Having solved a puzzle this morning – concerning Jacopo Peri and Giulio Caccini’s production of L’Euridice in 1600 – I started to wonder how many operas since then were based on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice and the wonderful internets gave me an answer in the form of this page. Now all I have to do is listen to all of these and make some glorious conclusions about the Orphean leitmotifs in philosophy. Something along the lines of Gary Tomlinson’s excellent Metaphysical Song but funnier and with pictures…
Just quickly glancing at the list, it’s clear that the story was very popular. If I recall correctly though, there are two versions of the end in the operatic tradition: the traditional sad ending (Eurydice is gone forever, Orpheus is bummed out, goes mad) and the happy ending (Apollo comes and saves the day).
The philosophical significance of the story is easy to grasp, or so it seems. Plato complained that Orpheus was a coward, or I should say, The Speech of Phaedrus in Symposium mentioned that Orpheus was a coward – regular heroes die for their love, not try to sneak into Hades with a nice tune. According to this version, Orpheus does not get to see his wife, just an angry image:
[179d] In this manner even the gods give special honor to zeal and courage in concerns of love. But Orpheus, son of Oeagrus, they sent back with failure from Hades, showing him only a wraith of the woman for whom he came; her real self they would not bestow, for he was accounted to have gone upon a coward’s quest, too like the minstrel that he was, and to have lacked the spirit to die as Alcestis did for the sake of love, when he contrived the means of entering Hades alive. Wherefore they laid upon him the penalty he deserved, and caused him to meet his death [179e] at the hands of women: whereas Achilles, son of Thetis, they honored and sent to his place in the Isles of the Blest because having learnt from his mother that he would die as surely as he slew Hector but if he slew him not, would return home and end his days an aged man, he bravely chose to go and rescue his lover Patroclus, [180a] avenged him, and sought death not merely in his behalf but in haste to be joined with him whom death had taken. For this the gods so highly admired him that they gave him distinguished honor, since he set so great a value on his lover.
This “contriving the means of entering Hades alive” is Orpheus’ musical ability, of course. And so we get your usual Platonic dismissal of musical art as imitative (insert a more sophisticated argument with textual support here). But more then that, Orpheus is of course known as powerful singer/speaker (is that a justified conjunction here?):
Aeschylus, Agamemnon ~ [line 1628] Aegisthus: These words of yours likewise shall prove a source of tears. The tongue ofOrpheus is quite the opposite of yours. He led all things by the rapture of his voice; but you, who have stirred our wrath by your silly yelping, shall be led off yourself. You will appear tamer when put down by force.
Euripides, Alcestis ~ [line 355] Admetus: If I had the voice and music of Orpheus so that I could charm Demeter’s daughter or her husband with song and fetch you from Hades,  I would have gone down to the Underworld, and neither Pluto’s hound nor Charon the ferryman of souls standing at the oar would have kept me from bringing you back to the light alive. But now wait for me to arrive there when I die and prepare a home where you may dwell with me.  For I shall command my children here to bury me in the same coffin with you and to lay out my body next to yours. Never, even in death, may I be parted from you, the woman who alone has been faithful to me!
Pindar, Pythian ~ [Poem 4: 175] And from Apollo the lyre-player came, the father of songs, much-praised Orpheus.
Plato, Protagoras ~ [315a] The persons who followed in their rear, listening to what they could of the talk, seemed to be mostly strangers, brought by the great Protagoras from the several cities which he traverses, enchanting them with his voice like Orpheus, while they follow [315b] where the voice sounds, enchanted; and some of our own inhabitants were also dancing attendance. As for me, when I saw their evolutions I was delighted with the admirable care they took not to hinder Protagoras at any moment by getting in front; but whenever the master turned about and those with him, it was fine to see the orderly manner in which his train of listeners split up into two parties on this side and on that, and wheeling round formed up again each time in his rear most admirably. […] [316d]: Now I tell you that sophistry is an ancient art, and those men of ancient times who practised it, fearing the odium it involved, disguised it in a decent dress, sometimes of poetry, as in the case of Homer, Hesiod, and Simonides sometimes of mystic rites and soothsayings, as did Orpheus, Musaeus and their sects; and sometimes too, I have observed, of athletics, as with Iccus of Tarentum and another still living—as great a sophist as any—Herodicus of Selymbria, originally of Megara; and music was the disguise employed by your own Agathocles, a great sophist, Pythocleides of Ceos, and many more.
Diogenes Laertis, Live of Eminent Philosophers ~ Book I, Prologue: And thus it was from the Greeks that philosophy took its rise: its very name refuses to be translated into foreign speech. But those who attribute its invention to barbarians bring forward Orpheus the Thracian, calling him a philosopher of whose antiquity there can be no doubt. Now, considering the sort of things he said about the gods, I hardly know whether he ought to be called a philosopher; for what are we to make of one who does not scruple to charge the gods with all human suffering, and even the foul crimes wrought by the tongue amongst a few of mankind? The story goes that he met his death at the hands of women; but according to the epitaph at Dium in Macedonia he was slain by a thunderbolt; it runs as follows:
Here have the Muses laid their minstrel true,
The Thracian Orpheus whom Jove’s thunder slew.
Orpheus the Sophist aka the Philosopher aka the Father of Music is quite a description. Of course, there are Orphic mysteries and more. I don’t care for a sort of a comprehensive overview (that’s what professors are for), just an immediate impression: Socrates is against Orpheus, because this Orphic business stinks of sophistry, if sophistry here is not just a smart talk but also a kind of mystification of knowledge. And yet there’s also a strong (and long) tradition of appreciating the kind of knowledge music provides (let’s avoid calling it “emotional” because it reeks of anti-rationalism of sorts). Is music as sophistic art to be rejected because it cannot be subsumed under a “rational discourse”? Are we musical “by nature” or does our appreciation of music (or a complete lack of therefore) come from our education and upbringing? Insert your favorite problem here.
The major question for me lately was the rather silly one (in its lack of empirical evidence): Why is it that we are more likely to meet a philosophically inclined musician than a musically curious philosopher? What is it about the business of doing philosophy that attracts people who are musically challenged? Or am I completely mistaken and there are plenty of musically-attuned philosophy professors?
Orpheus as the first philosopher is an interesting avenue, I think. But Orpheus is a master of voice, not necessarily sound. This dichotomy of voice (human) and sound (non-human) reminds me of Derrida’s discussion of Rousseau’s essay on the origin of language in Of Grammatology. I think I’m going to go reread that section.
P.S. Related question – does anyone know if Rousseau Lettre sur la musique francois available in English?
P.S.S. My favorite portrait of Beethoven has some Orphic connotations and awkward waving motions: