The Supreme Music. Music and Politics
Philosophy is today possible only as a reformation of music. If we call music the experience of the Muse, that is, of the origins and the taking place of the word, then in a given society and at a given time music expresses and governs the relation humans have with the event of the word. In fact, this event — that is, the arche-event that constitutes humans as speaking beings — cannot be said within language: it can only be evoked and reminisced museically or musically. In Greece, the muses expressed this primordial articulation of the event of the word, which, by occurring, destines and divides itself into nine forms or modalities, without it being possible for the speaker to go back beyond them. This impossibility of accessing the primordial place of the word is music. In it something comes to expression that cannot be said in language.
As is immediately evident when we play or listen to music, singing first and foremost celebrates and laments an impossibility of saying, the — painful or joyous; hymnic or elegiac — impossibility of accessing the event of the word that constitutes humans as humans.
The origins of the word are museically — that is, musically — determined and the speaking subject — the poet — must at each turn confront the problematicity of his beginnings. Even if the Muse has lost the religious meaning she had in the ancient world, the rank of poetry still depends on the way in which the poet manages to give musical shape to the difficulty of his taking the floor — that is, on how he succeeds in appropriating a word that does not belong to him and to which he limits himself to lending his voice.
The Muse sings and gives singing to man, since she symbolizes the speaking being’s impossibility of integrally appropriating the language in which he has made his vital abode. This extraneousness marks the distance that separates human singing from that of other living beings. There is music; man does not limit himself to speaking, and rather feels the need to sing because language is not his voice, and because he dwells in language without being able to turn it into his voice. Singing, man celebrates and commemorates the voice he no longer has, which, as taught by the myth of the cicadas in the Phaedrus, he could find again only if he ceased to be human and became animal: “When the Muses were born and song appeared, some of the men were so overcome with delight that they sang and sang, forgetting food and drink, until at last unconsciously they died. From them the cicada tribe afterwards arose . . . ”.
For this reason, emotional moods necessarily belong to music before belonging to words: balanced, courageous, and strict in the Doric mode; mournful and languid in the Ionic and the Lydian (Republic 398e–399a). It is peculiar that still in the masterpiece of twentieth-century philosophy, Being and Time, the original opening of man to the world does not take place through rational knowledge and language, but through a Stimmung, an emotional mood that this very term refers back to the acoustic sphere (Stimme means voice). The Muse—music—marks the splitting between man and his language, between the voice and the logos. The primary opening of man to the world is not logical but musical.
א. From here follows the insistence with which Plato and Aristotle, but also musicologists such as Damon and even the legislators, affirm the necessity of not separating music and word. In the Republic, Socrates argues that “what is language in the song in no manner differs from words not sung [μὴ ᾀδομένου λόγου] and needs to conform to the same models” (398d); soon afterwards, he resolutely enunciates the theorem according to which “harmony and rhythm must follow discourse [ἀκολουθεῖν τῷ λόγῳ]” (ibid.). However, the same formulation, “what is language in the song,” entails that there is something in it that is irreducible to the word, just as the insistence on sanctioning its inseparability betrays the awareness that music is eminently separable.
Precisely insofar as music marks the extraneousness of the original place of the word, it is perfectly comprehensible that it may tend to exacerbate its autonomy with respect to language; and yet, for the same reasons, the concern about not fully severing the nexus that kept them together is equally comprehensible.
Between the end of the fifth century and the first decades of the fourth, Greece in fact witnessed an actual revolution in musical styles, linked to the names of Melanippides, Cinesias, and especially Timotheus of Miletus. The fracture between linguistic and musical systems becomes progressively unbridgeable, and by the third century music ends up clearly dominating over the word. But a careful observer like Aristophanes could realize—by parodying this in the Frogs—that the relation of subordination of melody to its metric support in the verse had already been subverted in Euripides’ tragedies. In Aristophanes’ parody, the multiplication of notes with respect to syllables is vividly expressed through the transformation of the verb εἱλίσσω (to turn) into εἱειειειλίσσω. In any case, in spite of the philosophers’ tenacious resistance, in his works on music, Aristoxenus—who was a disciple of Aristotle and criticized the changes introduced by the new music—no longer lays at the foundations of singing the phonemic unity of the metrical foot, but a purely musical unity, independent of the syllable, which he calls “first time” (χρόνος πρῶτος).
In the history of music the critiques of the philosophers seemed excessively conservative (and yet they were repeated many centuries later in the rediscovery of classical monody by the Florentine Camerata and Vincenzo Galilei and in Charles Borromeo’s peremptory provision “cantum ita temperari, ut verba intelligerentur”). But what interests us here are rather the profound reasons for their opposition, of which they were themselves not always aware. If, as it seems to be the case today, music breaks its necessary relation with the word, this means that, on the one hand, it loses the awareness of its museic nature (that is, of its being located in the original place of the word) and, on the other, that the speaker forgets that his being always already musically inclined has constitutively to do with the impossibility of accessing the museic place of the word. Homo canens and homo loquens part ways and forget the relation that bound them to the Muse.
If the access to the word is, in this sense, museically determined, we understand that for the Greeks, the nexus between music and politics was so evident that Plato and Aristotle treat musical questions only in the works they consecrate to politics. The relation of what they called μουσική (which included poetry, music in a strict sense, and dance) with politics was so close that in the Republic, Plato could subscribe to Damon’s aphorism according to which “musical modes cannot be changed without changing the fundamental laws of the city”.
Men come together and organize the constitutions of their cities through language, but the experience of language—insofar as it is not possible to grasp and master its origin—is in turn always already conditioned musically. The groundlessness of the λόγος grounds the primacy of music and makes it possible that every discourse is always already museically tuned. For this reason, in every age, humans are always more or less intentionally educated to politics and prepared for it through music, even before this happens through traditions and precepts that are transmitted by means of language [lingua].
The Greeks knew perfectly well what we pretend to ignore, namely, that it is possible to manipulate and control a society not only through language, but first and foremost through music.
Just as, for a soldier, the trumpet blast or the drumbeat is as effective as the order of a superior (or even more than it), so in every field and before every discourse, the feelings and moods that precede action and thought are musically determined and oriented. In this sense, the state of music (including in this term the entire sphere we inaccurately define as “art”) defines the political condition of a given society better than and prior to any other index; and if we truly want to modify the rules of a city, it is first of all necessary to reform its music.
The bad music that today pervades our cities at every moment and in every place is inseparable from the bad politics that governs them.
א. It is significant that Aristotle’s Politics closes with an actual treatise on music—or, rather, on the importance of music for the political education of citizens. Aristotle in fact begins by announcing that he will deal with music, not as a form of entertainment (παιδιά), but as an essential part of education (παιδεία), that is, to the extent that it has virtue as its goal: “Just as gymnastics are capable of producing a certain quality of body, so music is capable of producing a certain ethos” (1339a24).
The central motif of Aristotle’s conception of music is the influence it exercises on the soul: “But it is clear that we are affected and transformed in a certain manner, both by the different kinds of music and not least by the melodies of the Olympus; for these admittedly make our soul enthusiastic [ποιεῖ τὰς ψυχὰς ἐνθουσιαστικάς], and enthusiasm is a passion [πάθος] of the ethos with respect to the soul. And, moreover, everybody when listening to [musical] imitations is thrown into an empathic state of feeling [γίγνονται συμπαθεῖς] thanks to rhythms and tunes, even in the absence of words” (1340a5–11). Aristotle explains that this happens because rhythms and tunes contain images (ὁμοιώματα) and imitations (μιμήματα) of anger, mildness, courage, prudence and the other ethical qualities. For this reason, when we listen to them, the soul is affected in different forms matching different musical modes: in a “mournful and restrained” mode in the Mixolydian; in a “composed [μέσως] and firmer” mode in the Doric; in an enthusiastic mode in the Phrygian (1340b1–5). He thus accepts the classification of tunes and melodies as ethical, practical, and enthusiastic, and recommends the Doric mode for the education of the young, since it is “firmer” (στασιμώτερον) and of a virile (ἀνδρεῖον [1342b14]) character. Like Plato before him, Aristotle refers here to an ancient tradition that identified the political meaning of music in its ability to put order in the soul (or, on the contrary, to excite and confuse it). Sources inform us that in the seventh century, when Sparta was in a state of civil discord, the oracle suggested summoning Terpander, the “bard from Lesbos,” who, with his singing, gave back order to the city. The same was said of Stesichorus with regard to internal fighting in the city of Locris.
With Plato, philosophy emerges as a critique and an overcoming of the musical organization of the Athenian polis. The latter, embodied by Ion, the possessed rhapsode who is suspended from the Muse like a metal ring from a magnet, involves the impossibility of accounting for one’s knowledge and one’s action, that is, of “thinking” them.
What is in question here is the proper place of philosophy: it coincides with that of the Muse, that is, with the origins of the word—and is, in this sense, necessarily proemial. Locating himself in this way in the original event of language, the philosopher brings man back to the place of his becoming human, the only place from which he can remember the time in which he was not yet a man (Meno 86a: ὁ χρόνος ὅτ᾽ οὐκ ἦν ἄνθρωπος). Philosophy trespasses the museic principle in the direction of memory, of Mnemosyne as the mother of the Muses, and in this way frees man from the θείᾳ μοίρᾳ and makes thought possible.
More to the point, Walter Otto has rightly observed that “the voice that precedes the human word belongs to the very being of things, like a divine revelation that lets it come to light in its essence and glory” (Otto 1954, p. 71). The word that the Muse offers to the poet comes from the things themselves, and the Muse is, in this sense, nothing else than the being that discloses and communicates itself.
For this reason, the most ancient depictions of the Muse, such as the wonderful Melpomene at the National Museum of Palazzo Massimo in Rome, simply present her as a girl in her nymphean plenitude. Going back to the museic principle, the philosopher must confront, not only something linguistic, but also and especially being itself as revealed by the word.
If music is constitutively bound to the experience of the limits of language, and if, vice versa, the experience of the limits of language—and politics with it—is musically conditioned, then an analysis of the music of our times should begin by noting that it is precisely this experience of the museic limits that music is now missing.
Language is today given as a chatter that never clashes with its limit and seems to have lost all awareness of its intimate nexus with what cannot be said, that is, with the time when man was not yet a speaker.
A language without margins and frontiers corresponds to a music that is no longer museically tuned, and a music that has turned its back on its origins corresponds to a politics without consistency and place. When it seems everything can indifferently be said, singing disappears and, with it, the emotional moods that articulate it museically. Our society—in which music seems frenetically to pervade every place—is actually the first human community that is not museically (or amuseically) tuned.
The general feeling of depression and apathy only registers the loss of the museic nexus with language, disguising as a medical syndrome the eclipse of the political that results from it. This means that the museic nexus, which has lost its relation with the limits of language, no longer produces a θείᾳ μοίρᾳ, but a sort of blank mission or inspiration, that is no longer articulated according to the plurality of museic contents, but, so to speak, goes round in circles. Forgetful of their original solidarity, language and music separate their destinies and yet remain united in the same vacuity.
א. It is in this sense that philosophy is today possible only as a reformation of music. Given that the eclipse of politics goes together with the loss of the experience of the museic, the political task is today constitutively a poetic task, with regard to which it is necessary that artists and philosophers join forces. Current politicians are unable to think, since both their language and their music go amuseically round in circles. If we call thought the space that is opened each time we access the experience of the museic principle of the word, then it is the current inability to think that we need to tackle. And if, following Hannah Arendt’s suggestion, thought coincides with the ability to interrupt the meaningless flux of sentences and sounds, stopping this flux in order to give it back to its museic place is today the ultimate philosophical task.
Originally published in Italian in 2016 under the title Che cos’è la filosofia?
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