It sounds like something out of a Dan Brown novel, but a scholar in Manchester, England, claims to have found hidden code in the ancient writings of Plato. If true, the secret messages would have made the ancient philosopher and mathematician a heretic in his day.
Jay Kennedy tells NPR’s Guy Raz that his discovery was partially luck. Looking at Plato’s works in their original scroll form, he noticed that every 12 lines there was a passage that discussed music. “The regularity of that pattern was supposed to be noticed by Plato’s readers,” Kennedy says.
Music in ancient Greece was based on a 12-note scale, unlike the eight-note scale of modern Western music. Kennedy posits that Plato deliberately inserted discussions of music every 12 lines to send a secret, musical message.
What Plato couldn’t tell people was that he was a closet Pythagorean. Pythagoras and his followers believed that mathematics and music were the key to the universe.
“The Pythagoreans realized that when we hear beauty and music, when we hear notes harmonizing, that’s because the notes have simple ratios, like 1:2 or 3:4,” Kennedy explains. “So the beauty of music is direct perception of the mathematical order underlying the world. They worshipped that mathematics.”
But the Pythagoreans were a persecuted sect, Kennedy adds, sometimes violently persecuted. “They were a threat to traditional religion, like many new sects.” Plato’s own teacher, Socrates, was famously executed for religious heresy.
“Simply put, they were threatening to overthrow the gods on Olympus and put numbers and mathematics in its place. Prior to Socrates being executed, a number of other philosophers were banished or fled because of threats to themselves. It was dangerous in those days to be a philosopher.”
As far as Kennedy can tell, Plato’s message was one of solidarity simply by acknowledging the relationship between music and mathematics, but he suspects there’s more to it. “Perhaps some scholar will find that – in The Republic, at least – that there is something like a melody or a score embedded in the text,” he says.
If that’s true, then we’ve read only half of Plato’s writings. “There are all these hidden layers of meaning which will enrich our understanding of Plato,” Kennedy says. And maybe what else Plato has to say could help us today.
“Plato’s philosophy shows us one way to combine science and religion,” Kennedy says. “The culture wars we’re having today – about evolution for example – see science and religion as two polarized opposites. Plato’s hidden philosophy shows us that he combined an emphasis on mathematics with an emphasis upon beauty, music, art and divinity. The founder of western culture, in fact wanted us to combine science and religion.”