Plato: Myth and Logic

New on the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, an interesting article on Plato’s attempt to merge muthos and logos.  Here’s the description:

What the ancient Greeks—at least in the archaic phase of their civilisation—called muthos was quite different from what we and the media nowadays call “myth”. For them a muthos was a true story, a story that unveils the true origin of the world and human beings. For us a myth is something to be “debunked”: a widespread, popular belief that is in fact false. In archaic Greece the memorable was transmitted orally through poetry, which often relied on myth. However, starting with the beginning of the seventh century BC two types of discourse emerged that were set in opposition to poetry: history (as shaped by, most notably, Thucydides) and philosophy (as shaped by the peri phuseōs tradition of the sixth and fifth centuries BC). These two types of discourse were naturalistic alternatives to the poetic accounts of things. Plato broke to some extent from the philosophical tradition of the sixth and fifth centuries in that he uses both traditional myths and myths he invents and gives them some role to play in his philosophical endeavor. He thus seems to attempt to overcome the traditional opposition between muthos and logos.

There are many myths in Plato’s dialogues: traditional myths, which he sometimes modifies, as well as myths that he invents, although many of these contain mythical elements from various traditions. Plato is both a myth teller and a myth maker. In general, he uses myth to inculcate in his less philosophical readers noble beliefs and/or teach them various philosophical matters that may be too difficult for them to follow if expounded in a blunt, philosophical discourse. More and more scholars have argued in recent years that in Plato myth and philosophy are tightly bound together, in spite of his occasional claim that they are opposed modes of discourse.

Found at Continental-Philosophy.org

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    It’s quite spot on; my only gripe with this is the definition of muthos for the Greeks. It was true, but relatively true. The Greek creation or hero myths were not taken quite as literally as those that have grown from the Hebrew tradition because there was no literature to take literally. So Hesiod (my old favorite; I once argued that he used logos through mythos in The Works and Days) gives two distinct anthropogony myths, one in the Theogony and one in the Works and Days. Likewise, the myths surrounding the Orphic tradition had their own peculiar tales of anthropogony and the after-life. And the tales of heroes varied from region to region, town to town, and generation to generation. So mythos was a tale, a story treated as objectively true for the time and place they were used, but not as dogma, if that makes any sense. Essentially, they explained and clarified more than they unveiled.


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