The Platonic Form of Bullshit

by Arthur B

A minor news article inspires surprising amounts of rage.
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A word of warning: this article isn’t going to make any sense unless you’ve read the BBC News article on the so-called "Plato Code". So go read, it isn't very long. Done? Told you it was short.

Coverage of academic disciplines in general in the mainstream media, by and large, is terrible. Science suffers especially badly, but it’s by no means unique in this. One of the most frequent blunders is the apparent inability of journalists to ask around in the academic communities they are examining and actually work out whether a particular position is way out there on the lunatic fringe, a generally-accepted viewpoint, or a new and novel theory which has not yet attained widespread acceptance but does at least excite debate and has a certain amount of credibility. Consequently, you’ll sometimes get stories in which the views of, say, global warming conspiracy theorists are given equal weight to the views of the vast majority of climate scientists.

And at the other end of the spectrum you’ll get stories like the Plato Code one, in which a journalist falls hook, line and sinker for a crank theory and effectively write a press release for it without questioning it in the slightest.

The lynchpin of the theory is that Plato incorporated a musical code into his manuscripts, which can be decrypted using the mathematical techniques of the Pythagoreans. The first problem with this is that we don’t actually know most of the mathematical techniques of the Pythagoreans, aside from the really famous one with the triangles. Pythagoras himself wasn’t in the habit of recording his thoughts, and what second-hand sources we do have (including Plato) are incredibly contradictory when it comes to what the Pythagoreans actually believed. This is extraordinarily useful for people like Kennedy, because it means that if you believe you have found a hidden pattern somewhere in a Greek text from around the right time period you can airily declare it a Pythagorean code without having to point to the precise spot in Pythagoras Teaches Maths where the code is outlined.

Another problem is that, according to the diagram at the top of the article, some of the musical notes are in harmony with each other, whereas others are not. This is almost precisely what you would expect from a completely random string of notes conveying no meaning.

It gets worse. Kennedy puts forth the idea that this musical code was Plato’s way of getting across his true teachings, transmitted via Socrates, teachings which Socrates himself was placed under a death sentence for and which Plato would have been killed had he spoken openly - "religious heresy", to use Kennedy’s mildly dubious terminology.

Let’s put aside the fact that Socrates was put to death for "corrupting the youth", rather than heresy per se, and that you can’t really compare the religious life of ancient Athens to, say, Spain during the era of Torquemada. Let’s put aside this fact that these secret teachings that Plato was concealing are, supposedly, Pythagorean teachings, and Pythagoras died as a result of a political struggle, not because of a heresy trial. For Kennedy to be correct in his theory that Plato was attempting to present an acceptable and orthodox face to the world whilst concealing his true teachings, we would have to believe that Plato was a complete idiot. If, as we are asked to believe, Plato was attempting to conceal the "heretical" nature of his teachings, why would Plato use as his mouthpiece in his famous dialogues Socrates - the very man Kennedy cites as being executed for heresy? If Plato wished to distance himself from this perceived "heresy", why would he continue to associate his ideas with Socrates in the first place? Would a closeted Protestant during the Reformation write about his theological beliefs in code, and then fuck it all up by openly putting his words in the mouth of Martin Luther?

Another problem: how are we meant to relate a series of musical notes to a set of philosophical teachings? Surely this means that there is a second layer of the supposed code - that after one obtains the notes, one has to perform yet another somewhat dubious numerological operation to them in order to get the meaning hidden within them? To believe that this is the case, we would have to believe that Plato took these teachings, came up with a musical code to hide them, and then embedded that musical code in a text, which in itself was also a coherent and well thought-out philosophical text in its own right. I’m not saying Plato was not up to the task of coming up with a code and hiding it in a text. What I am saying is that to come up with one philosophy, encode it, and then come up with an entirely different philosophy to hide it in seems to be an incredible task for anyone, even Plato to attempt, especially when one considers that several of the ideas that Dr Kennedy claims are to be revealed in this by the code, such as mathematics being the language of nature and music being a kind of mathematics and the harmony of all things, were written of openly by Plato and his followers pretty much without censure. Why go to all that trouble to hide this message, on pain of execution by the Athenian Inquisition, only to then blurt the message out openly?

Most interestingly, Dr Kennedy's discovery of the Plato Code happens to back up his political beliefs. He seems to be promoting this idea at least partially for the sake of spreading a message which on the surface seems innocuous but, ironically, seems to have its own coded undertones. Take this quote from the end of the article:
"We now understand our roots. Plato was a key founder of Western culture. So the birth of Western thought and science looks different.

"Today, we're having a battle with other cultures about what kind of country we're going to be. And it matters very much that we understand how we got to be a democratic country with human rights.

"But it will take a generation to work out the implications," he added. "All 2,000 pages contain undetected symbols."
Let us put aside, for a moment, the ludicrous statement in which Kennedy asserts that all 2000 pages of the manuscript he is working on contain undetected symbols. (Actually, let’s address that quickly: how does he know the symbols are there if he has not detected them?) Dr Kennedy asserts that Western culture is in the middle of a "battle" with unspecified "other cultures". He alleges that it is thanks to the likes of Plato and Socrates that we became a democratic country with human rights, rather than, say, the Chartist Movement or the Suffrage Movement or any other more recent events which actually gave us democracy and human rights, rather than airily thinking about them. And he seems to be implying that these mysterious "other cultures" - not specified outright, how careful of him! - are somehow trying to change us into a different sort of country from the one we currently live in, which would seem to suggest that these "other cultures" hate democracy and human rights.

Who, I wonder, are these people who Hate Our Freedom? Why, I wonder, is Dr Kennedy so evasive when talking about them? What, I ask, is the point of his Plato Code, this sometimes-harmonious-sometimes-not song that rings out in Dr Kennedy’s head as he reads Plato? Am I being completely unreasonable in suggesting that Dr Kennedy, if he is not engaging in outright deception and fraud, is merely seeing what he wishes to see in the text, in the same way that the people behind the Bible Code did? Would it be terribly rude of me to point out that you can abuse numbers to get all sorts of patterns out of pretty much any text you care to exploit? Would it be outrageous of me to wonder what Plato would have thought of being drafted into a culture war two thousand years after his death? Would it be inappropriate to question why Dr Kennedy personally feels that he is in a battle with other cultures, and would it be too much to ask for him to explain precisely which cultures he feels that he is at war with?

Not only does the BBC Manchester article explore none of these questions, it also completely fails to even attempt to confirm any of Kennedy’s assertions with any credible source in the field. By simply taking his assertions at face value and repeating them almost verbatim, the article has become the Platonic form of journalistic laziness and ineptitude. I fully expect to see the journalist responsible writing for the Daily Mail in due course.

As for Dr Kennedy, on his own website Kennedy talks about a culture war between science and religion, and asserts that his discovery provides the means of combining the two. When you're talking like a character from Dan Brown's Angels and Demons, perhaps it's time to stop and have a lie down.
Themes: Topical
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Comments (go to latest)
Sister Magpie at 20:29 on 2010-07-01
I thought I was crazy reading that article. I couldn't get the question of how you embed a philosophical point in notes of music. I kept thinking of that urban legend about how the 12 days of Christmas is allegedly a tool for teaching persecuted Catholics in England their catechism in a song. Only with even less to go on.

And I agree, the whole deal about Why This Is Important To Us is just creepy. Even if people did find secret messages in Plato's work about how math was the language of nature and he hadn't said that openly elsewhere...why would it be that important to us in 2010? With the Bible you do have an audience built-in primed to see the book as holding the answers to everything,but Plato doesn't work that way.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 20:53 on 2010-07-01
Honestly, sistermagpie, I don't think "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is any more an urban legend than, for example, "Ring a Ring of Rosies" being about the Black Death is an urban legend. At least we are talking about words were the songs are concerned!

When I read the article, all I could think is: so what is Plato supposed to be saying in the code? There was no there there - it was entirely empty, as far as I could tell. Was Plato's real message supposed to be so explosive that the researcher did not dare to state it in prose? Even as a working hypothesis?

I also couldn't help noticing who (and what) got left out as founders of modern democracy and Western Tradition. No Aristotle, no Judeo-Christian tradition, no Saxon Moots, Magna Carta, AL Andalus,Iroquois confederacy, and so on, and on, and on.

It struck me as exceptionally silly, really. Arthur, great comments!
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 20:53 on 2010-07-01
I meant, "where the songs are concerned". Sorry for the typo - I hate them!
Rami at 22:18 on 2010-07-01
When I read the article, all I could think is: so what is Plato supposed to be saying in the code?

Well, clearly it's something deep and mysterious. It makes me wonder if such codes -- whose meaning may not be immediately obvious -- are actually hidden everywhere. Analyzing Kennedy's own comments might give us some insight -- looks like taking every seventh character spells out 'Wua wedW ehhshaeof'; the question now is WHAT DOES THIS SECRET CODE MEAN?
Jamie Johnston at 23:57 on 2010-07-01
Er. Hm. I agree that there's quite a lot of sheer stupidity going on here, but on the other hand.

Okay, so, as you (and everyone else who's commented) point out, the article itself is utterly pointless because it fails to give even the slightest hint of either of the only two things anyone could possibly want to know about this story: first, how does this code work, and second, what is the hidden message? So clearly massive fail by the journalist.

Also agreed that sundry individual Greek history / Greek philosophy fails are perpetrated by both the journalist and Dr. Kennedy throughout the article. On top of what's already been mentioned, I'd pick out the fact that it's at best misleading to cite Plato as a progenitor of modern democracy without also mentioning that he himself advocated the most nightmarish totalitarian state you could ever imagine, whose sole redeeming feature is that it would never ever have worked (and sure enough, when he tried to implement it, didn't).

Granted, also, prímá facie evidence of worrying underlying world-view held by Kennedy.

But I come back to the first point: the article gives no information at all on the actual content of Kennedy's theory. In which case is it entirely fair to assume it's unadulterated quackery? Bear in mind that this article is evidently the result of an uninformed and lazy journalist having a conversation with a publicity-seeker. They both know that the only way anyone is going to be interested in this story is if it's made to sound as much like The Da Vinci code as possible. Even if Kennedy's theory were something actually relatively plausible and modest such as 'Plato deliberately structured some of his dialogues based on musical intervals in a way that, when properly understood, sheds new light on the interpretation of the work', it would still, given the publicity-seeking of the theorist and the laziness and ignorance of the journalist, result in an article very much like this. 'Structural devices that suggest new interpretations' would inevitably become 'secret code that reveals a hidden message', 'use of musical intervals adds weight to existing respectable theories of significant Pythagorean influence' would inevitably become 'hidden message is Pythagorean heresy', and so on. And the business about democracy and human rights is just a slightly more unscrupulous version of what many academics do, or allow to be done, when they talk about their work: make extremely tenuous links to hot-button media topics in order to get funding and publicity for work that they themselves usually consider fully justified by the mere fact that it's very interesting. In other words, simply self-interested manipulation of the media by people who recognize that society at large no longer values the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake or for the sake of enriching human thought - at least not enough to spend actual money on it.

I'm not saying that I think Kennedy's theory is right or even credible, but I can imagine a credible theory that could, with the cynical but understandable collaboration of its originator, be put through the journalistic sausage-machine to produce this article.
Jamie Johnston at 00:03 on 2010-07-02
(Incidentally, the thing with the harmonious and dissonant notes is, I think, not saying that some of the notes that are supposedly hidden in Plato's text are harmonious and some are dissonant, but rather that in the 'Pythagorean' musical scale some pairs of notes are harmonious and others aren't. I know far far too little about music theory, ancient or modern, to say whether that's accurate, but I think that's the idea that's being advanced.)
Arthur B at 00:08 on 2010-07-02
I'm not saying that I think Kennedy's theory is right or even credible, but I can imagine a credible theory that could, with the cynical but understandable collaboration of its originator, be put through the journalistic sausage-machine to produce this article.

True, but on the other hand the guy's own website doesn't exactly give a different impression from the article.

Here's a relevant quote from his recently-published paper on the subject, where he talks about the reasons why Plato may have decided to hide a jaunty song in The Republic:

Third, the underlying structures in the dialogues serve to convey, with the allegorist’s peculiar balance between communication and concealment, further philosophical doctrine. Plato’s dialogues have sometimes been interpreted as deliberately aporetic exercises aimed at galvanising inquiry or even as empty exercises in scepticism. However, the same philosophical approach the dialogues urge toward the world — the search for underlying forms, the attempt to resolve puzzles about appearances, and the employment of reason and measurement — will, when applied to the dialogues themselves, lead to symbolic structures which carry additional doctrinal content. As subsequent work will endeavour to show, Plato’s positive philosophical programme is in the underlying forms.

In other words, he's saying that the text of Plato's works is just a guide to a particular mode of philosophical inquiry, but the hidden message contains a secret philosophical doctrine which contains the real meat of what Plato wanted to talk about.
Andy G at 00:38 on 2010-07-02
@ Arthur:

It depends what he means by philosophical content. Certainly, for other philosophers there are arguments about the philosophical relevance of features such as form and style, though that isn't to say that form and style yield philosophical content in the form of a hidden message.
Arthur B at 01:05 on 2010-07-02
It depends what he means by philosophical content.

Well, in the introduction for non-experts on his site he does explain this:

Plato is sometimes thought of as a cold fish who banished poets and pushed the West toward logic, mathematics, and science. Now we know he was a hidden romantic. The philosophy contained beneath his stories mixes science and mysticism, mathematics and God.

And a bit later:

Perhaps even more surprisingly, Plato's positive philosophy shows us how to combine science and religion. Today we hear much of the culture wars between believers and atheists, between those who insist our world is imbued with meaning and value and those who argue for materialism and evolution.

I can't see any way to interpret statements like that (and the context they appear in, but I didn't want to quote great swathes of the guy's page - you can go check if you like, link is in the last paragraph of the article) as suggesting anything other than Kennedy really believes that Plato espoused an overt philosophy and a hidden philosophy, a "positive philosophy" (which makes concrete assertions about things) which in some respects contradicts his overt philosophy.

What's really interesting about the guy's page is that he seems to think that Plato's texts, if you read them at face value, don't come to any real conclusions ("his books -- though brilliant, seductive, and inexhaustively rich -- often end frustratingly without definite conclusions"). This is a bizarre statement, and I can only conclude it's a by-product of Kennedy either fundamentally misunderstanding Plato, or hoping to get something from Plato which he didn't find there.
Dan H at 09:33 on 2010-07-02


Honestly, sistermagpie, I don't think "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is any more an urban legend than, for example, "Ring a Ring of Rosies" being about the Black Death is an urban legend. At least we are talking about words were the songs are concerned!


Umm, you're aware that the whole black death thing is, almost certainly, an urban legend?
Arthur B at 10:54 on 2010-07-02
True, but on the other hand the guy's own website doesn't exactly give a different impression from the article.

To expand on this, actually, because I don't want to give the impression that I'm in the business of dismissing people's ideas based on bad journalism: I did, in fact, check the guy's site before writing the article to make sure he was actually saying the sort of thing the article was implying he was saying. If it hadn't been clear from his site that he was putting forward wild assertions then I'd have just dismissed the article as typical journalistic mangling of academic ideas and moved on.

I kept the article focused on the news story mainly because I didn't want to take the heat off the journalist who was so very willing to write a press release for the guy. ;)
Andy G at 15:58 on 2010-07-02
The thing is, from his website there doesn't seem to be anything that I can tell is implausible without knowing more about Plato - it does seem plausible that there *could* be some sort of symbolic structure or arrangement like that used by authors like Dante, etc. This isn't to say that there *is* a structure like this or even good reason to suppose there is, but I can't really decide without knowing more about Plato.

He does seem to be making exaggerated claims about the *significance* of this symbolic structure, and rather vague about just why it is relevant to the content of Plato's philosophy.
Arthur B at 16:23 on 2010-07-02
The thing is, from his website there doesn't seem to be anything that I can tell is implausible without knowing more about Plato - it does seem plausible that there *could* be some sort of symbolic structure or arrangement like that used by authors like Dante, etc. He does seem to be making exaggerated claims about the *significance* of this symbolic structure, and rather vague about just why it is relevant to the content of Plato's philosophy.

Well, that's exactly it. He's identified a structure that can be based on a particular ancient Greek musical scale - but with sufficient fudging and a sufficient number of scales to hand, pretty much any text can be made to fit a musical scale. It's all plausible, but any number of different patterns could be equally plausible, and what's more he takes a merely plausible idea, presents it as cold fact, and arrogantly declares that this will change everything, end the conflict between science and religion, and cure the common cold.

It's entirely possible he's tripped across something that's actually there but blew it out of all proportion (the structure might just reflect Plato's style of argument, or could just be a mnemonic aid for finding stuff quickly in the text for all we know), but it's also possible that he's just fallen into the usual trap of seeing patterns where there aren't any (qv the Vanilla Ice video).

But the thing is, when he says stuff like "All 2000 pages contain undetected symbols", it makes me inclined to believe that he's not just making overblown statements about the significance of the pattern he's perceived, but is also jumping to conclusions when it comes to finding the pattern in the first place. The fact is that there is absolutely no way he could make a statement about the presence or absence of symbols that he himself admits he hasn't detected yet. The Republic isn't Minesweeper, there isn't a little counter showing how many mines you have left to stick flags on.

I could generate a string of random numbers several hundreds of digits long and we could have a great time finding patterns in there - we could, in fact, "discover" an absolutely ridiculous number of symbols. The fact is that Kennedy has done absolutely no work to show that the pattern he has discovered is any more meaningful or valid than any random collection of fragments from the Dialogues, or any other one of the uncountable different patterns you could impose on the text.
Arthur B at 16:27 on 2010-07-02
(Also, I could be wrong, but I'm pretty sure it didn't take thousands of years before people noticed what Dante was doing with all those numerological patterns in The Divine Comedy.)
Wardog at 17:13 on 2010-07-02
Dude, you've had a bee in your bonnet about this stuff since Jamie mentioned it. Leave the poor guy alone; also you can't really get anything like a fair representation of someone's academic position from media coverage of the same.
Arthur B at 17:22 on 2010-07-02
I'm pretty sure this isn't the same guy Jamie was talking about (if nothing else, he seems to have published almost nothing in this particular vein until he's popped up with this Plato Code stuff, whereas the person we were talking about with Jamie seems to have a more established academic record). And, like I said above, I did in fact read the guy's own words on his own website before I wrote the article.

But that's something like the third time I've had to say the above to someone so clearly I've just completely failed to make any sort of sense and I'd better stop digging. :(
Guy at 18:26 on 2010-07-02
I'd really love to hear this hidden music of Plato's works actually played. Possibly on a kazoo.
Jamie Johnston at 19:41 on 2010-07-02
Possibly on a kazoo.

It is well known that a kazoo will increase the philosophical profundity of anything by at least 50%. :)

... since Jamie mentioned it.

For the confused, I should explain that over [unspecified meal]* before the most recent TeXt Factor recording we were all talking about a lecture-series I heard to as an undergraduate: the lecturer's theory was (and this was some years ago so my memory is fuzzy) that in classical times it had been quite common for writers to use numerical patterns in their compositions to highlight particular ideas or themes already present in the text. He also argued that this practice had survived into late Roman and even early medieval times. The only example I can remember is from John's gospel, where he picked out every nth word starting from the beginning and the end and they came out exactly matching (i.e. the nth word from the beginning was the same as the nth word from the end, and then the 2nth word from the beginning was the same as the 2nth word from the end, and so on) except that where they didn't match the non-match was interesting, for example the word 'disciple' (the one who is said at that point to have been the source of the information in the book but isn't named) near the end corresponded to the word 'John' (the Baptist) near the beginning, the suggestion being that the evangelist had 'coded' his own identity into the text. The whole series of eight lectures consisted of this guy doing similar tricks with various classical, medieval, secular, religious, and miscellaneous texts. It was entertaining and ingenious, though decidedly questionable. And Arthur, you're quite right, he wasn't the same person as Dr Kennedy.

I think the similarities and the differences between him and Kennedy shed some light on my thoughts as not-very-clearly expressed in my comments above. The lecturer (whose name I can't remember) didn't try to extrapolate or even imply any particular theory or world-view from his word-counting and similar techniques. The essence of his theory, in fact, was simply that people used these techniques in ancient and early medieval times. He thought they used them for various different things - Cicero, for example, used it just for fun, others to provide supplementary information or to reinforce messages already explicit in the texts. He occasionally used his analysis to provide support for one side or another in a long-running academic controversy, for example whether John the disciple was actually the author of the fourth gospel. But that was about it.

As Arthur says, Kennedy, by contrast, does seem to be using his theory to (1) argue that Plato was saying something completely different from what the words on the page seem to say, and (2) set Plato up as some kind of Giver of Ultimate Truth, and set himself up as Plato's prophet and interpreter. And under all this lies the worrying stuff about the clash of civilizations or whatever it is. And I agree that this kind of thing is a bit sinister because, as Arthur pointed out in TeXt Factor when talking about Dan Brown, there are people out there who will jump on this kind of thing and weave it into ideologies that get people killed. I don't want to suggest at all that that isn't a point worth making.

And in fact, having read some more of Kennedy's website and read what Arthur's quoted from it, I can't really stand by my theory that Kennedy's guff about human rights and heresy and suchlike may just be a cynical ploy to talk up the importance of a thesis that'd actually much more limited and credible. It's pretty evident that a lot of that is actually part of his theory, and that he's done what some academics or quasi-academics sometimes do: he's made an observation that's legitimately arguable and interesting, and rather than put it forward on its own terms as a small contribution to the field, for his peers to criticize and / or build on, he's gone right ahead and built a massive edifice of speculation on top of it.

But I think what was troubling me, which I failed to express very well or even clarify in my own mind when I expressed my midnightish reservations, was this: the question whether the core of his theory is right or wrong is kind of irrelevant to what's actually objectionable here. And that's where the difference between my undergrad. lecturer and Kennedy comes in. They've made similar observations, and their fundamental observations are probably wrong, certainly rather out-there, but also quite interesting and at any rate fairly harmless in themselves. And in fact, for what it's worth, Kennedy's core suggestion - that Plato may have used mathematical / musical concepts to embed implied ideas into the structure of his writings - strikes me as rather more plausible than the other guy's. After all, there is a respectable body of academic theory that regards Plato as being influenced by Pythagoras, there's evidence within his works of substantial interest in mathematics, logic, symbolism, and abstraction as paths to understanding, and given that he explicitly said that only rue philosophers could have true knowledge it wouldn't be entirely out of keeping for him to use clever tricks that only clever people would be able to spot. But, to come back to the point, that isn't really very important. Because what's wrong with Kennedy is the mystical crypto-xenophobic conspiracy-theory mumbo-jumbo he seems to have wrapped around his academic research, and what's wrong with the BBC article is the way it has reproduced all that stuff, and possibly even enhanced it, without either checking what any other academics think or even bothering to explain what the fundamental theory is.**

So really what I meant to say, or rather what I should have meant to say, was not that the theory itself could for all we know be right but that the rightness of the theory isn't really the point and, given that it's quite difficult to work out what the theory really is, it's potentially counter-productive to even bother attacking it when the real mischief is in the spin that's being put on it. If that makes sense.



* (Redacted in order to allow listeners to imagine that TeXt Factor is recorded at whatever time of day they prefer to imagine it being recorded at, or, if they wish, that it is being transmitted live.)

** (Though that seems to be partly because Kennedy himself hasn't yet published what he says the hidden messages are and possibly doesn't know what they are, even though he's quite happy to tell the BBC the epoch-making effects those messages will have when he eventually does identify and publish them.)
Jamie Johnston at 19:43 on 2010-07-02
Wow, sorry, that was long. Short version: my earlier comments were a bit off-target, but the real point is that it doesn't especially matter whether Kennedy's theory is right or wrong, because either way it's the presentation of it by him and by the BBC that's the real problem.
Rami at 20:26 on 2010-07-02
over [unspecified meal]* before the most recent TeXt Factor recording

Mystery safely preserved ;-) Thank you!
Arthur B at 21:06 on 2010-07-02
Thanks Jamie.

I would point out that it's actually quite difficult to talk about Kennedy's conclusions and publicity in isolation from the theory itself, because they're really quite closely intertwined - in fact, it's arguable that Kennedy formulated the theory to fit the conclusion. He cherry-picks statements from Plato's texts based on a particular musical scale to prove that Plato was a closet Pythagorean. Why does Kennedy pick the particular scale he uses to analyse the text, rather than any other one? Because it was a Pythagorean scale. Why pick a Pythagorean scale? Because Plato was a closet Pythagorean...

In other words, Kennedy's methodology doesn't make sense unless he already had an agenda before he got started, and the deficiencies in his theory are pointers to his agenda.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 05:01 on 2010-07-09
A bit off track, Dan, but I hope you don't mind:

You say, "Umm, you're aware that the whole black death thing is, almost certainly, an urban legend?"

No, I wasn't. I followed the link you gave, and it's quite interesting, but I don't find it entirely convincing. The reason - I know something about how urban legends come to be. Over a decade ago, when my sister was working in the UVA library, she and other young women with long hair were warned to be very careful in the stacks and by no means to fall asleep there alone. A crazy man was wandering about cutting the ponytails off of sleeping girls. It was quite frightening and disgusting - and yes, it really happened. Flash forward ten years, and I'm in the library where I now work, reading an article in a national library magazine. The ponytail cutter was being cited as an urban legend. I wrote back explaining that it was by no means a legend; it had really happened, and my sister was working in that library when it was happening. I got no response.

My point? Some urban legends are not legends at all; they are facts. All of them, I would say, have a grain of truth buried under the exaggerations and distortions that make them legends.

End of rant!

But my main point was that, whether the people analyzing the nursery rhymes and carols are right or wrong, they are at least examining the actual words. Whereas the journalist says nothing at all about any analysis of Plato's texts. Its just "This man says there is hidden meaning, and it is musical", without any examples to help us make up our own minds about the matter.

Hope I'm not resurrecting a dead horse here!
Arthur B at 08:01 on 2010-07-09
All of them, I would say, have a grain of truth buried under the exaggerations and distortions that make them legends.

What, all of them? None of them are actually baseless? It is, in fact, impossible for human beings to simply make shit up with sufficient skill to convince others, and for such inventions to go viral?

I find that idea both hard to believe, and rife with unfortunate implications. At the risk of igniting an enormous can of flammable worms, may I ask what the grain of truth behind the Blood Libel is?
Sister Magpie at 15:21 on 2010-07-09
My point? Some urban legends are not legends at all; they are facts. All of
them, I would say, have a grain of truth buried under the exaggerations and
distortions that make them legends.


I have to agree with Arthur here--that's not really the case. Unless by "grain of truth" we include some message or fear that the tale is playing on. Even with your library story my first thought was to ask whether your sister actually knew an actual person who had their hair cut off--or was she, too, just being told this was happening?

Which is not to say your sister's particular story couldn't be true, or have started with something real. People have been known to steal ponytails. (I think in India it's a more common problem, in fact, since that's where most wig hair comes from.)

In the case of the 12 days of Christmas urban legend, for instance, it's just false--it's not even based on "looking at the words" in the song, it's based on the numbers of the song. The idea is that the song is a code for 12 Catholic things that they weren't allowed to teach: 3 French hens are for 3 wise men, etc. But that's a useless memorizing device. Why not just memorize the numbers 1-12 with the actual things you're talking about? It only makes it harder to have to memorize French hens and then translate it to the unrelated 3 kings.

And even if that did make sense, none of those things are specifically Catholic, they're just Christian. Why would anyone have to code a reference to Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Wise men in a Christmas carol? If you're singing about Christmas, you've already outed yourself there!

And yet it's a story that gets passed around and people believe it. There's a lot of things like that that are checkable and false. Snopes.com is really great about checking these things out and searching for whatever truth there could be in them.
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 18:10 on 2010-07-09
Sistermagpie, I got a bit ticked off initially because I thought you were calling my sister a liar, but I realize you didn't intend that. However - My sister was warned by her boss not to be alone in the stacks or fall asleep there. I very much doubt this man was trying to freak her out unnecessarily. Yes, this really happened.

As to the grain of truth in most urban legends - yeah, I think there is one, at least most of the time. The most famous examples are Sasquatch and the alligators in the sewers. The second one came about, obviously, from the nasty habit of people flushing dead aquatic animals. The first, I would guess, was based on various facts - the way prints will expand as snow melts, bear sightings, etc - and combined to make an imaginary monster. And so on. Doesn't mean urban legends are true. It just means they have a starting point that is factual.

As to the 12 days of Christmas legend, Catholics were persecuted by Protestants in England for centuries. Both groups, are, of course, Christian. (And Catholics did their share of persecuting Protestants, too.) The puritan Protestants did not celebrate Christmas, at least in the U.S., and considered it a pagan holiday. I will say that, as a Catholic, this interpretation of the song doesn't make a heck of a lot of sense to me. As you say, it's not a good mnemonic device - and I've heard a more convincing interpretation that it's all about birds! It also seems like a very new interpretation of a song that's been around forever. (But, while we're on the song, I will add that the "three turtle doves" aren't meant to point to the three wise men. They are meant to point to the Trinity.)

But, as I said in my initial comment, all this is beside the point. The main point is that the article doesn't give a clue of any kind as to what this man's theory IS. That makes said theory awfully hard to evaluate.

Sorry if I'm sounding a bit strident. I'll stop. It's just that I think all this about urban legends is largely beside the point. I"m sorry I even brought it up.
Sister Magpie at 19:04 on 2010-07-09
Sistermagpie, I got a bit ticked off initially because I thought you were
calling my sister a liar, but I realize you didn't intend that. However - My
sister was warned by her boss not to be alone in the stacks or fall asleep
there. I very much doubt this man was trying to freak her out unnecessarily.
Yes, this really happened.


Oh no, not at all! It didn't occur to me that your sister had lied about anything. I believe that it happened, and her boss wouldn't be just telling her a rumor.
Arthur B at 20:08 on 2010-07-09
As to the 12 days of Christmas legend, Catholics were persecuted by Protestants in England for centuries. Both groups, are, of course, Christian. (And Catholics did their share of persecuting Protestants, too.) The puritan Protestants did not celebrate Christmas, at least in the U.S., and considered it a pagan holiday.

Aside from the fact that this is enormously oversimplistic (if nothing else, the puritans hardly represented the mainstream of Protestantism in the UK, even at the height of their influence), there's a fairly major issue with this - if Christmas was subject to official disapproval, why hide subversive propaganda in a Christmas carol? Seeing as the whole point of hiding the message was to avoid persecution, why hide it in something which would draw the attention of the very people you were trying to hide from?
http://mary-j-59.livejournal.com/ at 03:40 on 2010-07-10
"there's a fairly major issue with this - if Christmas was subject to official disapproval, why hide subversive propaganda in a Christmas carol?"

Yes, exactly. I am not arguing for the truth of this particular legend, mind!

What I keep saying is that somehow or other, my initial comment led to a discussion that's gone way out into left field. I almost wish I had never commented at all.

As far as "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is concerned, the interpretations that are flying around never struck me as an urban legend, like the alligators in the sewers. They just struck me as a nice story that might or might not be true. I wouldn't be at all surprised to find that it wasn't - but it's not impossible.

Otherwise, I'm sorry I gave offense, as I seem to have done. I will just say that I'm well aware that most Protestants in England are not and were not Puritan. (Possibly because so many puritans ended up in my neck of the woods in the U.S? That's a joke, btw - but not entirely. I'm a New Englander.)
http://ruderetum.blogspot.com/ at 18:24 on 2010-08-29
That newspiece was funny in a kinda frightening and frustrating sense. It's incredible that a reporter working for the BBC could be this ignorant or without common sense at all. Actually the comparison with Da Vinci code was pretty apt. I remeber reading it and thinking, no that is not an historical fact and no that's ssome blatant wild speculation and the final reveal was just: meh, so what?

For me the article went the same way, from mild interest to jaw droppage to a realization that hey, the guy isn't saying anything new and he's making big mistakes too, what sort of scholar is he?

Also, I guess knowledge of Plato's work is for most that he was an important greek philosopher dude, but still The Republic raises some philosophical questions which are still discussed today and that is one of its greatest contributions and why it's still relevant.

On the issue of finding Plato a cold fish, I suppose it is a bit strange to read a philosophical treatise and expect something conclusive, but perhaps it's so for Kennedy because Thrasymakhos's challenge is never really answered in the book. But it hasn't been answered conclusively never after it either, it's one of the big ones of ethics even today. Finding philosophy disappointing is not a valid reason to argue that the secret teaching to explain everything is somehow encrypted there. Also, why this focus on the Republic alone?

I suppose that if the 'code' is what Kennedy claims, perhaps the song has the effect of forcing an anamnesia upon everyone who hears it and thus frees us to exist as pure thought forms or something.
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