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 pérenne.

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.

Hegel’s Journey

Hegel’s work sheds some light on the structure of the journey from Erlebnisse to Nous. In Phenomenology of Spirit, Hegel devotes an entire chapter to the nature of sense-certainty that lays out the problem quite nicely. For this article, I cite the standard Miller translation with its immensely tasteful cover design (see below).

Sense-certainty, the knowledge that “I see a cup,” or “It is night,” Hegel calls the “concrete content,” of our sense perceptions. He admits that these perceptions seem like the richest and truest kind of knowledge, for sence-certainty seems to take in the entirety of its object in one fell swoop. If I see the cup, I know the cup in some capacity. Yet, upon further reflection, Hegel asserts that “…this certainty proves itself to be the most abstract and poorest truth… its truth contains nothing but the sheer being of the thing.” (p. 58).

Why is this so? Why is it that when I see the cup I know nothing about it other than that it is?

There is a sense here that Hegel is interested in establishing the difficulty of what I call the long road from the this to the what. Hegel calls the data of sense experience a “simple immediacy,” as in it lacks any sort of mediation of consciousness: “…here neither I nor the thing has the significance of a complex process of mediation; the ‘I’ does not have the significance of a manifold imagining or thinking [i.e., the mind has not yet put it into any context or named it, etc.]; nor does the ‘thing’ signify something that has a host of qualities…. the thing is… merely because it is… this is the essential point for sense-knowledge.”

The next assertion, following in the footsteps of Descartes, is the key assertion for modern philosophy. According to Hegel, sense-certainty necessarily splits the pure being into two mediated “thises.” The this I sense, and the “this as object.” (p. 59) This mediation comes through the thing and through myself. If, for example, I have bad eyesight, the apple might appear as a red blob. Mediation through the thing is a key ground assumption for Hegel, as the manifold (raw data) of sense-experience must come from something.

This is what Hegel terms the difference between essence and instance. It is that age-old problem of the one and the many, the problem of universals. Expressed in terms of language, what makes it possible for me to predicate something about the object and to be understood by someone else?

For his part, Hegel does admit that the object exists whether it is known or not. Conversely, he also admits that “there is no knowledge if the object is not there.” This is a key distinction to make in the light of modern impatience with idealist philosophy. The essence, the thing-in-itself is still there in an important way regardless of our knowledge of it.

Now we must ask whether the object must be as we know it through sense certainty. What do our senses actually tell us about reality? Hegel uses the example of the term “now.” If it is 11:00 PM and I say that “now it is night,” write down this truth, then reread it the next day at 11:00 AM, is the thing that I wrote untrue? When I wrote it, it was true using the methods of sense-certainty, yet at 11:00 AM the following day, it is not true to say “now is night.” But the truth of my written proclamation is not thereby negated. Hegel calls this type of assertion a universal.

The this of sense experience is another such universal. Hegel calls it “…the universal this; or… Being in general.” (p. 60) The manifold of sense experiences that constitute the event of perception come in the form of a collection of sense data, what Kant called pure intuition. But this collection of data comes from a “this,” a universal similar to the assertion of a “now.” The same exercise above can be done with the assertion of a “here.” “I” is a universal in this Hegelian sense as well. Each assertion of “I” is an individual instance that varies depending on who utters it.

Hegel’s crucial next step:

“Sense-certainty thus comes to know by experience that its essence is neither in the object nor in the ‘I’, and that its immediacy is neither an immediacy of the one nor of the other; for in both, what I mean is rather something unessential, and the object and the ‘I’ are universals in which that ‘Now’ and ‘Here’ and ‘I’ which I mean do not have a continuing being…” (p. 62)

While I do not continue on with Hegel to assert the whole of sense experience as its own essence. This is the jumping-off point for so many who end their philosophical journey in an unmoored relativism. The essence of experience must come from something other than itself. The ground for truth must exist, the question is whether and how we access it. Yet Hegel nicely outlines the problem I termed in the last post “From Erlebnisse to Nous.” How do we get from these manifold experiences of thises, heres, and nows to predication in language, or more importantly, the truth?

Jacques Maritain’s Habitus

In my last post I spoke about the problem as posed by Aristotle in the Posterior Analytics. I’d like to expound on this problem as posed elsewhere by Aristotle, this time in Book VI of the Nicomachean Ethics:

“If, then, the states of mind by which we have truth and are never deceived about things invariable or even variable are scientific knowledge, practical wisdom, philosophic wisdom, and intuitive reason, and it cannot be any of the three (i.e. practical wisdom, scientific knowledge, or philosophic wisdom), the remaining alternative is that it is intuitive reason that grasps the first principles.”

Nicomachean Ethics, 1141a 5 ff.

Here we find that intuitive reason that we saw before. The greek used here is nous, one of the watchwords for our current endeavor. What does Aristotle mean by nous? While I am not by any means ready to venture a global definition of the term at this point (indeed, a life spent solely in attempting to understand what nous is would not be ill spent), in De Anima we find Aristotle describing it in a limited way regarding its role in “intuitive reasoning” as follows:

“I call nous that faculty by which the soul reasons (dianoeitai) and
comes thereby to belief.”

De Anima, 429a 23

While there is some controversy over the issue, it seems clear to me that, based on the way Aristotle frames the role played by nous in Posterior Analytics, it must be this sort of faculty rather than just a deeper level of induction as Bolton argues in the paper cited above.

So we again return to the question from the last post: what kind of intuition could this be? One possible answer is to be found in Jacques Maritain’s Preface to Metaphysics. In the 3rd lecture of the book, Maritain describes a sort of intuitional or mystical experience that can provide one knowledge of the first principles. Maritain calls it an experience of the ens in quantum ens, or “being as such.” (p. 27)

Before proceeding, we must explain the role habitus plays in fertilizing the garden from which this moment of intuition can spring. Maritain thinks that, required for any such experience, one must attain to a certain capability or readiness in order to access the real. The section is worth quoting at length:

“As you know, to each science there belongs a distinctive intellectual virtue. There is, therefore an intellectual virtue proper to the metaphysician. And this virtue, or habitus, corresponds to being as the object of the intuition just mentioned. We must therefore distinguish two “Lights” in scholastic parlance, one pertaining to the object, the other to the habitus, or intellectual virtue. The characteristic mode of intellectual apprehension or eidetic visualisation — the degree of immateriality, of spirituality in the manner in which the mind grasps the object and conforms to it, demanded by the very nature of trans-objective reality as it presents to the mind as its object a particular intelligible facet — constitutes what the ancients termed the ratio formalis sub qua, the objective light in which at a given degree of knowledge objects are knowable by the intellect. At the same time proportionate to this objective light there is a subjective light perfecting the subjective activity of the intellect, by which the intellect itself is proportioned to a given object, fitted to apprehend it. That is why Thomists say that the habitus is a lumen, a light, not in the objective but in the effective order. For it is concerned with the production or effectuation of the act of knowing.” 

Jacques Maritain, Preface to Metaphysics (p. 26-27)

One possible way of conceiving the role of habitus is brought out nicely in Professor David Walsh’s magisterial book The Modern Philosophical Revolution: The Luminosity of Existence. Walsh ingeniously teases out a grand narrative from a litany of modern thinkers which all point to the absolutely essential role that the luminosity or mystery of the self plays in understanding the basis and proper limits of philosophy. Without a certain openness to the unutterable profundity of personal existence, philosophy becomes a useless academic exercise (or worse, a tool for justifying evil) rather than a means for understanding reality.

Habitus consists in a growing-toward this realization, an “opening up” to the contents of what is there for us in philosophy as a properly lifelong practice. Yet while the habitus paves the way in a sense for the moment of access to being itself, the experience of intuition is ontologically prior to the habitus. This flash of insight, made possible by habitus, is in a way kept alive after the fact as the metaphysician undergoing this process perceives the nature of reality with more and more clarity.

Proceeding to the actual experience itself, I again quote Maritain at length:

“We are confronted here with a genuine intuition, a perception direct and immediate, an intuition not in the technical sense which the ancients attached to the term, but in the sense we may accept from modern philosophy. It is a very simple sight, superior to any discursive reasoning or demonstration, because it is the source of demonstration. It is a sight whose content and implications no words of human speech can exhaust or adequately express and in which in a moment of decisive emotion, as it were, of spiritual conflagration, the soul is in contact, a living, penetrating and illuminating contact, with a reality which it touches and which takes hold of it.”

Maritain describes an experience in which one is able to apprehend being itself in one gargantuan and overflowing, sublime, yet fleeting moment. This sudden stroke of inexpressible knowledge, a flash “pregnant with ontological realism,” to use Maritain’s phrase, is akin to a mystical experience. It cannot be accessed through any technique or process. It comes not from superior technical knowledge of philosophy or any other subject. It is a stroke of genius, a moment of insight, a singular instance of absolute knowledge that allows one to know for the rest of his life that “I am a self… [and that I have access to] the reality of my being, the profound first principle which makes me exist outside nonentity.” (p. 28)  According to Maritain, from this foundation we can continue to cultivate the habitus into higher levels of knowledge through the continued practice of philosophy as a way of life.