The Ethical Power of Music: Ancient Greek and Chinese Thoughts

Here we present the ‘Abstract‘ from the corresponding essay by Yuhwen Wang.


“Both the ancient Chinese and Greeks from around the fifth century B.C. to around third century A.D. recognized the immense impact that music has on the development of one’s personality, and both regarded it as crucial in cultivation for the proper disposition in youth. Music’s power over one’s ethos — that is, human disposition — was emphasized by Plato and by Chinese authors of various documents. As will become clear, music in both cultures was considered an important means for a proper education and a powerful tool for cultivating and controlling the people of a nation-state. In both cases, the power of music was further connected to the way the universe works. Yet despite their similar views about music, the reasoning strategies used in the two cultures differ enormously. Observing how the two remote cultures conceived the relationship between music and the ethos may give us some insight to music’s role in aesthetic education among us modern listeners.

In this essay, I investigate how the power of music was understood and explained in these two ancient cultures, and the similarities and differences in their explanations and reasoning strategies. What mechanisms were thought to be at work behind this musical power? How close are ancient Greeks and Chinese in their conceptions of musical power upon the ethos? In particular, the Yue Ji (Record of Music, from the Li Ji) and the Yue Shu (Book of Music, from the Shi Ji) from ancient China, and Plato’s writings from ancient
Greece will be taken as the foci of the comparison. The Yue Ji and Yue Shu are two of the most important documents in ancient Chinese musical philosophy, respectively included as individual sections in the Li Ji (Record of Rituals) and Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian). Both are believed to be later versions of the same source document, which has never been found. In the Chinese textual tradition, the Yue Ji is the earliest fully developed treatise on music that has come down to us. Its authorship has been debated for centuries, but scholars generally agree that it was completed prior to the middle of the Western Han dynasty (second and first centuries B.C.) The entire contents of the Yue Ji are included in the Yue Shu. The latter contains additional material, is organized in a more logical way, and is also thought to have been compiled during the Western Han
dynasty. In the first part of this essay, I will use the Yue Ji, the Yue Shu, and Plato’s
writings to show how the concept of music’s power over the ethos evolved in the two ancient cultures. This is closely related to their views on music’s effect in regulating human behavior, its educational value, its benefits for governing a state, and its close association with Nature and the universe. Then in the second part, I will focus on the ways that Plato and the authors of the Yue Ji and Yue Shu explained this power, and the reasoning strategies that they used.”

(Link for the paper:


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