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.