Philosophical Attunements: Flutes & Women in Plato’s Symposium

This is an excerpt of a talk I gave at DePaul University in February 2014. I think it will be relevant for some of the conversations that I will be participating in this week over on the CUNY Digital Labor Working Group Blog, so I wanted to make this available for reference.

Ostensibly a dialogue about love, Plato’s Symposium defines what philosophy, the love of wisdom, is and how it should best be practiced. Plato’s trying to distinguish divine from common wisdom, intellectual from merely instrumental knowledge, philosophy from sophistry. Philosophy is moderate love, a wisdom regulated by the best master, which is wisdom/the Good itself. Philosophers live/order their lives so their minds and bodies reflect the proportionality, the “harmony,” if you will, of the various parts of the Good as it expresses itself in, for example, the theory of the divided line. The main difference between philosophy and sophistry is the love (the presence or absence of the “philo-”), namely, the moderation that results from cultivating one’s mind and body so it is attuned to Wisdom. Sophistry is an immoderate love, a knowing regulated by anything other than wisdom/the Good. What comes out of the mouth of sophists may sound identical to what comes out of the mouth of philosophers–the difference is in the relationship between the body/soul of the speaker and the sounds that come out of his mouth. A philosopher is moderate because the “wisdom” of his words directly corresponds to the “wise ordering” of his body. Loving wisdom means making your body in the image of The Good so that when you vibrate it to make it speak, the sounds, words, and ideas that come out of it are properly tuned, that is, attuned to The Good. A sophist is immoderate because the “wisdom” of his words does not directly correspond to a proportionately ordered body–he can produce words that sound wise, but only through immoderate bodily practices (i.e., bodily practices that don’t reflect the proportions expressed in The Good as represented on the divided line). Anyone without a visibly tuned body must not be practicing philosophy correctly, if at all.  (I think you can guess the implications if this last claim.) But let me explain how I got this reading of Plato.

In Plato, “moderation” or sophrosyne is closely tied to the idea of harmony. So, to begin, you need to know something about ancient Greek music theory. In ancient Greek music theory, sonic harmony was a function of mathematical proportion. Consonant harmonies were the most mathematically proportionate ones; dissonant harmonies were less mathematically proportionate. Sonic harmony was not a measure of the proportional relationships among sound frequencies (as we think of it today), but a measure of the mathematical relationships among the parts of the instrument that produced the sounds in question. For example, the octave and (what we now call major) fifth were thought to be the most consonant intervals because these were the intervals produced when you divided a string in the most visually, mathematically proportionate intervals–½ and ⅔ (aka the golden mean), respectively. “Proportionality” was a geometric measurement of the instrument, not an acoustic measurement of sounds. Sounds were “harmonious” because they were the products of harmonious, proportionate instruments.

And this way of thinking worked just fine for stringed instruments and pan-pipes. You could also think of the pipes on an organ–pitch is a function of their physical measurements and dimensions. The acoustic relationship between C4 and C5, or between F and C directly corresponds to and parallels the geometric relationship between the pipes that produce these pitches–C4:C5::pipeC4:pipeC5. Flutes and double-reeded instruments presented a problem for this theory because that analogy between acoustic and geometric/corporeal proportion doesn’t work. Think of a flute or an oboe; this latter is the closest modern equivalent to the ayulos, which is the instrument in question in the Symposium. With these type of wind instruments, there is a direct correlation between the material structure and pitch, but these correlations do not follow a consistent mathematical system. Their keys are neither evenly spaced nor does their spacing follow systematic mathematical ratios like the 12:9:8:6 ones  agorean harmony uses. To produce sonically consonant frequencies–to get the instrument ‘in tune’ so that it sounds the right notes–the flute’s physical structure is mathematically disproportionate. 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 Plato, auloi are paradigmatically immoderate because bringing one sonically in tune means de-tuning its physical order or visible bodily structure. Immoderation is the mismatch between the sonic and the visible order–what’s immoderate is the ratio between C4:C5::material structure to play C4:material structure to play C5.

Plato frequently equates listening to the flute and drunkenness–they are paradigmatic cases of bodies thrown out of whack. For example, Republic VIII 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). Similarly, the issue of drunkenness and flute-playing brackets the “philosophical” conversation in the Symposium:

(176e) “It’s settled, then,” said Eryximachus. “We are resolved to force no one to drink more than he wants. I would like now to make a further motion: let us dispense with the flute-girl who just made her entrance; let her play for herself or, if she prefers, for the women in the house. Let us instead spend our evening in conversation.”

Having first decided to be moderate, to not drink to excess, they they decide that philosophical conversation is a means to maintaining bodily moderation. But to avoid excess and to facilitate philosophical conversation, they have to kick out the flute girls because flutes and girls exhibit an unphilosophical, disproportionate relationship between visible embodiment and sonic output. The disproportionality of the flute is the opposite of the proportionality of philosophical practice. Women and other non-philosophers, like flutes, have a disproportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure. Philosophers, on the other hand, have a proportionate relationship between their speech and their visible bodily structure.

Which brings us to the issue of Socrates. As Alcibiades says at the end of the dialogue, Socrates seems like a flautist–more specifically, he looks like a statue of Silenus holding an aulos (215b). Like an aulos, the ugliness of Socrates’ visible outward appearance seems to be out of tune with the wisdom of his speech. How can a body that ugly make sounds so beautiful/good/wise? How can a body that disproportionate make sounds otherwise so consonant, so beautiful?

But Socrates’ words aren’t overtly, directly beautiful and wise. As Alcibiades says,
even his ideas and arguments are just like those hollow statues of Silenus. If you were to listen to his arguments, at first they’d strike you as totally ridiculous; they’re clothed in words as coarse as the hides worn by the most vulgar satyrs. He’s always going on about pack asses, or blacksmiths, or cobblers, or tanners; he’s always making the same tired old points in the same tired old words. If you are foolish, or simply unfamiliar with him, you’d find it impossible not to laugh at his arguments. But if you see them when they open up like the statues, if you go behind their surface, you’ll realize that no other arguments make any sense. They’re truly worthy of a god, bursting with figures of virtue inside. They’re of great—no, of the greatest—importance for anyone who wants to become a truly good man. (221d-222a).

Socrates seems like an aulos only to the untrained, unphilosophical ear, like the ear of a lovesick drunk such as Alcibiades. His words exhibit the same proportionality between visible and intelligible as his body does. His speech is in tune with his body–visible:intelligible::visible:intelligible. In each case, the outer is diminished in quality as compared to the inner; in this way, they each reflect the proper proportional relationship between the visible and intelligible.
So in the Symposium, philosophy, the love of wisdom, is about maintaining the proper proportion between your words and your body, making sure they are each in tune, both in themselves and with one another. Loving wisdom means tuning your words, your body, and your words to your body. This loving attunement is a way of stealing the “subversiveness” of the aulos (and the feminine), its destabilization of the status quo, and putting it to work for philosophy. Socrates’ prima facie disorderliness disrupts a poorly-ordered society. It puts the sting in his gadfly act.

And he gets this sting from whom? From, in the case of this dialogue, Diotima! Socrates sings her tune with his pipes. The whole dialogue is organized by layers of reported speech and framing devices. Even Plato appears to be singing other people’s songs with his own pipes. (A copy of a copy of a copy, so to speak.) This reliance on reported speech and framing was likely a response to anxieties about new media–in this instance, writing. However, it does feel a lot like the “theft” part of love & theft–the reperformance transforms anxiety into productivity and pleasure, namely, productivity and pleasure in provoking a staid mainstream. Maybe, from our contemporary perspective, Socrates is more like Elvis than like a statue of Silenus?