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The Myths of Plato, Part 1

Table 3 in Johnannes Kepler's Mysterium Cosmographicum, with his model illustrating the intercalation of the five regular solids between the imaginary spheres of the planets

Table 3 in Johannes Kepler’s Mysterium Cosmographicum, with his model illustrating the intercalation of the five regular solids between the imaginary spheres of the planets

7,762 words

Part 1 of 2

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of the introductory lecture of a course on Plato’s Timaeus and Critias. As usual, I have edited his transcript to remove excessive wordiness. Beyond that, I have incorporated here some materials from the transcript of part 2 of this lecture so that all the general material on myth in Plato appears in this text. All material specific to the Timaeus and Critias will appear in the transcript of part 2. I also transformed answers to student questions into notes. 

Plato’s dialogues are filled with myths. Virtually every Platonic dialogue has a little narrative in it, usually a real gem of a narrative that takes up themes and images from Greek mythology and weaves them into a new kind of story. It’s very interesting to contemplate what these myths mean and to ask oneself the question “What is the possible role of myth in philosophy?” “What is the relationship of myth to philosophy?”

The Greek word mythos just means story or narrative. If you want to use that concept very broadly, then everything about the Platonic dialogues is mythic, because all of the dialogues are stories. There’s one event and then another event and another event, and they are all narrated or acted out in front of us. However, within the dialogues are more specifically fictional stories – the myths of Plato. The question that intrigues me is “Why does Plato write myths, and what possible good are myths in the pursuit of wisdom, which is what philosophy is all about?”

Isn’t philosophy in some sense an emancipation from myth? If you look at the history of thought, you find that every known culture has a set of myths, and these myths are always about gods, heroes, demi-gods, life after death in one form or another, and the “men of old,” the ancient men, especially the first men. Every culture has myths about these five topics: gods, demi-gods, heroes, ancient man, and the after-life. Not every culture has a myth about the origin of the cosmos. The term for a creation myth is cosmogony, an account of the origin or the genesis of the cosmos.

Myth is primitive in some sense. Myth is always associated with the origins of culture, the origins of civilization. And philosophy, whatever it is, isn’t primitive. Philosophy always comes later, after myth, usually, if it comes at all, many thousands of years after the origin of the civilization. And the origin of philosophy always involves a kind of gesture of emancipation, the emancipation of the mind from opinion. Opinion just means any views that are passed down from generation to generation. Those would include myths. This is true of all three independent philosophical traditions.

There are three independent philosophical traditions: the Indian tradition, the Chinese, and the Western tradition, which really means the Greek and post-Greek tradition of philosophy. All of those began in some way with gestures of the emancipation of the mind from ancestral opinions and customs and an attempt to turn towards some other kind of source of knowledge in order to give us a picture of man and his nature and his place in the overall system of the cosmos and also some understanding of the right way of life.

Every myth is a primitive philosophy, if you will. What does it mean to say that a myth is a kind of primitive philosophy? Philosophies all deal with these topics: man’s nature, the cosmos, our place in the cosmos (our status, if you will, the human condition), and the good life. Every myth takes the form of a story. They are always stories, always narratives, and they always involve concrete events and usually concrete characters. Now, sometimes these characters are gods or demi-gods. Other times they are personifications of phenomena. For instance, here’s an example of an old myth. This is a Latin myth, and it goes something like this:

Care was walking along the river. (Here we have personification of a force: Care.) She bends down and scoops up some mud, and she forms it into a creature. She calls upon Jupiter to breathe life into it, and then she decides to name it. But, of course, this creates a problem, because the Earth has donated the stuff that it’s made out of, the mud, and Jupiter has donated the principal of life, soul. Although she has manufactured it, she doesn’t have complete claim over the thing, and so the three forces, Jupiter, the Earth, and Care begin arguing about what to name it. What do we name this new creature? They settle the dispute this way: Earth, because it gave its substance will receive its substance back when it is dead. Zeus, or Jupiter, who gave it its soul will receive the soul back after it’s dead. And Care, because it manufactured this creature, will possess it throughout its entire life. They decided to name the creature Homo, man, from humus, earth.

So, this is a myth about the origin of man, and it is specifically a myth about the fact that care possesses us throughout our lives. What does that mean? We’re always worrying about something. We are always concerned about things. This myth is an attempt to give us some reason, some account, some explanation for why human life is always beset by human worries and cares.

Every myth has a narrative structure, concrete, specific events, and concrete characters. Yet, every myth tries to deal with something of universal significance. The most universally significant things are, again, man’s nature, the cosmos, our place in the cosmos, and what the good life is. These are the topics that philosophy deals with as well. It would seem, therefore, that philosophy and myth are going to be quarreling with one another eventually because both are attempts using different methods to try to answer the same basic kinds of questions.[1]

One thing that philosophy does when it encounters myth is apply a new kind of critical intellect to myth. Primitive peoples, people who exist entirely in the atmosphere of myth, tend to have rather uncritical minds. Some of them believe the literal truth of myths. Yet, it’s clear that myths can’t be literally true, for the most part. They involve violations of easily known laws of causality. What does it mean to say Care is a person? Why is Care given a female gender? None of these things can literally be true. Many myths are clearly relative to time and place, and they undergo all kinds of transformations, sometimes for the most obvious pragmatic reasons.

For instance, there’s a beautiful book by a French author named Paul Veyne called Did the Greeks Believe Their Myths? The reason why that question makes sense is if you look at Greek mythology you see that the Greeks were rather cavalier about changing their mythology. Why would they change it? Well, sometimes they changed it to suit their political purposes. For instance, if Athens came to dominate some other Greek city-state, one of the ways that they would legitimize this new state of affairs would be to rewrite the founding myths of the newly dependent society to legitimate its new circumstances. Now, this seems terribly cynical, and the question then becomes how can people really believe myths if they treat them in such a cynical way? It is an important question.

Well, the Greeks believed their myths, but they didn’t believe they were literally true, if anyone could transform them for completely pragmatic purposes. But clearly they did have some sort of claim on people’s credence. People were very powerfully motivated by these myths. People understood themselves and their place in the world in terms of these myths. They answer the most fundamental questions any human being can raise in terms of these things. They certainly spent lavish amounts of time and energy building temples and endowing them and worshipping at them and holding festivals in honor of these gods. So, clearly they believe them in some sense. Myths had the power to command people’s actions. Yet, they didn’t seem to believe they were literally true. But there’s got to be some other kind of truth here.

Myths are clearly not believed to be literally true once you start looking at them with a critical mind. They’re filled with contradictions, and, therefore, we know they can’t be literally true. And if you look from one mythic tradition to another, they are so radically different in many ways that all of them can’t be true. We’re applying certain basic principles of logic. Contradictions can’t exist in reality, so contradictory stories can’t be true. Or we are applying a correspondence theory of truth, which says that a story is true if, and only if, it mirrors the way the world really works. Myths can’t be true in that sense, because they don’t mirror the way the world really works, so we have to think that they are false in some way.

Philosophy inaugurates a kind of critical attitude towards myth, and it is philosophy’s attempt to emancipate itself from myth that leads to a conflict between philosophy and myth. They are dealing with the same issues. Philosophy, however, deals with these issues in a much more rigorous and intellectually clear and lucid way. Philosophy tries generally to speak in terms of abstractions, not in terms of concrete stories. Philosophical treatises and discussions generally don’t take the form of stories. Open any journal of philosophy in America today and none of the articles begin, “Once upon a time . . .” If you go to Border’s and go through the books in the philosophy section, none of them begin, “Once upon a time . . .” None of them have characters in them. It’s a very different kind of speech. Philosophy attempts to become timeless, to emancipate itself from the relativity of any particular culture and historical epoch. Philosophy attempts to speak to all men. This is why mathematics has always been such a tempting model for philosophers, because has a greater universality than any natural languages, which are tinged with history and custom and relativity to time and place.

It seems like philosophy is the last place that you would expect to see myths popping up. But then we reach Plato, who is the first philosopher in the Western tradition whose complete works have survived. I would argue that Aristophanes’ Clouds is a philosophical work, but most other people wouldn’t put him in the canon, so Plato is first. Plato is the first philosophical thinker in the Western canon from whom any single complete work survives. And, as it turns out, all of his works have survived.[2] And yet all of his works, except for his letters, are myths. They are narratives. They are dialogues, which are narratives. And within these dialogues are little narratives as well.

The dialogues are plays of a sort, which means that they are myths in a very broad sense, because the word mythos in Greek just means a narrative or a story. Then there’s the more specific sense of mythos, i.e., stories filled with talking animals and personified forces of natures; stories about gods, demi-gods, heroes, the Netherworld, the first men, the creation of the cosmos, and so forth. Those kinds of myths are also found within the Platonic dialogues. But they are clearly not just reports on accepted Greek myths. They take up elements of the Greek mythology, and also foreign mythologies, and weave them together to come up with something that is entirely different.

So, what’s going on here? Why did Plato regard myth as necessary for philosophy?

One of the most important texts in Plato’s corpus for the question about myth is the Phaedrus. The Phaedrus is very beautiful. It’s Plato’s most poetic dialogue, and it contains a number of myths that are really wonderful. At the beginning, it has a little reflection on the nature of myth. Socrates and Phaedrus are outside the walls of Athens, and they find a shaded, sylvan spot near a stream, and Phaedrus asks Socrates if this is the particular place where Boreas bore off a certain young girl — Boreas being a wind god. Socrates said, “No, that’s further down the stream, actually.” Then they get talking about myths because, of course, Phaedrus is a product of the Sophists. He’s educated by them, associates with them. The Sophists were, in a sense, an outgrowth of the earliest Greek philosophers known as the natural philosophers. Greek natural philosophy really is the beginning of Greek philosophy, and it is the most radically uncompromising in its critique of the mythic self-consciousness. Again, philosophy always begins with an attempt to emancipate thought from myth and opinion. How do you do that? You go back to nature and try to use nature as your guide.

The early Greek natural philosophers like Thales, who was really the first Greek philosopher, were extremely critical of myth. One of the things that they tried to do to eliminate their rival was to show that myth was just a primitive form of science and that they were going to replace it with a less primitive form of science, namely natural philosophy, which used reason to explain things and explained things in terms of mechanical causes and forces. So they would take up the Greek myths and give them allegorical interpretations that would turn them into just fanciful accounts of natural phenomena. They would demythologize the myths in other words. This demythologizing activity was very popular, and Socrates deals with the question of demythologizing. He says, “I can appreciate the labors of the demythologizers. They have a huge task on their hands, because not only do they have to explain how some little girl disappeared. If not by the wind god, maybe she was blown over the rock and drowned in the stream below. Maybe that’s the natural explanation. But then they have to deal with the Pegasuses and the Chimeras, the multi-headed Typhon, all the strange monsters of mythology and explain those in naturalistic terms, too.

But he says, “I have no time for this because I’m still trying to know myself. I want to know if I’m a multi-headed Typhonic monster or something altogether more gentle and noble in nature.” And the word “gentle” is atyphos, the opposite of Typhon. Typhon is the monster from which we get the word typhoon, this extravagant, many-headed force of nature.

It’s a beautiful little speech. Socrates is indicating that he doesn’t have time to demythologize the world because he’s more interested in himself than he is in nature. So, what Socratic philosophy represents is a turn from a kind of philosophy that is centered on science and nature — natural philosophy — towards a philosophy that centers itself on man. It’s a humanistic turn. The central questions it deals with are questions of man’s nature, our place in the world, and what is the good life. Socrates, concerned as he is with the nature of man, finds these myths very useful, and that’s why he says he’s more interested in finding out if he’s a Typhonic, many-headed beast or something of a gentle nature.

With this gesture of using myths as symbols for understanding different ways that he himself can be, Socrates is showing the relevance of myth to his humanistic conception of philosophy. Myth is a tool for self-understanding. Scientists have no need for myth. They think they can replace it. But humanists who are trying to understand themselves start having to grapple with the darkness of the soul. It is very dark and hard to understand. And once you start grappling with it, you find that these stories and these images — these wild beasts and so forth from mythology — are extremely helpful for understanding our souls. This is the purpose of Platonic mythologizing.

The first argument I want to make is that Plato writes myths because he is a humanist interested in self-knowledge. He’s starting with himself and trying to understand his place in the whole. In order to do that, he finds myth is a very helpful thing. Why is myth helpful when you’re trying to know yourself? That brings us to a second topic.

That second topic is this: science always understands the universal. There is no such thing as a scientific understanding of a particular thing. If you go to a scientist, say an anthropologist, and say, “Help me to understand myself.” The anthropologist can say, “Well, you’re a Homo sapiens sapiens.” And he can tell you our evolution and our primitive ancestors. But you say, “No, I want to know about me!” He’s going to say, “I’m sorry. I don’t know anything about you! I don’t know anything about you as an individual.” And we might send him on to other natural scientists. You can go to somebody who studies anatomy, and they can talk about the general anatomical nature of your body, but, again, you might say, “No, I want to know about my body!” And he says, “Well, I don’t know! Go look in the mirror!”

Science doesn’t have any understanding of individuality or particularity, and for this reason: it doesn’t have to. It’s really interested in understanding general natures. It speaks to the universal. It speaks in terms of species and generalities. When we need to talk about individuals, how do we do that? What kind of language is necessary to talk about individuals? Plato doesn’t think that talk about universals is sufficient for grasping the nature of what’s particular or individual. And yet, he’s not just interested in the human condition in general. He’s also interested in knowledge of the self, of the individual in particular. This is why he needs a different kind of speech, if you will, a different way of speaking than the scientist.

Scientists talk in terms of generalities whereas he always talks about individuals and particulars. How do you do that? You tell stories — narratives — and you use language poetically. What is poetic language? Well, all language consists of universal terms, universal categories: trees, plants, flowers. You can talk about a man being tall or short. All of these are generalities, general terms. How is it, then, that one can talk about something concrete and particular in general terms? Well, one uses language poetically. What poets do is take language and use it to evoke something completely concrete and particular. They tell stories, which is another way of dealing with the concrete and particular. So, Plato writes dialogues which narrate concrete events and give us signs about the nature of the individual characters in them. He can’t do this if he were writing treatises.

One of the things that is very clear about most academic philosophy today is that not only is there no known narrative and there are no characters in the texts, but they are written in such a way that, for the most part, effaces the individuality of the writer. Every journal article could be written by the same person, pretty much. Their individuality is completely effaced. This is part of the whole scientific model of academic philosophizing. You efface your personality. It’s just the facts. There’s nothing creative or artistic about it, and maybe for good reason. No scientist writes about himself when he writes reports. He’s talking about nature. If you follow that scientific model, then there is no need to talk about the self.

Plato believes, though, that man is the center of his philosophy, and the individual is at the center of his philosophy. Therefore, he has to tell stories that narrate concrete events and give us insight into the characters of particular human beings. So, he writes poetically. That’s why he writes myths. So, a second reason for Platonic myths is simply that the language of myth is the only kind of language that can capture concrete particularity. One of the things that people do when they go to psychotherapists is deal with their particular, concrete, individual lives. They’re trying to deal with that. Applications of science to individuals is, of course, possible and necessary, but for the most part when you look at scientific discourse it will talk about you in general terms. You as a human being, as a biological being, as a cultural being, as whatever. But you in concrete individuality? No. To do that, you really have to have a kind of person-to-person encounter with someone else.

There is a third reason that I want to go into now for why I think Plato uses myths. Again, the first reason is simply that mythic images and stories are very helpful for understanding ourselves. The second reason is about the language of myth. The mythic-poetic use of language is absolutely necessary for philosophy that regards concrete individuality as important. Why? Because it is primarily a moral philosophy. It involves the self-realization of concrete individuals. That’s the kind of goal it has.

Now, the third reason is that the early Greek philosophers, because they were just starting out, had a glimpse — a sort of intuition — about what philosophy could be. They didn’t have it fully worked out. They were just beginners. They had some rather remarkable ambitions. The assumption was that one could use reason to completely replace opinion, custom, myth – all the pre-scientific, pre-rational ways of understanding the self and the world. Their assumption was, in short, that reason is power, enormous power, and that in principle it was autonomous, meaning that it could stand on its own and it didn’t require supplementation by any other external power.

Reason can stand on its own, and by being rational, man can stand on his own and achieve a kind of autonomy, where at the core of each life is the mind, and the mind is emancipated through reason, and man assumes a radically different stature, a different stance because of this. We are no longer beholden to all kinds of nonsense that’s been handed down to us from the past that we accept on trust.

What we believe, and what allows us to run our lives, is entirely rationally justified, and that means it’s all our own. We’re not living on borrowed ideas. Reason allows us to be completely responsible for the views that we have. All the views that we hold will be our own views, and that means that we will no longer be beholden to others and have to trust others and traditions and so forth for the knowledge necessary to run our lives. Isn’t that a wonderful thought? It really does represent a radical kind of human emancipation from the past, from other people, a kind of individualism, a kind of standing on one’s own.

Plato rejects this conception of reason. Why? Well, because as philosophy wore on and developed over several generations up to his own time it became clear to him that philosophy as a purely rational form of discourse couldn’t say anything about the questions that were most important to him. We’ve already seen how he regarded this demythologizing kind of philosophy as inadequate for dealing with the knowledge of the individual soul, which is absolutely crucial. But Plato’s turn towards practical life and towards the cultivation and the care of the soul forced him to come to this kind of recognition.

He came to this conclusion: He said we need to talk about all these things in order to care for the soul. We need to talk about gods, demi-gods, heroes, the netherworld, the first or earliest men, and the creation of the cosmos in order to carry out the very practical, first person activity of knowing ourselves and also cultivating ourselves and caring for the soul. This is why so many of the Platonic dialogues contain myths about the afterlife and the underworld. The recognition is that we cannot care for our souls in this life unless we have some idea of their nature and destiny. But reason can’t tell us anything about this. Why? Because reason ultimately has to go back in some way to experience. This was certainly the model of the earlier Greek philosophers. They would observe natural phenomena and then generalize on the basis of natural phenomena and come up with various conclusions.

If reason can’t speak about these things, the Greek natural philosophers were happy to say, “Well, we will just remain silent.” And really, if your primary concern is just understanding the cosmos as a scientist, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t talk about the Netherworld or demi-gods or heroes or things like that. It’s not interesting. If you’re concerned with a scientific description of reality as it appears to you and as you can understand it and explain it naturalistically, not being able to talk about that is just fine. It’s all well and good.

Plato and Socrates, however, were concerned with moral philosophy primarily. They were concerned, again, with self-knowledge and self-cultivation. Because they had this central concern with self-knowledge and self-cultivation, they realized that giving speeches about these things, these themes from myth, was not something that they could dispense with. They had to say something about them. Yet, as philosophers, they couldn’t say anything about them. So, what did they have to do? First of all, they recognized that there is a limitation on philosophy. Philosophy is limited in its ability to speak about the first things, the ultimate things. Yet, as human beings who are trying to live and do the best we can in practical life, in self-cultivation, we have to say something about the first things. So, what do we need to do? Well, philosophy needs to return to myth.

However, it can’t just return to myth in a completely credulous and irresponsible way. It can’t forget all that it has learned about reason, intellectual responsibility, clarity and coherence, and so forth. It can’t forget all that stuff. So, there’s no going home, in a sense of returning to a completely naïve pre-philosophical state of mind. That’s a perennial temptation for people, though. Many people become reflective and intellectual, and it just makes them feel alienated and unhappy. They look around and they see simple, doltish, unquestioning people, and they envy them. “If life could only be that simple!” “Ignorance is bliss.” If only I could be that ignorant again!” Well, there’s no going back to that state of ignorance.

However, it is possible to return to mythic consciousness with a more critical eye. This is what Plato does. How does Plato return to mythic consciousness with a more critical eye? Well, there are two basic principles that he brings to bear in returning to myth. The first and primary principle is that the gods have to be good. Now, this pretty much blows away all of Greek mythology, which is filled with awful gods. But Socrates and Plato both argue that the cosmos is good, and if you want to understand the cosmic forces personified in terms of gods, then the gods have to be good. Using this principle, which they believe they can validate rationally, they can criticize virtually the entire body of Greek mythology and cast out any of the things that are contrary to this.

A second principle that follows from the assumption that the cosmos overall is run justly or the cosmos overall is good is the idea that the afterlife has to be just. What does that mean? The Greeks believed that when we died most of us would just go down to Hades and sort of fade away into nothingness over a very long period of time. The good and the bad alike were thrown together into this great pit. The very, very bad were subjected to certain torments, and the very, very good could become demi-gods. But most of us were treated as all of the same cloth and just tossed into the pit.

Now, this is a ghastly and unjust view of the cosmos, and so at the end of the Gorgias, Socrates lays out what is probably his earliest myth about the afterlife. Basically, there are three different categories. There are the Isles of the Blessed where the people who are good go, like heaven. All of the bad people go to Tartarus, but there are two kinds of bad people. One kind, the smallest kind, are the incorrigibly rotten, and the incorrigibly rotten are simply tormented for all eternity as an example to others, as a deterrent to others. However, the majority of bad people are curably bad, and, therefore, they undergo a kind of purgation in the afterlife. It’s a kind of purgatory, and they can eventually, it is hoped, graduate after they have been severely punished for a long period of time to go on to the Isles of the Blessed.

This is pretty much Dante’s view in the Divine Comedy. There’s heaven, hell, and purgatory, and all three of those are necessary in order to validate the goodness of the cosmos. Why do we need to believe in heaven, hell, and purgatory to begin with? Because if the cosmos is basically good then you have to conclude that there’s more to life than this, because justice doesn’t seem to be very well enforced in this life. There are all kinds of scoundrels who prosper, and all kinds of good people who are ground underfoot. If justice is going to triumph, then that means it’s going to triumph in the long run. But people die, so there’s got to be a run longer than just this life, and so you have to look forward to the next life.[3]

This is a kind of moral argument. It’s a pragmatic argument. A practical or moral argument for believing in these kinds of things. Socrates is very undogmatic about his conceptions of the afterlife, and, in fact, they change from dialogue to dialogue. In this, it’s very clear that the basic Greek pragmatism about myth that’s exemplified by their willingness to change their myths from circumstance to circumstance is something that Socrates/Plato basically agrees with. But what they have is a higher kind of pragmatism. It’s not just political expediency, but the care of the soul that licenses this kind of attitude. So, they will transform these stories. First of all, they take up the inherited body of Greek myth and transform it dramatically. They transform it into morally salutary stories, stories that are good for the care of the soul. Then, depending on the types of souls that they are dealing with, the characters they are talking with in the dialogue, they will change the stories to fit the particular audiences.

The question that one immediately has to raise is, isn’t this sort of cynical? Aren’t they just lying? Aren’t they just deceiving people? If one holds to a very simple model of what truth is, yes, it’s deception. But I don’t believe that Plato holds to this kind of model of truth. If truth is simply saying it as it is, then clearly they’re lying. But if one argues that we have to make statements about things that we don’t know anything about for sure, then we really can’t have a correspondence model of truth. If you’re going to talk about the afterlife, the only way you have of affirming the truth or falsehood of your views — the only way of testing it — is to die. That means that on this side, we have to have other criteria besides the correspondence model of truth. So, what is that model? It’s a pragmatic model, basically. The claim is that the cosmos as a whole is good. That’s the basic assumption. And the goal is very much the this-worldly care of the soul. This licenses a somewhat cavalier attitude towards inherited myths, so there’s a lot of censorship that goes on, a lot of purgation of the myths of bad elements, and a willingness to change them from context to context, dialogue to dialogue, person to person. But the goal is always the same, namely the care of the soul, and the underlying assumption that generates all of these changes, namely the basic goodness of the whole, is the same.

In the Phaedo, Socrates, on the day of his death, tells a myth about the underworld which is rather different from the stories you get in the Republic or the Gorgias. I just want to give you the beginning and the end of the story. I don’t want to go through all the descriptions of all the underworld sewers and lakes and streams and stuff like that. Socrates says, “It is right to think then, gentlemen, that if the soul is immortal it requires our care.” It’s a hypothetical statement.

If it is immortal it requires our care not only for the time we call our life but for the sake of all time and that one is in terrible danger if one does not give it that care. If death were an escape for everything, it would be a great boon for the wicked to get rid of the body and their wickedness together with their soul, but now that the soul appears to be immortal there is no escape from evil or salvation for it except for becoming as good and wise as possible for the soul goes to the underworld possessing nothing but its education and upbringing which are said to bring the greatest benefit or harm to the dead right at the beginning of the journey yonder [namely at the judgment that you face as soon as you go yonder].

In the Gorgias, Socrates uses this phrase “education and upbringing.” Polus says, “What, Socrates, are you going to say that even the Great King might not be happy, namely the Persian emperor, the most powerful man in the world?” He says, “I can’t say anything unless I know about his education and upbringing.” Polus says, “Why? Does happiness depend entirely on these?” And Socrates says, “Yes. Entirely on these: education and upbringing.”

Now, in the Phaedo, Socrates tells this long story about the underworld and the various lakes and rivers and punishments of the wicked, what happens to father-beaters and things like that. Then he ends this way, and this is very telling.

No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief, for the belief is a noble one, that this or something like this is true about our souls and their dwelling places since the soul is evidently immortal and a man should repeat this to himself as if it were an incantation, which is why I’ve been prolonging my tale. [The word there is mython, tale, myth.] That is the reason that a man should be of good cheer about his own soul if during life he has ignored the pleasures of the body and its ornamentation as of no concern to him and doing him more harm than good but has seriously concerned himself with the pleasures of learning and adorned his soul not with alien but with its own ornaments, namely moderation, righteousness, courage, freedom and truth and in that state awaits his journey to the underworld.

This is very telling. “No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them.” Well, he’s a sensible man, and he recognizes that myths aren’t literally true, and they’re very easily destroyed if you treat them as literally true. Any Sophist or natural philosopher can pick all kinds of holes in them. They can say, “How can there be a first or a second or a third day of Creation because there wouldn’t be any days before the Earth is created, right?” You can start picking holes in these stories if you start treating them literally. “No sensible man would insist that these things are as I have described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belief . . .” The word belief here is pistis, which is also translated as faith. For example, in the New Testament the Greek word pistis is translated as the word faith.

There’s a sense of risk here. Why is there a sense of risk? Because we don’t know for sure, and therefore there’s always going to be a chance that you’re wrong, right? But he says it’s worth risking belief that something like this is true. Why? Because it’s necessary to risk this belief if one is going to do the best one can in caring for one’s soul in this life. So, there’s a kind of pragmatism here, a concern with self-cultivation that licenses one to take certain leaps of faith or risks of belief even when one recognizes that one can’t know for sure that some things are true. But one can risk believing that something like this is true, which is a recognition that it’s probably not 100% accurate and never could be. It would be foolish to expect that. So, this is the Platonic attitude. It’s very pragmatic about standards of truth, and it’s very concerned with self-cultivation and self-improvement.

The question is does Plato believe it too? Plato has this notion of noble lies. In the Republic, he’s constantly saying that the guardian class in the republic should be brought up believing certain things that are false. For instance, mating is determined by a lottery when actually it’s determined by a eugenics program that the elite are running. So, it’s clear that the elite don’t believe certain stories that they tell people who are lower on the rung. Is Plato a cynic about these stories of the afterlife or not? My sense is that no, he’s not. He’s not a cynic about this. These aren’t stories that he’s telling other people because he thinks it will make them better people. These are the kinds of stories that he told himself.

Now, many commentators want to say that myths about providence and the afterlife are just some noble lies that Plato is telling because he wants to help poor schmucks who can’t face the meaninglessness of life to delude themselves into thinking there’s a divine plan and that the world is just and nonsense like that. I think that’s mistaking Plato for Nietzsche and that’s a big mistake to make. In fact, it’s far harder to believe that Plato was as cynical as someone like Nietzsche about the order of the cosmos. It’s far harder to believe that than it is to believe that he could believe these stories.

The arguments that many people make to the effect that Plato couldn’t have believed this are premised on the assumption that no serious person could hold the views that I’ve just read aloud here. No serious person, no real philosopher could hold these views. But the fact of the matter is that the history of philosophy is replete with examples of very serious philosophers who have held views just like this. Now, I guess one could say they couldn’t have been serious either, if you really want to stick with this view.

If you look at the history of philosophy you find that people like Pascal or Kant or Rousseau or William James have all held similar positions. James’ essay “The Will to Believe” is the most clear and lucid account, I think, of this basic position in the history of thought. But I think Plato is really the first pragmatist in James’ sense, the first person who argues that we should risk believing things about stuff that we don’t know, if we find that the moral necessities of life, the necessities of self-cultivation — demand that we form beliefs about things that we can’t have knowledge about.

Just to sum up: There are three basic reasons for why the Platonic dialogues are myths and contain myths. They are myths in the broad sense and they contain myths in the more specific sense.

The first reason is the images of myths are useful for self-understanding. The stories and images, the monsters, the heroes and so forth are useful for self-understanding.

Second, the language of myth — the use of narrative and poetic language to evoke concrete particularity — is useful for philosophy that regards the goal of philosophy as self-understanding and self-actualization.

The third reason is that myth is necessary to philosophy once philosophy recognizes, on one hand, the limits of reason in dealing with ultimate things and, on the other hand, the absolute moral necessity of having some views or beliefs about the ultimate things. If you have to have some beliefs about ultimate things, and yet you want to do so responsibly, you need to go to the myths because they make claims about these ultimate things. But you have to apply two basic principles to them. One, again, is the principle of the overall goodness of the cosmos and the other is the goal of self-cultivation. With these standards, Socrates and Plato both take up the inherited myths of Greece and other cultures as well and transform them in dramatic ways.


1. A parable is just a particular kind of story that has a meaning to it or a moral to it, like a fable. Aesop’s fables are parables. Sometimes parables have all the hallmarks of myth. There will be talking animals or forces of nature personified, etc. So there’s generally not that much difference between a myth and a parable.

2. From the very beginning of the tradition, it has been claimed that there were 35 Platonic dialogues, and 35 dialogues have come down to us, plus a collection of letters. We know that Plato destroyed his early poetic works, but all of his philosophical works have survived.

We don’t have any of the works that Aristotle published in his lifetime. Aristotle wrote dialogues just like Plato did. Apparently, they were somewhat of different than the Platonic dialogues, because actually they were more like the Timaeus, which consists of a little bit of dialogue and then a big long speech. There was none of the Socratic question and answer. It was more like debates rather than dialogues. They were not conversational. Apparently, Cicero modeled his dialogues on the Aristotelian model. His tend to contain long speeches by people with different, opposing viewpoints. But Aristotle did write dialogues, and those are the only things he published, and every single Aristotelian dialogue has been lost. Only fragments embodied as quotations in the texts of other authors have survived.

All of the writings we have of Aristotle’s were works that he never intended for publication and that came to life long after his death. Actually, 80 B. C. is the date when most of these seem to have come to light. The Roman dictator Sulla found these texts in Asia Minor and brought them back. It was during that period that they were edited and widely disseminated.

There are all kinds of questions about which of these works are really Aristotle’s. A lot of works have been excluded or included, and it has been fertile ground for Classicists who love to make arguments about authenticity sometimes on the craziest and most spurious of grounds. It doesn’t really matter from the point of view of a person who is just interested in wisdom whether Aristotle wrote these or not.

There’s a joke that I find very amusing. A classicist rushes into his class all excited and announces the most momentous discovery: that Homer was not the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, but instead it was a different Greek with the same name.

Of course, it’s absurd, because the only thing we know about Homer is that he was named Homer and he wrote the Iliad and the Odyssey. But the same thing goes for disputing the authenticity of one text or another. If you’re a classicist, it is always tempting, or if you’ve got an ax to grind, and you don’t like what this text says, you can always say, “Well, that’s not the authentic work.” But if you’re just interested in pursuing wisdom, it doesn’t matter who wrote these things, really. You can say that they were all written by Homer for all the good that it does you. It makes no difference at all.

3. Was Socrates influenced by ancient Egyptian mythology? I think that’s a really interesting issue. I have thought about this a lot, and my view is this: The Egyptians clearly had a scheme of the afterlife that’s much more in keeping with the kinds of stories that Socrates tells than the kinds of stories that the other Greeks told. The most commonly painted scene in the Book of the Dead is the weighing of the heart in the afterlife, and if the heart is found wanting, there is a hideous monster waiting near the scales to devour the soul. If the heart is found honest, then it is suitably rewarded. There’s a sense that the afterlife is run by stricter rules of justice than this imperfect world, which is very different from the Greek afterlife. The Greeks had a very, very bleak and unjust view of the afterlife. It’s like some huge, Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything’s arbitrary and completely insane. That’s their view of the afterlife. So, Socrates is much more Egyptian if you will.

Another thing is this: He swears by “the dog, the Egyptians’ god,” in various places. In the Gorgias explicitly he identifies it as the Egyptians’ god. Now, the trouble is that the Egyptians didn’t treat any dogs as gods, although they did have a jackal-headed god, Anubis, and there were other jackal-headed gods, too. And he does tell Egyptian tales in a number of places. So, it’s very clear that Plato and Socrates had a certain respect for the Egyptians. How much they really knew about it is another question. The Atlantis myth is a myth that is transmitted via the Egyptians. But I think that Socrates is just as willing to be critical and also somewhat cavalier about the transformation of Egyptian stories because, again, although they are better than Greek myths, they still suffer. Any story about Horus and Set and Osiris is just as horrifying as any story of the Greek gods.


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  1. Remnant
    Posted June 21, 2014 at 2:08 am | Permalink

    Apologies for the off topic comment: The link to part 6 of Collin Cleary’s essay on Wagner is coming up blank. Would appreciate it if that link can be fixed.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted June 21, 2014 at 11:49 am | Permalink

      It works for me.

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