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An enthusiastic curiosity, no doubt, has stirred scholars of ancient science to investigate the technical, methodological, philosophical, and even aesthetic aspects of Ptolemy’s Harmonics (cf. Barker 1989, 2000, 2010; Taub 1993; Feke 2009). Yet those same scholars have invariably overlooked how Ptolemy expresses his own motivation for conducting scientific research in the first place. In this paper I investigate the issue by identifying and analyzing an allusion in the Harmonics to Plato’s Phaedrus, ultimately situating it in a wider context of language suggestive of Ptolemy’s enthusiasm for his subject matter. Although we cannot, of course, recover Ptolemy’s actual emotions, I demonstrate that he at least frames his motivation for scientific research in non-rational terms. Moreover, while echoes of the Phaedrus have been detected in various literary, oratorical, and philosophical works of the Second Sophistic (cf. Trapp 1990), scholars have yet to explore the stylistic use of Plato by technical scientists in that period. This study of Ptolemy’s Harmonics, then, expands and merges these discourses, laying the groundwork for further study of how ancient scientists—who were expressly committed to rational inquiry—textually configured their emotions and themselves.

The argument proceeds with an examination of book three of the Harmonics, in which Ptolemy describes the scientist’s response to the “harmonic power” (ἁρμονικá½´ν δύναμιν), the rational, beautiful principle underlying mathematical relationships in nature. He writes, “due to some divine passion (á¼”ρωτος θείου), it is natural for the scientist to desire (ποθεá¿–ν) to behold the class (τὸ γένος...θεάσασθαι) to which the harmonic power belongs” (III.3.9 – 13). Such words and phrases as á¼”ρωτος θείου, ποθεá¿–ν, and τὸ γένος...θεάσασθαι occur nowhere else in the Harmonics and only rarely, if at all, in Ptolemy’s other works. They all occur in Plato, however, and I show that in the Phaedrus they are even concentrated in Socrates’s second speech to the dialogue’s namesake (244a – 257b). The subject of that second speech is, of course, the á¼”ρως-gripped lover who desires to behold the class (γένος) of the beautiful (250b5). This recalls Ptolemy’s á¼”ρως-gripped scientist who desires to behold the class of the (beautiful) harmonic power. Ptolemy has thus rendered the scientist in the form of Plato’s inspired lover, not only evoking Platonic language, but also adapting Platonic themes.

To be sure, the allusion is interesting in that it demonstrates Ptolemy’s literary sensibilities, but I argue that it is more interesting for what it does not do. Plato’s influence on the Harmonics is well documented, but until now commentators have only found, perhaps only sought, Plato in Ptolemy’s theoretical content (Barker 1989, 373–377; Barker 2010, passim; Taub 1993, 31ff.; Feke 2009, 91–103). Strikingly, the allusion to the Phaedrus in no way illuminates harmonic theory. Rather, it casts the spotlight squarely on the scientist, characterizing him as a literal enthusiast, motivated by non-rational á¼”ρως to seek out and understand rational principles.

Such an allusion appears to be unique in the Harmonics, but it nevertheless fits into a greater pattern of emotionally-charged language, which further characterizes the scientist’s motivation in terms of enthusiasm and wonder, and which I discuss briefly in my conclusion. The paper therefore demonstrates that Ptolemy displays a marked rhetoric of emotion in the Harmonics. The non-rational was certainly not alien to the minds of rational scientists, and perhaps stirred by our own enthusiasm, we may better understand how rational scientists employed it discursively to animate their texts.


  • Barker, A., ed. (1989), Greek Musical Writings, vol. II: Harmonic and Acoustic Theory. Cambridge.
  • Barker, A. (2000), Scientific Method in Ptolemy’s Harmonics. Cambridge.
  • Barker, A. (2010), “Mathematical Beauty Made Audible: Musical Aesthetics in Ptolemy’s Harmonics,” Classical Philology 105: 403 – 420.
  • Feke, J. (2009), Ptolemy in Philosophical Context: A Study of the Relationships between Physics, Mathematics, and Theology. PhD diss., University of Toronto.
  • Taub, L. C. (1993), Ptolemy’s Universe: The Natural Philosophical and Ethical Foundations of Ptolemy’s Astronomy. La Salle.
  • Trapp, M. B. (1990), “Plato’s Phaedrus in Second-Century Greek Literature,” in D. A. Russell, ed., Antonine Literature: 141 – 174. Oxford.

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