Saturday, July 03, 2010

platonic pythagoreanism - quick introduction

JayKennedy | In a paper in the journal Apeiron and the draft of the related book currently being circulated (see below), I argued there were musical structures embedded in Plato's dialogues. Correspondence with an expert in ancient Greek music has now clarified the nature of these structures. The paper argued that Plato divided each dialogue into twelve parts, each of which corresponded to a musical note in a twelve-note scale. This scale was, I claimed, similar (1) to the equally-divided scales of a school of Greek theorists called the Harmonists and also (2) to the scales produced with a monochord, an instrument important in the later Pythagorean tradition. I have now been convinced that the scale embedded in the dialogues is not like the Harmonists' scale, but would in fact appear naturally with a monochord (whether theoretically or practically with an actual instrument). This moves the debate ahead, and strongly reinforces the main claim of the Apeiron paper that the symbolic structures in the dialogues are evidence of Plato's Pythagoreanism.

Plato was the most important philosopher and scientist of the Greek Englightenment, playing a key role in the birth of Western culture. As Whitehead said, 'All of Western philosophy is a series of footnotes to Plato.' Some thirty or so of his books survive from the fourth-century before Christ, but they are mysterious and even today are studied by thousands of scholars around the world. In particular, his books -- though brilliant, seductive, and inexhaustively rich -- often end frustratingly without definite conclusions. Some have thought he was a destructive sceptic who, like his teacher Socrates, claimed to know only that he knew nothing, and that Plato therefore had no positive philosophy. Others have painstakingly tried to piece together the pieces of his philosophy from the hints in his writings.

In antiquity, many of Plato's followers said, in various ways, that Plato wrote symbolically or allegorically, and that his true philosophy would be found in the layers of meaning underneath the surface stories he tells. In ancient religions, sects, guilds, and fraternities, it was normal to 'reserve' knowledge to initiates and Plato, they contended, had used symbols to hide his philosophy within his writings.

The view that Plato's writings contained symbols was a mainstream and sometimes dominant view for more than a thousand years: from about the time of Christ until the Renaissance. Beginning in the 1700's, theologians in Germany who emphasised rigourous and literal methods of interpretation fiercely opposed this view. They argued that there was no consistent system of symbolism in Plato's writings, and that claiming such was a sign of credulity and mystery-mongering. The ancient defenders of the symbolic approach to Plato were dubbed 'neo-Platonists' in an effort to segregate them from Plato and Platonism. The view that Plato's writings were not symbolic became the standard view among modern scholars and has remained so ever since.

I was teaching a course for philosophers on Plato's most famous book, the Republic, and another course on the history of mathematics for mathematicians, which dealt with Pythagorean mathematics and music. This was a combustible mixture. A series of insights led to the surprising conclusion that the Republic did use symbols, but that recognising and unravelling these symbols required knowledge of Pythagorean music theory.

I am a philosopher who specialises in an area called the History and Philosophy of Science. This field was transformed a generation or so ago when it was widely recognised that the study of primitive pseudo-sciences was necessary to understand the birth of our modern sciences. To understand chemistry, it was necessary to study alchemy; to understand astronomy, it was necessary to study astrology. Unusually among Plato scholars, I was therefore familiar with the numerology and music theory which was at the heart of early Pythagoreanism. This interdisciplinary preparation enabled me to see and decipher Plato's musical symbolism.

These claims will need to be thoroughly debated and verified by other scholars (see below), but they promise to revolutionise the history of the birth of Western thought. We now better understand the literary strategies of Plato's writings. All thirty books contain unexcavated layers of meanings. These not only explain the structure of Plato's narrative but contain new doctrine and his positive philosophy. Moreover, since the symbolic structures are organised musically and mathematically, they transform our view of Plato's science. For the first time we see Plato doing elaborate calculations. We can show that he was at the forefront of the advanced mathematics of his day, as some of his followers said. We learn more about the Pythagoreans, who are sometimes credited with pushing Western culture toward mathematics and science. The often puzzling history of philosophy after Plato, and especially the repeated claims that he was a Pythagorean, now make sense.