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.

One thought on “Philosophy Tempered with Music

  1. dimvisionary

    That lovely painting reminded me of a morning’s late dream and, oddly enough, Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Your eloquence and explanation amaze me, thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

    Reply

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