Why does Plato hate the flute/aulos? And what does this have to do with women?

Why does Plato hate the flute/aulos? And what does this have to do with women?

These people, largely uneducated and unable to entertain themselves over their wine by using their own voices to generate conversation, pay premium prices for flute-girls and rely on the extraneous voice of the reed flute as background music for their parties. But when well-educated gentlemen drink together, you will not see girls playing the flute or the lyre or dancing, but a group that knows how to get together without these childish frivolities, conversing civilly no matter how heavily they are drinking (Protagoras 327d).

Plato hates the auylos (a double-reeded instrument that often gets translated somewhat deceptively as ‘flute’). Hates it. For example, in order for the philosophical conversation in Symposium to begin, they have to kick out the flute girls (who can keep on playing for the other women, but who must leave the men alone for real ‘conversation.’) (176e). Plato indicates the conclusion of this part of the evening by having immoderate Aristophanes burst in “accompanied by the shrieks of some flute-girl” (212c). Plato demonstrates Aristophanes’ own drunken, lustful immoderation by having him compare Socrates to a “piper” (215ish): Aristophanes says Socrates is as enchanting as a flute-playing satyr, but all this is evidence of is Aristophanes’ own irrational, excessively maudlin crush on Socrates. Socrates is actually the paragon of moderation; that Alcibiades could even think he is otherwise is evidence of Alcibiades’ own skewed/immoderate state of mind. But the point is that flute-playing is a sign of immoderate, slavish, feminine unruliness. For example, in Republic III Plato argues that:

when someone gives music an opportunity to charm his soul with the flute and pour those sweet, soft, and plaintive tunes we mentioned through his ear…if he keeps at it unrelentingly and is beguiled by the music, after a time his spirit is melted and dissolved until it vanishes, and the very sinews of his soul are cut out” (411a-b).

Republic VIII also characterizes an immoderate person as one who “yield[s] day by day to the desire at hand…he drinks heavily while listening to the flute” (561c).

Why is the auylos a symbol for feminized unruliness? It’s not properly harmonic in the way a monochord is. In ancient Greak music theory, sonic harmony was a function of mathematical proportion: sounds produced by mathematically proportionate instruments (strings, pipes, etc.) ought to produce musically consonant intervals/harmonies. So, a set of pan pipes cut to the correct measurements ought to vibrate at consonant audio harmonies (octave, fifth, etc.). You could also think of the pipes on an organ–pitch is a function of their physical measurements/dimensions. Thus, Plato calls the flute “many-stringed,” “pan-harmonic,” and, by implication, immoderate (Republic III 399d).

In the case of the auylos, there is no necessary, direct correlation between the mathematical proportions of its physical structure (e.g., distance between finger holes, for example) and the sonic harmonies it produces. Or rather: to produce sonically consonant frequencies–to get the instrument ‘in tune’ so that it sounds the right notes–the auylos’s physical structure is mathematically disproportionate. If you think of a contemporary oboe or bassoon, they keys are neither evenly spaced nor do they follow systematic mathematical ratios like the 12:9:8:6 ones Pythagorean harmony uses. This is what Plato’s referring to when he says, for example: “in the case of flute-playing, the harmonies are found not by measurement but by the hit and miss of training, and quite generally music tries to find the measure by observing vibrating strings. So there is a lot of imprecision mixed up in it and very little reliability” (Philebus 56a). For a much more detailed explanation of the construction of the aulos and its “unharmonic” or immoderate character, see Thomas Mathiesen’s “Apollo’s Lyre.”

But what does this have to do with women/femininity? Well, the ancient Greeks thought women’s bodies were immoderate, and that women were incapable of being truly moderate/harmonic (see the “Freedom & Truth” Chapter of Foucault’s History of Sexuality v2 for the relationship between harmony, self-mastery, and masculinity). For example, in the Phaedo, Xanthippe, Socrates’ wife, is presented as immoderately emotional, whereas his male friends are composed. Similarly, the ancient Greeks thought women’s bodies were particularly disproportionate, unruly, and unpredictable: “hysteria,” after all, used to indicate a “wandering uterus.” So women’s bodies and their souls are, like the aulos, disproportionate, and non-harmonizable.