Plato and the Relationship Between Myth and Philosophy

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Philosophy’s quest for truth and mythology’s dedication to storytelling have been intertwined for as long as either has existed.  Plato’s dialogues, especially the ones produced later in the philosopher’s life, are filled with as much myth as they are with claims of truth backed by concrete logic.  The classical scholar Ludwig Edelstein writes that “the unfathomable prowess of the dialectician is equaled if not surpassed by the captivating grace of the storyteller” (Ludwig 463). Most famously in Plato’s Phaedrus, Socrates and one of his followers, Phaedrus, discuss the composition of the immortal soul.  Socrates explains his view of the soul by comparing it to a chariot being pulled by two mythical winged horses.  The chariot allegory is far and wide one of Plato’s most famous explanations, and yet the evidence for the explanation is something more commonly found in children’s stories. According to Lawrence J. Hatab, “comprehending the relation between myth and philosophy is essential for a proper understand of intellectual history and the nature of philosophy” (Ludwig 463).

Ancient philosophers prior to Plato discounted the use of myth in philosophy, as did many philosophers who followed him.  The main concern is that myth appeals to the emotional, thus damaging the credibility of any truth claims.  However, others have countered that Plato understood the limitations of his own logic and reason, and used myth as evidence so successfully that none of his truth claims could exist without it.  My paper will analyze the use of myth in the Platonic dialogues, and ultimately arguing that the myth employed by Plato in many of his dialogues differs from the type of poetic myth commonly associated with the ancient world, and that the Platonic myth does indeed have a place in philosophy.  This reformed mythology, molded to fit within the confines of Plato’s definitions, not only seems perfectly at home nestled between philosophical dialectics, but in many ways plays a crucial role in the success of the dialogues.

The argument against the use of myth in philosophy is simple.  Because myth appeals to the emotion, and exists outside the realm of reality, it cannot have a place in philosophy, essentially a never-ending quest for truth.  Plato understood, however, that while rational thought is the clear path to philosophical fulfillment, the mind is bound to overstep the bounds of rational thought.  The shift from rationale to imagination in the ancient world is one man underwent constantly, producing works of the mind such as art, music, but most importantly, poetry.  According to Edelstein, “Plato was not only conscious of the limits of rational thought, he also knew that in mythical fantasy, in inspiration which the philosopher shares with the poet, man experiences the revelation of a higher truth, of the supernatural or the divine” (Ludwig 464). The relationship between philosophy and poetry parallels the relationship between reason and imagination.  Understanding these relationships a key factor in grasping the significance of the Platonic myth, which is to say a preexisting myth that Plato molded to fit his own philosophic standards.

Plato’s myths are not original, but rather steeped in the classical mythology of the ancient world in which he lived.  Mythology at the time was an essential and central part of Greek culture, presiding over many sectors of public life, such as art, theater, history and most importantly religion.  In The Republic, Plato calls the traditional mythology a “theology” established through the epic poetry of Homer, and before him Hesiod (Republic II 379 A).  This popular mythology dealt with many theological questions we still struggle with today, including the immortality of the soul which is to say life before birth and after death.  However, it did not conform to many of Plato’s philosophical definitions and so, like many other philosophers and poets of the age, he disregarded it as impious and untrue. He claimed in The Republic that the traditional mythology, which formed the mainstream Greek theology, is in need of complete overhaul, until it can be placed allegorically within the Plato’s philosophical boundaries. The result, according to the scholar Luc Brisson, is “a formidable instrument with universal impact.” Despite the fact that myth is an unverifiable discourse and lacks and argumentative character, it is all the more effective in that it transmits a basic knowledge shared by all the members of a given community” (Brisson 26).

Each time Plato uses myth in his dialogues, they are myths edited to fit Plato’s beliefs.  These beliefs form the crux of Platonic philosophy, and are therefore concrete.  The rules cannot be bent to include false myths, despite the fact that they myths are crucial to the philosophy.  Plato’s philosophy is based on several truths.  Firstly, God is a great power, and cannot be guilty of misguiding or deceiving of man.  Therefore, any myth involving a god being dishonest with a human, or cheating another god, for instance, cannot be included in philosophy, or even be considered truth.  Secondly, tales in whom gods exhibit any sort of emotion, especially a negative one such as envy or greed, cannot be used in Plato’s new mythology, due to Plato’s belief that Gods are free of passion.  Thirdly, most mythology regarding Hades, the afterlife, was deemed unfit by Plato due to the purveying image of Hades as a frightening and evil place.  Plato believed that because the soul is immortal, little could be gained from fearing death, for the soul would soon be reborn in a new body.  The mythological trends described above account for a staggering amount of the popular mythology of Plato’s time.  However, Plato needed the myths in order to prove his philosophical points, hence his restructuring them and forming the equation for the Platonic myth.

The Platonic myth is mainly an allegorical device in a given dialogue meant to provide a greater philosophical context for the point Plato is arguing.  Therefore he must allegorize a myth to meet the standards of his own philosophy.  Plato’s new mythology is not so unrecognizable from the common mythology.  The chronology, framework, characters and in the Platonic mythology obviously draw strongly upon the well-known stories of the age.  Plato’s myths are composed in accordance with his dialectical insight, although he is careful to frame the myths within the dialogue in which the reader is immediately warned of the grey area they are entering.  For example, in The Georgias, before Socrates begins to give an account of Hades’ composition, he warns his companion that while he may receive the tale as simply a fable, Socrates himself considers it to be something more valuable, a story supported by reason (Georgias 523 A).  Thus, the Platonic myth is something, rather than dependent on emotion, formed independently of emotion, “a true instrument of human intellect” (Edelstein 466). However, they are nothing if not framed with the proper philosophical reason surrounding it.  Myths can only persuade someone to believe the truth, rather than prove the truth beyond rebuttal.  Prior to the formation of the Platonic myth, a philosopher would be hard-pressed to accept myth into reasonable thought, but with the Platonic myth, one could be more willing to accept it into philosophy.  Plato states himself in The Republic that without myth, many of his philosophical questions could never have been answered (Republic X 614 A).

Now that we understand the transformation that common mythology underwent before it could be used in Plato’s philosophy, we can attempt to answer a greater question.  Why is the need for myth in philosophy so great? What place do the flowery tales of gods and heroes have in the realm of stern truth proven only after the running of a gauntlet of philosophical thought? As we delve further into answering this question, it is crucial that we now differentiate the common myth from the Platonic myth.  According to Edelstein, “reason to Plato is supreme; myth is subservient to reason… Plato’s philosophical fable is the fable of the philosopher” (Edelstein 467). No myth ever found in a Platonic dialogue fails to meet the philosophical standards demanded by its author.

According to Edelstein, the Platonic myths can be divided into two categories, those dealing with the creation of the world and the early history of mankind, and those that deal with the fate of the soul before birth and after death.  The first group demands an understanding of history and the natural sciences, while the second deals strictly with ethics.  Dialogues such as the Timaeus, the Critias, and the Politicus all provide tales of man’s past on earth, while later dialogues like the Phaedrus, the Republic, and the Gorgias all touch on the subject of the immortal soul and its journey from body to body.

There is a specific set of philosophical truths that are attached to each category of myth.  Understanding the first set, which deals with the history of mankind and its arrival in the world, has to do with mankind’s ability to grasp concepts that are undergoing constant change.  Without the use of the Platonic myth, Plato would be hard-pressed to say anything regarding the history of mankind, for the only sources available from that time period are myths.  Therefore Plato must insert the myths into the philosophy.  For instance, according to Plato, human reason has its bounds.  The mind can only grasp what always is, and does not change.  That is to say, in terms of concepts and ideas, the mind can only understand those that are eternal.  Concepts, which are eternal, present their own difficulties, however, due to the fact that while they provide an explanation for the universal, they cannot give any information regarding the individual, which, unlike what the mind is capable of understanding, is changing throughout.  So therefore, the mind cannot use its own tools to understand these concepts.  Hence, the introduction of the Platonic myth into Platonic philosophy. According to Edelstein, “if one wishes to speak of change and becoming, as it is characteristic of the history of the world, one can do so only by relating a story, a myth, the consecutive parts of which reflect and imitate change” (Edelstein 467). Plato argued in Critias that the philosophical investigation of the foundation of human history is contingent upon the available mythology (Critias 110 A).

Thus is the philosophical reasoning for allowing such myths into a philosophical dialogue, but a problem remains which is that there is still no way of telling whether or not the myths, at this point Plato’s primary source material, are actually true, or even have elements of truth to them.  We assume that Gaia, along with Eros, Tartarus and Erebus simply did not emerge from Chaos and from that point the human chronology starts.  However, we have no way of knowing that that did not happen.  Thus, we must revert to philosophical truths to analyze the myths of human origin.  Any myth dealing with human origin must fit a certain prescription: that God created the world in a way that was as perfect as possible, that history must be looked at in a way which demonstrates the constant presence of God in history, and how events in various periods of history showed how large or how small of a role God had in them.  According to Edelstein, “an accurate historical account is the transposition of an ideal drawing, outlined as it were in a fable, into the realm of fact” (468). By merging myth and philosophy, a historical truth emerges.

The second categories of myths, those dealing with the immortality of the soul, have a great bearing on ethics.  Like the first category, the myths must meet the standards of Plato’s philosophy.  In this case, those standards are truths dealing with ethics, primarily that it is better to suffer injustice than to do injustice.  This truth is the crux of the ethical Platonic myths, all of which deal with the immortality of the soul.  The soul is something unchanging and constant, unlike the many bodies in which the soul lives throughout time.  Therefore the soul cannot be explained by rational knowledge, and an ethical myth must be called into use.  The ethical myth is, according to Edelstein, “an addition to rational knowledge, it does not take the place of rational knowledge as do the historical and scientific myths” (473). The ethical myth appeals to, rather than man’s knowledge, his passions, which constitutes the irrational part of the soul, and thus requires something other than rational knowledge to understand it.  While the myths dealing with the origins and history of mankind appear as parallel to the intellectual side of the soul, where they can stimulate the intellectual mind and allow for philosophical truths steeped in knowledge to reveal them, the ethical myth is equally steeped in mankind’s irrational nature.  While neither the historical myth nor the ethical myth seem to have a concrete role in philosophy, neither can be withdrawn from the discipline, because each pertains to an equally important part of the soul, and philosophy demands that equal attention be paid, if true knowledge is to be attained.

Having now analyzed the differences between the two types of Platonic myths commonly found in the dialogues, and established the role of myth in philosophy (to provide allegories where the human mind becomes unable to grasp a truth due to the limitations of reason), we can now attempt to understand what is then made from the union.  Together, what do myth and philosophy achieve? In Plato’s Timaeus, he outlines what truth is revealed from the use of myth in philosophy:

“Wherefore one ought to distinguish two kinds of causes the necessary and the divine, and in all things to seek after the divine for the sake of gaining a life of blessedness, so far as our nature admits thereof, and to seek the necessary for the sake of the divine, reckoning that without the former it is impossible to discern by themselves alone the divine objects after which we strive, or to apprehend them or in any way partake thereof.” (Timaeus 68 E-69 A)

The myth, when aligned with rational thought, joins together the realm of the passions with the realm of intellect, therefore allowing man to strive towards a goal placed before him which he can now reach having reached an equilibrium in his knowledge, between rational and irrational, truth-based and imaginative.  According to Edelstein, “through the myth the inner core of man’s existence receives the commands of the intellect in terms that are adequate to its irrational nature.  Thus, man in his entirety is put under the guidance of philosophy” (477).

Mythology plays an essential role in Plato’s philosophy.  It allows for the Plato’s philosophical hypotheses to be proven.  While the Platonic poem may not showcase the heroes and drama of Homeric lore or the tragedy of Aeschylus and Sophocles, it achieves a truth that no other mythology can achieve.  Stacked purely against ancient mythology written strictly for the purpose of enjoyment, the Platonic mythology stands no chance of being as gripping or entertaining.  However, if one is seeking true philosophical knowledge, then the Platonic myths are by far the most powerful of ancient mythologies.

In book seven of Republic, one of Plato’s most famous myths can be found in the form of the cave allegory, which fictionalizes the condemnation of Socrates by the people of Athens after he is tried on charges of corrupting the Athenian youth and being impious.  The myth tells of a cave in which prisoners are chained to a wall, the wall opposite being the only thing they ever see.  On that wall there are shadows, and the prisoners can only imagine what they represent.  One day one of the prisoners is released, and so he discovers the entrance to the cave, and subsequently the entire outside world.  He realizes that the shadows on the cave’s wall did not actually represent what he and his fellow prisoners had thought, but rather things completely different.  However, when he returns to tell the prisoners about it, they are so incensed that they completely rebuke everything he has to say.  Despite the fact that they have heard the truth, their jealousy and unwillingness to listen to reason causes them to resist the prisoner, and thus they never learn of the outside world that he discovered.  Rather, they were never able to discover the truth.  The message is that those Athenians who condemned Socrates to an unfair death were so comfortable with their ignorance that even with a chance to know the truth, they still chose to remain in the dark.

While Socrates’ struggles were against an enemy situated in the present, Plato’s fellow prisoners on the wall would represent a similar ignorance, but one from the past.  Plato’s philosophy, especially the parts of it that use mythology as allegory, marks “the emergence of philosophy as a reaction against and dissatisfaction with a previous form of culture embodied in myth and poetry,” according to Hateb Lawrence (297). In creating his own brand of mythology, Plato forced philosophy onto a path of more effective truth claims, claims made possible by the use of mythological allegory as evidence.

Before Plato invented his own brand of mythology, the world was celebrated not by the progress of the human condition, but rather by the myths, which explained history and science. The finished product that Plato produced is indicative of the sheer size and significance of his task. The Platonic myths exhibit moral and aesthetic significance, but it allows for a stabilization of a previously chaotic philosophical understanding. The ideas discussed in the Platonic dialogues, when placed in the context of the Platonic myth, become tangible ideas that the human mind, transgressing rational thought, can grasp. A mythical interpretation of the ideas discussed in Plato allows us to be content with the fact that truth may not always be attainable by the way of scientifically substantiated fact, and that sometimes the phenomena of human progress can be explained through methods which fall outside the realm rationality.

Works Cited

Brisson, Luc. How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. Chicago. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Print.

Buxton, R.G.A. From Myth to Reason?: Studies in the Development of Greek Thought. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.

Cooper, John, and D.S. Huthinson. The Complete Works of Plato. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1997. Print.

Edelstein, Ludwig. "The Function of Myth in Plato’s Philosophy." Journal of the History of Ideas 10.4 (1949): 463-481. Print.

Lawrence, Hateb. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths. La Salle, Ill.: Open Court, 1990. Print.

Lincoln, Bruce. Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Morgan, Kathryn. Myth and Philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. Print.