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Grace, Gracelessness & Rhythm: The importance of harmony and beauty in Human life.

Four Dancing Muses,

Zoan Andrea.


Today’s sharing from the Blue House of Via-HYGEIA is an excerpt from Plato’s ‘Republic’ concerning art, music education and harmony. Plato’s Republic can be considered as many things, but of it all it is a singularly great metaphor that explores the relationship between truth and reality. Besides its political aspirations and influences, it introduces a unique kind of epistemology that brings together selected elements from the Greek tradition, including some and leaving out others. This piece is from Book III where Socrates and Glaucon are laying out the educational foundations of their Politiea or Republic. For the so-named Guardians of the polis, the maintainers of the city it is as much important to have a musical education composed of poetry, rhythm and mode as to have a rigorous disciplinary physical training if the guardians are to care for their citizens and not become savage beasts devouring all.


Socrates: But you can discern, can’t you, that grace and gracelessness follow good and bad rhythm respectively?

Glaucon: Of course.

Socrates: Further, if, as we said just now, rhythm and mode must conform to the words and not vice versa, then good rhythm follows fine words and is similar to them, while bad rhythm follows the opposite kind of words, and the same for harmony and disharmony.

Glaucon: To be sure, these things must conform to the words.

Socrates: What about the style and content of the words themselves? Don’t they conform to the character of the speaker’s soul?

Glaucon: Of course.

Socrates: And the rest conform to the words?

Glaucon: Yes.

Socrates: Then fine words, harmony, grace, and rhythm follow simplicity of character—and I do not mean this in the sense in which we use “simplicity” as a euphemism for “simple-mindedness”—but I mean the sort of fine and good character that has developed in accordance with an intelligent plan.

Glaucon: That’s absolutely certain.

Socrates: And must not our young people everywhere aim at these, if they are to do their own work?

Glaucon: must, indeed.

Socrates: Now, surely painting is full of these qualities, as are all the crafts similar to it; weaving is full of them, and so are embroidery, architecture, and the crafts that produce all the other furnishings. Our bodily nature is full of them, as are the natures of all growing things, for in all of these there is grace and gracelessness. And gracelessness, bad rhythm, and disharmony are akin to bad words and bad character, while their opposites are akin to and are imitations of the opposite, a moderate and good character.

Glaucon: Absolutely.

Socrates: Is it, then, only poets we have to supervise, compelling them to make an image of a good character in their poems or else not to compose them among us? Or are we also to give orders to other craftsmen, forbidding them to represent—whether in pictures, buildings, or any other works— a character that is vicious, unrestrained, slavish, and graceless? Are we to allow someone who cannot follow these instructions to work among us, so that our guardians will be brought up on images of evil, as if in a meadow c of bad grass, where they crop and graze in many different places every day until, little by little, they unwittingly accumulate a large evil in their souls? Or must we rather seek out craftsmen who are by nature able to pursue what is fine and graceful in their work, so that our young people will live in a healthy place and be benefited on all sides, and so that something of those fine works will strike their eyes and ears like a breeze that brings health from a good place, leading them unwittingly, from childhood on, to resemblance, friendship, and harmony with the beauty of reason?

Glaucon: The latter would be by far the best education for them.

Socrates: Aren’t these the reasons, Glaucon, that education in music and poetry is most important? First, because rhythm and harmony permeate the inner part of the soul more than anything else, affecting it most strongly and bringing it grace, so that if someone is properly educated in music and poetry, it makes him graceful, but if not, then the opposite. Second, because anyone who has been properly educated in music and poetry will sense it acutely when something has been omitted from a thing and when it hasn’t been finely crafted or finely made by nature. And since he has the right distastes, he’ll praise fine things, be pleased by them, receive them into his soul, and, being nurtured by them, become fine and good. He’ll rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself.

Glaucon: Yes, I agree that those are the reasons to provide education in music and poetry.



When Plato says that a person with a true education in music and art “rightly object to what is shameful, hating it while he’s still young and unable to grasp the reason, but, having been educated in this way, he will welcome the reason when it comes and recognize it easily because of its kinship with himself.”, he is yet to reveal an important aspect of art that feeds the soul. He emphasizes this aspect in Book VII-525a in discussing the importance of arithmetic: “If the one is adequately seen itself by itself or is so perceived by any of the other senses, then, as we were saying in the case of fingers, it wouldn’t draw the soul towards being. But if something opposite to it is always seen at the same time, so that nothing is apparently any more one than the opposite of one, then something would be needed to judge the matter. The soul would then be puzzled, would look for an answer, would stir up its understanding, and would ask what the one itself is. And so this would be among the subjects that lead the soul and turn it around towards the study of that which is.” This statement is self-referential given the motivation of this dialogue. It is against Thrasymacus’ arguments that justice is the advantage of the stronger that Glaucon and Adeimantus compel Socrates to build an argument to show that justice is a virtue desirable for its own sake. In response Socrates decides to build a hypothetical city, a metaphor where justice would be conspicuous. If it weren’t for the opposition put forward by Thrasymacus the soul of this book, Socrates, wouldn’t have attempted to study Justice as it is. Even though Plato appears to institute a tight supervision over the image-builders, i.e. the artists, he himself remains one great literary artist by building the image of Justice under the form of the Republic.


Source: The Republic 400d-402a, Plato, tr. C.D.C. Reeve and G.M.A. Grube, Hackett Publishing.
Grace, Gracelessness & Rhythm: The importance of harmony and beauty in Human life.

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