BMCR 2005.10.43

How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. Translated by Catherine Tihanyi

, How philosophers saved myths : allegorical interpretation and classical mythology. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. 1 online resource (xiv, 206 pages). ISBN 9780226075389 $30.00.

Few scholars are in a position to write a book of this scope: it is essentially a history of religion, philosophy, theology, and hermeneutics from archaic Greece to the discovery of America. It is at the same time a short book: it accomplishes all of these things in one hundred sixty-five lucidly written pages and thirty-two pages of end notes. It is to be highly recommended as propaedeutic to the deeper study of any of the important developments in the history of thinking about gods and how they are represented.

The title, How Philosophers Saved Myths, immediately invites the question, “From whom or what?” The answer, given in the first chapter, ” Muthos and Philosophia,” is the usual one: the development of prose genres with their emphasis on argumentation; the development of conceptual, rather than concrete, thought; and the development of writing that leads to the deracination of traditional narratives so that they become subject to criticism apart from the traditional performative contexts. The names attached to these developments are familiar: Xenophanes and Plato, and historians such as Herodotus. These trends and influential thinkers altered the expectations of an audience that under their tutelage became intolerant of the contradictions and paradoxes inherent in myth. Allegory and tragedy, in both of which the applicability of myths to new cultural realities is fundamental, were the means by which the traditional ethical rôle of myth was preserved.

Chapter two, “Plato’s Attitude toward Myth,” is a useful précis of Brisson’s book, Plato the Myth Maker. Brisson’s view is that Plato fixed the meaning of the word “myth” to describe (and make problematic) traditional mimetic narratives through which a culture transmits its understanding of its past so as to provide, in the performance of the poetry in which the myths are conveyed, models of physical and moral behavior. Plato did so in the context described in the first chapter, when an oral culture was becoming one which privileged writing and myth’s traditional role in shaping a culture seemed to be challenged by other forms of discourse. Since myths are about the distant past, they constitute unverifiable discourse. In terms of three corresponding oppositions, muthos/logos, unverifiable discourse/verifiable discourse, and narrative discourse/argumentative discourse, the latter term of each contrary is the realm of the philosopher. This does not mean that all mythical discourse is to be rejected out of hand; it means that the traditional privileging of muthos over logos must be inverted, as logos establishes the measure by which the truth value of any particular myth is to be judged.

In the third chapter, “Aristotle and the Beginnings of Allegorical Exegesis,” Brisson rehearses the standard history which assumes that allegory was a hermeneutical innovation of the sixth century in response to criticism of Homer and Hesiod. What one finds in this chapter that has not yet made it into other histories is four pages on the Derveni Papyrus, in which lines of an Orphic theogony are cited and commented on allegorically, in part by recourse to etymology and pre-Socratic physics. By the middle of the fifth century, both physical allegories and moral allegories were well established ways of interpreting traditional myths. Brisson argues that Aristotle was not troubled by myth and allegory to quite the same degree as Plato, since he believed that myths conveyed the earliest perceptions by men of the gods and thus contained metaphysical truths that just had to be disentangled from its narrative decoration. For Aristotle, myth did not present as great a threat to rational discourse and the philosophical ascent as it did for Plato.

The fourth chapter, “Stoics, Epicureans, and the New Academy,” is essentially a reading of Cicero’s De natura deorum. Brisson’s summary of the Stoic position as represented there is that the unitary divine reason manifests itself in the elements and natural forces of the physical world and can be named in its various manifestations with the names of the traditional gods through careful study of the meanings of the gods’ names, i.e. through etymology. The Stoics found Stoic cosmology in Homer and Hesiod, and interpretation of the traditional poets was synonymous for them with allegory: through careful, mostly etymological study, teasing out the Stoic cosmology that was hidden beneath the surface of the poetic narrative. Euhemerists similarly took Homer to be “a historian, a naturalist, and a geographer (48),” and so found realist history hidden beneath the poetry. Velleius, the spokesman for Epicureanism in Cicero’s dialogue, attacks Stoic physical allegory and Euhemerism as impious and disparages the plausibility of finding in Homer doctrines that only occurred to people hundreds of years after he lived. On behalf of the New Academy, Cotta ridicules the Stoics’ tendency to multiply the number of gods in order to find their theories adequately imaged in them, and attacks the practice of etymology as an interpretative tool. By relying almost solely on De natura deorum and not looking to Lucretius, he gives the contribution of the Epicureans shorter shrift than would be useful for the larger argument he is making.

The heart of the book really lies in the fifth and sixth chapters. Chapter Five, “Pythagoreanism and Platonism,” announces a new beginning in the history of allegory, concomitant with a transformation in the history of philosophy during the first century B.C. For Plutarch, secrecy is an essential element of both philosophy and religion. He sees this ultimately as the heritage of the Egyptians, which was taken into Greek culture by Pythagoras. The right sort of philosophical understanding is necessary in order to decipher the gods’ self-revelation in ciphered forms in myth. Plutarch argues that Euhemerist or Stoic allegory leads to atheism and superstition. The true way of interpreting myth was to assimilate myth to the mysteries. Brisson notes that Plutarch prefers words based on the root ainos, such as ainigma, for allegory and argues that after Plato these words refer to the mysteries. As a result of an illustrative discussion of Plutarch’s syncretistic treatment of the Egyptian mythology of the death, dismemberment, and resurrection of Osiris, Brisson enumerates Plutarch’s modes of exegesis of myth. The demonological method is endorsed by Plutarch as incorporating the philosophical and theological developments that are of importance to him, including the reconciliation of polytheism and monotheism and the reconciliation of the existence of apparently physical passions attributed to gods in myth with the gods’ true spiritual nature. More generally, myth, particularly when it is troubling, is symbolic. To the philosopher, that is to say the neo-Pythagorean, middle Platonic philosopher, the paradoxes of myth lead one back to the mysteries, to one’s death in the realm of opinion and rebirth in the spiritual realm of truth, and philosophy is the mystagogue.

Brisson traces a history based on the position implied in Plutarch. Middle-Platonists assume that in Homer and Plato is to be found the selfsame revelation of the truth from the gods, transmitted also by Pythagoras, as well as by certain Egyptians, Persians, and Jews. For Plotinus, on this basis, myth reflects the enigmatic character of the world in relation to its principle. Myth is a didactic tool through which the nature of the eternal can be expressed in time-bound language: “myth translates the synchrony of a system into the diachrony of a narrative (74).” Brisson takes the reader through Plotinus’s exposition of the myths of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus as parallel expressions of the three main hypostases of his philosophy, as well as Cybele as an image of matter and the nature of soul as expressed in the Platonic myths of Eros. (Here one regrets that Brisson’s treatment of Epicureanism fails to take account of Lucretius’s response to Plato and Aristotle’s metaphysics and myth criticism.) Brisson makes clear the extent to which for Plotinus, as for Plutarch, once the philosopher has ascended to a grasp of true reality, the world of myth is a rich source of images of that truth in narrative language that is suitable for discursive human reason.

In the sixth chapter, Brisson takes up the Neoplatonic school of Athens. The neo-Platonists develop a tactic already seen in Plotinus, when he treats Plato’s myths of Eros alongside the myths of Hesiod and Homer. For these philosophers, the second part of Plato’s Parmenides is a systematic theology of the One, and all of the Platonic dialogues are interpreted as reflecting this theology in various forms of narrative and imagery. One of the projects implied in their understanding of Plato as theologian is to show how the Platonic theology agrees with other authoritative theologies, including Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer, Pythagoras, and the Chaldean Oracles. The Chaldean Oracles, a second century A.D. amalgam of traditional religious form and Platonic content, loom particularly large in this account as, in a sense, the religious aspect of Platonism: oracular utterances of Plato himself through which the soul might attain union with the divine. Alongside the Chaldean Oracles in importance as mythical expressions of the mysteries in which the neo-Platonic philosopher was an initiate were the Orphic Rhapsodies, theogonic and cosmogonic poetry in a form developed and influenced up until the second century A.D. by Mithraism and middle- and neo-Platonism and attributed to Orpheus. Homer and Hesiod, as well, remain for the neo-Platonists inspired poets who have transmitted enigmas, particularly in the troubling aspects of their poems, which exclude those who are not initiated into the philosophical mysteries but instruct those who are.

Though Justinian closed the School of Athens in A.D. 529, Christians continued to be educated mainly in the pagan Greek tradition, and in particular the ancient form of primary education, memorizing Homer, persisted. Brisson’s seventh chapter, “Byzantium and the Pagan Myths,” takes up the career of mythology and its interpretation in the context of state-sanctioned Christianity. This chapter is one of the most useful in the book, since it describes a branch of the history that is often overlooked. That the importance of Homer was undiminished in the Christian Byzantine empire is attested, among many other illustrations, by the career of Eustathius (died ca. 1195-1199), who produced 1,555 pages of commentary on the Iliad and nearly 800 pages of commentary on the Odyssey (187-8, n. 23). Brisson adduces Eustathius, John Tzetzes, and Michael Psellus as paradigms of Byzantine allegorical interpretation. Psellus, the earliest of the three, continues the history that Brisson had outlined in chapters five and six: he attempts a synthesis of Plato, whom he reads theologically through the lens of Plotinus and Proclus, with Pythagoras, the Chaldean Oracles, the Orphic Rhapsodies, the “barbarian” wisdom of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and Palestine, and all of these with orthodox Christianity. All three Byzantine interpreters are willing to use any kind of allegory—the physical allegory of the Stoics, etymology, the symbolic interpretation favored in the neo-Platonic tradition—in order to bring pagan myths into the service of Christian orthodoxy. Accommodating pagan myths to Christian theology was not a particular concern of the last Platonist allegorist Brisson discusses in this chapter, Georgius Gemistus Pletho (died May 26, 1452). As a member of the eastern delegation to the Council of Florence, Pletho may have done more than the Council succeeded in doing to unite east and west philosophically and spiritually, if not ecclesiastically, through the veneration he inspired among Italian scholars.

For the most part, according to Brisson, the neo-Platonic interpretative tradition of pagan myths lay dormant in the west through the Middle Ages until the Renaissance, as his treatment of Pletho in chapter seven foreshadows. The myths themselves, however, were by no means dormant in the popular imagination: the chapter begins with the arresting image of Jupiter in the Campanile in Florence “wearing a monk’s robe, holding a chalice in one hand and a cross in the other” (126). In his eighth chapter, “The Western Middle Ages,” Brisson gives an extremely brief overview of allegorical interpretation during the Middle Ages in the west; perhaps its brevity is owing to the familiarity of the history to many readers. This chapter is perhaps the least satisfying in the book because it is so cursory. He brings before the reader works such as Isidore of Seville’s Etymologies, commentaries on Plato’s Timaeus, and the fourteenth-century Ovide Moralisée, in order to show that the Stoic interpretative strategies that Plutarch rejected, Euhemerism and physical and moral allegory, were dominant. It becomes apparent that Brisson finds lamentable what the gods of Greece and Rome suffered in literature and art during the Middle Ages in the west: “Poor copies, substitutions, disguises, and naive reconstitutions: we don’t know which of these procedures mistreated them the most, not to mention reading and translation errors that aggravated the corruption … (136).”

In the final chapter before the conclusion, “The Renaissance,” Brisson does a fine job of conveying in twenty-four lively pages the riotous profusion of interpretations of pagan myths that followed the return of the texts of the Greek tradition from the east and the south into western Europe. All of the well-known names are treated in this chapter — Boccaccio, Rabelais, Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Peter Lombard, Marsilio Ficino — all seen in their relation in some aspect or another to the history of interpretation. These names are complemented by a host of less generally well-known names of theologians, philosophers, clerics, numismatists, iconographers, art historians, epigraphers, gemologists, and mythographers (making their reappearance in Europe for the first time since the Hellenistic era). Except by offering such a list of the breadth of specialties covered in this chapter it is impossible to convey the wealth of information Brisson manages to include. What he seeks to make clear through all of the specific instances is that, while the Euhemerism and physical and moral allegories favored by the western medieval tradition continue unabated during the Renaissance, they are joined by the appearance of the Platonic tradition described in chapters five through seven.

Many of the interpreters of the Renaissance offered what may now, in the light of our ability to read the Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts, seem to be prescient syncretistic accounts of the essential agreement of pagan, not just Greek and Roman but also Near Eastern and Egyptian, and Christian theology. But as Brisson notes, what strikes one is how eager the interpreters are to find their own positions expressed enigmatically in the ancient texts and how ingenious they are about drawing them out. Pierre Halloix, for example, a seventeenth century inheriter of the Renaissance Platonic tradition, “subscribed to the idea that Moses was Plato’s teacher, and he showed how Socrates’ last works [ sic — “words” is more likely what was intended] in Phaedo announced Christ’s coming (161).” The chapter concludes with a rather perfunctory assertion that allegory’s death warrant was not any philosophical or religious insight but the discovery of America and, in particular, the scandalous discovery that the Greeks’ myths, whose essential rationality had been a foundational assumption, converged with the myths of new world “savages,” and thus that there might be something irreducibly irrational at the core of Greek culture.

Brisson’s book amounts to an elegant intellectual history of European culture and the Greek tradition seen through the lens of a history of a particular interpretative method. Its great virtue, its brevity, is also at times its greatest flaw: it is the nature of short books that give an overview of an immense span of very complicated history that they fail to satisfy as histories of any one period or phenomenon or school in particular. Specialists in every one of the topics that Brisson includes in the book (one clue to the amount of scholarship that is synthesized in this book is that the twenty-four pages of the ninth chapter include one hundred seventy-two footnotes) will find that Brisson fails to take account of this or that refinement or new discovery. Nevertheless, a book that gave a full account of everything that Brisson treats here would be a huge book, maybe not a bad thing, but a thing that would be less useful for the people who are likely to read this book.

One of the things that is most useful about this book is that it points the reader to a great wealth of scholarship in French for more detailed treatment of certain topics in which English scholarship has taken somewhat less interest over the past decades. Unfortunately, much of this material has not been translated into English, and a reader who could read French would not be reading this translation in the first place. For those who can read French, this book is above all a brief invitation to take up two bigger books for full accounts of what Brisson adumbrates here: Mythe et allégorie by Jean Pépin, to whom this book is fittingly dedicated, and Les mythes d’Homère et la pensée grecque by Félix Buffière.

Finally, a reviewer is compelled to take note of a few signs of haste in the production of this volume. Typographical errors and moments of confusion (for example, Brisson announces that there are five modes of interpretation in Plutarch, but only four are enumerated) are frequent enough to suggest that the book should have been proofread at least once more. Likewise there are lapses in the index: for example, Parmenides is not one of the dialogues one finds under Plato in spite of the important discussion of this dialogue as grounding the neo-Platonic view of Plato as a theologian.