Plato’s Compositions

Plato’s Compositions May 23, 2016

JB Kennedy’s The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues is a kind of Bible Code for classical philosophy. In a 2010 article in Apeiron (“Plato, Pythagoreanism, and Stichometry”), Kennedy lays out the basic argument.

Kennedy’s argument begins from the observation that Greek prose writers, like poets, composed their works in lines, and that the number of lines was often symbolic. He writes, “The practice of counting the number of syllables in a line or the number of lines in a stanza was already routine in archaic poetry. Vitruvius, without giving his source, reports a tradition that ‘Pythagoreans’ and some comic playwrights mathematically organised longer works.” Kennedy believes that Plato was “a stichometrist” and therefore argues that “counting his lines, columns, syllables, or letters suggests some method is needed to measure and identify locations within his texts.”

He finds that Plato’s dialogues are organized by the number 12. Significant moments in the dialogues occur at the n/12 moment in a work. In the Symposium, “the climactic, rhetorical fireworks in praise of Eros that conclude Agathon’s speech occur at six-twelfths, the centre of the dialogue.” Important speeches take up some twelfth portion of a dialogue: “In the Symposium, Pausanias’ speech, Eryximachus’ speech (including the repartee over Aristophanes’ hiccups), and Aristophanes’ speech are each about one-twelfth of the dialogue. Socrates’ long speech, including his conversations with Agathon and Diotima, occupies three-twelfths or one quarter of the entire dialogue. Alcibiades’ speech lasts about two-twelfths of the dialogue.”

Overall, the dialogues tend to have line-lengths that are multiples of 12:

* The Apology is 1200 lines, or 100 per twelfth.

* The Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus, and the Symposium are each 2400 lines, or 200 per twelfth.

* The Gorgias is 3600 lines, or 300 per twelfth.

* The Republic is 12,000 lines, or 1000 per twelfth.

* The Laws is 14,400 lines, or 1200 lines per twelfth.

In sum, “the lengths of speeches, the position of speeches within the dialogues, the location of significant turns in the arguments, and the absolute lengths of the dialogues all provide evidence for an underlying stichometric organisation and, in particular, for the importance of a twelve-part structure.”

Kennedy suggests that when dialogues can be set side-by-side, their basic structures match: “The Republic’s discussion of philosopher-kings and the form of the ideal just man occurs at the centre of the dialogue. Comparisons between the dialogues shows that passages describing the divine wisdom and justice of the ideal philosopher often recur near the centre.” Similarly, “the Timaeus interrupts a long passage on natural philosophy at the centre of the dialogue with a paragraph of Pythagorean theology. Since justice is sometimes for Plato a kind of harmony, this passage would itself constitute an example of just and divine rule: Timaeus (49.4–49.5p): Necessity willingly or unwillingly obeys God, who harmonises everything in the universe according to precise pro portions.” In short, “references to justice are lodged consistently at the halfway point of the dialogues,” a fact that Kennedy relates to Aristotle’s suggestion that dikaios is etymologically related to dicha, to cut in half.

More generally, he finds that similar themes occur at predictable intervals in various dialogues. Positive themes appear 8–9/12 through dialogues, while negative themes ten to occur at 10–11/12. It is this that leads into the music thesis. Greek music operated with a 12-note scale, with certain notes were considered harmonious and others disharmonious. Plato’s dialogues bring up positive themes at the harmonious points of the scale, and negative themes at the dissonant moments. Kennedy writes, “the musical and music-related passages which recur through the Republic are lodged at musically significant locations on a twelve-note scale. At a third of the way through the Republic, Socrates condemns innovations in music, mentions the musical expert Damon, and says the guardians must build their guard house in music; at two-thirds, there is a long discussion of music, harmony, and mathematics. . . . both the twelve-part structure and the distribution of positive and negative concepts found in the dialogues are explained by interpreting the underlying stichometric structure as a musical scale.

If true, Kennedy’s thesis would provide strong evidence for Plato’s commitment to Pythagorean philosophy. It would also suggest that Plato intended his works to be read at two levels — a surface level for the uninitiated and a deeper musical level for those with ears to hear. In this way, the dialogues become microcosms in themselves: “There is an analogy between, on the one hand, an imperceptible music reflecting proportions in the constitution of the cosmos and, on the other, a musical scale which organises a dialogue and yet is submerged beneath its surface—an unheard melody finally accessible to reason and measurement.” Plato’s dialogues do “not reveal nature’s order but participate in it.”

(Thanks to Joshua Butcher for alerting me to this essay.)

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