Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

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Saturday, May 10, 2014

In Memoriam Ernest G. McClain

One of the spiritual antediluvians of the past century, Ernest McClain, has died. Beginning in the 1970s, starting with three extraordinarily dense books and continuing in a stream of essays and correspondence that lasted until the day of his death, McClain propounded a thesis, notable equally for its profundity and its simplicity, which read the archaic mythico-speculative inheritance of the West "from the Rg Veda to Plato" and beyond, as a musical cosmology. His work never gained anything like mainstream recognition (a fact which in later years he occasionally noted with bemused resignation), but for a small cadre of researchers, McClain is (as Joscelyn Godwin called him), "one of the most original and ingenious researchers of our time."

Each of McClain's books -- The Myth of Invariance, The Pythagorean Plato, and Meditations through the Quran -- is a set of closely-argued excurses through a body of literature as if through an underground mine, looking for the telltale glint of something sparkling in the walls. That sparkle is number, and McClain demonstrated over and over that numbers are not scattered randomly throughout ancient texts. There is a preponderance of multiples of very low primes -- notably 2, 3, and 5; and very often, when a number that cannot be so reduced does occur (say, 37), looking to the context with the small primes in mind will yield a plausible rationale. The books have been noted for the density of their presentation. ("Obscure," "hard to understand," "inaccessible," are terms that come up in the (positive!) reviews on Amazon).This is only partly due to their mathematics. It is more that, once McClain has a numerical trope established, he frequently runs with it, employing it just as the ancients (he held) did: as an extremely abbreviated figure of thought, which could be adapted to many different situations. And yet, he insisted repeatedly, the mathematics involved was itself not difficult. "A child can learn it," he claimed, and he implied moreover that in the era of the pocket calculator, no one, not even the math-averse, had any excuse. (All three of McClain's books are available in pdf from his website, www.ernestmcclain.net , as well as numerous essays. The shortest, most accessible, and least tendentious introduction to McClain's basic insights, however, may be the third chapter of Jay Kappraff's excellent popular mathematics book Beyond Measure.)

McClain's work altered the whole apparent shape of the Platonic dialogues for me. For years I had known (ever since reading Voegelin) that I did not know how to read Plato. The stupid caricature of the body-denier, the philosopher who invented "another world" since "this" one was so changeable and disappointing (and, let's not forget, who "banished the poets"!), had always rang false -- a whipping-philosopher dragged out whenever we needed to blame someone for "essentialism." This was very big in the early '90s. There was obviously a tremendous amount going on between the lines in Plato that was going right over my head. No doubt much of this was due to the fact that it was written in 2,300-year-old Greek. And yet, Plato was so obviously concerned to transcend the particular, to reach beyond the limitations of a given setting -- not to deny them, but to refuse to be ruled by them. So where was the way in?

The Pythagorean Plato pointed out that the way in was right where we had always known it was. The door to the Academy famously had on its welcome mat the phrase, Some Geometry Required (loosely translated). "Platonism" was, as Badiou never tires of reminding us, defined by its coupling to the mathematical truth-condition. But the actual mathematics that occurs in the dialogues is very frequently ignored by commentators. (One stark example of this is found in the 1947 translation of the Republic by F.M. Cornford, in which Cornford permitted himself to omit entirely Plato's "extremely obscure" account (at 8.546b) of the so-called ruling or nuptial number, and also to "simplify" the text (at 9.587b) concerning the number of the Tyrant. But even when scholars do not give themselves such free rein, they very often let the mathematics pass by without much comment.)

McClain himself did find the clues in some commentary, including some very old commentary -- above all, Albert von Thimus, to whom he was pointed by his colleagues Ernst Levy and Siegmund Levarie; but also James Adam, Thomas Taylor, Plutarch, Proclus, Aristotle. Really, though, we might have guessed, for it is obvious once you think of it: Plato's mathematics is musical -- not accidentally, but essentially so. McClain understood the stakes of this interpretation as reaching far beyond the exegetical:
From Philolaus in the fifth century BC, through Plato and Aristoxenus in the fourth, and down to Ptolemy in the second century AD and Aristides in the third or fourth, Greek acoustical theorists moved confidently between two modes of expression: the absolutely precise and the conveniently approximate. ... There is an urgent need for a review of all these ancient materials, not simply for their intrinsic interest to musicians and historians of science, but for their wider relevance to the philosophical foundations of Western culture.
Indeed, (though this is perhaps not quite so obvious), this matter is itself part of a great tradition of musico-mythical cosmology, which McClain worked very hard to unpack, stretching back to the Vedas (and likely before) and forward as late as the Quran. The most obvious "fossil record" of this tradition is the recurrence not just of very specific numbers -- numbers which are usually multiples only of very small primes (mostly not higher than 7) -- in cosmological and visionary contexts, but of various sets of numbers which can be seen to "go together" in a way that indicates that writers knew the provenance of the numbers, or at least that certain numbers called for certain other numbers, even when the surface meaning of the text has nothing overly to do with music -- aside from, say, the mention of a number of harpists or trumpeters attending the celestial court.

All throughout a largely misunderstood (when not ignored) career of four decades, McClain never tired of insisting upon the tremendous import of this project. He himself declined to write philosophy in any but the most occasional or offhand modes -- he was unpacking a prelude to philosophy, he said. It was, I came to see, not just that the numbers were a sort of scaffolding for a widely various but shared cultural background. The numbers were symptomatic of something else. They were features of a whole way of looking at the world -- not an artificially schematized worldview parsed out in multiples of 2, 3, and 5, but a world in which the "metaphor" of cosmic harmony came perfectly naturally, and indeed was no metaphor. (The phrase "cosmic harmony" may make us cringe in reaction to Newagey overtones, but did no such thing for the ancients).

In saying this much, I've already gone beyond what McClain himself explicitly argued. He restricted himself to a rigorously empirical program. His numbers were all there on the surface of the text itself, or in a very few cases, easily derivable from those that were. No one ever disputed this. It was the rationale he deduced that earned him occasional rebuke and eventually either polite disregard or largely misapprehending fandom. Early on, Gilbert Ryle set the tone. "Plato would never," he informed McClain, "have planted all that musicology for you to find." To which one rejoinder must surely be, well then, how do you account for the numbers, the very specific numbers, in (for example) Plato's texts? The Tyrant is held, in the Republic, to be exactly 729 times less fortunate than the good ruler. Not "about 700," not 730. There are exactly thirty-seven guardians of the city Magnesia in the Laws, a city which Plato repeatedly insists will be composed of 5,040 citizens.

McClain's conclusion was not that Plato really "supposed that the well-being of the city depended almost as much on the number 5040 as on justice and moderation," (as Jowett remarks). Nor did he believe, as Ryle feared, that Plato had played a kind of nudge-wink game of find-the-tuning-theory with his readers for the fun of a few initiates. It was, rather, that Plato's exposition of justice and moderation found a completely natural expression in terms that privileged this musical and numerical grammar, and did not find it distracting. Far from being some private diversion on the part of Plato, it was an inherited vocabulary shared across a wide spectrum of wisdom texts descending from a common tradition, which lasted in oral culture even until the early strata of the Quranic tradition.

Even among his disciples, there has been significant breadth of opinion about the nature of the nature of the importance of McClain's work, and much of this variation is occasioned by this wide-net approach which drew in a vast range of background, beginning with the Rg Veda (on which his friend Antonio de Nicholas had written a book, Four Dimensional Man, whose importance for his own work-- and for his serious students -- McClain frequently emphasized). Some readers seized upon McClain as grist for anti-modern contentions, trying to recover an ostensibly lost tradition capable of producing something like "real magic." Some imagined that McClain's numbers would provide something like the resonant frequencies of the soul, a means for opening the crown chakra by just the right solfeggio. Others were intrigued enough by the musical ramifications to build instruments aligned to various tunings derived from McClain's work. And some were content to multiply contexts in which McClain's tonal harmonics could be plausibly applied, but without raising larger questions as to why.

My own interpretation is likely to be no less idiosyncratic. Tuning a musical instrument is a continual practical exercise in letting good enough be good enough, in making one adjustment here and then a counter-adjustment there. The great paradox is that this became the flowering seedbed of an effort to understand the whole. Because there are incommensurables built into the theory, the theory becomes a self-referential exercise in showing how theory itself, all theory, theory per se, fails to account for the whole; but it points to this in a way that weirdly manages to show the whole as needing no accounting, without denying the experience of the whole. Approximation and precision become the warp and woof of cosmology and indeed of ascesis. (And, I will add, Plato is especially significant in this account because he comes at an historical moment when, under the inexorable influence of writing, the complete naturalness of this way of thinking is no longer so evident, but has become itself a problem.)

McClain kept a respectful engagement with all contacts and the proclaimers of all interpretations, never disdaining them, often profiting from their suggestions while insisting that what he was talking about was not "secret" and never had been, in the esoteric sense; it was all out on the surface of the texts; you just had to learn to think like the authors. He had warm and deep correspondence with giants like John Bremer and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, and with young and eager readers who had discovered his books or his website on their own and sometimes had no credentials aside from being intellectually alive and not risk-averse. In the last two decades of his life he carried on an almost daily exchange via email with Duane Christensen's BIBAL forum and many other colleagues and friends, throwing out variations on the book of Ezekiel one day, a Sufi poem the next, always ready to make mistakes in public, and insisting both that no one believe him "until you must," and that whatever your own work was, you did it "your way". These relationships have borne fruit in recent years in the form of several books by others which draw on McClain's work, including Christensen's Anchor Bible translation and commentary of the Prophet Nahum, and a presentation of an overview of his work at the prestigious annual ICONEA symposium. (See too, among others, Schatz's work in the context of the Jewish Kabbalah here and here; Kurtz and Driscoll's reading of the Atlantis legend here; and, for those who want to jump right in, Heath's extremely useful website here.) McClain was invigorated by this late-blooming attention, whether marginal or mainstream. I think it helped fuel the optimism with which he continued to believe that a breakthrough insight could easily surprise him and force revision of everything he'd written. I've never known anyone with more intellectual gumption.

For me he was an invaluable (and now keenly missed) friend and mentor, a never-flagging enthusiast of "adventures in ideas" (a Whiteheadian phrase he loved), who took with great seriousness the ancients' love of play and their easy-shifting referents. I slowly came to see that he had indeed learned to think like them. The density of his books is a function of the extreme compression with which he was accustomed to think, the way he could pack whole clusters of "contradictory meaning" into root-metaphors. To the outsider this is bewildering, and looks like either eye-glazing calculus or word salad. But after spending enough time with him, one came to see that the details, while ready to open up if you did the work (which in every case turned out to be almost as easy as he promised), were actually part of the "precision" that took its accustomed place within approximation's relaxed mode. In short, McClain taught me that the law was always already included within grace.

To that wider grace he has now gone. Memory Eternal.


  1. Beautiful tribute here.

    I mean no disrespect to either you or McClain, but I'm going to prod at your account of the alleged "stupid caricature" of Plato you mention: "The stupid caricature of the body-denier, the philosopher who invented "another world" since "this" one was so changeable and disappointing (and, let's not forget, who "banished the poets"!), had always rang false -- a whipping-philosopher dragged out whenever we needed to blame someone for "essentialism." "

    I agree that this account of Plato is over-simple, but I wouldn't call it stupid. Caricatures are faulty not not for inaccuracy, but for their lack of nuance, and if anything, they often carry an "ecstatic truth" with them (the Streisand caricature which is "all nose," etc.). Can you explain how Plato's fascination with number somehow overcomes these (in my mind, highly problematic) "caricature-traits" of body-denial, etc.? If seeing Plato in these terms is "stupid," then pretty much the entire history of critical theory, beginning with Nietzsche (if not earlier), is stupid. But I'm with Twain here: it's not the parts I don't understand that bother me; it's the parts I do. Yes, Plato's views on art, the body, and the Forms are usually taken straight from Republic, manifesto-style, and need (minimally) the Symposium and Ion (if not the Timaeus) to nuance them critically. But even then, I don't understand how a musical or numerological reading of Plato somehow obviates the genuine problems of Plato's essentialism, etc. Can you clarify? If you're suggesting something along the lines of Kepler's yearning for number *permeating* the cosmos (as opposed to being merely a goal "beyond" it, then I see some light here. Maybe you can bring me further... Thanks!

  2. Alf,

    This will be a brief initial rejoinder because I am out the door, but to clarify: a caricature is stupid not because it's a caricature, but because it doesn't know it. That was my experience in the early '90s. It was all reaction, and not infrequently contented (maybe I don't need the past tense here) itself with simply seeing its assumptions confirmed. I realize that this answer does not address your question about what else Plato is on about (in a word, "dialogue") -- I'll try to get to that -- but it should explain why I used a rather strong characterization.

  3. (A longer response, in two parts)

    The caricature of Plato is, indeed, not based on nothing at all. Plato does point us "beyond" the senses in certain ways. He does warn us against a certain seductiveness of the body and try to point us to something else, something less prone to corruption. It is very telling, to my mind, that this alone is enough to condemn him in the eyes of a modern or postmodern world. It seems very strange to me that this critique can trawl a body of work whose first and most obvious (to me) characteristic is its repeated conclusion in aporiae, and wind up catching only those moments of apparent certainty. I may be peculiar in taking Socrates, not exactly "at his word," but at any rate seriously, when he disclaims any knowledge, but there it is. Moreover, the most famous exhibit in the case for the caricature, the so-called Doctrine of Ideas, seems to me to be quite explicitly a thought-experiment, particularly in the Phaedo; or note how, in the Parmenides, the young Socrates is gently chided for his disinclination to think there could be forms of such lowly things as dust or muck (the very "stuff" of this world; Parmenides expressly attributes this squeamishness of Socrates' part to the fact that he has not yet matured in philosophy.

    These are all counter-indications which (among others) I take to suggest that the allegedly anti-embodied bias of Plato is not what it has been proclaimed. The role music plays in all of this is tricky and complex, but (aside from the sheer emotive and corporeal dimension of the experience of music) has to do with the fact that no musical system can possibly be complete; built into the very phenomena of our aural and musical appreciation of beauty is a limit to system. This has to do not just with the limits of human aural perception in discerning pitch (which is why "close enough" can actually be close enough) but, famously, with the fact that it's impossible to tune a scale perfectly with no dissonances, because stacking perfect fifths and perfect fourths never gives you an octave (the famous "Pythagorean comma" is one such ineradicable gap between different tunings of octaves and fifths). Every system is therefore an approximation, not a model precise in every respect -- but its approximation is a function of its precision (it doesn't just say, Hang it all, who cares how the damn thing is tuned?). And once one grasps that the whole cosmos, all of reality, is being imagined as a vast tuned organism, one also grasps that this very model, and indeed every model of reality and of our apprehension thereof, is bound to have some inherent inexactitude built in. It is not (just) that number permeates the cosmos as per Kepler (or, say, Ficino) "instead" of being a "Beyond"; it's that the very notion of a "beyond" of further precision than this messy ol' material world invariably tosses us back to the latter. And (this is perhaps the most important aspect) this is an experiential motion in philosophy, not a "doctrine." (To anachronize a bit, it is dialectical).

  4. (...cont'd)
    One can say every caricature has a germ of truth, if you like. But caricature is not innocent. A cartoon of Streisand that is "all nose" looks one way to us against the backdrop of a brilliant Broadway and Hollywood career, in a society which celebrates that. But a cartoon of "all-nose" Jews in 1930s Mitteleuropa is different. I think the caricature of Plato does not so much offer a first-glance "introduction" to Plato which can then be nuanced or filled in, as it gives (or at least, gave) a reason for not needing to look any further. Very often it does not so much celebrate something as confirm what you (think you) already know. In short, I'm not sure that Twain's "understand" here counts as understanding.

    Having said this, I do agree that parts of Plato just don't go down very easily with many people, any more than do parts of the apparent word of Confucius, or Dante, or Jane Austen, to say nothing of more obvious names. And while this shouldn't cow us into automatic acceptance or even hesitation to criticize, I suspect it is a feature, not a bug.

  5. Thanks, Shkoliast. Well-made points about the potential dangers of caricature (my sense is that caricature stands poised at the waystation leading both to perversion *and* ecstatic truth).

    I respect your nuancing, and I don't know Plato as well as you do, but I think you understate the case for the vital role of the Theory of Forms in Plato, or at least for Plato's essentialism. It's perfectly fine to argue that you don't object to essentialism, but it would (in my view) be indefensible to de-link it with Plato. The overarching theme of Socrates' questioning was to get to the ontologically prior "definitions" that govern each particular instance. That's an incunabular Theory of Forms right there. As I see it, you are too eager to pull Plato off the hook for the implications of essentialism and its accompanying theory of representation (and of being). The theory of mimesis -- in its *grammar*, not just its particular application or vocabulary -- can be a royal road to fascistic thinking because it privileges a hypostasized "one" over the many -- a rigid blueprint for what "qualifies" and what is marginalized, a logic of domination: origin/imitation or "authentic/perverse." Such thinking comes out in religion as "God's Plan," in science as "Natural Law" or "Evolution," in politics as "National Security," or many other versions of the "Big Other" that see multiplicity as threatening to "the plan."

  6. further reply or question-begging here.

  7. loved the man so much and miss him more and more each day............