The supreme music. music and politics

Ceri Richards, Still Life with Music, 1933


Excerpt from the book “What is philosophy?"


Philosophy can only take place today as a reform of music. If we call music the experience of the Muse, that is, that of the origin and place of the word, then in a certain society and at a certain time, music expresses and governs the relationship of men with the event of the word. This actual event – ​​that is, the arch-event that constitutes man as a speaking being – cannot be said within language: it can only be evoked and recalled musaically or musically. In Greece, the muses expressed this original articulation of the event of the word, which, when it happens, is destined and shared in nine forms or modalities, without it being possible for the speaker to go back beyond them. This impossibility of accessing the original place of the word is music. In it something is expressed that in language cannot be said. As is immediately evident when music is played or listened to, singing celebrates or laments above all an impossibility of saying, the impossibility – painful or joyful, hymnical or elegiac – of accessing the event of the word that constitutes men as humans.

The hymn to the Muses, which appears as a proem to Theogony by Hesiod, shows that the poets were aware of the problem that places the beginning of the song in a musical context. The double structure of the proem, which repeats the exordium twice (v. I: “Let us begin with the Heliconic Muses”; “Let us begin with the Muses”), is not due solely, as Paul Friedländer perceptively suggested, to the need to introduce the unprecedented episode of the poet's encounter with the Muses in a traditional hymn structure in which this was absolutely not foreseen. There is, for this unexpected repetition, another and more significant reason, which concerns the same taking of words by the poet, or, more specifically, the position of the enunciative instance in a context where it is not clear whether this instance belongs to the poet or to the Muses. Decisive are verses 22-25, in which, as scholars have not failed to notice, the discourse abruptly passes from a third-person narration to an enunciative instance that contains the shifter “eu” (at first in the accusative – με – and then, in the following lines, in the dative – μοι):

“They (the Muses) once (ποτε) taught Hesiod a beautiful song
as he shepherded the flock at the foot of divine Helicon:
this speech first of all (πρώπστα) to me (με) addressed the goddesses […]”

It is a question, according to all evidence, of inserting the poet's self as the subject of the enunciation in a context in which the beginning of the song undoubtedly belongs to the Muses, but is uttered by the poet: Moυσάων ἀρχώμεθα, “Let's start with the Muses” – or, better, if the middle and non-active form of the verb is taken into account: “By the Muses is the beginning, by the Muses we initiate and are initiated”; the Muses, in fact, say in unison "what was, what will be and what was" and the song "flows soft and tireless from their mouths" (v. 38-40).

The contrast between the musaic origin of the word and the subjective instance of enunciation is much stronger, whereas in the rest of the hymn (and the entire poem, except for the enunciative resumption by the poet in v. 963-965: “ Hail to you now…”) tells in narrative form the birth of the Muses of the Titaness Mnemosyne, who spent nine consecutive nights with Zeus, lists their names – which, at that stage, did not yet correspond to a specific literary genre (“Clio e Euterpe and Talia and Melpomene/ Terpsichore and Erato and Polymnia and Urania/ and Calliope, most illustrious of all”) – and describes his relationship with the aedi (v. 94-97: “By the Muses indeed, and by far-shooting Apollo/ they are the aedos and harpsichordists […]/ blessed whom the Muses love/ sweet song flows from his mouth”.

The origin of the word is musaically – that is, musically – determined and the speaking subject – the poet – has to deal with the problematicity of the very beginning. Even if the Muse has lost the cultic significance it had in the ancient world, the level of poetry still depends today on the way in which the poet manages to give musical form to the difficulty of taking the word – how he manages to make his own a word that does not belong to him and to which he is limited to lending his voice.


The Muse sings, gives man the song, because she symbolizes the impossibility of the speaking being to fully appropriate the language in which he has made his vital home. This strangeness marks the distance that separates the human corner from that of other living beings. There is music, man does not limit himself to talking and, on the contrary, feels the need to sing, because language is not his voice, because he lives in language without being able to make it his voice. Singing, man celebrates and commemorates the voice he no longer has and which, as the myth of the cicadas in Phaedrus, he could only find again if he ceased to be a man and became an animal (“When the Muses were born and singing arose, some men were seized by such a pleasure that, singing, they no longer bothered to eat and drink and died without giving account. From these men came the lineage of cicadas […]”, 259b-c).

For this reason, music necessarily corresponds, even before words, to emotional tones: balanced, courageous and firm in the Doric mode, plaintive and languid in the Ionian and Lydian ones (Answer. 398e - 399a). And it is peculiar that also in the masterpiece of twentieth-century philosophy, being and time, the original opening of man to the world does not happen through rational knowledge and language, but above all in a Mood, in an emotional tone that the term itself refers to the acoustic sphere (Stimme is the voice). The Muse – the music – marks the split between man and his language, between voice and logos. The primary opening to the world is not logical, it is musical.

א Hence the obstinacy with which Plato and Aristotle, but also music theorists such as Daman and the legislators themselves, assert the need not to separate music and words. “What in song is language”, Socrates argues in Republic (398d), “does not differ at all from unsung language (μὴ ᾀδομένου λόγου) and has to conform to the same models”; and soon afterwards he firmly enunciates the theorem according to which “harmony and rhythm must follow the speech (ἀκολουθεν τ λόγοῳ)” (ibidem). The same formulation, “what in song is language”, implies, however, that there is something irreducible to words in it, just as the insistence on sanctioning its inseparability reveals the awareness that music is eminently separable. Precisely because music marks the strangeness of the original place of the word, it is perfectly understandable that it may tend to exasperate one's own autonomy in relation to language; and yet, for the same reasons, the concern that the nexus that held them together is not completely severed is equally understandable.

Between the end of the XNUMXth century and the first decades of the XNUMXth century in Greece, there was, in fact, a veritable revolution in musical styles, linked to the names of Melanipedes, Cynesias, Phrynis and, above all, Timothy of Miletus. The fracture between the linguistic system and the musical system became progressively irremediable, until in the third century music ended up decisively predominating over the word. But, already in Euripides' dramas, an attentive observer like Aristophanes could perceive it, making it a parody on the frogs, that the subordination relationship of the melody to its metric support in the verse was already subverted. In Aristophanes' parody, the multiplication of notes in relation to syllables is icastically expressed by transforming the verb εἱλίσσω (to return) into εἱειειειλίσσω. In any case, despite the tenacious resistance of philosophers, in his works on music Aristoxenes, who was also a disciple of Aristotle and criticized the changes introduced by the new music, no longer uses the phonematic unit of the metric foot as the basis of singing, but a purely musical unit, which he calls “first time” (χρόνος πρτος) and is independent of the syllable.

If, in terms of music history, the criticisms of philosophers (which would also be repeated many centuries later in the rediscovery of classical monody by the Camerata Fiorentina and Vincenzo Galilei and in the peremptory prescription of Carlos Borromeo: “cantum ita temperari, ut verba intelligerentur”) could only seem excessively conservative, what interests us here are more the deep reasons for their opposition, of which they themselves were not always aware. If music, as it seems to happen today, breaks its necessary relationship with the word, this means, on the one hand, that it loses awareness of its musaic nature (that is, of its being situated in the original place of the word). and, on the other hand, that the speaking man forgets that his being, always already musically disposed, has constitutively to do with the impossibility of accessing the musaic place of the word. homo canens e homo loquens they divide their paths and lose the memory of the relationship that linked them to the Muse.


*Giorgio Agamben directed the Collège international de philosophie in Paris. Author, among other books, of The power of thought: essays and conferences (authentic).


Giorgio Agamben. What is philosophy? Translation: Andrea Santurbano and Patricia Peterle. São Paulo, Boitempo, 2022, 204 pages (

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