Education in Plato’s Republic, Part II: Music for the Guardians

Written by Dr. Jason Rheins on December 30, 2021

In part two of our exploration of education in Plato’s Republic, we continue to see Plato's Socrates develop the educational regimen of the guardians, the military-police class of his ideal city, the “Kallipolis”. Greek education at this time largely consisted of three elements: grammatikē (grammar), musikē (music), and gymnastikē (gymnastics). Grammar was the teaching of letters (grammata), that is, basic literacy, and here it is probably taken for granted. However, Socrates has much more to say about music and gymnastics, as well as the moral characteristics that best dispose a future guardian for rulership, i.e. becoming a philosopher-king and “true guardian” of the city.[1] In this part of our series on Plato’s Republic, I will discuss Socrates’ approach to the musical education of the Kallipolis’ Guardian class. Gymnastikē (gymnastics), is explored in Part 3.

Musikē, it should be remembered, includes education in what we call “music” today, such as training with the lyre and/or aulos (double flute), familiarization with various rhythms and modes, and the learning of songs, but it also includes the memorization and potentially even the analysis of poetry. Here it also includes the “imitation” of roles while reciting narrative poetry (or in the performance of plays, which were also in verse). Key rules or “tropes” dictating restrictions on the content of such poetry have already been given (see Education in Plato's Republic Part 1). Now, Socrates focuses on the form or musical style of such poetry. However, his goal remains the same: to censor the cultural material that citizens of the Kallipolis—and the guardians especially—are exposed to for the sake of their moral edification. In other words, all musikē—lyrics, melody, rhythm, and performance—must be limited to that which will ensure the development of a good character. As we will see, guardians are not to perform roles that are unsuitable for their station and future profession. They are not to be actors, but soldiers (and a few even rulers). Nor are Guardians to be taught music in any of the softer, more licentious, morose, or frenzied musical modes or rhythms.

Republic III.395b-396a

“If, then, we are to maintain our original principle, that our guardians, released from all other crafts, are to be expert craftsmen of civic liberty, and pursue nothing else that does not conduce to this, it would not be fitting for these to do nor yet to imitate anything else. But if they imitate, they should from childhood up imitate what is appropriate to them—men, that is, who are brave, sober, pious, free and all things of that kind; but things unbecoming the free man they should neither do nor be clever at imitating, nor yet any other shameful thing, lest from the imitation they imbibe the reality.

Or have you not observed that imitations, if continued from youth far into life, settle down into habits and (second) nature in the body, the speech, and the thought?” “Yes, indeed,” said he. “We will not then allow our charges, whom we expect to prove good men, being men, to play the parts of women and imitate a woman, young or old, wrangling with her husband, defying heaven, loudly boasting, fortunate in her own conceit, or involved in misfortune and possessed by grief and lamentation—still less a woman that is sick, in love, or in labor.” “Most certainly not,” he replied. “Nor may they imitate slaves, female and male, doing the offices of slaves.” “No, not that either.” “Nor yet, as it seems, bad men who are cowards and who do the opposite of the things we just now spoke of, reviling and lampooning one another, speaking foul words in their cups or when sober and in other ways sinning against themselves and others in word and deed after the fashion of such men.”

A major form of Greek entertainment, cultural reproduction, and education consisted in the recital of the epics of Homer and other poets. In addition to their long narrative portions, these poems also contain passages of direct discourse where the poet assumes the personae of the characters and speaks their words, though still in meter. Plato and Aristotle conceptualize this as a kind of (dramatic) imitation, and Plato has general concerns about the moral effects and defects of imitation as such.

Metaphysically, an imitation is less real or true than what it imitates; epistemologically, an imitation can never be as informative or as scientifically known as the proper account of the imitated thing. But those concerns are reserved until his account of reality and knowledge in Books 5 through 7, and his return to the subject of poetry in Book 10. Here, Socrates focuses on two problems with the imitation that occur when dialogue is mixed in with the narration of narrative poetry.
First, guardians are meant to be soldiers and morally upright. They will not and need not imitate the roles and characters of other professions. As always, each person in the Kallipolis is meant to specialize in one profession and one profession only. Nor will they be accustomed to portraying fear or other undesirable passions that even the heroes of epics may experience and express. They will be even more unaccustomed and more ashamed to portray and imitate the words of bad men. Socrates thinks that they should not be accustomed or be made accustomed to such imitation. Neither should young men be used to or become used to portraying women. (Note: The Guardians do include women, but they too will probably be restricted from depicting "typical" women, who are not warriors or leaders and who are often depicted as overly emotional in Greek culture.) So, this sets up at least one kind of restriction. The second issue is the imitation of characters in the performances of non-guardians and the inherent stylistic changes that these involve. This is discussed in the passage immediately below.

Republic III.396c-398b

“A man of the right sort, I think, when he comes in the course of his narrative to some word or act of a good man will be willing to impersonate the other in reporting it, and will feel no shame at that kind of mimicry, by preference imitating the good man when he acts steadfastly and sensibly, and less and more reluctantly when he is upset by sickness or love or drunkenness or any other mishap. But when he comes to someone unworthy of himself, he will not wish to liken himself in earnest to one who is inferior, except in the few cases where he is doing something good, but will be embarrassed both because he is unpracticed in the mimicry of such characters, and also because he shrinks in distaste from molding and fitting himself the types of baser things. His mind disdains them, unless it be for jest.” “Yes, indeed,” he said, “that is the type and pattern of such a speaker.” “Then,” said I, “the other kind of speaker, the more debased he is the less will he shrink from imitating anything and everything. He will think nothing unworthy of himself, so that he will attempt, seriously and in the presence of many, to imitate all things, including those we just now mentioned—claps of thunder, and the noise of wind and hail and axles and pulleys, and the notes of trumpets and flutes and pan-pipes, and the sounds of all instruments, and the cries of dogs, sheep, and birds; and so his style will depend wholly on imitation in voice and gesture, or will contain but a little of pure narration.” “That too follows of necessity,” he said. “These, then,” said I, “were the two types of diction of which I was asking.” “There are those two,” he replied. “Now does not one of the two involve slight variations, and if we assign a suitable pitch and rhythm to the diction, is not the result that the right speaker speaks almost on the same note and in one cadence—for the changes are slight—and similarly in a rhythm of nearly the same kind?” “Quite so.” “But what of the other type? Does it not require the opposite, every kind of pitch and all rhythms, if it too is to have appropriate expression, since it involves manifold forms of variation?” “Emphatically so.” “And do all poets and speakers hit upon one type or the other of diction or some blend which they combine of both?” “They must,” he said. “What, then,” said I, are we to do? Shall we admit all of these into the city, or one of the unmixed types, or the mixed type?” “If my vote prevails,” he said, “the unmixed imitator of the good.” “Nay, but the mixed type also is pleasing, Adeimantus, and far most pleasing to boys and their tutors and the great mob is the opposite of your choice.” “Most pleasing it is.” “But perhaps,” said I, “you would affirm it to be ill-suited to our polity, because there is no twofold or manifold man among us, since every man does one thing.” “It is not suited.” “And is this not the reason why such a city is the only one in which we shall find the cobbler a cobbler and not a pilot in addition to his cobbling, and the farmer a farmer and not a judge added to his farming, and the soldier a soldier and not a money-maker in addition to his soldiery, and so of all the rest?” “True,” he said. “If a man, then, it seems, who was capable by his cunning of assuming every kind of shape and imitating all things should arrive in our city, bringing with himself the poems which he wished to exhibit, we should fall down and worship him as a holy and wondrous and delightful creature, but should say to him that there is no man of that kind among us in our city, nor is it lawful for such a man to arise among us, and we should send him away to another city, after pouring myrrh down over his head and crowning him with fillets of wool, but we ourselves, for our souls' good, should continue to employ the more austere and less delightful poet and tale-teller, who would imitate the diction of the good man and would tell his tale in the patterns which we prescribed in the beginning, when we set out to educate our soldiers.” “We certainly should do that if it rested with us.” “And now, my friend,” said I, “we may say that we have completely finished the part of music that concerns speeches and tales. For we have set forth what is to be said and how it is to be said.” “I think so too,” he replied.

Even with the tropes already established that limit any untoward depictions of heroes, (see Education in Plato's Republic Part 1) the Guardians are not to imitate the wrong kinds of feelings or the base villains and comic figures who may also occur in narrative poetry. One might think that the depiction of the vicious suffering for their crimes and bad characters or the comic portrayal of the foibles of fools would be morally acceptable.[2]The previous restrictions leave open the possibility that the Kallipolis might contain or admit from the outside poets and rhapsodes who perform narrative poems that include the speeches of characters whom the guardians themselves may not imitate. Here, Socrates will go even further and limit the kinds of performance that may be admitted into the city as such.

Narrative poems with dialogue tend to have more variation and to be more "mixed" or variegated with respect to diction, tempo, and meter than straight narration. The very quality of being mixed and multifarious or variegated is cause for moral suspicion. Everyone in the city is meant to be a specialist in one thing, with a stolid character. Variegation at best distracts and at worst corrupts this purity of purpose. Plato has Socrates inveigh in favor of simpler, more uniform styles, rather than poems and performances with wide variation. The reasons for this will make even more sense below when we see that only certain rhythms and modes (musical scales and their respective melodies) are morally edifying. If a certain melody and rhythm is morally sound, there is no reason to adulterate it; if it is unsound, there is no reason to tolerate it.

Republic III.398c-400e

“You certainly, I presume,” said I, “have sufficient an understanding of this—that the song is composed of three things, the words, the tune, and the rhythm?” “Yes,” said he, “that much.” “And so far as it is words, it surely in no manner differs from words not sung in the requirement of conformity to the patterns and manner that we have prescribed?” “True,” he said. “And again, the music and the rhythm must follow the speech.” “Of course.” “But we said we did not require dirges and lamentations in words.” “We do not.” “What, then, are the dirge-like modes of music? Tell me, for you are a musician.” “The mixed Lydian,” he said, “and the tense or higher Lydian, and similar modes.” “These, then,” said I, “we must do away with. For they are useless even to women who are to make the best of themselves, let alone to men.” “Assuredly.” “But again, drunkenness is a thing most unbefitting guardians, and so is softness and sloth.” “Yes.” “What, then, are the soft and convivial modes?” “There are certain Ionian and also Lydian modes that are called ‘lax’.” “Will you make any use of them for warriors?” “None at all,” he said; “but it would seem that you have left the Dorian and the Phrygian.” “I don't know the musical modes,” I said, “but leave us that mode that would fittingly imitate the utterances and the accents of a brave man who is engaged in warfare or in any enforced business, and who, when he has failed, either meeting wounds or death or having fallen into some other mishap, in all these conditions confronts fortune with steadfast endurance and repels her strokes. And another for such a man engaged in works of peace, not enforced but voluntary, either trying to persuade somebody of something and imploring him—whether it be a god, through prayer, or a man, by teaching and admonition—or contrariwise yielding himself to another who petitioning or teaching him or trying to change his opinions, and in consequence faring according to his wish, and not bearing himself arrogantly, but in all this acting modestly and moderately and acquiescing in the outcome. Leave us these two modes—the forced and the voluntary—that will best imitate the utterances of men failing or succeeding, the temperate, the brave—leave us these.” “Well,” said he, “you are asking me to leave none other than those I just spoke of.” “Then,” said I, “we shall not need in our songs and airs instruments of many strings or whose compass includes all the harmonies.” “Not in my opinion,” said he. “Then we shall not maintain makers of triangles and harps and all other many stringed and poly-harmonic instruments.” “Apparently not.” “Well, will you admit to the city flute-makers and flute-players? Or is not the flute the most 'many-stringed' of instruments and do not the pan-harmonics themselves imitate it?” “Clearly,” he said. “You have left,” said I, “the lyre and the cither. These are useful in the city, and in the fields the shepherds would have a little piccolo to pipe on.” “So our argument indicates,” he said. “We are not innovating, my friend, in preferring Apollo and the instruments of Apollo to Marsyas and his instruments.” “No, by heaven!” he said, “I think not.” “And by the dog,” said I, “we have all unawares purged the city which a little while ago we said was wanton.” “In that we show our good sense,” he said. “Come then, let us complete the purification. For upon harmonies would follow the consideration of rhythms: we must not pursue complexity nor great variety in the basic movements, but must observe what are the rhythms of a life that is orderly and brave, and after observing them require the foot and the air to conform to that kind of man's speech and not the speech to the foot and the tune. What those rhythms would be, it is for you to tell us as you did the musical modes.” “Nay, in faith,” he said, “I cannot tell. For that there are some three forms from which the feet are combined, just as there are four in the notes of the voice whence come all harmonies, is a thing that I have observed and could tell. But which are imitations of which sort of life, I am unable to say.....“But this you are able to determine—that seemliness and unseemliness are attendant upon the good rhythm and the bad.” “Of course.” “And, further, that good rhythm and bad rhythm accompany, the one fair diction, assimilating itself thereto, and the other the opposite, and so of the apt and the unapt, if, as we were just now saying, the rhythm and harmony follow the words and not the words these.” “They certainly must follow the speech,” he said. “And what of the manner of the diction, and the speech?” said I. “Do they not follow and conform to the disposition of the soul?” “Of course.” “And all the rest to the diction?” “Yes.” “Good speech, then, good accord, and good grace, and good rhythm wait upon good disposition, not that weakness of head which we euphemistically style 'goodness of heart', but the truly good and fair disposition of the character and the mind.” “By all means,” he said. “And must not our youth pursue these everywhere if they are to do what it is truly theirs to do?” “They must indeed.”

Songs are said to have three components, their lyrics, their tunes, and their rhythms, the last of which is roughly equivalent to the meters of the accompanying verse. Lyrics have already been legislated for in the earlier passages, but now it remains to be determined what melodies and rhythms are suitable for the guardians’ education. Just as lamentations and dirges were ruled out as unsuitable subjects, so the tunes associated with such performances and the musical modes they are constructed in are also to be removed. Hence the Mixolydian mode is to be rejected. Similarly, the Ionian and Lydian modes are to be rejected as they are too much the music of drunken carousing. (A modern analogy might be a parent worrying that goth music makes their child morose, or that heavy metal encourages them to be violent or aggressive.) However, the Doric mode and the Phrygian mode are retained as the key scales for music of war and peace, respectively. The Doric mode will be used to inspire courage; the Phrygian mode will inspire modesty and moderation.

Because only the tunes of two modes are to be used, not all instruments will be necessary or even permissible. Triangles and harps will be unnecessary, and the aulos (double woodwind or flute), with its wide range of pitches, will be especially shunned. The lyre—the instrument of Apollo—will be kept, but the flute, Marsyas’ instrument, will be rejected.[3], [4]

Finally, we come to rhythms. Socrates does not name the various rhythms other than acknowledging that they are composed of different feet. He thinks that there are good rhythms and bad ones that are correlated to the good and bad rhythms of human life and behavior. Some meters are orderly, serious, and strong, while others are multifarious, weak, elusive, and the like. Presumably, Plato would aprove of something like the Homeric meter of dactylic hexameter but disapprove of the highly complex and variegated meters of comic and tragic choral odes. In any case, Socrates states that meters should be made to follow good diction, rather than the reverse, and this would tend to support meters that more naturally fit the patterns of Greek speech, such as iambic meters. Overall, the point is clear that tunes and rhythms are subordinate to the same strict goals and standards of moral education as the lyrical content and delivery style of poetry.

Republic III.401c-402b

"But we must look for those craftsmen who by the happy gift of nature are capable of following the trail of true beauty and grace, that our young men, dwelling as it were in a salubrious region, may receive benefit from all things about them, whence the influence that emanates from works of beauty may waft itself to eye or ear like a breeze that brings from wholesome places health, and so from earliest childhood insensibly guide them to likeness, to friendship, to harmony with beautiful reason.” “Yes,” he said, “that would be far the best education for them.” “And is it not for this reason, Glaucon,” said I, “that education in music is most sovereign, because more than anything else rhythm and harmony find their way to the inmost soul and take strongest hold upon it, bringing with them and imparting grace, if one is rightly trained, and otherwise the contrary? And further, because omissions and the failure of beauty in things badly made or grown would be most quickly perceived by one who was properly educated in music, and so, feeling distaste rightly, he would praise beautiful things and take delight in them and receive them into his soul to foster its growth and become himself beautiful and good. The ugly he would rightly disapprove of and hate while still young and yet unable to apprehend the reason, but when reason came the man thus nurtured would be the first to give her welcome, for by this affinity he would know her.” “I certainly think,” he said, “that such is the cause of education in music.” “It is, then,” said I, “as it was when we learned our letters and felt that we knew them sufficiently only when the separate letters did not elude us, appearing as few elements in all the combinations that convey them, and when we did not disregard them in small things or great and think it unnecessary to recognize them, but were eager to distinguish them everywhere, in the belief that we should never be literate and letter-perfect till we could do this.”

Just as those who dwell in “salubrious regions” receive benefits to their health from the pure airs, young men whose education consists of music made by craftsman gifted enough to trace true beauty receive a wholesome influence and infusion to their souls, which grow to recognize and appreciate beauty as against its opposite.[5] To say that a Craftsman is capable of following the trail of true beauty is to say that his work imitates beauty itself, one of the most important Platonic forms, whose theory is discussed in Books 6 and 7. Such a craftsman is not a philosopher himself, at least not in the Kallipolis, but a naturally gifted one might be more or less able to imitate Beauty itself, rather than some inferior, derivative kind of beauty. As a result, the craftsman's work will cleave more closely to Beauty and those other Forms related to it. For example, Beauty is closely related to Likeness, Friendship, Harmony, and Reason, all of which have a positive valence in Platonic thought, and all of which the student of such music will be made sensitive and predisposed to. Most importantly, the Form of Beauty is closely associated with the most important Form of all, the Form of the Good. And here, the early introduction and acculturation of the souls of the young to Beauty makes them more likely to choose what is beautiful and good and to reject what is ugly and bad. In short, truly beautiful music creates an aesthetic and moral taste or habit in those educated in it. Furthermore, while this is not yet reason itself, this is the best preparation for the student's future introduction to reasoning, as the student will welcome it as something with affinity to the harmonious music and love of beauty in his soul.

Finally, the ability to perceive beauty or harmony in all things that possess it as an element and thereby understand the whole is likened to learning to read all manner of syllables by first learning and recognizing their constituent elements, the individual letters. This is an analogy Plato returns to in The Statesman, and it provides useful information to us about contemporary practices in Greek grammatikē.

In Part 3 of this series, we will continue our exploration of Kallipolis’ guardian’s educational regimen by examining Plato’s conception of gymnastikē, the education of the body.

1. More will be said about the ideal intellectual traits of potential philosopher rulers in Books 5 through 7.

2. Plato returns to this issue in Book 10. Suffice it to say, for now, he fears that there is a perverse kind of desensitization to vice that the viewers of such spectacles undergo, even when they know that the behavior being portrayed is wrong or unbecoming.

3. Marsyas was a mythic satyr, infamously ugly—his cheeks bulged as he played the flute— who invented flute music and was punished for his hubris after challenging Apollo. In Plato’s earlier dialogue on love and beauty, the Symposium, Alcibiades likens Socrates to Marsyas in his looks and his incredible power to persuade, but unlike Marsyas or the satyr god Silenus, Socrates is beautiful on the inside (Symp. 215B-216E).

4. Aristotle also thinks it sensible to exclude the flute from a liberal education but to include the lyre, but his reasons partially different. He agrees that the flute has too provocative and insufficiently moral valence. He also notes, though, that the lyre leaves the voice free to speak or sing while the flute does not, and the flute is an instrument more associated with slaves than freemen. (See Politics VIII.1341a22-1341b8, also see Aristotle on Revising Greek Education)

5. According to certain Greek theories of health at the time, certain places had bad or noxious airs or waters, while others had airs and waters more conducive to health. [See the Hippocratic treatise Airs, Waters, Places.] We might compare this to modern notions of pollution and hygiene.

Dr. Jason Rheins

Dr. Jason G. Rheins is a scholar of ancient Greek and Roman philosophy. In 2003 he received his BA with honors in Philosophy and Classical Studies from Stanford University. In 2010 he earned his PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pennsylvania. He has taught or held professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Swarthmore College, UNC Chapel Hill, St. John’s University, and Loyola University Chicago. He has published articles and book chapters on the history of philosophy, the philosophy of science, and metaphysics. He is currently completing a monograph on Plato’s theology.