Huge revisionist view of Plato's Pythagoreanism teaching
« on: 2010-07-12 15:10:54 »
Plato would certainly have be executed, as was his teacher, for asserting that Pythagoras was righteous in his view that mankind can learn and grasp the inner workings of his world. That study and critical examination can lead to understanding and that questioning the norm was good.
Jay Kennedy makes a very compelling case, I think, that Plato may have been in agreement with much of what is held dear at C0V, which really flies in the face of the accepted view of the mystical Plato. Seems he agreed that the scientific method rules, yet another nail in the coffin of the historical lies of the religious dogmas.
Author: Jay Kennedy, University of Manchester
Date: Version for release on 28 June, 2010.
Thanks for visiting my personal web pages at the Centre for the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine at the University of Manchester. I use these web pages to introduce my recent research to students and other scholars. Thanks too to all those who have responded to my writings and lectures.
My research builds upon recent advances in several areas of scholarship. Burkert, Huffman, and Kahn have brought rigour and clarity to the early history of Pythagoreanism. Sedley, Struck, Ford and others have revised the history of symbolism, allegory, and etymology in Plato and the circles around Socrates. Barker, West, and others have advanced the study of Greek music and harmonics. Sayre, Tarrant, Dillon and others have opened up new ways of thinking about Platonism and its history. I gratefully acknowledge this work and cite it fully in the papers accessible in the links section below.
LATEST DEVELOPMENTS: 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.
Even for those who are not specialists, these results should be thrilling. Western culture is sometimes said to rest on the twin pillars of Socrates and Jesus, two poor men who wrote nothing. Plato's teacher Socrates launched philosophical and scientific research in Athens, but we know of him primarily through Plato's writings. The philosophy and science of Socrates and Plato combined with the religions of the East in the Roman period to create central strands of what became modern European culture. Now our understanding of the birth of that culture will need to be reworked. Plato is sometimes thought of as a cold fish who banished poets and pushed the West toward logic, mathematics, and science. Now we know he was a hidden romantic. The philosophy contained beneath his stories mixes science and mysticism, mathematics and God. By understanding our roots better, we understand ourselves better.
The two most surprising ideas in Plato's hidden philosophy may be explained simply. First, the musical and mathematical structures he hid in his writings show that he was committed to the radical idea that the universe is controlled not by the gods on Olympus but by mathematical and scientific law. Today we take it for granted that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, but it was a dangerous and heretical idea when it struggled for acceptance in the Scientific Revolution of the 1600s. Giordano Bruno was burnt at the stake and Galileo was condemned and imprisoned. After Socrates was executed for sowing doubts about Greek religion, Plato had every reason to hide his commitment to a scientific view of the cosmos. But we now know that Plato anticipated the key idea of the Scientific Revolution by some 2000 years.
Perhaps even more surprisingly, Plato's positive philosophy shows us how to combine science and religion. 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.