GUY RAZ, host:
Now, butterfly wings aren't the only places where scholars are finding hidden meaning. Jay Kennedy, a professor of classics at the University of Manchester in England, believes he's discovered a secret code in the writings of Plato; a code that, had it been discovered in its day, could have led to Plato's execution.
Dr. JAY KENNEDY (Classics, University of Manchester): In ancient Greece, there was a well-known 12-note scale. And what I found is if you imagine Plato's books are a long papyrus scroll, if you lay that out on the floor and then look at the discussions of music and so you just paint those blue so you can see stripes, then you step back, you'll notice that the stripes you've painted, those blue splotches, form a regular pattern: at one-twelfth, two-twelfths, three-twelfths, you'll see passages discussing music. And the regularity of that pattern was supposed to be noticed by Plato's readers.
RAZ: So Plato basically inserted discussions on music at specific points deliberately.
Dr. KENNEDY: Yes. That's exactly right. Plato, secretly a Pythagorean and thinking mathematics and music was the key to the universe, he used that simple technology of line counting to give his literary works a musical-mathematical structure.
RAZ: You say Pythagorean, because Pythagoras believed that there was a connection between music and mathematics.
Dr. KENNEDY: Yes. That was a fundamental discovery. Some people say that's the birth of Western science. The Pythagoreans realized that when we hear beauty in music, when we hear notes harmonizing, that's because the notes have simple ratios like one to two or three to four. So the beauty of music is direct perception of the mathematical order underlying the world. They worshipped that mathematics.
RAZ: Why would Plato try to hide this?
Dr. KENNEDY: Ah. Very good reasons for that. The followers of Pythagoras were a persecuted sect, sometimes violently persecuted. They were a threat to traditional religion, like many new sects. Plato's own teacher was executed because of his religious heresies.
RAZ: Socrates, obviously.
Dr. KENNEDY: Socrates. 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.
RAZ: Jay Kennedy, we have a recording of what I've been told is an example of that Pythagorean 12-note scale, what it might have sounded like. Let me just play some of it for you.
(Soundbite of music)
RAZ: So, could you make music like this just by reading and decoding Plato?
Dr. KENNEDY: As far as I can tell, the works contain a musical scale the way we say, do, re, mi, fa, so, la, ti, do. I haven't done it yet. But 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.
RAZ: Plato is the, sort of the bedrock of a philosophical and legal education in much of the Western world.
Dr. KENNEDY: Yes.
RAZ: How does this change the way, you know, we should be reading and thinking about Plato?
Dr. KENNEDY: If my work is correct, as I believe it is, up till now, we've only had half of Plato. There are all these hidden layers of meaning which will enrich our understanding of Plato.
RAZ: What are some of the things you think we might find out?
Dr. KENNEDY: Plato's philosophy shows us one way to combine science and religion. 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 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.
RAZ: That's Jay Kennedy. He's a classic scholar at the University of Manchester in Britain. His paper on the secret Platonic code can be found in the journal Apeiron.
Jay Kennedy, thanks.
Dr. KENNEDY: Thank you.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.