The Defence

  • Julius A. Elias
Part of the St Antony’s Series book series


The very term ‘myth’ has become so settled in the text and discussion of Plato that it would be artificial in the extreme to displace it if only to avoid misunderstanding. Yet, for Plato, ‘myth’ is neither what it meant in his own day or earlier, nor what it has come to mean in our own. I am as reluctant as Plato is to dignify the purely semantic question of what name to give to those features of his dialogues commonly known as the myths, as if finding some other term would solve the problems the use of myths addresses. All that it might do, and that would not be entirely useless, I admit, is to distinguish his usage from earlier and later meanings by assigning some other word to perform this complex task. It is clearly more important to analyze the usage than to coin the word, and coining words is notoriously easier than solving problems, and so I have been content throughout this essay to follow Plato’s example by using the term ‘myth’, along with a number of related terms, as he does. Those terms are made to refer to those passages in which he writes moral fables in elliptical language to reinforce some point otherwise made more formally, or in which he embeds fundamental presuppositions which cannot be asserted as true because they are the indemonstrable axioms of his system. These two reasons for the presence of myths in his works are the basis for what I have been calling the weak and the strong defences of poetry respectively.1


Public Opinion True Belief Correspondence Theory Western Democracy Strong Defence 
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  1. 9.
    From the very large literature on this topic I cite only the following for the wealth of examples they include: Arthur Koestler, The Act of Creation (London, 1964):Google Scholar
  2. Jacques Hadamard, The Psychology of Invention in the Mathematical Field (Princeton, 1949);Google Scholar
  3. Brewster Ghiselin, ed., The Creative Process (Berkeley, 1952).Google Scholar
  4. 11.
    Eric. A. Havelock, A Preface to Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1963).Google Scholar
  5. 12.
    E. Zeller, Philosophie der Griechen (5th edn, Leipzig, 1922), allows that The myths appear where something is to be represented which the philosopher regards as true indeed, but the scientific demonstration of which surpasses his means’ (II, 1, 581). Frutiger (op. cit., 219–20) correctly, I believe, rejects this approach (also adopted by Stewart, op. cit., 42–76, and by others, including Willi) as too narrow: it does not allow for those passages in which Plato chooses a mythical form for matters capable of dialectical demonstration. Zeller himself has acknowledged this (II, 1, 582, note 1) in commentary on the Symposium myth: ‘the undertaking is only a description of Eros, a definition of the term that could just as well have been given in purely dialectical form, if artistic considerations had not led the philosopher to clothe his thoughts in a thin and transparent sheath.’ Teichmüller (Die platonische Frage, Gotha, 1876, 91) attacks Zeller for this inconsistency. Little has changed since, with commentators placing what I call the weak defence (myth where dialectic is possible) in opposition to the strong defence (myth beyond dialectical limitations).Google Scholar
  6. 13.
    P.-M. Schuhl, La fabulation platonicienne (Paris, 1968, 21) offers a succinct version: The myths express in concrete terms abstract reasoning inaccessible to the vulgar.’ L. Edelstein, The function of the Myth in Plato’s philosophy’, Journal of the History of Ideas, 10 (1949) 463–81, is similarly confined to the weak defence.Google Scholar
  7. 14.
    Popper, OS, passim. I cannot resist citing Hegel in this note on the same side of the question as Popper. The only form in which truth exists is in a scientific system’ (Phänomenologie des Geistes, Hamburg, 1952, 12). Elsewhere (Sämtliche Werke, Jubiläumsausgabe, Stuttgart, 1927–40, XVIII, 179) Hegel complains that all that Plato gives us is the dialogue instead of ‘a purely philosophical work, truly didactic.’ Zeller, op. cit., 580, speaks for a whole school of rationalist philosophers: The Platonic myths almost always point to a defect in scientific knowledge’, a defect they believe they have remedied.Google Scholar
  8. 15.
    The Platonic myth is … his first essay toward a new truth, the shaping of his first groupings … but in philosophical-conceptual terms it is still unformed.’ So P. Stöcklein, Ueber die philosophische Bedeutung von Platons Mythen, Philologus, Suppl. 30, 3 (Leipzig, 1937), 3. On page 5 it is a ‘preliminary stage of logos’ (‘eine Vorstufe des Logos’). At the other extreme is Findlay in his 1978 article previously cited —the myths are not mythic at all, ‘but sober accounts of the geography of Being.’Google Scholar
  9. 17.
    R. B. Levinson, In Defense of Plato (Cambridge, Mass., 1953, 64), affirms much the same thing: To the defense and reinforcement of these spiritual divinations, logical proofs are required to contribute as best they can. Reason and faith are thus enlisted in a common cause, and Plato does not always mark their precise mutual frontiers, something of “myth” creeping at times into his “logos,” to balance the rational element that pervades so many of his avowed myths.’CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 20.
    Zhdanov’s words at the 1934 congress of writers aim at the ‘historically specific depiction of reality in its revolutionary development. This authenticity and historical specificity in the depiction of reality should be combined with the task of ideologically reshaping and educating the toilers in the spirit of socialism.’ (Russkaya sovetskaya literatura, Moscow, 1963, 316). For the theory, see C. Vaughan James, Soviet Socialist Realism: Origins and Theory, London, 1973. For recent practice see the moderately sympathetic Beyond Socialist Realism by Geoffrey Hosking, London, 1980.Google Scholar
  11. 23.
    G. Grote, Plato and the other Companions of Sokrates (London, 1865), was the first I think to speak of ‘negative dialectic’ (III, 240).Google Scholar
  12. 24.
    Cf. Norman Gulley, Plato’s Theory of Knowledge (London, 1962), 43: ‘Plato recognizes, moreover, the limitations of the method of hypothesis, and of human argument in general, as a means of establishing with certainty the truth of any postulate.’ This claim, which I am convinced is correct, has often been rejected, most recently by J. T. Bedu-Addo, ‘The Role of the Hypothetical Method in the Phaedo’, Phronesis 24 (1979), 111–32.Google Scholar
  13. 25.
    G. Grote, op. cit., III, 239.Google Scholar
  14. 29.
    G. K. Roberts, A Dictionary of Political Analysis (London, 1971), 131.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Julius A. Elias 1984

Authors and Affiliations

  • Julius A. Elias
    • 1
  1. 1.University of ConnecticutUSA

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