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Can Songs Really Replace Philosophy?
Nobody has told you this before, but our rationalistic STEM worldview originated in magical songs
Today I’m sharing another extract from my new book Music to Raise the Dead. This is a special feature for subscribers to The Honest Broker—the only place right now where you can read my book.
Each chapter can be enjoyed on its own. You don’t need to read them in sequence or in their entirety. But if you want to check out the other sections from Music to Raise the Dead, click here.
This chapter has an unusual title: “Can Songs Actually Replace Philosophy?” That’s an audacious question I don’t ask lightly. I’ve devoted long years to philosophy, and have had the benefit of learning from some of the deepest thinkers in the world. The claims I make for music here may seem extreme, but I believe that, if you join me in this inquiry, you will find them persuasive and mind-expanding.
I will continue to share sections of this book on The Honest Broker—roughly at a pace of one chapter per month.
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Can Songs Actually Replace Philosophy? (Part 1 of 2)
By Ted Gioia
I need to make an awkward admission here. What I’m trying to convey can’t really be told in a book— at least not directly. That’s the sad reality of our most powerful songs.
They always resist translation into printed text. Only hearing is believing.
The incidentals and external details can be written down, but not the most vital aspects. The map is not the territory. A traveler’s guidebook—whether for your family vacation or that musical journey to a different plane of existence—can never serve as a substitute for the trip itself.
Maybe this looks like a failure on my part. But the end result is the truest form of musicology. Any genuine entry into the essence of song must accept that music operates in magical ways beyond the grasp of verbal equivalency. That’s almost the definition of great music.
A music writer—what a sad oxymoron!—is really a metaphysician. You’re chasing after clouds. It’s actually even worse than that, because a cloud has more substance than a song. To pursue musicology means that you live out this absurdity as a vocational necessity. But that hardly changes the fact that it is an absurdity.
Music itself provides its own justification—more powerful than any text—and each one of us has felt its power. Yet people are skeptical when I say that songs offer a pathway to a higher level of existence—or what we call the good life.
That seems to be asking for too much. Songs can’t really guide you on a life’s journey, can they?
“The ancients knew that wisdom had to be sung or chanted. This is the actual foundation of Western rationalism.”
But the day-to-day experience of passionate music fans tells us that this actually happens all the time. Entire generations seek—and find—their values and priorities in songs. Historical eras are even named after music genres and styles.
The 1920s were known as the Jazz Age—because commentators grasped, perhaps instinctively, that the dominant values of that period originated in hot music, not cold, sterile texts. The same could be said of the Swing Era or the Age of Woodstock and other generational markers.
In fact, entire lifestyles—punk, hip-hop, country, and the like—frequently take their names from music genres. This is not mere happenstance, but a telling reminder of the constitutive power of song in human life.
People create their worldview and lifestyle from their playlists—not philosophy books. That’s true today, just as it was true thousands of years ago. Maybe it’s even more true now.
But the shocking thing—as we shall see below—is that even the great philosophers knew this.
We shouldn’t be surprised. When we study the legacy of actual visionaries, we find that experiential factors—musical and otherwise—are always more important than written texts. In his detailed study of the vision quest among the Plains Indians (discussed in chapter four), Lee Irwin keeps reminding his readers that the participant seeks power, not concepts, on this trip: “Real dreams of healing must result in acts of healing; dreams of war must lead to successful raids; dreams involving extrasensory perception must be shown to be true.”
You can’t just talk the talk, as the saying goes; at some point you must walk the walk—which may be a perilous one. More to the point, you must also sing the song. That’s because this kind of journey, for the Plains Indians and other traditional societies, is invariably accompanied by music. Often the songs are learned during these empowered dreams.
This leads me to another admission, perhaps even stranger than the first: namely, that sleeping and dreaming will play a larger role in this work than in any other music book you’ve ever read. Especially when you consider that this music book focuses on heroes and their quests, it’s understandable that you might anticipate accounts of battles and adventures. Little did you realize that snooze time would figure more prominently here than sword fights.
At first blush, all this sounds ridiculous. But, as we shall see, there are important reasons why musicology ought to give more attention—and respect—to nighttime slumbers.
We are not accustomed to viewing dreams in this way, nor do we pay much attention to the songs transmitted in dreams. Instead we’re taught to dismiss the dream or vision as the exact opposite of what Irwin claims. To the modern mind, dreams are where acts have no efficacy, where nothing is accomplished, and nobody benefits.
We are going to see that the exact opposite is true.
“Sleeping and dreaming will play a larger role in this work than it does in any other music book you’ve ever read.”
But let’s leave sleep behind for the moment, and focus on what seems an obvious shortcoming of the alternative musicology proposed here. Music can’t really take the place of a philosophy, no? Isn’t this asking too much of a song? Perhaps some visionaries believed in the magical efficacy of their music, but that’s all superstitious mumbo-jumbo—isn’t it? Songs might entertain or divert us, but there’s a big gap between, say, Adele and Aristotle.
This seems obvious, at first glance.
But the gap between philosophy and music, on close examination, starts to disappear. And even more surprising: music holds the upper hand here. Songs, as we shall see, served as the original source of philosophy’s authority, and despite centuries of veneration of the written text, still hold a position of primacy—which the philosophers themselves acknowledge.
That was evident from the very origins of Western philosophy, when the first proponents of this new rational worldview made their utterances in dactylic hexameter. This was not an arbitrary decision, but a necessity.
Hexameter was the musical rhythm required of any nugget of wisdom inspired by a divine vision.
Visitors to the Delphi oracle, got answers to their questions from the Pythia—a woman, inspired by Apollo, who could predict the future—in dactylic hexameter.
We find the same meter in Homer’s epics, which (as we have already seen) begin with the singer of tales invoking the Muse, the goddess who inspires the poet’s craft.
And most important for our account here, the hymns of Orpheus and his followers—the ultimate musical pathways to the other world—were in this same meter.
Dactylic hexameter is a difficult meter. The ancients would have had a far easier time composing lines in iambics, much closer to the spoken language of the time. The challenge was sufficiently large that scholars have debated whether the Pythia didn’t have help from associates who translated her utterances into dactyls. But the attraction of this form of expression wasn’t in its ease of use, but the authority it conveyed.
The ancients knew that wisdom had to be sung or chanted. This is the actual foundation of Western rationalism.
In ancient times, Apollo was credited as the originator of dactylic hexameter, either directly or by inspiring the Pythia. He is conveniently—and significantly—the god of both music and prophecy, vocations that seem to have little in common nowadays. But they were closely intertwined in almost every ancient or traditional society.
This meter was already quite old even by the time of the first philosophers, and was perhaps originally borrowed from another culture. Whatever its sources, the reasons for its prestige are beyond dispute. Hexameter was associated with communications from divine sources, and was the proper form of expression for any vision or utterance that went beyond our merely human capacities.
And that’s why it’s so surprising to see hexameter in the writings of the pre-Socratic philosopher Parmenides. This imposing figure, who flourished during the fifth century BC, is often praised, along with Aristotle, as the “Father of Logic.” He is also called the “Father of Metaphysics.” And Parmenides played an especially important role in establishing the field of inquiry known as ontology—which is the study of being and existence, and thus deals with the most foundational questions in Western intellectual history.
In other words, Parmenides not only practiced philosophy, he helped invent it. Yet when we turn to his surviving work, we find that he actually wrote a song not a text. And it is delivered in the same meter associated with divine inspiration found in the prophetic hymns attributed to Orpheus—which are the focal point of the oldest musicology book in Europe, the Derveni papyrus (discussed in chapter one).
But it’s a frustrating song for scholars. First, Parmenides’s work exists today only in fragments. The original hymn probably contained some 800 verses, but only around 160 have survived. Even the passages that remain are often obscure.
But for many scholars, the most unsettling aspect of Parmenides’s work is its shamanistic tone. At the very outset of his song, the philosopher explains that he is taking a mystical journey to another realm, where a goddess will impart divine wisdom. The trip takes place on a supernatural chariot, where mysterious women serve as his guides. And the chariot makes a rhythmical sound with its wheels, which Parmenides compares to the music of a pipe. The whole work, in fact, conveys a sense of rhythm, driven by the incantatory and repetitive nature of the words.
There are obstacles along the way, and Parmenides encounters a kind of crossroads challenge, where he must navigate his way in the face of paths associated with the gates of Night and Day. And when these are opened, they too make the sound of pipes.
“The use of the word is extraordinary,” classicist Peter Kingsley has remarked. “It’s the only time in the whole Greek language that it’s ever applied to doors or parts of doors.” It’s worth noting that this rhythmic music—compared by the philosopher to the instrument syrinx, named after a goddess whose beauty inspired Pan to invent the panpipes—is the only noise or sound described in the entire work.
We’ve seen all these ingredients repeatedly in our study of music that reaches another plain of existence—or raises the dead, as I put it quaintly in the title of this book. We’ve seen these chariots again and again. We’ve encountered the crossroads repeatedly. In every instance, they’re associated with magical songs.
Now we see all these ingredients again. But—amazingly!—they preside at the birth of Western rationalistic philosophy.
Nobody has told you this before, but our STEM worldview originated in magical songs.
Despite the obstacles, Parmenides’s journey is worth its risks, because the goddess imparts a rare divine wisdom to her visitor. And that’s the part of the story posterity has celebrated, the philosophical knowledge Parmenides brings back from his trip. But anyone familiar with the shamanistic tradition of music-driven visions from otherworldly journeys can see that these nuggets of insight are hardly sufficient to distinguish Parmenides from others who have undertaken similar quests.
Shamans always claim that they return with wisdom from the journey. What separates Parmenides from these other visionaries isn’t so much what he learned on his magical chariot—his pronouncement on the timelessness of reality, which is today the most celebrated part of his teachings, would have been expressed, sooner or later, by other thinkers—but the fact that it was written down at all. Before Parmenides, visionary knowledge of this sort wasn’t preserved in writing or at least not in a sufficiently coherent way that could influence later thinkers. But as a result of his transformation of song into text, the magical quest, previously the domain of singers and mystics, could now become the plaything of sophists and philosophers.
The most famous of these was Plato, who wrote a puzzling dialogue about a meeting between Socrates and Parmenides. The historical context of the dialogue is questionable—Socrates was born around a half-century after Parmenides, so a deep philosophical discussion between them is unlikely, although perhaps not impossible. But the respect accorded Parmenides in this work is noteworthy.
“Nobody has told you this before, but our STEM worldview originated in magical songs.”
He is given center stage, and employs the techniques of the Socratic dialogue as discussion leader—a role invariably assigned to Socrates himself in other contexts. The clear implication is that the older philosopher served as mentor to the younger. Perhaps just as striking, this dialogue aims to show how closely Parmenides’s own views are aligned with Plato’s later theory of ideas, one of the most powerful schemas in the history of Western thought.
In other words, both the discursive technique of philosophy and its most famous foundational theory are presented as outgrowths of the wisdom Parmenides brought back from his rhythm-driven vision of a higher realm. Philosophy and song coincide, but the musical experience lays the foundation for everything—abstract discourse only comes later.
But there’s one more aspect of Parmenides legacy we need to consider before moving on, and it shows how all the pieces of our puzzle fit together.
In 1962, archaeologist Mario Napoli uncovered the marble base of a bust of Parmenides in Velia—the home of the influential Eleatic school of philosophy in ancient times—with an inscription that linked this thinker to a tradition of healing priests. Other nearby archeological finds suggest that this site may have been a center for an unusual form of medicine known as incubation, and that the priests here viewed Parmenides as an esteemed predecessor of their community.
But what happened in these incubation centers bore little resemblance to what we would call philosophy nowadays. Practitioners of this art served as custodians for special places, temples or caves where divine powers could be accessed, but only in dreams.
The Greek geographer Strabo describes how one of these incubation centers operated two thousand years ago:
“They say that those who are diseased and give heed to the cures prescribed by these gods resort thither and live in the village near the cave among experienced priests, who on their behalf sleep in the cave and through dreams prescribe the cures. These are also the men who invoke the healing power of the gods….And sometimes the sick give heed also to their own dreams, but still they use those other men, as priests, to initiate them into the mysteries and to counsel them. To all others the place is forbidden and deadly.”
The similarity with the Native American vision quest (described in chapter four) is striking. In fact, some scholars noticed the resemblance a century ago.
But what we didn’t known until recently is that the origins of Western philosophy take us back to the very same tradition—where inspired visionaries communicate with divine powers in a trance or dream state. Philosophy texts may praise Parmenides as the “Father of Logic,” but apparently a whole flourishing priesthood inherited a different legacy from him, one related to dreams and cures and journeys to a dangerous alternative realm where valuable knowledge might be gained.
Parmenides is no isolated case. The early history of Western philosophy was shaped, at almost every juncture, by visionary experiences, shamanistic exploits, and powerful songs. The case of Empedocles, from the generation after Parmenides, is even more striking in this regard. Today, students of philosophy are taught that Empedocles’s most significant contribution to Western culture is the ancient distinction between the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. He is presented as a prototype of the natural philosopher and physical scientist. But what students aren’t told is that he was a singer as well as a philosopher, and composed his works in this same hexameter associated with Orphic hymns and divine oracles.
Even more hidden from view is Empedocles’s claim that, like Orpheus, he could bring back a soul from the realm of the dead. And his surviving texts contain many other grand assertions: Empedocles says he can teach people how to control the course of the winds, change the weather, remedy the ravages of aging, and other extraordinary things. It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that Empedocles was worshipped by many followers as a quasi-deity, and he even made claims that he was a god and deserved this treatment. When he came to your town, you expected miracles, not a philosophy lecture.
In classicist Hermann Diels’s influential edition of pre-Socratic writings, compiled more than a century ago but still widely referenced by scholars today, these boasts are moved to the back the text, although Peter Kingsley suggests “they almost certainly belong right at the beginning.” In his uneasiness over the intrusion of magic into Greek philosophy, Diels claimed that these passages about raising the dead are an embarrassment. They must be interpreted symbolically, as promises of what science may one day provide. But anyone familiar with shamanistic practices around world will have no doubts about Empedocles’s claims or the nature of his vocation.
He is deadly serious. And serious about the dead in particular.
Passages such as these convinced classicist F.M. Cornford, a generation after Diels, that we ought to view “the philosopher as successor of the seer-poet.” Cornford realized how much resistance he would face from scholars in his field, who “have assumed that enlightened rationalism is necessarily in opposition to the superstitious beliefs and practices of a now obsolete religion.” But in his final book Principium Sapientiae, left uncompleted at his death, Cornford confronted this ingrained assumption head-on, and showed in great detail how almost every aspect of early Western philosophy drew on the elements we could only describe as shamanistic.
Although later scholars such as E.R. Dodds and Peter Kingsley have expanded our awareness of this core aspect of the Western philosophical tradition, its implications are still poorly understood—and almost never acted upon in the day-to-day life of professional philosophers. And for a very good reason: the whole institutionalization and pedagogy of philosophy would need to change radically to assimilate this visionary approach to wisdom.
In a strange sort of way, a musician has more freedom to pursue this path than an academic philosopher.
Even today, this distaste among classicists for shamanism runs deep. In his recent comprehensive survey of the influence of Orpheus on religious and philosophical thought, classicist Radcliffe G. Edmundson III, mentions shamanism only once in a 450-page work—and that reference is hidden away in a derisive footnote. Yet, as we have already seen, equivalents to the Orpheus myth have been found in more than fifty Native American tribes, and in other cultures around the world where shamanism has played a significant role.
The accumulated evidence is overwhelming, yet many studies of Orphic thought and early Western philosophy operate in a vacuum chamber where anthropology, psychology, folklore, sociology, ethnomusicology, medical sciences, and other disciplines have no bearing. For the most part, only works of other classicists are considered worth citing, and if relevant information doesn’t appear in their books and articles, it apparently isn’t worth considering. Yet as soon as the inventors of Western philosophy—Orphic thinkers, Parmenides, Empedocles, Pythagoras, Socrates, and others—are viewed in this larger context, their relationship to the musical vision quest is impossible to ignore.
That emerges most clearly in the legend associated with Empedocles’s death, a narrative that conveys all the grandeur and terror of an Orpheus-type myth. Traditional accounts tell us that the philosopher leapt into the molten crater of volcanic Mount Etna in Sicily. Perhaps that’s not the same thing as a descent into the Underworld, but it’s as close as you can get without crossing the line between biography and myth.
It’s worth noting that death by fiery combustion is sometimes attributed to shamans—and sometimes to charlatans, as well. Carlos Castaneda claimed that his (perhaps fictional) shamanic mentor Don Juan Matus was consumed at his death by an internal fire; and Castaneda led his own followers to believe that he would die in a similar manner. Needless to say, Castaneda’s own death from cancer in 1998 didn’t match the myth. And perhaps the tale of Empedocles’s volcanic self-sacrifice is equally dubious. But the persistence of such narratives indicate a larger truth, namely that visionaries who journey to another world are burning with some special fire.
Then we come to the case of the most famous of the pre-Socratic philosophers, the esteemed thinker Pythagoras, and all these tensions reach a breaking point. Philosophy is now at a crossroads moment itself, with practitioners facing the incompatible demands of rationality and mysticism. Both pathways were pursued by Pythagoras, a contradictory figure who left a lasting mark on each of these worldviews.
I’ve claimed, in other settings, that Pythagoras “is the most important person in the history of music”—but that’s not how he is remembered nowadays. Conventional accounts focus on Pythagoras’s preeminence as philosopher, as well as his contributions to science and mathematics. Even today, students of geometry learn the Pythagorean theorem as part of their basic education. But there’s almost as much mysticism as mathematics in his life story, and he inspired a cult following of quasi-religious intensity. Indeed, the term philosophy fails to convey the true scope and sheer bizarreness of his doctrines and practices.
These were so extreme that Pythagoras was forced into exile, along with his followers, who were viewed with suspicion and sometimes open hostility for their alternative lifestyle and occult views—about reincarnation, food taboos and other matters. There’s good reason to believe that Pythagoras died, along with many disciples, in a fire (again!) deliberately set by community members who feared the counterculture ways the cult espoused. Some have even compared this event to the infamous FBI siege on the Waco compound of the Branch Davidian cult in 1993, which resulted in the fiery deaths of 76 cult members. The details are murky, but the larger picture is crystal clear: philosophy, in those early days, was not just a matter of propositions and logical deductions, but a dangerous undertaking.
By any measure, Pythagoras is a strange, paradoxical character. But if we view him as a musical mystic and visionary, rather than as a philosopher, we can start to make sense of the puzzling aspects of his life and work.
We can understand the remarkable similarities between Pythagorean teachings and the shamanic worldview associated with Orpheus, which are so close that scholars sometimes refer to this with the single term “Orphic-Pythagorean.” We can also understand why Pythagoras was so obsessed with the power of music—so much so, that we might even call him the inventor of music therapy. By the same token, we can finally make sense of the story told of Pythagoras secluding himself in a cave on the island of Samos—a location on an extinct volcano that is still called “Pythagoras’s cave” today. This was simply the same kind of incubation setting described previously as the connecting link between the Native American vision quest and the Western philosophical tradition.
In truth, any honest attempt to comprehend the full range of Pythagoras’s activities, which ranged from healing to divination, reveals that he is more a magical musician than sober practitioner of rational thinking.
What’s going on here?
Why are the founders of Western philosophy so fixated on music, magic, dreams, and visits to caves? It’s worth stressing that these obsessions aren’t at the periphery of their vocation, but central to their life’s work. Scholars today prefer to view them as theorists whose legacy consists of texts, but their first followers saw them differently—they were visionaries on a risky path whose music provided them with a connection to divine sources of inspiration.
At this juncture, we need to consider the most seminal figure of all those who presided at the birth of Western philosophy, namely Socrates.
Back in Athens around the year 400 BC, Socrates not only established the key concepts and priorities of the philosophical tradition, but even formulated the most powerful technique in the history of discourse, the Socratic method—an approach still practiced today, and designed to promote logic and rational thinking. Surely at this point in the story, we have left mysticism, dreams, caves, and magical songs behind. With Socrates and his followers, superstition is discarded and hard-headed rationality finally prevails.
Or does it?
Socrates, for his part, never wrote any texts—an inconvenient fact for those who esteem the written word as the rock solid foundation of philosophy. Most of what we know about him comes via his student Plato, who drew on recollections of his teacher’s conversations in creating a series of “dialogues” that many justifiably consider as the foundational documents in Western thought. And the details presented in these texts present constant challenges to anyone who wants to purify philosophy of its “superstitious” origins in music and the vision quest.
Let us consider Socrates’s own account of his vocation, as related by Plato. “In the course of my life,” Socrates explains, “I have often had intimations in dreams ‘that I should make music.’”
This is an unexpected revelation, but he continues:
“The same dream came to me sometimes in one form, and sometimes in another, but always saying the same or nearly the same words: Make and cultivate music, said the dream. And hitherto I had imagined that this was only intended to exhort and encourage me in the study of philosophy, which has always been the pursuit of my life, and is the noblest and best of music.”
Socrates speaks these words in the final hours of his life, as documented in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo. And here, after a dramatic declaration that he has always viewed philosophy as a type of music, he expresses anxiety that he may have misinterpreted his dream revelations: “The dream was bidding me do what I was already doing….But I was not certain of this, as the dream might have meant music in the popular sense of the word.”
As he considers this possible misstep, Socrates decides to spend his final days composing songs. “I thought that I should be safer if I satisfied the scruple, and, in obedience to the dream, composed a few verses before I departed.” His first effort on this new path was a hymn—the traditional way of invoking a deity or divine source of inspiration.
This is one of the strangest passages in the entire history of Western thought….
Real dreams of healing: Lee Irwin, The Dream Seekers: Native American Visionary Traditions of the Great Plains (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994), p. 28.
The use of the word is extraordinary, Peter Kingsley, In the Dark Places of Wisdom (Inverness, California: The Golden Sufi Center, 1999), p. 127.
They say that those who are diseased: Strabo, The Geography of Strabo, Vol. VI, translated by Horace Leonard Jones (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1960), p. 259.
they almost certainly belong right at the beginning: Peter Kingsley, Ancient Philosophy, Mystery and Magic: Empedocles and Pythagorean Tradition, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), p. 226.
Cornford realized how much resistance: F.M. Cornford, Principium Sapientiae: The Origins of Greek Philosophical Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1952), p. 107.
that reference is hidden away in a derisive footnote: Radcliffe G. Edmundson III . Redefining Ancient Orphism: A Study in Greek Religion (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 186-187.
the most important person in the history of music: Ted Gioia, Music: A Subversive History (New York: Basic Books, 2019), p. 48.
The same dream came to me: This and below from Phaedo, translated by Benjamin Jowett, in Plato, The Republic and Other Works (New York: Anchor, 1973), p. 492.