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Tyrannical attitudes and titanic aspirations are not uncommon among musicians. Naïve patrons might believe that such characteristics necessarily accompany a strong, creative personality. Further still, some believe that these are only downsides of focused energy and creative determination and should in fact be nourished especially among public performers. A musician, so that view goes, who seeks to be successful must form single-minded desires, must crave spectacular fame and must pursue recognition relentlessly. She must nurture her powerful passions with extreme aesthetic or subjective convictions in the interest of music, in the pursuit of musical exposure and even regardless of the impact on others.

It is striking to note that Plato seems to suggest that a ruthless and extreme character of this kind may not even be a true musician. Book IX of the Republic contains a lengthy discussion about the nature and evolution of the tyrannical disposition. This discussion between Socrates, Glaucon and Adeimantus concludes with the suggestion by Socrates that the wise man “will always be found attuning the harmonies in his body for the sake of the concord in his soul.” Glaucon agrees with this conclusion. “By all means”, he replies, “if he is to be a true musician.” (Jowett translates: “If true music is found in him...”)

What is the feature of a tyrannical disposition? How does it come about? According to Plato everyone is potentially subject to a “terrible, fierce and lawless brood of desires”. The question is whether we allow these to determine our character and to form our existence and our habits without reflection or restraint. Plato suggests that a lack of proper education allows tyrannical habits to form. Absence of rigorous formation leads to unbalanced personal characteristics, pathological states of desires and amplified ruling passions. The tyrannical person develops because she is unable to resist the “indwelling tyrant Eros” and forms corresponding tyrannical habits and patterns of behaviour.

In circumstances of a pervasive liberal or democratic education – so Plato- a tyrannical disposition may in fact overwhelm and corrupt selected possibilities of the individual. This corruption progresses in a parasitic way: Unrestrained instincts capture desires which are found initially in a balanced context. These are converted into self-serving, self-sufficient subjective values and narcissistic aims. The tyrannical disposition operates entirely in the realm of appearance: assuming a “pomp and circumstance” it dissolves a functional harmony by amplifying single voices from a concordance of psychic forces. It suppresses the sound of legitimate desires. It denies without shame and without conscience any requirements for rational attunement or justification. In its relations with others, it seeks to establish power by forming associations of advantage and corruption and by nourishing its position through flattery and fear.

Plato’s understanding of the soul is relevant here. According to Republic IX the soul is driven by three “appetites and controls”: love of learning or wisdom, love of honour or victory and love of gain or money. The meaning and the validity of some of these values, however, is derivative. Honour and gain must be validated by reason. Rooted in appearance, the objects they seek are not necessarily able to fill the soul with meaningful or even pleasurable content. Such content can only be established if the will to power is committed to learning, understanding and wisdom. Without this grounding, the desires for honour and gain become tyrannical and the person becomes essentially unhappy, her soul devoid of meaningful pleasure.

How does this relate to the true musician? The brief comment in the Republic makes the suggestion that the true musician is in fact the person who is able to harmonise and attune the forces of her soul and character. This attunement takes place in relation to the love of learning or wisdom. In this sense the musician achieves the same as the philosopher: he listens to logos. That point seems to be further elaborated in the dialogue Laches where Plato defines as musical a person of particular disposition: “I take the speaker and his speech together, and observe how they sort and harmonize with each other. Such a man is exactly what I understand by ‘musical’- he has tuned himself with the fairest harmony, not that of a lyre or other entertaining instrument, but has made a true concord of his own life between his words and his deeds, not in the Ionian, no, nor in the Phrygian nor in the Lydian, but simply in the Dorian mode, which is the sole Hellenic harmony. Such a man makes me rejoice with his utterance, and anyone would judge me then a lover of a discussion, so eagerly do I take in what he says” (Laches, 188d).

According to this understanding what we say and what we do, the word and the deed are not automatically or accidentally aligned. They require an active will to harmony. Such a will must seek the guidance of reason. It accepts the priority of thinking and reflection in a search for understanding. This still implies an intuitive step in which we listen to- and hear the voice of reason. Such an attention allows the true musician to breach the abyss that naturally separates our reflections from our actions. He can do so with ease and confidence and on the basis of a will to harmony of action and reflection within his soul. If, however, this will and the love of learning are overwhelmed by a will to power, by amplified desires for gain and victory, the musician ceases to be true to himself. She turns into a tyrannical person finding herself constantly in the realm of action and at odds with human essence. The symptoms of such fundamental dissonance are an incessant flight and a pervasive fear. Plato’s point thus seems to be that amplifying a will to power in tyranny silences music while denying a will to harmony in ignorance corrupts the musician.