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By opening the Timaeus with the words, 'One, two, three...', Plato invited future commentators to speculate on the Pythagorean nature of his dialogue. Proclus, In Timaeum 14.4–26.20 discusses the numbers and their possible significance:

‘One should also bear in mind that the dialogue is Pythagorean, and one should make one’s interpretative comments in a manner appropriate to them’ (In Timaeum 15.24).

But the question of the relationship between Plato and Pythagoreanism is a vexed one. Like Socrates, Pythagoras (c.570 to c.490 BC) wrote nothing, but unlike with Socrates there are no detailed contemporary
accounts of his thought. However, there have been numerous ingenious attempts to link the Atlantis material to Pythagorean ideas. In The Pythagorean Plato (Stony Brook, NY: Nicolas Hays, 1987, p. 77), E. McClain suggests that the Republic, Timaeus, Critias, Statesman and Laws embodied a systematic treatise on harmonics, and that the Atlantis story is ‘a sophisticated entertainment for Pythagoreans only [. . .] For the musically innocent, it is and must remain a purely Platonic fairy tale, incomprehensively loaded with absolutely meaningless numerical detail.’ Others, such as John Bremer (‘Some Arithmetical Patterns in Plato’s Republic’, Hermathena, no. 169 [2000], pp. 69–97), have sought meaning in numbers by counting lines and/or syllables and exploring the proportions contained in them, or indeed in the time taken to read them (although it is unclear just how accurate any estimate of ancient Greek reading speeds might be). In his article ‘Plato, Pythagoras, and Stichometry’ (Stichting Pythagoras: Pythagoras Foundation Newsletter, no. 15 [December 2010], John Bremer recounts how Bremer (he talks about himself in the third person) ‘laboriously counted the syllables in the Republic’, asserts that the Republic takes twelve hours to recount (twelve becomes a very signifi cant number in this type of analysis, rather than the Pythagorean ten), and that it was ‘possible to identify accurately patterns and symmetries in the Republic, all based on the arithmetical counting of syllables’. These ‘revealed patterns were [. . .] an essential, perhaps the essential, part of the dialogue’, and could also be applied to the Timaeus and Critias. The upshot of all this was that ‘the number of syllables [counting from ‘the total number of years that has gone by since the war that took
place between the people living outside the Pillars of Heracles and all those within them, was 9,000’ (Critias 118e)] to the end of the Critias is 9000’ (quoted in M. Adams, Meet Me in Atlantis: My Obsessive Quest to Find the Sunken City [New York: Dutton, 2015], p. 273). He is aware that the transmission of the manuscripts of Plato is a long and precarious process, involving the hand-copying, correcting and annotating of the text throughout quite an extensive ‘family tree’ of manuscripts that goes back hundreds of years (see G. Jonkers, The Textual Tradition of Plato’s Timaeus and Critias [Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017]): any editor or translator is constantly faced with difficult choices about what the Greek text should be (e.g., karta or kata at Timaeus 25d, or the choice between epinoōn (‘intending’ in my translation), noōn or epinoun at Critias 113a, which have four, two and three syllables respectively). But Bremer is undeterred, and although he also shies away from the issue of whether or not the Critias is unfinished, he says, ‘I don’t feel very upset if it turns out that there are 9017 syllables. With all of my numbers, if it’s within 1 percent, it’s probably intentional’ (Adams, op. cit., p. 273). But precision is everything here: if the mathematics work exactly, the method works perfectly; if they don’t, it conspicuously fails the test.

Bremmer, however, takes exception to the ‘pure hype – or rather impure hype’ – that a ‘science historian’ (J. B. Kennedy) has ‘cracked “The Plato Code” [in his article ‘Plato’s forms, Pythagorean mathematics, and stichometry’, Apeiron, vol. 43, no. 1 (2010), pp. 1–32, and developed further in The Musical Structure of Plato’s Dialogues (Durham: Acumen, 2011)] – the long disputed secret messages hidden in the great philosopher’s writing’. There is, Bremmer argues, ‘no “hidden code” except in the sense that anyone who reads anything needs to know how to read’. Kennedy’s thesis, based on ‘stichometry’ (counting the lines in the text), is essentially that ‘the stichometric structure of the dialogues is a musical scale’ (op. cit. [2010], p. 16). This scale, he argues, contains a harmonic sequence of twelve notes, and if you divide the dialogues into equal ‘musical’ sections, you will find
symbolically significant allegorical passage at the end of each section. So the musical structure unlocks the hidden meaning of the dialogues. But acceptance of the theory depends on it being granted a good measure of leeway: Kennedy observes that his overall line counts come out to round multiples of 12, but only ‘with about one to two percent accuracy’ (op. cit. [2010], p. 9 f.). As with Bremer’s syllables, a 1 to 2 per cent margin of error simply allows for too much subjectivity, and for the signifi cant notes to be located at the theorist’s whim, which invalidates the method. In essence, Plato’s Timaeus–Critias is not a ‘code’ to be ‘deciphered’.

See J. Z. McKay and A. Rehding, ‘The structure of Plato’s dialogues and Greek music theory: A response to J. B. Kennedy’, Apeiron, vol. 44, no. 4 (2011), pp. 359–75.

Date created: 
Monday, February 12, 2018
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