Plato's Laws III, 4

When the Athenian turns his critique on Athens, he hits at our part of American society very strongly. His criticism is that love of liberty, if not tempered with submission to authority based on common good, is just as disastrous as Persian luxury. It is for the same reason:  love of pleasure, exercised in Athens by the individual, and in Persia by the elite.

He begins with what philosophers call a 'contingent' account, that is, a discussion of a set of particulars that might or might not have happened. This is chiefly of interest to historians, not to philosophers. After that he tries to shift to a formal account of the universals involved, once again by invoking music and its laws.

Ath. I will. Under the ancient laws, my friends, the people was not as now the master, but rather the willing servant of the laws.

Meg. What laws do you mean?

Ath. In the first place, let us speak of the laws about music-that is to say, such music as then existed-in order that we may trace the growth of the excess of freedom from the beginning. Now music was early divided among us into certain kinds and manners. One sort consisted of prayers to the Gods, which were called hymns; and there was another and opposite sort called lamentations, and another termed paeans, and another, celebrating the birth of Dionysus, called, I believe, "dithyrambs." And they used the actual word "laws," or nomoi, for another kind of song; and to this they added the term "citharoedic." All these and others were duly distinguished, nor were the performers allowed to confuse one style of music with another. And the authority which determined and gave judgment, and punished the disobedient, was not expressed in a hiss, nor in the most unmusical shouts of the multitude, as in our days, nor in applause and clapping of hands. But the directors of public instruction insisted that the spectators should listen in silence to the end; and boys and their tutors, and the multitude in general, were kept quiet by a hint from a stick. Such was the good order which the multitude were willing to observe; they would never have dared to give judgment by noisy cries. And then, as time went on, the poets themselves introduced the reign of vulgar and lawless innovation. They were men of genius, but they had no perception of what is just and lawful in music; raging like Bacchanals and possessed with inordinate delights-mingling lamentations with hymns, and paeans with dithyrambs; imitating the sounds of the flute on the lyre, and making one general confusion; ignorantly affirming that music has no truth, and, whether good or bad, can only be judged of rightly by the pleasure of the hearer. And by composing such licentious works, and adding to them words as licentious, they have inspired the multitude with lawlessness and boldness, and made them fancy that they can judge for themselves about melody and song. And in this way the theatres from being mute have become vocal, as though they had understanding of good and bad in music and poetry; and instead of an aristocracy, an evil sort of theatrocracy has grown up. For if the democracy which judged had only consisted of educated persons, no fatal harm would have been done; but in music there first arose the universal conceit of omniscience and general lawlessness;-freedom came following afterwards, and men, fancying that they knew what they did not know, had no longer any fear, and the absence of fear begets shamelessness. For what is this shamelessness, which is so evil a thing, but the insolent refusal to regard the opinion of the better by reason of an over-daring sort of liberty?

Meg. Very true.

Ath. Consequent upon this freedom comes the other freedom, of disobedience to rulers; and then the attempt to escape the control and exhortation of father, mother, elders, and when near the end, the control of the laws also; and at the very end there is the contempt of oaths and pledges, and no regard at all for the Gods-herein they exhibit and imitate the old so called Titanic nature, and come to the same point as the Titans when they rebelled against God, leading a life of endless evils.

This is different from the earlier discussion of music, which held that there were universal laws of beauty that should govern music. Here the argument is that there were once several forms with defined purposes, which upheld specific social functions as well as each form adhering to internal laws governing that form. The admixture of the forms ended up damaging each. 

Meanwhile, the shift of the seat of judgment from the musical experts to the popular audience meant that the ability to judge how and why the music was losing its quality was lost. 

Remember to read back in Plato's concern about who the right experts are, however. It is not the most talented, but the ones who understand the right relationship between the music and the goods it is to produce. They are the ones who understand what the music is really for, and can thus judge properly whether a change is for good or bad. Changes are not forbidden under the Athenian's ideal, but regulated by the right kind of trained and educated mind.

One runs into a similar debate if one goes to a church that allows music, or explores different churches while traveling. Here too music is supposed to support a sacred form, and there were once well-established basic norms about this. That did not disallow innovation! The great period of church music, from the Baroque through the Classical to the Romantic, was marked by much greater technical innovation than now. Yet it was done by people who were trained in the mathematics that underlie music, who knew and appreciated the earlier forms, and who were striving to intensify the experience. Along the way, much of the greatest music of human history was produced by these same great minds -- quite a bit of it that very church music.

Now compare that to an experience I imagine you all know well, that of stopping in a church and encountering... well,  you know just what kind of  'music' I mean, don't you? The kind where you console yourself with a story about how this might help you remit some of your sins, while practicing important virtues like tolerance and patience.

So Plato's clearly on to something, at least as music attends to holy forms. Does the analogy hold up well when pointed at the general society? The Athenian moves very quickly from this discussion of the damage to music from popularization to 'consequently, look how bad things are when we stop looking to expert judgment in society at large.' 

Yet this is an old problem that Plato and Socrates both knew well:  crafts like music, or shoemaking, or navigation, admit of genuine experts who really do know best. Politics seems to be a realm in which expertise does not have the same role. Everyone is affected by it, and each one is the most expert in just how it affects him or her, and just what they'd like most to get out of it. Excluding anyone seems to exclude an important perspective:  that is the whole argument for democracy (and something Plato treated both mythically and through philosophical argument in his Protagoras).

The Laws like the Republic attempts to restore a role for experts in politics. Again, though, the people who are to be the right experts are going to be those who understand the relationship between authority and the rationally-understood good that society ought to want to obtain. They are not much like our credentialed class, yet it is definite and certain that members of that class -- should they read the Laws, which very few people of any class do -- would see in it an argument that they are the proper authorities who have a duty to rule and govern mankind. 

Well, they would not say 'mankind,' but something else intended to dispose of the oppressive weight of history and tradition. That, though, underlines the distance between themselves and those Plato hopes to find. They are not the musical masters who understand what the traditional forms were for, and can judge innovation rightly as a way of heightening access to the goods that the old forms obtained. They are the ones who are sweeping away all the reliable old forms, and establishing new things that attain none of the goods but that are found pleasing to themselves and their class.

The book ends with a preview of the next book's discussion, as the Cretan announces that, actually, Crete has just been tasked with setting up a new colony and needs to draft laws and a constitution to govern it. Wouldn't this be an excellent opportunity to move from theory to practice?