Monday, January 26, 2015

Plato, Alcohol, and Music

Whether it’s Socrates, the Eleatic Stranger, or the Athenian Stranger, the leading character in Plato’s dialogs always values the acquisition of virtue more than any other other goal of life and almost always gets around to the education of youth with regard to virtue. In the Laws (or at least in the first six books of that lengthy conversation, which is all I’m reading this year), Plato concentrates on just two virtues to teach to the young: courage and temperance. He finds that both have a relationship to fear, but he must define two types of fear in order to explain. We fear pain and harm to our bodies, and we fear harm to our soul and reputation. The first fear we have to overcome when the greater good demands it, and the virtue of courage leads us to do what we fear in order to achieve that greater good. The second fear – fear of harm to the soul and reputation – we should inculcate, since it keeps us from doing unwise and impious things; in other words, healthy doses of the second type of fear make us temperate.

So now the problem becomes this: how do we teach our children to despise the one type of fear and reverence the other? The first task is easy and obvious. The curriculum also happens to be in place already both in Plato’s ancient world and in our twenty-first century culture. We begin to teach children courage in the face of pain through gymnastics. The program works, says the Athenian Stranger to his companions in the dialog, because the gymnasium is filled with fearful situations. Every rep brings more pain; every wrestling match brings a new potential for injury.

The second half of the agenda, though, is a bit surprising and would drastically change the face of schools ancient and contemporary. The Athenian Stranger argues that, if we teach our future citizens to diminish the first kind of fear by surrounding them with that fear, analogy dictates that we teach them to augment the second kind of fear by putting them in a fearless situation. And how do we do this? Wine. That’s right. Instead of sock-hops, we should be offering our adolescents regular opportunities for supervised drinking parties! Each student is allowed only a moderate amount, of course. But still. Hmmm.

The Stranger doesn’t approve of unsupervised drinking and thinks it should be outlawed. But he finds one other place for regulated consumption in his ideal state: at the public singfest. Music, he says, can affect a culture more than legislation, especially if all the youth sing all the same songs with all the same kind of lyrical content. And, obvs!, we can’t trust songwriters to pen ditties that are good for the kids. So we should encourage the poets to write songs promoting civic and religious virtue and get everyone in the city together on a regular basis to sing them. It sounds fun and workable at first, but there’s one snag. Naturally, we have to have the old men sing these songs, because we want the most honorable segment of society to model the desired behavior to their heirs. (Women, not so honorable in Plato’s view.) But old men get intimidated, and they can be embarrassed by the age-induced changes in their voices. So we have to eliminate their inhibitions, and the vine-covered hillsides of the Hellenic world provide the perfect means.

So Plato sounds a little irresponsible in parts of this discussion. OK, he actually sounds delusional. Chaperone polite drinking symposia for the youth and then outlaw alcohol for adults? And yet in the rest of the argument he sounds profound and urgently relevant. The ancient philosopher couldn’t have foreseen the power of mass dissemination of electrically recorded music. But we have a culture (or rather a culture of multiple cultures) in which young people all know and sing the same songs of dubious virtuous content. And our country doesn’t want to change the situation. We (collectively, at least) villified Tipper Gore for wanting to put warnings on albums. That’s censorship! What happened to freedom of speech! Well, Plato wants freedom just as much as the next democrat (arguably more than the next Democrat). But he asks: how free is a society raised by musicians who ridicule virtue?

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