Thursday, October 14, 2010

Myths and Illusions.

In Plato's 'Republic' there is this fascinating little section in which Plato (sorry, Socrates!) tells us a little 'myth' (μῦθος). The purpose of the myth is to give his ideal community an identity. Especially since he has just spent a decent amount of time correcting Homer and Hesiod's theology, because they tell lies about the gods. 

Now, the myth looks like this:

"You are, all of you in this community, brothers. but when god fashioned you, he added gold in the composition of those of you who are qualified to be rulers (which is why their prestige is greatest); he put silver in the Auxiliaries, and Iron and Bronze in the farmers and other workers. Now since you are all of the same stock, though your children will commonly resemble heir parents, occasionally a silver child will be born of gold parents, or a gold of silver and so on. Therefore the first and most important of the god's commandments to the Rulers is..." - Plato, Republic 415a - c (trans. Desmond Lee)
Anyway, you get the picture, he goes on to talk about how we must make sure everyone is doing what their identity demands. After telling this story he turns to his conversation partner and he says "That is the story (μῦθος). Do you know of any way of making them believe it?"

This is weird for Plato/Socrates to say this, he wants to replace the peoples theology with another one which is obviously contrived. It's kind of a civic myth, but how can this be allowed? Has Plato not just given us an illusion and asked us to accept it? How can this be acceptable, especially for Plato who believes in a reality which must be known (if you know the allegory of the cave, think that about that).

Furthermore, the word 'μῦθος' is actually quite layered. In Euripides play 'Medeia' the teacher talks about overhearing a conversation about Medeia's future in a bar and at the end he refers to that conversation by saying: "However if this tale (μῦθος) is true, I don't know."

So, a number of related questions to think about:
What is an accurate way to think about Plato's story, would it be permissible to do something similar today? and why or why not?

What is an adequate english word to translate the word 'μῦθος' one that does away with the connotations that are normally conjured up by our word 'myth'


And to give you some modern food for thought:
"And fact is only what you believe. And fact and fiction work as a team.

Its almost always fiction in the end.
The content begins to bend.
When context is never the same.
And its all relative
even if we don't understand.
And its all understood,
especially when we don't understand.
And its all just because,
even if we don't understand.
Then let's all just believe-I was reading a book." -Jack Johnson, It's all understood.

1 comment:

  1. 'Tale' does seem to be a good translation though, to eliminate the connotations of ancient-ness and weird-ness.

    I know the NT was written a long while after Plato, but it's interesting to look at the 5 instances of this word in NT usage.

    1 Tim 1:4, 1 Tim 4:7, 2 Tim 4:4, Titus 1:14, and most significantly 2 Peter 1:16

    These seem to refer to 'mythos' in overwhelmingly negative terms.