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PTCOLIM

 

Myth -
the Final Phase of  Platonic Education

Tim Addey

Plato and myth - the misunderstanding of the Republic's condemnation

I have entitled this article "Myth - the Final Phase of  Platonic Education" for two reasons: firstly because I want to explore the fascinating area of Platonic myth; and secondly because I hope that the title will have provoked a small degree of surprise, since it is commonly held that Plato disliked myth.

Let's deal with this misunderstanding before moving on to the substance of my lecture.  It arises principally from a well known passage from the Republic's second and third books in which poetical myths are denounced as misleading; Socrates, making a distinction between stories that are safe to tell to children and those that are grossly misleading, is asked which fables come into this latter category replies:

"Those which Hesiod and Homer tell us, and the other poets.  For they composed false fables to mankind, and told them as they do still."  [377d]  The fables in which Gods and heroes are portrayed as doing evil are especially hurtful and "Not to be mentioned in our city" [378b]  In this passage there is a series of criticisms quoting examples from the ancient poets and showing why they seem to distort important truths.

Looking more closely at the writings of Plato and seeing in them many myths, orthodox commentators concede that while Plato is for philosophical myths, they claim he is against poetical myths here attacked.  Is this a valid analysis?  I think not: as with all Platonic doctrinal statements we must look carefully at the context in which they are made.

In this passage of the Republic Socrates is especially concerned with the training of the young and ignorant - to the Greeks these terms are virtually interchangeable - and in other dialogues in which this is not an issue poetical myths and their makers are perfectly acceptable.  A cursory look, for example, at the Laws will show Plato quoting Homer with approval at least five times (680a, 681e, 707a, 777a, 804a) - a little strange, then, according to the common understanding, if Plato exiles Homer from his city but cannot exile him from his writings.  But while these references may be dismissed as a stemming from a inescapable literary tradition in which Plato found himself, we can find more positive evidence for his reverence for the ancient myths. 

In the Ion [533c], for example, when Ion complains that while he can rhapsodise the works of Homer easily and with beauty he is unable to do so with other poets, Socrates - the critic of Homer in the Republic - says that the reason for this is that there is a power which descends from the Gods to great men and thence to others who, like Ion, use the works of these men.  It is, he says, like a series of iron rings the first of which is attached to a magnet so that the power of the magnet passes on to all in the series.  So here we have Socrates affirming the divine inspiration of Homer which is more powerful than the mere use of his human poetical powers - he is likened a little later to the priestesses of Cybele who "perform not their dances, while they have the free use of their intellect . . . . [but when] . . . . possessed by some divine power."  The passage is finished [534e] with an unambiguous statement: "those beautiful poems are not human, nor the compositions of men; but divine, and the work of the Gods: and that poets are only the interpreters of the Gods, inspired and possessed, each of them by a peculiar deity who corresponds to the nature of the poet."

In the Phaedo [69d] Plato uses the imagery of an Orphic myth concerning Dionysus and the Titans - a myth to which I will return later; but it is worth noting here that the words of Socrates are received in this dialogue by his closest disciples who had been initiated, as it were, into the truths of the deepest philosophy.  And so we see emerging the opposite viewpoint concerning myth for those who have been properly educated - far from misleading, myth delivers the most important truths: this is also expressed in the Laws [658d] , the Guest says "But perhaps we old men should hear with the most pleasure the rhapsodist when properly handling the Iliad and the Odyssey, or some of the works of Hesiod, and should proclaim him the victor of all the others."

 Indeed in the very section of the Republic [378a] in which myth-makers are being condemned, Socrates says of the stories concerning the castration of Uranos by Kronos, and the overthrow of Kronos by Zeus:

"For though these things  were true, yet I should not imagine they ought to be so plainly told to the unwise and young, but ought much rather to be concealed.  But if there were a necessity to tell them, they should be heard in secrecy, by a few as possible; after they had sacrificed not a hog, but some great and wonderful sacrifice, and thus the fewest possible might chance to hear them."

Now the hog was the sacrificial victim offered by those who attended the most outward of the mystery celebrations held at Eleusis: these celebrations were open to all - slave and freeman, the ignorant and the wise - the only qualifications were that the attender should be able to understand Greek, and be free from the impurities of murder.  The deeper mysteries of the Eleusinian cult were for those who had undergone various initiations and the sanctuary was cleared of the uninitiated before they were celebrated.  The words of Socrates, then, become quite clear - myths are properly the province of those who are able to appreciate their hidden truths: I would say that the "great and wonderful" sacrifice to which he refers is none other than the sacrifice of the self in the quest for spiritual truth - but whether this is too fanciful, we can be certain that it indicates that Plato considered myth an essential part of a deeper appreciation of truth. 

Platonic dialogue - the use of myth to present a wholistic vision of truth

Let us move on, then, by considering the structure of Plato's dialogues: we can generalise and find three phases in most dialogues after a subject has been raised for consideration:

Firstly, there is a statement of accepted truth - a formula which encapsulates the best view of the subject from a traditional perspective, or an opinion held by a protagonist: in either case this corresponds to the first of three powers which Platonists held to be the range of human gnostic levels - in this case the level of opinion, which receives knowledge from external sources: it can affirm that something is, but cannot say why a thing is.  It may also be seen as corresponding to the first stage of the mysteries, that of telete - one who has "sacrificed the hog" and who made an initial affirmation that there are mysteries, but cannot say what they are because the eductive process of mystical initiation has not be started.  

Secondly, there is a rational examination of the original thesis: this usually constitutes the bulk of the dialogue.  Here various positions undergo a dialectical process which reveals the "why" of a thing; it is a separating out process which overcomes the misleading appearance of concepts by division, definition, demonstration and analysis.  For example the bald statement that "war is beautiful" is found to be wanting: the exercise of bravery, the aiding of one's friends in war, the defence of the just, and so on are all things which make war appear to be beautiful; but the death and destruction which are a part of war is not beautiful.  Once these things are separated out from each other the philosopher can think clearly about war, in contrast to the receivers of opinion who must accept the approximate generalisations of truth which the first gnostic level deals with.  This level may seen as corresponding to the second level of initiation into the mysteries, muesis, literally the "closing of the eyes" which indicates that the reception of external data ceases and truths are discovered by a more inward process. 

Thirdly, after the exercise of reason comes the third phase of Platonic dialogue: the telling of a myth.  The dissection of the subject has left us like a busy forensic pathologist with many parts scattered around, but with no living body - much truth, but little beauty.  It is for this reason that Plato uses myth, for myth is a moving thing to which the soul responds.  The power of a story, as any parent knows - and indeed as any Hollywood producer knows - is that on hearing it virtually all humans begin to identify with the characters it contains and move with them in their trials and tribulations, in their failures and triumphs.   Myth is perhaps the best way to bridge the objective-subjective divide that has done so much to damage the body of modern western thought.   The third stage of the Eleusinian mysteries was called Epoptia literally "to inspect" - but, I think, meaning to contemplate in the most mystical manner; that is to say, it corresponds to those states described by eastern mystics in which the self is seen as an indivisible part of the great sweep of the universe.

Some scholars have commented on the power of  mythic story to make this last jump in philosophic understanding: let me quote two: 

G R Levy says in his introduction to the second edition of Stewart's The Myths of Plato,  "In this [seventh] letter he [Plato] argues that the highest truths can never be written down, and that any such dissertation, if it existed, would fail to express its author's deepest knowledge.  This bears some analogy to the methods . . .  of Ch'an and Zen in the Far East, and the "ear-whispered teaching" of the "beyond" in Tibet.  It simply explains the place of myth in Plato's philosophy, which calls upon the kind of consciousness that is outside logic."  The use of the phrase "ear-whispered teaching" is interesting when one realises that the word myth is related to the Greek word for murmur - myth, then, can be understood as the initiatory story murmured in the ear of the prepared individual, rather than the more public utterances of the philosophic lecture.

Szlezak in his 1999 work Reading Plato adds his conviction that ". . . the ability of pictures and stories to depict a fact in its entirety and intuitively is an indispensable supplement to conceptual analysis."

 What power then, is carried in seemingly innocent words of the Guest in the Statesmen [268e] before he introduces  a myth - "Be as children, and listen." 

One final statement from Socrates on the place of myth will, I think, suffice before moving on to look at the philosophic treatment of myth in the Platonic tradition.  When faced with his own death, the noble Socrates seeks to turn it to the benefit of his closest companions and says [Phaedo 61d-e] of death and what lies beyond: "What I have heard I will not enviously conceal from you.  And perhaps it is becoming in the most eminent degree, that he who is about to depart thither should consider and mythologize about this departure: I mean, what kind of thing we should think it to be.  For what else can such a one be more properly employed about, till the setting of the sun?"

Traditional, Orphic and Platonic myth

If we are to assume, then, that the properly educated philosopher studied myth - deepening the oral tradition and passing on in the seclusion of Academy's grove the living symbolic truth of the mythos - we must make some attempt to explore philosophically the mythological material we have to hand.  We must, of course, recognise that an oral tradition, once its living channels are broken, is difficult to recover: it must say to us in that fine Shakespearean phrase "Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts" - although I think considerable help is at hand from the neoplatonists of late antiquity, who seemed to be moving much of the oral tradition into their writings in the face of the seemingly inevitable collapse of the old consensus of philosophic paganism, and together with it the failure of its oral tradition.  While it can be argued that neoplatonism arose some 500 plus years after the life of Plato, the fact that their language, education and culture remained closely related to his own gives their insights into myth some weight. 

So what kind of myth did Plato use in his Academy?  We must, of course, use the dialogues at least as our starting point - it is, I think, safe to assume that they at least hint at the mythos which crowned the logos of the more openly taught philosophy. There is a degree of uncertainty here, because he makes it very clear in his writings that these don't speak plainly the deepest truths that he knows.  We have already made reference via G R Levy, to the Seventh Letter, in which Plato writes: "Every worthy man will be very far from writing about things truly worthy . . . but the objects of his pursuit are situated in a beautiful region."

While in the Phaedrus [275d ff] he says: "That which is committed to writing contains something very weighty, and truly similar to a picture.  For the offspring of a picture project as if they were alive; but, if you ask them any question, they are silent in a perfectly venerable manner.  Just so with respect to written discourses, you would think that they spoke as if they possessed some portion of wisdom.  But if, desirous to be instructed, you interrogate them about any thing which they assert, they signify one thing only, and this always the same.  And every discourse, when it is once written, is every where similarly rolled among its audience, and even among those by whom it ought not to be heard; and is perfectly ignorant, to whom it is proper to address itself, and to whom not.  But when it is faulty or unjustly reviled, it always requires the assistance of its father.  For, as to itself, it can neither resist its adversary, nor defend itself.. . . But there is another discourse, and how much better and more powerful it is born than this . . . . that which, in conjunction with science, is written in the soul of the learner, which is able to defend itself, and which knows to whom it ought to speak, and before whom it ought to be silent."

What mythology is used in the dialogues is, then, only a very approximate guide to that used within the Academy "soul to soul" so to speak.  However we can see three distinct kinds of myth within the writings of Plato:

Firstly, the type one might call philosophic myth - that which is the least misleading, and can be heard by those with a minimum of proper education.  A good example of this is the myth of Er which is related in the last book of the Republic.  Er, a Pamphalian, is taken up after a battle as dead and placed on a funeral pyre with his fallen comrades; however before the pyre is lit at the appropriate time, he revives and relates the vision he had in his sojourn with the newly dead.  He had accompanied the departing souls to their place of judgement in Hades, although he himself was not judged; some souls were to be purged in the lower realms of Hades, while others rise to the more blessed circles in which the rewards of a virtuous life were received.  After this he sees the souls who are about to be incarnated in earthly bodies and watches as they choose their forthcoming lives - each one choosing according to his degree of ignorance and knowledge.  As they grasp their life among those spread like flowers before the throne of Necessity so their guiding daemon leads them to the three sisters who spin, measure and cut the thread of their self-chosen fate.  Finally the host of the soon-to-be incarnated souls are taken across the plain of Lethe (the word means forgetting) a hot and unshaded plain until in the evening they come to the river that runs through it.  All are obliged to drink from this river; some drink of it deeply and others but little; and in the measure that they drink of these waters, so they forget their pre-terrestrial existence.  After this they fall asleep until the middle watch of the night when a storm of thunder and lightning scatters the souls into the world of bodies.   The Republic's enquiry into how a city is to be organised was originally prompted because, as Socrates says, it is difficult to see how justice operates within the individual with all his or her faculties and powers (see 368c - 369b), so that using a city as an analogy for the individual is considered to be the best way to examine the subject.  The long dialogue builds up series of dialectic investigations into the relationship of the parts; the myth of Er brings the central point of the investigation back into focus - it shows the soul as a decision-making being moving through different phases of a great cycle of lives: it is the ability of the soul to make intelligent and just decisions which must be cultivated.

Secondly, there is the Orphic initiatory myth.  Morgan in his recent book Platonic Piety has explored Plato's connections with the Pythagorean and Orphic schools which were strong in Magna Graeca (southern Italy) - the very area which the Epistles tell us Plato had much to do with.  The clearest reference  to the Orphic myths (which Classicists consider to be a separate strand of mythology from the more mainstream tradition - it is a deviant mythology, to use their term) is a quote in the Phaedo [69d]:

"For it is said by those who write about the mysteries,
 The thyrsus-bearers numerous are seen,
 But few the Bacchuses have always been."

The myth to which this refers is that of the dismemberment of Dionysus - a universal myth which is worth retelling. 

Cadmus, king of Thebes, had four daughters: Semele, Ino, Agave and Autoneon.  Of these four, the beauty of Semele attracted Zeus who lay with her and implanted his immortal seed in the mortal woman.  But Hera, the first wife of the King of the Gods, was moved by jealousy and planned the destruction of her husband's lover, as well as the child which she carried within her womb: to this end she planted in Semele's mind a doubt as to the real identity of the father of her child.  The only sure proof that he was indeed Zeus, was, Hera suggested, that he should appear in his true form, rather than the disguise of mortality which Zeus had put on to lie with Semele.  Thus it was that the princess asked of Zeus a favour, to which he agreed; she then demanded that he appear before her unveiled by illusion.  Unable to refuse what he had promised, he was forced to comply, and stood before Semele in the full heat and force of his lightning and thundrous essence: as no mortal can withstand such untempered power, she was immediately destroyed.  But Zeus took the unborn child from her disintegrating body while cooling tendrils of ivy protected him from the intense heat of the Father, who, taking the role of mother, sewed him into his thigh.

So it was that Dionysus was born a second time, from the miraculous womb of his Father, but still Hera's jealousy pursued the child, who was being cared for by nymphs: some sources say these nymphs became afraid and others that they were driven insane, and so he was given into the keeping of his aunt, Ino, who brought him up in a grotto.  In an attempt to keep him from the destructive power of Hera, Ino dressed him as a girl and later, Zeus disguised him as a goat. 

As he grew into a youth, Zeus placed him on his throne, gave him a sceptre and announced him to be the next ruler of the world - but this served only to rekindle the anger of Hera and she incited the Titans, the gigantic divine offspring of an earlier generation of Gods, to capture the boy Dionysus.

The Titans ensnared Dionysus by disguising themselves as Bacchae (followers of Dionysus), and presenting him with games and playthings - for he was little more than a child: the toy which finally trapped the divine child was a mirror.  Once captured the pretend Bacchae gave him not a sceptre - as befits the ruler dion-mirror-smof the world - but a thyrsus made of a fennel stalk.  The monstrous giants then tore him to pieces and prepared to devour him; his torn members were first boiled in water and then roasted over a fire.  But while they feasted on the cooked flesh, Zeus, alerted by the rising steam, and perceiving the cruel act, hurled his thunderbolt at the Titans.  There followed a battle between the titanic giants and the Gods, during which the uneaten heart of Dionysus was gathered up by Athene; the Titans were defeated and from their burning ashes mankind was generated


Dionysus shown on a throne and being presented with the enslaving mirror

Afterwards, Zeus commanded Apollo, Dionysus' half-brother, to bury the scattered limbs of the slain youth according to custom, and this being done, Dionysus was regenerated from the preserved heart by Athene; having been restored to pristine life and vigour, he took his place among the Olympic Gods - the only one born of a mortal woman.

According to the later Platonists this Orphic myth has Dionysus as symbolising the effect of the descent into generation of the intellectual, or spiritual, soul.  In the eternal realms she is a whole, but in life as a soul connected with body she become separated out, and subject to death and decay.  The Thyrsus, a stalk of fennel which is hollow and divided into chambers (and incidentally the stalk in which Prometheus brought down the fire of heaven for the benefit of mortal man) also represents division.  The Titans - the "ti" of the word means, in Greek, particularity - are the material dionysussatyrpowers which draw down the soul from her contemplation of universals in her pristine condition towards the involvement of the particularities of the sense-perceptive life.  In the Phaedo, Socrates correlates the thyrsus-bearers - those who hold the false sceptre - with the many who have not philosophized rightly, and who are, therefore, trapped in the world of apparent truth.  The few Bacchuses, in contrast, are those who have been purified, initiated and healed - reworked, if you like, by Wisdom and Light and raised to the Olympic heights.  Dionysus has, as you will notice, three births: one from the womb of Semele, one from the thigh of Zeus; and one from the ashes of the fire by the wisdom of Athene - an interesting correlation may well be seen between these three births and the three phases of the Platonic dialogues, as already mentioned.

Dionysus, with a thyrsus as sceptre

Finally there are the myths which are from the mainstream of the Greek tradition - references to which abound throughout the dialogues.  The Cratylus covers most of the common names of the traditional pantheon and discusses the attributes of the Gods and heroes so revered by the Greeks.  Since the two epics of Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey , are the most continuous narrative from this tradition I propose, very briefly, to follow the neoplatonists in a symbolic analysis of these two stories - if you are interested in modern scholarship in this area I would recommend Robert Lamberton's Homer the Theologian as a reasonably comprehensive survey of the history of philosophical interpretation of Homer; but for an example of this at work, Porphyry's On the Cave of the Nymphs which together with Thomas Taylor's sympathetic notes is essential reading in this area [see volume II of the Thomas Taylor Series - Select Works of Porphyry].

To begin, then, what is the general symbolic thrust of the two epics?  According to Hermeas in his Scholia on the Phaedrus of Plato, the Iliad is a symbolic representation of the descent of the soul into matter.  He points out that the Greek word for  the city of Troy, Ilium, is derived from the word for mud - and for this reason the Greeks, who represent rational souls are called foreigners, while the Trojans who represent the irrational souls which in neoplatonsim animate the irrational creatures of natures are called genuine - that is to say the proper inhabitants of this muddy ball.  Now in the Phaedrus Plato says that the human soul descends into a terrestrial life because she pursues beauty, but cannot sustain her station in the heavens because of her mixed nature and so pursues not Beauty herself in the eternal, but its sensible reflection (see the myth of the chariots of the Gods and souls).  In the Iliad the Greeks possess beauty, in the form of Helen, but cannot sustain their continued possession of her because of deception: she is stolen away by Paris and must dwell in the lower world of Ilium. 

Paris_Helen


 

Paris abducts
Helen - note the
representation of
Eros (desire) between
the two

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Greeks, therefore, are obliged to leave their true homeland and spend a complete cycle of time - 10 years - toiling in a siege in order to recapture the beauty which is so desirable.  The abduction of Helen, by the way, was granted by Aphrodite to Paris as a reward for choosing her before Hera and Athena in the famous judgement of Paris: these three divinities represent the three principal powers of the soul as outlined in the Phaedrus : Athena being the wisdom of reason, Hera being rulership of controlling volition, and Aphrodite being the impulse of desire.   In the dialogue the soul is portrayed as having a winged chariot driven by a charioteer (reason) and impelled by two horses (volition and desire) - it is this second horse which gives the soul so much trouble and causes her to lose her heavenly orbit. 

Iphig


 

Agamemnon, sacrifices his
daughter Iphegeneia

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The leader of the Greeks, Agamemnon, is obliged to sacrifice his own daughter before the winds will take the Greeks across the ocean to Ilium: an image, perhaps, of the loss of the soul's pristine innocence as a precursor to the fall into matter.  Once the sacrifice is made, however, the foreigners are able to cross the ocean - which stands for the order of generation - and set about their seemingly endless war.  For reasons of time I will cut to the chase here and skip to the end of the Iliad, rather than go into the detail of the siege.  For all their bravery and labours the siege seems to be deadlocked: while the plain of Troy is under the control of the Greeks, they are unable to take the city itself and the prize of Helen within.  Ultimately the deadlock is broken not by force of arms, but by the cunning of Odysseus: here then is an image of the triumph of the soul when she turns again, even in the apparently irrational world, to the faculty of reason - which our cunning hero, beloved by Athena, represents.  But here we must look at how precisely Odysseus arranges the siege's successful conclusion: the famous wooden horse again has a linguistic clue for us - and a surprising one at that.  The Greek word for wood in hyle - but this word also means matter: what does this tell us?    A common position for those who have begun to see the universe in terms of spirit and matter, and the soul as a primarily spiritual thing, is to think in terms of escaping the material world: it is easy to misinterpret Platonism as having this position - and certainly easy to read the strand of neoplatonism which follows Plotinus as this.  From this viewpoint the only reason for the soul to descend into matter is in order to re-ascend as soon as possible: but this is not the complete picture by any means.   A careful study of the Timaeus (esp. 41b - 43a) shows that in the creation of the manifested universe the Demiurge, according to Plato, instructs the junior gods (that is to say, the gods which rule the mundane world) to create human souls, woven with mortal and immortal threads, in order that the universe may be complete and beautiful.  We see, then, that while Plato requires us to free our souls from the distortions of the sense-life, he does not require us to reject the mundane: indeed, in the discussion which follows the analogy of the Cave (Rep. VII, 519c ff) when discussing the fate of the freed cave-dweller, who has obtain the contemplative vision of the sun - in other words fate of the philosopher who has risen to the contemplation of the One before all being - he says this:

It is our business then, said I [i.e. Socrates], to oblige those of the inhabitants who have the best geniuses, to apply to that learning which we formerly said was the greatest, both to view The Good, and to ascend that ascent; and when they have ascended, and sufficiently viewed it, we are not to allow them what is now allowed them.

What is that? [asks Glauco]

To continue there, said I, and be unwilling to descend again to those fettered men, or share with them in their toils and honours, whether more trifling or more important

 Shall we then, said he, act unjustly towards them, and make them live a worse life when they have it in their power to live a better?

 You have again forgot, friend, said I, that this is not the legislator's concern, in what manner any one tribe in the city shall live remarkably happy; but this he endeavours to effectuate in the whole city, connecting the citizens together; and by necessity, and by persuasion, making them share the advantage with one another with which they are severally able to benefit the community: and the legislator, when he makes such men in the city, does it not that he may permit them to go where each may incline, but that himself may employ them for connecting the city together.

Now the city stands for the whole made up of parts: it is both an image of man - soul, mind, will, heart, powers, faculties and bodies - as well as the manifested cosmos with all its parts.  Plato is looking for philosophers not to live in some hermit's cave, but to rule as kings.  In other words the ultimate paradox of the human condition is that we should have our spiritual or intellectual eye free from the distortion of matter, but our pure vision is to be used in the service of the perfect manifestation of the pattern which the Demiurge looks to in the Eternal.  The escape from the limitations of matter is, then, to enter willingly into matter.  So now we can see that the Greeks escape from the seemingly unending siege of Troy by entering the hylic horse - a sacrifice to Athena - is the very image of the soul entering willingly into the heart of matter in order to bring to it her own measure of reason.  After this subterfuge the "strangers in a strange land" have, once more, been united with beauty.  As an interesting aside, a play written by Euripedes has Helen living in Egypt while the siege of Troy takes place, and Paris merely living with a phantom image of the stolen queen.  This is very much a Platonic concept - it matches exactly Diotima's description of mundane beauty in the Symposium .  It is reliably reported that Euripedes and Socrates were good friends, and some scholars have gone so far as to suggest that his latter plays were written in collaboration with Socrates.

 Let me now turn to the Odyssey: just as the Iliad was said to be the story of the descent of the soul, so the subsequent epic is the story of the soul's re-ascent - and just as the cycle of the descent takes 10 years, so does the reascent.  Odysseus starts out from Troy with his ships, his numerous crew, and his share of the Trojan spoils; after the ten year siege he is naturally eager to return home.  But he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the ruler of the ocean - which as we have said before is symbolic of the order of generation - and so must go through many trials before he reaches his goal.  This is as one might expect, because as we are all well aware, once one has become immersed in the swirling currents of generation it is by no means easy to free oneself: whether we see this in terms of karma, or in terms of psychological development the message is still the same - we have to move through what seems to be a great deal of suffering before we released from the ties that bind us.  As the journey passes through its various phases - each of which is symbolically explored in Thomas Taylor's essay On the Wanderings of Ulysses - Odysseus' possessions are lost: his ships; his crew; and his plunder.  This can be seen as an image of the removal of material illusion and attachment from the returning soul which, according to Platonic philosophy, is a necessary discipline if the eye of the soul is to be purified.  Meanwhile his wife, Penelope, sits at home avoiding accepting any of the false suitors who would take his place: she does this by promising that once she has finished her wedding veil she will accept the hand of one of the suitors: she weaves by day and unpicks her handiwork by night - this is taken as symbolic of dialectical philosophy by the latter Platonists: an image of the construction of philosophic concepts which must be continually built up, inspected and reduced to their simple elements, before a new cycle of construction is started.

After the storms, the monstrous opponents, and dark magic of his various adventures,  the last trial Odysseus must undergo is his encounter with Calypso: this is a mixture of pleasure and pain which gradually become more and more unbearable.  Calypso, says Taylor, symbolises the faculty of imagination or phantasy - this is not quite reason, but yet not quite sense; for having crossed and recrossed the ocean of the sense life it may seem that a haven has been reached - but gradually it dawns upon the wanderer that he is still not in that realm of pure intellect wherein the soul is truly happy.  Taylor points out that the name Calypso is derived from  which means "to cover as with a veil" - in other words this realm of phantasy, although a more inward thing than sense, still does not reveal the intelligible forms which are the soul's true objects of contemplation.  Eventually, through the intervention of Hermes, the God of reason, Calypso is persuaded to release Odysseus, and he sets sail upon a raft -

 And now rejoycing in the prosp'rous gales,
 With beating heart Ulysses spread his sails;
 Plac'd at the helm he sate, and mark'd the skies,
 Nor clos'd in sleep his ever watchful eyes. 
 There view'd the Pleiads, and the northern team,
 And great Orion's more refulgent beam,
 To which around the axle of the sky
 The bear revolving, points his golden eye;
 Who shines exalted on th' aetherial plain,
 Nor bathes his blazing forehead in the main.

For what is said here is in conformity to the stages through which the former cave dweller of the seventh book of the Republic must be led who passes from the darkness of the cave - material life - to the light of day - intellectual life.  Before the final vision of the sun, says Socrates, the freed man will "more easily see what the heavens contain, and the heavens themselves, by looking in the night to the light of the stars and the moon, than by day looking on the sun, and the light of the sun."  For by this, as Proclus well observes, "Plato signifies the contemplation of intelligibles, which the stars and their light are the imitations, so far as all of them partake of the form of the sun, in the same manner as intelligibles are characterised by the nature of the Good."  That Homer is not describing a purely mortal activity can by seen by the fact that he says that this starry vigil is continued for 17 nights without Odysseus closing his eyes.

 One last mighty storm is summoned by the Lord of the Oceans and even the rough raft is lost to our hero: he is washed up on the shores of Phaeacia utterly naked.  That this country stands for the Platonic "intelligible realm" is conveyed by a number of correspondences: it is the first place Odysseus has come to in all the twenty years of siege and storm-tossed wanderings that is entirely beneficent and without the mixture of good and evil which is characteristic of the sensible world.  The inhabitants of the land are god-like in their manners and environment - the entrance to king Alcinous' palace is guarded, for example, by

 "Two rows of stately dogs on either hand,
 In sculptur'd gold, and labour'd silver, stand.
 These Vulcan form'd intelligent to wait
 Immortal guardians at Alcinous' gate."

 Further, during their feast the magic of the minstrel who sings of the siege of Ilium, brings to the mind of Odysseus the whole series of trials he has undergone since he left his homeland - just as one might imagine a soul newly arrived at a state of intellectual purity surveying in perspective the adventures it has undergone in the dream-like state of her earthly life in which it seemed that the material world was the all.  The royal house of Phaeacia welcome Odysseus to their palace, feast him, hear his tear-stained story, and then replace the lost earth-born treasure of Troy with their finer gifts; finally they take him aboard their own ships to return him to Ithica, his long-lost fatherland.  In case we still don't realise that this noble race represent the inhabitants of the Intelligible realm, Homer describes their ships as "swift as thought."

 After these experiences the cunning Odysseus of the outset is transformed into the wise Odysseus, -

 O still the same Odysseus! (she rejoin'd,)
 In useful craft successfully refined!

and on reaching the shore of his home, he enters the cave of the nymphs - read Porphyry for a detailed exposition of Homer's description of this place - and meets Athene, not disguised as in many other previous encounters, but as herself: her words to him are poignant:

 Know'st thou not me; who made thy life my care,
 Through ten years' wandering, and through ten years' war;
 Who taught thee arts, Alcinous to persuade,
 To raise his wonder, and engage his aid.

 In now remains only for the long-exiled king to draw upon the bow which hangs upon his palace wall, and purge his kingdom of the insolent suitors with the Apollonic arrows, and to bring peace again to the land which is under his sovereignty.  He is united to his father and he himself becomes god-like:

 So Pallas his heroic form improves
 With bloom divine, and like a god he moves!

The journey, then, of the soul is complete: she has been tempered by the toils of war in the material world; she has met with fortitude the trials of the ocean of generation; she has cultivated wisdom and entered the intellectual realm of pure forms; she has re-established justice within her own realm.  All these steps are fully in conformity with the Platonic doctrine of virtue, or perhaps we should say that the doctrine is in conformity with the Homeric pattern of the Hero.

I hope this article has presented at least a primae facia case for the integral part that mythology played within the Platonic system of philosophic education; and that the examples I have touched upon will encourage a further exploration of the subject.  Mythology is not reducible to logical analysis - not, at least, if we are to preserve it power to move the soul: nevertheless its flights start as we reach the summit of dialectic, and its insights can re-invigorate our rational life.   Perhaps it is best to end with words from the Seventh Epistle:

 "For a thing of this kind cannot be expressed by words like other disciplines, but by long familiarity, and living in conjunction with the thing itself, a light as it were leaping from a fire will on a sudden be enkindled in the soul, and there itself nourish itself."

Odysseus-return-

        The return of Odysseus

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Note: this article was originally given as a lecture to the Bath Philosophy Group in February 2002

 

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