Pondering the ‘Plato Code’

Plato and Aristotle
Image by Image Editor via Flickr

Over the past few days, my email box has been pretty much flooded with scores (yes, scores) of folks sending in various versions of articles dealing with Jay Kennedy’s suggestion of a ‘hidden code’ in Plato’s works. There are too many of you to thank individually, so a general tip o’ the pileus to you all. Now, after much thought, we can get down to commenting on this very interesting idea. We’ll begin with the salient bits from the University of Manchester’s press release:

Plato was the Einstein of Greece’s Golden Age and his work founded Western culture and science. Dr Jay Kennedy’s findings are set to revolutionise the history of the origins of Western thought.
Dr Kennedy, whose findings are published in the leading US journal Apeiron, reveals that Plato used a regular pattern of symbols, inherited from the ancient followers of Pythagoras, to give his books a musical structure. A century earlier, Pythagoras had declared that the planets and stars made an inaudible music, a ‘harmony of the spheres’. Plato imitated this hidden music in his books.

The hidden codes show that Plato anticipated the Scientific Revolution 2,000 years before Isaac Newton, discovering its most important idea – the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics. The decoded messages also open up a surprising way to unite science and religion. The awe and beauty we feel in nature, Plato says, shows that it is divine; discovering the scientific order of nature is getting closer to God. This could transform today’s culture wars between science and religion.

“Plato’s books played a major role in founding Western culture but they are mysterious and end in riddles,” Dr Kennedy, at Manchester’s Faculty of Life Sciences explains.

“In antiquity, many of his followers said the books contained hidden layers of meaning and secret codes, but this was rejected by modern scholars.

“It is a long and exciting story, but basically I cracked the code. I have shown rigorously that the books do contain codes and symbols and that unraveling them reveals the hidden philosophy of Plato.

“This is a true discovery, not simply reinterpretation.”

This will transform the early history of Western thought, and especially the histories of ancient science, mathematics, music, and philosophy.

Dr Kennedy spent five years studying Plato’s writing and found that in his best-known work the Republic he placed clusters of words related to music after each twelfth of the text – at one-twelfth, two-twelfths, etc. This regular pattern represented the twelve notes of a Greek musical scale. Some notes were harmonic, others dissonant. At the locations of the harmonic notes he described sounds associated with love or laughter, while the locations of dissonant notes were marked with screeching sounds or war or death. This musical code was key to cracking Plato’s entire symbolic system.

Dr Kennedy, a researcher in the Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, says: “As we read his books, our emotions follow the ups and downs of a musical scale. Plato plays his readers like musical instruments.”

However Plato did not design his secret patterns purely for pleasure – it was for his own safety. Plato’s ideas were a dangerous threat to Greek religion. He said that mathematical laws and not the gods controlled the universe. Plato’s own teacher had been executed for heresy. Secrecy was normal in ancient times, especially for esoteric and religious knowledge, but for Plato it was a matter of life and death. Encoding his ideas in secret patterns was the only way to be safe.

Plato led a dramatic and fascinating life. Born four centuries before Christ, when Sparta defeated plague-ravaged Athens, he wrote 30 books and founded the world’s first university, called the Academy. He was a feminist, allowing women to study at the Academy, the first great defender of romantic love (as opposed to marriages arranged for political or financial reasons) and defended homosexuality in his books. In addition, he was captured by pirates and sold into slavery before being ransomed by friends.

Dr Kennedy explains: “Plato’s importance cannot be overstated. He shifted humanity from a warrior society to a wisdom society. Today our heroes are Einstein and Shakespeare – and not knights in shining armour – because of him.”

Over the years Dr Kennedy carefully peeled back layer after symbolic layer, sharing each step in lectures in Manchester and with experts in the UK and US.

He recalls: “There was no Rosetta Stone. To announce a result like this I needed rigorous, independent proofs based on crystal-clear evidence.

“The result was amazing – it was like opening a tomb and finding new set of gospels written by Jesus Christ himself.

“Plato is smiling. He sent us a time capsule.”

Dr Kennedy’s findings are not only surprising and important; they overthrow conventional wisdom on Plato. Modern historians have always denied that there were codes; now Dr Kennedy has proved otherwise.

He adds: “This is the beginning of something big. It will take a generation to work out the implications. All 2,000 pages contain undetected symbols.”

It is useful to begin by noting that the author himself — and the university press release — is amongst those who have introduced this notion of a “code” into the discussion from the beginning; perhaps his publicist thought it would be a good idea. As such, I think it is salutary to point out that if one wants some ‘quickie’ attention from the press, using the word “code” a la the DaVinci Code will probably work. Unfortunately, if you want your theory to be taken seriously and/or engaged by scholars, it should be studiously avoided lest you be branded squirrel fodder. As the compiler of the Explorator newsletter for well over twelve years now (!), I can quickly list quite a few “hidden codes” that have hit the press and quickly disappeared:

  • the most recent ‘code’ (other than the Plato one) that seems to still be kicking around is a Michelangelo Code whereby the artist is said to have hidden some anatomical drawings in the Sistine Chapel as hidden criticism of the Church (we actually had this one a few years ago as well, but none of the press coverage is still online I don’t think)
  • there’s supposedly a secret musical code carved into the rafters of Rosslyn Chapel
  • there’s supposedly a secret Freemason Code in the Glasgow Necropolis documenting some sort of secret history
  • there was supposedly a secret code in quilts used to aid slaves seeking freedom on the Underground Railroad (this one is now debunked, it seems, despite its promotion by Oprah)
  • there’s a mathematical (Pythagorean/Platonist!) code hidden within the tales of King Arthur
  • there’s a claim that Shakespeare was a rebel who wrote in code
  • Classicists among us might recall the idea of a Parthenon Code

… that takes us back to around the time the DaVinci Code hit the shelves and I think it should be pretty much obvious from the nachleben of the theories in this list, that using the word ‘code’ will pretty much guarantee you won’t be taken seriously in scholarly circles. Clearly, you’ll get plenty of press coverage  but your theory — even if it has legs — likely won’t live much beyond your fifteen minutes.

The reason I mention this is because Jay Kennedy’s hypothesis does seem to have some merit, but likely will not be engaged in a scholarly fashion because of all this ‘code’ business that’s being attached to it. As mentioned in the above-mentioned press release, the theory is actually presented in a scholarly journal — Apeiron — and that article (perhaps in draft form?) is available at the author’s home page, along with some other useful summaries.

From the Apeiron article, we learn that Dr. Kennedy has done some serious research, especially in the realm of stichometry (counting/measuring lines and line lengths in ancient works). He picks up on the long-established notion that ancient scribes had a specific line length of 35 characters (give or take) and from that has worked out the lengths of Plato’s works. Taking that a step further, he has found a principle of structure/organization which seems to be based on the Pythagorean musical scale (breaking things into twelfths) with ‘signposts’ which are evident across dialogs at specific ‘twelfth’ locations. Dr Kennedy would like us to see some symbolic meaning in all this, and perhaps there is some, but even just from a structural point of view this seems to be an important discovery. It is from this, e.g., that Dr Kennedy can reasonably explain why Aristotle considered Plato to be a Pythagorean, a claim which has caused a fair bit of scholarly noggin-scratching in the past. It is also interesting that the hypothesis can be used to check the authenticity of some of the works ascribed to ‘Pseudo-Plato’ , which actually confirms many conjectures made by scholars.

That said, in addition to all this ‘code’ business, I also have a problem with the purported motives for Plato’s apparent use of this ‘musical structure’ as presented in the press release. Supposedly he was fearful of challenging Greek religion, yadda yadda yadda. The Apeiron article actually gives some rather less sensational motives:

The question of why an author of Plato’s magnitude resorts to a style
of writing with secondary or symbolic levels can have no simple answer.
Since intentions are, strictly speaking, inaccessible, we can at best
enumerate can didate motivations. The musico-mathematical structures
in the dialogues may serve several purposes.

First, they make the literary text a concrete instance of the metaphysics. […]

Second, the structures unify the texts. […]

Third, the underlying structures in the dialogues serve to convey,
with the allegorist’s peculiar balance between communication and
concealment, further philosophical doctrine. […]

... and the initial paragraph of the conclusion is a good summary of what Dr Kennedy’s thesis is actually about:

There are now several kinds of evidence that Plato’s dialogues have a
stichometric structure: the lengths of speeches, the alignment of some
speeches and key concepts with the twelfths, the parallel passages,
and the parallel negative and positive ranges. The musical interpretation
of these features is natural and coherent: a twelve-note scale with
harmonic and dissonant ranges underlies the surface narrative of the
dialogues. The evidence and its interpretation fit the historical context:
stichometry was a common practice and applied to Plato’s dialogues,
allegory was widely debated, the new mathematics was promoted by Plato
and the Academy, the numeric representation of musical scales
and harmonic theory were well-known, Plato’s correspondents, colleagues,
and followers associated him with Pythagoreanism, and the
Neo-Pythagoreans made the scale of twelve, regularly spaced notes part
of their studies of the metaphysics allegedly hidden in the dialogues.

This does seem to be a promising line of research, worthy of more scholarly engagement. Hopefully folks — including the author of the study — will be able to get past all this ‘code’ business and seek confirmation — or refutation — of this theory not just in Plato’s works, but in the works of the Neoplatonists who followed …

Other coverage (the headlines of which are all ‘telling’):

… I’ll likely add to the list