L’uomo, uno strumento musicale

Man, a musical instrument

The metaphor Man, a musical instrument is an organological metaphor that runs back to at least Plato’s Phaedo, and has a long tradition in Western culture. My concern are mainly its modern developments, from Descartes and Kircher to Diderot. The modern achievements consist in the scientific and cognitive vs (ancient and renaissance) analogical uses of the metaphor. For instance, Diderot’s label l’homme clavecin, that is, man as a sensitive harpsichord, (in the Elements of Physiology but first and foremost in D’Alembert’s Dream), is constructed on the basis of Diderot’s studies in medicine (anatomy and physiology), music-acoustics and mathematics. These sciences are the ground above which the moral man emerges as a sensate musical instrument: music sets in tune the living strings and nervous fibres that medicine scrutinizes, while moral philosophy seals this organic unity of spirit and matter with the passions that vocal music imitates.

Rameau’s Nephew, the dialogue written by Diderot between 1761 and 1780, is an extreme sample of my metaphor. In this dialogue the clavecin sensible doubles, and two discordant voices resonate out of tune: Me and the Nephew, the Harpist and his Diaphgram, which is another, more elegant label used by Diderot for the musical analogy I am concerned with. Man is no more able to temperate his conflicting parts, and music turns its emotional power against the old world, aiming to annihilite it.


Paolo Gozza