Sounds That Shape the Soul
 
By Adam Schulman
03/28/2001
The Wall Street Journal
 

   The culture wars may ebb and flow, but they do not go away. Ever since Tipper Gore launched her crusade against the recording industry in the mid-1980s -- famously calling for album warning labels, among other things -- a debate has raged over the potentially destructive effects of popular music.
 
   How should a decent society respond to popular music's downward spiral into violence, obscenity, misogyny and race hatred? The critics of popular music, chiefly on the right, worry about the corrupting effect of its ever more brutal and sexually explicit lyrics. Its defenders, chiefly on the left, reply that such music involves harmless (if mindless) fantasy, with little direct effect on the behavior of its listeners; or else they hail it as an authentic voice of protest in an unjust world.
 
   According to Carson Holloway, a political science professor at Concord College in West Virginia, both parties to this dispute share a deplorably shallow grasp of the issues at hand. Both fail to comprehend the true power of music itself -- music without words -- to move the soul and shape the character of its listeners. Previous ages were not so oblivious.
 


It matters what music you listen to.


   In "All Shook Up ," (Spence, 212 pages, $27.95) Mr. Holloway reminds us that the greatest thinkers of the past -- from Plato and Aristotle to Rousseau and Nietzsche -- engaged one another across the centuries in a profound dialogue on the power and danger of music. He believes their wisdom is relevant to our current predicament.
 
   Roughly speaking, says Mr. Holloway, the "great conversation" about music had three phases. To begin with, the ancient Greeks assigned music a crucial role in education. Rhythm and harmony, they believed, take hold of the youthful soul long before reason does, and our character is largely shaped by the tastes we develop early in life. Plato and Aristotle taught that statesmen must expose young citizens to only the right kinds of music, with a view to controlling the passions, cultivating a love of moderation and preparing the mind for the life of philosophy.
 

   Then came the Enlightenment, the project of liberal modernity from which our own institutions and principles sprang. Horrified by the excesses of religious strife, Enlightenment thinkers like Hobbes, Locke and Montesquieu abandoned the ancient ideal of "statecraft as soulcraft" and gave up on the teaching of virtue. Instead, they redirected politics toward the low but solid goals of peace, security and prosperity. In doing so, they essentially shut their eyes to the influence of culture -- not least of music -- on character.
 
   Finally, Rousseau and, later, Nietzsche rediscovered the power of music to inspire and elevate the soul. But they sought to inflame rather than to moderate the passions, disgusted as they were with the slackness and materialism of bourgeois society. The music they advocated would have been condemned by the ancients as unhealthy and hostile to reason.

 

   In Mr. Holloway's view, the current debate over popular music is impoverished by the victory of modern liberalism (i.e., Enlightenment thinking), with its indifference to questions of music and character. He believes we have a lot to learn from Rousseau, Nietzsche and the ancient Greeks. They understood, above all, that music itself has an extraordinary effect on the character of the young, quite apart from the words it accompanies.
 
   In this light, Mr. Holloway faults contemporary critics for putting so much emphasis on the objectionable lyrics of certain songs. He also suggests that the spiritual shallowness of modern liberalism is what drives the young to seek fulfillment in ever more ecstatic and violent musical experiences, which they falsely hope will give meaning to their empty lives. Ultimately, he sides with Plato and Aristotle and against Rousseau and Nietzsche, in calling for a kind of music that will "calm the passions with a view to the noble rule of reason in the soul and the city."
 
   Despite this ardent wish, his practical proposals turn out to be surprisingly mild. He does not favor censorship, which he considers "utterly alien to the spirit of American politics." He merely encourages parents to try to persuade their children not to listen to the most coarse kinds of popular music.
 
   More broadly, Mr. Holloway thinks we should acknowledge that liberal modernity is spiritually empty and incapable of satisfying our children's longings for moral and intellectual fulfillment. The solution is apparently a classical education in "the musical political philosophy of the ancients." Yet that would entail, admits Mr. Holloway, "a radical transformation in our understanding of what we are, what the universe is, and how we are related to it." A tall order indeed.
 
   The great virtue of "All Shook Up" is its unfashionable insistence that music be taken seriously, as it once was by the classics of Western political philosophy. It should be said, however, that Mr. Holloway's capsule summaries are sometimes superficial. Plato and Aristotle, in particular, come across as na´ve -- foolishly confident that listening to the right kind of simple music is all it takes to tame the "many-headed beast" in the human soul. For a far richer presentation of these thinkers, one should turn to Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind," a book to which Mr. Holloway is clearly indebted though he acknowledges it only grudgingly and hypercritically.
 
   "All Shook Up" might have been more powerful, too, if Mr. Holloway had offered more specific musical examples. As it is, his argument is quite abstract, and the reader is left to imagine what kinds of music have good or bad effects on the soul and why. For vivid and compelling reflections on pop culture and the human soul, the reader would do better to consult any page of the writings of Camille Paglia. Still, "All Shook Up" points us in the right direction.


Mr. Schulman teaches at St. John's College in Annapolis, Md.