Stop the presses! There's music in Plato's philosophical musings
A British professor's Eureka! moment in reading Plato shines light on two characteristics of Western behavior that often make me scratch my head: how we routinely discount the sophistication of our ancestors; and how fragmented the Western intellectual universe has become.
Today's example comes from University of Manchester's Jay Kennedy, as explained in yesterday's Guardian: "Plato's stave: academic crack's philosopher's musical code."
If the idea of reading about the arcanae of Ancient Greek philosophy makes your eyes glaze over, here is the gist: Plato's original manuscripts are ordered according to a mathematical formula that determines how an idea or argument will unfold within the time's equivalent of a successive paragraphs. That formula follows rules similar to Western music, where certain intervals are consonant and others are dissonant.
Professor Andrew Barker, a leading authority on ancient Greek music, said that "the results he's come up with look too neat to be accidental" and that if scholars confirm them, "he will have shown something quite startling about Plato's methods of composition."
What the article fails to mention is that we read ancient texts with a Modern sensibility, which separates science and the arts into two distinct camps. But you can't really appreciate anything that predates Romanticism without looking at both structure and surface as an organic, mutually dependent whole.
A Renaissance painting has one meaning on the surface, and dozens more represented in little clues embedded like little Waldos in the image. A strawberry can be far more than a strawberry, if you know the code.
In Baroque music, the choice of key, metre and harmonic progression tell you everything you need to know about the mood and purpose of the music -- before you've played or heard a note.
Why wouldn't the Ancient Greeks treat the composition of text the same way as they would music? Why do we Moderns treat speech and song as different things? (Read a Psalm in the King James Bible out loud, and savour the music in the words; read the same Psalm out loud in the Good News Bible, and see if you can find any sort of cadence at all.)
There is a growing number of people out there (including the Royal Conservatory of Music, through its Learning Through the Arts programmes) advocating a more inclusive view of the universe - one which allows music and particle physics to sit side by side. The magical and the rational do not have to be enemies.
A Pythagorean-mathematical analysis of Plato's texts won't change the gist or significance of the philosophical musings of Socrates and his groupies. But allowing the arts and sciences to intermingle a bit more in our here-and-now could help bring together a very fractured culture.
The key figure in Kennedy's analysis is Pythagoras (who died in 450 BCE), a pre-Socratic philosopher who, like Socrates, never wrote anything down. So we have to leave it up to faith that his disciples recorded his theories more or less accurately.
One of Pythagoras's contributions to Western thought was in establishing a distinction between form and void (peiron and apeiron, in Ancient Greek). It allows us to separate sound and silence, matter and nothingness, the finite and the infinite.
There's more. Here's a nicely done, remarkably concise summary of Pythagoras's link to music -- which helps us understand better how Plato might have used this in his writings.