‘Plato Code’ Update

Jay Kennedy has sent in an update on reactions to his Apeiron article about the evidence for Plato being a Pythagorean. If you missed our initial reportage, it’s available here … what follows are Dr Kennedy’s words:

Progress on the ‘Plato Code’

The Rogue Classicist has kindly permitted me to provide classicists with an update on the debate over the symbolic structures in Plato’s dialogues, which attracted a surprising amount of attention this summer. The post which appeared here earlier was instrumental in turning scholars away from the rather sensationalist press release issued by the University of Manchester and toward the evidence and arguments in my Apeiron paper.

A great deal of progress has been made since the Apeiron paper was written. For those in the UK, I will be speaking to classicists about these developments at Manchester (23 Sept.), The Institute for Classical Studies in London (4 Oct.), and Leeds (27 Oct.). My forthcoming book, The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues (Acumen, Spring 2011), substantially expands the evidence in the paper. The most important contribution was made by Andrew Barker, an authority on ancient Greek music, who has argued that the musical patterns in the dialogues derive from the monochord, an instrument known later to be important to the Pythagoreans.

I will here review some research in classics which supports my claims, then briefly rehearse the evidence for those claims, and finally summarise some new developments.

My central claims rest upon a confluence of several lines of research in classical studies:

– In the wake of the debate over the Derveni Papyrus, Ford, Struck, Sedley, Lamberton, O’Hara, and others have argued that various kinds of symbolism, allegory, and etymological wordplay were important in the classical period and especially in the circles around Socrates. Janko has urged the view that among philosophers this symbolic turn was in part due to a fear of religious persecution.

– Burkert, Huffman, Kahn and others have substantially clarified the history and doctrines of early Pythagoreanism as well as their reputed use of symbols to ‘reserve’ their doctrines to initiates.

– Barker, West, and others have put the history of ancient Greek music on firm foundations. Creese’s new book on the monochord (Cambridge, 2010) discusses the various scales or divisions played on this instrument.

- Sayre, Kahn, Dillon, and others have argued that accepting the evidence for Plato’s Pythagorean `late ontology’ makes some sense of the claims repeated through antiquity that Plato was primarily a Pythagorean, even though Pythagoras himself was hardly mentioned in the dialogues.

My Apeiron paper argues that there is evidence for well-hidden but objectively verifiable symbolic structures in Plato’s dialogues, and that the above research both strengthens this evidence and is corroborated by it. The main lines of evidence are:

– Measuring the lengths of clearly demarcated speeches and whole dialogues, and finding parallel concepts at similar relative locations within the dialogues, provides evidence that Plato was counting lines (hexameters), which we know was routine in that context even for prose (Ohly).

– This is corroborated by independent evidence from the dialogues that they are divided into twelve parts, which would necessitate line-counting.

– This is corroborated in turn by musical evidence: by the known importance of the 12-fold ‘division of the canon’, by the striking correlation between the contents of the passages and the Greek theory of relative harmony (West, Barker), etc.

– All this is corroborated by what is known of ancient Pythagoreanism: by their use of ‘symbols,’ by their doctrines about underlying mathematical and musical structures, by the assertions that Plato was a Pythagorean, by the neo-Pythagoreans’ emphasis upon the 12-fold division, etc. (Burkert, Huffman, Tarrant).

In sum, there are 12-note scales embedded in the genuine dialogues and marked by regularly repeated symbolic passages. Plato’s elaborate, musico-mathematical structures were rendered obscure by shifts in mathematics, music theory, and language. My claims would restore the status quo ante, since it was a common view through the Renaissance that Plato was a symbolic writer.

My forthcoming book substantially amplifies and extends these lines of evidence. It gives a close reading of two entire dialogues and shows that, in addition to the twelve main notes in the embedded scale, the quarter-intervals between them as well as other significant fractions (the sevenths, etc.) are marked by distinctive symbols. In the end, Plato’s symbols turn out to be as dense as those in Dante, Spenser, or Joyce. The final chapter of MSPD is entitled ‘Extracting Doctrine from Structure’ and argues that Aristotle’s signature doctrine, that virtue is a mean, which he himself associated with Pythagoreanism, can be found already in Plato’s symbols.

I thank the many scholars who have corresponded with me about these ideas. If verified and accepted, they will open up several new lines of research in Plato studies.


Jay Kennedy, jay.kennedy AT manchester.ac.uk

This Day in Ancient History: kalendas octobres

Portrait of Alexander Severus. Marble, Roman a...
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kalendas octobres

  • rites in honour of Fides on the Capitoline — these involved a procession of the flamines in a “two horse hooded carriage” to the shrine. The flamines had to bind themselves up as far as their fingers as a symbolic gesture that fides (good faith) had to be kept.
  • rites associated with Juno Sororia at the tigillum — although a number of false etymologies associated this ritual of passing under a beam (the tigillum) with the tale of Horatius murdering his sister, it is more likely originally some sort of ‘coming of age’ ritual for Roman girls
  • 331 B.C. — Battle of Gaugamela (one suggested date)
  • 208 A.D. (?) — birth of the future emperor Severus Alexander
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