A few weeks ago, rapper Kanye West made headlines by crashing Taylor Swift's acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards ceremony. Swift had won the prize for best female video, but West, believing that Beyoncé should have won, took the stage and interrupted Swift to make his opinion known. Confronted with a torrent of uniformly condemnatory public commentary, West soon apologized. In all of the discussion his actions provoked, however, little thought was given to the significance of the connection between West’s self-absorbed music and his boorish behavior.
There was a time in America, not too long ago, when this question might have been raised. Over a period of some decades America's cultural politics involved a debate between the left and the right over whether some popular music tended to weaken society by eroding standards of personal conduct. This controversy extends at least as far back as the rise of jazz, but it gained intensity with the rise and progress of forms of rock—and, later on, rap—that seemed to celebrate liberation from self-control, especially in relation to sex, drugs, and even violence. Some conservatives have held that such music poses a serious threat to society. Such music, they contended, glorifies and thereby encourages self-indulgent and violent behavior. Yet a free society requires citizens with a capacity for self-control. In the absence of the voluntary public order such citizens support, the alternatives are either disorder or government-coerced order. Thus the worst popular music educates the young not for free and responsible citizenship but for anarchy or despotism—or, more likely, anarchy followed by despotism. In contrast, liberals have seen the great threat to freedom not in such music but in the conservative critics’ reaction to it. Pop music, they suggested, is in fact merely harmless fun. There is, after all, no scientific proof that such music produces violent or otherwise antisocial behavior. Those who think otherwise threaten freedom by their illiberal and un-American interest in regulating other people’s private pleasures.
This argument was alive and well as recently as ten years ago, when troubled artists like Marilyn Manson and Eminem rose to prominence producing troubling music that expressed and celebrated their extreme loves and hatreds. The dispute over the moral and cultural consequences of pop music, however, was soon crowded out of the public discourse by matters of national security. The terrorist attacks of 9-11, and the subsequent American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, turned the minds of Americans away from the culture wars for a time. And, when the culture wars resumed later in the decade, they took the form of the struggle over same-sex marriage. The musical front in the culture wars, it seems, has been abandoned by both sides.
An argument, however, can be forgotten without deserving to be forgotten. In fact, the debate between left and right over the morality of popular music touches upon issues of the deepest significance and gives expression to concerns that were explored with the utmost seriousness at the very beginnings of the tradition of western political philosophy. When conservatives and liberals argued over whether pop music could transform the character of individuals—and hence, eventually, of whole generations and of society itself—they were not, as contemporary social scientists often contended, pursuing a diversionary debate about merely "symbolic" issues. They were rather disputing a question that thinkers like Plato and Aristotle had treated as inseparable from their inquiry into the best political order. To be sure, the contemporary debate was often characterized more by passion than insight. This, however, is not a reason to dismiss its central concerns as fundamentally irrational, but instead to turn for instruction to the classical political philosophers.
What, then, is the classical teaching on the moral and political significance of music? And what light does that teaching shed on the recurring (although presently suspended) American argument over popular music?
Surprisingly, to us, the ancients not only thought music worthy of serious attention, they in fact considered it an issue of supreme political importance. Plato’s Socrates, for example, suggests, in the Republic’s discussion of the political institutions of the best city, that among these the rearing in music is “most sovereign.” He later adds that the guardians of the best regime “must beware of change to a strange form of music . . . For never are the ways of music changed without the greatest political laws being moved.” Even more surprisingly, Plato and Aristotle hold the primary preoccupation of the contemporary debate to be of mere secondary importance. For they insist that the political importance of music arises not only from the message of the lyrics of a song but also from the emotional and moral power of the music itself. Hence the ancients’ constant emphasis on “rhythm,” “harmony,” and “tune.”
Plato and Aristotle attribute this great political importance to musical rhythm and harmony because of their power to contribute to the fulfillment of the primary aim of political life. This aim, as Aristotle states it, is to “produce a certain character in the citizens, namely, to make them virtuous, and capable of performing noble actions.” Yet, he continues, music obviously “contributes something to virtue” because “it is evident through many things” that “we become of a certain quality in our characters on account of it.”
Music, the ancients contend, is an “imitative” art. That is, it depicts the various passions and states of character of which human beings are capable. Again, Aristotle: “in rhythms and tunes there are likenesses particularly close to the genuine natures of anger and gentleness, and further of courage and moderation and all of the things opposite to these and of the other things pertaining to character.” Such images do not merely present themselves to the soul but in fact impress themselves upon it. In the case of the extremely impressionable souls of the young, moreover, the mark left by such images is apt to be lasting. Indeed, the ancients attribute this character-forming power to artistic images generally. Hence Socrates’ concern in the Republic that the young, by “grazing” on “licentious, illiberal, and graceless” works of art, will create some great evil in their souls, and his hope that, in contrast, they will, if surrounded by graceful images, be led to “likeness and friendship as well as accord.” Of all such images, however, music is by far the most powerful. Rhythm and harmony, Socrates contends, “most of all insinuate themselves into the inmost part of the soul and most vigorously lay hold of it in bringing grace with them; and they make a man most graceful if he is correctly reared, if not, the opposite.”
The ancients appear particularly interested in using music to foster a kind of moderation. Music’s ability to engage the passions, it seems, includes a capacity to calm them. Thus Aristotle’s concern to exclude from education those forms of music that are “frenzied and passionate” and instead to emphasize music capable of putting us “in a middling and settled state.” The calm disposition of the passions fostered by the proper rearing in music prepares one for the activities of virtue because, as Aristotle points out in the Nicomachean Ethics, one’s capacity for moral reasoning and choice is disrupted by excessive passion. Aristotle argues that living virtuously requires prudence, the twofold ability to discern the first principles of action, the moral virtues, and to discover by calculation how, in particular circumstances, these virtues can be realized by particular actions.
With regard to the former capacity, Aristotle notes that the Greek term for moderation literally signifies “preserving prudence.” This is so, he argues, because moderation in fact preserves our understanding of what is good, since pleasure and pain, which accompany the passions, tend to pervert or destroy our beliefs concerning moral virtue. Aristotle also indicates that the latter capacity is likewise impeded by passion. In the Ethics he contends that there are those who see the goodness of the virtues but who nonetheless fail to live them in their particular circumstances because when under the influence of passion they, in a sense, forget their principles, like men who are asleep, mad, or drunk. It is in this light that we can understand Aristotle’s comment, in the Politics, that the proper rearing in music makes one capable not only of judging noble tunes, but even of judging the noble things themselves.
Looking even higher, the ancients go so far as to suggest that the proper rearing in music can prepare the soul for philosophy. How can music accomplish this? Plato and Aristotle both suggest that excessive passion is an impediment to philosophic activity no less than to moral activity. Hence their moderation-inducing music paves the way for philosophy by quieting the desires that distract the soul from the search for truth Moreover, and more positively, music can foster in the soul an attraction to the truth that philosophy seeks. The graceful music of the best city presents the young soul with a kind of intelligible and beautiful order, and, by its grace and the natural pleasure that accompanies it, such music fosters a lasting taste for such beautiful order. Yet this ultimately is the object of philosophic longing, according to the Republic: the philosopher, Socrates says, keeps company with the divine and orderly, the beautiful order of the cosmos.
What, the modern reader might wonder, does all this have to do with politics? The ancient account offers two answers. To begin with, Plato and Aristotle contend that the kind of character fostered by the proper rearing in music tends to support a decent and free public order. The Republic’s music education is said to produce gentlemen, men who are attracted to virtue and repelled by vice. Thus a city with good music education will not have to bother with a multitude of laws regulating conflicts among the citizens. Absent the moderate and gentlemanly disposition fostered by the right music, however, the preservation of peace is very difficult. One of the themes of both Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Politics is the close connection between immoderation and injustice: the man with excessive passions eventually must turn to unjust means to satisfy them. Thus the character formed by the lack of passion-taming music, or, worse, by a rearing in passion-inflaming music, leads necessarily to widespread injustice, thence to conflict among the citizens, and thence to the multiplication of laws in a futile attempt to solve these problems.
Furthermore, the concern with musical character formation is political to the ancients because to them the political is above all not so much that which conduces to public order (as important as that is) as that which conduces to human excellence, both moral and intellectual, and hence to human happiness. This is an important point, because it reminds us that the music education they offer moderates the passions not by artificially constraining them but instead by eliciting other longings, for moral nobility and philosophic insight. Such longings are, for the ancients, not only natural but at the core of human nature. Intellect, with its capacity to contemplate and to act in the light of the true and the noble, is our “true self,” says Aristotle. But this true self can only come into its own with the assistance of music. Thus for the ancients music, no less than politics itself, is essential to our becoming fully human, and fully humanly happy.
Carson Holloway is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He is the author of All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics and, most recently, of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press). This article is the first in a two-part series. Read the second installment here.
Note: Quotations are from Allan Bloom’s translation of Plato’s Republic and Carnes Lord’s translation of Aristotle’s Politics.