A Footnote to the Pan Flute's History A Footnote to the Pan Flute's History
In the course of my research into the pan flute's history, one question has always loomed large in my mind: Why was the pan flute of no particular interest to the intellectuals and cultural elite of pre-Renaissance Europe?
While investigating this mystery, I suddenly remembered references to this particular matter in the writings of the Greek philosopher and author, Plato. In Book III of his "Republic", Plato recounts a conversation that occurred between Socrates (another famed Greek philosopher) and Adeimantus, in which the flute and the pipe (most likely a reference to the Greek pan flute, the Syrinx) was deemed by Socrates to be of inferior musical stature to stringed instruments (the lyre and the harp).
Socrates: But what do you say to flute-makers and flute-players? Would you admit them into our State when you reflect that in this composite use of harmony the flute is worse than all the stringed instruments put together; even the panharmonic music is only an imitation of the flute?
Adeimantus: Clearly not.
Socrates: There remain then only the lyre and the harp for use in the city, and the shepherds may have a pipe in the country.
Adeimantus: That is surely the conclusion to be drawn from the argument.
Socrates: The preferring of Apollo and his instruments to Marsyas and his instruments is not at all strange, I said.
This account is a revealing look into the the prevailing attitudes of the intellectual elite of ancient Greece. This view is reinforced by the symbolism to be found in one the best-known Greek myths concerning the pan flute, " The Musical Duel of Pan and Apollo". Pan (a metaphor for the rustic, carnal, and elemental aspects of humankind) and Apollo (symbolic of the epitome of cultural aesthetics and civilization), represented opposing human ideals to the Greeks, those of order and chaos, civilization and barbarism. In a very direct way, this view originated modern Western civilization's attitudes concerning the nature of good and evil. Like us, the ancient Greeks wanted to see that which is perceived as good triumph over that which is perceived as evil.
In pre-Renaissance Europe, ancient Greece was viewed as the progenitor of "classical" culture, the standard by which all later European culture would be evaluated, and to which all later European culture must conform: if the intellectual elite of ancient Greece (Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, etc.) said it, it was held to be true. This was further reinforced by the early Christian movement which, bent upon the eradication of all things pagan, regarded Pan as synonymous with Satan. This policy pattern would be continued in later centuries by the Catholic Church, which retained an iron grip on all intellectual, social, and technological development until the Renaissance.
When one considers these factors, it is nothing short of astonishing that the pan flute has managed to survive to the 21st century. I, for one, am glad it has managed to do so. -Douglas Bishop