Ancient Thinkers on the Power of Music II

Music and Human Character


The second part of this exploration of the power and importance of music by ancient authors looks at the relationship between music and human character, and how this even extends to music benefitting communities as a whole.


We begin with the final book of Aristotle’s Politics. At 1339b41-43, Aristotle describes how humans engage in the practice of music for relaxation. This passage comes during the discussion of whether music should be part of education. He previously asked the question whether music served for education, amusement, or entertainment. Considering the importance of amusement, which leads to relaxation and which gives pleasure, he finds this use of music to be an honourable pursuit as a break from hard work. Not entirely different, perhaps, from switching on Classic FM, Radio 1, or 3 in the car at the end of a long day, or even in the kitchen as one preps dinner.


But, continues Aristotle, the nature, the physis, of music is has an importance beyond this perfectly acceptable pursuit. Its effect goes far deeper than simple enjoyment; it reaches all the way to our soul and, therefore, to our character. Music’s power can reproduce anger, pain, pleasure, temperance, courage, delight and make us feel them as if real. Musical rhythms contain representations of character, in a way that sensations that please the other senses do not. Taste does not, nor does looking at visual representations of character or emotion. One may disagree with Aristotle here. I do. I remember becoming almost tearful the first time I saw de la Roche’s exquisite portrait The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. She is blindfolded, youthful, beautiful, clad in white, and innocent, highlighted against a darkened background, and this is her last moment. We are made to feel, ‘what a waste’, ‘what malice put her there?’ A powerful visual image. But I do certainly agree with Aristotle that music is a particularly powerful conveyor of emotion and feeling that speaks to our own emotional experience. He goes on to discuss the different reactions produced by the different modes (scales). If music has the power to touch character and communicate values, it must be part of the education of the young (1340b1-20).


Our second passage comes from Polybius, the Greek Historian of the second century BCE. In book 4 of his Histories, at chapter 20, Polybius says that he will explain how the Arcadians have earned their reputation for great hospitality (philoxenia) and humanity (philanthrōpia), and particularly for piety (eusebeia). The Cynaethans, Polybius tells us, are the exception among the Arcadian peoples, who by contrast are known for their savage character and disrespect for law (paranomia).


He then announces that the reason for this disparity is because they have abandoned the ancestral custom of music, ‘true music’, which benefits everyone. He rather grumpily takes issue with Ephorus who apparently said music had been introduced for deception and bewitchment. The early Arcadians gave music a place in their politeia (community order), prescribing that boys and young men up to the age of thirty engage in its practice. They are trained in hymns that celebrate traditional heroes and gods, they learn the songs of Philoxenus and Timotheus, and they do not consider this a disgraceful accomplishment. Aristotle, just previously to the passage discussed above, had noted that whilst many Greeks enjoyed performing music, they did not consider musicians to be in an honourable profession. No such stigma in Arcadia. The purpose for introducing these customs was not luxury, but a way of tempering the effect of the harshness of the climate and life under those conditions. Polybius says that humans have a tendency to be shaped both physically and in terms of character by climactic influences. Music contributed to a softening influence on the people, men and women alike, who participate equally in the regular assemblies and sacrifices that were instituted as part of the calming culture.


Like Aristotle, Polybius sees the value of music in tempering the effects of laborious toil. For him, however, the point is less about relaxation, then using culture to combat the effects of the natural habitat, in effect nurture balances nature. But the notion of calm is present in both, and also in the Pindar passage in part 1, where the lyre of Apollo stops the lightning bolt and enchants the eagle of Zeus.


Music speaks to and shapes our character. They knew this two millennia ago and even earlier. Orpheus enchanted the animals. And even more charmingly, the great singer Arion’s sweet voice delighted the dolphin which saved his life (Herodotus, Histories, 1.24.6).

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