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.

Thanatos and Eros: Eric Voegelin on what dialogue actually means

The inchoate concept of “Dialogue” is a hot-button topic in our society today. I’ll refrain from providing a litany of theoretically problematic news stories or puff-pieces by “leaders” about how dialogue will solve so many of our political problems. I invite the reader to simply call to mind examples from his or her own experience. When readings such pieces, the more thoughtful among us may rightly be wondering: what does dialogue actually mean? What can dialogue, rightly conceived, actually accomplish? Can “training” or “education” really promote such dialogue?

As with so many “contemporary” problems, useful ways of understanding such problems have already been known for thousands of years. The faster we run headlong into schemes to increase “change” or “progress” the faster we realize how far behind we actually are. The sapiential frameworks for understanding our problems are already there; what we need are thinkers who can step outside the hysteria of the moment and better understand the tools available to us and how to apply them.

One possible framework for understanding dialogue comes in the work of Plato. As many have argued, Platonic dialogue is seen as one possible method for approaching concepts that could never be formulated as apodictic verities. According to James Rhodes (see link above), Plato’s assertion that he cannot write on the things about which he is most serious should make us wonder. At the very least, this indicates that there is a lot more to dialogue than just talking. In fact, just forcing people to talk to each other may do more harm than good. Is dialogue the second-best alternative to silent wonder at the ineffable mysteries of being? Is it our best hope for a true (though necessarily incomplete) understanding or being shared with others?

For an answer, we must turn to Eric Voegelin. In the 3rd Volume of Order and History, Voegelin asserts that true dialogue as understood by Socrates and Plato, consists of two elements: thanatos and eros.

According to Voegelin, the deep structure of Platonic dialogue is the heir to Greek tragedy. The idea of peitho, or “the persuasive imposition of right order on the unruly passion,” as exemplified in tragedies like Aeschylus’s Prometheus become a model for a well-ordered soul. The two opposing forces of order and passion are engaged in a dialogue in the soul. This well-ordered tension becomes the model for the soul: it is a balance of elements, hammered out in dialogue. The two elements can take many forms; Voegelin thinks that for Plato, they are best symbolized in thanatos (Socratic death) and eros (passion).

Thanatos is the element found in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, where Socrates explains the role of philosophy as a sort of purification toward the culmination that comes in death. In Voegelin’s words, “In the Phaedo, thanatos becomes the cathartic power that cures the soul of the sickness of the earth…[it] is the force that orders the soul of the living, for it makes them desirous of stripping themselves of everything that is not noble and just.” Philosophy, properly practiced, becomes a sort of living death, a shedding of the concerns of this world. Voegelin terms it, in a strangely Heideggerian moment, “life toward death.” This is dramatically illustrated in Socrates’ final words, in which he strangely remembers in his last moments on Earth that he “…owes a cock to Asclepios.” It is his final shedding of the concerns of the world as he makes his journey to the Beyond.

Eros is the other required ingredient for dialogue. Through thanatos man dies to all that is not noble, true and beautiful. Eros is the next step: it is “…the positive desire of the Good,” according to Voegelin. Plato explains the erotic connection in the Phaedrus, in the form of a myth: two souls search for the good and “…find their own divine nature in their fascinated gaze at the nature of the god in the beloved.” There is a tripartite structure here: the lover, the beloved, and the god reflected in the loving gaze between the two. This structure takes on a “sacramental character”, as the structure enters spatio-temporal reality through its enactment: “…for the nature of the god becomes incarnate in the community of the erotic souls as in its mystical body.”

When these two elements are present, true dialogue is possible: one must be dead to the insignificant concerns of everyday life and open to experiencing the Good through the other. This is how a simple trading of words can become a true dialogue, or “existential communication.” It is an openness to the other through communion, through a shared reality. One is reminded here of John von Heyking’s important and influential exploration of Aristotle’s concept of sunaisthesis. Only through a shared communal experience is friendship possible. Only when two souls have died to petty political concerns and opened themselves up to the good possible in community with the other is dialogue possible.

In Voegelin’s words:

The Idea of the Good evoked in the communion of the dialogue, fills the souls of those who participate in the evocative act. And thus it becomes the sacramental bond between them and creates the nucleus of the new society.

This sounds like a rather lofty and idealistic enterprise when we consider what might be possible through training at work or new educational schemes for our children. True dialogue is only possible when individual people open themselves up to experiencing the good through others. Heavy-handed government, corporate, or educational schemes can only fall short of what it really means to enter into dialogue. As mentioned above, they may do more harm than good. Again, Voegelin has the crucial insight: “[Dialogue] restores the common order of the spirit that has been destroyed through the privatization of rhetoric.” Can putting people in a room and forcing them to talk about these things do anything more than just accelerate the “privatization of rhetoric?”

The real solution comes only in the authentic interactions between people, in shared experiences of reality that help them to mutually grow to see the good in the other. Rather than promote healing, any top-down scheme promoting “dialogue” will likely create yet more alienation.

From Parmenides to Philebus: It’s a Process

Plato’s Parmenides is widely considered the most enigmatic of the Platonic dialogues, and rightly so. I think that one would do well to approach this dialogue by “reading between the lines” in the Straussian sense. In the dialogue, we encounter a young Socrates engaging with Zeno, at the time already in middle age, and Parmenides, a well-established master of the philosophical art. This seems to suggest, by form alone, that Socrates was not yet mature enough to take on the magisterial Parmenides.

I’d like to focus on the second part, in which Parmenides uses an idiosyncratic method to determine the nature of the One (alternatively, the Idea of Unity). This method consists in considering the consequences if the one is asserted to possess various accidents (being, not-being, motion, non-motion, becoming, perishing…).

While many scholars disagree whether the argument here is ultimately coherent, there is no doubt that it is difficult to follow and yields no obvious conclusions. If we again apply Strauss’s method as suggested, it seems that this dialogue is meant to demonstrate the difficulties in positing Platonic forms. One gets the sense that the reader is meant to thoughtfully consider all the associated problems with the forms and, in the process become better at defending them. It is, like so many of the dialogues, aporetic.

Luckily for us, Parmenides was not Plato’s only statement on the subject. We must consider the dialectic method laid out by Socrates in The Republic (34b3–c5) and, more importantly in Philebus. Consider Socrates’ words at 15c:

We say that one and many are identified by reason, and always, both now and in the past, circulate everywhere in every thought that is uttered. This is no new thing and will never cease; it is, in my opinion, a quality within us which will never die or grow old, and which belongs to reason itself as such. 

Later on, Socrates describes the process of differentiation that must take place in order for us to get a sense of the universal:

…we must always assume that there is in every case one idea of everything and must look for it—for we shall find that it is there—and if we get a grasp of this, we must look next for two, if there be two, and if not, for three or some other number; and again we must treat each of those units in the same way, until we can see not only that the original unit is one and many and infinite, but just how many it is. And we must not apply the idea of infinite to plurality until we have a view of its whole number [16e] between infinity and one; then, and not before, we may let each unit of everything pass on unhindered into infinity.”

Gadamer provides some insight into this process in his masterful The Idea of the Good in Platonic – Aristotelian Philosophy. It involves “…the division of a one into a determinate manifold that is itself eidetic-ideal.” (p. 119) Think here of listening to a symphony play a chord and then breaking out all the different notes played by all the different instruments. Further,

“… the art of differentiating only reaches its goal when one finds no more specifiable units- tones, phonemes, [etc.]… Differentiation takes place here within the noetic one, and it is the principle of number that the Philebus introduces in this context as the truly illuminating Promethean fire. Here, the Pythagorean heritage, the identification of being with number is explicated on the new level of noetic being” (p. 120, emphasis added).

This “noetic being,” a new concept of the forms which in other dialogues is asserted to subsist independently of individual objects, is one mode of being as pointed out in the last post. Here, Plato is in agreement with Aristotle. We must also note, that contrary to what we found in Parmenides, the manifold is not infinite in this case.

But most importantly, the key insight has been revealed: the dialectic of differentiation/synthesis is “… a world of signs and indices that directs us to the ideal.” (p. 120) Here Gadamer touches on the dialectically structured meaning, greater than the concrete whole, which one must seek in order to make sense of the problem of universals. Here we have a much better picture of how one engages in this dialectic than that given in The Republic. There is a growth into these kinds of truths that ought to take place. To be sure, dialectic is not constitutive of these truths, rather, it is our mode of access to them.

This growth is an ongoing process, in which the universal is at once unified in the logos of sound dialectical thought and manifold in the decisions we make in the moment of choice.

…the ideal of a life harmonized rightly, is – precisely as a result of dialogue – a logos, which directs us to an ergon (deed), to choosing what is right in the moment of choice. (p. 121)

It’s a process.