Category: Philosophical theories

The significance of myth in Plato

Even with Plato's explicit repudiation of mythical poetry, his work incorporates a serious number of mythical narratives. The way myth relates to dialectical arguments, and its overall functionality in the dialogues has raised a great deal of dispute among scholars.

Characteristics of the platonic myths

The most celebrated platonic myths are "The Cave" (Republic 514a), "The Ring of Gyges" (Republic 359d), "The Myth of Writing" (Phaedrus 274c), "The Winged Soul" (Phaedrus 246a), "The Myth of Atlantis" (Timaeus 21e), and the eschatological myths that bring Gorgias, Phaedo, and the Republic to their closure. They are conveyed in monologues performed by reliable story-tellers. Their content addresses mostly issues beyond human experience, and it ranges from the nature of the soul to afterlife judgment, to the creation of the world, to the metaphysical nature of love etc. Some of them are invented by Plato, while others are modified versions of myths drawn from the oral and written tradition. Plato's practice is to appropriate myths to the philosophical purpose of his work; thus, their location is usually found right before or after a philosophical argument. Their purpose appears to be persuasion by appeal to emotion rather than to logic. Thence, we come to the question about the relation between myth and reason in Plato's work.

Myth and Reason in Plato

The so-called "transition from mythos to logos" is identified as a central point in the development of human spirit, and, in a sense, ranks with the birth of philosophy. During this transition the mythical and animistic explanation of nature is gradually dropped, and the phenomena are reduced to more rational propositions. As the power of figurative discourse ebbs away, philosophy replaces imagery with abstract notions, arguments, syllogisms and logical proofs.

Nevertheless, the distinction between mythos and logos has not always been as tangible as it is for us today. The Greek mythological tradition compounded a common repository and a source of inspiration for the Greek poets of the archaic and the classical age. Likewise, many of the first philosophers (Xenophanes, Parmenides, Empedocles) maintained a poetic means of expression. Plato, however, discerned the predication of poetry upon myth, and their antithesis to reason: "… a poet, if he is to be a poet, must compose fables, not arguments" (Phaedo 61b). Insofar as the story of a myth is unverifiable (owing to its source, its metaphysical character, and the way it is communicated) it is somehow connected with irrationality and falsity. That said, myth is not entirely irrational nor false by definition. On that concept, Plato makes dramatic Socrates say: "Don’t you understand that we first tell stories to children? These are false, on the whole, though they have some truth in them" (Republic 377a).

It is made obvious that for Plato myths are invested with elements of truth, and therefore they are not entirely opposed to reason. Many passages bear witness to the blurring lines between myth and the logical frame of the philosopher's dialogues. In p. 376d of the Republic, Socrates says that he will engage in the discussion about the ideal educational system of the Callipolis "just as if we were telling stories or fables". Similarly, in p. 501e, Socrates speaks of the "polity which we fable". In the same vein, in the Laws, he describes his exchange with Clinias as a "piece of fiction" (752a); and in the Gorgias, Socrates announces his eschatological narrative thus: "Give ear then—as they put it—to a very fine account. You’ll think that it’s a mere tale, I believe, although I think it’s an account (523a). The fusion of mythos with logos culminates in the Timaeus with the interchangeable use of the phrases "likely account/tale" throughout the text. Recent platonic scholarship placed great emphasis on the decipherment of the myths, and of their significance for the philosopher's overall thinking.

The role of the myth in Plato's philosophy

It could be claimed that philosophical discourse has a limit beyond which its rational means are not equal to the task of persuasion. This is the point where philosophy calls out for the expedience of myth, or alternatively expands onto the mythical itself. Phaedrus informs us that anyone who understands the nature of a soul is eligible and must exercise his art of speech in such a way as to educate and persuade this particular soul. The meaning is that every soul is open to different kinds of speech. The philosophical insufficiency of Socrates' partners, and the difficulty of the discussed "truths" are the two conditions that make the evocation of mythical narratives necessary. On that assumption, the evocation of myth becomes a supplement of philosophical argumentation.

We would be much in error not to associate platonic myths with the philosopher's polemic against many modes of discourse such as poetry and rhetoric. The figurative speech of myths is by nature identified with poetry - a mode that Plato succinctly repudiates to the point of banishing it from his ideal city. Not every mythology may be accepted in the city, Socrates propounds in the Republic (379a ff.). The patterns of figurative speech should be set by the founders of the city, and not by the poets, he continues. Only the founders are in position to design edifying myths and overthrow the harmful ones. Non-philosophical discourses, that is, every discourse at variance with the one Plato innovates: philosophy, are inessential, and, in the mouth of ignoramus people, they become hazardous. On the other hand, the philosopher, owing to his cognitive advancement, is the only one who knows how to put every kind of speech in the right use. Concomitantly, in the Phaedrus, Socrates addresses "anyone who composes speeches", i.e., the rhetoricians, the poets and the politicians, and claims that any of them that have knowledge of the truth, and can prove the relation of their speeches with the truth, are philosophers (278b-c). All the rest speech-makers are imputed with falsity, deception, and the moral damage incurred upon the citizenry. Therefore, Plato's choice to integrate mythical narratives in his philosophical texts is explained by his intention to antagonize with the other modes of discourse. Only the philosophical employment of myths is justified; thereupon, platonic mythopoieia may and must supplant the unreliable mythopoieia of the poets.

One of the philosopher's basic concerns in designing the ideal city is to make sure that the auxiliaries will devote themselves in its continuous protection. The myth of the "noble falsehood" (Republic 414b) secures this devotion by putting forward the autochthony of the auxiliaries and their bond with their land, thus entrenching their love to the city. It is clear that this myth aims at convincing its audience about the importance of the devotion to the city (415c). A similar task is ascribed to the eschatological myths of Plato. Those myths incorporate basic platonic theses, such as the immortality of the soul, the theory of recollection, and the afterlife judgment : the judgment of the gods is superior to that of men, and functions as a supplementary but absolute verdict. The people that to be persuaded by those myths will avoid injustice out of fear of the punishment that awaits them in the afterlife. The model of afterlife judgment is devised in order to make the souls responsible for their actions. The intention behind those myths is moral edification. By displaying the good way of living, myths can be morally salutary - under the provision that they are adequately believed. Or to put it in Plato's words: "and it [the story] would save us, if we were persuaded by it" (Republic 621c).

Author: Deny Konstantinidi
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