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Treason To Truth: The Myths Of Plato
Chad Trainer says Plato betrayed philosophy by resorting to mythology.
“The Myths were accepted by common consent as the text for the deepest speculations of the later Platonic schools, and so have contributed, through them, more largely than any other part of Plato’s writings to the sum of common thoughts.”
Bishop Westcott Essays in the History of Religious Thought in the West p46
“Myths should have no place in philosophy.”
Cicero De Divinatione II.38.80
“One who is inventing tales for the purpose of reforming morals and inserts myths therein, does so not for men but for those who are children whether in years or intelligence...”
Julian the Apostate To the Cynic Heracleios 223A
“A philosophic basis was first given to the belief in immortality by Plato, and it would be hard to maintain that he would not have arrived at it without the assistance of the myths which he employed for its exposition.”
Eduard Zeller A History of Greek Philosophy From the Earliest Period to the Time of Socrates, vol I p74.
For all Plato’s importance as a pioneer in Western thinking, he has an unbecoming habit of resorting to mythological narratives for some of his most important topics, and consequently, at some of the least desirable times. I’ll begin by stressing the importance of delineating philosophy and myth’s respective realms with a view to clearly segregating them. Next, I’ll discuss how one does not need to look any further for arguments against myths than Plato’s own criticism of the poets. I then survey the fallout from Plato’s integration of philosophy and myth.
Importance of Distinguishing the Respective Roles of Philosophy and Myth
To criticize Plato’s use of myths is not to deny, let alone disparage, the aesthetic appeal of myth or its ability to enrapture and captivate. Rather it is an issue of myth’s proper time and place. What seems to have hampered the development of philosophy historically – and what also seems to hamper the development of philosophy in our own age – is the confusion of missions that is a predictable consequence whenever the natures of mythology and philosophy are not sharply distinguished.
2004 marked the centennial of J.A. Stewart’s The Myths of Plato, in which he argued “The essential charm of [Plato’s] Myths is that of Poetry generally.” (p22) Stewart argues further that “the essential charm of Poetry… lies in its power of inducing, in certain carefully chosen circumstances, that mode of Transcendental Feeling which is experienced as solemn sense of the overshadowing presence of ‘That which was, and is, and ever shall be’.” (p33) One can concur with and appreciate Stewart’s assessment of myth and poetry as such while dissenting from his reverence for Plato’s myths in particular. In Plato’s dialogues, myth appears not just as a series of isolated, self-contained artistic indulgences, but, quite plausibly, as part of a deliberately slippery and nebulous continuum between the sober and the fanciful. It seems fair when Alasdair MacIntyre says, “Plato uses myth where he wishes the precise extent of his own intellectual commitment to remain unclear. Thus, Plato’s use of myth helps us to understand how the break with mythological thought forms involves the raising of sharp questions about truth and falsity which the mythological forms themselves are able to evade.” (Encyclopedia of Philosophy Vol 5 p435.)
That Plato was all too successful in making the “precise extent of his own intellectual commitment... unclear” when employing myth is attested to by the diverse array of scholarly assessments when it comes to interpreting Platonic myths. On one hand Hegel, C. Ritter, and Alasdair MacIntyre believe these myths lack didactic (educational) value, but on the other hand Kant, Eduard Zeller, J.A. Stewart, and W.K.C. Guthrie believe that the myths are to be cherished for their very didactic value.
Yet by making unclear the exact extent of his intellectual commitment in these areas, Plato is betraying his philosophic mission. Efforts to integrate the realms of mythology and philosophy are to be lamented. Rather, a lucid demarcation of mythology and philosophy’s realms is in order, lest “The unconscious retention of inherited and irrational modes of thought, cloaked in the vocabulary of reason… becomes an obstacle, rather than an aid, to the pursuit of truth.” (Guthrie A History of Greek Philosophy vol I p2.)
Bertrand Russell spoke of how “Science may set limits to knowledge, but should not set limits to imagination.” (A History of Western Philosophy p16.) I am of the view that emotion is certainly to be valued and cherished as a reaction to objective reality but not as a criterion thereof. Accordingly, I long for the day when the vernacular is purged of such muddled phrases as ‘poetic truth’. Stewart, by contrast, will have none of this. Instead he would have us understand that the “‘sweet hope which guides the wayward thought of mortal man’… is a ‘true answer’ in the sense that man’s life would come to naught if he did not act and think as if it were true.” (Myths p49ff.) On subjects such as God, Stewart would evidently have been among the most insistent that critical thinking and religious consciousness are flatly opposed. That is to say, for Stewart “‘science’ chills the ‘sweet hope’ in which man lives, by bringing the natural expression of it into discredit… This, I take it, is Plato’s reason for employing Myth rather than the language and method of ‘science’, when he wishes to set forth the a priori as it expresses itself in Ideals… [H]e found Myth… ready to his hand, and he took it up, and used it in an original way for a philosophical purpose.” (pp50-51.)
One could hardly ask for a more candid and incisive diagnosis of Plato’s interest in myths. But, however original the fashion in which Plato employed myths, on what basis can it be reasonably said that Plato employed myths for a ‘philosophical purpose’? Rather, even according to Stewart’s own accounts, the Platonic myths come across as treasons to truth.
The fact of the matter is that a life navigated by rationally based views, instead of ‘sweet hope’, may very well result for certain people in a life that has ‘come to naught’. But this hardly renders reasonable views untrue: it would just make them unpalatable to those uninterested in objective reality. Anybody who managed a bank account according to considerations of ‘sweet hope’ rather than cold logic would not only end up in court but also be guilty of indulging in fiction rather than fact. Myths may be tolerable as aesthetic supplements or ornaments to rationally argued treatments of a given topic, but certainly not as a substitute for reasoned argument. As Epicurus proclaimed, “A man cannot dispel his fear about the most important matters if he does not know what is the nature of the universe but suspects the truth of some mythical story.” (Principle Doctrines no.12.)
To quote Bertrand Russell again:
“There is something feeble, and a little contemptible, about a man who cannot face the perils of life without the help of comfortable myths. Almost inevitably some part of him is aware that they are myths and that he believes them only because they are comforting. But he dare not face this thought, and he therefore cannot carry his own reflections to any logical conclusion. Moreover, since he is aware, however dimly, that his opinions are not rational, he becomes furious when they are disputed. He therefore adopts persecution, censorship, and a narrowly cramping education as essentials of statecraft.” Human Society in Ethics and Politics p207
Another challenge which arises for the reader of Plato is that nightmarish phenomenon known as Plato’s ‘irony’, the most unfortunate aspect of which is precisely that it hinders the reader from pinning down Plato’s point of view when he employs phrases like ‘divine madness’ as the source of poetic inspiration for instance. Similarly, as MacIntyre puts it, “Plato, by falling back into myth, may be deliberately avoiding too direct an encounter not only with certain philosophical difficulties but also with rival religious traditions. For myth is not theology any more than it is hypothesis or history.” (ibid.)
Plato’s Own Campaign Against Poetry
While tributes to myths’ instructive value seem suspect coming from any quarter, they are particularly dubious coming from Plato, considering poetry and myth’s closeness. It is quite clear not only that Plato acknowledges an ancient quarrel between philosophy and poetry, but, more to the point, that Plato is on record in the Republic as denying that poetry is to be taken seriously. Plato wanted poetry banned from his ideal commonwealth on the grounds of its appeal to our soul’s inferior elements and its consequent destruction of the soul’s rational faculty. The poet’s goals are deemed remote from intelligence and truth, and viewed as consorting with cowardice instead.
Plato views this inferior part of our nature as inherently more imitable than our more intelligent and temperate dispositions. This is thought to account for poetry’s tendency to be about themes to do with primarily our baser, weaker natures, along with that which generally seems beautiful to the unknowing masses. For Plato, the poet, while worthy of being cherished as an awe-inspiring figure and fit to be anointed with myrrh and wool, is nevertheless an unlawful character in the ideal commonwealth.
In the Divided Line, at the end of the Republic’s sixth book, the level of cognition at which poets function is unequivocally depicted as the very lowest. Also, in the allegory of the Cave, the poets correspond to those who have the least grasp on reality, namely the prisoners who mistake the shadows cast on the wall of the cave by artificial objects as reality itself.
Incidentally, as Huntington Cairns says, “if we put aside the requirement that poetry must be written in meter Plato is one of the supreme poets of the world as well as of Greece; he has a place with Homer, Aeschylus, and Dante” (introduction to Plato: The Collected Dialogues pxv, emphasis added.) In this vein, Scott Buchanan appropriately cites the Republic’s ban of poets as “Plato’s willing acceptance of ostracism of himself. What other city did he go to?” (The Portable Plato p32.)
The Fallout from Philosophy and Myth’s Interpenetration
Like any undertaking, philosophy has been haunted and plagued by arch-enemies. However, moles planted by enemy nations can pose far more elusive and insidious problems for a country than the most tested direct strategies of its most formidable opponents abroad. Similarly, the non-analytical elements that have snuck through philosophy’s historical back-door have wreaked much more havoc for philosophy than the staunchest direct challenges of its external, unabashedly practical or religious opponents. Largely thanks to Plato, among philosophy’s ‘domestic’ arch-enemies can be reckoned (i) uncritical acceptance of tradition, (ii) pragmatism, and (iii) salvific faith.
(i) Uncritical Acceptance of Tradition
As long as tradition is our guide there cannot be progress. Rather, every intellectual and moral advance must have flown in the face of some tradition. The disposition to assess reality afresh and muster the gusto to exclaim that the emperor is wearing no clothes is integral to good philosophy. The Milesian philosophers’ attempts to explain the world in purely natural terms rather than the traditionally mythological ones marked an advance of untold significance: it marked the origin of Greek philosophy, and Greek philosophy was the source of philosophy for the Western philosophical tradition generally.
In the Timaeus, Plato states that to know or speak of (non-stellar) gods is not within our capacity. Rather:
“we must accept the traditions of the men of old time who affirm themselves to be the offspring of the gods – that is what they say – and they must surely have known their own ancestors. How can we doubt the word of the children of the gods? Although they give no probable or certain proofs, still, as they declare that they are speaking of what took place in their own family, we must conform to custom and believe them. In this manner, then, according to them, the genealogy of these gods is to be received and set forth.” Timaeus 40 D-E, emphasis added.
This idea that “the men of old time… must surely have known their own ancestors” is described by the Reverend R.G. Bury as being “obviously ironical.” And, as Frederick Copleston sees it, “Plato… places little reliance on the stories of the generation and genealogy of the Greek deities, and was probably doubtful if they really existed in the form in which the Greeks popularly conceived them.” (A History of Philosophy: Greece and Rome p251.) Nevertheless, when Plato muses about religious matters, he lapses into his mythical mode and his critical faculties take leave of him.
The Gorgias myth is probably Plato’s earliest, and he has Socrates preface it by saying that he will recount the actual truth. Socrates then regales his interlocutors with a myth about how the fates of souls after death differ depending on whether they have led righteous or unrighteous lives. The myth suggests to him that death is only the separation of the soul and body. Plato has Socrates say that he has simply been convinced by these stories. Thus we find in the early Platonic writings an eschatology accepted not as the product of proof but rather of mere traditional mythology. That this is hardly a matter of little import is clear when one considers that “The theological doctrine of Purgatory, to which Dante gives such noble imaginative expression, is alien to the Hebrew spirit, and came to the Church mainly from the Platonic doctrine…” (Stewart p132.)
In the Theaetetus, the relativist idea that “every opinion of every person is true” and that “whatever a man believes will be… actually comes to pass for him who believes it” is plainly ridiculed and dismissed. Yet in the Meno, after detailing priests’ and priestesses’ reports that the soul has been born many times and has witnessed all in this and in the other world, although Socrates downplays the actual veracity of such accounts, he pragmatically posits instead the courage such lore inspires in the seekers of truth as a sufficient warrant for belief in it.
Similarly, at the close of the Phaedo myth, Socrates says that no reasonable man ought to insist that the facts are exactly as he has said in the myth. Rather such accounts are to be used to inspire confidence. But Plato’s pragmatically-inspired inclusion of this myth turned out to be a basis for Neoplatonic beliefs in judgments after death, Hades’ rivers, and the reincarnations that are in store for us. And we have it on the authority of Plotinus that it was from the Phaedo myth that the Gnostics gleaned similar beliefs.
iii) Salvific Faith
In the Republic, for all the protracted discussion of how justice has intrinsic value for the soul, Plato ultimately cites the myth of Er about the afterlife as the paramount reason for living the just life. After all of the reasoned argument, Plato is content to close his tour de force by calling on the reader to have ‘faith’ in this myth, in the sense that it will save us if we believe it. Derived from such ‘fideistic’ mythology was the Neoplatonic view of the Fates’ work with Necessity, as well as the belief that the moral agent chooses its ‘presiding spirit’, is able to take its lead, and can become elevated as a result.
One witnesses the respective epitomes of the optimistic ‘escapist’ and pessimistic ‘rationalist’ outlooks in a conversation among the King’s opponents in Shakespeare’s The Second Part of King Henry the Fourth. Lord Hastings takes Lord Bardolph to task for his pessimism regarding the war, saying: “it never yet did hurt... To lay down likelihoods and forms of hope.” Lord Bardolph counters by likening the present war to buds which appear too early in spring, instead posing a scenario wherein: “Hope gives not so much warrant as despair... That frosts will bite them.” When the eleventh chapter of Hebrews says “faith is the substance of things to be hoped for,” it has more of Lord Hastings’ optimistic, escapist spirit; whereas the Platonic declaration of Socrates that “whither the argument may blow, thither we go” is more in keeping with Lord Bardolph’s rational, pessimistic philosophic style.
The ‘escapist’ religious spirit was splendidly captured in the old Latin Bible’s proclamation (at Isaiah 7:9) that “Unless you believe, you will not understand.” It is my conviction that for philosophers, by contrast, the outlook should be: “Unless you understand, you should not believe.” And it would seem that so much of the Platonic dialogues is dedicated to this latter spirit (and should have been so). But as keen as Plato was on ensuring that the guardians-to-be of his ideal commonwealth are insusceptible to enchantments luring them away from the state’s best interests, his fondness for myths show him markedly less zealous about ensuring that philosophers-to-be are immune to the spells tempting them away from the overall interests of philosophy.
Thus, with Plato’s inclusion of myths in his dialogues, we witness anti-philosophic components entering through the back-door at the dawn of Western thinking. With such inherently religious concepts as the sanctity of tradition, the primacy of desirable behavioral results, and the glorification of ‘salvific knowledge’ or ‘faith’ evidently in receipt of Plato’s blessing, the very integrity and autonomy of the critical philosophic enterprise was profoundly compromised at its inception. It is little wonder then that “Christian theology had been, from the first, adapted to Platonism.” (Russell, p478.)
In a rather obvious sense, mythological accounts are antithetical to philosophical ones. Far from being mythical, the Platonic dialectic, with its exaltation of reason as the ‘captain of the soul’ provides ample justification for seeking in Plato the pursuit of a higher order of truth. And yet for those who view philosophy as an unequivocal advance on mythology, Plato’s integration of myths into his philosophy make his ‘philosophy’ more regressive than is generally thought. For Platonism’s inadequacies seem increasingly clear as one focuses on the mythical garb in which so much of this philosophy has become almost irretrievably ensconced, and on the anti-philosophic movements to which it has given rise.
In conclusion, my hat is off instead to Aristotle for his aim to “purge the philosophical consciousness of its mythical and metaphorical elements and to work out the strictly scientific foundations of a metaphysical view of the world that he took over in its main outlines from Plato.” (Werner Jaeger Aristotle p377.)
© Chad Trainer 2007
Chad Trainer is an independent scholar engaged in a study of ideas and arguments from the history of philosophy.
• Originally presented on October 23, 2004 as part of the Plato: Poetry, and Myth panel at the International Conference on Ancient and Medieval Philosophy, Fordham University, New York.