The Philosopher's Eye

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Decoding Plato

Bust of Plato

“Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.”

Philosopher and historian of science, Dr. Jay Kennedy – currently a visiting academic in Manchester – has recently put forward the provocative thesis that Plato’s texts are based around a secret cipher; a kind of Platonic Bible Code. Each book of Plato’s major texts, he contends, is structured in such a way as to represent relative musical harmonies according to the ancient Greek scales.

The twelve note musical scale is the foundation of Western music, and is rooted in the mathematical relationships between different soundwave frequencies, their inter-relation, and the effect they have upon the listener.   Music theory is based upon the observation that certain frequencies of sound produce particular effects upon the listener:  this is why notes sounds happy or sad, tense or relaxing, portentious or eager (notwithstanding other factors, such as tempo or time signature).  The Ancients had knowledge of music theory – Pythagoras is often credited with discovering the basic laws of harmony – but also believed that the universe itself exhibits a kind of divine harmony (such as the music of the spheres).  In the Pythagorean musical scale, the third, fourth, sixth, eighth and ninth notes harmonise with the twelfth, while the fifth, seventh, tenth and eleventh notes are dissonant.  Kennedy’s basic idea is that the chapters of Plato’s work follow a similar harmonic structure.  (To my mind, the interplay of harmonic structure is reminiscent of Hegel’s dialectical method.)  To take Symposium as an example:

0-2+, Neutral: introduction and middling speeches of Phaedrus and Pausanias
3+, Harmonic: Eryximachus’ explicit discussion of erotic and musical harmony.
4+, Harmonic: Aristophanes: Apollo, the god of music, heals and fits together the severed creatures; Hephaestus offers to fuse two lovers.
5+, Disharmonic: Agathon’s arty rhetoric, faulty logic, and beauty without truth.
6+, Harmonic: Praise of Eros, Socrates (ideal philosopher) wants truth, not the appearance of beauty.
7+, Disharmonic: the refutations of Agathon and the young Socrates, Diotima’s story of debauchery among the gods, Eros is not a god.
8-9+, Harmonic: Diotima on Beauty and ascent to the One.
10-11+, Disharmonic: Alcibiades and his shame.

Kennedy finds all kinds of other pieces of stichometric evidence in Plato’s dialogues, suggesting, for example, that the allegory of the dividing line in Book VI of the Republic literally divides the text in the same ratio as the allegory itself describes.

Kennedy argues that the key to unlocking Plato lies in showing how the Pythagorean worldview was used to encode a seperate level of meaning into the texts.  In particular, Kennedy’s study appears to challenge the widely held view that Plato was an idealist who thought that the ultimate nature of reality was metaphysical:  Kennedy’s Plato would appear to understand the world as something we can explain in terms of science rather than ideal form.

What this amounts to is that there is a possibility that a distinct cipher running throughout Plato’s works has been overlooked. As Julian Baggini notes, this could finally make sense of Aristotle’s beguiling suggestion that Plato was a follower of Pythagoras. But, more importantly, Kennedy’s method could potentially reveal an entirely new substrate of meaning within Plato’s dialogues.  If Kennedy’s thesis proves to be well-founded there are profound implications for classical and philosophical scholarship.

Given that so much has been written about Plato for so many years, is it really possible that something like this could have been overlooked?   Surprisingly, the answer seems to be that it’s certainly possible.  Platonic scholarship can be traced back to the Renaissance, when the resurgence of interest in Classical scholarship led to the dialogues being read once more in the original Greek.  But, prior to that, all that was known of Plato’s work was what had made its way into Latin via  interpretation by Arabic writers like Avicenna and Averroes.  It seems entirely plausible that an encoded layer of meaning could have been missed for hundreds of years, but the real test will be in evaluating the data systematically and seeing whether philosophically significant results are obtained.

Related Articles:
Whatever Became of the Socratic Elenchus? Philosophical Analysis in Plato
By Gareth Matthews, University of Massachusetts at Amherst
(Vol. 4, May 2009)

Philosophy Compass

The Case of the Etymologies in Plato’s Cratylus
By Christine J. Thomas, Dartmouth College
(Vol. 2, February 2007)
Philosophy Compass

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