Monday, November 21, 2011

Death notes of Platonic Love

There is more to Plato’s dialogs than meets the eyes.  In fact you must also use your ears (ht MR from here).

Plato, you may recall , is famous for his Allegory of the Cave in the Republic (Wikipedia).

In the dialogue, Socrates describes a group of people who have lived chained to the wall of a cave all of their lives, facing a blank wall. The people watch shadows projected on the wall by things passing in front of a fire behind them, and begin to ascribe forms to these shadows. According to Socrates, the shadows are as close as the prisoners get to viewing reality. He then explains how the philosopher is like a prisoner who is freed from the cave and comes to understand that the shadows on the wall do not make up reality at all, as he can perceive the true form of reality rather than the mere shadows seen by the prisoners. 

Jay Kennedy of the University of Manchester has added some nuances to what we understand of Plato,  making the following claims- a musical claim:

[E]ach dialogue was divided into twelve parts. At each twelfth, i.e., at 1/12, 2/12, etc., Plato inserted passages to mark the notes of a musical scale. This regular structure resembles a known Greek scale. According to Greek musical theory, some notes in such a scale are harmonious (if they form a small whole number ratio with the twelfth note) and the others are dissonant or neutral. Plato's symbolic passages are correlated with the relative values of the musical notes. At more harmonious notes, Plato has passages about virtue, the forms, beauty, etc.; at the more dissonant notes, there are passages about vice, negation, shame, etc. This correlation is one kind of strong evidence that the structure is a musical scale.

This musical structure can be studied rigorously because it is so regular. Subsequent work will show that other symbols are used to embed Pythagorean doctrines in the surface narratives. It is surprising that Plato could deploy an elaborate symbolic scheme without disturbing the surface narratives of the dialogues, but in this respect he does not differ from other allegorical writers like Dante or Spenser.

Note that this actually has some impact on how you interpret certain passages.  Plato has often been thought of as a proponent of non-sexual love affairs.  It is where the term Platonic Love came from.

However, Professor Kennedy’s most recent work shows this not to be the case:

In the Symposium- Plato’s great play about love and sex – cheap attempts to trade sex for profit or favor sit above dissonant notes in the musical scale showing Plato’s disapproval.  But passages about erotic passion born of an abiding love for another’s soul sit on top of some of the most harmonic notes, meaning he accepted sex as part of true love.

There is some discussion about a book that is to help decode Plato’s work but they apparently are not yet available.  There are some PDFs that can be found.  One introduction,  Plato’s Forms, Pythagorean Mathematics, and Stichometry, and some sample chapters The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues.
Illustration from Professor Kennedy's Website

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