Plato, Music and Misquotes


WikipediaI spent a pleasant morning, Saturday, browsing through the works of Plato, hunting for the source of a quotation I saw on Facebook, today.* I did several textual searches for words, phrases and quotes on sites that offer his collected works, along with other works by classical authors.

Now I must admit that in my reading, I have not read everything Plato wrote. I’ve read several dialogues, and then mostly pieces from his works. Reading the entire Republic has, sadly, defeated me, but I have it available for another try when I retire.

Despite my unfamiliarity with his full canon, when I saw this quotation today, I knew it could not be from Plato:

“Music gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything.”

And while the sentiment is good, the flowery quote wasn’t by the Greek philosopher.

I took some time to look at what the various “quotation” sites offer as words from Plato, related especially to music.** Here is another quote commonly, but erroneously, attributed to Plato online (and available on T-shirt, mugs, etc.):

Music is a moral law. 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.

This one is actually listed in  the Wordsworth Dictionary of Musical Quotations (1991, p. 45; proof that the printed word is not free of such mistakes), but is is incorrect as others before me have also found. Not even the Quote Investigator has tackled this quote and found the source, but it isn’t from Plato.

Here are more lines attributed to Plato on various sites***:

Music and rhythm find their way into the secret places of the soul.

“Philosophy is the highest music.

“What a poor appearance the tales of poets make when stripped of the colors which music puts upon them, and recited in simple prose.

“Music is the movement of sound to reach the soul for the education of its virtue.

“Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them.

“Give me the music of a nation; I will change a nation’s mind.

“If you want to measure the spiritual depth of society, make sure to mark it’s music.

“Every heart sings a song, incomplete, until another heart whispers back. Those who wish to sing always find a song. At the touch of a lover, everyone becomes a poet.”

Now while most are misattributions, others may be paraphrases or even differences in translation. I decided to check through the collected works of Plato (online at MIT and the Perseus Digital Library)

One issue to consider when sourcing a quote from another language is that translators may phrase foreign words differently in English. My main printed sources for Plato are various Penguin translations from the 1960s and 70s, and the Jowett translations of the late 19th century. None of these share exact phrasing, of course, even for the same line. When I search for exact phrases like “moral law” and “musical innovation”, they may not appear in the translation I am searching because the translator used different phrasing. That means I have to look through every reference for a word like “music” and “soul” to see if it is similar, even if not exact.

So the quote, “philosophy is the highest music,” may be a paraphrase of a different translation of the line below from Phaedo (Jowett translation, see bold, below) in which Socrates is talking to his students before his forced suicide:

Tell him, Cebes, he replied, that I had no idea of rivalling him or his poems; which is the truth, for I knew that I could not do that. But I wanted to see whether I could purge away a scruple which I felt about certain dreams. In the course of my life I have often had intimations in dreams “that I should make music.” The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: Make and cultivate music, said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has always been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music.

However, even if it is a different translation, the popular line, “philosophy is the highest music,” is taken out of context, a common problem when people cherry pick from a longer reading for their own purposes. Socrates continues his thoughts, saying:

The dream was bidding me to do what I was already doing, in the same way that the competitor in a race is bidden by the spectators to run when he is already running. But I was not certain of this, as the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word, and being under sentence of death, and the festival giving me a respite, I thought that I should be safer if I satisfied the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, composed a few verses before I departed. And first I made a hymn in honor of the god of the festival, and then considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet or maker, should not only put words together but make stories, and as I have no invention, I took some fables of Aesop, which I had ready at hand and knew, and turned them into verse. Tell Evenus this, and bid him be of good cheer; that I would have him come after me if he be a wise man, and not tarry; and that to-day I am likely to be going, for the Athenians say that I must.

This clearly changes the tone of the speaker’s words, when read in its completeness.

It is even further from that line when read in another, more modern translation (Phaedo, Sections 60d-61b, translated by Harold North Fowler, 1966, see bold words):

“Then tell him, Cebes,” said he, “the truth, that I composed these verses not because I wished to rival him or his poems, for I knew that would not be easy, but because I wished to test the meaning of certain dreams, and to make sure that I was neglecting no duty in case their repeated commands meant that I must cultivate the Muses in this way. They were something like this. The same dream came to me often in my past life, sometimes in one form and sometimes in another, but always saying the same thing: ‘Socrates,’ it said, ‘make music and work at it.‘ And I formerly thought it was urging and encouraging me to do what I was doing already and that just as people encourage runners by cheering, so the dream was encouraging me to do what I was doing, that is, to make music, because philosophy was the greatest kind of music and I was working at that. But now, after the trial and while the festival of the god delayed my execution, I thought, in case the repeated dream really meant to tell me to make this which is ordinarily called music, I ought to do so and not to disobey. For I thought it was safer not to go hence before making sure that I had done what I ought, by obeying the dream and composing verses. So first I composed a hymn to the god whose festival it was; and after the god, considering that a poet, if he is really to be a poet, must compose myths and not speeches, since I was not a maker of myths, I took the myths of Aesop, which I had at hand and knew, and turned into verse the first I came upon. So tell Evenus that, Cebes, and bid him farewell, and tell him, if he is wise, to come after me as quickly as he can.

“Make music and work at it” is an entirely different sentiment from “philosophy is the highest music.” Therein lies a different issue: translators putting into the work what they perceive in the original, which may not be what all translators perceive (a problem I addressed separately in The Municipal Machiavelli).

Plato had a lot to say about music, little of it suitable for the shallow New Agey sort of philosophy and that permeates Facebook. For example, he wrote in The Laws, Book II (Jowett trans):

Music is concerned with harmony and rhythm, so that you may speak of a melody or figure having good rhythm or good harmony-the term is correct enough; but to speak metaphorically of a melody or figure having a “good colour,” as the masters of choruses do, is not allowable, although you can speak of the melodies or figures of the brave and the coward, praising the one and censuring the other.  And not to be tedious, let us say that the figures and melodies which are expressive of virtue of soul or body, or of images of virtue, are without exception good, and those which are expressive of vice are the reverse of good.

Hardly the stuff of the popular quotes-on-posters-with-photos-of-cute-kittens stuff that so many FB users prefer. Even if it were, here’s the Fowler translation (Sections 655a-b)of that same paragraph, showing the difference a couple of generations of translators can make in choosing words:

Well said, my friend. But in, fact, while postures and tunes do exist in music,1 which deals with rhythm and harmony, so that one can rightly speak of a tune or posture being “rhythmical” or “harmonious,” one cannot rightly apply the choir masters metaphor “well-colored” to tune and posture; but one can use this language about the posture and tune of the brave man and the coward, [655b] and one is right in calling those of the brave man good, and those of the coward bad. To avoid a tediously long disquisition, let us sum up the whole matter by saying that the postures and tunes which attach to goodness of soul or body, or to some image thereof, are universally good, while those which attach to badness are exactly the reverse.

As for the line that “Musical innovation is full of danger to the State, for when modes of music change, the laws of the State always change with them,” Plato actually does say something like that in The Republic, Book IV, although it’s never that simple. Here’s the Jowett translation:

This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed, –that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard, “The newest song which the singers have,” they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited. So Damon tells me, and I can quite believe him; he says that when modes of music change, of the State always change with them.

Yes, said Adeimantus; and you may add my suffrage to Damon’s and your own.

Then, I said, our guardians must lay the foundations of their fortress in music?

Yes, he said; the lawlessness of which you speak too easily steals in.
Yes, I replied, in the form of amusement; and at first sight it appears harmless.

Why, yes, he said, and there is no harm; were it not that little by little this spirit of licence, finding a home, imperceptibly penetrates into manners and customs; whence, issuing with greater force, it invades contracts between man and man, and from contracts goes on to laws and constitutions, in utter recklessness, ending at last, Socrates, by an overthrow of all rights, private as well as public.

This is clearly a lot more than just one simple quote can represent. Music was, as Plato (and through him Socrates and others) notes in many of his works, music played an important ceremonial and bureaucratic role in Greek society; it was an essential part of formal education, and its forms were strictly controlled because they represented the condition of the state. It’s quite complex and very political. At the risk of overkill, I present the Fowler translation of this section:

“To put it briefly, then,” said I, “it is to this that the overseers of our state must cleave and be watchful against its insensible corruption. They must throughout be watchful against innovations in music and gymnastics counter to the established order, and to the best of their power guard against them, fearing when anyone says that ‘That song is most regarded among men/Which hovers newest on the singer’s lips,’
lest haply it be supposed that the poet means not new songs but a new way of song and is commending this. But we must not praise that sort of thing nor conceive it to be the poet’s meaning. For a change to a new type of music is something to beware of as a hazard of all our fortunes. For the modes of music are never disturbed without unsettling of the most fundamental political and social conventions, as Damon affirms and as I am convinced.” “Set me too down in the number of the convinced,” said Adeimantus.

“It is here, then,” I said, “in music, as it seems, that our guardians must build their guard-house and post of watch.”
“It is certain,” he said, “that this is the kind of lawlessness that easily insinuates itself unobserved.”
“Yes,” said I, “because it is supposed to be only a form of play and to work no harm.”
“Nor does it work any,” he said, “except that by gradual infiltration it softly overflows upon the characters and pursuits of men and from these issues forth grown greater to attack their business dealings, and from these relations it proceeds against the laws and the constitution with wanton licence, Socrates, till finally it overthrows all things public and private.”

It’s clear that the intent is to watch for innovation intended to challenge or subvert the existing order, not innovation or newness per se. So even if the quote is reasonably close to the selectively chosen line, the sentiment behind it is not visible without the full context of the discussion.

So again we have another series of mis-quotes, on Facebook, and spread throughout the internet, contributing to the Orwellian collective stupidity instead of the collective wisdom that the Net should provoke. All I can do is, again, beg for people not to share, to post or to quote without spending the time to confirm the source of the original.

If you don’t do the work necessary to confirm the source, what you post is no better than chain mail and spam. And the gods know we have enough of that online already.


* Facebook is far too often the source of the illiterati’s gaffes of misattributed quotes. Few FB users take the time or have the intelligence to actually verify the source of the material they repost.

**  I put the word in quotation marks because the vast majority of these sites are full of unsourced material, mistakes and misattributions, and are generally as reliable or accurate as sources as homeopaths are for medicine. In other words: sheer anti-intellectual claptrap.
*** Among them but not limited to:

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  4. The earliest version of this quotation I’ve been able to find is in the book ”Music in Its Relation to Intellectual Life,” by Dr. Frédéric Lewis Ritter of Vassar University (1891), p. 48. He writes:

    “Music,” says Plato, “gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, trying to sadness, gaiety and life to everything. It is the essence of order, and leads to all that is good, just and beautiful, of him which it is the invisible, but nevertheless dazzling, passionate, and eternal form.”

    Exactly Where in Plato’s writings he finds that, Ritter doesn’t say.

  5. Here’s a version of the quotation in the book “The Pleasures of Life, Part II” by Sir John Lubbock, Bart., M.P. (Macmillan and Company, London and New York, 1889), p. 120. The author was Vice Chairman of the London County Council, Principal of the London Working Men’s College, and President of the London Chamber of Commerce. The quotation is given as follows:

    “Music is a moral law. It gives a soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, a charm to sadness, gaiety 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.”—Plato

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  7. HAT

    Thank goodness for the comments. I just bought a bookmark for a friend, with this quote, clearly falsely attributed, figuring I’d check the Quote Investigator for the real source … alas! Still no action from that quarter in the past eight years. So, you are performing a public service. Many thanks. And thanks a lot (not), presumably the late Sir John Lubbock.

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  9. Michael

    I’ve just come across this post after seeing the following on Facebook:
    “I would teach children music, physics and philosophy, but most importantly music, for the patterns in music and all the arts are the key to learning.”.
    It’s been on Wikiquote’s Plato Talk page as unsourced apparently since 2009. Could it be a Plato quote?

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