Monthly Archives: February 2015

Philosophy Tempered with Music

Sarita's Cave

This drawing was done by Sarita Worravitudomsuk from Thailand. She was one of the lovely students I was privileged to teach during my years in Japan. At the end of one semester, Sarita presented me with this gift. I was amazed to see that she had depicted Plato’s Cave with the upward ascent being a scale of piano keys. Ever since, her drawing hangs by my bed.

Sarita reminded me of one of my favorite quotes from Plato’s Republic, BK 8, 549B, that  I find at once enigmatic and illuminating.  In this passage, Adeimantus asks Socrates what is the best guardian of virtue, and Socrates answers “Logou mousike kekramenou ( Λόγου μουσικέ κεκραμένου).”

The Loeb Classical library observes in a footnote that “logos” and musike” are untranslatable, but goes on to translate it this way:  “Reason blended with culture, which is the only indwelling preserver of virtue.”

Francis Cornford tries this: “the only safeguard that can preserve [character] throughout life is a thoughtful and cultivated mind.”

Alan Bloom has it this way: “Argument mixed with music. It alone, when it is present, dwells within the one possessing it as a savior of virtue throughout life.”

And finally the classic translation by Benjamin Jowett: “Philosophy tempered with music, who comes and takes her abode in a man, and is the only saviour of his virtue throughout his life.”

Combine these translations with the Gospel of St. John, “In the beginning was the Logos…” and we have five meanings: Reason, Mind, Argument, Philosophy, and Word.  In the same way, “musike” can mean music in the modern sense, or any of the arts–hence “the muses.’

However we parse these words that are so difficult because they are so richly evocative, it is clear that Plato sees Logos tempered with Musike as the guardian of virtue that is indwelling and life long.  He suggests that true virtue unites with and colors the soul just as dye seeps into woolen fibers.    Rather than being an abstract adherence to rules, the Greek notion of virtue (Arete) is liberating.  It simply means flowing into life–every day, every moment–from one’s broadest accumulated Wisdom, with a clear mind, a heart unencumbered by fear, and a sense of wholeness and focus, such as Parker Palmer’s living “divided no more.”  It is this living every moment from the best in ourselves that the Greeks saw as ” human flourishing,” or eudaimonia which is often translated as “happiness.”

Eudaimonia is derived from “eu” and “daimon,”  that is, having a good spirit guide.  Socrates credits his inner voice, or Daimon, with cautioning him to refrain from harmful actions.

Seen in this light, virtue is highly practical and something to which we all aspire. As with any living organic growing thing, our human flourishing needs cultivation.   Plato suggests the interplay of logos and musike is the Way (another meaning of logos) toward wholeness. Philosophy is a love of wisdom, a longing for awakening, that broadens the beliefs with which we create our world.  Music, the arts, quiet the mind’s chatter and ushers us into the silent chambers of the heart.  It is not either/or, as Dawna Markova so beautifully sees: “Perhaps, when you allow your heart and mind to pay attention to each other in a clean way, when silence becomes a loom, the still, small voice that is your soul can reweave the pattern that is the purpose of how you are living your life.”

For me, Sarita’s picture captures all of these elements in Plato’s and Markova’s vision: the symbiotic journey of the mind/heart toward our most lovely unfolding, and the well tempered mind rendered sensitive and compassionate by the soulful power of art.  Finally along the way, our tender fragility will be nourished by the silence that awakens a gentle and attentive listening to the guidance that whispers in the recesses of our deepest selves.

Fog Haiku

beidge in mist

In a famous story,  the Buddha gave a wordless sermon to his disciples by holding up a white flower. No one in the audience understood the Flower Sermon except Mahakashyapa, who was the only one who simply smiled.   The Buddha nodded approvingly, indicating that he was the only one among the hearers who truly understood.  In the Zen tradition, Mahakashyapa’s smile signifies the direct transmission of wisdom without words.  The photo is of the sutra hall at Honen-in temple in Kyoto. And so:

cloud hidden sutras

the wordless flower sermon

cuts through illusion

linked to carpediem haiku kai

That Haiku Frog Again!

costa-rican-frog

From carpe diem haiku kai:

And this is our prompt: a frog jumps in which refers to that famous haiku by Basho:

the old pond

a frog jumps into it

the sound of water

(C) Basho (tr. Chèvrefeuille)

Maybe you can remember our Kamishibai Extreme challenge (2014-November). In which I challenged you to write a haibun (prose and haiku) on a given prompt with only 55 words (including the haiku). For this Time Glass episode I will challenge you again to write a haibun, with only 75 words, including the haiku, in just 24 hours.


Basho’s poem is probably the most famous ever written.  Everyone I met in japan knew this as well as his own address: furu ike ya, kawazu tobikomu, mizu no oto.   For such a perfect poem, it seems surprising that everyone is tempted to play with it .  My favorite was written by Ryokan (1785-1831): ata ike ya, kawazu tobikomu, oto no nashi: new pond, a frog jumps in, not a sound. And so I join the chorus of celebration:

such a noisy frog!

plopping into Basho’s pond

for five hundred years