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Plato part 6: On dancing masters and oracles

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Posted on April 15, 2010 |
By Victor Nuovo



Editor’s Note: This is the sixth in a series of essays about politics and the moral life. The essays develop themes from a work by the philosopher Plato titled “Laws,” which he wrote shortly before his death in 347 BCE. “Laws” is written as a dialogue involving three old men with long experience in politics: Cleinias, from the Cretan city of Cnossos, Megillus, from Sparta, and an Athenian stranger who is not named, but who may be Plato himself. The theme of this essay is education and the educative role of dance, music, poetry and wine.

Aristophanes was a poet. Plato was infatuated with poets and poetry. But he also feared them. He was afraid that they would corrupt his soul.

In the “Republic” he argues that poets, like all artists, are imitators. Their imitations are charms that enthrall the soul. They portray ignoble characters who are motivated by base passions and who do shameful things. They do this in attractive ways that evoke our sympathy, so that we are without shame and defenseless. They distract us from the only thing that could preserve us: knowledge of the beautiful and the good. Therefore, they should be banned from a well-founded and rightly governed city.

Plato reinforces this judgment by alluding to the ancient quarrel between poetry and philosophy about which too much has been written. Plato knew what he was doing. He was a master of charming the soul with words; his portrayal of Aristophanes proves it. But he did it so well, that he refuted his own argument.

In the “Laws,” Plato adopts a different attitude toward the poets. While still apprehensive of them, he no longer wants them banned. Moreover, the cause of his apprehension has changed. What worries him now is the expressive power of poetry, which sometimes evokes strong emotions and wild excessive behavior that threatens the rule of law. Yet if the life of a city is to be rich and vibrant, this power is necessary. Therefore, a way must be found regulate it. We are brought back to the virtues of drinking wine.

Recall the similitude of the puppet introduced in the first essay: a creature driven by rigid external forces that violently impel it in this direction and that until it is brought under the direction of a puppeteer, who knows the art of puppetry and the proper use of the golden thread, which in the soul is reason and intelligence, the power of self-governance.

Education in the rule of law must begin with the very young, who must learn to distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, to love the one and hate the other.

The passions, pleasure and pain, are their first teachers; instinctively they love pleasure and hate pain. Moreover, it is observed that children are constantly active, incapable of keeping body still or tongue quiet. They are restless, always wanting to move about, frolicking and skipping, leaping; they delight in dances and games, and in modulating their voices and making noises of every description.

If the golden thread of reason is to do its work within them, then it must become incarnate as rhythm, harmony, and the cadences of language, which cause delight even as they bring order and purpose. They take their place as regulators within the soul of a child, giving form to pleasure and pain.

So the first stage in educating children in the rule of law employs poetry, music and dance, which are the common ingredients of the Greek chorus — processional dancing that accompanied dramatic performances. Hence, the need for dancing masters, commanders of the chorus.

The dancing master must be wise, for his instruction is not merely to install poetic judgment in the soul of children, but moral judgment also, and such virtues as practical wisdom, moderation, justice and courage, for poetry ennobles the soul through its narratives. Senior citizens, if they are wise, are best suited for this role. The Athenian stranger recommends that they be 60 years of age. But seniors, while they enjoy watching children playing, may be ashamed to play with them. They have lost their youthful spontaneity. Wine will help them overcome their reluctance. Plato, the comic poet, is at work here. But genuine comedy always has a serious side.

In any case, the laws of a well-governed city should make provision for frequent holidays and festivals. There should be choruses for each age group: one for children, another for youths under 30, another for adults aged 30 through 60. All the poetic arts are to be employed: instrumental music, dance, choral recitation, and festive processions. Reason rules overall, but the emotions, now brought into harmony, add energy and vitality.

Groups move and sing as one body. Competitions are held with prizes and celebrations. Each age group performs according to a different genre of poetry: doggerel for young children; comedy for youths; tragedy for their elders; and for those over sixty, epic. These most senior citizens do not dance—a pity—but have the venerable role of storytellers and oracles, their tongues loosened by a little wine.

All this may seem to involve excessive social control, and indeed Plato has been interpreted as an enemy of free expression. But complaints of this sort miss the point. The will to create is not to be restrained, but regulated from within. What is restrained is excess—in Greek “hubris;” Plato believed that mere excess creates nothing but noise and chaos; that only controlled passion creates truly fine art—and the best laws.

The great composer Igor Stravinsky lectured at Harvard 70 years ago on the poetics of music. He took the term ‘poetics’ literally, as the art or technique of making things. Music is one instance of this. He observed that, whilst the materials of music are by themselves pleasing, for ‘they caress the ear and give us a pleasure that may be quite complete,’ they are not music. Rather, music is the product of a conscious action of mind that orders, creates and gives life, that is passionately inventive and yet that follows a rule or method that can be taught—although merely having learned it is not enough to produce a work of art.

So it is with everything we do, if it has value. Carpenters and wheelwrights, stonemasons, farmers, foresters, gardeners, potters, playwrights, actors and athletes: their poetic actions combine passion and restraint, emotion and reason. It is on account of reason that their passion is well spent and not just dissipated. My point and, I believe, Plato’s point is this: one cannot achieve the rule of law without a rational culture that begins with the education of children, a culture with roots in the vivacious and spontaneous will to express that which wells up in their souls.

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Postscript: On Monday evening, January 18, I attended a celebration of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a choral event involving all the ingredients prescribed by the Athenian stranger: there was music, song and dance. François Clemmons was conductor and dancing master. There was even an oracle: students reading the inspiring words of Dr. King. As we stood holding hands and singing ‘We shall overcome,’ our bodies swaying in unison with the music, we became one community, infused with noble sentiments. Had François chosen at that moment to lead us out of the chapel doors, down the college hill and into the town in joyous procession, I believe all would have followed. Still, we must not forget that Dr. King was cruelly murdered, and that prejudice and hatred, against which he struggled, continues among us, and that it will take more than moments of solidarity to overcome them.

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