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Scholars react to “Plato Code” claims

Jay Kennedy

Jay Kennedy

Bold new claims about esoteric doctrines in the works of Plato have stirred a global debate in ancient scholarship and philosophy. Manchester University’s Jay Kennedy published a paper in the leading journal Apeiron claiming that Plato’s dialogues contain a mathematical and musical structure.

Kennedy discovered the pattern when he rearranged the texts back into the form they would have had on the original papyri. Kennedy further argues that this pattern supports the claim made by Aristotle that Plato was a Pythagorean, and also points to hidden doctrines, contained at significant intervals in the text.

Kennedy has set out his arguments at length for a more general readership for the first time in the forthcoming issue of tpm. He has also been invited to the Institute for Classical Studies in London to talk about his findings.

Scholarly reaction has been cautious but far from dismissive. Leading Plato scholar Harold Tarrant told tpm, “I was, at first, pretty sceptical of the theory (as an academic is taught to be), but as I read through Jay’s arguments I became convinced that they should be taken seriously. …What would be really helpful now is for somebody to duplicate Jay’s work and find out how far she or he is led to the same conclusions, as there is a subjective element in the interpretation of results. What I can say is that if it stands up to this kind of scrutiny, then the work has important implications for our understanding of Plato’s working environment and even for Plato’s own philosophy – since his compositional techniques do relate closely to matters of theory.

“My reservations are no greater than would apply to any project in which the results are unfamiliar, the tests need independent verification, and the interpretation requires some sophistication – best if many minds are turned to it.”

John Dillon, a leading authority on Platonism, said “This is not the first time it has been suggested that there are at least some traces of a concern with mathematical proportions evident in the Platonic dialogues – particularly the Republic – and some evidence of a Golden Mean being employed, but I think that Jay Kennedy has been able to carry this to a new level of probability by employing stichometry, or the counting of lines on the basis of the probable length of a papyrus line in Plato’s day.”

Andrew Barker, a leading authority on ancient Greek music, said “I’m impressed by Jay Kennedy’s methodology, and I think he may be on to something. I’m not an expert in this field, but he seems to have done some quite thorough research in ancient methods of counting lines and so on, and the results he’s come up with look too neat to be accidental. … It’s clear that if his quantitative results (however interpreted) are confirmed, and if scholars who know more about stichometry etc than I do approve of his methods, he will have shown something quite startling about Plato’s methods of composition. That would be very interesting and significant, even if (as I rather suspect) we couldn’t find anything in it to change our views about Plato’s philosophy. … But we shall have to wait for scholarly reactions to his claims – probably, in fact, till he has published the book I think he is planning; one short paper is unlikely to be enough to elicit any clear reaction from the experts.”

Angela Hobbs, a Plato scholar and Reader in the Public Understanding of Philosophy at Warwick University, said “I believe it is perfectly possible that Plato embedded symbols and allegories within his dialogues; it is even possible, as Kennedy claims, that he embedded a twelve-note musical scale in each of his dialogues. We know that Plato was deeply interested in mathematical and musical theory, and there were many reports in antiquity (including from Aristotle) that Plato secretly transmitted esoteric doctrines to a chosen few.”

However she is “not yet convinced” that Kennedy has “successfully demonstrated that such a musical structuring of the dialogues actually exists, though I am keeping an open mind until more study is done. The problem is that if you claim that ‘significant’ concepts occur in the dialogues at mathematically ‘significant’ moments, you run an obvious risk of begging the question. Who – other than the modern scholar – is going to define ‘significant’?”

Even if the symbolism could be proved, “this still leaves the question of whether, and in what ways, our understanding of the dialogue might be enriched. Would the discovery of such symbols add anything more than elegant emphasis to concepts (such as harmony) that are clearly central to the dialogue anyway?”

The debate, already lively on scholarly blogs, looks set to continue.

Subscribe now September 2010 to read Kennedy’s article in issue 51 of tpm


One comment for “Scholars react to “Plato Code” claims”

  1. In his website, New Research on Plato and Pythagoras, Dr. Jay Kennedy quotes Whitehead as saying ‘All of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.’
    My reading in the field of philosophy leads me to believe most practitioners in the subject, in varying degrees agree with Whitehead. So, why is it that Dr. Kennedy
    and others “ . . . have painstakingly tried to piece together the pieces of his philosophy from the hints in his writings?” A straight forward reading of his works has earned the honor Whitehead bestowed on him. Why should one imagine there is more to be gleaned from his works by putting them through a philosophical food processor?

    As a musician and mathematician it’s difficult for me to understand why Plato would go through the trouble of deviously putting in musical scales and mathematics into his dialogues. What was there about either that could have offended anyone?
    An allusion to Plato fearing what happened to Socrates might be in store for him if he wasn’t extremely careful. But, Socrates really had his own agenda as to his role in the Athenian society, and as Xenophon in Symposium (or the Apology) states, Socrates at that point wanted to die.
    I’m willing to believe there may be symbolism embedded in Plato’s work; I’d be surprised if there wasn’t, but that’s a far cry from some fancy code based on a twelve tone scale holding secrets to . . . What? His most important ideas?

    I guess, based on the twelve tone scale, Dr. Kennedy using line-counting divided the dialogues into twelfths and found in the 8th and 9th twelfths, fortunate things happening in the text whereas in the 10th and 11th twelfths, unfortunate happenings. Since these goings-on were openly available to Dr. Kennedy, as it would be to anyone else, reading the text in a normal way, what about them necessitates coding?

    Kennedy admits to a number of insights arrived at when teaching a course on the Republic and another which dealt with Pythagorean mathematics and music “This was a combustible mixture.” Clearly he has a volatile imagination; I wish I had one.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | August 20, 2010, 7:00 pm