Marguerite Johnson and her colleagues are using 21st century technology to deconstruct the writings of an ancient philosopher.
Dr Marguerite Johnson believes that a reader needs to 'hear' as well as see the written word to appreciate the nuances of Classical literature.
A senior lecturer and researcher with FEDUA's Humanities Research Institute, Johnson has always been fascinated with the Classics. She won the University Medal for her undergraduate studies in the field at Newcastle and later completed a PhD on the Latin poet Catullus and his representations of his lover.
Johnson is a collaborator on a multi-university Australian Research Council Discovery Project that is seeking to effectively give voice to works by the influential Greek philosopher Plato in order to better understand the intent of his texts.
Their hypothesis is that Plato's words take on a different voice register - what they call an 'inspired voice' - when his works move into the realm of storytelling, myth or allegory.
"When you read a piece of Plato, there are sections that are quite unusual and these regularly occur when one of the characters starts talking about myth or telling a story," Johnson explains. "If we were able to hear him recite those texts in ancient Greek, we suspect you would notice a change in the voice register, just as people often change their register when they are speaking in English and move from one topic to the next."
Using both conventional and modern methods of literary analysis, the researchers are exploring whether there is a kind of divine inspiration coming through the speaker's words. Also on the team is Conjoint Professor Harold Tarrant, an internationally renowned expert on both Plato and computational linguistics now based at Cambridge University.
Together with collaborators from the University of Sydney and Monash they are seeking to establish whether there are changes in tone when Plato writes about religious subjects and mythology. Sections that the classicists on the team identify as diverging from the rest of the text are scrutinised with a computer program that can verify changes in grammatical patterns or the construction of passages.
"Harold and I have been having corridor conversations about these sorts of unusual parts of Plato for years so now our hunches are being tested using rigorous research methodology," Johnson says.
"By being programmed to look for word patterns and clusters, the computer will isolate the passages that are noticeably different - and so far these have been the passages we have predicted it would isolate."
Their revolutionary approach to analysing Plato's works promises to not only set a benchmark for computational analysis of ancient Greek texts but also offers a renewed appraisal of a much-studied philosopher whom Johnson believes begs a second look.
"I think Plato has been dominated very much in the last century by hard-line dialectic analysis - it is seen as high philosophy and very much about logic. This takes it back to its roots and contends that Plato is not only a philosopher and someone who explores logic but also a mythmaker and storyteller," she says.
"I think that has been largely overlooked and has important implications for the way these texts are read and understood."