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Ancient Philosophy


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Mind-Body Problem

Plato on Music, Soul and Body by Francesco Pelosi (Cambridge University Press) Plato's reflection on the relationship between soul and body has attracted scholars' attention since antiquity. Less noted, but worthy of consideration, is Plato's thought on music and its effects on human beings. This book adopts an innovative approach towards analysing the soul—body problem by uncovering and emphasising the philosophical value of Plato's treatment of the phenomenon of music. By investigating in detail how Plato conceives of the musical experience and its influence on intelligence, passions and perceptions, it illuminates`the intersection of cognitive and emotional functions in Plato's philosophy of mind.

FRANCESCO PELOSI obtained a Ph.D. in philosophy at the Scuola Normale Superiore in Pisa. His main field of research is the relation between music and philosophy in ancient Greece.

As we have said, music seems to offer a valid point of view in the study of the mind—body question in Plato, in as much as it presents itself as an experience in which sensible and intelligible content reaches the soul by means of the body. How this process comes about and exactly which psychic and physical components are involved are the questions that will be considered in the present study. Nonetheless, with a certain assurance and as a preliminary step, it would seem possible to make out two different areas in Platonic reflection on music: sensibility and rationality.

In a series of passages, Plato examines the possibility of using music for the cure of the psyche, with particular attention given to the components most linked to the body and senses; the characteristics of the recipient determine the processes through which such treatment is made. Thus we can interpret the elaboration of the ambitious project of a musical life in the ideal State that takes shape in Resp. and in Leg. II and vu. Music is conceived as a means of curing the soul, but a soul that has notable implications with the body. It concerns moulding a young psyche, that does not have a well-developed rationality and therefore is at the mercy of the body's needs; it also concerns leading or restoring an adult psyche, exposed to the negative conditioning (including musical!) encountered in life, to a correct equilibrium, which permits it to properly manage the connection with the sensible dimension. Therefore, in both cases, it concerns working on the shady areas of the psyche, where the non-rational needs lie. The techniques used to reach, solicit and condition these psychic tendencies must, therefore, make use of non-rational channels, and in this phase Plato takes advantage of the powerful capacity of music to communicate without logical mediation. Here we will find ourselves recording and analysing Plato's first reaction to the risk that music be received and appreciated only, or for the most part, in its sensible component: a forceful reaction that led to the meticulous project and rigid control of an ideal musical life, that is modelled on ideal content.

Two instances describing the music—soul interaction seem to me to present interesting grounds for reflection on the soul—body dynamic. The description in terms of a physical action (the action of the moulding of the soul on the part of music, for example) and in terms of a magical action (musical enchantment). To begin with, I have examined a passage from the Laws (790c-791b), which seems to contemplate the possibility of intervening, with musicality and rhythm, on the emotivity, otherwise unmanageable, of very small babies. The philosophical value of a lullaby lies in the possibility of its re-establishing the correct psychic movements without appealing to reason, in a psyche that does not have (or no longer has, following embodiment) a functioning rationality.

In a treatment of Plato's reflections on musical paideia in Resp. II—III and the Laws II and vii, the longest and most demanding analyses will be those dedicated to the theories of ethos and musical mimesis. As indicated, such theories constitute difficult testing-grounds and at the same time precious opportunities for the numerous questions that they provoke around the interaction of music, body and psyche. It seems reasonable to me to suppose that the`body of convictions known as 'the theory of musical ethos' should undergo a deep examination and in some sense be remodelled by contact with Platonic psychology. It is necessary to grasp the psychological dynamics that Plato considered operative behind the traditional conviction that music has the power to influence human behaviour. In the attempt to comprehend why music can make itself a vehicle of precise ethical values and instil them in the soul, there often arises the need to remember what kind of complex musical reality we have before us and to try to distinguish between the artistic forms that make it up and their own expressive and representative faculties.

Beside the musical treatment of sensibility, the analysis of an intervention of music on rationality would seem to be defined with a certain precision in two different reflections that I examine in the second and third chapters. In the Timaeus, when Plato endeavours to explain the profound benefits of the art of music for man, he appears to be referring to the use of music as a specific cure for the rational soul. Tim. 47c—e presents the intervention of music on the rational psyche as an activity on a structure that has a delicate harmonic equilibrium. The suggestive image of a soul that, through music, retunes its circles, upset in their reciprocal rapports by contact with the body, presents two difficulties: comprehending the description of music's direct and profound action on the soul, and understanding the role taken on, in the reception of music, on the one hand by the act of perception, and on the other by the psyche in its various components. In a reading of Tim. 47c—e, through an analysis of psychology and physiology in the Timaeus and the other passages on music in the dialogue, I will endeavour to clarify the psychophysical mechanisms hidden within the musical movements of the rational soul. It will be a question of evaluating the nature of entities like the psyche, the body and music, and the possible interactions between them, and to understand how the intervention of music conditions the cognitive and emotive mechanisms of the psyche. It seems to me that the interpretations that underline the close interconnection between soul and body in the Timaeus and lay emphasis on the spatial nature of psychic movement find various reasons for confirmation in the reflection on music within this dialogue.'

More linear, although not less problematic, is the further consideration of an intervention of music on rationality. It concerns the treatment, in Resp. vii, of the science of harmony as a discipline that is propaedeutic to dialectic. The condition with which music, as harmonic science, is admitted into the preparatory curriculum for future dialecticians is that it makes itself a science of the conversion from the sensible to the intelligible. It is without doubt on this occasion that there emerges, in the most obvious manner, the balancing act to which Plato is confined, when considering and opportunely using the sensible and intelligible components of music. Furthermore, it is on this occasion too that, most clearly, the equilibrium breaks, in favour of the intelligible component, and contact is lost with the sensible dimension of music. This does not constitute a problem just for Glaucon in the Republic, or for future dialecticians engaged in understanding the type of study Socrates is prescribing, but also for our analyses.

To avoid this impasse we will take another route through the dialogues, following sound and metaphors of sound: we will analyse the psychophysical mechanisms with which music is received and understood, and the musicality of the psychic structure (ch. 4). The return to the dimension of sound will pass firstly through the consideration of those passages in which Plato pays particular attention to acoustic phenomena and perceptive mechanisms. The analysis of the passages in the Timaeus (67a—c, 8oa—b) in which Plato reflects on some acoustic stimuli — single sounds and sounds of different pitch, produced simultaneously — and on the perceptive mechanisms necessary to receive them creates a picture that shows the relationships tying sound to the hearing process, and the relationship between body and soul in acoustic sensation. But once again, the facts do not present themselves at all easily, raising various questions about the ways with which the mental and corporeal dimensions enter into relationship with each other. The reflection on sound and hearing makes up a part of the elaboration of a theory on perception, characteristic of the late dialogues, that carries important consequences on the relationship between sensible and sentient and on the relationship between body and psyche in the perceptive process. It seems necessary to me, taken up with the study of passages with a well-defined content in the sense of the theory of music, to analyse them not only in relation to the physiology and the psychology of the Timaeus, but also to the ancient acoustic theories, preceding and succeeding Plato, in the conviction that philosophical and musical theories can throw light on each other.

In the final part of the work I will attempt to recount the destiny of the notion of psychic harmony in Plato's work. To begin with the first occasion, in the Phaedo, where it appears to then be rejected, and end up with the description of psychogony in the Timaeus, passing by the musical metaphors of the Republic. Through the notion of psychic harmony we can run through the reflection with which Plato defines, with relevant differences from one dialogue to another, the structure of the soul, in parallel with the mediation on the relationship that it maintains with the body.

The description of the soul in terms of musical structures, characterised by an articulation of varied components, places an emphasis on the complexity of the psyche. Such an emphasis seems to augment over an ideal journey that goes from the Phaedo to the Timaeus, regarding the rational soul itself in this last dialogue. At this point, music no longer offers valid metaphors to describe the structure of the soul, but does offer the instruments to create it. The World Soul and the rational human soul of the Timaeus see the light through processes dictated by musical criteria: psychogony is at the same time a creation of music, and the structure, made by the orbits, of the soul is also a musical structure. We do not necessarily have to chose between a literal and a metaphorical reading of the description of psychogony; we can adopt an intermediary approach. It is certainly not possible to give a philosophical explanation of all the strange operations that the demiurge carries out when creating the soul, and perhaps we are not even obliged to do so: psychogony too is, on the whole, a 'likely account', that cannot be paraphrased in a perfectly rational form (see below, Conclusion). Nonetheless, the description of the structure of the soul does not only refer to the 'cosmic soul's faculties of cognition and motion'. The material construction of the soul in the Timaeus, although not significant in all its`details, should be taken seriously, in such that on the whole it carries a message of great importance in the Platonic reflection on the soul and its relationship with the body: the cognitive and kinetic faculties of the psyche have a spatial projection. And perhaps it is not by chance that Plato places music in the soul at the same moment in which he begins to think of the psyche as gifted with spatiality.

The main objective of this book has been to understand if and how the Platonic analysis of the musical phenomenon can throw light on Plato's ideas of the relationships between soul and body and of cognitive, emotive and perceptive processes. But it has also been necessary to confront general themes relative to ancient Greek music, in two areas in particular: the theories on the representative, expressive and formative possibilities of music; and the acoustic theories of the creation, diffusion and perception of sound.

With regard to the first of these areas, the analysis of musical paideia in Resp. and Leg. II and vii has brought to light a notion of mousike with two distinct characteristics: (r) its ability to represent very precise contents and to impress them on the psyche; (2) the close interconnection between its components (words, harmony, rhythm and dance), according to precise hierarchical relationships. We should certainly not ignore the ideal and projective character of mousike; nevertheless we can consider (r) and (2) typical aspects of ancient Greek music, at least to a certain extent and at a certain point. That which Plato attempts to invigorate, and ends up by transforming, is a traditional ideal of music.

The analysis undertaken in this study has offered lines of inquiry that lead to an understanding of the relationship between (I) and (2). When considering the representative and formative powers of mousike we should bear in mind that it could count on various languages to communicate its contents. But this does not mean that mousike is more communicative because it can make use of, for example, the expressivity of words and dance movements: every single component seems to have its own specific representative and expressive power, and to contribute to the global expressiveness of mousike. The requirement that the elements of mousike have opportunely correlated between themselves derives from this awareness and not from the idea that some elements have scanty 'ethical' powers.

As stated beforehand, I have concentrated above all on the component of sound in mousike: harmony and rhythm. I considered the particular communicative possibilities of music in the strict sense and the association that it has with the other elements of mousike. It is beyond doubt that, in the light of the treatments of the harmoniai and rhythm in the Republic and the Laws, Plato does not deny representative and formative powers to absolute music. He constrains and subordinates music to the verbal contents of mousike not because, for him, music is not able to 'speak', but on the contrary because it does so effectively and in ways that present risks. The necessity to avoid music freeing itself from words is connected to the need to control an elusive form of communication: a way of checking music is entrusting it with the same contents as verbal communication, which is more manageable because it is more comprehensible with rational instruments. As we know, beyond the project of an ideal paideia, the reality is quite different: while Plato preaches the need for music to fall into line with poetic text, the divorce between music and word has already irreparably occurred, and music is more free to speak its effective and `dangerous' language.

How should we take the idea that it is possible to translate mental states and ethical contents into sounds, and that it is possible to provoke a psychic and moral response in the listener? Not in the manner in which we say today that a piece of music is happy or sad and solicits analogous states of mind (on a basis of tonality, for example). The contents and mechanisms of musical communication, as they emerge in Plato's writings, seem to be something more precise and more incisive altogether, and capable of touching the moral sphere. It is likely that, in some cases, there is a certain level of artificiality in the operation with which Plato, like other supporters of theories of musical ethos, assigns a moral content to specific sound structures. But, beyond single connections, what is interesting is to ascertain on which musical and psychological theories the possibility of establishing these connections is based. As we have seen, there is a perceptible difference between the passages in which Plato seems to appropriate themes of the current theories and beliefs and the passages in which the connection between music and the psyche is reconstructed and renewed by means of the reflection that he is conducting on the soul. The theory of ethos presupposes a pregnant meaning of the representative faculties of music and the interaction between music and psyche{ but such a theory is a description more than an explanation of the impact that music has on the soul. We can consider some passages of the dialogues as attempts to find an answer to questions that the theory of ethos raises, but does not resolve.

Moving on to the second area of music handled in this book, we note that the aspect conferring an original perspective to the acoustic reflections in the Timaeus (67a—c) is without doubt the perceptive theory to be found in the dialogue (and in the latter dialogues in general). I refer, in particular, to the 'psychologisation' of the perceptive act and the role that perception plays in the birth of sensible qualities. In Tim. 8oa—b, Plato takes up the perception of concord: an experience that is anything but banal in a musical practice characterised for the most part by a succession of sounds; nevertheless an experience that exists to some extent, if the philosophers speak of it while examining other questions (cf. Arist. De sensu). Plato endeavours to find a solution to reconcile the idea that the pitch of a sound depends on its speed of propagation with the idea that symphonia is the simultaneous perception of two sounds of different pitch. The solution that he provides is highly complex, not entirely clear and convincing, and only partially advanced to resolve the acoustic question, but it merits consideration for its value in terms of musical theory.

In relation to the nucleus of this work, a notion has imposed itself with great frequency as the most appropriate to describe the processes of interaction between soul, body and music: the notion of movement. It has appeared to be operative in different contexts, both in the musical treatment of sensibility and in that of rationality, revealing itself to be a kind of hub around which the soul—body—music dynamic in Platonic reflection rotates. Music, as a kinesis, can soothe infants by opposing the psychophysical movement of fear. Music, as a movement, can instil moral qualities and condition emotions and sensations. And finally music, as a movement, acts on a disturbed rationality, restoring its balance and functions. Movements too are the sensations of pleasure that music brings, and the nexus between the different artistic forms in which mousike expresses itself.

All this is hardly surprising if we consider that movement indeed constitutes a characteristic trait common to soul, body and music. Starting with the soul (to aeikineton, Phaedr. 245c5-9) that has an essential character in the best of movements, the circular; turning to the body, characterised by six movements that lack regularity (cf. Tim. 43b); and ending up with music, whose kinetic character is the background of the entire Platonic treatment, even if it only emerges explicitly in certain passages, for example Tim. 47c—e. Certainly, to appreciate the role of movement as a hub around which the interaction of soul—body—music circles we must free ourselves of the Cartesian lenses.

Indeed the most relevant contribution that a reflection on music offers to the study of a philosophy of the mind in Plato consists in illuminating the area of intersection between psychic and physical, which in a dualist perspective tends to remain hidden. The references to music reveal deep interrelations between sensible perception, emotion and reason: reason is involved in the perceptive processes; on the other hand the emotions have a cognitive function. In particular, many of these themes emerge in the Timaeus. In music's intervention on the rational psyche, contemplated in this dialogue, themes of the reflection on a musical conditioning of the sensibility can be found; at the same time, ideas regarding the nature, processes and structures of rationality come to light. In such a way, the reflection on music in the Timaeus builds a bridge between the potency of music on sensibility and on rationality.

To reflect on the nature of music and what it signifies to listen to it, understand it, make use of it and enjoy it leads Plato to the crucial question of the relationship between the sensible and intelligible contents of mousike and the impact that they have on sensibility and the intellection of man. I have advanced the hypothesis that Plato's attitude with respect to the question is conditioned by the psychophysical subject that he means to handle with music and the manners of treatment. The twofold nature of the musical phenomenon assumes a series of different expressions in relation to its psychophysical interlocutor.

Music enters the dialogue between soul and body to direct it towards positive results, but in the meantime it complicates it. I have shown that the attempt to use music successfully and the attempt to describe the nature of soul and body and their relationship are strictly connected in the Platonic agenda. We have found Plato's possible response to the question of how soul, body and music interact in the notion of movement. But we must remember the occasions on which, faced with such a notion, we have received the impression that it did not take into account many psychophysical implications of the musical experience. Perhaps the most relevant case is Tim. 47c—e: the description of the interaction between music and the rational psyche in terms of the contact between similar movements does not account for many aspects of the musical experience, even those weighed up by Plato in the Timaeus itself. The notion of movement seems the most appropriate to describe something destined to remain inexpressible, in its essence.

Plato seems to be well aware that complex interactions between musical, psychic and corporeal movements exist. He decides to investigate them and study their effects, and he finds the way to use them for philosophical purposes. But there exists no definitive explanation in the dialogues of how these interactions come to pass. The treatment in the Timaeus, very illuminating at various points in our analysis, could now conceivably offer us a further clue. Perhaps we should apply Timaeus' famous affirmation in which in some circumstances we must content ourselves with an eikos mythos to the soul—body—music interaction as well.' Timaeus' 'prelude' (29d4-6) closes with the observation that the discourses are 'akin' to that which they are examining: discourses on something that represents the model cannot aspire to show the level of verisimilitude of those that look at what is stable and certain (29b3—c2). And Timaeus' song' begins with a reflection on how God created the physical world and put 'thought within the soul and the soul within the body' (3ob4-5: noun men en psychei, psychen d'en somati), to then speak through a 'likely account' (30b7: kata logon ton eikota). The interaction of the soul with the body and the interaction of these entities with music belong to the phenomenal dimension, that has the value of an 'image' on which there can be given a verisimilar (more or less verisimilar, depending on the context) account, but not a true one. Are we thus invited, in a similar manner to Socrates in the Timaeus (29c4— d3) not to be surprised if this analysis has failed to produce discourses that are exact and coherent with each other (homologoumenous logous kai apekribomenous) around the soul—body—music relationship? And must we therefore content ourselves with a 'likely account'?

I believe that the answer is affirmative, and not only, obviously, with respect to the treatment of music in the Timaeus. Plato confronts the necessity and difficulty of describing the relationship between soul and body and at the same time of underlining the distinction between the two entities. He also tackles the predicament of describing how music interacts with the soul and body. It seems to me that the two difficulties are linked and destined to be resolved more on a metaphorical plane than a rational one. The descriptions in mythical terms of the soul and its location in a corporeal entity are numerous, in confirmation of the fact that one cannot rationally account for the psyche, an intermediate reality between the sensible and the intelligible (Brisson 1982; 2007, z6). We have also seen how rich the images of a musical order of the soul are, above all in the Republic. Figurative elements are also found where Plato decides to show how the communication between soul, body and music comes about. This is the manner in which I believe we should interpret the notion of movement of which I spoke above. It is not a 'true' explanation, which is perfectly rational and coherent in every detail, but a 'likely' interpretation of a reality of becoming: what happens when the soul and body experience music. Like an eikos mythos, it does not have a demonstrative rigour, but it does possess the strength to strike and fascinate some of our psychic components.


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