In Praise of Love - Plato's Symposium meets Bernstein's Serenade

24 October 2015

This week’s episode is a special one.   It was recorded a few weeks ago, in front of a live audience, at Skyview Concert Hall, in Vancouver Washington.  We were there at the invitation of the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra.   They were performing Leonard Bernstein’s very lyrical piece Serenade after Plato’s Symposium, with world renown violinist Anne Akiko Meyers. The thought was that a philosophical discussion of the Symposium  might interest the concert goers and might also help them to hear the piece differently.   We were really grateful for the invitation and the opportunity.

After much back and forth,  we  decided to call our episode: “In Praise of Love –  Plato’s Symposium Meets Bernstein’s Serenade.”    In it, we took up the challenge of trying to bring music and philosophy together.   And it’s a serious challenge --  make no mistake.   Plato’s Symposium is one of the most memorable philosophical works ever written on the topic of love.    And not just because of it’s philosophical content, but also because its style. The Symposium is by turns hilarious, emotionally resonant, and always philosophically deep.   It’s a fun and inspiring read.   If you haven’t ever read it, you really should.  It certainly inspired Leonard Bernstein., who apparently read it repeatedly.  Bravely, Bernstein sets out to reproduce in music something of both the philosophical content and literary structure of Plato’s Symposium. 

That’s a  tall order, because the Symposium is an extraordinarily intricate and complicated philosophical work.   It’s a series of speeches, each spoken by a different character, each in praise of erotic love.   Each speaker has a distinctive personality and a distinct philosophical outlook.    And we can’t forget here the most entertaining part.    I mean the drinking!

The assembled company want to drink, but feel they drank too much the night before.  So to ensure that they drink less this night, they decide to temper their drinking with a little philosophy. Instead of trying to outdrink each other, they try to outdo each other in their praise of love.  They don't really succeed though.   By the time the final speaker – Alcibiades --  comes barging in, looking for Socrates, they’re very drunk already.  And they commence drinking even more, as he gives the final speech.

Now Bernstein tries to capture much of this dynamic in his music. It is a series of musical movements, each offered in praise of love, each modeled on one or more speeches in Plato’s Symposium, with each movement building on and correcting earlier movements just like in the dialogue.   And it’s all done with a kind of drunken joyfulness.   Well, drunken isn’t really the right word to describe the mood of Bernstein’s piece.   But it is a very joyful  piece of music.

Here’s where the challenge comes in though.   The Serenade is a very fine piece of music, but suppose you didn’t have access to Bernstein’s notes explaining his motivations for writing the piece,  and you could just listen to the music itself,   would you really be able to determine, just from listening to it, that it was modeled after the Symposium?

Ask yourself, for example,  how a purely musical argument for the superiority of homosexual love over heterosexual  -- the sort of thing you find in early parts of the Symposium --  sound?   It’s not that I doubt the music powers of Bernstein, personally.   He was a musical genius, no doubt.  But even musical geniuses can’t pull of the impossible.   Music is one thing.  Philosophical arguments are a different thing entirely.   You can't replicate the one in the other.

Plato himself might have agreed with this line of thought.  Plato actually wanted to banish all lyric poets from his ideal Republic entirely.   Philosophy is improving. It aims at unadorned truth.  It speaks to reason.  Lyric poetry is corrupting.  It can't distinguish the true from the false.  It speaks to the emotions.  It deals in mere appearances and illusions rather than reality. 

But you don’t have to agree with Plato on that score to appreciate the challenge we face in interpreting Bernstein’s music in light of the Symposium.   Even if you don’t think lyric poetry is corrupting, you can still wonder how a purely musical argument for the superiority of Platonic love to other forms of love might go?   How, that is, do you capture philosophical themes in wordless music?    Maybe music just isn’t an appropriate vehicle for representing philosophical themes and arguments.

Still,  I don’t think we should be so quick to dismiss the possibility so easily.  Maybe just as Plato’s philosophy is full of artistry, there can be music that is full of philosophy.    But you know what, I don’t think we’re going to settle a question like that with abstract philosophical arguments alone.   We’re going to have to do some listening.   We’re going to have to see if we can hear the philosophy in Bernstein’s music and the music in Plato’s philosophy.  That’s what we tried to do back in Vancouver.   We invite you to listen in and see if we pulled it off. 

Comments (19)


Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Sunday, October 25, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Some things are not begun

Some things are not begun until completed and the insistence that they are completed keeps them from ever being begun. Such is reason. Plato knew this, and had a thorough presentation of a resolution of it more complete than is even our present appreciation of how complete the problem is. In Republic he renounces all music but the stridency that mirrors the fanaticism of the reasoning his young interlocutors. It is a joke. In Laws he swings the implacable conservatism of old men to contradict themselves without ever recognizing the alteration in their views. This too is a joke. In symposium, the final episode in a series meant to lay out a systematic philosophy (which is nothing like ?Platonism?) he expresses how unalone the mind is. Our insistence upon a unilateral reason or a determinate or objective logic keeps us from appreciating the completeness of his concept. But that 'objectivity' takes as axiomatic what is not properly understood, and is dogmatically censored of any examination. 'Philosophy', today, is the unexamined life. Notions like predication and the 'law' of contradiction, and logical terms like conjunction and disjunction, equivalence and antecedence, are not even begun, because their completing term is interpretive rather than analytic. Imagine a library in which every sentence read alters the language of all the remaining text in the current book and all the other books. We are that altering term, and are always in process of catching up to ourselves and each other in it, but though this is a constant labor on out part, it is also the very substance of our lives, and nothing we cannot cope with. No mechanics of reason can sustain itself in the face of such a dialectic. Any computer would instantly crash, however powerful or exhaustively programmed. Because every part of a computer and every line of code, whether in its running program or its operating system, is fixed and only alters only according to preset and unalterable settings. It is designed not to change its physical characteristics, however cleverly it is designed to alter its criteria. But the human mind and the human society are not predetermined or limited in this sense. Each part is alive and participant to the constitution, let alone the current condition, of the whole. Which one is the making of the whole? The enigma is, it's the one that isn't. This is not negation, it is the affirmation of the value to the system of the missing term. The individualism and presumed unilateral completeness of our current notion of reason censors this truth. When we do our logic diagrams we assume all terms complete and all facts in hand. And so we fail to understand, or even to begin to reason. As for Bernstein, never thought much of his composition, and since most of what I read about the Symposium makes me wonder if I am reading the same text as the author is, it is no great wonder if Leo gets it wrong too. One important point is that Plato really did think music unphilosophical, because it is founded on the thesis that time is replication rather than differentiation, as poetry is founded upon symbolic forms that censure the kind of 'misunderstanding' that enrichens the language and completes the power of reason, though the logic of it crashes into ruin at every turn. Reason, alone, is conceit of a completeness that censors its truth. Love is the recognized poverty of that unilateral reason, and the richness of the differing that comes to it through its response that proves its entire language in play, even in the meaning of its analytic forms. It is not a Jacob's ladder, but a dialectic in which its poverty is its wealth, its incompletion its only beginning. I suspect Leo portrays something more along the ladder image of conventional 'philosophy'. But were we to arrive at the top of that ladder we would find we have not begun to climb it. Music is the pulse of this climb to nowhere. It is distraction from and not an accompaniment to reason. But if you don't get the joke you're back to square...., nowhere.

MJA's picture

MJA

Tuesday, October 27, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Love is the energy that fuels

Love is the energy that fuels procreation, be it a great writing, the harmony of a musical composition, or a beautiful child. All the wonders of the world are born out of love, even Nature ourselves. Beauty as is love is in the eye, the heart, the mind, the body and soul of the beholder. It matters not the source of love, be it too or from, for the energy is indivisible, infinite, and eternal. Truth is this way too. 
A wise man once said, follow your heart, the heart rings true.
A love poem:
 
GREEN LIGHT AND YOU
THE COLOR GREEN IS LIGHT THAT
TRAVELS THREE HUNDRED MILLION
METERS A SECOND
MADE OF WAVES
 FIVE HUNDRED BILLIONTHS
OF A METER APART
ROLLING BY US
SIX TRILLION WAVES
AT A TIME
I HAVE THOUGHT OF YOU
THAT MANY TIMES
SINCE WE PARTED
IF YOU DOUBT IT
COUNT THE WAVES
IT HAS BEEN DONE BEFORE
IF YOU THINK
LIGHT AND THOUGHT OF YOU
ARE DIFFERENT
TURN ON THE LIGHTS
=

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Love is green? Thought that

Love is green? Thought that was envy. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, why does it make us feel so impoverished? This is rather the point. It is the missing term, not the capstone of subjectivity. Most interpreters claim Plato means this to found, and seal the deal, on objectivity, but this too is a conceit. What recognition of the missing term means is that rigor does not lead to certainty, but to changing the mind in all its other terms. The rigor of this assures that the dialectic leads through all possible meanings of all possible terms. Love is the demiurge of reason, and the mission of philosophy, not establishing objective fact or reveling in subjective sensitivities.

MJA's picture

MJA

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

...and thank you Philosophy

...and thank you Philosophy Talk, I had no idea Bernstein had written music from the Symposium, a book that was dear to me. And last but not least Gary, I'll leave a light on for you!  =

m.j.Pbone's picture

m.j.Pbone

Wednesday, October 28, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

I really enjoyed this. Thank

I really enjoyed this. Thank you. I'm new to Philosophy Talk, and caught the end of this in the car tonight. 
I'm curious:
Bernstein's deviation from the Symposium's narrative structure came up. It was mentioned that the musician misinterpreted Plato's idea of Eros. 
Giving Bernstein the benefit of the doubt, is it possible the musical variance was his own kind of philosophical argument? Perhaps it was a disagreement over the relationship between love and philosophy; maybe it was a defense of his own representational mode and expression of Eros: music. 
Anyway, I'm happy this programming exists. Anne Meyers sounds like busy woman, but she should be a regular on the show - her insights were spot-on. 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Thursday, October 29, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

The Greeks made a wine that

The Greeks made a wine that was sought-after throughout the Mediterranean region. It was drunk young, in the same year it was made, but it did require a short aging period. To assure it was not tapped too soon, ruining its reputation, a law prohibited drinking the new wine before a stated date. The lapsing of this prohibition was celebrated by drinking parties. Around the same time there was another festival in which the dead were honored. Festivities included inviting strangers to the city to a feast, during which they would wear a mask, whether of an absent relative of the family, or of a departed one, so as to appease the ghosts of the dead. The feast, presumably, included drinking the new wine. The Celts also had a similar festival, a variation of which is celebrated today.

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, October 31, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
There is one character in the dialogue who best embodies what love most truly is. Can you guess who he is? He is the one who remains, throughout, both sober, and unshod.

MJA's picture

MJA

Saturday, October 31, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

It has been a few years but

It has been a few years but wasn't it Socrates? 
As for truth: the clearest mind is the highest mind, drug free! =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, October 31, 2015 -- 5:00 PM

Socrates, very out of

Socrates, very out of character, and explicitly stated, wore sandals. One character, though, is explicitly stated as not. Such details mean something.

mirugai's picture

mirugai

Sunday, November 1, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

AUTHENTIC LOVE

AUTHENTIC LOVE
 A while back, I was addressing the question of ?existence? (as in ?Does God Exist??), and posited that there are actually two Gods, one that wears a long robe, lives in the sky, throws lightening bolts to the earth, and could send you a sofa if you prayed for one. The other God is simply a reference to a consciousness outside one?s own.  Because 99.8% of humans believe in the first kind, or some variation on that theme, I call it a human instinct. Atheists and agnostics?followers of science (?believers? in science?)?are such because they know the first kind of God doesn?t exist, and they are thereby prejudiced against ANY existence of any God.  So I ask these non-believers, hung up on the ?existence? question, if they think love (a matter of consciousness) ?exists.? They usually say yes, and so I say that then other matters of ?consciousness? can ?exist.?
 Gary wrote in that yes love exists, but probably not in the way I was thinking, and he gave a very good description of love existing as a biological force.
 Of course, as I have said many times (too many, I?m sure), there is no place in philosophy for science: Gary?s science-love has nothing to do with philosophy-consciousness-love. The dualism I subscribe to is ?science:matter? and ?philosophy:consciousness,? and no overlap. But dualities aside, if authenticity is somehow the proof of the truth of love, then, more like MJA (who is a not a dualist) look to matters of the heart, beauty, the child, music, the eternal, the infinite?and I would add poetry and comedy?to experience the authenticity, the truth, of love.
 I go to maybe one movie a year. This year it was ?The Diary of a Teenage Girl? which I thought masterfully portrayed love in all its many forms, through the experiences of a teenager. The film portrayed love so authentically, it didn?t matter if it was ?just an excuse for teen porn? or ?an exploitation flick? as so many critics claimed, jumping on the moral indignation bandwagon that gives Americans such joy.
 A brilliant American authentic, Steve Earle, (and another is Iris DeMent) sings:
 ?I promised that I?d never be untrue
I?d never make you cry.
The only promise that I didn?t break
Was to love you until the day I die.?

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, November 2, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Mirugai,

Mirugai,
If you look again you might notice that I had been offering an explanation of how an organism creates itself that biology does not yet have the intellectual equipment to notice, let alone to investigate. I am not a partisan in either of the dualist/monist camps. I am proposing that there is a rigor so extreme that such enumeration loses its sense, its very capacity to count anything. Time, divided down to its least term, is moment lost the determinacy number would be of it, even in the sense of the probabilistic calculus of quantum or high-energy physics. That loss of the numerical cannot be placed in any system of extension, and yet it is not outside, but is the most completing immanence of time. And since it is the most rigorous term of time its impossibility to be placed in time in some numerically defined sense means it is the most completing term of time. We call it meaning. Life is the act of loss the moment of it is. But through that moment of loss there is a responsibility enabled free through it of its worth being recognized. That responsibility is what love is. And that is what Plato is saying it is, throughout his corpus, though few bother to read it all. And I offer the drama of the act of loss and response of love as the resolution of the enigma of time that Kant Hegel and Husserl tried to find in their concept of the 'epoch', as the meaning of what is phenomenally real. It also obviates the presumption of a system of 'wired-in' language capacity, or of a governing system of numerical geometric or logical necessity, as the means of our ability to think and speak.
Michael,
I must admit, I was testing (to see if you'd read the dialogue), and cannot say you passed. His name is Aristodemus, and he proceeds Socrates to the drinking party and follows him away from it, like a 'shade'.

MJA's picture

MJA

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

"Of course, as I have said

"Of course, as I have said many times (too many, I?m sure), there is no place in philosophy for science" 
And...God wears a robe outside Oneself? 
Dear M,
Philosophy if I may, connects with science at a single immeasurable point of truth. Sadly for many or most, including philosophy and science and yourself, the proof has yet to be found. But if in fact truth does connect everything, as I can assure you it does, and love most would agree is also the great uniter, then truth and love are One and the same. Thanks for the Logic Aristotle. So now we have found true love, the love of truth. Wasn't Socrates in the Symposium saying the same thing or are you still stuck on the footwear Gary?
True love then, What my friends is a greater love than the love of One or all, nothing? If this true love is the greatest or simply the love of all, could it be or can it be, "to be or not to be" just another name for God? What's in a name Shakespeare? Is not God, Romeo, Juliet, love, truth, unity, equality, I, you, it, all One or the same? Is love, Nature, the Universe measurably finite and divisible or immeasurably infinite and indivisible? Is atom smashing the way to unity, the way to truth? Lets ask some experts, shall we?
 What is the inalienable truth Mr. Jefferson?
What Professor Einstein is the equation for everything???
What Seneca is Justice?
What physics is certain?
What philosophy is true?
Where is the promised land Mr. King?
And go ahead Buddha, Mohammed, or Jesus, ring in if you want. "Let Freedom Ring"!!!
If you are still searching for this love that connects everything, truth, the light at the end of the tunnel, question measure, the answer is here.
=
 

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Tuesday, November 3, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

You are not a singularity. I

You are not a singularity. I understand the attraction of an easy route to induction, but it's a barren 'one'. It's a theme that crops up in the literature here and there, which leads me to suspect your views are referenced to some source you never cite. If so, we have a right to know what that source is. If you imagine the notion original, this is a mistake only a dilettante could make. But the plain fact is, induction, unification, oneness, the great pumpkin, is only the result of the snags we run into in the finest reductive details. The finest detail is that the least term of time is all the differing it is. Only a Socratic style refutation brings us to the moment of it. Love is responsibility there of being recognized the worth of that moment of lost conceit. The lost enumerator is that moment. It is the most extensive term of time, because it is the most extensive loss. That is, it is the most completing term of time, it is what 'person' is.
I understand this is a site that welcomes all levels of interest, and I try to make allowances for this, but when it come to Plato I do not well suffer dabblers. What others say or have written is not the property of the listener or reader. Love is not a goose tending its nest, clearing away all it does not recognize and taking the rest into its clutch of 'eggs'.  

MJA's picture

MJA

Thursday, November 5, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

You asked,

You asked,
The source of the answer was the question
And the question was me.
=

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Friday, November 6, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

All is one....., vanity!

All is one....., vanity!

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Saturday, November 7, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Michael,

Michael,
You may find out just how 'original' your 'method' is by reading Plato's Euthydemus.

MJA's picture

MJA

Saturday, November 7, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

You can learn a lot from the

You can learn a lot from the old Greeks but not everything. Everything can be found everywhere, including Oneself. =

Gary M Washburn's picture

Gary M Washburn

Monday, November 9, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

The subject of the Euthydemus

The subject of the Euthydemus is what "=" means. And it's rather more comprehensive and contemporary than your view. It's not impertinent.

Zeneth Culture's picture

Zeneth Culture

Friday, December 11, 2015 -- 4:00 PM

Love is the demiurge of

Love is the demiurge of reason, and the mission of philosophy, not establishing objective fact or reveling in subjective sensitivities. - Gary M Washburn
In life the many decisions you make in simple terms is based on your depth of knowledge of a certain topic. This comes about from the current wisdom you have and how deep you have studied that knowledge.
 

 
 
 

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