BMCR 2012.05.21

The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues

, The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues. Durham: Acumen Press, 2011. xviii, 318. ISBN 9781844652679 $29.95.

J.B. Kennedy’s The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues seeks to establish that Plato divided some, if not all, of his dialogues into twelve equal sections. These twelve sections, Kennedy argues, correlate with the Pythagorean twelve division multi-octave musical scale. From his analysis of the Symposium and Euthyphro, Kennedy argues that Plato used the underlying musical scale as an outline for his dialogues, with arguments appearing between notes and major turns in the argument located as notes. These findings support the interpretations of Plato’s followers who insisted that Plato used symbols to conceal his own views in the dialogues. They would also turn contemporary commentators of Plato away from literal interpretations and towards allegorical ones that Plato himself perhaps used.

The book is divided into eight chapters with nine appendixes. The first chapter, “The Nature and History of Philosophical Allegory,” is a review of the literature of how to read Plato’s dialogues and their relationship with Pythagoreanism. According to Kennedy, there are two rival traditions of understanding and interpreting language in ancient times: the rhetorical tradition of Aristotle that was geared towards the public, and the philosophical tradition of Pythagoras that was oriented towards philosophers and contained esoteric knowledge that needed careful interpretation. Whereas the Aristotelian tradition avoided allegory—any language that intimates some meaning beneath its apparent sense—the philosophical tradition adopted it as central. The allegorical interpretation of Plato was predominant until the Reformation, when allegory became associated with the Roman Catholic Church and its claim that the meaning of Scripture depended on part on its allegorical methods.

Chapters two, three, and part of chapter six introduce Plato’s symbolic musical scheme and presents evidence for it with a stichometric analysis of the Symposium. Specifically, Kennedy points out that passages containing subtle constellations of symbols are located at each twelfth of the way throughout the text of the Symposium : terms with symbolic meaning are located at one-twelfth, two-twelfth, and so on. Major turns in the argument tend to be located at the notes, while arguments and episodes fill out the intervals between notes. The evidence therefore is the clusters of symbols at the locations of notes that correlate with the important features of the narrative. From this, Kennedy contends that that Plato not only used the underlying scale as an outline of his dialogue, but that it was influenced by a Pythagorean musical aesthetic.

In chapter two, “Introducing the Dialogues’ Musical Structure,” Kennedy explains his adoption of stichometry, the counting of lines, to interpret Plato’s dialogues. The practice of stichometry reaches back to the times of Vitruvius, and reports of a Pythagorean tradition that comic playwrights organized their works mathematically. Later classical scholars adopted stichometric organization in their recording of ancient texts, such as Callimachus’s catalogue that documented the stichometric totals for each of the scrolls in the Library of Alexandria. However, in their copying of texts, these scholars made no attempt to ensure that the uniform lines and columns of the classical papyri were maintained; rather, the columns varied in length in order to accommodate notes and commentary on the texts. To return to the original text of uniform columns, Kennedy uses a computer program that strips out everything except Greek letters from the Oxford Classical Text editions of Plato’s dialogues and counts only the letters. Although Kennedy acknowledges that punctuation may have been used by Plato, he believes that counting only the Greek letters will suffice to prove his underlying argument of the stichometric and therefore musical organization of Plato’s dialogues.

Contemporary scholars, like E.R. Dodds and E. Berti, have used stichometric studies in their analyses. But these analyses used manual stiochmetry, whereas Kennedy’s computer program allows scholars to find correlations within and between Plato’s dialogues with speed and accuracy. Kennedy admits that his methodology raises several objections: whether Plato actually counted lines, the problems of confirmation bias, questions whether patterns are being imposed rather than discovered in the texts (pp. 48-51). His response is to ask the reader to see whether the abundance of evidence generated by his computer program points to the strong possibility that Plato had employed a stiochmetric organization in his dialogues. Although Kennedy cannot definitively demonstrate certain assumptions— he cannot prove that uniform columns were used by Plato or that Plato’s works were copied correctly—he can, and does in my opinion, provide ample evidence that shows that these assumptions are plausible.

For example, in his analysis of the Symposium, Kennedy demonstrates how certain lines can be correlated with ancient Greek musical ideas, such as scale, quarternote, and relative consonance. Other concepts and actions in the dialogue, such as verbal agreement or beauty, correspond with harmonious notes. In appendix five, Kennedy provides greater detail of this relationship with a systematic marking of passages and their connection between concepts and notes outlined.

In chapter three, “Independent Lines of Evidence,” Kennedy continues his analysis to other dialogues to provide evidence for the stichometric structure of Plato’s works. Here Kennedy looks at the length and position of speeches within several dialogues, the location of significant turns in the argument, and the absolute length of the dialogues to show an underlying stichometric organization that comports with a twelve-part musical structure. This point is further buttressed when the dialogues are compared with one another, which reveals that passages with similar content appear at the same relative locations in different dialogues.

In the next three chapters, along with appendix five, Kennedy provide a detailed interpretation of Plato’s musical symbols in Symposium and Euthyphro. In his analysis of these two dialogues, Kennedy persuasively proves his point about the stichometric organization of these dialogues and their correspondence with a twelve-note structure. The passages in the dialogue, particularly at the consonant and dissonant notes, can be read as species of harmony and disharmony. Although the explication of the allegorical material can be open to debate, Kennedy’s interpretation of the two dialogues is reasonable and avoids contorting the meaning of passages to fit his stichometric method, as he himself admits that the apparent new structure of the dialogue does not necessarily mean new content or a shift in the ideas about Plato’s philosophy.

In chapter seven, “Extracting Doctrine from Structure,” Kennedy uses stichometric measurements to confirm that Aristotle’s doctrine of virtue as a mean was already present in Plato. Aristotle’s concept of the mean appears explicitly in several of Plato’s works at the same location in the dialogues. Kennedy is careful not to assert that the musical structure of Plato’s dialogues depend upon allusions to the mean but rather on the evidence of the stichometric structures of the Symposium and Euthyphro. It appears that in this chapter Kennedy is only giving us a taste of what seems to be a larger project that will compare Platonic passages at the same relative location in different dialogues to see whether the same themes will emerge.

In the final chapter, “Some Implications,” is a review of the case for the stichometric organization of Plato’s dialogues and its connection with music. The first four appendixes spell out the specifics of the twelve-note musical scale with appendixes five, six, and nine showing how this theory can be applied in the interpretation of the Symposium. Appendix seven discusses whether stichometric analysis could be used in Euripides’ plays; and appendix eight presents a sample of evidence of stichometric features in the Republic.

Kennedy’s The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues is a ground-breaking study of Plato’s dialogues and presents an entirely new way of thinking about Plato. The adoption of computer-generated stichometric analysis of Plato’s dialogues and its connection to Pythagorean music opens new lines of inquiry not only in philosophy but in music, mathematics, and literary theory. Such uses point to a methodological breakthrough in showing how digital databases and online collections can be used to make significant contributions to the humanities. By discovering the elegant formal unity underneath Plato’s meandering dialogues, Kennedy has developed a new approach to study Plato. I look forward to future studies that adopt this “musical” approach and what they will reveal about Plato and his relationship to other ancient thinkers.