Plato the Pythagorean – a possible revolution in Plato research?

I must admit to feeling a sceptical gut reaction when I first read about J. B. Kennedy’s brand new article on Pythagorean number theories being embedded in the structure of Plato’s dialogues – a possible key to his unwritten doctrine. I first read about it in The Guardian‘s rather popularizing account. After doing some more searches, and finally checking  the original paper published in Apeiron, I am happy to say it looks much more solid than one first expects when hearing something along the lines of “lone scholar x cracking codes in the works of legendary intellectual hero y“.

In other words, it is nothing like this (or, for those who read Norwegian, this). It seems, in fact, to be an example of how mathematical analyses (based on stichometry in this case) can be used together with a strong historical case based on a number of sound contextual considerations to provide an argument that is, truth be said, both potentially revolutionary and convincing enough to be taken seriously by historians.

I don’t need to say more about the contents of Kennedy’s thesis here, as information is easily available other places. For example at Scientific Blogging, Kennedy’s website, his blog (with other links), or the paper itself. I do however feel tempted to return later in order to bring out some contrasts to (bad) scholarship of the type that was discussed in the previous post (which superficially may look somewhat similar, particularly when popularized).

Be that as it may, the paper will certainly be discussed a lot among Plato scholars. And the immediate reception will quite probably be divided.

Published in: on June 29, 2010 at 5:55 pm  Comments (5)  
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  1. Thanks for your blog entry on my Plato paper. I am intrigued by your Ph.D. project. I am an expert in the
    history of science, but think this research will take me
    into the early history of esotericism/Pythagorenism
    and its relation to Plato’s science. Is there a useful
    scholarly literature on these relations — or will
    we have to wait for your thesis? (Nice article about
    all this in the Guardian today). Thanks Jay K.

    • You are welcome, and thank you for commenting all the way over here. I didn’t mention in the blog post, but I am familiar with some of your other work in the history and philosophy of science (found your book on relativity really helpful at an earlier stage). It is interesting to hear that your work will move in the direction of early modern platonism, esotericism, etc. There is indeed a literature on all of this accumulating outside of the ordinary history of science venues. See especially the Dictionary of Gnosis and Western Esotericism (Leiden: Brill, 2004), and the various contributions to the journal Aries, and the Aries book series. Just to get an overview of the emerging field. Perhaps it would also be interesting to consider the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism (ESSWE)? I am also trying to review some developments in the field on this blog. Egil

  2. oh well this is of course very exciting stuff. Instant classic!

    I do have questions and criticisms (based off of a pretty quick browsing of the piece), check it out if you’re interested:

  3. All of this is extremely exciting! Connecting these findings to the (in my opinion) already convincing arguments brought in by scholars for Plato’s unwritten, mathematical doctrine, will prove very fruitful for the understanding of Plato, early Platonism, and ancient philosophy and esotericism generally.
    Giving just one example, we can understand why Aristoxenos wrote the following about Plato’s lecture “On the Good” (of which the audience had apparently expected purely practical-ethical contents): “As the speech apparently was about mathematics, arithmetic and geometry and astrology .. that the Good is One (hoti agathon estin hen), this seemed, I believe, something altogether puzzling (pantelôs paradoxon ti) to them. Some misprized this approach, others complained about it (eith hoi men hupokatephronoun tou pragmatos, hoi de katememphonto).” (ed. Elements of harmony, II, 30-31, da Rios: 39-40, transl. mine)
    The many correspondences between Plato’s epistemological and his ontological statements, indicating an essential link between knowing and, in a way, becoming, the first principles, might now also be worked out much more clearly on the basis of these findings. Plato descriptions, often involving dialectics, of the attainment of higher knowledge or approximating the divine (“as far as possible”) in for instance Theaetetus, Republic, and Timaeus (and the proportions in the ethically-oriented Philebus) can now be linked to his metaphysics and cosmology with less hesitation. As Jacob Klein wrote: “To be sure, Plato knows a bond which ties dialectic and cosmology together and affects both decisively. This bond is mathematics.” (Greek mathematical thought and the origin of algebra. Transl. Eva Brann. Cambridge (Mass.): 1968, 75.)

  4. […] an essential blog for anyone interested in the occult sciences in the Early Modern Period has an interesting first report on a paper from the Manchester University researcher J. B. Kennedy claiming to have found a […]

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