“…from enjoying the imitation, they come to enjoy the reality.”
Socrates, in Plato’s Republic
If Socrates is correct then we have in music a remarkable opportunity to expand our souls. We also have the danger of deforming them.
Reading good books is an irreplaceable means for cultivating right reasoning. We can enter the minds of the wise, following their train of thought. Listening to good music is similar. But music is an intimate expression with a more immediate effect than the written word. This is because music—which Plato and Aristotle see as an imitation of human states—makes present something of the reality it imitates.
Despairing music really has something of despair in it. You can feel it. Courageous music really has something of courage in it. Just how this is so is hard to grasp. Here we bump up against one of those aspects of reality that causes wonder. Aristotle is insistent. A painting of a courageous man simply ‘points’ to courage; yet music can actually imitate courage itself. “Even in mere melodies there is an imitation of character,” he writes in the Politics. He concludes “music has a power of forming the character.” It is no surprise the ancients saw music as a gift from the gods—a gift that can be used for great good, or evil.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this gift is how music can function to expand our experience. Music gives us a taste of things we otherwise have not tasted. The fruits of this soul-expanding power should not be underestimated. Great music can expand and deepen our experience of both the transcendent and the mundane. In our age where so many live in contexts devoid of richer things and true beauty, great music might be a sole and even saving contact with the higher realms of truly human life.
In a striking scene of the movie Shawshank Redemption, an operatic duet (it’s from The Marriage of Figaro) is played over the loud-speaker of the penitentiary. The inmates are simply stunned. The Morgan Freedman character ‘Red’ gives the following commentary:
I have no idea to this day what those two Italian ladies were singing about. Truth is, I don’t wanna know. I would like to think they were singing about something so beautiful it can’t be expressed in words and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you those voices soared higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away, and for the briefest of moments, every last man at Shawshank felt free.
Higher than we dare to dream. But we can learn to dream it. And we can learn to live it. And great music can help us. It’s not magic, or some shortcut. It’s better. It’s a natural path that is meant for us. We just need to tread the path. As the great Greek philosophers saw, music should be part of our education—education in the deepest sense: formation of the soul. All through life. It will take patience, and cultivation. The fruits can be even more stunning than the music.
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