Orchestra: The Timocracy We All Know

In Book VII of The Republic, Socrates discusses the five regimes: Aristocracy, Timocracy, Oligarchy, Democracy, and Tyranny. One leads to the next and eventually shows the breakdown of the ideal city. While discussing this in class, the notion of Timocracy caught my attention. Dictionary.com defines it as “a form of government in which love of honor is the dominant motive of the rulers.” In a Timocratic society, the soul is ruled by the spirit, resulting in a controlled appetite but desire for glory. Being a violinist and participating in several different orchestras, I couldn’t help but notice that the establishment of the orchestra is synonymous with a Timocracy.

Honor and glory are the ruling principles of the modern day symphony orchestra. This is perfectly exemplified by the seating order. Every violinist wants to be concertmaster. Why? It comes with a lot of glory. The concertmaster gets to walk on stage after every other member of the orchestra has taken his/her seat. Upon walking on stage, the audience roars and the concertmaster gets to take a bow in acknowledgment. He/she also gets to play any violin solos written in the music. This unquestionably provides a greater sense of glory.

Each member of the orchestra is fuelled with this desire for honor whether it be violins, cellos, oboes, flutes, french horns etc. Everybody wants that big solo and the honor that comes with it. That being said, the typical orchestra also exemplifies a Timocracy in that it desires to sound better than other orchestras, for that comes with glory. Why do the best symphony orchestras rehearse for several hours each week? Because they desire to sound better than the other orchestras. They want the glory of saying they are the “best in the state” or even “best in the country.”

Unfortunately, as Socrates described how the ideal city would further degenerate from a Timocracy to an Oligarchy, the same can be true for the orchestra. Although it doesn’t happen often, those with money can bribe the people in charge into giving them first chair. The orchestra then goes from an establishment ruled by the spirit to one ruled by the appetite, as it is now governed by the rich. This of course results in an orchestra that doesn’t function as efficiently, for he/she who did the bribing may not be best fit for first chair. In sum, I think Timocracy is an effective regime in the case of the orchestra.

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