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Plato Presentation DRAFT 5

In this presentation I look at the meaning and function of myths for Plato. My
presentation is divided into two parts. First I outline Platos understanding of myths.
Using the myth of Atlantis as a helpful starting point, we can see that Plato
emphasises the importance of oral communication and tradition to the concept of
myth. These points reappear when we examine Platos discussion of the poets in
Republic. The proper material of poetry is myth, and poetry plays an important role in
Greek education. In both form and content these myths are imitations, copies. Plato
criticises the poets for being imitators, arguing, first, that they present perverted
pictures of gods, heroes, justice and virtue because they have no knowledge; and
second, they promote disorder in their audience. The second part of my presentation
focuses on Platos own use of myths. He recognises the persuasive power of myths to
charm that part of us that will not listen to reason. But insofar as his myths are
persuasive, it is not completely clear why they are better than the myths of the poets.
When we look at the use of myth in Phaedrus we can see that Platos myths fit into a
larger pattern designed to bring us towards knowledge by encouraging us to examine
his myths in relation to his dialogues, thinking for ourselves. I end by applying this
approach to the myth of Er, showing how we can make this initially puzzling myth
clearer. Thus Platos own use of myths promotes reflection and learning, which sets
his use of myths apart from the use that he criticises. There is another, derivative
sense of myth in Platos works, but this sense is not my concern in this paper (cf.
Brisson 1998, 128-133).
I follow Luc Brisson in using the Atlantis myth as a helpful reference point in
grasping Platos understanding of myths (1998, 14-15). In Timaeus, Critias tells the
story of Solon visiting the Egyptian city Sas, where he speaks to a priest about
ancient Athens (21e-26e). Solon offers genealogies, but the priest says these are no
better than stories told to children (23b). The priest has a written account of ancient
Athens that has been lost in Athens itself due to floods and disasters (22c-23d). He
tells the story of Athens defeating Atlantis in war, and Solon passes this down in
Athens until it reaches Critias, who relates the myth in Timaeus.
The first thing to point out is that the myth was lost in Athens because
flooding had wiped out the people. It was lost because myths here are transmitted
orally; when there is a break in the transmission, the myth is lost. And while a written
account survives at Sas, it plays a secondary role, for the priest knows it by heart and
does not refer to it (24a). Further, the myth was passed down orally for one thousand
years before it was written, and it was passed orally over two hundred seventy years
from Solon to Critias (Brisson 1998, 26, 30). Writing is pushed to the background.
The second point to take is the content of myths. The priest says not all stories
are preserved, only the ones that have significance regarding the cultures values and
customs (23a). Events must be significant, memorable, in order to become the subject
of a myth. These are then passed from generation to generation.
This leads me to the importance of poetry to Platos understanding of myths.
In Books II and III of Republic, Socrates speaks about the role of the poets in Greek
education. Children are first told myths by their mothers and nurses, but when they
reach school age this role is taken over by poets (377a-c). Poetry constitutes half a
childs education (376e). Myths as told by poets fit into the points already noted: they

are delivered orally, and their content is taken from traditional, pre-existing stories. I
will expand on these points in turn, showing that imitation plays an important role.
Regarding the poets performance, Socrates looks at two aspects of form. One
is the music, rhythm and meter of the poem (398d). These are constructed to agree
with the content of the myth, to, for example, make it seem like we are in a battle
when we are not; this he calls imitation (398d-399a). The second aspect is the mode
of presentation, in which the poet takes on the persona of a character: this he also calls
imitation (392d-393d). Imitation is a kind of copy-making: the poet makes a copy of a
model with his gestures, music and voice (cf. Soph 265b-267a). But imitation does not
stop with the poet. In oral communication, transmission is inseparable from reception,
so it is not surprising to see Socrates attribute imitation to the audience. In the middle
of his discussion of the imitation of poetry, there is a shift of focus to the addressees
of poetry, the guardian students, themselves taking part in imitation insofar as they
copy virtuous people (Rep 395b-d). Both Brisson (1998, 74) and Havelock (1963, 26)
take this shift as preparation for Book X, when Socrates focuses on the power of
poetry to make the audience identify with what the poet presents: the poet presents an
imitation, stirring the audience to identify with it, taking on the same behaviour (Rep
605c-e). This makes sense of Socrates insistence that children will take on the
behaviour presented in myths (377a-378a).
Now to the content of poetry. In Symposium, Diotima groups poets together
with other makers (205b-c). The Greek poisis means making, so cobblers are also
poets in a way. Poets have in common with other makers that they work with preexisting material, shaping it (Brisson 1998, 41-43). The poets proper material, says
Socrates in Phaedo, is myth (61b); and the subjects of myths, as set out in Republic,
are: gods, daimons, heroes, the inhabitants of Hades, and humans (392a). These
subjects are all either inaccessible to us on principle, unavailable to the senses or
intellect, or too far distant in time to be susceptible to verification (Brisson 1998, 101102). They are stories that have been passed down as tradition, preserving collective
values and knowledge; hence the importance of poetry in education. We have
imitation on this level as well: since the subjects of myths are inaccessible to us they
are not susceptible to precise description (ibid, 103-104). The poets must substitute
these subjects with a model that is accessible, this model being ordinary human
So we have reached a certain understanding of Platos conception of myths.
Myths are orally transmitted stories about unverifiable characters and events holding
significance for a cultures values and customs; they are the proper subjects of poetry,
which is a kind of imitation. Before we look at how Plato uses myths, I will discuss
his criticisms of the poets use of myths.
Since the subjects of myths are inaccessible, the poets must substitute them
with a model that is accessible, this model being ordinary humans. Plato criticises the
poets heavily for doing this, since their portraits of gods and heroes show them doing
all kinds of wretched things (Rep 377e, 379d-380a, 381d). The problem with this is,
first, that children and youth will imitate this behaviour, thinking it is good, and it will
become a habit that is difficult to root out (378c-e). Second, this is not what the gods
and heroes are really like (377e). The gods, says Socrates, are good, and only the
cause of the good (379b-c). He then lays down some laws restricting what the poets
may say about them (379c, 383a). This might seem extreme, but if we recall the
central role of poetry to Greek education, that poetry was perhaps something like a
textbook, we can make sense of Platos desire to place restrictions on them. However,
if these subjects are inaccessible, how can Plato accuse the poets of describing them

incorrectly? What Plato is doing is pitting the poets against the philosophers. Socrates
and Adeimantus, in their discussion, find that any god must be good; this is a
necessary condition for being a god, and must apply to all individual gods even
though they are inaccessible to us. Myths are judged true or false based on whether or
not they agree with what the philosophers say.
The poets lose this battle decisively when in Book X they are expelled from
the ideal city altogether. By this time Socrates has wisened up to what the poets really
do. By now the reader of Republic has seen that justice consists in a well-ordered
soul, that knowledge is recollection of the Forms, and that the philosopher works
painstakingly to achieve both order and knowledge. In Symposium the poet was
placed with the makers, but here the activity of poets is found defective. Other makers
make copies using measurement and calculation, which requires some skill based on
knowledge of the model, looking towards it with their minds eye (Rep 596b, 601d602e). But poets have no knowledge; they work three removes from the real models,
making appearances in words of copies, imitations of imitations, like painters painting
an aspect of a bed (cf. Havelock 1963, 25).
Since they have no knowledge, they present to the audience whatever it is they
already believe about gods and virtue and justice (Gadamer 1980, 61, 62). When this
audience is the culture that Plato accuses in Book X of not having knowledge either
(Rep 601a), the poet presents perverted pictures of virtue and justice. Gadamer
reminds us that Socrates builds an ideal city in words to illuminate the soul (1980, 4849). The focus is on what an ordered soul looks like. What role can the poets play in
the ordering of my soul if they present to me what I already believe? Since they have
no knowledge, it is not viable to look to them for conceptions of justice and virtue.
Further, the imitative power of poetry is dangerous even for an ordered soul: it
encourages self-forgetfulness identification with what is presented promoting
confusion and disorder (Rep 605c-607a). So the very act of listening to poetry is
dangerous. The poets can play no role in the ordering of my soul, and for this reason
they must be banned from the ideal city.
After such a heated attack on the poets use of myth, we might wonder why Plato uses
them himself. Our task is to see why he might use them, and how this use is different
from the poets. First, Plato recognises the power of myths as means of persuasion In
Phaedo, after offering an argument that the soul exists after death, and insisting it has
been proved, Cebes says he is still unconvinced; he says Socrates should assume there
is a child in him who fears that the soul will be destroyed, and he should try to
persuade this child. Socrates says that Cebes must sing a charm over the child every
day until he has charmed away his fears (77e). After further argument, neither
Simmias nor Cebes have grounds to doubt Socrates argument that the soul is
immortal (107a-b). Yet Simmias still maintains some private misgivings. Since
Socrates has no time to go further into the argument, he offers a myth instead
detailing the journey of the soul after death (109a-114d). After relating the myth
Socrates says: [n]o sensible man would insist that these things are as I have
described them, but I think it is fitting for a man to risk the belieffor the risk is a
noble onethat this, or something like this, is true about our souls and their dwelling
places, since the soul is evidently immortal, and a man should repeat this to himself as
if it were an incantation (114d-e). The argument has proved that the soul is immortal:
Socrates, Simmias, and Cebes all agree. Yet this is evidently not enough to dispel the

fear that it may be destroyed. The child in us is still scared, and its fears must be
charmed away by a myth.
That myths are addressed to children is a recurring point made by Plato. It is
how he introduces the myth in the Statesman (268d-e) and in Protagoras (320c);
Critias was a child when he heard the myth of Atlantis (Tim 21b); in Republic, myths
are told to children by their mothers and nurses, and forms half the education of
youths. In Republic Plato emphasises that the beliefs children form in response to
myths are difficult to remove later on. They must be told myths because they cannot
yet follow complex debate. Myths are explicitly related with the art of charming in
Laws, and in Euthydemus speechmaking is said to be part of the art of the enchanter,
who charms wild beasts and diseases (Brisson 1998, 80-82). In Charmides, the art of
charming is said to bring moderation to the soul (ibid, 79). So that Plato likens mythtelling to charming indicates that he thinks myths are capable of taming those parts of
us that will not listen to reason. In Phaedo, and elsewhere, these parts are the child in
us, indicating Platos awareness that not everyone has the desire or capacity to follow
complex argumentative debate, at least not all the time, and even if we do, part of us
might resist it anyway if what is at stake is significant enough. Thus philosophers like
Simmias and Cebes may still have to be charmed out of the fear of death.
The persuasive power of myths seems extraordinary when likened to a charm
that can rid us of the fear of death. But if Platos myths are simply meant to be
brainwashing, then it is not clear how they are better than the myths told by the poets.
How can I be ordering my soul if I am merely charmed into belief? The Phaedo myth
comes at the end of a long argument that the interlocutors find convincing. In fact,
many of Platos myths either preface or follow an argument that is about the same
topic as the myth. This suggests a method. Why might Plato do this? To answer this
question I look at the Winged Chariot myth in Phaedrus.
In the first part of Phaedrus we are presented with three speeches about love.
The first is by Lysias, who argues that it is better to give favour to someone who does
not love you than to someone who does (231a-234c). The second speech is by
Socrates, who is trying to outdo Lysias speech while arguing the same (237a-241d).
But afterwards Socrates realises that he has insulted Love, and gives another speech
praising the relationship of lovers, in which he tells the winged chariot myth (244a257b).
At the beginning he says he was wrong to disparage the lover because he is
mad; some of the best things we have come from madness when it is given by a god,
and love is one of them (244a). He likens the soul to a chariot drawn by two winged
horses, one obedient and one unruly, and the charioteer is the intellect (246a-b). When
we are in heaven we follow the gods to their banquet up a steep climb to reach the rim
of heaven, from which we can see the Forms. If we do not control our bad horse the
climb is difficult; we may only glimpse the Forms, or go away without seeing them at
all. If we do not see them, we are weighed down by forgetfulness, shed our wings and
fall to earth, taking on a body (247a-248e). When we see a beautiful body we are
reminded of Beauty in heaven. Our wings swell when we are with the body and ache
when we are not; we are overcome by anguish and this is the madness of love (251ae). Our bad horse drives us forward in search of sex, but we see that Self-Control is
next to Beauty and try to hold it back (254a-b). We befriend the beautiful boy and try
to teach him (252e). If we manage to control the bad horse we lead a life of mutual
bliss and understanding, following the regimen of philosophy, nourishing our
memories of the Forms, and growing our wings back (256b). If we do this in three

consecutive lives we enter heaven again (249a). Thus it is better to give favour to a
lover than a non-lover.
The first speech was Socrates attempt to show that he can speak better than
Lysias. It is a competitive exercise, we think; but it goes wrong. Socrates realises that
he has insulted Love. He makes up for it with his second speech, which we think is
his real view of love. So they seem to be opposites. It seems surprising, then, when
later he places them together, not as opposing speeches on love, but complementary
speeches on madness (265a-c). The first was right to disparage love, for it was really
the human illness of madness (266a). But the second praised divine madness. Taken
together, the two are part of one investigation.
This is not surprising when we consider the topic of the second part of the
dialogue. Here Socrates argues that to give good speeches we must grasp our subject,
and we can grasp it through collection and division (273d-e). In collection we bring
things together into one kind and in division we cut up kinds according to their
species (265d-266b). Hence Socrates collects behaviours into the kind madness, then
divides out the human and divine, and within the divine, the poets, prophets, mystics,
and lovers. Anybody skilled in this method is called a dialectician (266c). So no
wonder Socrates can look back on his speeches as complementary they are an
example of this method.
So, we think, this is what he was up to all along. He tells us now that
everything not pertaining to this division seems to be mere play, not to be taken
seriously (265c-d). But when we try to find what this element of play might be, we are
initially stumped. The myth itself constitutes the main part of the demonstration of
divine love we cannot throw this out. Christopher Rowe suggests that one part of the
play referred to is the teasing association of the philosopher with the ordinary
lover (2009, 139). Socrates has subsumed his speeches on love into his dialectic on
madness. Presumably we are also to change our focus from the relationship between
lovers to that between the dialectician and his partner; the relationship between lovers
turns on philosophy, which is closely associated with dialectics, and a similar change
of focus is found elsewhere in Plato (cf. Sym 210b-e). The philosophers concern is
with beauty itself, and truth and wisdom, and when beauty is made the true object of
love in Socrates second speech we can see that, for Plato, real ers is philosophy
(Rowe 2009, 139). In the second part of the dialogue the sexual imagery is replaced
with agricultural imagery of the dialectician sowing seeds (Phdr 276e). The
philosophers experience of true ers the ascent to beauty, truth and wisdom
expressed in dialectical discussion is purged of the initial association with ordinary
erotic love. But to the extent that the philosophers ascent involves the participation of
others, the comparison between erotic and philosophical involvement lies close to
hand (Rowe 2009, 139).
What does this mean for Platos myths? We can see there are several layers of
meaning in the winged chariot myth. It is a speech in praise of love; it is also a
dramatisation of his theory of knowledge as recollection (cf. Phdo); and it is part of
the dialectic on madness. But this last layer and its implications are not evident at
first, and not from the myth itself. We can tease them out only after we have read the
whole dialogue and look back; in fact, Socrates invites us to do just this, and does it
himself to show us what he can find. Socrates elsewhere (cf. Tht 149a-151d) describes
himself as a midwife, and in a way this is a kind of midwifery: we are to look into the
myth and find connections between it and the dialogue, ones that are not at first
evident; we are to think for ourselves, giving birth to ideas, assisted by Socrates. We
are the dialecticians and the myth is part of the dialectic. If these comments have any

value we can apply this approach to many Platonic myths. It is, I suggest, one of the
main features that sets them apart from the use of myths he criticises. We will now
look at the myth of Er, found at the end of Republic, to see if this approach has merit.
Er was a soldier who died in a war, and twelve days later revived and told
what he had seen in the world beyond (Rep 614a). At the place of judgement were two
openings in the earth and two in the heavens. After judgement souls would either go
down into the underworld for punishment or up into heaven for reward. Out of the
other opens came souls that had received their punishment and reward, and they
mingle together telling of their experiences (614c-616b). These souls then head out on
a journey, coming to Necessity and the Fates, seeing how the spindle of Necessity
turns the bonds that connect the heavens (616b-c). Here each soul chooses its next
life, choosing one after another by lot, from a limited number of models of lives
(617d-618b). There are enough models so that nobody will be forced to choose a bad
life, so long as they choose well. However, the first soul, which came from heaven,
chose a tyranny and was fated to eat his children; in his former life he was
unphilosophical, just only through habit. Many who came from heaven chose badly,
while many from the underworld chose carefully (619b-e). After having their lives
spun into the spindle of fate, they travelled to the Plain of Forgetfulness where they
drank from the River of Unheeding, and they forgot everything and went to sleep
This myth immediately invites questions, the main one being why, in a
dialogue where he argues that justice is desirable for its own sake, explicitly
excluding consideration of rewards, does Socrates now tell us about the rewards we
can expect? If we are convinced by these rewards to be just, then the preceding
argument is undermined. We become more confused when we consider the somewhat
determinist picture of the cosmos presented. In the dialogue, Socrates argues that it is
better to be just than unjust (612a-b); but here it seems that I am determined to be
either just or unjust by a decision that I cannot remember making, one that is
influenced heavily by a previous life that I do not recall. We seem to be trapped in a
cycle of just and unjust lives, of reward and punishment, that goes on forever. Julia
Annas finds this picture daunting, even repulsive, and wonders how anybody can be
saved by it, as Socrates claims we can be (1982, 132-133, 135-138).
To answer our first question we must go back to Book II. Justice is there
placed in the group of things that is desirable both for its own sake and for its rewards
(358a). However Glaucon demands justice be defended for its own sake; we are to
give no consideration to the rewards (358b). This limited perspective is taken
throughout the entire book, up until Book X, after Socrates has demonstrated that
justice is desirable for its own sake. Then he moves to reinstate the rewards for being
just, that he says are owed by the argument (612b-614a). Glaucon reacts
enthusiastically, not finding this a strange move at all. As G. R. F. Ferrari observes,
these rewards were never far from Glaucons mind (2009, 118-120). In a sense,
excluding these rewards was an injustice against justice, which Socrates now moves
to rectify.
But let us not be misled. The rewards and punishments are mentioned only
indirectly; the focus is on the decision of our next lives. The soul that chose first came
from heaven, but was unphilosophical, just only through habit. That this soul chose so
badly shows that all the rewards in heaven are no good to us if we do not pursue
justice for its own sake, through hard work like the philosopher. Those who are just in
any other way will show their incompetence when the time comes, being rewarded
by falling into the cycle of reward and punishment that is so daunting. But the

philosophers are in the best position to choose their next lives well; they will escape
punishment just to the extent that they can use their learning to make this decision
well every time (Rep 618c-619b). The heavenly reward falls into the background; the
real reward for pursuing justice for its own sake is our ability to choose a just life each
time. So the reward for the properly just life is the properly just life justice is its
own reward.
So the rewards for being just have been reinstated. Though they are not quite
what we expected, they show us that those pursuing justice not for its own sake do not
receive satisfying rewards. At the same time he gives us an image of the well-ordered
cosmos; the heavens are bound by the spindle of Necessity, which in turn binds our
lives, which are properly rewarded or punished, cycling endlessly. Annas finds this
picture daunting, but Ferrari notes that the philosopher will find it no more daunting
than having to rule the city-state or go back into the cave (Ferrari 2009, 131). The
philosopher does not rejoice in these tasks, but it was found just that the philosophers
take them on, and since the philosophers desire justice for its own sake, they take
them on willingly. Faced with the spindle of Necessity and seeing the well-ordered
cosmos, the philosophers see their place in it, and take on their responsibility in this
scheme, which in the afterlife comes down to two uncoerced decisions: their choice of
lives and how much they drink from the River of Unheeding.
So this puzzling myth invites us to look back on the dialogue to make sense of
it. The same themes crop up again, as if in conclusion, but it also adds something that
the argument missed out because of its limited perspective: the status of reward for
being just. Once we see these connections the myth becomes clearer, and not at all as
repulsive as Annas suggests. The myth might indeed save us, as Socrates says (Rep
621b): it will turn our attention back to the dialogue for better understanding, which in
turn may motivate us even more strongly to be just. So we see that reading a Platonic
myth against the background of the dialogue it appears in, treating it as an element
that may do philosophical work and encourage us to do the same, is fruitful for
understanding both myth and dialogue. This places it in contrast with the use of myths
by the poets, and we can see how Platos use differs from that use.
In conclusion, we can see that Platos use of myths differs from that of the poets
whom he criticises. The poets tell myths that are imitations of imitations, involving no
knowledge. Thus they must present only what their audience will accept as beautiful,
just, etc., and not what really is so. But their power over us makes them dangerous:
we sympathise with what they present, identifying ourselves with this imitation,
becoming disordered and confused. Plato also recognises the persuasive power of
myths, but he is careful to place them in dialogues preceding and succeeding complex
arguments. This invites us to look at the myth in relation to the argument surrounding
it, making connections and hopefully learning and becoming competent at thinking
for ourselves. This, unlike the poets myths, encourages order and learning.