BMCR 2001.06.18

Myth and Philosophy from the pre-Socratics to Plato

, Myth and philosophy from the Presocratics to Plato. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000. 1 online resource (viii, 313 pages). ISBN 0511017677. $64.95.

The myths of Plato, Parmenides, and other philosophers have often received short shrift, both from scholars of myth (who regard them as somehow inauthentic myths) and from scholars of philosophy (who regard them as somehow unworthy of philosophy). M.’s excellent study should prompt anyone with an interest in myth or philosophy to examine these important texts and the role they play in the development of both myth and philosophy in Greek culture. M. argues that, despite the polemical denigration of myth by thinkers from Xenophanes to Plato, these philosophers also made use of myth in their writings for important methodological reasons. Myth, for these writers, becomes a marked discourse with which they can highlight the problems of language in general. M.’s work, which includes chapters on the Presocratics and the sophists as well as several chapters on Plato’s use of myth in the middle and late period dialogues, is an important advance in the scholarship on these issues.

In many ways, M.’s study provides a middle ground and a correction for two of the most significant works on philosophy and myth in the last 20 years, Detienne’s L’invention de la mythologie and Brisson’s response in Platon: les Mots et les Mythes.1 Picking up on the argument of Detienne, M. argues that: “We must remember that the incompatibility of myth and philosophy is a reflection of the polemic self-representation of some early philosophers” [p. 4]. However, M. does not fall into the trap of what Brisson refers to as “inexistentialism,” concluding that such polemic definitions imply that myth does not even exist. M. argues that the philosophers, having defined myth as a problematic discourse, nevertheless make use of it to signal and acknowledge the problems that persist even in their own philosophical discourse. Perhaps the most valuable point that M. brings out in her study is that philosophers from Xenophanes to Plato recognized and marked the epistemological problems inherent in any discourse. In noting the polemical character of philosophic definition of myth, M. notes: “When philosophical discourse claims to be authoritative and to present language that corresponds to the way things are, myth ensures that we do not take too optimistic a view of the potential successes of this enterprise” [p. 17].

In contrast to Brisson and many other Platonic scholars, M. takes into account the doubts expressed by Plato in the Phaedrus and the Seventh Letter about the ability of language ever to adequately express philosophical understanding. M. builds on some recent studies of Platonic dialogues to show how the literary aspects of the Platonic dialogue, from the dialogic form to the interactions of the characters, are crucial to understanding the ways in which the ideas presented in the dialogues should be understood.2 M. also compares the ancient philosophers’ anxiety over language of with the modern deconstructionists’. While some readers of M.’s study may feel that the comparison of ancient and modern anxieties over language is pressed too hard, M. is careful to argue that the ancient philosophers did not go as far as the moderns in rejecting any possibility of transcendent meaning or the law of non-contradiction.3 Whether the ancient philosophers were as anxious about the limits of language as modern theorists or not, M.’s treatment brings out the ways in which their concerns influenced their use of myth in the philosophical writings.

M. starts her treatment of the philosophical use of myth with the Presocratics, examining the ways that thinkers such as Xenophanes, Herakleitos, Empedokles, and Parmenides criticized the poetic and mythological tradition that was the primary discourse for authoritative speech. Each of these thinkers, M. argues, is concerned with the gap between language and reality and the limits of human knowledge, and they all, in different ways, attack the authorities of the poetic tradition for ignorance and misrepresentation of the true state of things. M. also discusses allegory and rationalisation as responses to this kind of Presocratic critique of the poetic and mythic tradition, responses which nevertheless depend on the same sort of criteria for judgement that the Presocratics demand—an examination of fixed literary texts and the application of set criteria for truth to the elements in them.

M. argues that the Presocratics’ awareness of the fundamental insufficiency of human expression causes them to hedge even their own discourse, to incorporate markers of the limits of their own ability to express their truths. Although Xenophanes and Herakleitos appropriated poetic meter and imagery from the poetic tradition, they largely excluded traditional mythic tales from their writings. Parmenides, on the other hand, like Empedokles, made use of traditional mythic elements to lay out his philosophical vision. However, M. argues, Parmenides’ mythological frame highlights the paradox of talking about what-is-not: “The problem of the mythological frame is more obvious than the problem of language; focusing attention on the former is a way of pointing in the direction of the latter” [p.84]. Myth serves as a marked discourse that not only communicates the idea but draws attention to the problems of formulating that communication.

M. makes good use of the studies of Goody and Havelock to position the philosophic polemic against traditional myth within the context of developing literacy,4 but, for all of these authors, M. focuses on the linguistic and epistemological, rather than the ethical, concerns. She does not, of course, deny that ethical concerns were important or even argue that they were necessarily secondary to the linguistic issues she is discussing, but this focus means that M.’s arguments are more convincing for some authors than for others. Xenophanes and Herakleitos, for example, are much more clearly concerned with epistemological and linguistic issues than is Empedokles. M.’s assertion that Empedokles’ condemnation of false oaths is grounded in the problem of the separation of the words and the world is far less convincing than her discussion of Herakleitos’ notoriously paradoxical style as a negotiation of the middle ground between meaninglessness and specious clarity: “The only option left is to give a sign that advertises a complex correspondence between language and reality and makes the reader meditate on hidden incongruities” [p. 57].

Although M.’s treatment of the Presocratics’ use of myth overall shows that these thinkers had important, methodological reasons for using the discourse of myth, M. never gives a precise definition of myth or the mythological material whose use in a philosophic context constitutes philosophical myth.5 An exploration of how traditional elements and narrative forms mark out myth as a discourse might have helped M. be more precise in her identification of the uses of myth in the various authors she treats, since ‘myth’ occasionally seems to shift in meaning, from a full retelling of a traditional narrative to the use of non-analytic imagery.

In the next chapter, M. points out that the Sophists, rather than attacking or transforming the traditional stories, tended to appropriate the traditional myths, either exegetically (using the explanation of the story to show off cleverness) or epideictically (retelling the story to thematize certain concerns of importance). The sophists see both myth and language as conventional constructs, and they manipulate myth as they manipulate language, making clever use of societal conventions to gain advantage in society. M. discusses such sophistic uses of myth as Prodikos’ Choice of Herakles, Hippias’ Trojan Dialogue, and Antisthenes’ description of the contest between Ajax and Odysseus, as well as Gorgias’ Defense of Palamedes and Defense of Helen. For each of these pieces, M. shows how the sophist manipulates his audience’s familiarity with the traditional stories, using dramatic irony and deliberate incongruities to highlight the sophist’s own command of the traditional material. Gorgias’ Defense of Helen is perhaps the extreme example of this manipulation, since the more Gorgias elaborates on how words have the power to lead Helen astray, the more he shows how possible it is for him to lead his audience astray by the power of his words. M. suggests that Gorgias comes closest of all the sophists to modern deconstruction: “The deconstructionist ‘play of signifiers’ finds its analogue in Gorgias’ rhetorical ‘plaything’ that constructs and deconstructs truth while unmasking itself” [p. 130].

M. argues that, for these sophists, “manipulating myth is a figure for manipulating language” [p. 131], since the conventional and constructed nature of myth is more obvious than the conventional nature of language. M.’s argument here, however, raises the question to what extent are traditional mythological figures and tales marked as conventional for the sophists and their audiences? More important, perhaps, is the question of how these elements are marked as conventional constructs. As M. herself has warned, there is danger in assuming that the sophists and their audiences, like modern philosophers, would automatically distinguish between symbolic and analytic accounts, between mythoi and logoi in the modern sense, or that they would necessarily see the traditional narrative, rather than the newly invented account, as the constructed one. A clearer definition of myth and how it is understood by the philosophers and their audiences might perhaps enrich M.’s analysis of the sophists’ manipulations.

In the next chapter, M. moves from the sophists to Plato by examining Plato’s depiction of the sophist Protagoras. Arguing that the myth told by Protagoras in Plato’s dialogue of that name is “substantially Protagorean,” M. shows how Plato both depicts sophistic use of myth and demonstrates how his own manipulations of myth are superior. Protagoras makes use of myth to conceal his axiomatic assertion of the idea Socrates asks him to prove, that excellence is teachable. Plato, however, exploits the multivalence of the mythic tradition to raise questions about the differences between Protagoras’ and Socrates’ methodologies and the ethical implications of each. Which speaker is characterized by truly Promethean forethought and which really examines the basis on which a society is founded? M.’s reading illuminates the ways in which Plato manipulates the myth both to present his own ideas and to critique his predecessors.

In the following chapters, M. turns to the complexities of Platonic myth, first tackling the functions of myth in the Platonic dialogues. Rather than trying to determine what is mythical in the dialogues by specific vocabulary of mythos or related words (as does, e.g., Zaslavsky 1981), M. follows the lead of Frutiger 1930 in classifying by function, distinguishing traditional, educational, and philosophic myths. Traditional myths are often the target of Platonic critique, while educational myths are Platonic constructions that provide illustrations of ethical lessons or the nature of things that are beyond human knowledge, e.g. the distant past or the nature of the soul. Whereas educational myths persuade their audience of morally approved ideas, like the infamous ‘Noble Lie’ of the Republic, M. argues “philosophical myth achieves its intellectual power by encouraging methodological reflection and self-consciousness about the status of philosophical discourse…This quality of stimulating questioning distinguishes it from the educational myth imposed upon non-philosophers” [p. 164]. M. makes the excellent point that the status of any given tale thus depends not so much on its content as its context. A tale such as Theuth and Thamos from the Phaedrus, narrated after a long dialectical argument on the principles involved in the myth, has a different function and effect than the same story told by an authoritative old man to an audience of children.

Such a classification system certainly is more useful for assessing the importance and significance of the myths in Plato than other sets of criteria, although one wonders how many of Plato’s myths, apart from the carefully marked ‘Noble Lie’, really fall into the educational rather than philosophical category. Moreover, by not specifying the criteria for the content of myth, M. ends up generally using an implicit definition of myth as narratives about the supernatural or the distant past, categories which scholars such as Brisson make explicit.6 Nevertheless, M.’s attention to the function of the specific myth in the context of the dialogue in which it is set represents a great advance over the classifications of previous scholars of Platonic myth.

Having set forth her approach, M. thus turns to the settings in which the Platonic myths are presented, concluding the chapter with an examination of the language of play that often surrounds the presented myths in the dialogues, marking the myths’ status as not quite serious accounts. As she argues for the prePlatonic philosophers in earlier chapters, the dubious status of myth for Plato serves to remind the reader of the problems with all discourse and language. “The mingling of philosophical play and seriousness reminds us of the provisional status of the arguments contained in the dialogues. In the absence of knowledge, (which no one in the dialogues has attained), all philosophical accounts are liable to revision in the light of future investigations” [p. 174]. Here M. is able to refute in a single blow the two major opposing theories of the status of myth in Platonic dialogues. The reminder that even the most careful dialectical arguments presented in the dialogues are provisional is a useful corrective of theories that take the philosophers’ polemics at face value and make dialectic a perfectly stable form of discourse in contrast to ‘unverifiable’ myth. At the same time, for those who see myth as some kind of special discourse that is able to express the ineffable or fundamental philosophic axioms that dialectic cannot handle, M. warns: “We must, however, guard against the notion that dialectic is in principle incapable of justifying philosophical axioms or that myth can be in any way a satisfactory substitute for dialectic. The philosophic project as Plato describes it is precisely an attempt to verify axioms and reach an unhypothesised first principle ( Resp. 509d1-511e5). Our examination of the Protagoras has shown that the use of myth to present unverifiable axioms is precisely what Plato wished to avoid” [p. 180]. M.’s solution helps resolve one of the major controversies in the study of Platonic myth, the dispute between these two opposing views of myth.

In the next chapter, M. treats the myths that deal with the nature and fate of the soul in the Gorgias, the Phaedo, the Republic, and the Phaedrus. She gives brief analyses of the first three and then discusses at length the Phaedrus, in which she notes “Myth, dialectic, and the rhetoric through which they are presented are not just practised, but thematised” [p. 210]. While the Gorgias, Phaedo and Republic have a myth at the end which looks back to the dialectical argument of the dialogue, the Phaedrus‘ myth presents, in an intuitive flash of imagery, ideas that are grounded by dialectic in the remainder of the dialogue. M. further argues that the Phaedrus myth not only presents a synoptic picture of Socrates’ beliefs about the soul and the cosmos, but that it also illustrates the philosophic methods of collection and division and the process of recollection. Moreover, the contrast between dialectic and myth is drawn in the reference to the long and divine way of describing the soul and the realms beyond (which no poet has adequately done and for which there is no time now) and the shorter, human way (Socrates’ myth). Dialectic is the long and divine road whose each minute step is sound, in contrast to the shorter, but more hazardous, route of myth.

M.’s treatment of each of these dialogues is illuminating, especially in her attention to the ways in which the context of the dialogue and the specific interlocutors affect the way the myths are presented and received. Her insight into the contrast of dialectic and myth is one of the most stimulating ideas in the book and could be pushed even further in her examination of the uses of myth in these dialogues. Although she discerns the connections between the myth and philosophic methodology and issues in the Phaedrus, M. does not pursue similar connections between the myths and the methods under discussion in the Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic. Her description of the myths’ content as Socrates’ beliefs about the nature of the soul neglects these other important elements and leaves the myths vulnerable to another of the mistreatments they have so often received in the history of the scholarship on Platonic myth: categorization as Plato’s religious, rather than philosophic, ideas. These myths are not solely metaphysical, expressions of ineffable insights, but, as M.’s analysis of the Phaedrus shows, they are carefully crafted to bring out points relating to the philosophic method and the way the philosopher should live and philosophize.

In her treatment of myths in the late period dialogues, M. focuses more on the methodological import of the myths, pointing out that the different types of interlocutors in these dialogues are more appropriate to the painstaking examinations of philosophical method in the dialogues. The failure of the myth in the Statesman points to the difficulty of adapting the discourse of myth to this methodological task, while the mature intellectual interlocutors of the Timaeus and Critias can tackle huge myths that seem almost to swallow up the dialectical reasoning because they don’t need the contrast of myth to dialectic to highlight the problematic nature of all human discourse. M. notes that Plato more often uses the term mythos to describe his own or rival philosophic theories, blurring the boundaries between dialectic argument and mythic narrative to prevent the philosophic ideas discussed from being taken as dogmatic truths. Of course, the history of the reception of the Timaeus, even more than other dialogues, shows how signally Plato failed in this endeavor, making M.’s point all the more important for modern readers of Plato.

M.’s readings of the meanings of the myths in these later dialogues are not as satisfying as her readings of the earlier material, but a full reading of the significances of these complex texts is not her purpose, nor would it fit in the scope of her inquiry. Nevertheless, there is much insight to be gleaned, or at least ideas that stimulate further reflection. M. concludes her study with a look at the idea of ‘saving the myth’, a proverb that recurs in a number of Platonic dialogues. The account, be it myth or dialectic argument, must be brought to completion, the path must be followed to its end, in order for the account to be able to preserve us. M. brings her own study to completion by reinforcing the importance of myth within Plato’s philosophic project. Faced with the impossibility of expressing his ideas about the nature of reality beyond the sensible world in the medium of language that is inescapably tied to the sensible, Plato uses myth, as he uses the dialogue form itself, to signal the imperfection of his accounts.

M.’s analysis of the importance of myth to philosophers from Xenophanes to Plato as a way of dealing with the problems they found inherent in the use of language is an important contribution to the understanding of these thinkers. As M. comments: “The interaction between mythos and logos was never a question of literary elaboration or slumming for the non-analytically minded. It is an exercise in self-conscious reflection on the nature and possibilities of philosophical language” [p. 287]. M. opens up these texts for serious reconsideration by scholars of literature and philosophy alike, showing that these myths must be read within the context of the whole dialogue, with careful attention to the natures and interactions of the characters involved in the discussions. M.’s work is valuable for the study of both myth and philosophy, a work of which anyone with an interest in these discourses should take note.


1. Detienne, Marcel, L’invention de la mythologie, 1981, translated as Creation of Mythology, 1986. Brisson, Luc, Platon: Les mots et les mythes, 1982, translated as Plato the Myth Maker, 1999. While Brisson’s work focuses more closely on Platonic myth than Detienne’s wide-ranging study, it is formulated as a direct response to Detienne’s ideas.

2. Important citations include: Nightingale, Genres in Dialogue (1995), and articles on the Laws (1993), the Statesman (1996) and the eschatological myths (1999). Ferrari, Listening to the Cicadas (1987) and several other articles. M. also refers to essays in the collection in Klagge and Smith, Methods of Interpreting Plato and His Dialogues (1992), especially Frede, “Plato and the dialogue form.”

3. “Let me be quite clear that I do not maintain that any early Greek philosopher was a crypto-deconstructionist, nor that Plato or the Presocratics perceived the gap between language and reality to be identical with the one identified by deconstruction.” [p. 39]

4. Goody, The Domestication of the Savage Mind, 1977 and Goody and Watt, “The Consequences of Literacy,” 1963. Havelock, Preface to Plato, 1963, and “The linguistic task of the Presocratics,” 1983. M. does not follow Havelock as uncritically as Brisson, and she also makes use of the studies of Thomas 1989 and 1992, Street 1984, and Lloyd 1987 and 1990.

5. The closest M. comes to defining myth is by opposing it to standard philosophic discourse: “By mythological material, I mean story patterns (such as quest, anabasis, katabasis), motifs, or narrative characters, which transgress the format of standard philosophical argument and explanation” [p. 37]. This standard format, however, is itself in the process of being shaped in relation to myth by the writers she is studying.

6. Brisson restricts the content matter of myth in Plato to stories about gods, heroes, the dead, or men of the distant past, based on his reading of Rep. 392. I have argued elsewhere that such a limitation of myth to the supernatural or completely inaccessible past leaves out of reckoning a number of narratives or allusions that are better treated as mythic.