Plato as Choirmaster
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contact hypothesis
civic friendship

How to Cite

Plato as Choirmaster: Cultivating Civic Friendship in the Modern Republic. (2021). The Political Science Reviewer, 45(1), 221-251.


Plato understood well how mousike could foster civic friendship in the polis.  This paper draws out Plato’s ontology of harmony, exploring how Plato borrowed the non-musical concept of harmony and applied it to music, which further revealed the politically constructive dimensions of music.  Yet today Plato’s polis has been replaced by a modern state that is both geographically vast and pluralistic.  Surprisingly, this might make Plato’s writing more, not less, relevant.  Singing allows harmonious interaction among groups that far exceed the number of possible speakers in the Athenian assembly, without diminishing their social bonds.  Such choral harmony also forges unusually quick ties among strangers who do not meet regularly over shared comprehensive doctrines.  Choral singing meets all four of the conditions of the ‘contact hypothesis,’ under which contact promotes friendship rather than hostility among unfamiliar people(s).  This modern evidence further substantiates Plato’s understanding of harmony as unity amidst plurality.  The paper will then explore traditional uses of mousike, and show how these were employed in the 1988-91 Baltic Singing Revolution.  This Revolution recovered and reconstituted Baltic national identities, and gave them courage to win independence from Soviet occupation.  However, if Plato’s musical political education is uniquely helpful in building modern civic friendship, it is also increasingly scarce in contemporary America.  The paper concludes by exploring how modern musical technology and democratic informality inhibit a robust singing culture today, and how these very same forces pose a challenge to republican political institutions and civic culture.

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