Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Plato and Myth

“I’m telling an old myth in a new way, that’s how you pass down the meat and potatoes of your society to the next generation” George Lucas.[1]

 WHAT IS MYTH?           
“It’s like in the great stories Mr. Frodo, the ones that really mattered. Full of darkness and danger they were. And sometimes you didn’t want to know the end. Because how could the end be happy. How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened? But in the end, it’s only a passing thing, this shadow. Even darkness must pass. A new day will come. And when the sun shines it will shine out the clearer. Those were the stories that stayed with you. That meant something. Even if you were too small to understand why. But I think, Mr. Frodo, I do understand. I know now. Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back only they didn’t. Because they were holding on to something. There’s some good in this world, Mr. Frodo. And it’s worth fighting for.”   Sam’s speech from “LOTR: Two Towers” (Film)

The great thing about myths is they can inspire, just as a good speech can subject a man to claim victory in death on the battlefield of truth. They touch a nerve with in each one of us where we can paint our own picture of our own reality in the myth. Myths can be the bridge between our past, present and future, thus creating a constant eternity. We are living in eternity now and myths can help us to understand our history. Myths in modern society can be used to explore ancient cultures. Customs, ceremonies, and deities are all windows into a lifestyle and the understanding of ancient cultures. We can view culture in raw detail when using myth as a gauge. When a writer writes a myth, his writings are influenced from his life experiences, observations and influences. He cannot just start with a clean palate.

Josef Pieper[2] asks,
“If conveying an abstract thought through graphic image is philosophy or literature” (3)
This quote made me think weather I am a philothmous or a philosopher, for now I will settle for a little bit of both. The use of myth is as ancient as long as man has been able to speak. The great mythmakers on literature have always expressed the importance of myth.J.R.R. Tolkien talked about true myths and how we have to understand them in a literary context. Tolkien wrote:
 “ Fantasy remains a human right; we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made; and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”[3]
Many skeptics and fallen away Catholics wrestle with the question “How can Christianity be true, if it rests on foundations that are mostly mythical?”
Plato recognizes the limits to rational human activity, our reason alone has its limits (believing in the real presence of Jesus in the Eucharist) Plato is very characteristic, and when he can go no further, he tells a myth. His stories give expression to truth, story telling is important. A myth is the fullest expression of differentiated truth since it alone can adequately symbolize presence in reality.

 The important 20th century philosopher Owen Barfield exclaimed,
“Myths, which represent the earliest meanings, they were not the arbitrary creations of poets, but the natural expression of man’s being and consciousness at the time.”[4]

One of the earliest poets was Hesiod. Hesiod’s writings would prepare the way for Plato and his speculations. Hesiod uses cultural contexts and the poets who came before him, it is only then can we fully appreciate Plato. In Hesiod’s Theogony the poet appeals to true truth:
“Rustic shepherds, evil loafs, nothing but bellies, we know how to say many lies as if they were true, and when we want, we know how to speak the truth.”[5]

Plato condemns the myths of Hesiod and Homer to advocate for a better kind of myth, one based on philosophical principles. Plato wants to link falsehood to the truth as much as possible.[6] Plato does not want to harm the soul; we would compare it today to the sin of a “joke lie”, where you say something to someone that isn’t true for a joke. This cannot come across the same way on paper spanning centuries.

Canadian philosopher Luc Brisson argues that for Plato, myths are effective tools that philosophers utilize to persuade less rational people to act in certain ways.[7] This echoes Aristotle’s thought that man can create and build, but to do so he needs material and man cannot make matter. Man has the actuality to fulfill the creative process that God has started. All of creation draws sustenance from the intelligent designer. 

 The philosophy of Plato changed the old picture of the world. His ideas about the beginning of the world and immortality of the soul became a model for the Christian religion. Plato compared the human soul to a chariot in which white and black horses are harnessed. The beginnings of good and evil in man, with man having control of both horses. The Platonic myths could stand alone, each one by themselves. But strung together they also provide us with an even larger context. Josef Pieper points this out at the beginning of his book “The Platonic Myths” that,
“Elements are continually introduced which have no logical connection.”(2)

The same principle can be applied to a motion picture, which can be shot out of order and pieced together as a large puzzle. Peter Kreeft explains,

“Myths are moving pictures that arise from the imagination, that great, creative, unconscious well of wisdom within us that psychologists are just beginning to explore in this century.”[8]

A feature film can have the ability not only to be shot out of sequence but can be presented out of sequence to give a larger scope to the picture. Recently this method of presenting a film in this manner has picked up steam. The process garnered a large amount of attention with the release of the 1994 motion picture “Pulp Fiction”[9]. Although many other films have used this method; this film is by far one of the more popular ones. Besides the disturbing content and language in the film is a very religious story about the need for redemption and to find out one’s understanding of their own meaning.

Another film that plays heavy on using the Platonic myths structure is “Magnolia”[10] which consists of interconnecting stories about individuals. By a clever use of simultaneity, the characters are tied concurrently to a game show (where answers to the past are required) staged as a conflicted life in bondage to the past (with others) with a common belief, by correctly reciting the past in a prayer-like mode, one will be redeemed. Its main theme is our need to run from the present.

The Film “Babel”[11] is a story that interconnects persons from all over the world and shows how small our planet is. The film focuses on four interrelated sets of situations and characters, and many events are revealed out of sequence. In this film there is a sense of the underlying theme of violence and aggression that can be detected in each of the four societies. These parallels contribute to building a message of human connectivity and the causality of individual actions on an international level.

One of the best films to express the power of Myth mixed with truth is “Big Fish”[12] It is a movie that doesn’t really come together until the last 15 minutes, but when it does the movie as a whole is incredible. It is a must for any Philosophy prof who loves myth and movies.

Hegel said myths and myth making can only find a comfortable home in more primitive times, and that modern philosophical discussions, and even the world at large, is no place for the fantastic stories of Gods and heroes.[13] But films are important; filmmakers are the modern day version of a Hesiod or Homer. Peter Jackson realizes the importance myth can have on people.

“These films (LOTR) bewitch their audience, appropriating the power of myth by giving a semblance of what the audience wants. Like Isildur, we claim the ring as our own.”[14]


Pieper brings up a very strong point about the creation account in Genesis he states,
“ No theologian can dispense with an extremely close examination of the findings of research in the fields of paleontology and evolution, so it is not surprising that Plato tries to link contemporary knowledge of the earth’s structure with mythical notions of the other world” (28) Then again the philosopher says,
“ The Christian believer does not look on the biblical account of creation or the story of paradise as historical reality, and yet he is still convinced there is some element of inviolable truth in these stories.” (43)

Both very good points and as Catholics we have the assurance of the teaching authority of Christ’s Vicar on earth to present us with guidance.[15]

The book of revelation and the final judgment, these things take place out side of our time and space, so they can only be explained through symbolism. Like a time traveler, if someone from the 14th century was thrust into the 21st for 2 min and had to recall what he saw, it would sound like a myth to the people back in the 14th century.
“The heavenly realm is beyond our experience we need it to be told in different ways and compare it to what it resembles. Weather it be a banquet, a wedding, fishing net or a mustard seed.” (26)

As Pieper points out “The Platonic dialogues seldom finish with an actual conclusion” (21) the ones that end with a type of conclusion are “Gorgias, Republic, and Phaedo” Which all carry an eschatological theme to them. What they are revealing to us is allowing us to gain some insight into our world that simply cannot be grasped within our current state.

Humans are self aware, we are aware of our being and we have the intellect to read into things. Saint Thomas Aquinas defined truth as the “conformity of the intellect and the thing” [16] It is true when our intellect responds to it. All humans have been created for some type of contemplation, our intellect questions things and our being responds. To transcend life we must love and if we are to love we are able to transcend and have the experience of God. The goal for every Catholic is heaven; we strive for the beatific vision that is what God created us for. There are moments that we transcend our material bodies and become in tune with the being of love itself.

Who is the original author of myth? Are myth’s merely dreams and visions that we put to paper? Where does our imagination come from? What do we hear and what do we want to hear? Truth is found everywhere; even in the most heretical of Protestant denominations there may be a sliver of truth attached to them. For Socrates “ The one thing that I know is that I know nothing” Gorgias says,  “nothing exists and if it does, we can’t know that it does”. But Plato says yes God exists, we can know God exists and we can communicate about it.

For Plato everyone bares truth to Eros, (a state of being in the in between, the Transcendent) the soul is naturally ordered to love and to feel emotions and have a sensory appetite. The bigger your Eros gets, the more you understand your relationship to God and your knowledge increases. Our flesh is mortal but the spirit within us is drawn to the infinite.

In Gorgias Plato failed to make his case that it is better to suffer than to commit injustice, he   took refuge in the comforting belief that if the wicked are not punished in this life, they are punished in the next. This bears some resemblance to the solution proposed by Hesiod, and Plato’s kinsman Solon to the   problem of evil, that one’s descendants can atone for guilt.  

When we experience a fantasy world or a fantasy scenario, we briefly escape from the dehumanizing and degrading aspects of our mechanized society. It is positive and exhilarating at the same time, we recover the importance of things in life. Through myths we have an opportunity to see the world apart from are own selfish endeavors. We are given the opportunity to humble ourselves, weather it be time travel or conversing with talking animals. Our world is full of threats and consequences due to our everyday actions of living in the present, through myth we can be consoled through happily ever after or returning to the Shire. Pieper writes,

“For Plato there is no question about myth’s claim to truth,” (55)

 Where did this “truth” come from? Christian theology teaches that the concept of our ideas about God come to us from God himself (natural revelation), our theology goes slightly further than the Platonic idea of messages being received directly from God. Pieper makes a crucial point that for humans to share this message correctly we have to believe, and this message is for everyone, not just the academics. God offers us starring roles in the film of life and “His mind is the ultimate camera lens”[17]

Clayton Richard Long

[1] “The Mythology of Star Wars”, YouTube
[2] All Josef Pieper quotes from “The Platonic Myths”, ST.Augustine’s Press, 2011
[3] Hein, Rolland “Christian Mythmakers”, Cornerstone Press, 1998, p.173
[4] Barfield, Owen “Poetic Diction”, Wesleyan University Press, 1928,p.102
[5] “Theogony & Works and Days”, Hesiod, Translation Stephanie Nelson, Focus Press, 2009, p.22
[6] Belfiore, Elizabeth “Lies unlike the Truth: Plato on Hesiod”, American Philosophical Association 115, 1985, p.47
[7] Brisson, Luc “Plato the Myth Maker”
[8] www.peterkreeft.com, Spiritual History 101
[9] “Pulp Fiction”, 1994, Miramax Pictures
[10] “Magnolia”, 1999, New Line Cinema
[11] “Babel”, 2006, Paramount Pictures
[12] “Big Fish”, 2003, Sony Pictures
[13] “Lectures on the History of Philosophy Vol 2” Hegel, Trubner & Co. Ltd, p.19-20
[14] Jackson, Peter “From Hobbits to Hollywood”, Editions Rodopi Press, 2005, p.245
[15] “Humani Generis”, “Pacem In Terris”, www.vatican.va
[16] Emonet, Pierre-Marie “ The Dearest Freshness Deep Down Things” p.109
[17] Dr. Chris Morrissey, Comment on essay, 2012

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