Breaking news about 2.5K-year-old-texts.

Given all the time we spend talking about Platonism around here, I thought it would be a good idea to link to this Guardian article about a new analysis of Plato’s texts. Through an attempt to reconstruct the original Greek line-breaks of our copies of Plato’s texts, Jay Kennedy of Machester University thinks he’s uncovered an underlying structure in Plato’s dialogues:

“Believing that this pattern corresponds to the 12-note musical scale widely used by Pythagoreans, Kennedy divided the texts into equal 12ths and found that ‘significant concepts and narrative turns’ within the dialogues are generally located at their junctures. Positive concepts are lodged at the harmonious third, fourth, sixth, eight and ninth ‘notes’, which were considered to be most harmonious with the 12th; while negative concepts are found at the more dissonant fifth, seventh, 10th and 11th.”

While the article’s breathless tone (“Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years”) doesn’t really encourage a serious assessment of Kennedy’s work, there are plenty of resources on Kennedy’s website, and I’m planning to do a little digging over the holiday weekend.

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12 thoughts on “Breaking news about 2.5K-year-old-texts.

  1. You don’t need to discover any cryptic messages to know that Plato was influenced by Pythagorean thought, but this guy is barking up the wrong tree since there was never any “12-note musical scale widely used by Pythagoreans.”

    Ancient Greek music was built from tetrachords, which could be stacked in various ways to form the different diatonic modes. Pythagoras or his followers identified the ratios involved in tuning these modes, but they certainly wouldn’t have tried to split the octave into 12 tones. If they had, they would have been distraught to discover the Pythagorean comma — remember, these are the people who drowned Hippasus at sea for proving that the square root of 2 is irrational!

    Modern equal temperment is an attempt to smooth out the dissonances inherent in Pythagorean tuning, so splitting the texts into 12 equal “intervals” is akin to arguing that Plato anticipated Bach!

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  2. I doubt the secret musical code, but what astonishes me is the idea that Plato’s fascination with numbers was somehow secret.

    Book 7 of the Republic for example:
    “arithmetic has a very great and elevating effect, compelling the soul to reason about abstract number, and rebelling against the introduction of visible or tangible objects into the argument. You know how steadily the masters of the art repel and ridicule any one who attempts to divide absolute unity when he is calculating, and if you divide, they multiply, taking care that one shall continue one and not become lost in fractions.”

    The idea that something like Pi existed, exists, and always will exist, has properties but isn’t physical, wasn’t invented by man but discovered through reason all demonstrate the idea of the Forms. So, Plato’s fascination with math is neither surprising, nor secret.

    Kennedy, therefore, is partially stating the obvious, adding in craziness, and making outrageous exaggerations, none of which impresses.

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    • @Fear and Loathing in Georgetown, all the “general public” stuff on Kennedy’s website is pretty much tripe. Clearly he’s milking this publicity for all it’s worth. The idea that his research is opens up some previously totally hidden layer of ideas is silly. But it doesn’t seem totally impossible that there’s a nifty explanation of literary/stylistic choices in here, especially given Plato’s math-love, of which I too thought everyone was already aware.

      At the very least, I’m curious about how the calculations worked.

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  3. C’mon, guys, pretty obvious what’s going on here:

    The secrecy [about Plato’s “radical” Pythagoreanism] was because Plato’s was “a dangerous idea”, claims Kennedy. “It meant that mathematical law governed the universe and not Zeus.” Given that Plato’s teacher, Socrates, had been executed for sowing impiety among the youth he would have been “very cautious abut revealing doctrines that threaten the gods of Olympus”.

    We’ve got a Straussian with a math degree.

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    • @sam, That’s who I thinking of! Strauss! I couldn’t remember the name, but it strikes me as the same sort of, “pssst! If you read that using the decoder ring, it says this! Don’t tell anyone!” stuff. (I’ll have to look into it though.)

      Incidentally, one of my grad school mentors spent a summer in the archives in Paris at the same time as Strauss and they spent their lunches chatting. I asked him what he thought of Strauss, and he said, “He was a very intelligent man, but I often got the feeling that he was deeply unhappy about having to live in the modern world instead of ancient Athens.”

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