Sunday, March 16, 2008

Yo-Yo Ma, Philosopher King in an Ignorant City

While usually acclaimed for being a musician, it can be argued that cellist Yo-Yo Ma is also far more, a philosopher in the Platonic tradition. If we use medieval Islamic philosopher Abu Nasr al-Farabi's reading of the criteria by which Plato identifies true philosophers, that they know what is best and that they not only do what is best but also teach what is best to others, then we can take Ma's life in a cosmopolitan democracy as an example of the best life attainable under what al-Farami called an ignorant regime, a nation not led by a philosopher king. As such, we can use Ma as an illustration of the best that democracy has to offer and, perhaps, as a possible route to avoid the worst of what democracy has to offer.

In his essay for a segment of This I Believe on NPR titled A Musician of Many Cultures, Yo-Yo Ma proclaimed, ``I believe in the infinite variety of human expression'' before going on to explain how the variety of human expression has shaped him as a musician and has helped him as he explored the musical traditions of other nations and peoples over the course of his career. This path walked by Ma through our global village, the path of looking for the best of every possible faction and people group and finding the best traditions among them, is the path al-Farabi suggested the philosopher might travel in the best of the ignorant cities, the cosmopolitan democracy.

In the writings of al-Farabi, we find that the the true philosopher is one who ``he who is truly perfect possesses with sure insight, first, the theoretical virtues, and subsequently the practical'' and who possesses the capacity for bringing these things about in various nations and cities ``in the manner and the measure possible with reference to each'' [al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. The Attainment of Happiness. Ch. IV.]. Based on his understanding of Plato's conception of the Philosopher-King presented in The Republic, al-Farabi holds that the true philosopher is not only the one who knows but also the one who does and the one who teaches. The philosopher, in this view, is the one who can explain philosophy to a particular group of people in a manner which they can understand and in which they can participate. For musicians world wide, Ma does exactly this. Not only is he skilled in the musical arts and able to teach them to others, but he is also able to observe philosophical truths and explain them in terms in which musicians and others who might not otherwise understand philosophy can mentally grasp and carry out in their lives.

Admittedly, however, al-Farabi also argued that the true philosopher was also the supreme ruler of the state and clearly, Yo-Yo Ma is not a head of state. On the other hand, the philosopher was also the head of state in Farabian thinking only in the ideal regime; philosophers do not necessarily rule in those regimes al-Farabi referred to as the ignorant cities which were not governed by a philosopher. The most interesting of these cities to most of the modern world is the city that al-Farabi considered to be the best of the ignorant regimes, the democratic city, which alone of the ignorant regimes allowed for philosophy to flourish unimpeded due to the way that democracies allow each of their citizens, and various factions of their citizens, to individually pursue whatever it is that is being mistaken for the best good.

This defining element of the democratic city, the freedom for each citizen to pursue whatever it is that he or she will make his or her life the happiest, is an immensely attractive one to all those who live in states which lack such freedom. Consequently, people come from the world over to the democratic regime in order to pursue happiness. The end result of this is described by al-Farabi:

Everybody loves it and loves to reside in it, because there is no human wish or desire that this city does not satisfy. The nations emigrate to it and reside there, and it grows beyond measure. People of every race multiply in it, and this by all kinds of copulation and marriages, resulting in children of extremely varied dispositions, with extremely varied education and upbringing. Consequently, this city develops into many cities, distinct yet intertwined, with the parts of each scattered throughout the parts of the others. Strangers cannot be distinguished from the residents. All kinds of wishes and ways of life are to be found in it [al-Farabi, Abu Nasr. The Political Regime. Ch. VI.].
The problem that the democratic city presents for the philosopher, then, is variety. If a philosopher is one who is capable of bringing a particular people to understand philosophy, what is a philosopher to do when faced with a people of peoples where physical characteristics, moral codes, and traditions are mixed beyond any recognition?

This presents an acute problem to those who follow Platonic thinking. The fourth century Neoplatonist Synesius plainly stated the tension between democracy and rationality in the Platonic model.

There are in sooth all kinds of opposites within us, and a certain medial force of nature runs through them which we call mind. It is that I desire to reign in the king's soul, destroying the mob rule and democracy of the passions [Synesius, De Regno. Cited and Translated in Dvornik, Francis, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy: Origins and Background Vol. II.].
Synesius, following the platonic model of using the state as a mechanism to explore the soul, argues that reason, being one, rules as a monarch and the passions, being multiple, rules as a democracy. Reason, it would seem, provides for unity; democracy, for disunity. While Synesius was clearly speaking of the function of the mind rather than the function of the state, he was basing his analysis of the mind on what he thought was an obvious fact of politics, that monarchy is more rationally ordered than democracy.

And truly, the collection of abundant and varied factions, a cities built of cities so to speak, that make up modern democracies do have a problem with factionalism, with each political party and religious group pulling in a different direction. At times and places, a large enough collection of factions will pull in the same direction and move the entire regime in that direction regardless of whether or not that direction is reasonable just as sometimes the passions will pull an individual in a direction that is not reasonable. And in these situations, sometimes even the rational part of the mind cannot restrain the body from following the combined weight of the passions. Thinking of this very situation, al-Farabi wrote:

As for the truly virtuous man--namely the man who, if he were to rule them, would determine and direct their actions toward happiness--they do not make him a rule. If by chance he comes to rule them, he will soon find himself either deposed or killed or in an unstable and challenged position. [al-Farabi,Ibid.]
A democracy, then, is a potentially hazardous regime for a philosopher who would attempt to guide the citizens to happiness. The role of the philosopher in a democratic city, then, is not to rule but to teach as many as he can the meaning of philosophy, lest he perish.

But it isn't so obvious that this cacophony of various factions is a bad thing. James Madison argued that this vast multitude of different interests is a good thing. In Madisonian thinking, the pull of a multitude of factions, each going in its own direction is part of what prevents tyrannical rule of a majority faction.

It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers, but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. Different interests necessarily exist in different classes of citizens. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure. There are but two methods of providing against this evil: the one by creating a will in the community independent of the majority--that is, of the society itself; the other, by comprehending in the society so many separate descriptions of citizens as will render an unjust combination of a majority of the whole very improbable, if not impracticable. [Madison, James. Federalist 51]
And in today's democracies, that is usually the latter path that is taken in the hope that in the plurality of interests, no one interest will be able to dominate the others. The problem, though, is that history shows us that the Madisonian mechanism for preventing the tyranny of the majority is somewhat flawed. The number of dictators throughout history that have risen to power through democratic mechanisms suggests that a multitude of interests alone is insufficient to prevent the political equivalent of the mob rule of the passions in the soul.

The US has a somewhat unique solution to this problem in a constitution that is strongly built on Republican values. But even in the US, from time to time, an outspoken majority or strong minority, has been able to move the nation in rather irrational ways such as the move to Prohibition which, rather than reducing alcohol consumption which was its intended goal, served to both reduce respect for the law among the average citizen and bring organized crime in the US to an unprecedented level of power and prestige. (During Prohibition, per capita alcohol consumption in the US was essentially flat. Once Prohibition ended alcohol consumption dipped slightly.) While it is certainly true that organized crime was present and active in the US prior to Prohibition, it was Prohibition that provided the necessary money for various crime syndicates to become entrenched and respected. Hence, we have an irrational policy being put into place entirely on the grounds of passion rather than reason.

But what of a philosopher that can unite the bits and pieces that are good and wholesome from each tradition and faction within a democracy? A pool of conflicting interests, after all, wasn't Madison's only suggestion for preventing tyranny of a simple majority. He also suggested that a people could be united in a single purpose. While he opined that such a unity of heart and mind was only available in a monarchy, the general will of the people embodied in a single individual, perhaps it is possible to forge one out of the many without resort to a single philosopher king. Perhaps instead, many philosopher kings could arise and attempt to bring the various traditions and outlooks from the multitude of factions into a new synthesis. It seems to me that this, in part, is the very path being taken by Yo-Yo Ma. Traveling about the world from culture to culture to learn all that he can about each to take the best parts from each to put together into a new synthesis that can move a mixed and intermingled cosmopolitan society towards a more full understanding of the truth, Ma is taking the one path open to the philosopher who lives in a democratic regime. Ma's belief in the value of the ``infinite variety of human expression'' and the attempt to accept multiple traditions without rejecting any is one that is certainly essential to teaching virtue in a nation state headed by a what al-Farabi would label as an ignorant regime.


Minter said...

A meaty post Lee. Certainly, the meaty part of democracy is the ability (and right) to hold healthy debate. A philosopher can be a conduit for this debate. And, in the quest for healthy debate, clearly diversity and freedom (even better honesty--or at least protection from recrimination) are of paramount importance. Unfortunately, it would seem that, today, music has little role in the art of democracy -- outside of reruns and borrowed music, there is little lead from the music of today.

If I were to take another angle, however, the issue is less about democracy at home (in the US), but diplomacy abroad. And, beyond music, there is much work to be done on this front, would you not agree?

Lee Malatesta said...


You've packed quite a few different topics into very brief space.

* The role of the philosopher in the public sphere of a democracy.
* The role of music in democracy.
* The role of music in international affairs.

If I'm understanding your point correctly, you seem to be suggesting that the issue of music is far more relevant to international diplomacy than it is to discourse within a democracy. That seems to me to be a very tenuous assertion at first glance.

Although, perhaps we are simply coming from two very different views. One way of reading your comment is that it implies that the field of music itself is in decline and, consequently, there isn't much advance that can happen within a democracy. If that is a correct reading, I would counter with the suggestion that the quality of modern music is a secondary concern with regards to its actual impact on society. Whether it is good or not, music has tremendous influence on us. So the issue is not the quality of music per se, but what sort of impact music is having.

And, truly, there is room for exploration of that issue. It it is not an issue that is especially relevant to the idea that I was trying to explore here, but it is an idea worthy of being addressed to far greater extent than I have time to right now. Perhaps at a later date.

Polly said...

Great work.