Myth and Allegory in Plato
In the Platonic corpus, next to the more or less persuasive arguments of the interlocutors, we also find some continuous narratives such as myths or allegories. Their common feature is that, though they (like traditional myths) speak the language of images, they are still Plato’s own creations meant to serve, no less than the conversational parts, philosophical ends. Quite often, those narratives introduce, or are the culmination of, a complex dialectical argument.
Some prominent examples are: the political-virtue myth in the Protagoras (320c-323a), the narratives on the post-mortem fate of the soul in the Gorgias (523a-527a) and the Phaedo (107c-115a), the allegory of the cave in the Republic (514a-517a), the myths about the birth of love in the Symposium (189c-193e, 203b-204a), the account of the winged souls and their fall in the Phaedrus (246a-257b), the myth of Er in the Republic (614b-621d), the story of Atlantis in the Timaeus (20d-25d) and Critias (108e-121c), and the description of a reversed world in the Statesman (208d-274e).
Some Platonic myths are conceptually interpreted within the very dialogues in which they are found – in those cases we call them “allegories”. In other cases, however, the readers are invited to think for themselves about their deeper meaning. Since the mythical actions narrated are normally placed either in the remotest past or in a unapproachable future, their literal content can be neither confirmed nor disproved in the context of common human experience.
The Platonic myths deal with subjects of prime importance for human life (love, death, truth, happiness). Their pedagogic and educational value is, therefore, indisputable. However, they also contain images and symbols by means of which the readers, even the philosophically well-trained readers, may affectively relate to some dimensions of reality that are not fully susceptible to logical analysis and conceptual knowledge.