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Movements Akin to the Soul’s: Human and Divine Mimēsis in Plato’s Music

Spencer Klavan

Magdalene College, University of Oxford, UK

Music in Plato’s dialogues ‘represents’ or ‘resembles’ at least two seemingly very different things. In the Timaeus, melody and rhythm are kinds of audible motion which mirror the revolutions of a rationally ordered universe (see Pl. Tim. 34b10-7b6, esp. 36e5-7b6, and for a modern account of how music can ‘move’ see Scruton contra Budd; cf. Wittgenstein; Robinson contra Kivy). But in the Republic, Socrates asks Glaucon for a harmonic configuration which ‘would resemble the tones and modulations’ (μιμήσαιτο φθόγγους τε καὶ προσῳδίας) of human speakers performing various commendable actions (R. 399a5-c4, cf. 393c1-4c6). Sometimes music can sound like the intonation of the human speaking voice (cf. Cra. 423c11-d10; Sph. 267a1-8). But sometimes it can evoke the well-proportioned motion of the universe. The question this paper asks is, can it do both at once?

Recent scholarship has tended towards answering this question in the negative. For Pelosi, the cosmic structures traced by harmony are purely noetic and thus quite distinct from the more pedestrian vocal movements which music might mimic at the theatre (cf. Lippman). Barker writes that melodies which move as the heavens do are not images of human character but ‘“diagrams” or perceptual aids, from which the mind can be led to a grasp on... intelligible mathematical principles.’ On these readings, music’s heavenly motion demonstrates an abstract proportional symmetry to be appreciated in cold contemplation without much reference to the everyday tones of the human speaking voice.

By contrast, this paper argues that cosmic harmony is the mechanism whereby Plato accounts for music’s resemblance to human speech and its consequent influence upon listeners’ psychological states. The key is the isomorphism between the soul of the universe and those of human beings. Timaeus proposes that our souls, at their best, move in rationally ordered ways which reproduce in miniature the motions exhibited by the cosmos (Tim. 42d5-44c4). Our attitudes, actions, and words are outgrowths of our microcosmic psychological movements — if those movements are harmoniously aligned and proportionally orchestrated, we speak and act commendably. If not, we are reprobates (similarly Petraki).

This divinely harmonised cosmology arises out of quasi-Pythagorean notions of a mathematical structure inherent in the universe and made audible through musical consonance (on which see inter alia West; Pelosi; Zhmud; Palmer; Wallace). But Plato exploits that system to explain the connection between musical sound and psychological ἦθος observed by Damon of Athens. Lynch has shown that Plato re-appropriated Damon’s empirical research to support his own theory of ethical habituation through poetic μίμησις of human speech. This paper describes how that link was made: Plato used musical cosmology to argue that song can re-configure our psychological makeup precisely because it has ‘movements akin to the revolutions of the soul within us’ (47c6-e2: συγγενεῖς... φορὰς ταῖς ἐν ἡμῖν τῆς ψυχῆς περιόδοις).

At the heart of this connection between human and divine music is a complex play with various ranges of meaning for the term μίμησις. Music is a ‘representation’ or a ‘resemblance’ in audible sound of motions which are originally cosmic and inaudible (cf. Tim. 36e5-7b6). But it is also a ‘mimicry’ or ‘imitation’ of human speech, which is itself kinetic in ways that reveal ethical character. Consequently this paper contributes to a long-lived debate about how music manages to straddle the boundary between ‘narrow’ performative μίμησις of the kind discussed in Republic 3, and the ‘broad’ artistic μίμησις which in Republic 10 includes all image-making and reproduction (see especially R. 596d2-607b4, and cf. Sph. 265a10-8d5 — for useful treatments of this debate see McKeon; Annas; Janaway; Giuliano; Halliwell; Belfiore; Marušič; Cain). Plato develops a complex but ultimately consistent set of interactions between sound, motion, and the individual and universal soul, so that musical μίμησις forms a bridge between the human and the divine.

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Music and the Divine

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