BMCR 2021.08.10

Plato and the mythic tradition in political thought

, Plato and the mythic tradition in political thought. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2020. Pp. 336. ISBN 9780674984646 $39.95.


Tae-Yeoun Keum traces an interesting if selective path through the canon of Western European political thought in a monograph which traverses the political-theoretical ground from Plato to the present. Her distinctive route seeks to establish a ‘mythic tradition’ of stories incorporated into works of political theory, a genre more usually thought to rely on rational argument and persuasion than mythical narrative. In Keum’s model, theorist after theorist uses stories, most notably those connected with the journey through the afterlife told in Plato’s Myth of Er (Republic 10.614b-621b). In this case, myths justify social arrangements and explain individuals’ choice of lives. Keum produces a genealogy of political myth distinct from that offered by political theorist Chiara Bottici.[1] The latter asserted the discontinuities of modern political myth from the classical tradition, but Keum finds continuities in the allusive recurrence of mythical themes, stretching from antiquity to modernity.

Keum’s closing chapter and conclusion offer a helpful orientation to her project. Her insightful reading of Ernst Cassirer’s posthumous The Myth of the State, which traced a developmental narrative but with more negative conclusions dominated by the troubling role of political myth in the rise of modern totalitarianism, explains her selection of material in the earlier chapters.[2] She draws out the difficulty Cassirer created in elevating Plato to a foundational role in the journey away from the mythical, when works such as the Republic include paradigmatic instances of political myth. This tension perhaps explains why work on myth has sometimes seemed marginal to the project of positive political theory and science, in a framework where myth represents a rejected irrational element. Keum aims to show firstly that Plato’s myths are ‘philosophically significant’ in themselves, and secondly that responses to them within canonical works of political theory ‘tap into a deeper, figurative process at work in the way humans frame and structure their worldviews’ (224-5). More broadly, myth represents an irrational part of the political that modernity must accommodate, a theme which drives the second half of the book.

In her introduction, Keum sets out some of the difficulties with any project on myth, including the challenge of establishing exactly what constitutes a myth. Keum notes the separation of ‘deep myth’, which she describes as ‘elusive frameworks’ which operate in the background, from ‘literary myth’, ‘the traditional narrative genre of fantastical tales’ (7). While some accounts of myth have suggested that the latter is obsolete in modernity, Keum emphasises the broad range of forms in which mythical elements are widely present. However, her focus is very much on the paradoxical continuation of mythical narrative within works of political theorising, and the centrality of allusion to Plato within this continuation.

Her first chapter starts with Plato’s Republic and three of its key myths, the Myth of the Metals/Noble Lie (Republic 3.414b-415d), the allegory of the Cave (7.514a-517c), and the Myth of Er, all of which go on to play important parts in the later reception of Plato’s political thought. Keum identifies a connection between these three mythical images, the theme of ascent and descent between different ontological and epistemic states, in a thoughtful reading of the Republic. A broader survey might have included a consideration of Plato’s own sourcing and transformation of mythical material from other ancient sources, such as the re-use of Hesiodic and other elements in the Myth of the Metals, but as Keum stated in her introduction, she is tracing a specific path rather than providing a holistic account of myth.[3] Keum acknowledges the non-Greek and pre-classical roots of Platonic mythemes in showing how Cassirer ends The Myth of the State with a retold cosmogonic myth, the Babylonian story of Marduk and Tiamat.

Keum’s second chapter explores the role of myth in early modern utopian writing, represented by More’s Utopia and Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis, after passing briefly through the Roman world, with a particular nod to Cicero’s ‘Dream of Scipio’ (Cic. Rep. 6.9-29) as another instance of a choice-of-lives myth. Keum’s insight is that, within the societies described in both More’s Utopia and Bacon’s Bensalem, political myths, some of which the authors retell, play an important role in justifying political institutions and ensuring resistance to change. This contribution is distinct from the use of the ancient politeia genre in which ideal societies are described. Keum highlights the use of foundation myth within the utopias. The stories More and Bacon describe as being told within the imagined societies echo the mythical structures of Greek political myth, with its emphasis on the foundation of cities and the connection of founding heroes to the divine. While the stories of the island states of Utopia and Bensalem themselves are often taken as explorations of spatial distance, in the historical context of European exploration and colonisation, their authors’ use of myth provides them with long imagined histories.

But do foundation myths such as that of King Utopus play a similar role in Plato’s ideal societies? Different kinds of myth can have different functions, and Plato’s use of myth is a complex critical engagement with the myth-making of his own society; the ‘Phoenician story’ of the Myth of the Metals is quite different from the narrative of a heroic founder.[4] The retelling of myth for political purposes was the centre of many Athenian civic events, from dramatic festivals to the public funerals of the war dead. Plato’s own version of a funeral speech, that attributed to Aspasia in the Menexenus, rewrites Athenian history, and appears to criticise the use of myth in Athenian political rhetoric.[5] Likewise, Plato’s myth of Atlantis and primeval Athens, Critias’ contribution to the over-arching dialogue of Plato’s TimaeusCritias complex, has a critical relationship with Athenian and other Greek foundation stories as well as with the cosmogony set out by Timaeus.

In the case of the work which provides Keum’s third major case study and the focus of her third chapter, Leibniz’s Theodicy, the inclusion of a myth at the end of the work is a complex homage to previous instances of the phenomenon, reaching back to the Myth of Er and Scipio’s Dream. The ‘Petite Fable’ concludes Leibniz’s argumentative response to the rationalist arguments of Pierre Bayle, in a larger discussion of the limits of reason. Leibniz’s fable begins with a conversation between Apollo and Sextus Tarquinius, retold from the humanist Lorenzo Valla’s Dialogue on Free Will, but Keum pays special attention to the novel narrative with which Leibniz continues the story, in which a priest of Jupiter is presented with visions of alternative versions of Sextus’ life, and thus comes to understand that we live in the best of all possible worlds (140-44). Keum shows how the ‘Petite Fable’ functions as ‘an overt imitation of the genre of myth’ (112) and an attempt to defuse the tension between faith and reason which made myth problematic for thinkers such as Bayle. Keum gives a detailed and informative reading of Leibniz’s project in this work, but it would have been interesting to have seen a greater connection made between Leibniz and More and Bacon, considered as utopian rather than mythical works; indeed, the utopian tradition more broadly offers another journey through mythical elements in political theorising.[6]

Part 2 of the book, ‘Myth and Modernity’, explores the role of myth in political theory after the Enlightenment; Chapter 4 shows how the Oldest Systematic Program of German Idealism, a short pamphlet whose authorship is uncertain, called for a radical ‘new mythology’, which Keum identifies as another choice-of-lives tension between reason and poetry (151).[7] For German Idealists, she argues, Platonism with its accommodation of mythology provided a space within which these contradictions might be resolved. Quite how this might be done, and what kind of myths might deliver on this, occupied philosophers and creative writers, with a philhellenic eye to Greek examples.

Keum’s Chapter 5 passes over the gap between the Idealists and the ‘new breed of political myth’ which characterised fascist propaganda in the twentieth century. It focuses on the way in which the advent of this new and corrosive form of myth generated important scholarly responses. As she notes (207-8), Plato was famously implicated in this renewal of political mythmaking by Karl Popper, for whom Plato’s Noble Lie served as an antecedent for racist myths of national origin.[8] But the focus of this chapter is Cassirer’s Myth of the State. Cassirer revised the Enlightenment model of transition from myth to rationality, replacing it with a narrative in which philosophy remains in a ‘continuous struggle against myth’ (192); and the lesson to be drawn from the twentieth century was that myth’s presence should not be tolerated. Yet Plato, in whom both rational argument and myth powerfully co-exist, fits with difficulty into the position where Cassirer places him, leading the move to rationality while exemplifying the role of myth.

A survey of myth in the history of political thought could easily become an unmanageable proposition, and Keum navigates through a select series of examples which generate an intriguing narrative, and a telling case for the persistent significance of myth in political theorising even in the modern world. One could tell a similar story based on other Platonic myths – the Statesman myth of the divine herdsman, for example, echoing through a different line of texts into modernity. One could also explore different interactions than those on which Keum focuses between her case studies, particularly within the early modern period. But it would be wrong to expect a project like this to provide the key to all mythologies, and perhaps the richness of further possibilities simply underlines the impossibility of an exhaustive account of myth.

Keum herself provides plentiful supporting material in the book’s copious endnotes, into which much of the scholarly support for and detail of her argument has been relegated. While this mode of presentation follows the publishing norms of US academic publishing, and perhaps aids readability, it seems unhelpful to a book which originated as a doctoral thesis, a genre notorious for footnotes bristling with bibliography, further examples, and debate. At times I felt that the endnotes contained too much that was important in making Keum’s argument, and might have made a greater contribution by being placed in the main text.

Keum establishes both that narrative myth is a persistent tool for political theorists in modernity and antiquity, and that its use has given rise to continuing debates on the proper content and form of political theorising. Those debates have sharpened as the dangers and power of political myth have become more apparent, but as she ably shows, the ambiguous role of myth in political theorising has a long history and is inescapably bound into the texture of the canon of Western political thought.


[1] C. Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth (Cambridge, 2007).

[2] E. Cassirer, The Myth of the State (New Haven, 1946).

[3] On Plato’s use of Hesiod, see H. Van Noorden, Playing Hesiod: The ‘Myth of the Races’ in Classical Antiquity (Cambridge, 2015), pp. 89-167.

[4] K.A. Morgan, ‘Designer History: Plato’s Atlantis Story and Fourth-Century Ideology’, Journal of Hellenic Studies, 118 (1998), pp. 101-18.

[5] S.S. Monoson, ‘Remembering Pericles: The Political and Theoretical Import of Plato’s Menexenus’, Political Theory, 26 (1998), pp. 489-513.

[6] Such a perspective is offered in F.E. Manuel and F.P. Manuel, Utopian Thought in the Western World (Oxford, 1979), pp. 392-410.

[7] Possible authors include Hegel and Schelling; see F.C. Beiser, The Early Political Writings of the German Romantics, trans. F.C. Beiser (Cambridge, 1996), pp. 3-5.

[8] K.R. Popper, The Open Society and Its Enemies: Volume One: The Spell of Plato (London, 1966), Chapter 8.