A Reason for Myth
“ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα,”
-Homer, The Odyssey
“Don't be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.”
-Rumi, The Essential Rumi
“Come then, listen closely to my myth as a child would. After all, you are not so very many
years too old for stories.”
-The Eliatic Stranger, in Plato, Statesman
Once upon a time in a faraway land there lived a man named Plato. We remember him now as the champion of the modern intellect, the father of philosophy, but Plato's story (like any worth telling) is more than it may seem. A true hero’s journey, Plato's is rich with wisdom and loss, love and learning; it is a dramatic masterpiece. Indeed there are endless footnotes to Plato the philosopher, but where does one find the ritual to Plato's myth, the methexis to his mythos? Credited with situating both mythos and methexis into the context which the modern mind now recognizes them, Plato wrestled with the two concepts throughout his authorship. His reflections on, and active embodiment of, myth and participation provides the modern scholar with new perspectives on his life and work. Plato might have used philosophy as a way of striving for the transcendent, but he used story as a way of life.
Making sense of Plato as an individual is difficult work for even the most devoted scholar. His corpus provides a way into his deepest thoughts and beliefs but it is not a clearly paved road; indeed deciphering Plato from Socrates or from the countless interlocuters who star in his dialogues can seem like hunting a swift phantom stag through thick and coarse bramble. For centuries, indeed millennia, philosophers have followed Plato's scent and extracted meaning, ideology, philosophy, belief, conviction, even transcendence from his writings, and yet for all their seeking, confusion and disagreement abound. That Plato who is, at least on this account, unanimously considered a masterful writer, chose to anonymize his voice by using Socrates as his protagonist is a literary move that cannot be taken lightly. Whether in the role of devoted documentarian or as a puppet master giving voice to his own theories through a Socratic mouthpiece (and there are plenty of arguments in support of each case), Plato masked his identity and intentions throughout his entire authorship. It is my conviction that Plato's missing presence serves many roles, only two of which I will examine in this essay: first, that the so-called 'platonic myths' represent Plato's own voice, his methexis to the great logos of classical Athens; and second, that Plato's mythopoesis is a modeling of sorts, an invitation to future philosophers (ie: you and I) to their own methexis- to a devoted participation in not just the conversation but also in the world.
Listening to Plato
Recollecting Aristophanes' sphere people of the Symposium, mythos and logos might be seen as two halves of one greater whole. Though they represent radically opposed methods, their goal is one and the same- to explore and express that which cannot be explained. Plato dutifully held the two in balance, ascending to the heights of conceptual abstraction such as we see in the dialogue Parmenides, while inspiring deeply emotive reactions by telling stories like that of Aristophanes' in Symposium. His effortless combining of mythic imagination with philosophic investigation is one of the characteristics that makes Plato's writing so effective, but it is also precisely what makes his intentions, and therefore identity, so hard to discern. Lawrence Hatab explains:
We will find that Plato's thought is actually a surprising combination of rationalism and mysticism, logic and myth, conscious and extraconscious forces. That is why Plato is so difficult to interpret properly; he mixes paradigms which some would think are mutually exclusive. With a broad historical outlook, we need not be too puzzled. In fact, Plato's thought can represent something quite positive and unique: Rather than being simply the first instance or preparation of rational paradigms, it presents a provocative coexistence of rational and mythical paradigms.1
But what are the characteristics of these divergent paradigms that their coexistence should be thought 'provocative'. How did mythos and logos relate to each other and to the intellectual milieu of ancient Greece and in what ways did Plato shape or alter that relationship?
With the exception of Pythagoras, the trend in Greek philosophy prior to Plato and Socrates was certainly one of abstraction and separation from the literal omnipresence of anthropomorphic deities which were concretized in the poetic masterpieces of Homer and Hesiod but which had an historic lineage of breadth and depth that is beyond the scope of this essay. 2 Although the conception of the universe, as illuminated through the mythic tradition, provided an intelligibility and order that served as a structure, and even model, for the development of abstract, rational philosophy, the Greek mind sought to extricate itself from the primordial wisdom of gods and goddesses. Spurred on by the achievements of the natural sciences, “The Greek mind now strove to discover a natural explanation for the cosmos by means of observation and reasoning, and these explanations soon began to shed their residual mythological components.”3 Thus was the case for Thales and Anaxagoras, Empedocles and Parmenides. It is with Heraclitus (c.535-c.575 B.C.E) that the previously foggy conception of logos becomes concretized, opening a philosophical wormhole that will seduce the thoughts of philosophers for millennia. “Heraclitus asserted that most human beings, by not understanding the Logos, live as if asleep in a false dream of the world, and consequently in a state of constant disharmony. Human beings should seek to comprehend the Logos of life, and thereby awaken to a life of intelligent cooperation with the universe's deeper order.”4 Inheritors of this tradition and inspired by this charge, Socrates and Plato sought to grasp this deeper order and, in their own ways, contributed to the 'enlightenment' of Athenian consciousness.
However, 'enlightenment' may not accurately characterize the effects of Plato's writings. Whereas Socrates, through his rational discourse and humble embodiment of wisdom's endless seeking, might have been a characteristic figure of 'enlightenment', Plato the dramatist was compelled by a devotion to eros and his legacy bears the marks of a sort of 'enchantment'. Neither committed to the abstract philosophy of the pre-Socratics, but certainly unbound by the materialization of the mythic past, Plato carried the tension of these opposites throughout his authorship and indeed utilized their unique perspectives to create a functioning synthesis that would go on to form the foundation of the western intellectual (and religious!) tradition. For Plato, the divine not only existed but it was “through the philosophical path [that] the human soul could attain knowledge of its own immortality”; this was a unique and revolutionary turn from the Homeric tradition “which had kept relatively strict limits between mortal humans and the divine gods”5 Plato pushed against these limits by re-visioning the mythic tradition, sometimes literally by retelling the traditional stories of his culture, but most profoundly by the creation of new myths. The so-called 'platonic myths' present the greatest evidence for his unique syncretization of mythos and logos for it is within their mysterious origins and fine craftsmanship that Plato's proud and decidedly individual voice can be found.
The Platonic Myths
The legend, as passed down to us by Diogenes, is that Plato was a playwright and an artist who was so deeply moved after hearing Socrates speak that he burned his plays and abandoned his dreams of being an artist in order to study philosophy. Any experienced reader of Plato is immediately struck (and often left confused) by the dramatic and performative dynamism of Plato's heady philosophical dialogues. Further confusing matters, Plato expresses conflicting views on the value of writing, mythos, poetry, and theatrical performance throughout his dialogues, leaving the reader equally persuaded yet equally divided on the matter. The only way to reconcile his theatricality with the deeply abstract content of his dialogues is to assume that this reconciliation occurred within Plato himself and that his uniquely syncretic (and sometimes contradictory) style was a natural emanation of his particular personhood. Plato may have burned his plays on the steps of theater, but the playwright inside of him burned on, shining through in the enlightening power of his philosophical writings. Athenian culture as Plato experienced it would have modeled for him this balancing of poles and his ability and urge to do so was partly a product of the intellectual environment of his culture. His method however, as we shall see, was decidedly Platonic, perhaps even, exclusively so.
In his essay 'Plato's Exoteric Myths' Glen Most examines the form and content of the 'platonic myths' in an effort to discern some sense of conscious intention and inherent harmony within Plato's authorship. After offering a debated6 but nevertheless functioning set of criteria for determining what exactly constitutes mythos in the Platonic dialogues, Most concludes that there are fourteen instances of myths that should be recognized as such. For lack of alternatives that are as clearly defined and because Most's proposition is sufficiently inclusive without being overly so, I will use his model as a basis for examining how Plato's own voice can be found in these myths.
Most's first designation for characterizing 'platonic myths' is that they are primarily monologues: “Against the background of the more or less lively dialectical conversations that fill most of the pages of the Platonic corpus, the myths are differentiated in the first instance by the fact that they are presented orally by a single speaker without any interruptions at all by his listeners from beginning to end.”7 In ancient Greek culture the monologue was primarily used in the theater and their function was one of narration, context, confession, and authorial freedom. It would indeed be shortsighted to suggest that Plato was not aware of the social and literary effects of these extended monologues and it is likely that he utilized the monologue voice to emphasize these stories and claim them as his own. Most's second proposition offers just such a shortsighted explanation for the absence of interruptions: “The speakers relatively advanced age is treated with respect by his listeners- otherwise it would be impossible to understand why, in the middle of the typically lively exchange of Greek conversation, the other interlocuters suddenly fall silent and are willing to listen to one person for a long time without ever interrupting him.”8 Though this literary interpretation presents a likely analysis, after all, in the majority of the myths the person telling the story is the elder in the dialogue, assuming that Plato's motivations were no deeper than character development would be a disservice (indeed, a complete betrayal) to his entire agenda. The creative, unfalsifiable, and eschatological traits of Plato's myths indicate a certain authority- a final say on the matter- which goes entirely against the dialectical nature of his entire authorship. If we honor the generally accepted view that Plato did not simply invent Socrates and that the discussions transcribed in the Platonic dialogues represent, at least in reasonable measure, authentic Socratic philosophical teachings, then who other than Plato himself would have been more appropriate to voice a response to Socrates; who better than Plato to offer the mythos to his teacher's logos?
The Student Becomes the Teacher
Before I can explore the role of methexis in motivating Plato's mythopoetic contribution to the Greek philosophical tradition, I must first explain the complex characteristics of identity within Plato's corpus as a whole. If mythology was Plato's way of participating in a conversation it would be pertinent to know what the conversation was and who its contributors were. Incidentally, determining the who's and what's of Platonic philosophy is perhaps the most strenuous of scholastic tasks. Though textual dating of the Platonic dialogues is inconclusive and greatly debated, the safest qualifying statement that can be made about Plato's writings is that the majority of them were composed after Socrates’ death in 399 B.C.E. What this means first and foremost is that Plato was writing a ghost story; the Platonic Socrates would have been heard by contemporary readers as a voice from the beyond. The fluid nature of Socrates’ philosophical positions, sometimes taking one side of an argument that he had previously opposed in a different dialogue or vice versa, evokes a phantasmic sense of identity throughout all of Plato's works. That Plato himself never voices his own thoughts or opinions directly in his writings further exemplifies a sense of non-concretized identity. What are we to make of these blurred lines and what are the literary strengths of such evocative dramatic masks?
Plato describes the human soul as made up of the leftovers of the universe (Timaeus 41e), immortal by way of constant motion and lack of a beginning (Phaedrus 245d), and as subject to judgment for the activities it engages in while embodied (Republic 615c). The complexity of these attributes might explain, to some extent, the difficulty Plato has with identity. If the soul is believed to be immortal, but of such a substantiative nature that it maintains individuality and a sort of tangibility whether or not it is tied to a body, then the identities of the human characters in Plato’s dramas would indeed be like theater masks, the soul like the actors who don them. In Theaetetus, Plato insists that “we are neither tied to any other thing in the world nor to our respective selves”9, emphasizing the passing nature of our identity, reminding us of our temporal place in the world of becoming, and likewise, reiterating the existence and supremacy of the realm of eternal forms.
The eternality of the soul is primary in Plato’s world view and by refusing to ‘incarnate’ as it were, into his own writings, Plato exists in a world between worlds, a metaxy of sorts, intermediating between the immortal soul of Socrates and the finite world of humans. Myth is the only medium which can authentically speak of these in- between realms because myth itself participates in both the divine beyond and the material present.
But our human nature, Plato suggests by telling us so many myths, often permits us only to approximate to truth, and only indirectly, through a fictional narrative. This means that sometimes, for Plato, myth is the only device available to enable us to explore matters that are beyond our limited intellectual powers. Myth may be false in it's fantastical details, but it may mirror the truth. It may, as it is said in Republic (377a), be false if taken as a whole, but it may lead towards truth. In short, the human mind has limitations of many sorts, so it sometimes needs myth to approximate to the truth about what lies beyond its experience. 10
Plato the author, lurking in the shadows between worlds, must reflect his position in his writing style: “To achieve this effect, Plato had to use both dialectic on the one hand and myth and dialogue on the other. As a result, his own writings can best be described by a term he himself most likely invented: they are all forms of muthologia.”11 Mythology then is the unifying act of two divergent world views and it requires a dynamic participation in both. This dynamic participation is referred to in Plato as methexis, and though the idea has a long history in the western philosophical and religious traditions, within its deepest meaning lies a sense of engaging presence- methexis is the state of the unmoved mover and only through it can a soul be permitted to become a creator itself.
Jacob Sherman explains that the first instance of methexis as a philosophical term occurs with Plato “who employed participation (methexis) as a philosophical concept in order to defend, clarify, and make sense of a world he perceived as everywhere suspended and haunted by transcendence.”12 Primarily used as a way of understanding the relationship and relativity of the world of becoming and the world of the Forms, Plato sought to make dynamic the two worlds and therefore to insist that any connections between them be active, engaged, and participatory as well. That many of the Platonic myths describe in poetic detail the events, occurrences, and landscape of the realm between worlds suggests that Plato was committed to understanding and explaining the world of becoming and the world of forms as well as the borderland between them.
And in his borderland myths what magic can be found! The Myth of Er at the end of Republic narrates the metaxy as a physical landscape with rivers and meadows, a holding ground for souls where judgement and salvation occur, much in the vein of ancient Egyptian mythology. The Allegory of the Cave, likewise in Republic, is often interpreted as equating the realm of Forms with the clarity of day light but indeed it is in the metaxy, the mouth of the cave, where the shadows are created. It is the blinding power of the sun's light combined with the borderland activities of the mysterious humanoid messengers who shuttle objects back and forth past the entrance to the cave that fundamentally creates the world which we know; the allegory of the cave would contain no philosophical wisdom without the presence of those border shadows. Additionally, in Symposium, Aristophanes describes the early origins of human beings as the result of punishing split, each human now only half of its original whole nature. Eros then is the impulse to heal that wound- to reunite the irreconcilable halves; eros is the way humans participate in each other, it is our methexis, and it can only occur in the in-between of two people. And finally, in Timaeus, the celestial landscape of the in-between is constructed and it is in that place that the demiurge creates the cosmos, the soul, and the human.
The borderland, as depicted in the Platonic myths, is the fecund realm where being and becoming come together and through their union life is made. Again, Jacob Sherman offers perspective:
Plato is consistently an advocate to the end of the metaxy, the generative tension that holds reality together in dynamic community. We find our world and ourselves within this metaxic realm, ecstatically constituted, such that our depths are discovered only in excess of ourselves. For Plato, then, insofar as he makes participation central, the good life, the religious life, and the philosophic life come together in an erotic journey toward the persistent discovery of beauty in the participatory mediations of the phenomenal world. 13
Charged with the task of narrating this persistent discovery of beauty, Plato must mirror its Formal and intangible nature and in his careful use of myth do we see its greatest effects. As a mode of rhetoric that does just that, connects the world of the eternal beyond with the temporality of human life, myth is a prime example of participation. Ferrari explains this power of myth:
The border between logos and muthos in the dialogues is, for Plato, a matter of form rather than substance. In particular, it does not divide what is philosophical in the dialogues from what is not philosophical. This is not, however, because the myths are somehow philosophical too; rather, it is because the dialectic is, so to speak, also mythical, in that it is part of a whole, and the whole is a fiction.14
Ferrari's insight that it is the dialectic that is mythic supports my conviction that myth is participatory; the style of the dialogue requires engaged participation just as the telling of a myth requires the same of its storytellers. Indeed the connections between myth and its ritual expression are almost as impossible to untangle as the shifting identities of Plato's philosophers. The participatory style of dialogue, the demand for engaged attention in the creation and propagation of myths, as well as Plato's concrete use of methexis to explain the dynamic relationship between the two worlds of human and soul, are all evidence of his deep reflections on- and perhaps attempts at establishing- a direct relationship with the divine.
But what do we do with this idea of methexis that Plato so carefully crafted; what might participation provide in concrete terms that Plato believed would support not only the grand structure of his philosophical beliefs but also a sustained desire to seek wisdom in his successors? Participation in terms of mythology is best displayed through its ritual counterpart. According to Joseph Campbell, myth and ritual “link the individual to transindividual purposes and forces”15. If mythology provides humans with skills for both recollecting primordial wisdom and reconnecting to self and other, then it follows that a myth-maker is the bridge that leads across the depths of individual psyches to the realm of collectivity. Plato invites his readers not just to see the connections between the eternal and the immanent, between mythos and logos, but he likewise invites us to traverse that bridge, to hang our feet off the edge and dip our toes in the wisdom that flows between worlds. Plato's philosophy shows that “statements such as the rose is beautiful are therefore relational, not attributive, statements”16 and in so doing suggests a need for reflection on the constant relational processes of the world of becoming. Though the need for constant, active, engagement could be perceived as an exhausting requirement of consciousness, the comfort of a relentlessly beating heart pumping blood throughout our body giving us the opportunity for the possibility of life and consciousness is indeed an inspiring metaphor for the substantiating gifts of the world of Forms.
Plato's philosophy is dynamic, conversational, fluid, and yet deeply informed by a profound connection to the transcendent. His writings are a perfect balance of philosophical investigation, mythical reverence, social engagement, and personal devotion to a culture that continues to inspire humanity more than two thousand years later. Alfred North Whitehead commented that “The safest general characterization of philosophy is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato”17; Plato has indeed inspired a methexis of sorts, a participation in his world that has been answered by every great philosopher since. But is this enough? Is the logos of modern philosophy missing something that Plato himself would feel compelled to provide?
It is not until recently (in the last few hundred years) that mythology has been recognized as a subject worthy of study- one that is rich with historical and philosophical significance. And yet, as I've shown throughout this essay, mythology motivated and helped accomplish the goals of the most significant philosopher in antiquity. I agree with Feldman and Richardson who say that “modern mythology- recent and earlier- is in urgent need of radical philosophic and historical examination of its own tradition, accomplishments, and presuppositions.”18 It is likely that such an investigation would return the modern scholar of mythology to its noble origins- as a participatory counterpart to philosophy. In serving Plato's vision of the tripartite soul, ritual, myth, and philosophy can be seen as the complementary means of knowing and living that constitute a virtuous life; a complex of methods for engaging each necessary and equally valued part of our soul in order to achieve a holistic understanding of the divine. Indeed, this appears to be the very impetus for the reclaiming of mythological wisdom in the modern age. Feldman and Richardson share how “Myth even became a new way of redeeming modern man by seeking to restore him to his original oneness with nature and by reacquainting him with that oneness, with his best self, or with divinity.”19
The 'platonic myths' are witnessing a renaissance of sorts as scholars are no longer willing to overlook their presence in Plato's corpus, and no longer content to describe it as a sort of pagan superstition that afflicted this revolutionary philosopher. In telling us stories, Plato was telling us something more and we are finally beginning to take note. To assume that this 'something more' was merely that lay people cannot understand the complicated thoughts of philosophers and so must be told stories in order to comprehend the divine, or worse, that story was the most effective means of persuasion and thus necessary to control public opinion and maintain the health of the polis,is a perspective that, while intellectually and logically sensible, completely neglects the heart of Plato's work. Plato was committed to finding and maintaining balance and in his honor, we must as well. Glen Most reminds us that “Without logos there would be in Plato's writings no proofs, no analysis, no verifiability, no intellectual conviction; but without muthos there would be no models, no global vision, no believe, no emotional motivation.”20 The cultural and political sphere of Plato's Athens carried a similar tenor to that of the modern 21st century; intellectual and technical progress prevail as the gold standards for success, inspired democratic ideals are consistently thwarted by corruption, and military efforts continue to bring both stasis and chaos to the world. If ever a complete understanding of Plato's philosophy was needed it is now.
But again, 'complete understanding' does not capture the dynamism of methexis that Plato so clearly invited us to partake in. We must go beyond understanding to the place in-between knowing and imagining, waking and dreaming, spirit and nature; we must not, in reading Plato, turn off the part of us that feels through thinking. It is not simply coincidental that the main field in which mythology has experienced its own renaissance is precisely that of the emotions and psyche. The use of mythic themes in the creation and development of modern psychology is in some ways a metaxic response to Plato. Freud and Jung both saw the power of myth not simply as a means of persuasion or explanation, but rather as a cathartic process that carried immense weight despite its lack of substance. In the last half of the 20th century, Joseph Campbell popularized the wisdom of mythology and embodied methexis by elucidating the correspondences between mythologies across the world; his participation showed how cultures participate with each other in the realm of the subconscious- in the metaxy. If we truly want to experience Plato we can only do so in the shadowy space between his world and ours, and while we are there, we must speak its language.
It is the saving grace of Plato's intellectualism that it can do justice to the emotions without infringing upon the perogatives of reason, which to be sure is mans more precious possession for it is divine. Just as the intellect is allowed, nay obliged, to play no less than to obey the strict laws of dialectics, to imagine no less than to define and divide, so the intellect is enjoined to be intelligent as well as kind and understanding in its relation to that man within man, or to the “child within us” (Phaedo 77e) who fears and hopes and who must be persuaded until his fears are charmed away and a spell of hope has been cast upon him. Plato is not a stoic for whom passions are but mistaken judgments.21
Campbell, Joseph. Myths to Live By. New York, New York: Penguin Books, 1972
Edelstein, Ludwig. “The Function of the Myth in Plato's Philosophy” in Journal of the History of Ideas , Vol. 10, No. 4 (Oct., 1949). Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press. Article Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.sfpl.org/stable/2707185
Feldman, Burton and Richardson, Robert D. The Rise of Modern Mythology. Bloomington Indiana: Indiana University Press, 1972.
Ferrari, G.R.F. “The Freedom of Platonic Myth” in Plato and Myth: Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths. eds. Catherine Collobert, Pierre Destrée, & Francisco J. Gonzalez. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012.
Hatab, Lawrence J. Myth and Philosophy: A Contest of Truths. La Salle, Illinois: Open Court, 1990.
Most, Glen W. “Plato's Exoteric Myths” in Plato and Myth: Studies on the Use and Status of Platonic Myths. eds. Catherine Collobert, Pierre Destrée, & Francisco J. Gonzalez. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2012
Partenie, Catalin. Plato: Selected Myths. Oxford, GBR: Oxford University Press, 2004.
Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, In: Hackett, 1997.
Sherman, Jacob H. “A Genealogy of Participation” in The Participatory Turn. ed. Jorge Ferrer and Jacob Sherman. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press, 2008.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York, New York: Harmony Books, 1991.
2For an extended account of this development see Robert Bellah's Religion in Human Evolution: From the Paleolithic to the Axial Age. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011
6See Alessandra Fussi, Literary Form and Philosophical Discourse: The Problem of Myth in the Platonic Dialogues in The International Journal of the Platonic Tradition 7 (2013) 221-228. Leiden,Netherlands: Brill, 2013.
9 Plato. Theaetetus, 160b.
17See A.N. Whitehead, Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology (1929).
18Feldman and Richardson, xxiv.
19Feldman and Richardson, xxi.