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There is a consistent pattern throughout the corpus of Plato's dialogues: first, Socrates proposes a philosophical problem, like "what is justice?" or "is there an immortal soul?". Then he goes on to challenge each attempt of his interlocutors at defining the concept or solving the problem. As the dialogue evolves, the reader is presented with the opportunity of gaining deeper and deeper insights into the problem. But at some point, the dialogue ends, leaving the question unsettled. And then, the style of the text changes and he starts narrating a myth, like the one depicting the fate of human souls after death, at the end of Phaedo.

How should we understand these closing myths? Are they the "correct" solution (from Plato's point of view) that could not be attained by the dialectic method? Or are these myths just a different approach to the problem that, although very useful, do not solve the problem, either?

  • The contrast between Mythos and Logos is essential. Philosophy is all about finding a rational account, but it's not always possible og fruitful. The starting point is often the mythical explanation. It's not possible to give a rational account from beginning to end, and so the rational account itself has mythical aspects to it. – Aputsiak Apr 1 '12 at 17:15
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I'm far from an expert on the matter, but here's my take:

Overall, myths play a very large role in Plato's writings, and it seems to me that the closing myths serve as a sort of "Noble Lie," a concept discussed in The Republic.

For example, the myth of Er in The Republic likely does not represent Plato's view on the matter (the myth being fairly arbitrary in the details of its epistemology in comparison to the rest of the book). Rather, I think it's something Plato would like the greater population to hear to understand his general idea on morality and perhaps even eschatology.

From his writings, it's apparent that Plato believes in a soul, and the purpose of these myths is to encourage people who need motivation to work on improving their souls, with the promise of a good future after death.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a page on Plato's myths, and in part 6, comments that

He would have had strong reasons for avoiding the use of myths: they are not argumentative and they are extremely visual (especially those he invented, which contain so many visual details as if he would have given instructions to an illustrator). But he didn't. He wanted to persuade and/or teach a wider audience, so he had to make a compromise.

Similarly, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy's page on the Phaedo, part 3 d., makes a note about the closing myth:

At the end of his tale, Socrates says that what is important about his story is not its literal details, but rather that we “risk the belief” that “this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling places,” and repeat such a tale to ourselves as though it were an “incantation” (114d). Doing so will keep us in good spirits as we work to improve our souls in this life. The myth thus reinforces the dialogue’s recommendation of the practice of philosophy as care for one’s soul.

In summary, the purpose of the closing myths in Plato's dialogues is likely to convey a message to the general public and educate them on his philosophy, and influence them to follow Plato's moral model.

  • 2
    Excellent answer! I see from Wikipedia's article on the Noble Lie that there is some disagreement about what Plato was trying to convey with the phrase. Desmond Lee' critique seems particularly intriguing. – Jon Ericson Jan 31 '12 at 20:25
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Disclaimer: I am a student and not a scholar of Plato at this point. I started reading his works in the order of the canon of Thrasyllus and only just finished Pheado myself.

According to G.M.A. Grube's introduction to Pheado the myth at the end ought to be compared to the ones in:

The connective tissue of these four presentations of Homeric myth is eschatology: the study of final things. For Greeks, that meant the separation of the soul from the body at death, the judgement of particularly heinous crimes, and the continued existence in Hades. An Athenian citizen was expected to be well versed in these ideas—especially as told by Homer. So it would be expected that Socrates, if he were a wise man, would be able to talk about these myths at length.

The charges against Socrates

It must be remembered that Socrates was dead when Plato, his student, wrote the dialogues he appears in. Athens convicted Socrates of "failing to acknowledge the gods that the city acknowledges" and "introducing new deities". Part of Plato's purpose in writing the dialogues was to clear his mentor's name. (Ironically, the other charge against Socrates was "corrupting the youth". Plato is Exhibit A.) So having Socrates reconfirm the myths of the city helps show him as falsely-accused. A contemporary reader might wonder if Socrates held orthodox eschatological view after all.

Pythagoreanism

We have evidence that Plato was strongly influenced by the cosmology of Pythagoras. A principle tenet of the system was the transmigration of souls. Unfortunately, that concept did not mesh well the Illiad and the Odyssey where death was final and souls were doomed to wander shadowy Hades forever. There was no hope for a soul to return. In Pheado, Plato is eager to show that souls return to new bodies if they were not either especially evil (so receive everlasting torment) or especially philosophical (so receive everlasting peace). In order to show that Socrates (or Plato himself) did not dishonor the existing cosmology, Plato reworked the existing images of the afterlife to fit with reincarnation.

In addition, Plato's epistemology depended on anamnesis. Since people already know things from birth, it follows that we must remember them from our preexistence as disembodied souls. Naturally, our souls would have needed to have access to practical knowledge (common sense) in addition to esoteric knowledge. Therefore, our souls must have had bodies in "previous lives".

Purpose of myth

It's difficult to know if either Socrates or Plato believed there was such as person as, say, Zeus. My guess is that neither were particularly pious in the traditional, Greek sense. It seems that both were far more interested in obtaining philosophical truth than in honoring the gods. But Plato, at least, was also interested in using myth to communicate truth. In the Republic (which seems to be 100% platonic and 0% socratic), we read the allegory of the cave which compares our view of the world to shadows on the wall of a cave. Technically, there is no cave and no fire and no shadows and no prisoners. The whole story is bogus if you try to take it literally.

But the story does neatly illustrate Plato's point which Paul of Tarsus summarized neatly:

1 Corinthians 13:12 (HCSB)
12 For now we see indistinctly, as in a mirror,
but then face to face.
Now I know in part,
but then I will know fully,
as I am fully known.

As we struggle to understand the reality of the world (and of ourselves) we need to use language that bridges the gap between what we can understand and what we want to understand. At the time, myth was the state-of-the-art tool for accomplishing this feat. (Today, mathematics has shown itself to be a powerful alternative.)

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The myths of Plato are essentially analogies. They serve much the same function as the parables of Jesus --as a vivid and visceral way to convey philosophical (or theological) claims about matters that would otherwise be highly abstract and difficult to explain (see this for more: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/plato-myths/).

Plato (and Jesus!) assumes the existence of a deeper level of Reality than the ordinary one we inhabit. Given this, the Platonic myth is putatively a way to illuminate aspects of that deeper Reality by mapping them onto objects of mundane reality (even where the details aren't a natural match).

One might potentially argue that all myths serve a similar purpose.

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Mythoi and logoi - myths and rational discourse

Certain myths will not be allowed in the kallipolis, the ideal state or polis of the Republic. But the Republic itself ends with the deep and complex Myth of Er; myths also figure prominently in Phaedo and Gorgias. (This is not a complete list.)

Julia Annas offers illuminating remarks on the myths and their functionality. A key point to note is that Plato does not make a pure division between **mythoi (myths) of the kinds he favours and logoi (rational discourse)** :

The myths in Plato's dialogues have been in general neglected by philosophers; when he moves from argument or exposition into the myth form there is a sharp switching-off of philosophical interest. There have been studies of the myths,1 some of them from a philosophical perspective, but it is broadly true that philosophical analyses of the dialogues have made little or no attempt to relate the content of each myth to the argument of the dialogue in which it occurs. Whether they feel respect for the myths as attempts to express profound truths beyond reason's grasp, or feel contempt for them as holidays from serious thinking, or (most commonly) feel uncomfortable with them and endorse Crombie's, "To me these myths tremble between the sublime and the tedious", philosophers have mostly not thought to include the myths as part of "Plato's thought".

This is a pity, for some of the myths at least are worth non-literary study, and this is especially true of the long and elaborate eschatological myths of the Gorgias, Phaedo and Republic. All three myths come at the end of a major dialogue full of controversial claims about the right way to live, and impassioned rejections of conventional beliefs about good and evil, and what is in one's interests. In this context an eschatological myth about the ultimate fate of the good and the bad can hardly fail to be relevant to the dialogue's main moral argument, and may well be revealing about the form of that argument, and any appeal in it to the agent's interests. To treat such a myth as an optional extra for those who like stories is to risk missing something of significance about the form of Plato's arguments, as well as interesting contrasts between dialogues; for differences between two myths may point to differences in what the dialogues are arguing, or may illustrate a major shift of emphasis.

The philosophical myth mixes genres, and so is disliked by philosophers who want philosophy to be "professional", with its own uniform and distinct medium, preferably as transparent as possible so that philosophical argument cannot be confused with more literary modes of persuading. We can find this attitude in Aristotle, who faults the Phaedo myth by reading it literally and then complaining that its geography and hydraulics are impossible. The account of Tartarus, he says, makes non- sense of the way rivers flow, and of the phenomenon of rain; and anyway it just is obvious that rivers flow into the sea and not down some great hole in the earth to Tartarus (Meteorologica II, 335b33-336a33.) Aristotle was, I suspect, as aware as we are that this could be thought an inappropriate criticism; he is polemically refusing to take the Phaedo myth seriously in its own terms by treating it as a failed geography lesson. Aristotle's attitude here is only an extreme version of the attitude that treats the myths as quarries for accounts of geography and technology, religious beliefs, literary tropes - anything but an integral part of a philosophical dialogue. Yet this fails to answer adequately to what Plato is doing in mixing his genres. A philosophical, as opposed to a popular myth, should have some rational interpretation.

One reason why this has not been more attempted is that the contrast between myth and argument has been understood too crudely. If myth is a sharply demarcated alternative to rational procedures, then anything goes: myth is then amenable solely to unanalytic appreciation, "aesthetic" in the pejorative sense. Taking the myths to be Plato's lapses from rational thinking encourages passively uncritical reading of them. Hence a tendency to assimilate myths that look superficially alike, as the eschatological myths have been assimilated to one another and to the Christian Last Judgement myth. Elements in different myths have likewise been conflated. There are "divine shepherds" in the myths of both the Critias and the Statesman, but, as Christopher Gill has pointed out, it is wrong to use this to assimilate the myths; when myths have (as these do) different political messages, the elements in them are being put to distinct uses.

A crude dichotomy of myth and reason encourages us also to stay content with unhelpful interpretations of the myths. Thus the frequent appearance in the myths of reincarnation is explained by Plato's having picked up the idea from some Pythagoreans. Whatever the value of this as a historical explanation - relevant pre-Platonic evidence being hard to come by - it leaves all the important questions still open: for why did Plato choose to pick up this idea from the Pythagoreans? If myths have no rational interpretation, we can only say that the idea had some personal appeal. But surely we should be asking what Plato uses this notion to do: what idea is of importance to him for which reincarnation would seem to be the right symbolic expression?

Plato's myths are often ignored or downgraded because it is thought that he takes all myths, including his own, to be mere mythoi or stories, which are all to be despised by contrast with logoi or rational discourse and argument. This is, however, too simple. Mythos and cognate words originally mean no more than "speech",5 and the usage survives in Plato whereby mythoi and logoi are put together and both are opposed to action (e.g. Republic 376d9-10). By Plato's time mythos has come to mean something like "story"; to favour mythoi over logoi is to favour storytelling over argument. Given his stress on the importance of reason in our lives, it is not surprising that we can often find Plato displaying a general hostility to stories, and it is not hard to find passages where he abuses or despises (mere) stories as trivial, suitable only for children or lightweight entertainment. He is especially hostile to the stories that we think of as traditional "Greek myths"; Republic books 2 and 3 attack them as immoral and misleading, and he insists that they should not be allegorized or explained in terms of physical theory; he refuses to find rational depth in them.

But this hostility or indifference concerns the content of particular stories. Plato nowhere says or implies that there is a single all-purpose distinction between storytelling and reasoning such that all stories are necessarily stupid or immoral. He in fact clearly believes that some mythoi, stories, do have rational depth. The fact that popular stories are mostly trivial does not prevent the philosopher from using or inventing a story which is not. Thus we sometimes find Plato indifferent as to whether his account is called a mythos or a logos; the Timaeus' cosmology is called a "likely mythos"; and the Republic's account of the growth of the state is called a mythos, though it clearly displays the rational basis for political association. In the case of his own "mythical" stories Plato, so far from contrasting myth and reason, emphasizes both the obvious fact that we have a story, not an argument, and the less obvious fact that it is a seriously meant story: it is foolish to treat it as an old wives' tale. In fact he goes so far as to claim that the "myth of Atlantis" is true; and the Gorgias myth is introduced by, and interspersed with, claims that it is true, and a logos.

We have, then, no good grounds for assuming that Plato thought his own philosophical myths trivial, or a dispensable part of the dialogues.15 Plato has, or course, a well-known epistemological problem over his myths. He uses the myth form to express truths that are profound and important; yet for him myth or any form of storytelling has low epistemological status, the preferred philosophical method being argument. (There is a similar problem in his use of imagery, as in the Republic's Sun, Line and Cave sequence.) It is, clearly, a mistake to make Plato's myths or imagery central to interpreting his thought, at the expense of the arguments; to make this use of the more accessible passages would be unplatonically lazy and unphilosophical. But it is also a mistake to ignore the myths (or images) as being clearly dispensable. For Plato, his use of philosophically low-grade forms to present important philosophical content produces a problem, a problem which he never explicitly solves, but which is inescapably obvious to an author who has chosen to do philosophy in a literary medium. The mixed genre of the philosophical myth is of its nature problematic (and its interpretation exposed to much uncertainty). But the easy modem assumption that myths can be ignored on the grounds that they "do not lend themselves to logical analysis" may be congenial to our own view of the relation of myth to reason, but it fails Plato; it solves his problem by trivializing it. For him, as for Aristotle, "the lover of myth is a lover of wisdom, in a way" (Metaphysics 982b 18-19).

(Julia Annas, 'Plato's Myths of Judgement', Phronesis, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1982), pp. 119-143: 119-122.)

References

Julia Annas, 'Plato's Myths of Judgement', Phronesis, Vol. 27, No. 2 (1982), pp. 119-143.

I. M. Crombie, An Examination of Plato's Doctrines vol I (London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962) p. 154.

L. Edelstein, 'The Function of the Myth in Plato's Philosophy, Journal of the History of Ideas X (1949) pp.463-481.

C. Gill, 'The Origin of the Atlantis myth', Trivium 11, pp.1-11.

Addendum

Sand1 has usefully referenced new work:

More recently Luc Brisson has published remarkable work on the topic; also there is his polemics with Marcel Detienne (and his Invention de la mythologie).

I think my answer above adds to the material posted previously - that was the basis on which it was offered - but I am glad to supplement it with Sand1's suggestions.

  • More recently Luc Brisson has published remarkable work on the topic; also there is his polemics with Marcel Detienne (and his Invention de la mythologie). – sand1 Mar 24 at 22:03
  • @sand1. Thank you for the updated references. I have with acknowledgement included your comment as an Addendum to my answer. I hope this is OK ? Thanks again - Best: Geoffrey – Geoffrey Thomas Mar 25 at 1:36
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Some scholars consider Plato's myths particular deep insights. But I would conjecture that here Plato is at his wits' end.

In my opinion, a philosopher must not tell myths, he should present arguments.

Added 9.7.2015: I would like to explicate some of my statements above.

First, I think my claim that a philosopher has to present arguments does not need any support according to the rules of this philosophy blog.

Secondly, the dialogue Phaidon illustrates my statement, that Plato starts a myth when he has no arguments left. The Platonic Sokrates aims at convincing his conversational partners that the soul is immortal and that one should live according to certain moral standards. Plato expands at least three series of arguments for his position. Eventually Simmias is not fully convinced (107b).

At this point the Platonic Sokrates tells a myth to colour life after death. Afterwards (114ff) Sokrates questions the truth claim of the myth when taken literally. But within the same sentence Sokrates emphasizes a truth claim for the content as a whole. One can ask: Where from does he know that the content is true but the details possibly not?

Sokrates continues: It is worth to risk such a point of view – the risk is beautiful (kalos) – and one has at least to talk oneself (epadein heauto) into this view. The choice of the terms already shows that Plato has left philosophical argumentation and entered the domain of persuasion.

Thirdly, sometimes Plato’s use of myths is even worse. At Politeia (414b) he advocates to invent a certain myth to cheat (pseudos = deception, lie) the citizens of the state.

  • I downvoted for three reasons 1) this is explicitly presented as a personal opinion 2) I don't agree with that opinion 3) it doesn't, to my knowledge, represent the consensus on Plato. It's essentially saying "I don't see the philosophical value in the myths, therefore there must be none" --an argument from personal incredulity. – Chris Sunami Jul 9 '15 at 14:37
  • Your affirmative and my dismissive answer about the character of Platon's myths illustrates in a striking manner a well-known fact: Platon polarises the opinion of his audience. But if you like, we can exchange our arguments taking as example a distinguished myth from one of Plato's works. – Jo Wehler Jul 9 '15 at 14:53
  • Plato IS polarizing, but that doesn't mean there isn't consensus about anything in his work. After I made the above comment, I realized my own post was likewise framed as an opinion --so I went back and added a citation to show that, while I personally believe that, it does also represent a mainstream opinion about Plato's myths in the philosophical community. Re: Your suggestion --are you asking me to reframe my argument as a myth (as a practical demonstration)? – Chris Sunami Jul 9 '15 at 16:05
  • No, I do not ask you to reframe your argument as a myth, of course not :-) My question is, whether we should exemplify our different estimation of Plato's use of myth at a certain Platonic myth, e.g. taking the underworld-myth from Phaidon. – Jo Wehler Jul 9 '15 at 20:20

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