Co-Author Thomas Scarborough
Is Plato written in sort of code? It is something of a commonplace that Plato’s writings are both very important and very obscure. Indeed the obscurity has increased their longevity and importance.
Certainly, there is a large and powerful lobby of logicians and professional philosophers who insist that the writings all make perfect sense, if you are but able to see it, and a small but probably better informed body of scholars who say that they are playful, creative and frequently contradictory.
There is even a middle-ground of scholars who say that Plato’s writings do make sense, but it is a multifaceted and changing one. Such talk is in the spirit of the French literary theorist, Roland Barthes, who some may recall, in 1968, announcing ‘the death of the author’ and ‘the birth of the reader’. When writing begins, says Barthes, the ‘voice loses its origin, the author enters into his own death’. This is all the more true where an author is historically and culturally remote. All literary works, as the literary theorist, Terry Eagleton has put it, are ‘rewritten’ by the societies which read them.
From this post-rational, post-critical perspective, the reader needs to have a lively sense of one’s own historical and cultural situation when reading ancient authors in particular, or they may lack the cultural ‘passwords’ to enter into the discourse. In this sense too, then, Plato is indeed written in a kind of code. But what is it?
The Plato Code
This question recently came to the fore in a popular book by the science historian, Jay Kennedy, entitled simply: The Plato Code (Penguin, 2010). Kennedy, as scientists do from time to time, stepped into the debates with ‘magic bullet’ insights into the Ancients. In unambiguous fashion, he claimed to have cracked the Code, and discovered secret messages hidden in the great philosopher’s writings. His own description of his discovery is ambitious to say the least:
This is the beginning of something big. It will take a generation to work out the implications. All 2,000 pages contain undetected symbols.
As part of the publicity for the book he explained that:
There was no Rosetta Stone. To announce a result like this I needed rigorous, independent proofs based on crystal-clear evidence. The result was amazing – it was like opening a tomb and finding new set of gospels written by Jesus Christ himself. Plato is smiling. He sent us a time capsule.
Kennedy published his discoveries in the American journal Apeiron, promising that they revolutionised our conceptions of the origins of Western thought. Perhaps seeing himself as following in the footsteps of Galileo – who claimed in The Assayer that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, Kennedy argued that Plato gave his books a concealed, mathematical structure following the Pythagoreans. The Pythagoreans had declared that the stars and the planets made an inaudible music, a ‘harmony of the spheres’, and Plato created this hidden music in his books.
Specifically, Kennedy claimed to have found in Plato’s most famous work, the Republic, clusters of words related to music after each twelfth of the text – at one-twelfth, two-twelfths, and so on. This regular pattern represented the twelve notes of a Greek musical scale – some harmonic, others dissonant – in keeping with which Plato described love or laughter, war or death. He explained: ‘As we read his books, our emotions follow the ups and downs of a musical scale. Plato plays his readers like musical instruments.’ This insight became Kennedy’s key to cracking Plato’s entire symbolic system.
The book attracted a great deal of media interest for a few fleeting weeks. The Guardian, called it a ‘breakthrough’, noting that of Plato’s major works:
The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.
Alas, on closer examination, Kennedy’s theory collapsed – not least because the ratios he claimed the writings reproduced could not have been the ones that Plato might have had in mind. One mathematically minded philosophy blog (Heraclitean River) put it like this: ‘Kennedy’s secret hidden musical code is absolute nonsense, as any music theorist (modern or ancient Greek) could have told him at first glance.’
Nonetheless, the fact that Kennedy’s theory was taken seriously by so many people, albeit for a relatively short time, reflects a deeper view that there may well be something going on ‘below the surface’ in Plato’s writings that our supposed philosophical experts are completely missing. This widely shared intuition is worthy of further attention.
The Socrates Code
Stepping again into the river, so to speak, is the German physicist Peter Hubral, with three new books, The Socrates Code, The Plato Code and The Laozi Code, which all seek to promote a common argument. Here we focus primarily on his book The Socrates Code (Lotus Press, 2014), although Hubral’s paper for The Philosopher, The Tao: Modern Pathway to Ancient Wisdom (published in Volume 99 No. 2, Autumn 2011) was an important first step too.
Hubral, however, is not on the trail of literal codes as Kennedy was. Rather he stands more safely in the tradition of ‘the death of the author’, pointing out that Plato – and other ancient Greek philosophers – may be far from what they seem to be to the (post) modern eye.
Plato’s writings, Hubral notes, are rooted instead in a mystical view of the universe, a view long lost to modern man, and closer to the views of the likes of, yes, Pythagoras than it is to the views of say, Galileo, Descartes and Kant. Even so, some modern physicists seem to be more in tune with Plato than mere chronology might indicate. The Twentieth Century physicist, Werner Heisenberg, is an example, Hubral calls him not only a fine physicist but also a fine philosopher:
… we have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning. Our scientific work in physics consists in asking questions about nature in the language that we possess and trying to get an answer from experiment by the means that are at our disposal. In this way quantum theory reminds us, as Bohr has put it, of the old wisdom that when searching for harmony in life one must never forget that in the drama of existence we are ourselves both players and spectators.
This was a possibility of which Descartes could not have thought, but it makes the sharp separation between the world and the ‘I’ (between object and observer) impossible.’
Such a point is, however, a commonplace in Eastern thought, redolent of Taoism. And Peter Hubral’s core thesis can be summed up as saying that what we conventionally study and talk about as being Ancient Greek philosophy is – as in the case of the science described by Heisenberg – a kind of reassuring fiction, yet repeated so many times that it has acquired the status of incontrovertible truth, despite being at root based on nothing so much as elementary errors in translation and interpretation – the kind where words that look similar to terms we use are assumed to have the same sense.
Hubral offers specific examples of the kinds of terms he has in mind: astronomy, atom, cosmos, geometry, idea, planets, practice, psyche, music, symposium, theory, and so on. He points to things like this snippet is from Plato’s Phaedrus:
SOCRATES: At the Egyptian city of Naucratis, there was a famous old god, whose name was Theuth; the bird which is called the Ibis is sacred to him, and he was the inventor of many arts, such as arithmetic and calculation and geometry and astronomy and draughts and dice, but his great discovery was the use of letters.
Hubral argues that these much pored-over terms have nothing at all to do with the Greek originals: astronomía, átomos, kósmos, geometría, idéa, planétes, práxis, psyché, mousiké, sympósion, theoría, and even philosophía, but instead have completely different roots, that are better approached via the, almost completely neglected, Eastern tradition. Take astronomía, for example. In the Republic, Plato says that it forces the psyché to ‘look up’ and leads us from this kósmos into ‘another one’ (Plato; Republic VII 529). This language has nothing to do with ‘astronomy’, just as, he says, philosophía has nothing to do with ‘love of wisdom’!
The most difficult aspect for many readers (including us), is that Hubral argues that these key ideas can only really be understood by approaching them through Taoist thought and the practice of the arts of Tai-Chi. (In modern U.S. terminology (which is what Hubral uses) through Daoism and Taiji.) If you do this, Hubral claims (in contrast to others) that Plato’s words are perfectly logical and non-contradictory. They are metaphors that can be properly understood by the seeker who has the necessary practical experience to be gained on the Great Path – a central metaphor of Taoism. For Hubral, the logic is a function of the progress made on the Great Path: the more the practitioner advances, the more logical and less questionable things become.
Of course, few of us will ever travel that Tai Chi route, and even reading of Hubral’s travels along it is testing as The Socrates Code uses not one language – English – as would really seem to be the practical way forward, but a melange of English, Greek and Chinese – with even a little bit of Farsi and German thrown in. The end result is that this is a book which even the author admits is not really possible to fully understand, and certainly not without practical Tai-Chi experience. But there is such a wealth of ideas, many of which are profound and fundamental, and most of which are barely discussed elsewhere, that a little ramble is well worth undertaking. To better understand, for instance, the metaphor astronomía, conventionally rendered as astronomy. We read about it in Plato’s Republic (in Book VII 529). Here Plato says:
Astronomía forces the psyché to ‘look up’ and leads us from this kósmos into ‘another one’.
There is a very simple, almost childlike way to interpret this – something about imagining other worlds going around other stars on a starry night – and there is a very different one which says that here ‘look up’ refers to the concepts which are understood with reference to the advance of the Oriental sages on the Great Path (Dadao) from the conventional, lower world of everyday Being, to the higher planes of Non-being.Astronomía requires ‘looking up’ only in the same sense as does geometría (conventionally taken as equivalent to modern notions of ‘geometry’) that are both closely connected to each other. Plato says as much, writing: ‘We should approach the astronomía in the same way as the geometría …’ (Republic VII, 530b-c). Hubral discusses all this in detail. But his main point is simple: astronomía and geometría have nothing to do with astronomy and geometry.
Many other interesting examples are discussed by Hubral. Some concern Pythagoras, a figure so little understood by conventional philosophers that they often do not discuss him at all. Where we do read about Pythagoras, it is to the effect that he is supposed to have had quasi-religious views, not least about numbers. As to this, Hubral has no doubt that the interpretations are reckless. He compares the notion that the Pythagoreans worshipped numbers to the traditional formula of the Chinese ‘No laws and no God!’ and instead offers a portrait which seems to provide a plausible way to unify elements of the thought of the Chinese Taoist sage Lao Tzu (Laozi) with both Pythagoras and Plato.
Take astronomía, for example. In the Republic, Plato says that it forces the psyché to ‘look up’ and leads us from this kósmos into ‘another one’. This language has nothing to do with ‘astronomy’, just as philosophía has nothing to do with ‘love of wisdom’!
One story, that many readers may be familiar with, is that told by Plato of a slave boy being taught ‘geometry’ by Socrates. And weren’t the words‚ ‘Let no one who is ignorant of geometry enter’ written over the door of Plato’s Academy? In fact, they were not, and it makes striking impression to go back and re-translate geometría as something other than schoolbook geometry. Hubral’s interpretation is that it is not geometers who Plato invites in, but geometrikoí – the term implying, rather, those practitioners who follow the Great Path – the Parmenidean Path to Truth – in search of equality and justice. Such a shift in understanding would seem to make a great deal more sense.
Another much-cited and powerful image is that of Socrates standing‚ ‘as if transfixed’ for hours in the middle of the road while he seemed to struggle with some thought or another. We read about such things in several of Plato’s dialogues, for example at the beginning of the Symposium (or ‘Drinking Party’) dialogue. This mentions, almost in passing, that:
… later another servant came in and reported that our friend Socrates had retired into the portico of the neighbouring house. ‘There he is fixed,’ he said, ‘and when I call to him he will not stir.’ How strange, said Agathon; then you must call him again, and keep calling him. ‘Let him alone’, said my informant, ‘he has a way of stopping anywhere and losing himself without any reason. I believe that he will soon appear, do not therefore disturb him.
Such behaviour is alien to modern readers, indicating little else than that Socrates was evidently (a) eccentric, and (b) some sort of serious thinker. But to those familiar with the Eastern tradition, the sight of people standing immobile is not so bizarre – it is a standard posture of Tai-Chi, and if Socrates stood immobile all day and all night as Plato tells us, this could indicate not so much how odd a person Socrates was, as how experienced a practitioner (or a follower of the Path to Truth, to cast it in terms of Tai-Chi) he was.
Hubral puts it this way: ‘Standing: The best posture to implement Wuwei.’
Wuwei is the Chinese equivalent of the Greek principle philía – it is the only principle that makes it possible to have ‘stillness create self-movements’ on the mental, psychic and bodily plane. ‘Standing’ is better for this purpose than any other posture. It permits creative, unconditioned self-movements of the mind, psyché and body in all possible directions to explore the unknown. For Hubral, it is truly unconditioned in comparison to assuming, for instance, that the ‘book of nature is written in the language of mathematics’, which he sees as a kind of modern nonsense thoroughly disproven by Socrates and many other practising ‘natural philosophers’.
‘Standing’ is better for this purpose than any other posture. It permits creative unconditioned self-movements of the mind, psyché and body in all possible directions to explore the unknown.
And so we arrive at another key element to Hubral’s Socrates Code – the correct interpretation of the Socratic aphorism that ‘Man is the measure of all things’. Hubral argues that this phrase is a misinterpretation of the original text, which means, contrary to modern interpretations, that man is not the measure of the world that surrounds him. The misinterpretation spread, he says, from the time when the Platonic and Socratic ‘science’ (the kind he calls unconditioned) was lost at its last European stronghold in al Andalus in the 13th century – and went on a triumphal procession to the Western non-Islamic world, where it was enthusiastically accepted by reputed thinkers, who steered the scientific revolution.
Hubral sees this loss as being reported by the widely travelled Arabic historian and philosopher Mas’udi (895 – 957) from Baghdad, who writes in Meadows of Gold:
During our travels we have consorted with several kings, as different in their manners and their opinions as are the different geographical situations of the countries, and yet little by little we have found among them the same accord in recognizing that all traces of ‘science’ have vanished and that its splendour is spent; learning has become too general and has lost its depth, and one no longer sees any but people filled with vanity and ignorance, imperfect scholars who are content with superficial ideas and do not recognize the truth…
The true Greek philosophy, Hubral argues, the one which Plato intends to promote, is not based on the familiar conditioned empirical approach, to understand the universe and the self that most commentators see in it. It is rather founded on a meditative self-observation practice to explore the psychic kósmos, which provides the beyond-the-senses knowledge (gnósis) that is summed up in the famous Orphic injunction: Know thyself.
Such extraordinary knowledge can only be experienced, not ‘taught’ – and certainly not questioned. As The Socrates Code puts it, such knowledge is based on the principle that there is no principle, which means that it is completely unconditioned. Hubral says that all the vocabulary that Plato uses finds its source in this. Plato calls the practice meléte thanátou – the practice of dying. This is dying to the conditioned, empirical world. It requires submitting to philía during the Tai-Chi practice!
For Hubral, then, this is the essence of Plato’s ‘code’ or unwritten doctrine. Its promise is of a pure knowledge, knowledge that in Hubral’s view, ‘requires a master, who teaches his students to rigorously disconnect themselves during their practice from Being and thus recollect the gnósis. Yet even the master cannot offer the insights (the recollection or anamnésis) directly, but can only try to show a few how to attain it for themselves.
Man the Measure?
It is in the dialogue Theaetetus (at line 152a) that Socrates states:
Man is the measure of all things. Of the things that are ‘as they are’; of the things that are ‘not as they are’.
Hubral expresses the line thus (attempting to distinguish between two kinds of ‘being’): ‘Man is the measure of all things. Of the things that are ‘as they are (in BEING)’; of the things (in Being) that are ‘not as they are (because they are the transient appearance of BEING).’
The last phrase points out – contrary to what the first phrase seems to convey – that a human being, who confines himself to Being (the bodily world), cannot correctly appraise all things (in Being). Socrates regards the one-sided dedication to Being harmful to the psyché (Gorgias 493a): Sóma (body = bodily world = Being) is a grave of the psyché. A Platonist accepts the limitation and pitfalls of Being and carefully acts or does not act accordingly. He knows that Being is only understood if he also knows BEING. He regularly dedicates himself to the practice of dying to Being, to explore BEING, the things that are ‘as they are’, which are unavailable in society. He can then find out by reawakening his hidden eidetic senses that Being is the emanation (outflow) of BEING, also called ONE. Plato calls the practice also metrétiké téchne – the art of measurement.
The familiar sciences are dedicated to Being, and many of us believe that they liberate us from the dogmatic ‘Do not question, but believe!’ However, to investigate Being and to make use of it, we must in fact accept many conjectures. We do not question the five familiar senses, consciousness, reasoning and language. Scientists do not doubt the repeatability of experiments, validity of closed systems, mathematical axioms. They ignore undesired effects, and so on. In this respect, the familiar sciences may not differ from a religion. The American theoretical physicist, Leon Ederman, wrote: ‘To believe something while knowing it cannot be proved (yet) is the essence of physics.’
Both belief and physics are conjectured (conditioned) and must be believed in. They are, as Plato puts it, confined to the ‘realm of belief (ta dóxasta)’. This does not apply to the gnósis, which is immediate knowledge, and falls for him into the unconditioned ‘realm of true (pure) knowledge (ta gnósta)’.
The words of Socrates, ‘Man is the measure of all things’, may be employed as a means for tracing the change in our understanding of Ancient Greek thought – a cultural litmus paper, as it were. It was a precept, a key reference principle, among the Andalusian philosophers, in particular of Ibn Tufayl (ca 1116- 1185), whom the 13th-century Moroccan historian Abdelwahid al-Marrakushi counts among al-Andalus’s ‘most versatile scholars’.
The Socratic principle was also the precept of Hayy, a kind of prototype ‘Robinson Crusoe’ of Ibn Tufayl’s novel Hayy ibn Yaqzin (Living Son of the Wakeful One). Tom Verde, an American journalist who specialises in Christian-Islamic history, writes that the predominant Andalusian thought at that time was Platonism, according to which existence was emanating from a single source, the ONE. This was a time of transition from original to misinterpreted Platonism. Verde writes about the change from ‘dogmatic and thus inferior knowledge’ that preceded the ‘self-taught and thus superior knowledge (obtained by contemplation)’, which he attributes to Hayy and Ibn Tufayl.
To cast the contrast between Being and BEING in more (post) modern terms, one may contemplate the words of popular philosophy writers Jacob Needleman and David Appelbaum:
In almost every area of our culture, the realization is dawning that material and scientific achievement cannot of themselves lead us towards an understanding of the meaning of our lives and that unless scientific progress is balanced by another kind of enquiry, it will inevitably become an instrument of self-destruction.
Their words echo Plato’s of two thousand years ago (Republic 406 e):
Researchers (scientists) belong to the best men in the world, who always formulate and continuously refine laws, without grasping that they are in reality cutting the head of the hydra.
According to Hubral, starting with Ibn Tufayl, the following six milestones have been set up by scientifically minded searchers of ‘truth’. These represent symbolic landmarks in humanity’s regression from BEING to Being – a coming to believe that the idea that man is the (true, divine, pure) measure of all things was in agreement with Plato (Socrates) and the way to overcome was ‘Do not question, but believe!’ It was for them the approach to ascend to higher worlds. Hubral offers the milestones in chronological order, apart from his inclusion of Johannes Kepler suggested by Verde. The idea is that they show the close connection between the new, conditioned, Aristotelian science and the religious conviction of their protagonists.
• Ibn Tufayl (c 1116- 1185), a scholar who remains ‘ignorant in the (conditioned) Sciences’, makes false claims to ‘experiencing the ultimate truth’ through these same sciences.
• Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), who studied Ibn Rushd and believed in ‘man is the measure of all things’, concluded in Heptaplus, in the same vein as Ibn Tufayl, that humans – after living lives of rigorous scientific and spiritual reflection – are destined to rise above this world and enjoy reunion with the Divine.
• Francis Bacon (1561-1626), regarded as the father of empiricism, conceived of a mythical island in his New Atlantis. With an eye to both Heptaplus and Hayy, he envisioned an insular society in which the religiously devout inhabitants are also devoted to the pursuit of pure, scientific knowledge. His concept of purity is not, however, that of Plato, who connects it to the meditative dedication to BEING (the primeval source of Being).
Located at the ‘very eye of Bacon’s kingdom’ is ‘Salomon’s House,’ an institution that anticipated the modern research university, and in 1660 inspired the establishment of England’s Royal Society of London for Improving Natural (conditioned) Knowledge. One of the Society’s early presidents was Isaac Newton, who wrote more books on religion than natural science, choosing as its motto a shorthand version of one of Pico’s favoured, autodidactic canons of the Roman poet Horace: Nullius in verba: ‘Don’t take anyone’s word for it.’
• Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) who writes in Harmonices Mundi: ‘Geometry is unique and eternal, a reflection from the mind of God. That mankind shares in it is, because man is an image of God’. He also writes: ‘The geometry is before the creation of things equally eternal as the spirit of the creator himself and delivered to him the archetype for the creation of the world’.
• The translation of the Hayy (1671) by the reputed Oxford Arabist, Pockoke, published in Oxford. The work’s subtitle spelled out the nuts and bolts: ‘In which it is demonstrated by what means human reason can ascend from contemplation of the inferior to (conditioned) knowledge of the superior.’
• And finally to ‘the Age of Enlightenment’ which according to Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was the historical period when humankind gained the courage and determination to rely on one’s own understanding (of Being). He writes in Answering the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784): ‘Enlightenment is the exit of humans from their self-inflicted immaturity, which is the incapability to serve himself of his mind without guidance of someone else’.
Hubral’s point is that the above searchers believed they found the way to ‘rise above this world’ and ‘enjoy reunion with the Divine’. They believed that they discovered the ‘exit from human self-inflicted immaturity’ by ‘not taking anyone’s word for it.’ They believed they followed the path to ‘Enlightenment’ of the Ancient Greeks. Alas (he thinks) they did not know was that their ‘superior knowledge’ had nothing to do with what the Ancient Greeks looked for in the schools of the philosophía, which taught the unconditioned search of sophía (wisdom) with philía (Wuwei) based on doing nothing but letting nature act out of itself during the Tai-Chi practice.
They no longer knew that this was the Platonic guiding principle to withdraw from Being. It was the principle to have the psyché ascend to experience BEING and grasp the world more profoundly than they did! They were, unlike the Platonists, unaware of the restriction of the world and self-perception that humans are subjected to in their exclusive dedication to Being (Phaedo 79c1-8):
When the psyché makes use of sóma to investigate something through vision or hearing or some other sense … it is dragged by sóma towards objects.
So is it time for a general reassessment of those foundational texts of Western philosophy? If Hubral is correct that the spirit of Tai-Chi was central to Greek thinking, then we need to reassess not just the life of Socrates, but many of the key ideas in Ancient philosophy. Reassessing the ancients would bring with it a reassessment of today. One of the foremost consequences would be that contemporary environmental and social problems, which are a consequence of deifying man as the (true, divine, pure) measure of all things, could be replaced by less wishful and more holistic thinking, which was the true thinking of the Ancient Greeks.
But let us give the last word to Thomas Huxley, who in 1870 warned against:
… the extension of the province of what we call matter and causation, and the concomitant gradual banishment from all regions of human thought of what we call spirit and spontaneity.
Alas, his warning has gone unheeded. Up to now.
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Originally published at The Philosopher. Online philosophical journal for the general reader, founded in 1923. Republished with kind permission.