reclaiming the social and political importance of an aesthetic education. More specifically, I would like to show that Plato had a coherent and positive conception of musical pleasure; that he was always concerned with the music of the city; and, finally, that using the label "conservative" to characterize Plato's musical thought is imprecise. There are, naturally, elements in Plato's work that are compatible with (although not necessarily indicative of) conservatism: most notably, his eulogy for order and stability. But since conservatism can reasonably be said to entail a rejection of utopian politics and a strong preference for custom over reason, I argue that that label "conservative" obscures rather than illuminates Plato's position on (musical) change and stability.