ClSt / ComL 200:
Notes for February 5

Mythology and the Greek Philosophers


The capacity to reason is a basic human trait; but traditionally the ancient Greeks have been credited with making reason into a kind of art form. This traditional view greatly exaggerates the extent to which Greek culture and behavior were informed by reason in general: in fact, many famous episodes in Greek history were full of stupendously irrational acts, and one aspect of Greek culture involved the actual celebration of the irrational. The very subject of this course and the extreme prevalence of mythic discourse itself illustrates the ancient Greek predeliction for thinking in nonrational terms. But it is nevertheless true that the ancient Greek philosophers developed abstract logic, dialectic, mathematics, and other highly rational forms of discourse, to a considerable degree, and that they brought these rational tools to bear on many of the most important aspects of Greek culture -- including, inevitably, the Greek myths.

The relationship between mythology and philosophy is long and involved, extending from the archaic period down to late antiquity. But it is best understood by plunging into the middle and engaging with (perhaps) the most famous philosopher of classical antiquity, someone who is both extremely suspicious of myths and at the same time one of the most successful mythic storytellers that ever lived -- namely, the fourth-century B.C. teacher and philosopher Plato of Athens.

Who Was Plato?

Plato was an aristocratic Athenian who was born in the late fifth century B.C. He was one of a large informal circle of youg men who habitually discussed philosophy with Socrates, an older Athenian who exerted a decisive influence over the direction taken by contemporary intellectual discourse. After Socrates was executed by the state in 399 B.C. on grounds of impiety and corrupting the morals of the youth, Plato went into exile for a short time, but returned to Athens and opened a school in a grove, the Academy, sacred to the hero Academus.

Whatever he may have done as a teacher, Plato the writer never presented his philosophy as a complete system. Instead, over the course of sevreal decades he wrote a series of dialogues in which various individuals, including friends and acquaintances of Plato's as well as other philosophers and sophists, would discuss individual philosophical questions. The main character in most of these dialogues is Socrates, whose intellectual importance and influence on Plato is thought to have been so great that we are not entirely sure to what extent these dialogues represent the thinking of the historical Socrates and to what extent the ideas they present are original to Plato.

Plato's View of Reality

Perhaps the most characteristic element of Platonic philosophy is the doctrine of forms or ideas. By the middle of his career, Plato had developed the theory that the world in which we live is a kind of illusion or at least that it is less real than an ideal world which he believed to exist beyond the reach of our senses but accessible to our intellect by means of rational argument. According to this theory, everything in the material world is a kind of imitation of pure forms exisiting in the ideal world. The whole idea of course runs counter to what we might call "common sense"; and yet Plato defends it with excellent arguments, and the influence of his ideas on subsequent philosophical and religious thought has been enormous.

At any rate, Plato thinks of the ideal world as eternal and unchanging, and therefore perfect. He therefore regards it as the highest level of reality. The world of appearances, in which we live, is a mere imitation of this ideal world, and so is less real. But within the world of appearences, there are things such as the products of the representational arts that are even farther away from the ideal world: just as Plato would regard a chair, for instance, as less real than the ideal form of chair, of which it is a mere imitation, so he would regard a painting of the chair as even less real than the object itself -- an imitation of an imitation. This view of reality can be illutrated by a divided line that corresponds to the various levels of reality in Plato's philosophy:

highest level of reality Ideal Forms
  | (intellectual world)
next level Numbers
---------------------- ---------------|--------------- -----------------------
next level Objects
  | (perceptible world)
lowest level Representations of Objects

Plato on Mythology

Because he viewed reality in this way, Plato often voiced suspicions about all forms of art. Art, he reasoned, whether verbal, musical, or visual, was merely an imitation of something more real than itself. It could therefore not be good or bad in itself, but only in terms of how well it imitated things more real than itself. Accordingly, he took a dim view of stories that he felt misrepresented the nature of higher realities; and this made him a rather severe critic of almost all classical Greek poetry.

Banned Books

Plato's most famous treatment of this entire problem if framed interms of education. The Republic is a lengthy dialogue outlining Plato's views on the most perfect form of government. In the course of the dialogue, he addresses the problem of how to educate those who will be the leading citizens of his ideal state; and in keeping with Greek custom, he assumes that reading poetry will form an important part of this education. But he asserts (through the main character of the dialogue, Socrates) that care must be taken not to let pupils or citizens be exposed to potry that will damage their morals:
(the following quotation is available in hypertext format from Perseus)

"What, then, is our education? Or is it hard to find a better than that which long time has discovered? Which is, I suppose, gymnastics for the body and for the soul music." "It is." "And shall we not begin education in music earlier than in gymnastics?" "Of course." "And under music you include tales, do you not?" "I do." "And tales are of two species, the one true and the other false?" "Yes." "And education must make use [377a] of both, but first of the false?" "I don't understand your meaning." "Don't you understand," I said, "that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics." "That is so." "That, then, is what I meant by saying that we must take up music before gymnastics." "You were right," he said. "Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing, especially for any creature that is young and tender? [377b] For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it." "Quite so." "Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?" "By no manner of means will we allow it." "We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship [377c] over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject."

Plato, then, advocated censorship of the poems that he felt would hinder the education of good citizens; nor did he shrink from indicting those poets whom Greek culture traditionally regarded as among its most important sources:
"What sort of stories?" he said. "The example of the greater stories," I said, "will show us the lesser also. For surely the pattern must be the same and the greater and the less [377d] must have a like tendency. Don't you think so?" "I do," he said; "but I don't apprehend which you mean by the greater, either." "Those," I said, "that Hesiod and Homer and the other poets related. These, methinks, composed false stories which they told and still tell to mankind." "Of what sort?" he said; "and what in them do you find fault?" "With that," I said, "which one ought first and chiefly to blame, especially if the lie is not a pretty one." [377e] "What is that?" "When anyone images badly in his speech the true nature of gods and heroes, like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models." "It is certainly right to condemn things like that," he said; "but just what do we mean and what particular things?" "There is, first of all," I said, "the greatest lie about the things of greatest concernment, which was no pretty invention of him who told how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did to Cronos, and how Cronos in turn took his revenge; [378a] and then there are the doings and sufferings of Cronos at the hands of his son. Even if they were true I should not think that they ought to be thus lightly told to thoughtless young persons. But the best way would be to bury them in silence, and if there were some necessity for relating them, that only a very small audience should be admitted under pledge of secrecy and after sacrificing, not a pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim, to the end that as few as possible should have heard these tales." "Why, yes," said he, "such stories are hard sayings." "Yes, and they are not to be told, [378b] Adeimantus, in our city, nor is it to be said in the hearing of a young man, that in doing the utmost wrong he would do nothing to surprise anybody, nor again in punishing his father's wrong-doings to the limit, but would only be following the example of the first and greatest of the gods." "No, by heaven," said he, "I do not myself think that they are fit to be told."
Hesiod's Theogony, in other words, is a morally damaging poem because it ascribes to the gods deeds and emotions that Plato felt gods ought not to do or feel.
"Neither must we admit at all," said I, "that gods war with gods and plot against one another and contend -- for it is not true either -- [378c] if we wish our future guardians to deem nothing more shameful than lightly to fall out with one another; still less must we make battles of gods and giants the subject for them of stories and embroideries, and other enmities many and manifold of gods and heroes toward their kith and kin. But if there is any likelihood of our persuading them that no citizen ever quarrelled with his fellow-citizen and that the very idea of it is an impiety, [378d] that is the sort of thing that ought rather to be said by their elders, men and women, to children from the beginning and as they grow older, and we must compel the poets to keep close to this in their compositions.
Plato's attitude towards traditional mythology is both censorious and quite radical. He advocates a wholesale revision of traditional mythology to suport his own ideas about the education of a good citizen. He does not advocate dispensing with poetry and mythology altogether, although he has more to say about what is wrong with traditional poetry than about what the poetry he advocates would look like. We can, however, perhaps infer something about this topic from the way in which Plato uses mythology in his own writing.

Platonic Myths

One might not expect from what Plato says about traditional poetry and mythology that he himself uses myth frequently in his writings, and has always been admired as a creator of fictions. His dialogues of course are not real conversations, but carefully and artfully composed imitations of conversations. They are thus, on Plato's own terms, less "real" than actual conversations -- and so, for instance, more open to misinterpretation than a statement made by a person whom one could ask for clarification or further explanation, or whom one could contradict and refute with a stronger argument. But Plato did not shy away from the fictional element in his dialogues; rather, he cultivated it. In fact the Republic -- the same dialogue quoted above for the view that traditional mythology contained too many damaging falsehoods about the gods to be educationally valuable -- actually concludes with a fantastic myth, otherwisde completely unknown to us, about a man named Er (an extremely unusual name for a Greek) who dies in battle but returns to life on the funeral pyre and tells his friends about his experiences in the land of the dead. He sees there figures from traditional Greek mythology, some of whom, like the three Fates, perform their usual mythological function, while others, like Orpheus, Thanyras, Ajax, Atalanta, Epeius, Thersites, and Odysseus behave in ways that allude to the usual stories told about them, but which also seem to have been freely invented or embellished by Plato.


The myth of Er contains many elements drawn from sources other than traditional mythology as well. Some of the ideas it contains, like the idea that the individual soul outlives the body in which it is born and, following death, is born into another body in a lengthy cycle of rebirth, are basic elements of Plato's philosophy: in other words, Plato must really have believed that such things actually happened. On the other hand, there is no reason to think that he literally believed the things he said about Odysseus, Ajax, or for that matter Er. Rather, he regarded them as fictions that illustrate essential truths. Like other Platonic myths, the myth of Er uses traditional mythology as a vocabulary in which to discuss such matters as the relationship between this life and the afterlife, between human beings and the divine, between citizens and the state, and so forth. In its rationalistic cast, Platonic philosophy differs significantly from traditional mythology; but in respect to the questions concerning the human condition that it addresses, and even in respect to its canny use of the seductive element of fiction, it has something in common with the very myths that it attacks.