previous next
[531a] Or do you not know that they repeat the same procedure in the case of harmonies1? They transfer it to hearing and measure audible concords and sounds against one another,2 expending much useless labor just as the astronomers do.” “Yes, by heaven,” he said, “and most absurdly too. They talk of something they call minims3 and, laying their ears alongside, as if trying to catch a voice from next door,4 some affirm that they can hear a note between and that this is the least interval and the unit of measurement, while others insist that the strings now render identical sounds,5 [531b] both preferring their ears to their minds.6” “You,” said I, “are speaking of the worthies7 who vex and torture the strings and rack them8 on the pegs; but—not to draw out the comparison with strokes of the plectrum and the musician's complaints of too responsive and too reluctant strings9—I drop the figure,10 and tell you that I do not mean these people, but those others11 whom we just now said we would interrogate about harmony. [531c] Their method exactly corresponds to that of the astronomer; for the numbers they seek are those found in these heard concords, but they do not ascend12 to generalized problems and the consideration which numbers are inherently concordant and which not and why in each case.” “A superhuman task,” he said. “Say, rather, useful,13 said I, for the investigation of the beautiful and the good,14 but if otherwise pursued, useless.” “That is likely,” he said.

“And what is more,” I said, I take it that if the investigation15 [531d] of all these studies goes far enough to bring out their community and kinship16 with one another, and to infer their affinities, then to busy ourselves with them contributes to our desired end, and the labor taken is not lost; but otherwise it is vain.” “I too so surmise,” said he; “but it is a huge task of which you speak, Socrates.” “Are you talking about the prelude,17” I said, “or what? Or do we not know that all this is but the preamble of the law itself, the prelude of the strain that we have to apprehend? For you surely do not suppose that experts in these matters are reasoners [531e] and dialecticians18? “ “No, by Zeus,” he said, “except a very few whom I have met.” “But have you ever supposed,” I said, “that men who could not render and exact an account19 of opinions in discussion would ever know anything of the things we say must be known?”

1 This passage is often taken as another example of Plato's hostility to science and the experimental method. It is of course not that, but the precise interpretation is difficult. Glaucon at first misapprehends (cf. p. 180, note a, on 529 A) and gives an amusing description of the mere empiricist in music. But Socrates says he does not mean these, but those who try to apply mathematics to the perception of sound instead of developing a (Kantian)a priori science of harmony to match the mathematical science of astronomy. Cf. also p. 193, note g, on 531 B, W. Whewell, Transaction of the Cabridge Philos. Soc. vol. ix. p. 389, and for music A. Rivaud, “Platon et la musique,”Rev. d’Histoire de la Philos. 1929, pp. 1-30; also Stallbaum ad loc., and E. Frank, Platon u. d. sog. Pyth.,Anhang, on the history of Greek music. He expresses surprise (p. 199) that Glaucon knows nothing of Pythagorean theories of music. Others use this to prove Socrates' ignorance of music.

2 This hints at the distinction developed in the Politicus between relative measurement of one thing against another and measurement by a standard. Cf. Polit. 283 E, 284 B-C, Theat. 186 A.

3 πυκνώματα(condensed notes). The word is technical. Cf. Adam ad loc.But, as ἄττα shows, Plato is using it loosely to distinguish a measure of sense perception from a mathematically determined interval.

4 Cf. Pater, Renaissance, p. 157. The phrase,ἐκ γειτόνων, is colloquial and, despite the protest of those who insist that it only means in the neighborhood, suggests overhearing what goes on next door—as often in the New Comedy.

5 Cf. Aldous Huxley, Jesting Pilate, p. 152: “Much is enthusiastically taught about the use of quarter tones in Indian music. I listened attentively at Lucknow in the hope of hearing some new and extraordinary kind of melody based on these celebrated fractions. But I listened in vain.” Gomprez, Greek Thinkers, iii. pp. 334-335, n. 85, thinks that Plato “shrugs his shoulders at experiments.” He refers to Plutarch, Life of Marcellus, xiv. 65, and Quaest. Conv. viii. 2. 1, 7, where Plato is represented as “having been angry with Eudoxus and Archytas because they employed instruments and apparatus for the solution of a problem, instead of relying solely on reasoning.”

6 So Malebranche, Entretiens sur la métaphysique, 3, x.: “Je pense que nous vous moquez de moi. C’est la raison et non les sens qu'il faut consulter.”

7 For χρηστός in this ironical sense cf. also 479 A, Symp. 177 B.

8 The language of the imagery confounds the torture of slaves giving evidence on the rack with the strings and pegs of a musical instrument. For the latter cf. Horace, A.P. 348, “nam neque chorda sonum reddit quem vult manus et mens Poscentique gravem persaepe remittit acutum.” Stallbaum says that Plato here was imitated by Aristaenetus, Epist. xiv. libr. 1τί πράγματα παρέχετε χορδαῖς;

9 This also may suggest a reluctant and a too willing witness.

10 Cf. on 489 A, p. 23, note d.

11 He distinguishes from the pure empirics just satirized those who apply their mathematics only to the data of observation. This is perhaps one of Plato's rare errors. For though there may be in some sense a Kantian a priori mechanics of astronomy, there can hardly be a purely a priori mathematics of acoustics. What numbers are consonantly harmonious must always remain a fact of direct experience. Cf. my Platonism and the History of Science, p. 176.

12 Cf. Friedländer, Platon, p. 108, n. 1.

13 Cf. Tim. 47 C-D. Plato always keeps to his point—cf. 349 B-C, 564 A-B—or returns to it after a digression. Cf. on 572 B, p. 339, note e.

14 Cf. on 505 B, p. 88, note a.

15 μέθοδος, like πραγματείαν in D, is used almost in the later technical sense of “treatise” or “branch of study.” Cf. on 528 D, p. 178, note a.

16 Cf. on 537 C, Epin. 991 E.

17 Plato is fond of this image. It suggests here also the preamble of a law, as the translation more explicitly indicates. Cf. 532 D, anticipated in 457 C, and Laws 722 D-E, 723 A-B and E, 720 D-E, ;772 E, 870 D, 854 A, 932 A and passim.

18 Cf. Theaet. 146 B, and perhaps Euthyd. 290 C. Though mathematics quicken the mind of the student, it is, apart from metaphysics, a matter of common experience that mathematicians are not necessarily good reasoners on other subjects. Jowett's wicked jest, “I have hardly ever known a mathematician who could reason,” misled an eminent professor of education who infers that Plato disbelieved in “mental discipline” (Yale Review,July 1917). Cf. also Taylor, Note in Reply to Mr. A. W. Benn, Mind, xii. (1903) p. 511; Charles Fox, Educational Psychology pp. 187-188: “ . . . a training in the mathematics may produce exactness of thought . . . provided that the training is of such a kind as to inculcate an ideal which the pupil values and strives to attain. Failing this, Glaucon's observation that he had ‘hardly ever known a mathematician who was capable of reasoning’ is likely to be repeated.” On the text cf. Wilamowitz, Platon, ii. pp. 384-385, and Adam ad loc.

19 λόγον . . . δοῦναιA commonplace Platonic plea for dialectics. Cf. 534 B, Prot. 336 C, Polit. 286 A, Theaet. 202 C, 175 C, 183 D, Soph. 230 A, Phaedo 78 C-D, 95 D, Charm. 165 B, Xen.Oecon. 11. 22. Cf. also λόγον λαβεῖνRep. 402 A, 534 B, Soph. 246 C, Theaet. 208 D, and Thompson on Meno 76 D.

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License.

An XML version of this text is available for download, with the additional restriction that you offer Perseus any modifications you make. Perseus provides credit for all accepted changes, storing new additions in a versioning system.

load focus Notes (James Adam)
load focus Greek (1903)
hide Places (automatically extracted)

View a map of the most frequently mentioned places in this document.

Download Pleiades ancient places geospacial dataset for this text.

hide Dates (automatically extracted)
Sort dates alphabetically, as they appear on the page, by frequency
Click on a date to search for it in this document.
1929 AD (1)
July, 1917 AD (1)
1903 AD (1)
hide Display Preferences
Greek Display:
Arabic Display:
View by Default:
Browse Bar: