Platonic Theory of Myth

Categories: Ancient Learning > Myth & Poetry > Theory of Myth

1 Introduction

Myths were seen in widely divergent ways by the different Greek philosophical schools. The Epicurean school (founded around 300 BCE) generally saw them in a very negative light, except to the extent that they confirmed what they saw as universal notions about the gods, most importantly that they are anthropomorphic in shape, immortal, and abide in blessed, undisturbed happiness. But any notion of deities changing shape, shedding tears over mortals or being wounded by them, in short, anything that would lessen the eternal bliss of the divine, was intolerable to Epicurus and his followers.

The Stoics, on the other hand (also founded ca. 300 BCE), redeemed the myths by boldly interpreting them in the terms of their own doctrines. In this, they continued an older tradition of allegorical interpretation, and for many of the more outrageous stories in Homer, a Stoic solution became generally accepted among ancient readers (see Mainstream Theory of Myth). For instance, the image of Zeus dangling Hera from heaven, with anvils tied to her feet, was understood as referring to the fourfold division of the cosmos into two upper regions of fire (Zeus) and air (Hera), and two lower realms of water and earth (the anvils). While their critics, both pagan and Christian, complained that they thereby rendered the gods into inanimate objects, the Stoics themselves considered the whole cosmos to be alive. Thus, from their perspective, a natural or “physical” reading in no way took away from the divinity of Zeus and Hera.

Plato, who died before either the Epicurean or the Stoic school were founded, struggled to articulate as clear a position on myths as they did. Or perhaps it is more charitable to say that he never cut short the struggle, and instead wrestled earnestly with the problems poised by myths throughout his career. In consequence, there are multiple responses to the subject in the Platonic dialogues, each fascinating in its own right, and not always easy to reconcile with each other. And that is to say nothing of his own myths (e.g., the myth of Er in Republic 614a–621d, and the bulk of the Timaeus, which theorizes its own use of myth).

2 Plato and others on the myth of Oreithyia

Phaedrus (esp. 229bff), cf. Herodotus 7.189, Strabo 7.3.1, Ps.-Apollodorus 3.199, Pausanias 1.19.5; Heraclitus Paradox. 28; Aelius Theon, Progymnasmata 95, Hermias 28ff, Proclus, Pl. Th. 1.22
Herodianus, Etymologica: Ὠρείθυια, ὄνομα θεᾶς. Suda/Photius s.v. Παρθένοι

3 …

Laws, Ion?, Timaeus, Republic, Gorgias, Protagoras, Phaedo? Scholia in Platonem? (Symposium? spec. 189d–193d? Phaedo 107c–115a?)

the Gorgias myth (523a–527a),
the myth of the androgyne (Symposium 189d–193d),
the Phaedo myth (107c–115a),
the myth of Er (Republic 614a–621d),
the myth of the winged soul (Phaedrus 246a–249d),
the myth of Theuth (Phaedrus 274c–275e),
the cosmological myth of the Statesman (268–274e),
the Laws myth (903b–905b).

with commentaries on the given passages

Procl. In Tim. 1.289