BMCR 2013.06.22

Myth and Philosophy in Plato’s Phaedrus

, Myth and Philosophy in Plato's Phaedrus. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012. vi, 302. ISBN 9781107021280. $99.00.


As Daniel Werner notes towards the end of his rich and detailed discussion, ‘the Phaedrus is a protean text’ (236). This volume attempts to grapple with perhaps the oddest and most elusive of Plato’s dialogues via an analysis of its myths. Werner succeeds in providing a valuable and stimulating account of the variety, ambiguity and significance of mythic discourse within the Phaedrus. He argues towards a conclusion that seeks to make understanding Plato’s use of myth the (or, at least, a) key to unlocking not just this dialogue (including providing an angle on the enduring question of structural and thematic unity), but also Plato’s attitude towards knowledge, philosophy, discourse and human life in general.

Werner begins with an introduction that sets out the background of his discussion of Platonic myths, drawing a distinction between the ‘traditional myths’ appropriated within the dialogues and the ‘philosophical’ mythic tales constructed by Plato himself. He offers a particularly helpful characterization of various ways of approaching Platonic myth as possible vehicles for Platonic doctrine. From the outset, Werner demonstrates his sensitivity to the ambiguity and provocative richness of the Phaedrus as a text which uses myth to do significant persuasive and philosophical work whilst also seeming to present it as an ‘inherently defective and problematic device’ (15).

The myths are treated in the order in which they appear in the dialogue, beginning with the discussion of rationalization of myth at 229b4-230a7 prompted by talk of Boreas and Orytheia. Werner analyses the treatment of this ‘traditional’ myth as evidence for Plato’s attitude towards his own myths and, indeed, as ‘synoptic of the Phaedrus as a whole’ (19). On Werner’s reading, the rationalization of myth (including, by implication, Plato’s own mythic constructions) is presented as an unwelcome distraction from the philosophical pursuit of self-knowledge. Nevertheless, Socrates’ use of mythic imagery in the self-analysis that follows is evidence that myth can, at least, be used to nudge us towards a concern with self-knowledge. Myth is, in the hands of some or perhaps most, a potential distraction from philosophy; in the right hands, however, it can act as a provocation to philosophical reflection.

Three chapters are devoted to the grand myth of the Palinode. Werner discusses the apparent connections between this ‘Platonic’ myth and its more traditional precursors as a means of considering its motivation and role within the Phaedrus. The traditional elements of the Palinode allow Plato to appropriate the cultural authority and appeal of myth in such a way as to persuade us towards philosophy. Philosophical reflection itself is encouraged and directed by the Platonic elements woven around the framework of traditional mythic motifs. One of the most interesting aspects of Werner’s treatment is his discussion of the ‘meta-narrative role’ (45) of the Palinode as drawing attention to the limitations implied by its status as mythic discourse. In fact, Werner wants to claim that the epistemological and metaphysical aspects of the Palinode (and the use of myth to present those positions) indicate the limitations of all discourse and language when compared with the direct (non-propositional) noēsis of ineffable Forms which it endorses. Myth is, Werner suggests, an appropriate and useful mode of discourse for appealing to the spirited part of our souls and redirecting our reflective endeavours towards philosophy, but it shares (perhaps to a greater degree) the limitations of language and discourse in general as a means of expressing genuine philosophical understanding.

Werner goes on to argue that the Palinode’s self-reflexive guidance about how to engage with myth is bolstered by the myth of the Cicadas that immediately follows. The latter myth acts as a warning that philosophy does not end with the enjoyable contemplation of the Palinode (or of myth in general). We (along with Phaedrus) are implicitly encouraged by the myth of the Cicadas to turn our minds to the philosophical dialectic discussed in the second half of the Phaedrus. This extended discussion of rhetoric and dialectic might seem, at first blush, less than significant for Werner’s interest in myth. He argues for its relevance by emphasizing the broadening of the definition of rhetoric beyond the forensic and political to encompass any attempt at persuasion, thereby including the psychagogic persuasion of Platonic myth. He goes on to discuss the ‘eikastic’ status of Platonic myths as offering images of the truth to produce plausible discourse.

Werner offers a reading of the dialogue’s closing myth of Theuth and Thamus in keeping with the line he has developed throughout the book. The myth is intended to highlight the dangers of uncritical reliance on written texts. This self- reflexive critique of written texts points towards the superiority of live philosophical dialectic, thereby drawing attention to the problematic status of both Platonic myth and the dialogues themselves. In fact, on Werner’s reading, this is a critique not only of written discourse and of the myths written into the Phaedrus (or of myths in general, which Werner argues share precisely those characteristics of writing which make it objectionable), but of any and all discourse. Philosophical dialectic may be superior to myth and written discourse but, as a form of discourse, it is inevitably limited, since it is a necessarily linguistic attempt by incarnate souls to achieve the pure noēsis available only to discarnate souls. This is a fascinating suggestion that, as Werner notes, has intriguing consequences for our understanding of the ethical and psychological motivation of dialectic. I suspect however, that not everyone will be convinced by the swiftness and confidence with which Werner broadens the scope of the limitation to cover all forms of discourse. This is such a significant claim that it merits rather more argumentative support.

Werner seems to take his cue for this broadening of the scope of the critique from the way he has read the psychology, epistemology and metaphysics of the Palinode. This prompts me to raise a worry about a possible inconsistency in Werner’s approach towards that myth in particular. On the one hand, he seems to want to claim that, as a myth, the Palinode is not an appropriate vehicle for philosophical doctrine. So, for example, Werner points to Socrates’ critique of the fashion for rationalizing myths as evidence that we go wrong in seeking for clear-cut doctrine in Platonic myths. On the other hand, however, Werner seems to read the Palinode as offering metaphysical, epistemological and psychological doctrine that can be appropriated to explain Plato’s understanding of the persuasive power of myth and the epistemic limitation of discourse. Thus Werner explains the purpose and efficacy of the Palinode’s myth in terms of its appeal to the lower parts of the soul, drawing an explicit parallel with the charioteer’s own attempts at persuasion. I find Werner’s suggestion and interpretation of this parallel appealing, but it is not obvious that he offers clear justification for assuming that the content of the Palinode is informative of Plato’s own views both about the soul and (therefore) about the value of myth. There seems to be a tension between the hermeneutic caution endorsed by Werner in his introduction (and, on Werner’s reading, by Socrates at 229b4-230a7) and the way he proceeds when faced with a particularly philosophically provocative bit of myth.

Of course, one possible response might be to point to parallels with other Platonic dialogues as support for reading Platonic psychological doctrine within the Palinode. However, Werner also wants to limit the degree to which the Phaedrus is read against the corpus. His desire to attempt a reading of the significance of the myths in the Phaedrus that is tied to their specific context within the dialogue is also appealing and, in general, successful. In the end, however, Werner does seem to want to interpret the myths of the Phaedrus as guiding not just our reading of this dialogue or even of Platonic myths in general, but of all human discourse. Again, I find Werner’s interpretation very appealing, but there does seem to be a slight (perhaps only apparent) inconsistency between his introductory account of significant ‘methodological considerations’ and the very interesting and provocative conclusions to which he argues. That Werner seems to equivocate between intra- and inter-textual commitments is perhaps no fault of his own; the Phaedrus is, after all, a text which, at one and the same time, emphatically signals its own idiosyncrasy and quite explicitly provokes comparison with other texts (not least other Platonic dialogues).

These matters of consistency are, in the end, perhaps minor when weighed against the sophisticated and original argumentation and analysis offered by Werner throughout this book. This is a valuable new work that uses a relatively narrow focus to broaden our general perspectives on the Phaedrus in particular, and on Plato’s use of myth and thought about philosophical discourse in general. Werner has not (and does not claim to have) wrestled Proteus into submission. It would be a shame if he had. He has, however, opened up a very promising new angle of approach.