“Music is a moral law,” wrote Plato. “It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”
Some historians dispute the attribution of this statement, but it sounds as exactly something Plato would have said. It also rings true.
For music is more than just an aesthetic arrangement of sounds, in the same sense in which language is more than just an arrangement of words, painting an arrangement of colours or a house an arrangement of stones. Plato knew it: music is the eternal, ineffable form of beauty and therefore of virtue.
Music breaks out of its physical shell and travels from the transient to the transcendent in a route more direct than any other earthly vehicle could ever possibly travel. Music doesn’t let man forget that, an animal though he may be, he isn’t just an animal.
That’s why even atheists, at least those endowed with an aesthetic sense, hear God in music, although they may refuse to use that word. They feel elevated beyond any quotidian height to a new sphere, for them indefinable but none the less real.
Music shows a man how infinitely high his soul can soar, and in this sense music isn’t just inspirational but also aspirational. It seems to be showing that, and how, it’s possible to become better. Hence it’s indeed a moral law, Plato was right about that.
What was the case in the Hellenic civilisation is a hundred times so in Christendom. By showing that God and man can be one, our civilisation internalised man and privatised his spirit. That’s why music, that most internal and private of all arts, became the purest and deepest aesthetic representation of our civilisational essence.
It also took off from its Hellenic antecedents to reach incomparable intricacy and sophistication. Alone among all arts, music steadily developed to a stratospheric level Plato and his contemporaries couldn’t even imagine.
Looking at a Praxiteles sculpture, watching a Euripides play, reading a Virgil poem or even admiring those Graeco-Egyptian funereal portraits, it’s hard to argue persuasively that those art forms have advanced beyond recognition since antiquity. That, however, is definitely the case with music, which is perhaps an indirect proof of the special place it holds in our civilisation, that of its aesthetic fulcrum.
However, the dialectician Iago is whispering into the ear of the Platonist Othello: if music “is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful”, then it can also be antithetically the essence of disorder, and lead to all that is bad, unjust and ugly.
In other words, music can not only raise man to heavenly heights, but it can also push his face into a putrid swamp. Music can show that man is more than just a human – but also that he is less so.
It can convey the noblest and most sublime of feelings, but also the basest, the crudest and the most stereotypical. Music can raise love to a divine ideal, but also lower it to the level of a lowly brothel reeking of cheap perfume.
When it does the former, music is a force for good. When it does the latter, it’s a force for evil. And I don’t think anybody who has ever attended a pop concert, that seamless blend of an orgy and Nuremberg rally, will argue it does much to promote the goodness of this world.
The actual musical content, if it exists at all which it increasingly doesn’t, would have struck even Plato, never mind Bach, as too primitive even to rate the term ‘music’. All they would have heard would have been a feral, sub-human rite, complete with the ritual sacrifice of everything good in man at the altar of unrestrained, aggressive vulgarity.
Not only Plato but also Aristotle would have diagnosed the condition unerringly. For Aristotle devoted much space in his Politics to the social effect of music. Music, he insisted, improves moral health and develops better judgement. It can thus turn people into better members of society.
Or, if music is too sensual and self-indulgent, it could also have the opposite effect. Aristotle was particularly wary of the Phrygian mode, whose carnality, he feared, could compromise reason and virtue. He also warned against wilful musical innovation, which Aristotle saw as the anteroom of political subversion.
Little could any great mind of any period anticipate that eventually music would become an extension of the pharmaceutical industry catering to amorphous minds and underdeveloped feelings in search of a quick fix. Just like drugs, pop catches them young and makes them addicted to the most dehumanising kinds of cheap titillation.
Also like drugs, pop has become a spinner of billions. As such it attracts the most expert of serpentine seducers, all those promoters, marketing consultants, advertising and PR gurus. They perpetuate the addictive evil of pop, showing the same disregard as drug pushers do for the youngsters’ future and the damage done to society.
As long as money keeps rolling in, no one minds that whole generations grow up with their aesthetic – and therefore moral and philosophical – sense atrophied or at least reduced to a shockingly primitive level. A little innocent fun, that’s all.
Yet already millennia ago, history’s greatest minds knew there was little innocence to that kind of little fun, and much evil. And it’s social and eventually political degeneration that’s the wages of evil – but never mind what they thought. We know better.