IV.8 Explanation of a paradox of the Ancients relative to behavior

Polybius, the judi­cious Polybius, tells us that it took music to tame the ways of the Arcadians, who lived in a land where the air is dreary and cold ; that the Cynetes, who neglec­ted music, sur­pas­sed all the Greeks in cruelty, and that there is no city which has seen so many cri­mes.1 Plato does not shrink from saying that no change can be made in music which is not a change in the cons­ti­tu­tion of the state. Aristotle, who seems to have writ­ten his Politics only to coun­ter Plato’s opi­nions with his own, never­the­less agrees with him on the power of music over beha­vior. Theophrastes, Plutarch,2 and all the Ancients were of the same mind. This is not an opi­nion hazar­ded without reflec­tion : it is one of the prin­ci­ples of their poli­tics.3 That is how they gave laws, and that is how they wan­ted the cities to be gover­ned.

I believe I could explain this. We must put our­sel­ves in mind that in the Greek cities, espe­cially those whose prin­ci­pal objec­tive was war, all kinds of work and all the pro­fes­sions that could lead to ear­ning money were regar­ded as unwor­thy of a free man. “Most of the arts,” says Xenophon, “cor­rupt the body of those who prac­tice them ; they require one to sit in the dark or near the fire. One has no time either for friends or for the repu­blic.”4 It was only during the cor­rup­tion of some demo­cra­cies that arti­sans achie­ved the sta­tus of citi­zens. That is what Aristotle tells us,5 and he main­tains that a good repu­blic will never accept them.6

Agriculture was ano­ther ser­vile pro­fes­sion, and it was ordi­na­rily some van­qui­shed peo­ple that prac­ti­ced it : the Helotes in Lacedæmon, the Perioeci in Crete, the Penestæ in Thessaly, and other ensla­ved peo­ples in other repu­blics.7

In short, all base com­merce8 was repu­gnant to the Greeks. A citi­zen would have had to ren­der ser­vi­ces to a slave, a tenant, or a forei­gner. Such a thought offen­ded the spi­rit of Greek free­dom ; thus Plato, in his Laws, would have any citi­zen who tra­ded puni­shed.9

So the situa­tion was quite awk­ward in the Greek repu­blics. They did not want citi­zens wor­king in com­merce, in agri­culture, or in the arts, nor did they want them to be idle.10 They found an occu­pa­tion in exer­ci­ses deri­ving from gym­nas­tics, and in those rela­ted to war.11 The ins­ti­tu­tion offe­red them no others. The Greeks must the­re­fore be regar­ded as a society of ath­le­tes and com­ba­tants. But those exer­ci­ses that ser­ved so well to make peo­ple hardy and fierce nee­ded tem­pe­ring by others that could tame their beha­vior.12 Music, which is allied to the mind through the organs of the body, was most appro­priate for that. It is a medium bet­ween the exer­ci­ses of the body that make men tough and the scien­ces of spe­cu­la­tion that make them unso­cia­ble. We can­not say that music ins­pi­red vir­tue : that would be inconcei­va­ble ; but it pre­ven­ted the effect of the fero­city of the ins­ti­tu­tion, and gave the mind a role in edu­ca­tion which it would not have had.

Suppose there were in our midst a society of per­sons so ena­mo­red of hun­ting that they did nothing else : it is cer­tain that they would contract from it a cer­tain rug­ged­ness. If these same per­sons should also acquire a taste for music, a dif­fe­rence would soon be seen in their man­ners and ethos. In short, Greek exer­ci­ses exci­ted in them only one kind of pas­sions : tough­ness, rage, and cruelty. Music exci­tes them all, and can com­mu­ni­cate gent­le­ness, pity, affec­tion, and gentle plea­sure to the soul. Our mora­lists who so stron­gly condemn our thea­tres are proof enough of the power which music has over our souls.

If the society of which I have spo­ken were to receive only drums and trum­pet airs, is it not true that the goal would be less likely attai­ned than if they were given mel­lo­wer music ? Therefore the Ancients were right when, in cer­tain cir­cum­stan­ces, they chose for the ethos one mode over ano­ther.

But, one will say, why sin­gle out music ? Because of all the plea­su­res of the sen­ses, there is none that less cor­rupts the soul. We blush to read in Plutarch13 that the Thebans, to tame the ways of their youth, used their laws to esta­blish a kind of love that ought to be ban­ned in every nation on earth.

[Historiæ, book IV ; in Les cinq premiers livres, p. 135.]

The life of Pelopidas.

Plato, book IV of Laws, says that the prefectures of music and gymnastics are the most important functions in the city ; and in his Republic, book III, “Damon will tell you,” he says, “which sounds are capable of eliciting baseness of soul, insolence, and the contrary virtues.”

Book V, Memorabilia.

Politics, book III, ch. iv.

Diophantes, says Aristotle (Politics, ch. vii) once established in Athens that artisans would be public slaves.

Thus Plato and Aristotle would have slaves till the soil (Laws, book VII, Politics, book VIII, ch. x). It is true that agriculture was not practiced everywhere by slaves ; on the contrary, as Aristotle says, the best republics were those where it was the citizens’ job ; but that occurred only because of the corruption of the former governments which had become democratic, for in the earliest times the cities of Greece lived under aristocracy.


Book II.

Aristotle, Politics, book X.

Ars corporum exercendorum gymnastica, variis certaminibus terendorum pædotribica [’Gymnastics exercises the body, paedotribica trains it by all sorts of combats’] (Aristotle, Politics, book VIII, ch. iii).

Aristotle says that the Lacedæmonians’ children who began these exercises at the most tender age contracted too much ferocity from them.

The life of Pelopidas.