Monday, November 11, 2013

Music, Politics, and Liberalism

Can music move the soul in ways that shape politics by shaping the way of life of a people?  Some political philosophers--such as Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, and Nietzsche--have said yes.  But others--such as Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu--have been largely silent about music, thus implying that music is not important for politics.  As Carson Holloway has argued, we see here the split between the "musical political philosophers" and the "amusical political philosophers."  His intriguing study of music in the history of political philosophy has been published as All Shook Up: Music, Passion, and Politics (Spence Publishing Company, 2001), which was originally his dissertation in political theory at Northern Illinois University.

In Plato's Republic, Socrates insists that "the rearing in music is most sovereign," especially in childhood, because it forms the emotional dispositions of the soul that incline it towards virtue or vice (401d).  Consequently, changes in musical rearing bring changes in political laws; and for that reason, Socrates teaches, the rulers in his best city would have to carefully supervise the musical education of the young and prohibit those kinds of music that would be corrupting (423e-24).  Aristotle seems to agree with this in his account of the education of the young in the best regime (Politics, 1339a11-40b17).

Rousseau and Nietzsche agree with Plato and Aristotle about the political importance of music in shaping human character, Holloway argues, but while Plato and Aristotle want musical rearing to promote a character of rational moderation favorable to moral and intellectual excellence, Rousseau and Nietzsche want music to promote the spirited rule of passion over reason in ways that will foster a noble politics that transcends the ignoble materialism and comfort-seeking life of liberal modernity.

Holloway agrees with Rousseau and Nietzsche that liberal modernity--as represented by thinkers that Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu--is degrading in its teaching that the purpose of politics is only to secure the peaceful pursuit of comfortable self-preservation.  He agrees with them that this low liberal view of human life will not satisfy the deepest longings of the human soul for moral, spiritual, and intellectual excellence.  But Holloway warns that Rousseau and Nietzsche are wrong in trying to promote a new nobility through inflaming the spirited passions: "One wonders whether a nobility so founded can be kept from turning into a kind of admirable barbarism--admirable because of its transcendence of the petty desires for security and comfort which animate modern politics, but barbaric because separated from the restraining reason of the ancients" (142).  The barbarism of this new modern nobility is expressed in the "illiberal modernity" that one can see in Nietzsche's writings (183).  Holloway concludes, then, that we should turn back to Plato and Aristotle in their correct understanding of how the right kind of music can moderate the passions in ways that foster the rule of reason and satisfy the longings of the soul for moral and intellectual excellence.

But if we were to turn back to Plato and Aristotle, we would have to agree with them that music needs to be politically supervised through legal censorship, and most people in modern liberal democratic regimes will not accept this.  Holloway recognizes this problem, and his answer is that because of the "practical impossibility of censorship" in liberal regimes, we must rely on "public persuasion while pointedly shunning the use of governmental coercion" (172).  In support of this, he quotes Aristotle as saying that "when cities utterly neglect the public care, it would seem appropriate for each individual to contribute to the virtue of his own offspring and friends" (Nicomachean Ethics, 1180a31-32). 

So here Holloway embraces the liberal distinction between the state and civil society or politics and culture.  The purpose of a liberal political regime is to protect individual liberty by securing the conditions for peaceful cooperation, which allows for a free society in which the moral and intellectual virtues are cultivated through the largely spontaneous orders of family life and voluntary associations (such as churches, schools, clubs, and business enterprises).  Holloway doesn't seem to realize that in accepting this he is contradicting what he says about the necessarily ignoble character of liberal modernity--its "lowness and banality" and its "timid bourgeois pleasure seeing" that cannot satisfy the "longings of reason for moral nobility and philosophical insight" (178-79).

If Holloway is right that we are by nature "hungry souls" with natural longings for moral and intellectual excellence that might be sustained by certain kinds of music (114-18, 177-84), then won't people in a liberal society seek out the food that will naturally satisfy their hunger?  Doesn't classical liberalism assume that a free society provides the liberty that permits this to emerge as a largely spontaneous order in civil society?

Although Holloway rejects "illiberal modernity" as barbaric, he actually gives support to the illiberal alternatives to liberalism by accepting the illiberal claim that liberalism is necessarily low, banal, and degrading, and by not emphasizing how a liberal society secures the conditions for human excellence.

These thoughts about music, politics, and liberalism were in my mind last Saturday night as I saw the opening night performance of Wagner's Parsifal at Lyric Opera of Chicago.  That will be the subject of my next post.

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