Why Do We Love Sad Songs?

It’s an old question in philosophy: why do we enjoy suffering in art? Lucretius says that it’s sweet to stand on shore and watch a shipwreck. He doesn’t necessarily mean that we enjoy the suffering of others so much as that we enjoy feeling secure in ourselves. But Plato has a darker view. He claims that we actually enjoy the suffering (he calls it pathos, we call it the blues) when it’s put at the distance of art. Naturally, if we’re too close to the suffering, the art becomes unbearable, as when Odysseus in his efforts to get home is waylaid and hears a poet singing about – him. To listen to his own sufferings was too much for him. But given a little distance, we identify with the protagonist of the tragedy and enjoy it insofar as it fills us with the maximum of bearable suffering.

So why do we like to suffer with the singer? According to Plato, because we like to feel sorry for ourselves. We like to feel that our destiny is out of our hands, that it’s fated that we suffer so. Is Plato wrong? Though I’m inclined to believe there’s more to the story, it also seems that the feeling of “pathos” – of self-pitying suffering – is a big art of the overall experience of many of the most powerful songs. Plato, you will recall, goes on to ban tragedians from the ideal state.

Plato also begs that someone prove him wrong, because of how much he loves the blues.

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One Response to Why Do We Love Sad Songs?

  1. I meant “big part” not “big art” – but, as editors say, stet.

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