Illustration from Hendrik Lorensz Spiegel’s collected works, Wetstein.1694
Today’s sharing from the Blue House of HYGEIA is a quote from Genevieve Droz’s seminal work, ‘The Platonic Myths’, Le Seuil, 1992. Our translation from the original French.
‘And thus, Glaucon, the tale (the myth) has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken.’
Plato, end of chapter 10 of the Republic.
What is then a platonic myth? How do we recognize it? What is its function in the ‘oeconomia’ of the dialog?
In the absence of a un-ambiguous preliminary definition, we will retain five aspects:
1.The myth presents itself in the manner of a fictive narrative: It imagines a situation, tells a story, which like any other story is built with an action and characters: Its Eros, Prometheus, Theuth; it is a prisoner, a demiurge; it is the soul travelling in the Underworld or feeding on truths. The narrative form of the myth, fancy, clownish or dramatic is leaning closer to the tale, the parable, the allegory, but is distinct from the simple image, the metaphor, the paradigm, or the analogy Plato’s works are filled with.
2. The myth breaks off with the dialectical demonstration; it discontinues the conceptual speech and offer itself, more or less explicitly, as another type of speech: Less abstract but more colorful, less deductive but more suggestive. It appeals to the imagination more than to reasoning, sometimes to the esthetic or religious sensibility. But at the same time, it disrupts the argued speech, it ‘replaces’ it. And more precisely, when the reasoning doesn’t suffice or is no longer suitable: Either because the subject, often Socrates’ interlocutor, is embarrassed in his understanding, either because the object doesn’t allow easily to be put in concept. The mythical discourse reveals itself to be the only one to be able to speak of certain things: The sensible world in permanent becoming that our intelligence has upon so little hold, the great and essential metaphysical questions (The soul before and after its stay in the body, divinity or the Good…), in short, what is at the same time below and above the possible speech of philosophy.
3. The myth is not as such a method to investigate truth; it is a mean to display the likely. If we exclude the border cases of allegorical tales, that serves essentially a pedagogical or ludic aim, mere auxiliaries serving the fathoming or the understanding, the myth, intervening where the dialectic is ineffective, cannot pretend to be true: It proposes, like Victor Brochard demonstrated in a masterly way, a plausible hypothesis not yet verified; it suggests what is probable. This probable as such must not be underestimated: If he is what we got short of better expressed, it can also be the object of a powerful inner adhesion, an intense intimate certitude, ‘mighty is Hope”, the eschatological myths brings, if we do add our ‘faith’ in them.
4. If the myth does not have the pretention to be undeniably true, it still pretends to bring meaning. It does not have to be read or heard for itself; it has a hidden meaning, carrier of a message; it asks that we transcend it, to be translated, interpreted, deciphered; and if the author gives, sometimes, the keys of a possible deciphering (that is the case of the allegory, where the meaning is given image after image), the myth stays frequently very freely open upon many levels of interpretations that a simple commentary cannot suffice to exhaust.
5. The myth contains implicitly a double pedagogical intention: First, of course, because it enlightens the distressed interlocutor and sooths the tired mind, or it becomes the support of a discussion that became stuck and trampling. In this meaning, it helps as much to the pondering than to the understanding, even though it is only an intermediary (metaxu) or a propaedeutical tool. But, highly educative, it aspires also to emulate, to encourage like in the ‘Menon’, to help us become more serene before death in the eschatological myths…
The myth doesn’t only have a moral, like we would say Aesop’s fables or La Fontaine Fables have; it is a moral stimulant, and sometimes a fertile spiritual ferment. This is in what it is ‘superior’ (Phedrus, 245b) to the Homeric fables that garble the divine, more useful to the sophistic speech (Menon, 86b) that entertains laziness and intellectual waiver, eventually more ‘efficient’ than the dialectical demonstration, because it dynamizes the search, feeds faith and enables hope.
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