Monday, July 5, 2010

Plato, the 'Secret' Pythagorean?

The claim that Plato embedded, in the structure of his dialogues, a musical substructure, has been making the rounds lately (even showing up on NPR; I first saw it here). On his website, Jay Kennedy writes that:
Plato used a consistent scheme of symbols to embed a musical structure in each genuine dialogue. In short, each dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral.  Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale. 
This, of course, has prompted not a few skeptical responses (see the comments on Leiter's blog). The most obvious being that, since we have no access to the original scrolls (contra the implication of NPR's shorthand), the author has to make several assumptions to get this thesis off the ground, which introduces a creeping sense of a vicious circle.

I think the second most obvious problem is that it doesn't strike me that Plato was all too secret about his affinities with Pythagoreanism, in like, you know, the Phaedo or the Timeaus.

Which makes Kennedy sound like he's overstated his case. What might be an interesting technique to reopen the 'spurious works' question becomes a technique to discover Plato's secret, positive doctrine, which in turn is crammed into a solution for an already false-dilemma'd-debate about science and religion (I suppose that the reader was expecting that I would take the discussion in this direction). Kennedy again:
Today we hear much of the culture wars between believers and atheists, between those who insist our world is imbued with meaning and value and those who argue for materialism and evolution. For Plato, music was mathematical and mathematics was musical. In particular, we hear musical notes harmonising with each other when their pitches form simple ratios. For him, the perception of this beauty in music was at once the perception of a beauty inherent in mathematics. Thus mathematics and the laws governing our universe were imbued with beauty and value: they were divine. Modern scientists don't ask where their fundamental laws come from; for Plato, the beauty and order inherent in mathematical law meant its source was divine (a Pythagorean version of modern deism). Plato may light a middle way through today's culture wars.  
I don't know exactly where to start with this, but telling people that a mathematical structure underlies the universe (imagine the looks on the faces of today's fundamentalist Christians...) isn't a solution to that debate, because the debate is about legitimating a social sense of normativity. The religious claim that normativity is derived from faith in some objective (though 'revealed' value), while the New Atheists claim that normativity can be derived from science. Despite their differences, both sides avoid granting that people make their own history in conditions that they have not chosen, that political praxis and social struggle enact as much normativity as we're going to get (see also this article by Ronald Aronson). As we know, and Jacques Ranciere never tires of reminding us, Plato wasn't too keen on that.


Devin Zane Shaw said...

In case you're wondering, I just finished reading Rancière's Hatred of Democracy.

David Tkach said...

As far as that particular 'hidden' message discovered in the dialogues, it really seemed like numerology as philosophical method to me. Also, I'd like to discuss that Rancière book with you in person at some point. I think our discussion would probably turn on the role philosophy plays or should play in relation to political life. As a starting point to the discussion, it's important to remember in Bk. 8 of the Republic that in Plato's sequence of the decline of regimes from aristocracy to tyranny, democracy is the only one where philosophy is claimed to be able to exist. Hence, one possible interpretation is that a philosophical position based in Plato's thought, or more specifically, Socrates's example, will in fact promote democracy, simply because according to him it is the sole political regime which gives all forms of human life, including philosophy, the political space to flourish. More needs to be said about this, for sure, but the comments section of a blog is not the ideal venue.

Devin Zane Shaw said...

That last paragraph has two distinct criticisms: first that Kennedy-Plato doesn't have an answer the contemporary debate that he thinks he does.

Second, about Plato and Ranciere. Ranciere argues that Plato 1) mistakes democracy for a state or state of society, when democracy names the movement by which those who have no title to govern upset and transform the ruling order; and 2) that Plato orders society according to a naturalized sense of hierarchy. To Ranciere, Plato's flaw is that he was to busy policing society through philosophy to recognize the egalitarianism required to even get inequality off the ground, so to speak.
That's a highly condensed version of his argument. Hopefully we'll get a chance to talk about it soon, but hopefully after I get my Ranciere research back into the semblance of order.

Hecky said...

I agree with you that this discovery has little bearing on the (arguably false) modern dichotomy between science and religion. And if that is Kennedy's claim (I read the Apeiron paper but I didn't see that passage you quoted), then he's attributing an anachronistic concept of religion to Plato.

There might be theological value in this discovery, however. Kennedy cites a book by Burkert on the votive mysteries, of which Plato was, like most Athenians, an initiate. Burkert's discussion makes clear just how much of the ancient literary clues to the structure of the mystery experience comes from Plato. The whole notion of religious mysticism (and perhaps the modern notion of mystery) comes from neo-Platonic misappropriations of his tidbits. But more importantly, when read in conjunction with what we know from Plutarch and a few other scattered sources, the crux of the experience seems to have been an oscillation between extremes of dread and hope, propelled by a strictly regimented schedule of fasting, drink, and holy words. But what exactly was the structure of this oscillation? What was its "theological" significance, to use another anachronistic term? Perhaps the structure of twelfths, going back and forth in regular intervals, reflects something deeper with which all Greeks would have been familiar but of which we have absolutely no direct knowledge.