Pieper: The Platonic Myths

August 20, 2011

The Platonic Myths
Josef Pieper
(St. Augustine’s, 2011) [1965]
Translated from the German by Dan Farrelly
95 p.

Into many of his dialogues Plato incorporated material which has been described as ‘mythic’. There are the famous allegorical myths of the cave (from Republic) and of the sexes (from Aristophanes’ speech in Symposium), and Timaeus contains an influential creation myth, for instance. Also in Symposium we find a story about man’s original state and subsequent fall. Three great dialogues in particular – Phaedo, Republic, and Gorgias – end not with a philosophical conclusion or even a philosophical question mark (as was typical in Plato’s early dialogues), but with extended presentations of myths about death, the other world, and judgment.

Why did Plato include this apparently ‘non-philosophical’ material in his dialogues? How should these myths be interpreted? What place, if any, should they be given in Plato’s philosophical programme? What significance can they have for modern readers? These are among the questions Josef Pieper takes up in this slender book. He is not the first to ask them, of course, and he notes that over the centuries readers have responded to Platonic myths in very different ways. Some have read them as poetic flourishes, included for their aesthetic value but not to be taken seriously as philosophy; others have seen them as concessions of futility and ignorance, as gestures toward an honourable alternative to a (failed) philosophical inquiry, perhaps with the suggestion that the myth is a second-rate substitute for genuine, but elusive, knowledge; still others have seen the myths as philosophically important in their own right, as expressing Plato’s belief that philosophy finally opens onto mystery, and that certain questions pursued by the philosopher find their answers only outside the philosophical tradition, in an encounter with the divine.

Pieper’s special concern is with the eschatological myths found in Phaedo, Gorgias, and Republic, in each of which Plato concludes an ambitious and probing philosophical discussion by presenting a myth about “the last things”: death, judgment, and divinity. All three myths include what Pieper takes to be the essential marks of myth: they are narrative, they are part of a tradition that has been passed down rather than being the invention of the narrator (Socrates says in each case that he has ‘heard’ the story he is about to tell), and they concern the relationship between humanity and divinity. Myth is thus closely connected to religion and sacred tradition. The basic conceptual contents of these myths are, in Pieper’s words, “the idea that all being proceeds from the ungrudging goodness of the Creator; the occurrence of primeval guilt and punishment; [and] judgment on the other side of death”.

The central claim that Pieper makes for these myths is that they should be taken straight: they are included because Plato considered them to be bearers of important truths. By including these myths in his dialogues, Pieper believes Plato is saying that the most deeply human things are rooted not finally in politics or in the intellect, but are linked to ‘the beyond’ and the unknowable, and find their fulfillment only there. This realm, in which there is an interchange between the human and the divine, is beyond our experience, inaccessible to our imagination, and even, except through metaphor and imagery, beyond language, which is why philosophical inquiry alone cannot reach it. Yet this reality, which is in one sense beyond philosophy, is in another sense a part of it, because philosophy moves us toward it. Sacred myth, in other words, is a part, and a legitimate part, of the philosophical project broadly considered.

These claims are, obviously, out of step with the temper of modern philosophy, which, like modernity itself, has a bad allergy to mystery and transcendence, and which is certainly unlikely to look to sacred tradition for its consummation. Yet it cannot be said that this understanding of Plato is wrong simply on that account, nor is it clear that this view of philosophy is really so foreign to our most profound thinkers. Rumours of glory are still heard from time to time. I think of Wittgenstein’s statement about the limits of philosophy: “Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.” Perhaps that is as far as modernity can go, given its other commitments, but it is not so bad: there are worse things than reverent silence. In any case, Pieper understands that his interpretation will encounter resistance, and he devotes considerable effort to careful analysis of the dialogues in defence of his view. Personally I found him pretty convincing, but, then again, I am not committed to a view of Plato, or of philosophy, that would rule this interpretation out of court. Also, I am a notorious rube.

The book closes with a few other observations and questions about Platonic myth. Pieper notes the sometimes striking similarities between the specific content of Platonic myth and Christian doctrine: the sense that some sort of past calamity has disrupted our relationship to the divine, for instance, or the idea that a final judgment will bring justice to the affairs of men. He also asks why it is that philosophy might be expected to encounter limits when it attempts to penetrate into the sphere traditionally presided over by sacred tradition, and his answer is disarmingly simple: certain truths cannot be expressed conceptually but only in the form of a story, and this is so because we are dealing not with ‘truths of reason’ but with actions along the borderline of the world of the gods and the world of men. Finally, he notes that a serious appeal to sacred tradition, whether in Plato or anywhere else, implies that the tradition is worthy of belief, and he asks who is believed when a tradition is judged worthy in this way. The answers to that question are only sketched here, but developed more fully in his fine book Tradition: Concept and Claim, about which I have written before.

Though not one of Pieper’s most profound books, I found The Platonic Myths to be well worth the short time it took to read. It was originally published in 1965, but I believe that this edition, from St. Augustine’s Press, is the first English translation. This volume also includes an introduction by James V. Schall, the much beloved political philosopher from Georgetown. Schall goes further in his praise for the book than I think really justified (“No philosophical book brings us closer to the proper understanding of how all things fit together”), but I do agree with him that it is a good book.

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4 Responses to “Pieper: The Platonic Myths”

  1. Francesca Says:

    I have been reading the Augustine Press translations of Pieper’s books. Some are excellent.

  2. cburrell Says:

    Is The Concept of Sin, translated by Edward Oakes, on St. Augustine’s? I can’t remember offhand. I remember that in his preface he remarked on how difficult Pieper was to translate into pleasing English.

  3. Francesca Says:

    Yes, it is in that series. I have bought it, and got as far as the introduction, but not any further yet. Sorry for the very slow reply, it is the first week of term in my university

  4. cburrell Says:

    Oh, no problem, Francesca. I know you’re busy.

    I have a friend in the theology program there; I’ll not say his name here for privacy’s sake, but I cannot help wondering whether he’s taking a class from you. (I could ask him, of course.)

    The Concept of Sin is a really good book. My favourite, though, in St. Augustine Press’s series of Pieper translations is probably In Tune with the World. I learned so much from it.


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