The ethics of music – ēthos and mimēsis

Here are three quotes from three very different people:

‘Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.’

‘Politics is downstream from culture.’

‘A city’s musical fashions never change without a change in the most important laws as well.’

The first of these is a line from the ‘Defence of Poetry’ by Percy Bysshe Shelley – the poet, womanizer, and radical activist at the forefront of England’s Romantic movement in the nineteenth century. The second is a favourite saying of Andrew Breitbart – the American political firebrand whose website, breitbart.com, became an incendiary platform for zealous supporters of Donald Trump after Breitbart’s own early death. The final quote is attributed to Damon of Athens.1 Damon was the controversial fifth-century BC musical theorist and intellectual whom many suspected of pulling the strings behind Pericles’ rise to power over the Athenian people.

These three would have agreed on very little else, but they are all unanimous on this point: art shapes politics. The trends which direct public life are formalized in legislation, but they get their start in the theatre and the concert hall. That idea goes right back to ancient Athens, where music was understood to be a powerful force for cultural change. According to Damon and other influential Greek thinkers, it was music that had the power to shape the hearts and change the minds which would eventually conceive the city’s laws. At first glance, it might seem like music theory is a long way off from political theory these days – like Spotify and Carnegie Hall are a far cry from the mess and mudslinging of Congress and Parliament. But in the view of some ancient Greeks, harmonies and rhythms were powerful tools for shaping the moral character of young men, who would in time grow up to lead governments and pass legislation. For those who believed this, even a small change in musical fashions meant a seismic shift in the values and laws that governed civic life. Where did they get that idea?

The answer lies in the notion of ēthos – character. As far back as the eighth century BC, Greek poets and thinkers connected different kinds of music with different kinds of personality, emotion, or disposition. By the fifth century, in Classical Athens, this had become a kind of conventional wisdom: melodies and rhythms were thought to have an emotional flavour or feeling which made a song into more than just a pretty tune. One typical way of making this claim was to associate different keys or ‘modes’ (sequences of intervals which dictated the notes that could be played in a song – see Chapter 7) with different moods. The Dorian mode, for example, was supposed to sound manly, brave, and forceful: it was good for expressing military courage. The Mixolydian mode, by contrast, had a reputation for being dramatic and mournful: it suggested the most abject kinds of wailing and grief.

We have similar ideas about our own music nowadays. There’s a kind of simplified popular notion that minor-key songs sound sad and major-key songs sound happy, and some songs do fit this pattern well. Beyoncé’s ‘Love on Top’ is an example of a stereotypically ‘major-key’ number – bright, poppy chords, chipper lyrics, and an upbeat tempo. Meanwhile ‘Summertime,’ the melancholy jazz number that opens George Gershwin’s tale of love and loss, Porgy and Bess, is in A minor.

But things aren’t really so simple. Taps, the melancholy bugle call which memorializes soldiers slain in battle, only uses three notes – and they’re three of the most important notes in the major, not the minor scale. Meanwhile, the Beatles’ wistful ‘Yesterday’ is rooted in a major scale but incorporates lots of minor chords which help give the track its air of regretful nostalgia. Generalizations like ‘minor is sad and major is happy’ get at basic trends, but the reality in practice is much more complex. Songs can express many more moods than just ‘happy’ and ‘sad,’ and the difference between those moods doesn’t just boil down to different types of scale. Metre, tempo, interpretational choices in live performance – all these things and more give a song its emotional colour.

Something like this was true in Athens too: there was a huge array of rhythms, scales, and musical styles (see Chapters 7 and 8), and thoughtful musicians noticed that these differences made for different kinds of mood in each song. But that elaborate musical diversity could get oversimplified in layman’s terms or even in philosophical theory. So Plato, in his Republic, suggests an invariable link between military courage and the Dorian mode: only Dorian can ‘represent the pronunciation and intonation of someone being manful in military action’ and facing down enemies with steely-eyed determination. He assigns similarly rigid roles to the other modes: Phrygian tunes mean steadfast temperance, but the Mixolydian equals tears and histrionics.

Other thinkers may not have been quite so strict about the rules. Aristoxenus (the music theorist whom we met in Chapter 1) seems to have been one of the people who believed that it was foolishness to assign one emotion to one mode in a simplistic way. Instead, Aristoxenus suggested that all of a song’s features come together to create an emotional experience. There is a unique profile of tempo, rhythm, mode, melody, and so on that helps make each song what it is – these many stylistic and structural details make Handel’s ‘Hallelujah Chorus’ feel different from, say, Kanye West’s ‘Heartless.’ For those who followed Aristoxenus’ thinking, a song’s emotional coloration resulted from this complex blend of different musical features.2

What does any of this have to do with ēthos – with character? For many Classical Greek philosophers, a person’s moral character was closely connected to the different kinds of emotions that person tended to feel. In fact, Aristotle argued that the word ēthos (with a long ‘e’) came from the word ethos (with a short ‘e’), meaning ‘habit’.3 According to this line of reasoning, one’s moral character is determined in part by how one habitually feels in various given situations.

So, for instance: if someone were sitting quietly at home with a coffee when suddenly an ogre broke down the door and demanded to duel to the death, he or she might react in a number of ways. Maybe this is the kind of person who would typically react to that situation by feeling terrified, which in turn would prompt him or her to run frantically away and hide behind the nearest throw pillow. That would mean this person had the vice of cowardice. But maybe another person could be counted on to react with confidence, feeling ready or even excited to face the ogre down. That person could be said to have the virtue of courage. When certain emotional responses get engrained in us and become habitual, they contribute to our virtues and vices – they become aspects of our moral character.

The point of all this for us is: according to people like Plato and Aristotle, music didn’t just make its listeners feel a certain way. Over time, it conditioned those listeners to feel that way routinely, and so it helped shape their moral characters. To give a very basic example: if you were repeatedly exposed to lots of Dorian-mode songs with lyrics about winning glory in battle, then your soul would be trained to associate feelings of triumph and courage with ideas of battle and valour. The modern equivalent would be grooming soldiers by making them listen to rousing anthems like ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’ while they train. Then when the time came to charge into the fray, they’d instinctively get fired up with feelings of resolve that would prompt them to take on their enemies without flinching. That is, the music they listened to would have shaped their characters, which would make them more likely to act in the right kinds of ways. Roughly speaking, that’s how music was usually linked with ēthos – songs produce emotions, which form moral habits, which stimulate ethical actions (the word ēthos is where we get our modern word, ‘ethics’).

Plato and Aristotle weren’t the only ones who believed these things. For example, one second-century-BC Stoic philosopher, Diogenes of Babylon, wrote a book On Music in which he adopted Plato’s view almost exactly.4 There are popular anecdotes preserved by all sorts of authors which tell how masters like Damon and Pythagoras used certain kinds of songs to develop students’ virtue, or to calm rowdy lads out on the town whose parties had gotten out of hand.5 These are probably just tall tales, but there’s a kernel of truth in them: musicians and musicologists in Classical Athens thought their craft had great power to direct young people’s development towards emotional and ethical maturity. In fact, this opinion was accepted widely enough that we only have one early objection to it, preserved on a papyrus from the third century BC. The author of this ‘Hibeh Papyrus’ had to dig in his heels against a number of self-styled musical experts who ‘say that some songs make people self-disciplined, others prudent, others just, others brave, and others cowardly.’6 It’s clear that this was a belief with more than a little currency: the kind of music you listen to helps shape the kind of person you become.

Ancient Greek scholars offered a lot of different explanations why music had this kind of power. I already gave a hint about one such explanation, one which very quickly gained lots of traction. When I quoted Plato’s assertion that the Dorian mode can ‘represent the pronunciation and intonation’ of a particular kind of speaker, I was translating a notoriously untranslatable Greek word: mimēsis. In its most basic and broad sense, mimēsis means any kind of mimicry or reproduction (it’s where we get words like ‘mime’). This noun (and the related verb, mimeisthai) was used to describe children playing make-believe and adults imitating foreign accents.7 In Aristophanes’ comedy, Frogs, the goofy weakling Dionysus dresses like the brawny champion Heracles in the hopes that some of the hero’s derring-do (and social clout) will rub off on him. Dionysus tells Heracles that this getup is kata sēn mimēsin: that is, ‘in imitation of your style.’ Dress-up, imitation, play-acting – these ideas have obvious connections to what artists do when they try to represent the world around them in paintings or on the stage. So mimēsis quickly became associated with the artistic act of ‘representation’ or even ‘depiction.’

Plato used mimēsis in all these ways, and he was especially concerned with dramatic mimēsis at the theatre and in concerts. He had a lot of different and sometimes quite opaque worries about the kind of mimēsis that artists perform. For one thing, in Book 10 of the Republic, he seems concerned that arts like painting are deceptive because they present flimsy copies of the things we see around us in the world, which are themselves only pale shadows of an ultimate, ideal reality beyond our own. But those more abstract ideas won’t really come into play until the next chapter, when we think about music and the galaxy. For now we can focus on another, more pedestrian kind of artistic mimēsis: the expressive imitation involved in onstage performance.

Here’s something screamingly obvious: when an actor acts, he pretends to be somebody else. If I play the part of Oedipus the King, I’m trying to move in particular ways and speak with particular inflections that make my audience understand what kind of person Oedipus is: in a certain sense, I want you to see and hear Oedipus, not me. I have noted already that much of theatre in fifth-century Athens was musical, and that much of the most popular music was performed onstage. Tragic and comic performances, kitharodic solos, recitations of Homer: these all came with their own rhythms and melodies or sing-song intonations. And all of them involved ‘playing a part’ or ‘putting on a character’ to some extent. In the Iliad Book 1, for example, Homer tells the story of Apollo’s old priest, Chryses, who implores the Greeks to give back his beloved daughter. Plato says that when Homer – or anyone reciting Homer – delivers Chryses’ speech, the artist behaves ‘as if he had become Chryses.’8 That’s even more true for actors: an Athenian man onstage would have used every tool at his disposal to transform into Oedipus, or Dionysus, or Orestes – from his mask and his costume to the motions of his hands and the sound of his voice.

Especially the sound of his voice. Even today, the human voice is one of the most powerful tools for artistic expression. In a massive ancient theatre with top-notch acoustics, audiences would have listened to hear the story and the characters brought to life in speech and song. The way the actors used their voices would have helped to express how their characters were feeling, and what sort of people they must be to feel that way.

Here is another, less obvious fact: Ancient Greek has what’s called a pitch-accent. This is a set of markings over particular syllables which dictate where the pitch of the voice has to travel, even when you’re speaking without music. Everyone who reads Greek has seen these accents plenty of times, but not everyone knows what they’re there for. The acute accent (ˊ) tells the speaker to go up in pitch. The circumflex (˜) means a rise up followed by a fall back down, and the grave (ˋ) means that, even though this syllable usually has an acute accent, it doesn’t in this case and the speaker shouldn’t raise his or her pitch. So with higher sounds written in boldface, lower ones in plain type, and vowels which slide from low to high and back again written in bold capital letters, here is a basic approximation of how one might read aloud Antigone’s line from Sophocles’ play, ‘behold me, oh citizens of my fatherland,’ or, ὁρᾶτ᾽ ἔμ᾽, ὦ γᾶς πατρίας πολῖται: horAt’ em O gAs patrias polItai (line 806).

What this means is that even regular everyday Greek speech had a kind of melodic quality to it. In fact, the first-century-BC literary critic Dionysius of Halicarnassus called this movement the ‘melody of spoken language’ – the predictable motions of the speaking voice up and down in pitch.9 The more traditional musicians tried to match the melodic contours of their songs to these ‘natural’ contours of spoken pitch, so that the tunes their characters sang made a kind of heightened representation of the way they would speak in real life. An actor in a play or a character in a sung narrative wouldn’t only say the kind of words that character would say – he could actually sing them on the kind of melody that the character would use in speech.

And so, for traditionalists, melody and rhythm were an important part of the mimēsis that actors and songwriters make in their art. If I’m a brave soldier facing down an enemy, I’m going to choose different words, with different pitch-accents, than if I’m a coward getting ready to head for the hills (thus I might exclaim, ‘bring it on, ogre!’ rather than, ‘I say, it appears I’ve soiled myself’). Artists who depict those different kinds of characters, then, can use melodies to communicate those feelings and the movements in pitch that they generate.

There’s more. Recall that moral characteristics like cowardice were connected in Greek theory to emotional experiences like fear. Those emotional experiences were themselves connected to pleasure and pain: a theorist of this kind might have said that brave people, for example, take pleasure in honourable victory and feel pain at the very idea of ignominious defeat. And those pleasures and pains actually push their souls in specific directions. Plato, in the Laws, uses the image of a puppet being pulled by strings: the pleasure that good citizen-soldiers feel pulls them in the direction of valour, leading them on into battle at the appropriate moment rather than pushing them away into retreat.10 Which means that moral qualities are made out of movements, just like the melody of speech is made out of movements. As the soul moves towards triumph and away from shame, the words one speaks and the songs one sings move up and down the scale to imitate those soul-motions – to make a mimēsis of them. Think of Henry the Fifth in Shakespeare’s play, desperately outnumbered but rousing his men to the charge: ‘once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more’ (Henry V Act 3, Scene 1, line 1). On the Greek stage, those words could have been sung with a stirring Dorian melody that captured the pull Henry feels towards the glory of one final valiant charge, and the push he’s giving his troops to follow him.

Again, the reality was more complicated. For one thing, innovative composers often broke the pitch-accent rule, using their melodies to express unexpected emotions or surprize the audience by moving in different ways than normal speech would. And, of course, actors could do much more than just move up and down the scale: they could sing louder or softer, or emphasize certain words, using the full array of musical variety to express the full range of emotions. All of those details could go into producing a nuanced musical performance expressing powerful and complicated feelings.

Many of these ideas have roots deep in Greek history and thought, not just among scholars like Plato or Aristotle but also among poets and musicians themselves. Ancient Greeks as far back as Homer drew links between personal character and musical habits: in Book 3 of the Iliad, Homer has the Trojan hero Hector scold his brother Paris for being overly interested in playing his lyre – as if that had softened his manly resolve and left him unsuited for war.11 Aeschylus, who wrote our earliest surviving Greek tragedies, says that the sound of trumpets in battle stimulated such courage that it ‘set fire’ to the hearts of those who heard it.12 We’ve seen already how certain kinds of music were assigned to men and others to women, and there were those in Athens who felt that Damon’s own musical research was part of a sinister secret plot to sway the hearts and minds of powerful Athenian politicians like Pericles.13 In theory and in practice, in and out of Athens, in the fifth century and beyond, music in ancient Greece was much more than just noise: the songs you listened to, and the way you listened to them, swayed your emotions and so became part of your identity and your role in society.

Music in society

By now we’re starting to see why Damon might have thought music was so important for politics. ‘A city’s musical fashions never change without a change in the most important laws as well’: if melodies and rhythms mould young souls, and young souls grow up to be state leaders, and state leaders get to write laws, then a society’s musical tastes are the seeds of its legal and political systems. The moral character of the elite boys whose musical education we studied in Chapter 4 was therefore crucially significant. It would have mattered intensely to parents and teachers that such boys be raized with the right tunes in their ears.

That’s why Plato won’t allow the youngsters who will eventually lead his perfect Republic to listen to anything other than the Dorian and Phrygian modes. It’s why Aristotle’s comments about musical education come at the end of his book on Politics, which itself is the sequel to his book on the moral formation of young men, the Nicomachean Ethics. Looking back on the history of Rome, Aristides Quintilianus wrote that ‘when the body politic had experience with leaders who lacked musical acculturation, she witnessed the reality of what Plato prophesied in the Republic – she saw her citizens ruthlessly shedding one another’s blood.’14 The musical training of a city’s impressionable leaders-to-be was literally a matter of life and death for anyone who would live under the laws written by those same young people.

This wasn’t just an abstract intellectual exercize for the Athenians. Think of all the parts of life in ancient Greece which had music at their centre. Consider again the slaves who entertained their masters at drinking parties, and the boastful songs the masters themselves would sing to show off their skills. The trumpet tunes that Greek generals would use to rouse soldiers into battle. The musical celebrations that were awarded to leaders and noblemen when they won athletic competitions, and the pride which Athenian leaders took in hosting musical contests of their own. Consider, too, that the songs we now think of as music were only supposed to be the audible version of a much bigger mousikē – an overarching social, moral, and cosmic order which governed the whole universe. Athenians in the ancient world heard songs almost everywhere they went, and those songs were more than just a background soundtrack. They were statements about how life ought to be lived, tools for teaching the public and reinforcing – or, in the wrong hands, undermining – the social order.

Maybe this seems silly. When Plato outlaws artists like Homer and the tragedians from his ideal state because their songs don’t portray the right kind of morality, he often sounds to modern readers like a fussy old curmudgeon at best, and a kind of proto-fascist at worst. The notion of a society getting so worked up about art that they would condemn musicians to exile feels foreign, even primitive – imagine a piano teacher having to flee the country because she taught too much Brahms and not enough Bach.

But we go too far if we dismiss Greek concerns about musical morality as outdated and irrelevant to our own enlightened age. For one thing, the idea of keeping Homer and Euripides away from impressionable young minds only sounds absurd because ancient authors have an air of dignity and cultural cachet for modern readers – to us, these are paragons of high culture. Teachers and parents go to great lengths to encourage their protégés to read Greek epic, not to forbid it. But read just these three lines from the Iliad: ‘the stone crushed both his temples, and the bone didn’t hold firm – his eyeballs fell out on the ground in the dust at his feet.’15 The poem is shot through with innumerable moments like this which describe and even relish the hideous violence of war in lurid detail. If we filmed these moments in a movie – if we really took them seriously not just as highbrow poetry but as graphic and powerfully affecting imagery – we probably wouldn’t let young children watch them. Modern parents, just like Plato, tend to monitor the content their children take in, shielding them from more adult themes until they’re ready.

In fact, parents today have still more in common with Plato and Damon. Plenty of sensible adults are concerned about the effects that musical rhythms and melodic patterns can have on growing minds. One need only google ‘negative influence of heavy metal’ or ‘dangers of hip-hop’ to find article after article wondering whether hardcore club music is bad for tender young listeners – not only because of misogyny and aggression in the lyrics, but because of the developmental effects of throbbing beats and repetitive melodies. In 1987, the University of Chicago Professor Allan Bloom published his explosive book, The Closing of the American Mind, in which he argues that university students are being corrupted by, among other things, the vicious sensuality laced through music by such beloved stars as Mick Jagger. Those students, wrote Bloom, ‘know exactly why Plato takes music so seriously. They know it affects life very profoundly.’

Some of these modern concerns are more focused on content – on what is said in a song’s lyrics – than on the rhythmic and melodic forms that so worried ancient theorists. But modern commentators worry about form too: in 2009, the American Academy of Pediatrics published an article entitled ‘Impact of Music, Music Lyrics, and Music Videos on Children and Youth,’ in which was cited a range of studies about the neurological and emotional influences exerted by certain kinds of rhythm and melody. The same set of debates was brought back into the public eye in 2018 when Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for his album, DAMN. Central among the controversies which swirled around that award was the question whether Lamar’s music could be considered morally suspect, and whether that made it unsuitable for a place of high cultural honour.

What this comes down to is: Greek fears about ēthos might sound old-fashioned at first, but we still have to reckon with similar anxieties about music and art. In fact, we use music as a social and political tool too: at athletic events, for example, we use songs to bind people together, to express and to engrain shared values, no less than Peisistratus did in Athens. Now just as then, musical culture is a high-stakes moral and political game. I began this chapter by quoting Damon alongside Percy Shelley and Andrew Breitbart – two much-maligned figures with very different views, but united with Damon in their conviction that, in Breitbart’s words, ‘politics is downstream of culture.’

Many people through the years have found these ideas challenging and troubling. Even those who want to take music seriously may still be vehemently opposed to limiting the free range of its expression. Those who disagree most strenuously with Plato feel that art can and should present not only the admirable parts of human life but also the dark and perverse corners of our experience – not just the triumphs that make us noble but the pain and anguish that make us human. Forbidding musicians to explore such emotions won’t prevent the rest of us from feeling them – it will only repress our expression of them.

But for those who feel that way, it’s important to wrestle with the full force of Plato’s arguments – and with those of Damon and Shelley and Breitbart and Bloom. We can’t write them off as fuddy-duddies or scoff at them as if we were past all that. To the contrary, a deeper understanding of the Greek ideas in this chapter is vital for anyone who wants to argue robustly against them. It remains an enduringly open question how parents should help their children to grow into morally responsible leaders and adults, and what role musical training should play in that process. But Homer and Aeschylus, Damon of Athens and Diogenes of Babylon – for all their flaws – remain important and worthwhile interlocutors in this ongoing debate. In many cases, the terms in which that debate is framed and the consequences which are associated with it go directly back to fifth-century Athens, and to the musical ideas we have been studying all throughout this book. Those ideas are not only historical relics or arbitrary abstractions – they are central sources for our own modern quest to live commendable lives and govern just nations. There are few more pressing reasons to study Greek music.

Some further reading

Mimēsis and ēthos are both fiendishly difficult concepts to understand. But for a more detailed study of the former word and its afterlife beyond Greece, it’s hard to do better than Stephen Halliwell’s book, The Aesthetics of Mimesis (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002). For the latter concept, one classic is Warren D. Anderson’s Ethos and Education in Greek Music (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1966).

The Blackwell Companion to Greek and Roman Music has sections on ‘Conceptualising Music’ and on ‘Music and Society’ with several entries relevant to this chapter: see especially Destrée’s ‘Musical Ethics,’ and Csapo and Wilson’s ‘Music and Politics in Greece.’ For more advanced study, a classic is Csapo’s ‘Politics of the New Music’ (in Music and the Muses, edited by P. Murray and P. Wilson, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 207–48).

Those keen for more on Damon can review the very comprehensive gathering and analysis of sources published by Robert W. Wallace, Reconstructing Damon (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). But a must-read to understand the changes Plato probably made to Damon’s views is Tosca Lynch, ‘A Sophist “in Disguise” ’ (Etudes Platoniciennes volume 10, 2013) – available online at https://journals.openedition.org/etudesplatoniciennes/378.

An engaging new book by Armand D’Angour, Socrates in Love (London: Bloomsbury, 2019) gives a perspicuous overview of Pericles’ social and intellectual circle, Damon included (chapter 4, ‘The Circle of Pericles’).

Diogenes of Babylon’s musical work is buried within the badly damaged prose of Philodemus’ De Musica. The most recent edition is by Daniel Delattre (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2007). For a clarifying analysis of this difficult text, see Linda Woodward, ‘Diogenes of Babylon Reading Plato on Music’ (in Aristotle & the Stoics Reading Plato, edited by V. Harte, M.M. McCabe, R.W. Sharples, and A. Sheppard, London: Institute of Classical Studies, 2010, pp. 233–53.

To get better acquainted with the gorier bits of Homer, check out the endlessly amusing and impressively virtuosic infographic from Greek Myth Comixhttp://greekmythcomix.com/comic/deaths-in-the-iliad-a-classics-infographic/.

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