From Plato, There Is No Escape

This week, an opinion piece in the Washington Post was reacting to the decision in some Massachusetts school(s?) to remove Homer’s Odyssey from the curriculum because Homer and other authors do not align with the values that schools want to teach children.

While initially uncomfortable with this proposal, one thing became very clear to me while I was scrubbing my bathroom sink this morning. The words quoted in the piece from one of the people cancelling Homer were nearly exactly the same as Plato’s argument against teaching Homer in the Republic:

“Then shall we so easily let the children hear just any tales fashioned by just anyone and take into their souls opinions for the most part opposite to those we’ll suppose they must have when they are grown up?”

“In no event will we permit it.”

First, as it seems, we must supervise the makers of tales; and if they make a fine tale, it must be approved, but if it’s not, it must be rejected. We’ll persuade nurses and mothers to tell the approved tales to their children and to shape their souls with tales more than their bodies with hands. Most of those they now tell must be thrown out.”

Plato, Republic 377b, trans. Bloom.

And then —

“Which sort?” he said.

“In the greater tales we’ll also see the smaller ones,” I [Socrates] said. “For both the greater and the smaller must be taken from the same model and have the same power. Don’t you suppose so?”

“I do,” he said. “But I don’t grasp what you mean by the greater ones.

The ones Hesiod and Homer told us, and the other poets too. They surely composed false tales for human beings and used to tell them and still do tell them.

“But what sort,” he said, “and what do you mean to blame in them?”

“What ought to be blamed first and foremost,” I said, “especially if the lie a man tells isn’t a fine one.”

“What’s that?”

“When a man in speech makes a bad representation of what gods and heroes are like, just as a painter who paints something that doesn’t resemble the things whose likeness he wished to paint.”

“Yes, it’s right to blame such things,” he said. “But how do we mean this and what sort of thing is it?”

“First,” I said, “the man who told the biggest lie about the biggest things didn’t tell a fine lie — how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did, and how Cronos in his turn took revenge on him.”

Plato, Republic 377c-e, trans. Bloom.

With that excitement (bold emphasis mine in both passages) — that people, far from wanting to erase engagement with older literature and myths, are actively working to create the Kallipolis and instill children with prosocial, just values, as everyone seeks after the good and wants to make the next generations’ lives better¹ — the remainder of this post is a sequence of quotations from Sallust, Dodds, Plato, and Proclus with some interjections from myself. Like most religions, Hellenism in antiquity had a rich philosophical and theological commentary tradition. If one were to teach any myths at all from any polytheistic religion, I think it should be integrated with commentaries so students have a better understanding that it’s okay to do critique and that the meaning of these stories is a living, breathing puzzle that people have wrestled with since the stories were first uttered, and I’m not sure that a lit class is the best place for that. I hope this post inspires those who have read less in the commentary tradition to consider how such texts can enrich their understanding of Greek myths and the millennia-long discourse about them.

As an aside, I read neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey in high school, but on my own (the Iliad) and in a college Greek Mythology course when I was 21 (the Odyssey and an Iliad reread). Maybe, given my upbringing in Neopaganism and the emphasis on ritual and prayer that entailed, that is one of the reasons I have historically been less attached to how the Gods are depicted in Homer than what I do when I am worshipping them, as I had been worshipping some of them (Apollon, Mnemosyne, the Mousai, Iris) for years before I first cracked open the Iliad or knew what the Homeric Hymns were.

Dodds Gets Salty About Platonism

Dodds translated Proclus’ Elements of Theology, and from the sounds of it, I truly wonder if he hated Proclus. From the tone of his endnotes, it seems as if he thought that (1) the Platonic emphasis on virtue and (2) the way the Gods are viewed as perfect goods that poets have tried in vain to capture in storytelling — and the substantial critique of traditional myths that this produced — were an absolute buzzkill.

That Homer’s Olympians, the most vividly conceived anthropomorphic beings in all literature, should have ended their career on the dusty shelves of this museum [Platonism] of metaphysical abstractions [he’s referring to the doctrine of the henads] is one of time’s strangest ironies.

Dodds, in the endnotes to Proclus’ Elements of Theology, p. 260, commenting on PROP. 112

Earlier in the note, Dodds had said that the place of the Gods in Platonic myth had “depriv[ed] the gods of all personality” (p. 260), and he finds no value in the polytheistic Platonic system. In fact, far from being austere, Plato loves myths, and the commentaries’ exegesis of them is often truly dazzling. He writes his own wholesome, philosophical myths² that are present in many of the dialogues — myths that adhere to the criteria set in the Republic that good exoteric myths should ensure that good behavior is rewarded and that the Gods are treated as truly good.

It’s also odd here that Dodds calls the Olympians Homer’s beings, erasing the complicated relationship between the Greek people and the Gods that extended from private ritual to public observance to philosophical treatise to theatrical performance. They’re not Homer’s, as anyone who has read Plato’s Ion would understand; divinely-inspired poets try to translate the ineffable beauty that strikes them like lightning into words and concepts that are culturally contextual.

A fair way of teaching Hellenic — or Hindu, or Aztec, or Yoruba, or any — myths is to fight back against the reductionist views taken up by Imperialists who believed that everything other than Christianity was a primitive curiosity. Fighting back means unsevering myths from cultural contexts. The way “Western” schools teach myth is usually wedded to the tradition of Christian polemic against whichever people they were converting by painting their Gods, their holy people, their cultures, their religious rituals, and their myths as subhuman and uncivilized, in need of replacement by a universalized Christian hegemony with some quirky cultural curiosities for personalized flair. In order to be equitable, we need to rip out such demeaning intellectual heuristics at the root, and we need to prioritize emic (in-culture) perspectives in cases where nuance (AKA “let’s unpack this”) is warranted.

Sallust on Myths

Many of the dialogues that integrate myths are part of the Iamblichean dialogue sequence of the Alcibiades I, Gorgias, Phaedo, Cratylus, Theaetetus, Sophist, Politicus (AKA Statesman), Phaedrus, Symposium, Philebus, Timaeus, Parmenides. The Gods unfold from the henads into the procession of being in an elegant, beautiful way, and Platonists integrate traditional myths allegorically to explain how the core of the myth corresponds to what is going on at each level of reality:

Chap. III.
Concerning [Myths], that these are divine, and on what Account they are so.

On what account then the ancients, neglecting such discourses as these, employed [myths], is a question not unworthy our investigation. And this indeed is the first utility arising from [myths], that they excite us to inquiry, and do not suffer our cogitative power to remain in indolent rest. It will not be difficult therefore to show that [myths] are divine, from those by whom they are employed: for they are used by poets agitated by divinity, by the best of philosophers, and by such as disclose initiatory rites. In oracles also [myths] are employed by the gods; but why [myths] are divine is the part of philosophy to investigate. Since therefore all beings rejoice in similitude, and are averse from dissimilitude, it is necessary that discourses concerning the gods should be as similar to them as possible, that they may become worthy of their essence, and that they may render the gods propitious to those who discourse concerning them; all which can only be effected by [myths]. [Myths] therefore imitate the gods, according to effable and ineffable, unapparent and apparent, wise and ignorant; and this likewise extends to the goodness of the gods; for as the gods impart the goods of sensible natures in common to all things, but the goods resulting from intelligibles to the wise alone, so [myths] assert to all [people] that there are gods; but who they are, and of what kind, they alone manifest to such as are capable of so exalted a knowledge. In [myths] too, the energies of the gods are imitated; for the world may very properly be called a [myths], since bodies, and the corporeal possessions which it contains, are apparent, but souls and intellects are occult and invisible. Besides, to inform all [people] of the truth concerning the gods, produces contempt in the unwise, from their incapacity of learning, and negligence in the studious; but concealing truth in [myths], prevents the contempt of the former, and compels the latter to philosophize. But you will ask why adulteries, thefts, paternal bonds, and other unworthy actions are celebrated in [myths]? Nor is this unworthy of admiration, that where there is an apparent absurdity, the soul immediately conceiving these discourses to be concealments, may understand that the truth which they contain is to be involved in profound and occult silence.

Sallust, On the Gods and the World, Chapter III, trans. Thomas Taylor, with some emendations from me in brackets.

Sallust follows this with another passage on myths, and fortuitously (perhaps by design), it addresses the same myth that Plato had Socrates mention in the Republic towards the end of the second quotation (scroll up) in this post’s intro:

Of [myths], some are theological, others physical, others animastic, (or belonging to soul), others material, and lastly, others mixed from these. [Myths] are theological which employ nothing corporeal, but speculate the very essences of the gods; such as the [myth] which asserts that Saturn devoured his children: for it obscurely intimates the nature of an intellectual god, since every intellect returns into itself. But we speculate [myths] physically when we speak concerning the energies of the gods about the world; as when considering Saturn the same as Time, and calling the parts of time the children of the universe, we assert that the children are devoured by their parents. But we employ [myths] in an animastic mode when we contemplate the energies of the soul; because the intellections of our souls, though by a discursive energy they proceed into other things, yet abide in their parents.

Sallust, On the Gods and the World, Chapter IV, trans. Thomas Taylor, with some emendations from me in brackets.

Here, Sallust is drawing on the Platonic sense of remaining, proceeding, and reverting, a triadic structure that is crucial to Platonic metaphysics. There are also hypostases, or levels of reality, that emanate from the One (which neither is, nor is one; it’s essentially the principle that each thing is a unity and one, except with a bunch of caveats that Damascius and Proclus discuss at length), with Intelligible, Intelligible-Intellective, Intellective, and other levels of Gods based on how they unfold in the detailed version of the structure.

There’s a good breakdown from a Platonic philosopher here (Edward Butler) for how philosophers in the Platonic tradition undertake mythological exegesis, and there’s also a book called Seven Myths of the Soul by Tim Addey that embarks on exegesis.

Admittedly, exploring the Hellenic myths (and Homer and Hesiod) without this additional context would be Herculean outside of a rigorous college course with so much reading to do in ten weeks that it would make even a Smithie cry.

Reverting to Plato: Proclus and Poets

Proclus comments on myths a lot. His fifth and sixth essays on Plato’s Republic have been translated into English twice, once with Greek on the facing page, once without it.

How could there be any reconciliation between the man who, in the Phaedo (95a) is called by Plato a “divine poet” and the one shown in the Republic [10.597e] to be “third in line from the truth”? These cannot be woven together like two linen threads: the same individual could not possibly take both positions. In the first assertion, we have a Homer who has transcended all human and partial notions in his poetry and has rooted his own thought among the gods; in the second, a Homer who knows only images of truth and strays far from wisdom about the divine. This is not to mention that, when Plato at one point calls poetry in general possession by the Muses and madness and calls the race of poets divine [Phdr. 245a], and then turns around and says that poetry is a fabricator of images and extravagant and many times removed from true knowledge, he hardly appears to be free of contradictions, even with regard to judgments about the content of poetry.

Proclus, Essay 6 on the Republic of Plato, trans. R. Lamberton, in Proclus the Successor on Poetics and the Homeric Poems, p. 61, probably K70.20-K71.2

The above quotation comes from (nearly) the top of Essay 6, and it presents one of the big questions that Proclus will address in this essay based on Proclus’ development of his esteemed teacher Syrianus’ views.

Beginning from the top, then, let us state the reason why, when [Plato or Socrates] himself was giving the outlines of educational theory, he did not accept poetry, even though these things were well regarded as educative in those times. It seems that, since all poetic activity is mimetic, he recognises that there are two ways for them to go wrong in their mimetic activities. Sometimes they represent the things about which they produce their narratives in a way that lacks similitude (377e). Other times there is similitude, but since they are imitators of various things, they produce correspondingly various imitations, as one would expect.

When they imitate the things that concern gods or heroes, they are thus unaware of the fact that they imitate in a way that lacks similitude. They attempt to say something about them through impassioned language and even contrary to nature or contrary to divine law, whether within the fictions (plasma) of myth or outside of the myths. On the one hand, they assimilate heroic things to human traits and verbally drag them down into the same passions like greed, illiberality, pretentiousness, and licentiousness. (These things are entirely unworthy of heroes whom we take to be children of the gods.) On the other hand, in the case of the gods, they use indecent language as a screen for the truth about them — these being matters about which it is not easy for the audience in general and for young people in particular to become competent readers (krites).

Both these things manifest imitation that lacks semblance. One of them obviously does not conform to that which it imitates, while the other does not obviously conform due to the appearance of absurdity corresponding to the screen of myth-making. It is necessary for the one who imitates to choose concepts that are appropriate to the things, given that they are intended as icons of those things, and he must select language that is fitting for those conceptions. It is for this reason that that he [Plato] was long in the habit of saying about the poetry of divine myths that it lies beautifully calling that lie beautiful which hides the truth through beautiful language.

Proclus, Essay 5 on the Republic of Plato, trans. Baltzly, 43.26-44.26

Bold emphasis mine. The full section this quotation is from is fabulous, as Proclus says that poets are “particularly capable of imitating those things that they were raised with” and “that which lies outside each person’s upbringing is something that becomes hard for [lim] to imitate in actions and harder in words” (Ibid., 45.6-11). Proclus continues:

They go wrong for the same reason when it comes to the gods. On the basis of understanding the language that they [sc. the poets] are accustomed to and the things with which they were raised, they suppose such things to contribute towards concealing the gods — thefts, rapes, mistakes, adulteries, wars and plots that involve the gods — while they entirely neglect to apply to the things about which they speak those very words that belong to people who were brought up properly and which are repeated constantly, high and low, in well-functioning polities, such as right, justice, law, simplicity, respect and all such things. These are part of the shared upbringing of people who have been properly turned into citizens. In any event, it is unbearable for them to have things that are shameful and illicit uttered, for they do not hold it fitting to defile the tongue by saying these words, since the tongue is an instrument for celebrating the gods and for conversing with good people. Thus, since the imitation that lacks semblance is double, his rebuke against the poets is offered in these terms: what they do is similar either to the case where someone intends to represent Achilles in a picture but [mistakenly] depicts Thersites or else it is similar to the case where he represents Achilles but does not preserve his courageous way of life — [the opposite of] what he called in the Laws (II 668d) [depicting] well and with correctness.

Proclus, Essay 5 on the Republic of Plato, trans. Baltzly, 45.18-46.8

Both of these essays are absolute gold for thinking of how to approach Homer and other poets, Essay 5 being much shorter than Essay 6. One of the tragedies of scholarly publishing is that both of the translations of these essays are so expensive when getting these into the hands of educators and students could be useful — especially given what I bolded above, which is exemplary food for thought. The essay also serves to properly locate critique of myths in the poets, not in the Gods themselves. Apollon, Zeus, and Hera are wholly good. Why poets choose to depict them doing what they do is complex, driven (as Plato says in some dialogues) by storytellers being beholden to crowd-pleasing (like the writers of an HBO television series trying to satisfy their viewers’ cries for gore, sex, and mayhem), but also by the fusion of divine inspiration with the cultural substrate. As we know, no culture is perfect, and many cultures have heinous inequalities that are ignored or reasoned away even by the best people who have been brought up in them.

What would it look like for a myth to be just and equitable? I think we can point, again, to what Plato does in many of his dialogues, as Plato weaves myths into many of them. In the Platonic writings, Plato is often associated with the God Apollon (who, as Proclus reminds us in Essay 5, is the “poet/creator of imitations that are endowed with harmony and rhythm” at 69.1) and the writer of the anonymous Prolegomena to Platonic Philosophy elevates him to such a height: “[An] oracle was given that two children would be born, Asclepius, son of Apollo, and Plato, son of Aristo, one of whom would be a healer of bodies, the other of souls” (I.6.14-16).

A Sacrifice

And Cronos’ deeds and his sufferings at the hands of his son, not even if they were true would I suppose they should so easily be told to thoughtless young things; best would be to keep quiet, but if there were some necessity to tell, as few as possible ought to hear them as unspeakable secrets, after making a sacrifice, not of a pig but of some great offering that’s hard to come by, so that it will come to the ears of the smallest possible number.

Plato, Republic 377e, trans. Bloom.

While praying to Apollon a few hours after cleaning the sink, some additional factors suddenly occurred to me. This entire post is beholden to Platonism. What I profess to be a secure foundation in the myths has been achieved, and is being continuously achieved, by the sacrifice of time and lifeblood, the sweat of intellectual activity, and the tears of frustration when the meaning of a passage eluded me. There are researchers who discuss the nature of transformative experiences and how it is impossible to describe to someone what it is like to have a child, complete a Ph.D., lose a parent, have cancer, publish a book, experience a God, and so on — they’re transformative and complicated, not communicable by words. I’d place reading the Iamblichean sequence (plus the Republic and the Laws) alongside Platonic commentaries about them in that bracket. The most frustrating thing about observing the supercelestial place in the Phaedrus is not being able to communicate to people who haven’t read it or prayed to a God after reading it just how beautiful and wondrous the Gods are, and the second-most frustrating thing is that my mind now automatically does exegesis whenever I read a myth, and I no longer have a great sense of what the experience of reading the myth is like for people whose minds haven’t been marinating in Plato, but something else or nothing at all. Specialization can reduce empathy and relatability.

The great offering that’s hard to come by could be the outcome of the rigorous study itself, a self-initiation into the sublime that burns us up and transforms us into something new, be we poets like myself or philosophers like the Platonists I enjoy reading, utterly incapable of exposing the mystery to people outside of the initiated not due to the will to keep a secret, but the impossibility of sharing something that is experiential, not spoken. The question, if violent myths are to be sequestered from the uninitiated, then becomes: How do we educate young people to be intellectually curious and to possess flexible mental frameworks that provoke rigorous inquiry so that, when those who are to be initiated stumble across Homer and Hesiod and are stunned into silence, they even know what to look for beyond the initial aporia of youths who have been raised in a just world? Asking if such stories belong in a literature course is, and has always been, the wrong question.

  1. If the Republic is cancelled in school, that may be a good decision, as many Platonists believe it is one of the absolute worst dialogues to start from. My personal recommendations are the Ion and the Phaedrus — the first is a great introduction to inspired poetry that could be used in conjunction with reading someone like Sappho or Pindar, and the second provides a wholesome account of love, the Greek Gods, and appropriate/inappropriate speeches while helping a young man come into a place of confidence. I would also recommend Plato’s Seventh Letter.
  2. While some sexism is present in a few of them because Plato does comment that male lives are privileged over female lives in reincarnation cycles, I interpret that as a comment about gender, privilege, and oppression. It is true that in many places, until the women’s rights movements of the 19th and 20th centuries, education, property ownership, financial independence, and other things were denied to most women, and since both Plato’s Socrates and Timaeus seem to privilege having the freedom to be in control of one’s own life (see some of Socrates’ arguments in the Gorgias especially), being beholden to others due to sex and/or enslaved status would have posed significant, albeit not impossible, legal and social barriers to achieving that control. In late antiquity, philosophers’ daughters tended to be married off to other philosophers — it was the best way to ensure they retained access to the intellectual community and to freedom in an unequal society. Reducing poverty, taxing the wealthy, and ensuring that all people are treated as legal equals are ways for a nation to reduce barriers to those freedoms. Conservatives tend to be drawn to the idea of a stratified city-state in the Republic, and hierarchy is important to their values system, but they ignore the more progressive ideas in Plato about reducing wealth inequality or fact that the hierarchy is imposed in a fevered city that is destined to sink from a good city-state to a tyrant-controlled one because people make mistakes, and we open ourselves up to death by a thousand cuts. That hierarchy is not present in the first city that Socrates proposes. They also ignore Plato’s intense criticism of people who hoard wealth and the seeds within the Gorgias that could lead to a useful implementation of restorative justice.

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