Plato at the Grammys

At the conclusion of an essay in The Atlantic on Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs and the supposed unifying effect of their performance of “Fast Car” at the Grammys (what this has to do with the American Left and Right is beyond me; for some folks, everything has to be about politics, I guess), Peter Wehner says this:[1]

Music has the power to move us, to refine and ennoble our sensibilities, to take us places—sometimes transcendent places—that other things simply can’t. Rhythm and harmony find their way to the innermost soul, Plato wrote, imparting grace.

I thought, I admit, that this quote sounded fake. I was wrong. It isn’t. It’s from Republic 4.401d.

However (you knew there was going to be one of those):

There is more to be said. First, the word rendered “grace.” It’s not what you (probably, or at least might) think it is.

I have no idea whether Mr. Wehner is intending his audience to think of the Christian idea of “grace” that this quote might call to mind, but what Plato says has nothing whatsoever to do with that. The word translated “grace” here is εὐσχημοσύνη [euschēmosunē], not χάρις [charis], the word for “grace” in the Bible. Plato’s word in this passage means “grace” in the sense of “gracefulness, elegance, decorum.” That’s what “rhythm and harmony” can “impart.”

(Permit me a brief digression: that word, χάρις, is found in the original of the quote Robert F. Kennedy used–for similar unifying purposes–from Aeschylus’s Agamemnon 176-83, in Edith Hamilton’s translation, in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Kennedy’s rhetorical move was creative, to say the least, and it would be worthwhile to speculate on possible connections in Kennedy’s mind between the King event and the Agamemnon or the Oresteia as a whole. In any case, though, to return to the point above, even the presence of the word would not necessarily mean that there is substantial overlap with its Christian meaning.)

Second, music doesn’t do this automatically, as though it is some kind of intrinsic property of music to impart elegance or charm to the soul; at least, for Plato, it isn’t. Not even good music has this as a natural effect. Plato goes on to say in the same sentence that music only brings about such elegance for one who is “rightly brought up/reared/educated” [ἐάν τις ὀρθῶς τραφῇ, ean tis orthōs traphē].

Upon someone who has not been so reared or educated, on the other hand, music actually has (again, according to Plato) the opposite effect.

There is a warning here. Should we operate with the general assumption that the Grammys and its audience meet the conditions for the beneficent potentialities of Platonic soul-music?

Call me a downer if you wish; but it seems as if the above might be worth considering before we marshal Plato on behalf of some sort of (all too easy, and, I’m afraid, all too predictable) hypothetical national renewal through pop culture–and I have nothing against pop culture as such, or this song in particular.

This is especially so for at least two reasons. First, the crowds Mr. Wehner runs in have a bad habit of mistaking empty sentimentality and morally earnest scolding for peruasive argument. The prudent reader will be on his guard.

Second, and more serious, is–to repeat–the fact that Plato is talking about music in relation to training or education. What is the state of education in the U.S.? The question is rhetorical. The prudent reader will draw his own conclusions.

I understand, I think, the appeal of what Mr. Wehner is saying. What is worrisome, in my view, is that easy fixes of the sort lauded in the essay in question only serve to mask, not fix, the very real problems of the United States under a feel-good guise.


1 What follows leaves aside the question of whether national unity is really what Mr. Wehner wants. I just scrolled through a list of his recent offerings; I know what my answer is.


Related Articles


Other Articles by

Join our Community
Subscribe to receive access to our members-only articles as well as 4 annual print publications.
Share This