The Aesthetics of Myth in Plato

It is always fascinating to ask people who are reading Plato, for the first time or the 100th, why they think he is so often akin to utilizing mythological elements in his work. The soaring heights of Socrates’s philosophical peitho (persuasion) often culminate in the mythical. Witness, for example the Meno, the Phaedrus, and the Phaedo, not to mention Timaeus.

What are we to make of this tendency to revert to the myth? Scholars like A.E. Taylor aver, at least in the case of the Timaeus, that the myth is just the tool Plato uses when his analysis hasn’t gone far enough. Others, like Charles Kahn, see it as a mere means of persuasion for Plato’s audience, lost in the ignorance of a mythically-founded existence as they were. The more vulgar interpretation, for instance, in the French version of Philosophy for Dummies that I’m working on translating (an extremely interesting, useful, and comical pursuit), views Plato as the philosopher that just couldn’t quite get past the myth. He was a transitional figure; in him we can see the birth pangs of a the more fully “reason”-based philosophy that emerges in Aristotle. In a word, he just couldn’t quite get past mythos and enter true logos.

This interpretation is to be found even among modern Christian philosophers of a more analytic bent. James Jacobs, in his new book, Seat of Wisdom, posits the standard viewpoint on the central achievement of Greek philosophy: “[The] monumental turn from mythos (myth) to logos (logic, or reason) would prove to be a seminal innovation for the entire human race.” His translations of the terms here must not go unnoticed: uncritical use of of the word “myth” in the modern sense (a fabricated story that must be debunked in order to discern truth) and “reason” (the only principle which allows one to know something, that which must stand under everything claimed as knowledge). Hence his subsequent emphasis on Aristotle as the foundational figure for the philosophie pĂ©renne.

What is Plato really doing when he employs the myth? The most plausible theories come in the “myth as persuasion” variety. For scholars like William Rowe, the use of myth is an acknowledgement of the limits of our capacity for knowledge. The eikos mythos of Plato’s Timaeus is the “likely tale” that is the closest we can hope to come to knowledge about the beginning of the world. We are getting warmer: Plato was acknowledging the limits of “knowledge” as we understand it today, steeped as we are in our post-postmodern worldview, which one could describe as constituted in part by a fanatically uncritical scientistic rationalism.

Eric Voegelin’s view of what is happening in Plato’s mythologizing is a much fuller exposition of the myth as persuasion interpretation. In his book Plato and Aristotle, he provides a fascinating reading of the Timaeus that expounds on the meaning of Plato’s myths.

To begin with, Voegelin agrees that

“The paradigm of the cosmos itself is inaccessible to the intellect of man… Nevertheless, we can give a likely account of the likeness because our psyche is part of the cosmic psyche, and in the medium of our individual psyche we respond with the eikos mythos to the cosmic eikon” (198).

We must go over some terminology. “Psyche” here is a technical term meaning the locus of interaction between man and the transcendent “beyond” or “unlimited” (apeiron) with which man interacts through reason. Thus, “reason” for Voegelin is “The consciousness of being caused by the Divine ground and being in search of the Divine ground” (Conversations with Eric Voegelin).

Another term to note is eikon, Greek for “image,” but which is the etymological root word for “icon.” There is more going on here, something like what Jean-Luc Marion has in mind when using the term (See his most in-depth treatment in God Without Being). For Marion, the icon is the unlimited depth (which we can scarcely begin to discern conceptually) that lies at the root of that which is being contemplated. It is the fullness of what we might call the “unconcept”: that which can be broached (in the French sense of aborder) but can never be contained within a totality. In this context, the cosmos is an eikon.

There is, then, a “consubstantiality” between the soul and the cosmos. This makes possible the interaction between the two that happens in and through the myth: “The eikos mythos carries its own aletheia [truth] because in it we symbolize the truly experienced relation of our separate conscious existence to the cosmic ground of the soul” (198). The myth is a participation in the “something” that is shared between the psyche and the cosmos.

This leads Voegelin to a crucial distinction: this is not a naturalistic philosophy of creation in time. This leads Voegelin to distinguish between the “time of the tale” (eternity, Being) and the “time of the cosmos” (natural time, Becoming). The myth symbolizes the coming together of the “in-between of time and eternity,” or the time of the tale and the time of the cosmos. It is an attempt at saying the unsayable: the relation between man and that which stands beyond his capability to know. The something which he participates in and with in the drama of being. On Voegelin’s reading, this in-between of time and eternity is a gesture toward the meaning of human existence for Plato. Voegelin continues:

“Being does not precede becoming in time; it is eternally present in Becoming. The flux of Becoming, with its transitory objects, as we have seen, is not merely a series of data given to belief and sensation; it has a dimension pointing out of time toward eternal Being… This process which intersects the time of Becoming at the point of its present, but is not part of the process of Becoming itself, is the process of the psyche; and the time of the tale is the “form of the object” into which consciousness casts this timeless process” (200).

The time of the tale approximates the process of the psyche as the locus of interaction between physical time and the eternal, between Being and Becoming.

I am reminded here of Martin Buber’s proclamation that “the prayer is not in time, but time in prayer.” The prayer constitutes time; it is ontologically prior to it. For example, in the West, before clocks were available, time was measured by the movement of the sun and the commensurate hour of prayer (See Neil Postman’s excellent book Technocracy for a great discussion of this). The Liturgy of the Hours constituted time in participation with the movement of cosmos. To enter into the prayer in some sense was to enter into the consubstantial kinesis (movement) of God’s creation. This, as opposed to the time of nature which on its own is utterly bereft of meaning. Prayer constitutes in this sense the intersection of eternal being and the becoming of nature, with and through man’s participation.

The meaning of this can only be understood in terms of the “Thou” which can never be reached in the disembodied proposition. How, then can it be approached? For Voegelin, it is through the peitho of existential communication, which Plato experienced via his discourses with Socrates. Plato has passed this on to us through the myth. This was the only way available for him to communicate that which is best passed between persons, between an I and a Thou. He was attempting to provide us a dim reflection of the meaning he had gathered from his experience as a student.

For Buber, another way to approach the unreachable is through art. In fact, as he explains in his endlessly fascinating essay, I and Thou, artistic creation is when the form reaches out to the artist from the beyond, desiring to be brought into the temporal realm, of becoming. It is a moment of intersection that allows us to go some way to understanding how being and becoming can meet:

“This is the eternal source of art: a man is faced by a form which desires to be made through him into a work. This form is no offspring of his soul, but is an appearance which steps up to it and demands of it the effective power. The man is concerned with an act of his being. If he carries it through, if he speaks the primary word out of his being to the form which appears, then the effective power streams out, and the work arises” (11).

To speak the most basic words requires that one have a sense of their meaning. The failure of analytic philosophy to ground the most basic concepts in a pure instrumental reason witness to this fact. It is only in and through the work of art that the power of that which stands outside of the self can be broached: an entrance into the relationship with the “Thou.” The happening that occurs with the creation of the work happens anew when one glances into it in the fullness of its depth. Or, one might say, in its evocation of the “Thou”:

“In bodying forth I disclose. I lead the form across—into the world of It. The work produced is a thing among things, able to be experience and described as a sum of qualities. But from time to time it can face the receptive beholder in its whole embodied form.”

The myth, then is Plato’s art. He is trying to write that which can never be captured textually; that which, once written, becomes meaningless when approached with the vulgar notion of reason in mind. In order to access what Plato has to offer, we must open ourselves to the Thou available to us at these most crucial moments in his dialogues.