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Plato And His Employment Of Myth

2669 words - 11 pages

"All mean is that every man loathes the thought that he might be taken captive by a lie which would prevent him from distinguishing between reality and unreality. That his soul should be possessed by a lie whereby he is continually deceived and irrevocably ignorant is something that no man wants to accept".-SocratesPlato's Republic, Book IIMuthos for the ancient Greeks held many meanings, both as a word itself and as a tradition. The origin of the word "muthos" was simply "something delivered by word of mouth", but eventually came to mean a "design" or "plan" as in a plot of a drama. Then with the association with "tale" or "story", muthos connoted a poetic or legendary tale as opposed to a ...view middle of the document...

Pre-socratics, such as Parmenides, had demonstrated the many problematic stances of "the way of opinion." Therefore, if popular understandings were to withstand this natural attack, they had to evolve in such a way as to incorporate the natural world. Armed with the metaphysical foundations provided by the myths, Plato defended as well as attacked "the way of opinion" through his dialogues, holding onto the gods, but remolding them to an absolute status free from contradiction. This is something Plato believed the poetic composers of myths could not do, and therefore must be left to the philosopher.Plato derided the poets. In the Republic he wrote, "[w]henever they tell a tale that plays false with the true nature of gods and heroes....they are like painters whose portraits bear no resemblance to their models." 2 Further, in the Timaeus he penned that the oracles, or "diviners" as he calls them, are "expositors of utterances of visions communicated through riddles," and are in need of "interpreters to render judgement on an inspired divination."3 In a sense then, the oracles are analogous to modern radios such that they receive and transmit messages, but have no capacity for understanding what they have received or transmitted. Oracles played an inspirational role in mythology, and poets looking for this divine inspiration had invoked the gods and the Muses to gain inspiration for their stories. Therefore, since Plato believed that he had understanding of the "models" (forms), he could render judgement on their divinations.Yet, not only would Plato stand in judgement of myths, he would also reinterpret them, or create new ones himself in order to clarify his philosophy. The myths of Atlantis and Er are two such myths. Therefore, it would be an egregious error to claim that Plato detested myths. Although he believed myths to be lies, he nonetheless believed some could be useful in the formation of his republic.4 To this end Plato would employ censorship, and have the guardians of the republic "tell tales and recount fables that will serve to educate..."5In this context, Plato's use of myth will be explored; that is his mythologizing for the strict and distinctive purpose of clarifying and educating others about his philosophy. First, I will examine exactly what Plato proposed was in error about the Greek myths of his time. Second, I will present and relate three myths (Atlantis, the Phoenician tale and the myth of Er) Plato utilizes to enforce his philosophy. Finally, I will demonstrate what these "useful lies" share in common for Plato's purpose.In the Phaedrus, Socrates, after being questioned about the credibility of the myth of Boreas and Orithuia, responds that to either explain away or make plausible the realm of myth would distract from the Delphic command "know thyself."6 In order to pursue this divine order, Socrates posited and dialectically evaluated what he considered to be the core element of human existence (if not all existence...

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