Wanna crack the Plato code? Read Plato

A Manchester historian has cracked the ‘Plato code.’ Writing in the journal Apeiron, and using stichometry, Jay Kennedy has apparently shown that the Republic is ordered by twelfths, following the 12-note scale, and that at each of these nodes, are located either consonant or dissonant ideas. The line numbers of the reassembled manuscripts of other dialogues are also in multiples of 12.

This may well be the case. What seems odd, though, is the hyperbolic language being used to report the findings.

The code supposedly hides Plato’s dangerous idea, that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, not according to the whims of Zeus. But the celebration of mathematics is in plain view throughout the dialogues. In the seventh letter, Plato talks of how it opens an eye of the soul. In the Timaeus, Plato writes that the world is divine, the ordered creation of the demiurge. And then there’s the famous inscription supposedly written above the Academy, to the effect of learn geometry first, else you won’t understand what you’ll be shown here.

The code also supposedly reveals that Plato was a Pythagorean, which as Julian Baggini writes in the Guardian, ‘explains why it is that Aristotle, Plato’s pupil, emphatically claimed that Plato was a follower of Pythagoras, to the bafflement of most contemporary scholars.’ I’d imagine that Julian would be sceptical about over-playing such a discovery, and yet it’s pretty standard, hardly ‘bafflement’, to consider the Pythagorean influences in Plato – from the stories of his journeying to Egypt to his demonstration of mathematical mimesis in the Meno.

Kennedy himself writes that what he’s found is ‘a Pythagorean version of modern deism’. But I’m not sure that adds up. If there’s much interest in mathematics and music in Plato, there’s also the strong interests in moral elements of beauty and the good, and other divine forces such as love. They too must be integrated into his cosmology (only the modern mind would separate them out). That’s far from the deistic conception of things that emerged with the scientific revolution.

The work could be important for showing to an often sceptical contemporary academic community that Plato was at least as much theologian and spiritual writer as philosopher, they being pretty much indistinguishable until relatively recently. And it’d be important in terms of Platonic manuscript studies and for adding to our appreciation of Plato’s art – how his dialogues mirror the things they describe.

There’re also many nods to esotericism in the write-ups, the secrets that Plato apparently concealed. The significance of the esoteric is wildly exaggerated these days, and it’s broadly because we’ve lost the sense that knowledge of the world is as much subjective as objective. We major on the objective, because of science. But the subjective – concerned with the meaning and purpose of things – can only be appreciated by the individual who is in the right moral frame to see it. So, Plato has Socrates say in the dialogues, quite explicitly, that he won’t share certain insights with interlocutors, simply because they aren’t capable of appreciating what would be said, and would misunderstand it. Pearls before swine. Similarly, when the pilgrim returns to the cave, in the Republic, and divulges what he’s learnt, he is mocked by those who remain prisoners, ‘in the dark’, to the extent that they’d kill him. This isn’t the stuff of secret societies, but transparent observations about people’s capacity for truth.

So does this new work really ‘revolutionise the history of the birth of Western thought’ and show Plato’s works ‘contain unexcavated layers of meanings’? Reading the papers and reports online, I can’t see it.