Plato's Myths as Psychology

Introduction

The Pure World Phaedo 107c–115a
The Soul Chariot Phaedrus 245c–257b
Allegory of the Cave Republic 7.514a–7.521d
The Naked Judgment Gorgias 523a–527c
The Era of Cronos Statesman 268d–275c
The Myth of Er Republic 10.614b–10.621d
Prometheus and Epimetheus Protagoras 320b–323a
The Androgyne Symposium 189c–193e
Atlantis and Athens Timaeus 20d–25d & Critias 108d–121c
Thamus and Theuth Phaedrus 274b–278d
Parable of the Ship Republic 6.487–6.491a

Note: Numbers shown are Stephanus numbers.
 

Introduction: Plato's Myths

Significant portions of Plato's philosophy, it is generally acknowledged, are expressed in several myths which appear in his works myths. I've long thought it would be helpful to place all the myths online to enable more people to read and consider them, and especially to promote the possibility of interpreting these myths at a psychological level. The final impetus for completing the project came recently when I noticed some of my students reading Plato's Republic before class (this had nothing to do with my course.) I was naturally pleased to see this and used the opportunity to deliver an impromptu mini-lecture on the importance of the Republic. When, early on, I said something to the effect of "Of course, the key to understanding the Republic is to recognize that it is a work on psychology, not politics; at issue is the optimal government of the individual soul or mind," the students' reaction was quite marked. Immediately they grasped the point and saw its profound importance. It also seemed evident that the philosophy instructor who had assigned the text for them hadn't mentioned (and, likely, didn't know) this important fact, upon which a full appreciation of the Republic (and, as well, of Plato's genius) depends.

This came as no real surprise to me: for at least the last 100 years, political scientists, not psychologists, have been the ones discussing the Republic. Indeed, the work does raise certain interesting political questions — although I and others believe this dimension is secondary or incidental to the primary meaning of the Republic as a work on psychology.

This is not the place to go into detail about the Republic. For a thorough discussion of the topic, see Blössner (2007). It suffices here to mention two things. First, in the Republic, Plato (through Socrates, his mouthpiece in the work) say explicitly several times that the aim is to understand what constitutes on the just governance of the human soul, and that the political discussions are analogies used to shed light on this question. Second, while as a psychological work the Republic stands as an unparalleled masterpiece, as a political work it ranges merely from the mediocre to the absurd (e.g., in proposing that men share wives communally, or that children be brought to watch wars as part of their education; the reader may decide for him- or herself which possibility is more consistent with the universal acclamation of Plato as the West's greatest philosopher.

Now if we do accept that the Republic is about psychology, we have good grounds to believe that the myths it contains, such as the Cave Allegory, the Myth of Er, and the shorter ship parable, are also mainly psychological in nature. Or at least that we should try to read them at that level and see if that works. For the Cave Allegory and ship parable, a psychological meaning is obvious. In the former case, for example, Plato is not suggesting that a few enlightened 'philosopher kings' should extricate themselves from the cave and come to truth for the proper function of society. Rather, just as with Socrates before him, Plato is interested in having each one of his readers individually rise from the cave of ignorance. A psychological interpretation of the Myth of Er is not so obvious — but there is no reason to expect that a mythic symbolization of the human psyche, which is nothing if not vast and mysterious, should be immediately transparent.

The motif of reincarnation within the Myth of Er, however, does give us something tangible to work with. I propose the hypothesis that when Plato refers to reincarnation, whether here or elsewhere (as in the Chariot Allegory) the meaning is symbolic: it is not that the soul is dying and coming back as another person (or animal); but rather that, in the course of our daily lives, our state of mind or ruling disposition is continually dying and giving way to a successor. Sometimes transitions these follow regular patterns, and sometimes they are more or less random. But in any case, we must understand these continual deaths and successions of dispositions if we wish to attain, and to remain in for any length of time, a state wisdom or other higher levels of mental function. I've elsewhere presented these arguments in the commentary on the Chariot Allegory, and in another work on Plato and reincarnation.

In general, however ,I wish to supply relatively little by way of specific psychological interpretations to the myths. In part that reflects the opinion that the greatest insights of the myths cannot be explained analytically; were that possible, Plato could have done that himself. Secondly, it is arguably the case that the very process of searching for the meaning of the myths is integral to understanding them. Thus what I'm really suggesting here is a hermeneutic — an interpretative approach to Plato's myths — more than specific meanings.

In general terms, I would venture to say this much. Clearly Plato's interest in psychology, the point of all his writing, is to help his readers attain a mental state, wisdom, superior to their ordinarily level of psychological function. Indeed, the 'ordinary' level of functioning in a normative sense is actually pathological — a fallen state of intellectual and moral confusion.

Plato, thus, wishes us to gain psychological salvation. This has many dimensions, of course, but the principles ones involve: (1) learning the difference between opinion and knowledge, and being duly humble about the limitations of ones knowledge; (2) the metaphysical reality of Goodness, and the necessity of our living virtuous lives in order to gain happiness; and (3) along with these, the belief that human beings have, in addition to a mortal body, an immortal soul.

Plato is the philosopher of human happiness, not self-denial. That is why it is a little peculiar that he is so often denigrated as a 'dualist' (in the pejorative sense) and the source of the Western denial of the body and the material world. Plato is a dualist, indeed — he posits the joint existence of a material/temporal and a non-material/eternal realms, with human beings having a place in each. But is an integrated or harmonized dualism. The material world is not a mere 'vale of tears'. Rather, it may be a place of great happiness and beauty — but only if our minds and values are cleansed by philosophy.

I believe this is beautifully symbolized in the Phaedo myth, which describes a much higher or purer world than is routinely evident to our senses. This myth potentially connects Plato's philosophy with modern psychologists like Abraham Maslow, who recognized the possibility of attaining certain exalted states of consciousness: plateau experiences, Being-cognition and -perception, and the like.

These intentionally minimal comments, then, suffice by way of introduction.  


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