ABSTRACT

At Ion 536, Plato repeats an ancient myth, probably related to the myth of the Tree of Creation, and telling, with a music we cannot forget, of the cosmological dimension within which the spirit of dance takes place. In Laws, however, Plato discusses the dance, not in the context of myth, but rather in that of education. According to him, the cultivation of the body’s instinctive feeling for movement and its propensity for dancing, coupled with the experience of community that such dancing provides, are essential for the moral and political education of every Athenian citizen. So much so, in fact, that at Laws II:654, the ‘uneducated’ man is called ‘achoreutos’ (‘danceless’) while the ‘educated’ is named ‘kechoreukos’ (‘skilled in dance’). Since human beings are both bodies and souls, their personal health and political welfare must correspondingly nurture them both in body and in soul. This nurture, or education, has two branches:

One of gymnastic, which is concerned with the body, and the other of music, which is designed for the improvement of the soul. And gymnastic has also two branchesdancing and wrestling; and one sort of dancing imitates musical recitation, and aims at preserving dignity and freedom, the other aims at producing health, agility, and beauty in the limbs and parts of the body, giving the proper flexion and extension to each of them, a harmonious motion being diffused everywhere, and forming a suitable accompaniment to the dance. (Laws, VII, 795. Also see Laws II, 673)

This kind of education rests on the classical Greek conviction,

that all bodies are benefited by shakings and movements, when they are moved without weariness, whether the motion proceeds from themselves, or is caused by a swing, or at sea, or on horseback, or by other bodies in whatever way moving. (Laws, VII, 789)

But certain kinds of motion, of ‘measure’, namely ‘the gentle and benign’ (792), are especially beneficial, ‘producing in them [i.e., in children] a sound mind, which takes the place of their frenzy’ (791), and shaping a strong, well-balanced, and beautiful body (788). The aim of education is virtue: a ‘gentle and cheerful’ soul (792) and an agile, harmonious, well-balanced embodiment (795), the shining, exemplary embodiment of moral goodness and civic justice. But such goodness of character (ethos) is exemplified in its glory only when the process of education is true, not only to the beauty of mind (soul), but also to the inherent nobility of its bodily element. (See Laws VII, 816.) Thus the aim of political education is to teach the political virtues in a mimesis of their bodily comportment: teach them, that is, by a ‘method’ which, being ‘true’ to the deepest nature of the body, is able to bring out its intrinsic potential for goodness.