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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 [1]

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

6,645 words

Part 1 of 2

Author’s Note:

The following text is based on a transcript by V. S. of the introductory lecture [2] 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 myths and weaves them into a new kind of story. It’s very interesting to contemplate what these myths mean and to ask oneself “What is the relationship of myth to philosophy?” “What is the possible role of myth in philosophy?”

The Greek word muthos 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 a cosmogony.

Myth is primitive in some sense. Myth is always associated with the earliest origins of a culture. 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 origins of a civilization. And the origin of philosophy always involves a gesture of emancipating the mind from opinion. Opinion just means any views accepted from others. The most authoritative opinions are those passed down from generation to generation, including myths. This is true of all three independent philosophical traditions: Indian, Chinese, and Western, which really means the Greek and post-Greek. Philosophies all deal with such topics as man’s nature, the nature of the cosmos, our place in the cosmos (our status, the human condition), and the good life. But myths deal with the very same topics, only in a very different way.

Every myth takes the form of a story. They are always narratives involving concrete events and usually concrete characters. Sometimes these characters are gods or demi-gods. Other times they are personifications of phenomena. For instance, here’s an example of an old Latin myth that Heidegger recounts in Being and Time:

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 principle 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 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] [3]

When philosophy encounters myth it applies a new kind of critical intellect to it. Primitive peoples exist entirely in the atmosphere of myth and tend to have rather uncritical minds. Some of them believe the literal truth of myths. Yet, it’s clear that for the most part myths can’t be literally true. They involve violations of easily known laws of causality. What does it mean to say that Care is a person? Why is Care female? 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? That question makes sense because the Greeks were rather cavalier about changing their myths. But why would they change something they regarded as sacred or holy? Sometimes they changed myths for political purposes. For instance, if Athens came to dominate another Greek city-state, they might legitimize this new state of affairs by rewriting the founding myths of the newly dependent society. 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.

The Greeks believed their myths, but they didn’t believe they were literally true, if they 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. Myths answered the most fundamental questions any human being can raise. The Greeks certainly spent lavish amounts of time and energy building temples, worshipping at them, and holding festivals in honor of these gods. So, clearly they believed them in some sense. Myths had the power to command people’s actions. Yet, they didn’t seem to believe they were literally true. So there has 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 thus cannot be literally true. And if you compare mythic traditions, 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.

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 lucid way. Philosophy tries generally to speak in terms of abstractions, not in terms of concrete stories. Philosophical treatises generally don’t take the form of stories. Open any academic journal of philosophy. None of the articles begin, “Once upon a time . . .” 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] [4] 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 muthos in Greek just means a narrative or a story. Then there’s the more specific sense of muthos, 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 Greek myths, and also foreign myths, and weave them together to create something 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 and associates with them. The sophists were, in a sense, an outgrowth of the earliest Greek philosophers, who were known as 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 were extremely critical of myth. They viewed it as their most serious rival. One of the ways they tried 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 in terms of mechanical causes and forces. So they would take up the Greek myths and give them allegorical interpretations as mere fanciful accounts of natural phenomena. They would demythologize the myths, in other words. This demythologizing activity was very popular.

Socrates says that he can appreciate the labors of the demythologizers. They have a huge task on their hands, because they have to do more than 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 beyond that, they have to deal with the Pegasuses and the Chimeras, the multi-headed Typhon, all the strange monsters of myth, and explain those in naturalistic terms, too.

But Socrates 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 atuphos, 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.

By using myths to understand different ways of being human, Socrates is showing the relevance of myth to his humanistic conception of philosophy. Myth is a tool for self-under-standing. 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 myth are extremely helpful for understanding our souls. This is the purpose of Platonic mythologizing. So 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: 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 of our evolution and our primitive ancestors. But if 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 he 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 might say, “Well, I don’t know! Go look in the mirror!”

Science doesn’t have any understanding of individuality or particularity, for a very good 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.

So how do we talk about the individual? What kind of language is necessary to talk about individuals? Plato doesn’t think that scientific 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 way of speaking than the scientist.

Scientists talk in terms of generalities whereas Plato 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 general terms. How is it, then, that one can talk about something concrete and particular in general terms?

One uses language poetically. Poets 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 that narrate concrete events and give us signs about the nature of the individual characters in them. He couldn’t do this if he were writing treatises.

Today’s academic philosophy not only dispenses with narratives and characters, it also has no style. Today’s journal articles are written to efface the individuality of the writer. Every journal article could be written by pretty much the same person. This is part of the scientific model of academic philosophizing. It is not about you. It’s just about the facts. There’s nothing creative or artistic about it, and 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 philosophy—and not just man in general, but the many types of men—and not just human types but unique human individuals. 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. So he writes myths. Thus the second reason for Platonic myths is simply that the language of myth is the only kind of language that can capture concrete particularity.

There is a third reason Plato uses myths.

The early Greek philosophers had some rather remarkable ambitions. Their 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 can be autonomous, meaning that it can stand on its own as the sole foundation for thought and action, and it didn’t require supplementation by any other external power. And if reason can stand on its own, then each individual can stand on his own by leading a rational life. Reason emancipates us from opinion and tradition, from all kinds of nonsense that’s been handed down to us from the past that we accept on trust. Ideas that we accept on the basis of reason are our own. We’re no longer living on borrowed ideas.

This conception of philosophy is ultimately based on experience of nature. The early Greek philosophers would observe natural phenomena and then generalize on that basis to draw conclusions. If reason couldn’t speak about some 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 matter if you can’t talk about the netherworld or demi-gods or heroes. It’s not interesting.

Plato and Socrates, however, were primarily concerned with moral philosophy, i.e., with self-knowledge and self-cultivation. It is, of course, possible to give a rational, scientific account of the nature of the soul and what makes it healthy and sick. But what if the care of the soul requires that we speak of other things of which we have no experience, like the first and last things: the origins of the world and the soul and its ultimate destiny? If purely rational philosophy does not allow us to speak of such things, Socrates and Plato thought “so much the worse for philosophy.” The limits of natural philosophy and the imperative of the care of the soul license us to look elsewhere, to discourses that have something to say about things that lie outside our experience. In short, we can look back to myth.

However, as philosophers we can’t just return to myth in a completely credulous and irresponsible way. We can’t forget all that we have learned about reason, intellectual responsibility, clarity and coherence, and so forth. 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 still possible to return to myth with a more critical eye. This is what Plato does. Plato’s main critical tool for evaluating myths is his knowledge of the soul: its structure, its function, its healthy order, and its many possible derangements. For Plato, the return to myth is only permissible as a tool of self-knowledge and self-cultivation. Myth has to make us better people. It has to be edifying, not corrupting. This leads to two principles for evaluating myths.

The first and primary principle is that the gods have to be good. Indeed, the whole cosmos has to be good. Now, this pretty much blows away all of Greek myth, which is filled with awful gods.

The second principle is the idea that the afterlife has to be just. The Greeks believed that when we died most of us would just go down to Hades and 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 good people go, like heaven. All of the bad people go to Tartarus, but there are two kinds of bad people. One kind, the smallest one, 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 it is hoped that after sufficient chastisement they can eventually 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 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] [5]

This is a kind of pragmatic or moral argument for believing in the goodness of the gods and the cosmic order. 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 Socrates and Plato agree with the basic Greek pragmatism about myth exemplified by their willingness to change their myths from circumstance to circumstance. But they have a higher kind of pragmatism. It’s not just political expediency, but the care of the soul that licenses this kind of attitude.

Thus Socrates and Plato 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 correspondence model of truth, yes, it’s deception. If truth is simply “telling it as it is,” then clearly they’re lying. But I don’t believe that Plato holds this model of truth.

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 determining the truth or falsehood of your views—the only way of testing it—is to die. That means that on this side, we need other criteria besides the correspondence model of truth.

So, what is that model? It’s basically a pragmatic model. 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.

In the Phaedo, Socrates, on the day of his death, tells a myth about the underworld that 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. 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].[4] [6]

In the Gorgias, Socrates uses this phrase “education and upbringing.” Polus says, “What, Socrates, are you going to say that even the Great King [namely the Persian emperor, the most powerful man in the world] might not be happy?” 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 as follows, and it 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 muthon, 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.” 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 pistis is translated as 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. 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. 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 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 his myths are premised on the assumption that no serious person, no real philosopher, could hold these views. But 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 matters 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 cannot know.

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.

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

Third, myth is necessary to philosophy once philosophy recognizes, on the 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 must have some beliefs about ultimate things, you need to go to myths. But an intellectually responsible turn to myth subjects them to the good. The gods and the afterlife must be good, if belief in them is to make us good. Thus Socrates and Plato both take up the inherited myths of Greece and other cultures and transform them in dramatic ways.


[1] [7] 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] [8] 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 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. They were more like debates rather than dialogues. They were not conversational. Apparently, Cicero modeled his dialogues on Aristotle’s. 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 light 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. Many 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 classroom 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] [9] Was Socrates influenced by ancient Egyptian myths? 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 quite bleak and unjust view of the afterlife. It’s like some huge, Kafkaesque bureaucracy where everything’s arbitrary and completely insane. So, Socrates is much more Egyptian if you will.

Another thing is this: Socrates swears oaths 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 them is another question. The Atlantis myth was 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 are still lacking. The story of Horus and Set and Osiris is just as horrifying as any story of the Greek gods.

[4] [10] Plato, Phaedo, trans. G.M.A. Grube (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1977).