One Small Voice

The Journal of Peter Saint-Andre

Notes Toward an Aristotelian Philosophy of Music


In Book VIII of his Politics, Aristotle talks about music: its role in ancient Greek education, its differences from the other arts, and its philosophical significance. This is not an in-depth exploration of the philosophy of music (what I wouldn't give for his lost work Ρερὶ Μουσικῆς), but more of a cursory glance. Yet through extrapolation we can tease out some meaning from his discussion.

Aristotle wonders why the ancients had legislated music (along with language and physical exercise) as one of the three primary areas of study for Greek youth, given that it is not especially useful (in the sense that physical exercise conduces to courage, or knowledge of the Greek language helps one succeed in community interactions). He notes that music is not merely pleasant but that it is one of the highest forms of leisure - a fitting adornment to the life of a free people. Yet this is not enough, for he also wonders whether music has some ethical purpose by prodding one to become a better person.

He concludes that this is indeed the case, for several reasons:

  1. Music as free play bears a likeness (ὁμοιώμα) to the purpose or goal (τέλος) at which one's more weighty actions aim, i.e., at εὐδαιμονία or living well.
  2. This likeness extends more deeply, because the rhythms and melodies and harmonies of music themselves bear a likeness to excellent states of character such as courage, self-control, mildness, or justified anger (at one point he even says that they are not just likenesses but representations or μιμήματα, whereas in the visual arts one finds only signs or indications or excellent states of character).
  3. Making good judgments about a likeness accustoms one to making good judgments about the things to which it bears a likeness; thus learning to make and appreciate music accustoms one to making good judgments about how best to live.

What Aristotle does not elucidate is the exact nature of the likeness. However, based on our knowledge of his writings on ethics and psychology we can make some informed guesses. In De Anima, Aristotle describes ψυχή or aliveness (usually translated "soul") as what gives overall form to the body, and in the Nicomachean Ethics he describes each ἀρετή (thriving or excellence of character) as a deliberate practice of good judgment, reasoned choice, and planned activity resulting in a balance between extremes in a particular domain of human life. Just as ψυχή is the form or guiding force of the body, so ἦθος or character is the forming, directing, guiding influence over your bodily motions and emotions, your actions and reactions. In a similar way, perhaps rhythms and melodies and harmonies impose an order or balance on the emotional expressions of music by forming and shaping them in a way that is mindfully attuned to a certain state of character. Although ψυχή is not itself a harmony, it brings all the aspects of a living being into harmony so that the animal can achieve its innate goal or purpose (for humans, the goal of εὐδαιμονία); and music as aliveness and thought expressed through time achieves similar effects.

Furthermore, Aristotle holds that the best actions and states of character are not only good but also pursued for the sake of beauty. For instance, he describes civic courage (defending one's community in battle out of a feeling of obligation or for avoidance of shame) as not even true courage in comparison to courage acted upon because it is the right and beautiful thing to do; similarly for generosity, friendship, and other excellences of character. Just as ethical beauty can be exhibited in a wide range of balanced and mindful actions and reactions (even in your manner of dying), so also music can be beautifully sad or joyous or poignant or powerful or even angry, and can beautifully represent many different states of character. This is why Aristotle thinks the beauty of music suits the best way of life; yet an Aristotelian philosophy of music would not countenance that which is merely pretty, the kind of music-box banality that sounds nice but has no depth or stature, but instead encourage the musical ambition (of scale, sublimity, virtuosity, excellence, and beauty) to match his conception of "greatness of soul" in ethics.

Finally, although Aristotle and the ancient Greeks in general believed that the life of a musician lacked a certain nobility (they thought all the arts were too mechanical), today we would see musical creativity as a form of θεωρία or inquiry because the composer or performer engages in a deep exploration of the possibilities of musical materials and tonal space. Indeed, I would argue that good musical judgment and good musical taste are instances of the Aristotelian intellectual virtues of phronesis and sophia, and thus that the pursuit of musical wisdom is one path toward philosophy as a way of life.

The foregoing is but the merest sketch and does not delve into the specifically musical aspects of a philosophy of music (melody, harmony, rhythm, time, tone, texture, deliberate practice, improvisation, ornament, composition, performance, etc.); nor does it indicate how to apply these principles to a wide variety of musical styles and genres (even just in Western music that would include medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, classical, romantic, and modernist art music as well as jazz, blues, folk, rock, etc.). To expand this kernel of a idea into a worthwhile contribution to the philosophy of music, I would need to complete a great deal of research and reflection. Maybe I'll do that after I finish writing a book on Aristotle's ethics...


Aristotle Research Report #4: ἀρετή


I'm starting to see that Aristotle's conception of ἀρετή (which I translate as thriving but which is more commonly translated as excellence or virtue) describes a deliberate practice of good judgment, reasoned choice, and planned activity resulting in a balance between extremes of action and emotional reaction in a particular domain of human life.

Example: frugality or financial responsibility (not an ἀρετή that Aristotle discusses, by the way). Money troubles are one of the greatest sources of stress in modern times, so doing well in this domain is important to your happiness and success in life. Furthermore, let's say that in your later years you would like to pursue a more beautiful existence through philanthropic activities, devotion to a craft, or a life of inquiry - all of which require you to build up a financial cushion. To achieve your goals, you can't hope to win the lottery or get lucky with a hot investing scheme. Instead, you need to cultivate a deliberate practice of financial responsibility consisting of numerous activities that are based in clear perception, honesty with yourself, good judgment, and other mental thrivings. Such activities might include dedicating a large percentage of your salary to savings, paying your bills on time and in full, saving up for large expenditures, not incurring debt, thinking about the long-term impact of even small costs (like going out to lunch every day), budgeting for and understanding your expenses, investing reasonably without succumbing to fear and greed, etc. You won't learn such practices in philosophy class, but they are directly connected with living well because they help you face financial crises with equanimity, take care of yourself and your family, and engage in finer pursuits later in life.

Failings, too, are practices (say, prodigality or financial irresponsibility as an excess in this area - much more common than the deficiency of cheapness). There is judgment involved, but it's poor judgment. There is choice involved, but it's unreasoned choice. There is planning involved, but for misguided activities (e.g., trips to Las Vegas to shop and gamble). There is willful ignorance instead of constructive knowledge, self-deception instead of truthfulness, etc. All of this bespeaks a stunted humanity in one area of your life - which can bleed over into many other areas, or the whole of it.

Because philosophy is the love and practice of wisdom, a good and deliberate practice in any important domain of life (work, love, family, health, finance, friendship, thought, emotion, etc.) is a philosophical endeavor and an application of philosophical insight to a life well lived. This is the role of ἀρετή in human existence.


Aristotelian Questions


My intent in writing a book on Aristotelian ethics is not to present exactly what Aristotle said (I'll leave that to scholars such as J.O. Urmson in his excellent epitome Aristotle's Ethics), but hopefully what he meant and even more pointedly what he means for us 2300+ years later. The goal is to present my own direct encounter with Aristotle, unmediated by millennia of often misguided scholarship and mistranslation. (Ironically, we need some scholarship to do that, so separating the wheat from the chaff is necessary.) Here are some of the questions I'll be trying answer:


Aristotle: A First Encounter


Aristotle's views on living well and doing well - what the ancient Greeks called εὐδαιμονία or eudaimonia - are some of the most enduring insights into ethics ever put into words. Yet the deepest meaning of those words is usually obscured by efforts to translate and interpret Aristotle's thoughts. In part the problem is linguistic, in part it is cultural, but ultimately it is philosophical: ancient Greek world views, Aristotle's among them, are very far from our modern ways of thinking and feeling.

Consider some key concepts in Aristotle's ethical philosophy.

First, εὐδαιμονία (eudaimonia). Although it's usually rendered as "happiness", we moderns associate happiness with a pleasurable feeling, whereas it was something much deeper to the ancients. A daimon was an inner god or the divine aspect of a human being. To be eudaimon was to have a good inner god or to be well-favored in personal divinity, and thus to flourish and to fulfill your highest potential - as Aristotle defined it, to "live well and do well".

Second, ἀρετή (arete). Those who translate it as "virtue" make Aristotle sound like a good Victorian. Others translate ἀρετή as "excellence", which is closer to the mark but implies that the quality is fundamentally comparative. Pursuing a hint from the Greek verb ἀρετάω (meaning to prosper, to fare well, to thrive), I use the Anglo-Saxon word "thriving" to capture this important idea.

Third, ψυχή (psyche). Two millennia of Christianity make the word "soul" sound otherworldly to us, but for the ancients ψυχή was the breath of life. Because Aristotle held that all animals and even plants have ψυχή, I render it as "aliveness".

Similarly with ἕξις or hexis (a settled state of being, not a mindless habit), ὄρεξις or orexis (striving, not appetition), διάνοια or dianoia (thinking, not intellection), θεωρία or theoria (active inquiry, not passive contemplation), σωφροσύνη or sophrosune (self-control, not temperance), φρόνησις or phronesis (good judgment, not prudence), μεσότης or mesotes (balance, not "the mean"), ἔργον or ergon (work, not function), καλός or kalos (beauty, not nobility), ἠθικός or ethikos (having to do with character, not morals), and many other terms: I render them in novel ways to set Aristotle's thoughts into sharp relief. I also do not shy away from using the Greek words themselves, untransliterated into the Latin alphabet, so that you don't forget we're dealing with a deeply foreign conception of the good life.

As I see it, the essence of that conception is this:

Aristotle held that εὐδαιμονία consists of living a life worthy of a human being. We humans are thinking and striving animals, whose aliveness is more complex than that of other animals; whereas they strive for things based on relatively immediate feelings of pleasure or pain and on short-term desires to obtain or avoid things, we are also thinking beings who have abstract understandings of the world and who pursue long-term plans and purposes. Thus, for humans, a worthy life is the beautifully harmonious work of thinking aliveness (whose goal is achieving a true understanding of what is) and striving aliveness (whose goal is achieving our long-term plans and purposes, guided by that true understanding). The forms in which we thrive are settled states of mind like knowledge, good judgment, and wisdom along with settled states of character like courage, justice, and self-control. Each of these thrivings is a balance between behavioral and emotional extremes, in a way that is appropriate to your individual disposition, abilities, and situation.

In my book A Worthy Life, I will unpack and explain that conception as best I can.


Songs of Zarathustra Now Published


My short book on Friedrich Nietzsche, Songs of Zarathustra, is now published in paperback and ebook formats, and of course also on my website. Once again both the form and the content are unorthodox: I construe Nietzsche in a more humanistic way than most interpreters, and I do so in a cycle of 73 brief poems (including translations of some of Nietzsche's own verse). Neither aspect is likely to endear me to academics, but then I don't write for a scholarly audience - even though my books are based on a deep reading of the original texts.

By the way, if you've already bought the book, please note that I found a typo on page 34 the other night (in my translation of Nietzsche's poem "Interpretation", I corrected "life" to read "lift"); I'd be happy to send you a corrected copy.

Songs of Zarathustra is conceptually the second (and chronologically the fourth) volume in my series of books on the art of living. I'm already working on the third volume, comprising an epitome of Aristotle's ethics (tentatively entitled A Worthy Life).


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