Plato's Myths

The Reign of Cronos (Statesman 268d–275c)


Plato's Reign of Cronos and the Perennial Philosophy

AN important clue to Plato's philosophy, which aims at nothing less than the salvation of man's soul, is found in the Reign of Cronos myth of his dialogue the Statesman (269c–274e). The myth is an allegory for two contrasting conditions of the human psyche: the fallen and the saved. If we understand this, we will understand not only Plato's philosophical project, but the essence of the perennial philosophy.

For Plato, the human psyche (soul) includes not only what today we call a person's mind and heart, but also the immortal soul. Plato is concerned with the salvation of the soul in all these senses. Here we restrict attention to the psychological dimension, and leave consideration of the immortal soul to another time.

In Plato's works, the Reign of Cronos is a mythical Golden Age, closely analogous to the Garden of Eden myth of Genesis. Understood psychologically it refers to the same exalted condition that in the New Testament is called the Kingdom of God and (equivalently) the Kingdom of Heaven. Though this point is often misunderstood, the Kingdom of God means the reigning of God within ones soul, and not a condition of society or the external world). By the Reign of Cronos (the divine father of Zeus), Plato means the same thing as the Reign or Kingdom of God (both Plato and the Gospels use the same word, basileia.)

If we pull together and examine all the relevant references — Plato's description in Statesman, related passages in his other works (e.g., Republic 2.372a-c and Laws 4.713), his source, namely Hesiod's Works and Days 107-121, and the roughly one hundred explicit references to the kingdom in the Gospels — we can gain some clear sense of what it means psychologically. Our understanding is further enhanced by the seminal theories of the humanistic psychologist, Abraham Maslow (1968, 1972).

All these sources are concerned with the same contrast, inherent in human nature, between a saved and a fallen condition of the psyche/soul. The saved condition is characterized by such features as personality integration, mental harmony, undisturbedness, clarity of thought and perception, bliss, spontaneity, and personal satisfaction.

In this condition of Being, life is experienced as abundant and plentiful. Providence is seen to supply whatever is needed spontaneously (partly, perhaps, because ones tastes are simple and ones needs are few and easily met).

The world may seem alive, fresh, vital, and transfigured. Most or all of the qualities that Maslow associated with peak (Maslow, 1968) and plateau experiences (Maslow, 1972) are common.

This state is the psychological summum bonum, something for which we yearn with a sense of familiarity and nostalgia. Perhaps we do so by instinct, or because we see it in dreams, or because of a vestigial memory of the pure and innocent life of childhood.

This superior condition of soul was recognized by, and of central importance to the Socratic philosophers, each sect naming it for one of its attributes: the Epicureans called it undisturbedness (ataraxia); the Stoics, absence of strong emotions (apatheia); Aristotelians, goodness of spirit (eudaemonia); and Platonists, blessedness (makarios) and holiness (eusebeia).

At a neurological level, this condition may be associated with enhanced integration between left and right brain hemisphere functioning (MacGilchrist, 2009). At a religious and spiritual level, it is a state of holiness and humility, where the ego is conscious of its subordinate status to a higher power (whether that be God, or a Higher Self), and seeks guidance from this source.

The fallen condition of the psyche is, in a statistical sense, the norm. It is the ordinary waking state of consciousness for the great masses of humankind. Yet this condition is so far below the splendor of authentic Being that it may be correctly understood as a severe illness or insanity.

This fallen state, which, lacking a better term we may simply call egoism, is characterized by constant conflict, disorder, disturbance, and negative thinking. The ego insists on trying to control everything — typically with little success. Its attitude is one of pride or hubris, as it rejects any higher guidance.

In physiological terms, the fallen state is characterized by excessive left-hemisphere brain dominance.

The nature of the egoistic state is that there are many part- or sub-egos, each striving to gratify a particular desire or attain a specific goal, without consideration of the whole. Thought is anxious, disconnected, and generally ineffective. Passions and emotions frequently 'devour' or take over the mind.

The purpose of the Reign of Cronos myth in Statesman is to remind us of these two contrasting states. The rest of Plato's philosophy and dialogues supply a more detailed analysis of the two conditions, and the means by which we may attain the higher state. However the myth is an excellent foundation from which to understand Plato's project of salvation.

To attempt a detailed exegesis of the myth, would, I believe, disregard a central insight of Plato: that in order for the truths of the perennial philosophy to reach the mind fully, the material must be presented in ways that bypass extremely strong subconscious defenses. Hence the importance of myth, allegory, and parables.

But I will venture to say this much. The essence of the perennial philosophy concerns a certain radical reformation of the soul. This has many names: humiliation, reconciliation, harmonization of the personal will to God's will; turning to God; poverty of spirit, at-one-ment, and perhaps a hundred others. One of the shortest formulations is found in Proverbs 3:5-6:

    Trust in the LORD with all thy heart, and on thy own wisdom rely not.
    Turn to Him in all you do, and He will make straight your paths.
References Additional Reading (Reign of Cronos)


In the Statesman, the young Socrates is speaking with the geometrician Theodorus, a Stranger from Elea, and another person named Socrates. The topic is: what qualities make for a good statesman or ruler? Given how close this topic is to those discussed in the Republic, we can probably assume that this is understood in an allegorical sense: what qualities of an 'inner ruler' make for a best commonwealth of ones soul? The myth begins at 268d; the preceding paragraphs supply context.

(Source: Jowett, Benjamin. The Dialogues of Plato in Five Volumes, 3rd ed. Oxford University, 1892. Vol. 4, pp. 466-474.)

The king and his rivals

Eleatic Stranger. I will try to make the thought, which is at this moment present in my mind, clearer to us both.

Young Socrates. Let me hear.

Str. There were many arts of shepherding, and one of them was the political, which had the charge of one particular herd?

Y. Soc. Yes.

Str. And this the argument defined to be the art of rearing, not horses or other brutes, but the art of rearing man collectively?

Y. Soc. True.

Str. Note, however, a difference which distinguishes the king from all other shepherds.

Y. Soc. To what do you refer?

Str. I want to ask, whether any one of the other herdsmen has a rival who professes and claims to share with him in the management of the herd?

Y. Soc. What do you mean?

Str. I mean to say that merchants, husbandmen, providers of food, and also training-masters and physicians, will all contend with the herdsmen of humanity, whom we call Statesmen, declaring that they themselves have the care of

rearing or managing mankind, and that they rear not only the common herd, but also the rulers themselves.

Y. Soc. Are they not right in saying so?

Str. Very likely they may be, and we will consider their claim. But we are certain of this,—that no one will raise a similar claim as against the herdsman, who is allowed on all hands to be the sole and only feeder and physician of his herd; he is also their match-maker and accoucheur; no one else knows that department of science. And he is their merry-maker and musician, as far as their nature is susceptible of such influences, and no one can console and soothe his own herd better than he can, either with the natural tones of his voice or with instruments. And the same may be said of tenders of animals in general.

Y. Soc. Very true.

Str. But if this is as you say, can our argument about the king be true and unimpeachable? Were we right in selecting him out of ten thousand other claimants to be the shepherd and rearer of the human flock?

Y. Soc. Surely not.

Str. Had we not reason just now to apprehend, that although we may have described a sort of royal form, we have not as yet accurately worked out the true image of the Statesman? and that we cannot reveal him as he truly is in his own nature, until we have disengaged and separated him from those who hang about him and claim to share in his prerogatives?

Y. Soc. Very true.

Str. And that, Socrates, is what we must do, if we do not mean to bring disgrace upon the argument at its close.

Y. Soc. We must certainly avoid that.

Str. Then let us make a new beginning, and travel by a different road.

Y. Soc. What road?

The origin of many ancient legends
A great mythological wonder

Str. I think that we may have a little amusement; there is a famous tale, of which a good portion may with advantage be interwoven, and then we may resume our series of divisions, and proceed in the old path until we arrive at the desired summit. Shall we do as I say?

Y. Soc. By all means.

Str. Listen, then, to a tale which a child would love to hear; and you are not too old for childish amusement.

Y. Soc. Let me hear.

Str. There did really happen, and will again happen, like many other events of which ancient tradition has preserved the record, the portent which is traditionally said to have occurred in the quarrel of Atreus and Thyestes. You have heard, no doubt, and remember what they say happened at that time?

Y. Soc. I suppose you to mean the token of the birth of the golden lamb.

Str. No, not that; but another part of the story, which tells how the sun and the stars once rose in the west, and set in the east, and that the god reversed their motion, and gave them that which they now have as a testimony to the right of Atreus.

Y. Soc. Yes; there is that legend also.

Str. Again, we have been often told of the reign of Cronos.

Y. Soc. Yes, very often.

Str. Did you ever hear that the men of former times were earth-born, and not begotten of one another?

Y. Soc. Yes, that is another old tradition.

Str. All these stories, and ten thousand others which are still more wonderful, have a common origin; many of them have been lost in the lapse of ages, or are repeated only in a disconnected form; but the origin of them is what no one has told, and may as well be told now; for the tale is suited to throw light on the nature of the king.

Y. Soc. Very good; and I hope that you will give the whole story, and leave out nothing.

Str. Listen, then. There is a time when God himself guides and helps to roll the world in its course; and there is a time, on the completion of a certain cycle, when he lets go, and the world being a living creature, and having originally received intelligence from its author and creator, turns about and by an inherent necessity revolves in the opposite direction.

Y. Soc. Why is that?

The reversal of motion...

Str. Why, because only the most divine things of all remain ever unchanged and the same, and body is not included in this class. Heaven and the universe, as we have termed them, although they have been endowed by the Creator with many glories, partake of a bodily nature, and therefore cannot be entirely free from perturbation. But their motion is, as far as possible, single and in the same place, and of the same kind; and is therefore only subject to a reversal, which is the least alteration possible. For the lord of all moving things is alone able to move of himself; and to think that he moves them at one time in one direction and at another time in another is blasphemy. Hence we must not say that the world is either self-moved always, or all made to go round by God in two opposite courses; or that two Gods, having opposite purposes, make it move

round. But as I have already said (and this is the only remaining alternative) the world is guided at one time by an external power which is divine and receives fresh life and immortality from the renewing hand of the Creator, and again, when let go, moves spontaneously, being set free at such a time as to have, during infinite cycles of years, a reverse movement: this is due to its perfect balance, to its vast size, and to the fact that it turns on the smallest pivot.

Y. Soc. Your account of the world seems to be very reasonable indeed.

Str. Let us now reflect and try to gather from what has been said the nature of the phenomenon which we affirmed to be the cause of all these wonders. It is this.

Y. Soc. What?

Str. The reversal which takes place from time to time of the motion of the universe.

Y. Soc. How is that the cause?

Str. Of all changes of the heavenly motions, we may consider this to be the greatest and most complete.

Y. Soc. I should imagine so.

Str. And it may be supposed to result in the greatest changes to the human beings who are the inhabitants of the world at the time.

Y. Soc. Such changes would naturally occur.

Str. And animals, as we know, survive with difficulty great and serious changes of many different kinds when they come upon them at once.

Y. Soc. Very true.

Str. Hence there necessarily occurs a great destruction of them, which extends also to the life of man; few survivors of the race are left, and those who remain become the subjects of several novel and remarkable phenomena, and of one in particular, which takes place at the time when the transition is made to the cycle opposite to that in which we are now living.

Y. Soc. What is it?

...and the consequences of it

Str. The life of all animals first came to a standstill, and the mortal nature ceased to be or look older, and was then reversed and grew young and delicate; the white locks of the aged darkened again, and the cheeks of the bearded man became smooth, and recovered their former bloom; the bodies of youths in their prime grew softer and smaller, continually by day and night returning and becoming assimilated to the nature of a newly-born child in mind as well as body; in the succeeding stage they wasted away and wholly disappeared. And the bodies of those who died by violence at that time quickly passed through the like changes, and in a few days were no more seen.

Y. Soc.

Then how, Stranger, were the animals created in those days; and in what way were they begotten of one another?

Str. It is evident, Socrates, that there was no such thing in the then order of nature as the procreation of animals from one another; the earth-born race, of which we hear in story, was the one which existed in those days—they rose again from the ground; and of this tradition, which is now-a-days often unduly discredited, our ancestors, who were nearest in point of time to the end of the last period and came into being at the beginning of this, are to us the heralds. And mark how consistent the sequel of the tale is; after the return of age to youth, follows the return of the dead, who are lying in the earth, to life; simultaneously with the reversal of the world the wheel of their generation has been turned back, and they are put together and rise and live in the opposite order, unless God has carried any of them away to some other lot. According to this tradition they of necessity sprang from the earth and have the name of earth-born, and so the above legend clings to them.

Y. Soc. Certainly that is quite consistent with what has preceded; but tell me, was the life which you said existed in the reign of Cronos in that cycle of the world, or in this? For the change in the course of the stars and the sun must have occurred in both.

Which was happier – life under Cronos or our own?

Str. I see that you enter into my meaning;—no, that blessed and spontaneous life does not belong to the present cycle of the world, but to the previous one, in which God superintended the whole revolution of the universe; and the several parts of the universe were distributed under the rule of certain inferior deities, as is the way in some places still. There were demigods, who were the shepherds of the various species and herds of animals, and each one was in all respects sufficient for those of whom he was the shepherd; neither was there any violence, or devouring of one another, or war or quarrel among them; and I might tell of ten thousand other blessings, which belonged to that dispensation. The reason why the life of man was, as tradition says, spontaneous, is as follows: In those days God himself was their shepherd, and ruled over them, just as man, who is by comparison a divine being, still rules over the lower animals. Under him there were no forms of government or separate possession of women and children; for all men rose

again from the earth, having no memory of the past. And although they had nothing of this sort, the earth gave them fruits in abundance, which grew on trees and shrubs unbidden, and were not planted by the hand of man. And they dwelt naked, and mostly in the open air, for the temperature of their seasons was mild; and they had no beds, but lay on soft couches of grass, which grew plentifully out of the earth. Such was the life of man in the days of Cronos, Socrates; the character of our present life, which is said to be under Zeus, you know from your own experience. Can you, and will you, determine which of them you deem the happier?

Y. Soc. Impossible.

Str. Then shall I determine for you as well as I can?

Y. Soc. By all means.

Str. Suppose that the nurslings of Cronos, having this boundless leisure, and the power of holding intercourse, not only with men, but with the brute creation, had used all these advantages with a view to philosophy, conversing with the brutes as well as with one another, and learning of every nature which was gifted with any special power, and was able to contribute some special experience to the store of wisdom, there would be no difficulty in deciding that they would be a thousand times happier than the men of our own day. Or, again, if they had merely eaten and drunk until they were full, and told stories to one another and to the animals—such stories as are now attributed to them—in this case also, as I should imagine, the answer would be easy.

No answer can be given. The tale proceeds.

But until some satisfactory witness can be found of the love of that age for knowledge and discussion, we had better let the matter drop, and give the reason why we have unearthed this tale, and then we shall be able to get on. In the fulness of time, when the change was to take place, and the earth-born race had all perished, and every soul had completed its proper cycle of births and been sown in the earth her appointed number of times, the pilot of the universe let the helm go, and retired to his place of view; and then Fate and innate desire reversed the motion of the world. Then also all the inferior deities who share the rule of the supreme power, being informed of what was happening, let go the parts of the world which were under their

control. And the world turning round with a sudden shock, being impelled in an opposite direction from beginning to end, was shaken by a mighty earthquake, which wrought a new destruction of all manner of animals. Afterwards, when sufficient time had elapsed, the tumult and confusion and earthquake ceased, and the universal creature, once more at peace, attained to a calm, and settled down into his own orderly and accustomed course, having the charge and rule of himself and of all the creatures which are contained in him, and executing, as far as he remembered them, the instructions of his Father and Creator, more precisely at first, but afterwards with less exactness. The reason of the falling off was the admixture of matter in him; this was inherent in the primal nature, which was full of disorder, until attaining to the present order. From God, the constructor, the world received all that is good in him, but from a previous state came elements of evil and unrighteousness, which, thence derived, first of all passed into the world, and were then transmitted to the animals. While the world was aided by the pilot in nurturing the animals, the evil was small, and great the good which he produced, but after the separation, when the world was let go, at first all proceeded well enough; but, as time went on, there was more and more forgetting, and the old discord again held sway and burst forth in full glory; and at last small was the good, and great was the admixture of evil, and there was a danger of universal ruin to the world, and to the things contained in him.

The evil inherent in the world diminished by God

Wherefore God, the orderer of all, in his tender care, seeing that the world was in great straits, and fearing that all might be dissolved in the storm and disappear in infinite chaos, again seated himself at the helm; and bringing back the elements which had fallen into dissolution and disorder to the motion which had prevailed under his dispensation, he set them in order and restored them, and made the world imperishable and immortal. And this is the whole tale, of which the first part will suffice to illustrate the nature of the king. For when the world turned towards the present cycle of generation, the age of man again stood still, and a change opposite to the previous one was the result. The small creatures which had almost disappeared grew in stature, and the newly-born children of the earth became grey and died and sank into the earth again. All things changed, imitating

and following the condition of the universe, and of necessity agreeing with that in their mode of conception and generation and nurture; for no animal was any longer allowed to come into being in the earth through the agency of other creative beings, but as the world was ordained to be the lord of his own progress, in like manner the parts were ordained to grow and generate and give nourishment, as far as they could, of themselves, impelled by a similar movement. And so we have arrived at the real end of this discourse; for although there might be much to tell of the lower animals, and of the condition out of which they changed and of the causes of the change, about men there is not much, and that little is more to the purpose. Deprived of the care of God, who had possessed and tended them, they were left helpless and defenceless, and were torn in pieces by the beasts, who were naturally fierce and had now grown wild. And in the first ages they were still without skill or resource; the food which once grew spontaneously had failed, and as yet they knew not how to procure it, because they had never felt the pressure of necessity. For all these reasons they were in a great strait; wherefore also the gifts spoken of in the old tradition were imparted to man by the gods, together with so much teaching and education as was indispensable; fire was given to them by Prometheus, the arts by Hephaestus and his fellow-worker, Athene, seeds and plants by others. From these is derived all that has helped to frame human life; since the care of the Gods, as I was saying, had now failed men, and they had to order their course of life for themselves, and were their own masters, just like the universal creature whom they imitate and follow, ever changing, as he changes, and ever living and growing, at one time in one manner, and at another time in another. Enough of the story, which may be of use in showing us how greatly we erred in the delineation of the king and the statesman in our previous discourse.

Y. Soc. What was this great error of which you speak?

A greater error and a less

Str. There were two; the first a lesser one, the other was an error on a much larger and grander scale.

Y. Soc. What do you mean?

Str. I mean to say that when we were asked about a king and statesman of the present cycle and generation, we told of a shepherd of a human flock who belonged to the other cycle, and of one who was a god when he ought to have been a man; and this was a great error. Again, we declared him to be the ruler of the entire State, without explaining how: this was not the whole truth, nor very intelligible; but still it was true, and therefore the second error was not so great as the first.

Y. Soc. Very good.

Str. Before we can expect to have a perfect description of the statesman we must define the nature of his office.

Y. Soc. Certainly.

Str. And the myth was introduced in order to show, not only that all others are rivals of the true shepherd who is the object of our search, but in order that we might have a clearer view of him who is alone worthy to receive this appellation, because he alone of shepherds and herdsmen, according to the image which we have employed, has the care of human beings.

Y. Soc. Very true.

Str. And I cannot help thinking, Socrates, that the form of the divine shepherd is even higher than that of a king; whereas the statesmen who are now on earth seem to be much more like their subjects in character, and much more nearly to partake of their breeding and education.

Y. Soc. Certainly.

Str. Still they must be investigated all the same, to see whether, like the divine shepherd, they are above their subjects or on a level with them.

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