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The Greeks

Plato’s Myths

Neel Burton asks why the master reasoner turned to launching legends.

Perhaps the most famous allegory in philosophy is Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which Plato, via Socrates, compares people who lack philosophical training to prisoners who have spent their entire lives in an underground cave and don’t realise that there is a vast world beyond what they perceive. The Allegory of the Cave does not quite cut it as a myth, insofar as it lacks the sacred dimension that is the core of myth. But Plato did also write ‘proper’ myths into his Socratic dialogues, thereby – and unusually for the time – bridging the sharp divide between mythos and logos : between storytelling and reasoned discourse.

The Course of Empire Destruction
The Course of Empire: Destruction by Thomas Cole, 1836. The myth of Atlantis first appears in Plato’s Republic

Plato didn’t write dry analytical arguments, but lively fictional or semi-fictional dialogues, making him one of the most readable of all philosophers. His earlier dialogues feature Socrates questioning one or more people about the meaning of a particular concept, such as beauty, courage, or piety, in order to expose the contradictions in their assumptions and provoke a reappraisal of the concept – a debating method that has become known as the method of elenchus (‘refutation’) or the Socratic method. Into his dialogues Plato weaved myths, allegories, and metaphors. For instance, he famously compared the soul (aka mind – psyche) to a charioteer in a chariot pulled by two winged horses, one tame and noble (reason), the other wild and unruly (passion). All of his dialogues, with the single exception of the Crito, contain animal images, and Socrates himself is variously compared to a gadfly, a swan, a torpedo ray, a snake, a stork, and a fawn – and outside the animal realm, to an empty jar filled with other people’s ideas, and to a midwife, who helps pregnant souls give birth to wisdom. This is the voice of Meno, a young mercenary general with a philosophical bent, in Plato’s Meno :

“O Socrates, I used to be told, before I knew you, that you were always doubting yourself and making others doubt; and now you are casting your spells over me, and I am simply getting bewitched and enchanted, and am at my wits' end. And if I may venture to make a jest upon you, you seem to me both in your appearance and in your power over others to be very like the flat torpedo fish, who torpifies those who come near him and touch him, as you have now torpified me, I think. For my soul and my tongue are really torpid, and I do not know how to answer you… And I think that you are very wise in not voyaging and going away from home, for if you did in other places as you do in Athens, you would be cast into prison as a magician.”

Plato also used both traditional myths, and myths which he adapted or invented for his purposes – his most famous invented myths being the Myth of Atlantis, the Myth of Aristophanes, and the Myth of Er. But why feature myths at all? Why not simply write ‘pure’ philosophy?

Plato’s myths and metaphors serve multiple purposes. For instance, the Myth of Atlantis serves as a foil to Plato’s vision of an ideal society. And the Chariot metaphor leans on his theory of knowledge, theory of forms, and theory of love, showing how they all fit and work together: the chariots of the souls that are most alike to the gods are able to ascend high enough for their charioteers to lift their heads above the rim of heaven and glimpse the universal forms. The souls that gaze longest upon the forms are reincarnated as philosophers, artists, and true lovers, and are so absorbed by what they saw that they forget all about earthly interests.

But beyond their purely cognitive uses, Plato’s myths also have an important emotional function, making his philosophy more accessible and appealing; even, at times, striking. Few people know about the intricacies of Plato’s Republic, but almost everyone has heard of Atlantis, which has inspired countless books and even a Disney film. In the Lysis, Socrates says that beauty is a ‘‘soft, smooth, slippery thing’’ that ‘‘easily slips in and permeates our souls’’, and Plato’s myths are simply dripping with beauty. In the Charmides, Socrates tells the young Charmides, who has been suffering from headaches, about a charm for headaches that he learnt from the mystical physician to the King of Thrace. However, this great sorcerer warned that it is best to cure the soul before curing the body, since health and happiness ultimately depend on the state of the soul:

“He said all things, both good and bad, in the body and in the whole man, originated in the soul and spread from there… One ought, then, to treat the soul first and foremost, if the head and the rest of the body were to be well. He said the soul was treated with certain charms, my dear Charmides, and that these charms were beautiful words. As a result of such words self-control came into being in souls. When it came into being and was present in them, it was then easy to secure health both for the head and for the rest of the body.”

This is quite the paean to the power of language! For Plato, myth is a means of bypassing reason and tapping straight into the more dominant emotional and irrational aspects of the soul. It is also a means of reaching beyond the limits of reason and language to grasp at profound, even mystical, truths – a means, if you like, of saying the unsayable.

One myth that Plato invents (although it is not introduced as a myth) is the story of the origins of the method of elenchus or philosophical dialogue itself, which, in fact, far antedates Socrates. But if Plato is to be believed, Socrates pioneered the method of elenchus in response to an oracle. In the Apology, Plato relates that, once upon a time, Socrates’ friend Chærephon asked the oracle at Delphi whether there was anyone wiser than Socrates, and the priestess of Apollo replied that there was no one wiser. To uncover the meaning of this divine utterance, Socrates questioned a number of supposedly wise men over different concepts, and in each case concluded, “I am likely to be wiser than him to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know.” From then on, Socrates dedicated himself to the service of the gods by seeking anyone who might be wise, and “if he is not, showing him that he is not.” For Plato, the significance of this myth is not that it ascribes an origin to the method of elenchus, but that it frames his teacher Socrates, who had been put to death as a heretic and corrupter of youths, as having been on a noble, divinely inspired philosophic mission.

© Dr Neel Burton 2022

Neel Burton is author of The Meaning of Myth. He is a psychiatrist, philosopher, and wine-lover, and a Fellow of Green Templeton College in the University of Oxford.

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