As part of my quest to understand Straussian reading I have been reading The Republic. Written by Plato 2400 years ago. Allegedly this is a good book to read deeply because Plato had a lot of thoughts on society which he was trying to sneak past the censors. Which makes sense because the book is all about Socrates talking about how he thinks the government should be set up, and Socrates got executed for… something. Apparently the precise rationale for why Socrates got executed has been lost in the mists of time. Or just immediately deleted by those censors.

Anyway, if I were Plato I’d be pretty worried about saying something inappropriate in a book too. I would not be surprised if Plato were veiling some of his true beliefs here. I’ve been reading through it and thinking a whole lot about it while I’m reading it, trying to get all esoteric, and it does seem more interesting than when I read it more lazily back in high school.

One thing that surprised me is how much talk about music there is in The Republic. If I were writing about the ideal form of government nowadays, I would take it for granted that music was pretty irrelevant. The Constitution doesn’t talk at all about what sort of music leads to the ideal form of government.

But the Socratic theory of good government is way more focused on, first we need to think of what sort of people are good leaders. And then we need to figure out how our society can educate those qualities into people. Socrates brings up music here immediately:

“What is the education? Isn’t it difficult to find a better one than that discovered over a great expanse of time? It is, of course, gymnastic for bodies and music for the soul.”

“Yes, it is.”

“Won’t we begin educating in music before gymnastic?”

“Of course.”

“You include speeches in music, don’t you?”, I said.

“I do.”

“Do speeches have a double form, the one true, the other false?”


“Must they be educated in both, but first in the false?”

“I don’t understand how you mean that,” he said.

“Don’t you understand,” I said, “that first we tell tales to children? And surely they are, as a whole, false, though there are true things in them too.”

If you are like me, then at first this passage just seems like total nonsense. The key is that the word “music” used to mean “any activity inspired by the Muses”. Music, poetry, art, literature, myths, all of those things were conflated together, at least in the word itself and in the way Socrates talks about it here.

But it seems like in practice they would be conflated, too. It makes sense if you think about it - in a world with few books, you can’t really have literature as we know it today. You can, however, have epic poems like the Odyssey. But when you’re putting together an epic poem, the music might be just as important as the words.

Or in a world where the lawsuits weren’t settled by a judge as much as they were by a jury of 501 or more people, and instead of a lawyer you would commonly hire a speechwriter who would draw parallels to epic poems to make the case, because those epic poems are the main shared moral values in your society, there might be less of a difference between “studying law” and “studying music” than you might think.

Just imagine if you had to be a great musician, to be a great lawyer.

Nowadays it seems like music is basically just for entertainment. I wonder if we have lost something.

It’s a little crazy, but I can think of one case where music really helped in my education. The song Fifty Nifty United States. I memorized that thing in third grade and to this day I can still use it to reel off the names of all fifty states. My kids find this quite entertaining, because to them the names of the states are just nonsense words and they’re impressed by how much nonsense I can speak in one fell swoop.

What if there was an epic poem that taught you calculus? Just memorize this one epic poem, and if you forget how calculus works, no problem just sing that song to yourself until you get to the part about integrating by parts.

Might work better than drill and kill.