- How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, and: Plato the Myth Maker
In the ancient contest over philosophy and rhetoric, myth plays a key role, since the essence of myth is story and since, like rhetoric, myth cannot be reduced either to truth on the one hand or to falsehood on the other. Therefore an erudite treatment of the reception history of myth by philosophy should interest both philosophers and rhetoricians. Luc Brisson’s recent book on the recovery of myth in the tradition of Western philosophy demonstrates both the profound depth of current scholarship in classical philosophy and its persistent insularity.
Brisson (2002) first came to our attention with his detailed textual investigation of sexual ambivalence in Greece and Rome. He concludes that, while hermaphroditism was viewed as a monstrous sign of divine anger, sexual duality and homosexuality might be assimilated as long as the subject also adopted the social role, dress, and manner associated with the opposite sex. Most of Brisson’s work, however, has focused on Plato, beginning with Inventing the Universe (Brisson and Meyerstein 1995) and continuing with Plato the Myth Maker. In both these works Brisson is primarily concerned with the status of knowledge, in the first place in relation to scientific or cosmological discourse and in the second place in relation to myth. It is this second interest that is extended in How Philosophers Saved Myths. [End Page 300]
The two books really should be read together. Plato the Myth Maker, along with the chapter on Plato in How Philosophers Saved Myths, seeks “to show to what degree Plato is conscious of the fact that reason . . . cannot be liberated from the myth” (3). Brisson with painstaking precision demonstrates the contradictions in Plato’s stance against myth. His argument rests in many ways on the profound divergences between oral and written culture in Greece. He makes certain key assumptions about oral transmission that seem more than somewhat arguable: “Whereas writing permits a storage of messages which is—in theory, at least—infinite, the accumulation of orally transmitted messages can only be individual, and therefore limited by the capacity of an individual memory” (Plato the Myth Maker, 19). Does collective memory always presuppose written communication? Part 1 of Plato the Myth Maker is preoccupied with questions of the definition and transmission of myth in the transition from oral to literate culture and with Plato’s characterization of myth as an unfalsifiable discourse, a “ serious game” that influences the soul (83). In the second part, however, Brisson depicts the Plato for whom myth must be a discourse that is either true or false and as a narrative stands in opposition to logos. The contradiction thus elicited in Plato’s thought is drawn much more sharply in How Philosophers Saved Myths.
How Philosophers Saved Myths focuses on the trajectory of allegory as a method of recovering myth in literate culture and takes us from the rise of literacy in Greece through Plato, Aristotle, and the later philosophical schools including Stoicism and neo-Platonism to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In his chapter on Plato, Brisson shows once again that Plato treats myth sometimes as “unverifiable” but at other times as subject to truth and error. This is because for Plato, the correspondence of myth as discourse to an external referent is supplanted by its correspondence “to another discourse held up as norm.” Thus, “epistemology . . . gives way to censorship” (How Philosophers Saved Myth, 25). Brisson goes on to make one key original point about Plato’s attitude toward allegory. Why not resolve the contradiction over mythic thought through embracing the practice of allegorical interpretation? Brisson suggests that Plato realizes how adopting allegory would restore ultimate authority to the narrative frame of myth, thus reducing philosophy to the status of a mere “instrument of the interpretation of myths, which in turn would be the genuine locus...