Saturday, May 10, 2014 (BRYAN CARR on his blog)
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 this website , 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 tradition 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 New-Agey 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.