What Plato Might Have Said But Didn’t

Search Google for “Let me make the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws,” and you’ll discover a number of people think Plato said such a thing. However, as Kevin Mungons pointed out, there’s no evidence he did. How do faux quotes like this get started? They seem to come from nowhere and take on a life of their own.

I decided to track down this supposed Plato quotation and found the following in A History of Western Music:

Furthermore, the foundations of music once established must not be changed, for lawlessness in art and education inevitably leads to licence in manners and anarchy in society. For Plato the saying “Let me make the songs of a nation and I care not who makes its laws” would have expressed a political maxim; more than that, it would have been a pun, as the word nomos, with the general meaning of “custom” or “law,” was used also to designate the melodic patterns of a certain type of lyric song.

Grout, Donald J. A History of Western Music, 1973. p. 8

Notice the ambiguous “would have”: “For Plato the saying . . . would have expressed a political maxim.” It is possible that Grout could have used “would have” in the sense of “did,” but none of the footnotes near the quotation (there is none for the quotation itself) points to such a passage. In fact, the relevant passages in the footnotes—from Plato’s Laws—actually seem to support the converse: Plato wants law to control the music. But somewhere along the line an ambitious musical-political theorist made it through page eight of A History and decided to resolve the ambiguity in his own favor.

6 Comments

  1. “American reactionaries have gone in more for quote making than American radicals. This is possibly because the former feel more of a need for authoritative quotes than the latter.” Paul F. Boller and John George, They Never Said It: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, & Misleading Attributions (Oxford, 1989), x.

    In any case, let me make the laws, and I’ll ban the songs from the airwaves and close down any show that uses them.

  2. Yikes. Does your Dad really make the laws, Austin? :-)

  3. The Republic, Book IV 424c

  4. naicisum, are you saying the Greek there could reasonably be translated into the quotation in question?

    Care to exposit?

  5. Note also the context of Andrew Fletcher’s original statement. After saying, “I knew a very wise man [who] … believed if a man were permitted to make all the ballads, he need not care who should make the laws of a nation,” Fletcher’s very next sentence reads, “And we find that most of the ancient legislators thought they could not well reform the manners of any city without the help of a lyric, and sometimes of a dramatic poet.” Certainly, Fletcher himself had Plato in mind.

    Even though the quote is not from Plato, Fletcher (and the “very wise man” whose sentiment he is quoting) are conscientiously articulating the idea which they previously found in Plato. So the quote is later, but Fletcher himself attributes Plato with the sentiment behind it. Donald Grout probably recognized that in Fletcher, and was affirming it in his own statement which you helpfully identified, above.

  6. Hahaha! Nice! I like your choice of topic.I found just what I was ndeeed, and it was entertaining!This article is a home run, pure and sipmle!

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