Plato: Bad Music Destroys Democracy, by David Yeagley

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David Yeagley is the great-great-grandson of Comanche leader Bad Eagle.
David Yeagley is the great-great-grandson
of Comanche leader Bad Eagle.

This post is a re-e-print of a July 12, 2009 article by *David Yeagley of BAD EAGLE.COM.

Although this elegant material may be a bit esoteric for these pages, the concept might penetrate and remain. [BC]

“In The Laws, Plato’s character, the Athenian, claims that bad quality music corrupted the democracy of Athens. If this work was written ca. 350 BC, then the commentary is curious. Alexander the Great, of course, came on the scene in 336 BC. This would mean that, at least in Plato’s view, the city state democracy of Athens was long foiled. But what of that? Why would Plato theorize that it was the quality of music that destroyed the democracy? And what difference did that actually make? It certainly didn’t deter the empire.”

“In Book III of The Laws, Plato’s Athenian said it started with a breach of public manners. Educated people behaved during concerts. Then bad music started being performed, and audiences responded with a lack of decor. It was the erosion of public manners and social graces–caused or inspired by the vulgar quality of music. One think led to another. It seems that the artists, the composers in particular, were to blame. And it seems the poor or bad (immoral) quality of the music was the result of mixing styles.”

“From the Jowett translation:”
And then, as time went on, the poets themselves introduced the reign of vulgar and lawless innovation. They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like Bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights-mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer. And by composing such licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they can judge for themselves about melody and song.

“The Trevor J. Saunders translation says the composers were “gripped by a frenzied and excessive lust for pleasure,” and that was the motivation for the mix.”

For if the democracy which judged had only consisted of educated persons, no fatal harm would have been done; but in music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness;-freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?

“Heavy thought here. Very heavy. And then Plato’s Athenian comments on the social effects of such lawlessness in music, where the common people rule:”
Consequent upon this freedom comes the other freedom, of disobedience to rulers; and then the attempt to escape the control and exhortation of father, mother, elders, and when near the end, the control of the laws also; and at the very end there is the contempt of oaths and pledges, and no regard at all for the Gods-herein they exhibit and imitate the old so called Titanic nature, and come to the same point as the Titans when they rebelled against God, leading a life of endless evils.

“These things are of course all subject to interpretation, both historically, as well as philosophically and sociologically. But, it is difficult not to draw immediate parallels in our modern Western society.”

“In the history of Western music, there has always been a distinction between good and bad music, sacred and secular, and classical and popular, shall we say. Lyrics have always been a key indicator of the quality and effect of the music. Secular lyrics have always tended to be about romance, courtship, and the like. Sexual love, to put it plainly. This music, however exciting or pleasurable, was never known to elevate the soul or to encourage spirituality.”

“I must say, this distinction between the sacred and the secular has been the one pursuit of my entire academic life. The issue was consciously focused in me at the age of sixteen. I pursued this topic through my years at Oberlin Conservatory, at Yale Divinity, at Emory University, and it finally became the topic of my doctoral thesis at the University of Arizona in 1994. My thesis was on a piano composition by Franz Liszt, The Dante Sonata”

Hungarian Franz Liszt, 1811-1886
Hungarian Franz Liszt, 1811-1886

“All these many years I attempted to determine what was “religious” about religious music. What was irreligious or secular about non-religious music. Could it be nailed down to a note? Such a pursuit was not programmed in any degree layout. I was on my own in this quest. This is the reason I ended up with such a broad background, including parts of literature, history, biblical studies, psychology, philosophy, and political theory. I looked into the classical Greek social commentary of Plato and Aristotle (et al.) to see how they defined music. It was strictly by its effect they defined it. Its effect on humans. It was a social activity, essentially.”

“At any rate, I came early to the conclusion that music had meaning via association. “Who put the spook into the bass clarinet?” I asked. “Whoever first conceived of the spook,” I answered my own question, in a bit of a Platonic dialogue style.”

“Religious music is chiefly so due to the religious sentiments preexisting in the composer and his listners. I cannot say that irreligious or non-religious music encourages religious sentiment. It is for a different purpose. Yet, I cannot say religious music guarantees a religious experience. At best, it can only suggest it, only encourage it, or provide a venue for it. Religion is religion. Music is music. Music is a mirror, or an expression. Not an alien power that wields its own world. It is first the composer’s or performer’s expression of his emotions or values; then it ignites the same in the listeners.”

“In America, today, we have the market. The free-enterprise approach to everything–even down to the nail polish on the woman’s toes. We have incalculable variety of music. We have an interminable mix in our society. Plato would probably suggest that we have corrupted our democracy, entirely. Absolute freedom is chaos, or anarchy. Not the way society survives.”

*David Yeagley is the great-great-grandson of Comanche leader Bad Eagle. Read more…

– Photographs are from Bad Eagle’s website.
– This post was re-e-printed with express permission from David Yeagley.

Access the original post, from Bad Eagle’s Journal, on Bad

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I was immediately drawn to the above article. Although my limited education in this area is **mostly, self-aquired, I can still reap tangible benifits from it. On a lessor level, I acquired some musical knowledge in garage and garden-party bands in the 50s & 60s, and in Hollywood recording studios in the 70s. On a higher level, the most profound expierience was studying Classical Guitar and becoming fairly proficient playing ***compositions, such as: JS Bach’sLute Prelude in D Minor.” As well as pieces by Mozart, Fenando Sor, Matteo Carcassi, Ferdinando Carulli and others. This dual perspective seems to give me enough fodder to understand the gist of: “Plato: Bad Music Destroys Democracy.” [BC]

I met the great, great grandson of the Apache leader, Geronimo.

**Took master-classes from John Harrison.
***[Music] “known to elevate the soul or to encourage spirituality” (from the above post)

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