454 Journal of the American Academy of Religion wisdom is the area where poetry and philosophy find their common ground (section 4) because philosophical wisdom abounds in Greek objective poetry (section 5). We will use Phaedo’s text as a lead, estab- lish the contradiction between mythologein and apology by dismissing in the first two sections the alternative readings of Phaedo, and con- clude our inquiry by offering a solution to the riddle in the last four sections (6–9) along the line of opposition between philo-sophia and eroto-sophia. MYTHOLOGEIND ESPITE ITS IRRESISTIBLE DRAMATIC charm, Phaedo is philosophic-ally troubling because it depicts a Socrates who goes out of his usual wayof noncommitment and tries to secure a conviction at a moment whenhe should least do so. His weak arguments and uncharacteristically crudereasoning fly in the face of his consummate aplomb. On top of the philo-sophical vulnerability is added a pass Socrates makes to myth and poetry,hinting a Socratic capitulation to his archrival. Myth and poetry are the-matic features of Phaedo and they permeate from the beginning to end.Let’s look at some of the facts before some further comments are made.1. Socrates composes poetry in his cell by rendering Aesop’s fables into verse. He relates that his demon has been urging him to “make music and work at it (mousikyn poiei kai ergazon),” and of how he first thought of philosophy as music and now begins to suspect that only the ordinary music, namely, poetry, was meant in the divine message (Phaedo 60e–61b).22. Sending a strange message to Evenus, in which the mortality of the poet is discussed, Socrates treats Evenus as if the poet is a philosopher.3 Although Evenus might actually be a philosophical poet, Socrates’ mat- ter-of-fact manner still surprises because of his conception of the anti- nomy between the two fields.43. While mythology means in Greek “telling stories,” Socrates thinks that it is fitting to tell stories (mythologein) in his final moments, hint- ing that a philosophical discussion of death is not different from mythologein (61e).4. Socrates calls the Bacchic followers (bakchoi) “true philosophers (pephilosophykotes)” (69d). This is one of the most surprising state- 2 All references refer to Phaedo unless specified otherwise. 3 Socrates asks rhetorically in 61c, “Is not Evenus a philosopher?” 4 In The Republic X 607c–d Socrates seems to question this possibility.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 455 ments in Phaedo, for Bacchic abandonment seems to represent the opposite end of the contemplative life. This statement is reminiscent of the speech by an inebriated Alcibiades in Symposium where Socrates is compared to a Satyr (Symposium 215c).5. Socrates twice speaks of “to sing charm (epadein)” by a philosopher, as if philosophy needs spiritual enchantment in order to fulfill its function of appeasing a fearful mind (77e–78a; 114e). Put together, 3, 4, and 5 amount to saying that philosophy and myth can be on friendly terms. The mystics are philosophers in Bacchic disguise, while stories can stand by the side of reason and be an instrument to philosophy. A philosopher might as well be a spiritual masseur, for whom myths and charmers are welcome additions to his reasoning. The above-mentioned five points bring about some troubling impli-cations that tend to justify the following two readings. First, there seemsto be an ambivalence of identity between a poet or mystic and a philoso-pher. Evenus the poet and some Bacchanals can be true philosophers,whereas Socrates metamorphoses into a Satyr and a verse-renderingpoet. This ambiguity of identity threatens to undermine the rivalrybetween poetry and philosophy, one of the founding blocks of Socraticphilosophy. The antinomies of eidos and things, of one and many, ofdialectics and imitation, of techne and inspiration, and of measured self-examination and demonic self-absolution in poetic frenzy, are all basedon or interlocked with the rivalry between philosophy and the myth-tellingpoetry. If the formerly rigid line between philosophy and poetry becomesliquefied we would be at a loss with regard to Socrates’ overall philoso-phy. If we read Phaedo seriously, the value of Socratic philosophy depre-ciates, for the former seems to fundamentally contradict the latter. Inorder to avoid this conclusion, one might think that Socrates’ reconcilinggesture in Phaedo stems from his typical irony. He means the oppositewhen he says that the mystics are true philosophers. His dabbling withpoetry is not sincere. Under this reading, Socrates is a philosopher whodoes not forget to jab at his enemies even shortly before his death. Phaedowould be an ultimate piece of irony, of which the mythic theme is part ofSocrates’ typical playfulness. Second, Phaedo might also be understood as the capitulation of philos-ophy. It is conceivable that Socrates might have lost faith in philosophy,particularly with regard to the issue of immortality. He might be thinkingof reconciling philosophy and myth, only at the cost of the former. Thisspeculation seems to fit well with Socrates’ farewell touch with Aesop’sfables and Socrates’ panegyrics of the Bacchi. Compared with the lastinterpretation, this reading attributes an honest defeat to the departing
456 Journal of the American Academy of ReligionSocrates. Taken this way, Phaedo would cease to be a philosophical work,and its protagonists would no longer be philosophers but “true mystics.”The infirmity of the arguments in the dialogue can therefore be excusedon the reason of being nothing more than bantering among friends. Onlythe pauperism of taste would hold a dramatic piece philosophy’s hostage. IRONY VERSUS APOLOGY However, neither the irony- nor the capitulation-readings capture acritical feature of Phaedo: it is a piece of philosophical apology. Phaedocarries much weight because it poses a serious apologetic stance for phi-losophy right from the start. Its inquiry into immortality is remarkablystraightforward and intended to defend a fundamental philosophicalquality, namely, to practice death. Because irony implies a lack of direct-ness in approach, and apology is not capitulation, both interpretationsmust be invalid. In Phaedo the typically sarcastic and often irritating Socrates isreplaced by a persona who is both candid and vulnerable. The formeracts as a cross-examiner, whereas the latter is a dying friend. Important asirony is for Socrates, its underrepresentation witnesses to this law of dia-lectics—irony has little importance if the subject under elenchus is not anopposing party but Socrates himself. Dialectical self-irony makes as littlesense as self-courtesy. Irony implies a mind free from entanglement, arational privilege that Socrates lacks regarding the post-mortem exist-ence. Not until his very last moments is Socrates fully committed to anydefinitive position on an afterlife. His taking a resolution happens some-where before his last reply to Cebes, when he addresses Cebes’ problem as“your difficulty,” implying that it is no longer his (96a).5 Instead of beingtypically on the offense, Phaedo’s Socrates has to defend his own viewwhereas Cebes and Simmias play the normal Socratic role. The relativepassivity of Socrates’ position warns against any significant ironic rendi-tion of the dialogue. Just as little irony can be read into Apology when Socrates defendshimself in front of the Athenian public, so one must respect the soberand candid intimacy of Phaedo when Socrates gives his philosophicaldefense of an afterlife. As Apology is Socrates’ legal defense of his choiceon how to live, Phaedo can be deemed as his philosophical plea on how todie. Being pressed upon his statement that a true philosopher practicesdeath, Socrates compares his friends’ demand for an explanation to a 5 In Apology 40c–d Socrates talks about the equal possibility of death being an absolute finale and atransworld migration.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 457legal subpoena: “[F]or I think you mean that I must defend myselfagainst this accusation, as if we were in a law court. . . . Well, then, I willtry to make a more convincing defense than I did before the judges”(63b). According to Socrates, a true philosopher regards death as a bless-ing and embraces it without fear. A trace of cringe is not just a sign of theweakness of will but also of the deprivation of a genuine philosophicalnature. For Socrates, to defend the “death practice” is not so much adefense of a particular philosophical attitude as a defense of philosophyitself: “Other people are likely not to be aware that those who pursue phi-losophy aright study nothing but dying and being dead. [When the mul-titude think that the philosophers desire and deserve death,] they wouldbe speaking the truth, except in the matter of knowing very well. For theydo not know in what way the real philosophers desire death, nor in whatway they deserve death” (64a–c). Having put things into this perspective, Socrates raises the stakes ofthe ensuing conversation. It is only apparently about the issue of immor-tality, behind which lies the true question of “what is philosophy?” or“what is the true spirit of philosophy?” If the nature of philosophydictates a belief in the survival of one’s own death (and therefore a beliefin the goodness of death for a good soul), to argue for the belief amountsto a case study of philosophy itself. If soul evaporates with the decay offlesh, it would mean a finale for both Socrates and philosophia (for injus-tice might win over justice). The gravity of the mission is highlightedwith a dramatic twist in the dialogue. The jailer warns Socrates that aheated philosophical debate would aggravate his final struggle, for a dou-ble or triple dose of poison is needed for a person with warm blood. Thejailer seems to understand that a philosophically influenced body wouldsomehow retard the potency of toxins (63e)! The non-ironic, apologetic nature of Phaedo befits the stature of theparticipants of the dialogue, Cebes and Simmias, who both are sophisti-cated Pythagoreans. The affinity of Socratic views and Pythagoreanismallows the interlocutors to have a quick start, bypass assumptions that arenecessary for the theme but difficult to defend given the situation (suchas “that death is the separation of the soul from the body” [64c4] and“that body is a prison [phroura], which offers no access to wisdom [phro-nesis]’[65b–67d]), and proceed straight to the heart of the issue of thesurvival of death. Throughout the dialogue there is a constant display ofthe intellectual brilliance of Cebes and Simmias, who sympathize withSocrates’ conviction but choose to act as the devil’s advocate, a typicalrole of Socrates’ but played by him often in a tongue-in-cheek manner. At the beginning when Socrates advances the claim that suicide isimpermissible notwithstanding the desirability of death because we are
458 Journal of the American Academy of Religionthe chattels (ktemata) of the gods, Cebes questions that if the gods wereour guardians, death would mean separation from them and ought to beundesirable (62b–63b). After catching the first glimpse of Cebes’ shiningintellect, we see both he and Simmias remain unmoved until Socratesbrings up his third argument. Their counterarguments are simple andstraightforward. Their destructive power is accentuated by the acutepanic felt by the spectators. Socrates’ stroking of Phaedo’s hair andspeaking of keeping a tonsure until the polemic victory is recoveredremains to this day a vivid scene and underscores how much is at stake.Socrates is defending not just his own belief but the enterprise of philoso-phy, the virtues of which (such as sophrosune) are in the danger of beingstripped of their significance if fear of death is justifiable. As the apologyfor philosophy, Phaedo’s taut tension is belied by the intimacy of friendsand forms an interesting contrast to the commanding ease of Socrates inthe middle of the hostile crowd as shown in his first apology. FANTASTIC REASON If we cannot deflect the troubling statements in Phaedo as irony, oraccept Phaedo as a capitulation of philosophy, we are left with a difficultposition to juggle a philosophical apology with Socrates’ panegyrics ofmyth and poetry. If philosophy and myth contravene each other, it ishard to make sense of a defense of the former intermingled with a tributepaid to the latter. If Socrates’ words are to be taken seriously, there mustbe a common ground between philosophy and myth despite their rivalrysuch that a eulogy of one does not automatically imply a recriminationagainst the other. At first appearance, the middle ground seems unlikelybecause of the well-recognized antinomy between myth and philosophy.After all, while philosophy is a rational enterprise, myth is inherentlyirrational. To look for a place where philosophy meets myth seems to bea request for an irrational reason, or a frenzied sobriety. In his Language and Myth Cassirer has much to say about the anti-nomy between myth and philosophy (in his terms, “theoretical thinking”versus “mystical thinking”). According to him, theoretical thinkingrepresents a discursive process in which the diverse, immediate experi-ences are organized and woven into an expansive and unified system ofthought. In this context, no particular experience stands isolated fromthe rest and is instead “stamped with the character of totality.” On thecontrary, mythical thinking bears no such stamp at all. Instead of widen-ing one experience to a whole system of thought, mythical thinking con-centrates on a single vision, in which the entire objective world and thesubjective ego are lost. Although the systematic whole is annihilated, the
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 459“sheer immediacy” of the intuitive experiences overwhelms a person’sexistence.6 Cassirer’s analysis fits the general Socratic understanding ofthe antithesis between philosophy and myth. The contradistinction of thetwo is the divergence of their respective modi operandi: one contem-plates, and the other is inspired. Although contemplation proceeds in agradual and sober manner by analyzing and synthesizing individualexperiences, inspiration dawns without warning, carries the inspired tothe extremes of his emotion, stops time, and sweeps away the horizonof his being. The reason why Socrates finds the mythic thinking objec-tionable is at least partly because of its inebriated passivity delineated inCassirer’s analysis. It is also because of Socrates’ preference for quietand contemplative analysis (and synthesis) that he believes philosophyis more beneficial to the soul than mythic poetry, the power of which tointoxicate people is often destructive and harmful (The Republic X605c–608b). However, the mythic theme of Phaedo adumbrated in the first sectionhas little resemblance to what is described as mythic in the above.Notwithstanding his “newfound” love of the Bacchic, Socrates makes 6 To quote at length, Cassirer writesThe aim of theoretical thinking [ . . . ] is primarily to deliver the contents of sensory or intuitiveexperience from the isolation in which they originally occur. It causes these contents to transcendtheir narrow limits, combine them with others, compares them, and concatenates them in a definiteorder, in an all-inclusive context. It proceeds “discursively,” in that it treats the immediate contentonly as a point of departure, from which it can run the whole gamut of impressions in variousdirections, until these impressions are fitted together into one unified conception, one closed system.In this system there are no more isolated points; all its members are reciprocally related, refer to oneanother, illumine and explain each other. Thus every separate event is ensnared, as it were, byinvisible threads of thought, that bind it to the whole. The theoretical significance which it receiveslies in the fact that it is stamped with the character of this totality. Mythical thinking, when viewed inits most elementary forms, bears no such stamp; in fact, the character of intellectual unity is directlyhostile to its spirit. For in this mode, thought does not dispose freely over the data of intuition, inorder to relate and compare them to each other, but is captivated and enthralled by the intuitionwhich suddenly confronts it. It comes to rest in the immediate experience; the sensible present is sogreat that everything else dwindles before it. For a person whose apprehension is under the spell ofthis mythico-religious attitude, it is as though the whole world were simply annihilated; theimmediate content, whatever it be, that commands his religious interest so completely fills hisconsciousness that nothing else can exist beside and apart from it. The ego is spending all its energyon this single object, lives in it, loses itself in it. Instead of a widening of intuitive experience, we findhere its extreme limitation; instead of expansion that would lead through greater and greater spheresof being, we have here an impulse toward concentration; instead of extensive distribution, intensivecompression. This focusing of all forces on a single point is the prerequisite for all mythical thinkingand mythical formulation. When, on the one hand, the entire self is given up to a single impression,is “possessed” by it and, on the other hand, there is the utmost tension between the subject and itsobject, the outer world; when external reality is not merely viewed and contemplated, but overcomesa man in sheer immediacy, with emotions of fear or hope, terror or wish fulfillment: then the sparkjumps somehow across, the tension finds release, as the subjective excitement becomes objectified,and confronts the mind as a god or a demon (32–33).
460 Journal of the American Academy of Religionno attempt to mimic a dithyrambic delivery as he is depicted doing inPhaedrus.7 Socrates’ temperament in Phaedo is decisively philosophical.The word “myth” is used there primarily in the context of “mythologein(story-telling)” and means barely anything more than a fantastic tale.A fantastic tale is detachable from the frenzied form of a typical poeticdelivery and can be related in a contemplative manner. Cassirer’s analysiscan categorically deny a middle ground between a mythic and philosoph-ical delivery, but it cannot rule out the possibility of a philosophical tale(myth), a tale that is fantastic in nature (often coming out false) butphilosophical in delivery. Although this shallow liaison of myth and phi-losophy is short of being the searched middle ground in question, a moreentrenched effort on the same track might eventually satisfy our need. Despite the divergence of their paths, philosophy and myth (even inCassirer’s sense) could share a common vision and carry the same wis-dom. According to Jung, a patient of his, who suffered from “psychicinflation” (paranoid dementia with megalomania) had a magnificentidea: “[T]he world was his picture-book, the pages of which he couldturn at will. The proof was quite simple: he had only to turn around, andthere was a new page for him to see” (Jung: 89). Jung believes that this isSchopenhauer’s “world as will and idea” in unadorned, primitive con-creteness of vision. The difference between a true philosopher and ademonic mystic is so thin that “a man is a philosopher of genius onlywhen he succeeds in transmitting the primitive and merely natural visioninto an abstract idea belonging to the common stock of consciousness.This achievement, and this alone, constitutes his personal value, forwhich he may take credit without necessarily succumbing to inflation.But the sick man’s vision is an impersonal value, a natural growth againstwhich he is powerless to defend himself, by which he is actually swal-lowed up and ‘wafted’ clean out of the world” (90). If philosophical wisdom could be delivered through the direct experi-ence of a “possessed” man, the desired middle ground between myth andphilosophy may not be too far off after all. Phaedo as a fantastic tale canbe philosophical not only in terms of its manner of delivery but also byvirtue of the message that is delivered. The fact that philosophy and mythcan share their wisdom is deemed by Schiller a decisive factor behind thevitality of Greek culture. He observes that philosophy and mythic poetry“could, if need arose, exchange their functions, because each in its own 7 In Phaedrus 263d Socrates acts like a delirious mystic, but even then his dithyrambs are no morethan a sportive jest, whose true philosophical design is given away by the meticulous dialecticalnature of his second dithyramb. Socrates attributes the dialectical propriety of his speech to theinspirations from the nymphs and Pan.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 461fashion honored truth.” Schiller could not be more nostalgic about thisGreek possibility of fantastic reason: “Combining fullness of formwith fullness of content, at once philosophic and creative, at the sametime tender and energetic, we see [the Greeks] uniting the youthful-ness of fantasy with the manliness of reason in a splendid humanity”(Schiller: 38). Indeed, Socrates of Phaedo does display both the manliness(andreion) of reason and the youthfulness of his imagination. If Phaedoturns out to be a truly philosophical tale (myth), in what sense could it be?How could it then function at the same time as a philosophical apology? POETRY, PHILOSOPHY, AND RHETORIC The duo of Greek poetry and Socratic philosophy can be juxtaposedwith rhetoric and form a trio of competing arts of discourse. Accordingto Socrates, philosophy and rhetoric resemble each other because of theirshared ambition to be the true art of persuasion and because of theirmeticulously planned organization of speech.8 Poetry prides itself on itsability to influence and possess a reader. If it ever tries to be convincing, itmerely desires to persuade the reader of the reality of what is described(such as a battle and the emotions of the combatants), instead of thetruth of what is argued for (often a propositional belief). According toAristotle, a convincing impossibility is preferable to an unconvincingpossibility for the purpose of poetry (Poetics 1461b10). If a poem has anorganic structure, its superior form is derived from a serendipitous dis-covery and is more or less an afterthought. In this sense, poetry standsopposed to both rhetoric and philosophy. Compared to a good poem,which effortlessly brings to life an immediate and unorganized vision, aphilosophical argument plods through concepts and ideas, crawling onan upward, narrow, and thorny track of reason in the hope of reaching aconclusion that is envisioned in the beginning of an argument. The pain of striving experienced by a rhetorician is not far less thanthat of a drudging philosopher. Like philosophy, rhetoric also involvescareful planning and speech regimentation that proceeds in a goal-directedmanner from the start. Although a rhetorician often delivers his speech in away that suggests a mystic rapture and inspired spontaneity, what is atwork is at most the passion of the moment, if not simply the skill of acting.While he can allow himself to be carried by the moment, a good rhetoriciannever allows himself to be carried away by the moment. Reason is still there, 8 In Phaedrus 261a ff. Socrates claims that rhetoric is not a true art (techne) of discourse, for itsconstructed speech lacks an organic structure.
462 Journal of the American Academy of Religionlurking behind an ecstatic persona. A superior rhetorician is a superiorperformer, who pleases the audience by his uncontrived appearance, but isdirected by a contemplative and teleological mind. But rhetoric is solitary in one critical aspect, which Socrates regards asits primal guilt. The sophists are so bent on flattering the audience bytheir enchanting speech that they have no respect for the truth and whatis best.9 The utility of livelihood precedes the nobility of truth in themind of sophists. They say what the audience loves to hear but not whatit should and often hates to hear. Sophia is the last divine quality to whichthe sophists care to swear allegiance. Although they boast to be the wisestamong men, they do not prize wisdom itself but their ability to bend thetruth to whatever direction suits their need. Their wisdom lies in theirsubjugation of wisdom and prostituting truth to pander to the crowd.Throughout Phaedo, instead of “sophia,” Socrates uses the word “phrone-sis” to denote wisdom. It is conceivable that the word “sophia” is so con-taminated by its etymological association with “sophist” that Socratesfeels the necessity to sterilize the concept with a more innocent term. Although poets are demegoros (crowd-pleaser) in the theaters too(Gorgias 502d), no evidence suggests that Socrates thinks that flattery isthe raison d’être of poetry itself. Not all poems are written for theatricalperformances. Even if the stage is the intended home for a poetic piece,the priority of poetic integrity is a bulwark against the abuse of the run-away appetite for theatrical impact. In his inspired and mantic moment,a poet often catches a glimpse of true reality, which lies beyond the reachof the humble human intellect. The fact that poetry can speak truth andcontain wisdom finds its aetiological justification in the divine origin ofat least some parts of a poem.10 The privilege of parentage guarantees thequality of offspring. Socrates describes the way a god inspires a poet asanalogous to the manner a magnet moves iron rings: “This [magnetic]stone not only pulls those rings, if they’re iron, it also puts power in therings . . . In the same way, the Muse makes some people inspired her-self . . . [N]one of the epic poets, if they’re good, are masters of theirsubject; they are inspired, possessed, and that is how they utter all thosebeautiful poems” (Ion 533e). For Socrates, although the poets cannot lay claim to knowledgebecause of the lacuna in their understanding of what they say, they do 9 In Gorgias 462c ff. Socrates dismissed rhetoric as a mere “knack,” not true art. It is like pastrybaking (463a) in that it is bent upon gratifying people’s appetites and does not strive to speak thetruth or say what is best (501e–503a). 10 We will maintain in this article an important ambiguity of Plato’s writing. He assumes often thatwhat the wise say must be true (Phaedrus 260a, Laws 888e, Theaetetus 152b, Euthydemus 280a), but itis also obvious that he is ambivalent about this assumption.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 463opine truthfully and insightfully from time to time (Meno 99c–d).Although philosophers strive to be divine and pursue an arduousroute to the starry heaven, poets are sometimes elevated to the realmof truth with a single pull of a favoring god. The fact that a poet caneffortlessly obtain the prize that is hard pursued by a philosopher doesnot automatically lessen the value of a philosophical enterprise,according to Socrates. An inspiration escapes as fast as it arrives,whereas the ownership of knowledge is stable and safe. The passivenature of mantic vision leaves a poet at the mercy of a fickle and alienforce, arousing in him uncontrollable emotion and frenzy. The quietand lasting happiness can be harvested only through philosophy, asSocrates argues throughout his life. He speaks of knowledge as like arope that can tie down an otherwise mobile statue of Daedalus.Acquiring the statue itself is not worth much. To tie it down and keepit anchored to safety is where philosophical knowledge is found supe-rior to mere true opinions.11 The fact that Socrates calls poets liars in The Republic does not con-travene the statement that poets and philosophers can share truth andwisdom and are mutually opposed to sophists, whose constant con-founding truth and falsehood and perverted sense of wisdom reveal anidentity that is neither poetic nor philosophical but resembles both (asophist can fake a poetic trance, but claims to share the philosophicalquality of non-passivity and self-mastery). Unlike a sophist, a true poet isnot a word-monger, nor a designing salesman of falsehood. If a poet iswrong, his mistake reflects more the fallibility of human experience thanthe lapse of moral integrity. With regard to Socrates’ charge that the poets are liars, we must beartwo things in mind. First, lying does not carry the same stigma in Socraticethics as it does in Christian morals. Socrates observes that paideia as amatter of fact always starts with tales of falsehood such as children’sfables (The Republic 377a). According to him, the ruler of a city mustsometimes hide the truth from the malleable youth and tell noble lies forthe benefit of the state (378a, 389c). What can be bad about lies is notbecause all lies are bad but because some lies are badly told. Bad lies arebad because they have bad social consequences. Second, the poets under bombardment of Socrates in The Republicare specifically epic poets such as Homer and Hesiod. Relating fantastictales about gods and afterlife, a subject forever barred to human access in 11 In Meno 97e–98a Socrates says, “To acquire an untied work of Daedalus is not worth much, likeacquiring a runaway slave, for it does not remain, but it is worth much if tied down, for his works arebeautiful.”
464 Journal of the American Academy of ReligionSocrates’ opinion, is the occupational hazard of the epic poets. Socratesonce adumbrates Homer’s (1924) (1974) work as follows: Doesn’t he [Homer] mainly go through tales of war, and of how people deal with each other in society—good people and bad, ordinary folks and craftsmen? And of the gods, how they deal with each other and with men? And doesn’t he recount what happens in heaven and in hell, and tell of the births of gods and heroes? Those are the subjects of Homer’s poetry- making, aren’t they? (Ion 531c–d, italics added).When a man tells stories about what is in principle a dark subject such asthat of gods and afterlife, the substitutability of his vision does not implythe availability of truth. Unless there are empirical measures to separate adivine inspiration from a mere human vision, every myth might turn outto be “a lie,” namely, untrue.12 With regard to many of the embarrassingbiographical details of the gods, Socrates chooses either to ax them withcensorship or simply to replace them with better lies. When truth isbeyond reach, the social consequence becomes the sole arbiter betweenwhat is right and wrong and what is acceptable and unacceptable. The measures of censorship and tactical modification preferred bySocrates with regard to the “what” (content) of poetry can be comparedto his proposal in dealing with the “how” of poetry.13 Although the ques-tionable content of a poem can be edited, the real ill of poetry is felt bySocrates as in its narrative device, that is, imitation. Socrates’ displeasure with the method of imitation not only has to do withhis epistemological recrimination against imitation as a copy of a copy(as concealment of truth) but also is deeply rooted in his political advo-cacy for a highly fragmented and compartmentalized civic life thatdemands the order and discipline of something like boot camp. Imitationviolates the principle of labor distribution which functions as a law thatsafeguards the social stability by barring a cobbler from entering the fieldof cookery and such similar transgressions. Rampant imitation abetscareer mobility among the citizens and will eventually lead the socialeconomy into shambles (The Republic 394e–395a). The general maladyspread by the virus of imitation is mirrored by the process of putrefactionat the personal level. Imitation can recreate a false reality that is oftenexcessively exciting because of its sensuousness and emotive palpability.Imitative discourses as used in indirect speeches can animate a personalitythat easily settles down into “the habits and nature in the body, the 12 Socrates uses the two terms, “untrue” and “lying,” loosely. 13 For Socrates’ distinction of the “what” and “how” of poetry, see The Republic 394c–d.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 465speech and the thought” of a person, rendering him particularly vulnerableto the pernicious influence of a disgraceful character (359d). If imitationis inevitable, only the good should be imitated. Otherwise, imitationmust be replaced with plain narration (direct speech) (394c–396e). OBJECTIVE POETRY Given the nature of Greek poetry (primarily epic and dramaticpoetry, both of which overlap with tragedy14) and its ideological proxim-ity to Greek speculative philosophy, it is understandable that Socrates’dissatisfaction with poetry points more toward its extraneous factorssuch as the social and personal consequence or the narrative device of apoem than its intuited vision. Greek poetry epitomizes the primal condi-tion of human living,15 the inconstancy of fortune,16 and the mostlyimpersonal mortal struggle between many good men.17 With its eyesfocusing on the lessons of life, poetry is not intended to be as servile tofacts as history is, although stories such as the Iliad and Aeschylus’s ThePersians relate events as if they were real. Sophocles claims that he drawsmen as they ought to be rather than as they are (Aristotle: 1460b34).“Hence poetry is something more philosophic and of graver import thanhistory, since its statements are of the nature rather of universals,whereas those of history are singulars” (Aristotle: 1451b5–8). The over-flowing philosophical wisdom in Greek poetry allows Plato to quoteHomer, Hesiod, and others freely without appearing vain, stilted oroverly ornate. Philosophy and poetry can find common language becauseof their shared Weltanschauung, insatiable curiosity toward the unknown(death and afterlife), and Hellenic awareness of the insignificance ofhuman conation and emotion.18 The tripartite liaison of philosophy andpoetry consists in the flowing reciprocity of their respective metaphysics,self-reflectivity, and unrestrained but still sober imagination. In order to understand the nature of Greek poetry, we might com-pare it to its modern counterpart. If there is any universal feature of 14 In his Poetics 1462a15 Aristotle claims that tragedy has everything that the epic has. 15 Hesiod: “[Human] lot will be a blend of good and evil” (179). Sophocles: “[Life] is batteredfrom all sides, like a cape facing north, in storms buffeted by the winds” (1239–1241). 16 “Do not call any man happy until he is dead.” This well-known aphorism is attributed to Solon. 17 Homer lets Achilles console Priam after having killed Hector, Priam’s son: “This is the way thegods ordained the destiny of men, to bear such burdens in our lives, while they feel no affliction”(Iliad XXIV, 522–551). 18 Homer: “Tears heal nothing, drying so stiff and cold” (Iliad XXIV, 524). Plato describes humanemotions as counteracting cords pulling us to all directions: “[T]hese inward affections of ours, likesinews or cords, drag us along and, being opposed to each other, pull us against the other to oppositeactions” (Laws bk I, 644d8–645a2).
466 Journal of the American Academy of Religionmodern poetry,19 it is its strong subjectivity and intense expressiveness.With the arm of science grabbing almost every piece of land in the naturalworld, a modern poet retreats to the last sanctity of his plowing fieldwhich is believed by him to be forever safe from scientific exploration. Itis the inner feeling and private well-being that collect a poet’s attention.He finds himself alienated in a foreign homeland from which no escape ispossible. The only refuge where he could shelter himself is his ownthreadbare but emotionally mottled existence. He does not understand,nor desires to understand, the cold, unresponsive, and mechanical real-ity, and it does not understand him either. In his intense moment ofexpressiveness, a modern poet murmurs to himself first. To find an audi-ence is always a genuine surprise. Poetry in the modern era is a secretshared by a privileged few, an apparitional boiling storm encased in adark and impenetrable vase, separated from and enhanced by the indif-ferent and uneventful externality. There is an acute scientific awarenessin the mind of a modern poet. He no longer talks to the moon as he usedto do, for he understands that as a reflecting solidity of dirt. He knowsthat the world is not his, and it does not need to hear his voice. Hebecomes his world, and his poem is but his defiant response to the objec-tive silence of the infinite sand and rock. However, the hostility and gaping hole between the inner and outer,the private and public, the human and natural, feeling and existence, theemotive and rational, the free and mechanistic, understanding and imag-ination, mythology and science, and the subjective and objective arenowhere to be found in Greek poetry. Acting like a naturalist, a Greekpoet casts his eyes outward to the world, mesmerized by nature’s androg-ynous capriciousness, and fixated on its avalanching events and catastro-phes. But he does not really see an absolute reality. The kaleidoscopicuniverse is as fluid to him as water is to Thales or fire to Heraclitus.Rather than like a modern poet who sees a world in his confined self, aGreek poet is confronted with his magnified alter ego in the objectivecosmos. He finds himself superimposed onto it, and his objectivedescription reports a subjective experience. He sees the ground move andhears the forest talk. Nature animates everyone with wonder and terror.The rolling hills and expansive oceans are the eternal playground for thegods. Roaring thunder and blinding lightning are fraught with the angerand fits of Zeus. The vine creepers are entangled with the ambivalentspirit of joy and sorrow. Everything is stamped with vitalistic sound and 19 The period of modern poetry should be understood in this article as starting from the latenineteenth and the early twentieth century. Figures such as T. S Eliot, Gide, Joyce, Pound, VirginiaWoolf, and Rilke are our representative voices.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 467fury. Although the reality is experienced in the varied temperaments ofthe gods, those heavenly creatures are in essence the fabulous psychicprojections of the earthlings. Their collective unconscious blossoms intoa dazzling array of flowery myths. Contrary to the guarded idiosyncrasy of a modern poet, the mythsrelated in Greek poems are but the distorted reenactment of communalepisodes, both real and fantastic. Everyone knows the secret and agrees tothe same judgment. According to Aristotle, if poetic descriptions areneither true nor of the things as they ought to be, they must represent theprevalent “opinion” (Poetics 1460b36). The ponos (suffering) of life isconcretized as Heracles’ labors. The battle of the Titans restages the pri-mal struggle of each growing child. Oedipus loves Jocasta. The ambiva-lence of love and hate, male and female, heaven and earth, and life anddeath is epitomized in the singular figure of suffering Dionysus. Sparagmos(tearing from limb to limb) is rebirth. Sexual union culminates in theviolence of the Maenads. Everything that is poetic is cosmic. Everythingcosmic is also psychic. Intuitive poetry articulates public experience. Sub-jective expressions are found in objective verses. The gods, nature, people,animals, and plants are all unified into an overweening phantasmagoria—gods are nature clad in human forms; boundaries of existence are con-stantly violated because of the unceasing mutual metamorphoses. How close is this poetic vision to Cassirer’s theoretical thinking! Afterall Greek poetry can be called “theoretical” as long as the word isdivorced from its usual meaning of speculative thinking. In its manticrevelation Greek poetry abounds in spontaneous wisdom. Weltanscha-uung is not yet under the monopoly of philosophy; poetry also speaks thelanguage of dike (justice) and moira (fate). Life is philosophized as thealternating themes of kleos (accolade of war) and xenia (hospitality).Poetry anthropomorphizes abstract ideas and enlivens understandingwith imagination. Almost every philosophical term has its poetic origin.Objective poetry is the natural cradle for metaphysics and cosmology. PHRONESIS AND SOPHROSUNE Having digressed so much into the general dynamics between poetryand philosophy, we are now in a position to summarize the true natureof their rivalry in Socratic philosophy. Poetry quarrels with philosophynot because it stands at the opposite end of philosophical wisdom butbecause we find wrapped in Homeric allegories almost everything philos-ophy can offer. The natural philosophy and moral conviction at the coreof poetic sophia or phronesis closely parallel the thematic orientation ofany ancient philosophical system.
468 Journal of the American Academy of Religion However, when it comes to the issue of educating the youth, theapproaches of poetry and philosophy remain distinct. Imitative poetrywins the people through manipulating their desires and instincts,whereas rational deliberation is the weapon of philosophy. Because thereis no shortage of poetic wisdom, and a dearth of truth even in philosophy(Socrates claims that he knows nothing), the decisive assault againstpoetry from Socrates’ point of view must lie in his accusation that poetrymakes people unseemly. Both epic and dramatic poetry are fond of depict-ing heroes and heroines in their wild and uncontrolled swings of emo-tions, and in their state of being driven mercilessly by exaggeratedadversities of life. Actions of intemperance are not shunned but glorifiedon stage. According to Socrates, if the harrowing stories of human strug-gle have to be told, narration is preferable to imitation because theformer method distances the audience from the characters, leaving roomfor quiet thinking and urging a gentlemanly detachment in people’sbehavior. Throughout Phaedo sophrosune (temperance, self-control, or restraint)and andreia (manliness, bravery or, courage) are the two philosophicalvirtues that are consistently mentioned. Socrates observes: “[I]s not that which is called courage especially characteristic of philoso- phers? And self-restraint—that which is commonly called self-restraint, which consists in not being excited by the passions and in being superior to them and acting in a seemly way—is not that characteristic of those alone who despise the body and pass their lives in philosophy?” (68c5, see also 83e–84a).Because andreia is clearly no more than a particular instance of temper-ance in which the control of excessive fear constitutes the theme of self-restraint, sophrosune must be the definitive quality of a person who leadsa philosophical life. The dividing line between philosophy and poetrymust be drawn along the practical line of temperance. Although poetrybrews incontinence, the distinctive value of philosophy consists in itsformative significance for the cultivation of sophrosune. There is a philosophical difference implied in the meaning of phrone-sis and sophrosune. Although phronesis is largely indifferent to the diver-gence between inspiration and rational knowledge, philosophicalsophrosune tips the balance toward the end of reason. To be rational (notemotional) and to follow the reason (not passion) is the gist of philo-sophical spirit. What is exceptional about a contemplative inquiry lies inthe fact that, even at a place where poetry and philosophy are hardlydistinguishable, philosophy establishes as knowledge through dialectical
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 469and autonomous analyses what is in poetry a short-lived inspiration.Philosophers shall have no fear, and trust reason. Temperance is wherewisdom meets life and the two become inseparable. PHILO-SOPHIA AND EROTO-SOPHIA The fact that the privilege of a contemplative life is now defined in termsof sophrosune as opposed to phronesis is conducive to our understanding whySocrates calls Evenus and the Bacchic followers “true philosophers” notwith-standing their rivalry. The distance between the mantic vision of a poet andphilosophical wisdom is not as unabridgable as what it is in the case betweensophia and sophists. Looking back on our initial predicament with regard tothe nature of the rivalry between myth and philosophy, we definitely havemade some progress. However, the puzzle of Phaedo, as discussed in section1, remains unresolved. The apparent strain between the undeniable mysticdisposition of Socrates throughout the dialogue and his apologetic stancetoward philosophy still demands explanation. After all, if sophrosune is thedefining quality of being philosophic and rational, it should be irrelevant inPhaedo. The existence of an afterlife as the sole issue under inquiry is unfor-tunately exactly where reason cannot be followed at all. In the dialogue deathis admitted as the realm of the unknown. How could reason be relied uponin an area where reason itself professes perfect ignorance? In order to find an answer to this difficult question, we must searchfor a deeper meaning of sophrosune than what we have revealed in theabove. Fortunately, what we need is not difficult to find. Both Simmiasand Socrates have stated clearly what a true philosopher would do in thecase of rational incapacitation. Due to the importance of Simmias’s com-ments for our solution to the dilemma between mythologein and apology,they deserve a lengthy quotation: Simmias: I think, Socrates, as perhaps you do yourself, that it is either impossible or very difficult to acquire knowledge about these matters [regarding the afterlife] in this life. And yet he is a weakling who does not test in every way what is said about them and persevere until he is worn out by studying them on every side. For he must do one of two things; either he must learn or discover the truth about these matters, or if that is impossible, he must take whatever human doctrine is best and hardest to disprove and, embarking upon it as upon a raft, sail upon it through life in the midst of dangers, unless he can sail upon some stronger vessel, some divine revelation, and make his voyage more safely and securely. (85c–d) Simmias’s comments on the struggle of reason reveal the true meaningof philosophy and can be assumed as Socrates’ opinion as well. Simmias
470 Journal of the American Academy of Religionsays that while a person should entrust reason to carry him as far as pos-sible, he should use his dispositional faith (as opposed to dogmatic andpropositional faith) or a conviction that is compatible with rationalityalthough unsupported by reason to carry reason when it fails him. While stroking Phaedo’s hair, Socrates echoes Simmias by making aneven longer observation, the length of which renders it too cumbersometo be quoted here (89d–91c). He compares arguments (logoi) to men(anthropoi). Just as the majority of men are of an imperfect nature, mostarguments are fallible. This understanding of rational limitation is thecrucial ground for love of reason, for an unrealistic attitude toward thepotency of rationality will always lead to disappointment. A misanthropehates mankind not because there are only few good men but because hisknowledge of human nature is seriously flawed. Just as true friendshipamong men tolerates flaws and occasional breaches of confidence, a gen-uine lover of logos will not desert and berate reason when it leaves himexposed in the darkness of the unknown. This is the apology for philosophy, only conducted with suaveness fora dramatic effect! Philo-sophia is not eroto-sophia. Objectual overestima-tion (the character of Eros) is prone to the danger of misologism (hate ofreason). A true philosopher is a friend (phila) of sophia, trusting her evenwhen she fails her friend. As such, philosophia stands at the mid-pointbetween irrationalism (misologism) and skepticism. Irrationalism rejectsreason in toto because of a disappointed wish or when a love affair turnssour. Although irrationalism is decisively hostile to reason, a skeptic is aweakling who has not grown out of his infantile state of overdependence.Skepticism is derived from an erotic submission to reason too. A skepticparalysis can be brought when reason does not deliver a desired answer.In contrast, a philosopher would not let the failure of reason discourageand frustrate him. He will take a decisive resolution regarding the desti-nation that reason points to but cannot reach. When a friend is in trou-ble, to go out and help the friend is the duty of each loyal and genuinecompanion. When no arguments can establish the survival of the soul beyonddeath, Socrates demonstrates his adamant loyalty toward reason by char-acterizing himself as a fair partisan, meaning that he is deeply committedto his view and at the same time aware of its relative value. Although stillconscious of the uncertainty about the prospect of death, he hints that heis determined to believe in what is most conducive to a rational way ofliving or dying in this case (91b). He states specifically that the true moti-vation behind his discussion with Cebes and Simmias of the issue of theafterlife is not to persuade them of his thesis (which is impossible giventhe nature of the question) but to “make myself believe it” (91b).
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 471 WHERE MYTH CAN ASSIST PHILOSOPHY The revelation that sophrosune means not only to trust and followreason when she succeeds but also to carry and support her when she failsfinally sheds light on the hard-sought middle ground between myth andphilosophy: philo-sophia includes the willingness to commit oneself to atemperance-inducing myth. If a myth helps to solidify a rationally incon-clusive thesis, a dispositional faith in the truth of the myth reflects theultimate spirit of philosophy because the belief is instrumental to theovercoming of fear. Socrates seems to foreshadow James’s will to believe:it is not just that reason is compatible with the faith in immortality butthat we have a rational obligation to take a live, forced, and momentousoption, namely, the belief in the goodness of the death of a good soul. It is also the qualification that a philosophical myth has to be sophro-sune-inducing that explains why Socrates chooses to relate a differentmyth than what is already available in the eleventh chapter of The Odys-sey. Socrates shuns Homer’s terrifying description of Hades, for Achilles’notorious lament “I should choose, so I might live on earth, to serve asthe hireling of another, of some portionless man whose livelihood wasbut small, rather than to be lord over all the dead that have perished”only instigates fear of death and contradicts the spirit of sophrosune (TheOdyssey XI, 487–491). Socrates chooses to claim that the wicked soul willbe punished and the good will be rewarded with justice (107c–108d). IS PHAEDO A SUCCESSFUL PIECE OF PHILOSOPHY? It is undeniable that the four arguments in Phaedo are mostly weakand curious. Each argument can be knocked down without too muchdifficulty. What is curious about the arguments lies primarily in the factthat they are not conducted with the typical rigor of the dialectical analy-sis and synthesis. Instead, hefty assumptions and questionable analogiesdominate the argumentative part of the dialogue. A noticeable examplehas to do with the key concept of soul. Socrates adopts the traditionalviews that interpret the soul respectively as “shaded existence,” “thememory-principle,” and “the life-principle,”20 but does not offer anyclarification with regard to the relation between the three meanings. Themost troubling thing happens in the third argument when he contradictshis former view by claiming that the soul is uniform and indissoluble(80b). If the soul is complex and has a tripartite structure as he argues 20 For “shaded-existence,” see the myth 107c ff. and the first argument 70a–72e; for “the memory-principle,” see the second argument 72e–77b; for “the life-principle,” see the fourth argument 96a–107a.
472 Journal of the American Academy of Religionbeautifully in Phaedrus and The Republic, the soul cannot be uniform andshould be dissoluble (Phaedrus 246a ff., The Republic IV 440b). Despite all these argumentative problems, we would be missing thepoint if we dismiss Phaedo as a poor and unsuccessful philosophicalattempt. Socrates never pretends that he is conducting a conclusiverational inquiry into the issue of death. If Socrates is trying to per-suade anyone, he himself is the first person on the list! Because thedialectical analysis is destined to be inconclusive, there is no point inproceeding in the usual way of conceptual division and categorization.Sympathetic assumptions are made not to cheat the result but for thepurpose of displaying a possibility if certain things were given (such asthe thesis that death is the separation of body and soul and the truthof the recollection theory). Most significantly, all the four argumentsare nothing but part of the game of mythologein, as opposed to rigor-ous reasoning. It is true that Phaedo is not a usual philosophical piece.It is more a piece of dramatic myth. But exactly because of its sophro-sune-inducing nature, the mythologein constitutes the best apology forphilosophy. REFERENCES Aristotle Poetics. In The Basic Works of Aristotle. Ed. by 1941 R. McKeon, New York: Random House. Cassirer, Ernst Language and Myth. Trans. by Susanne Langer, 1946 New York: Dover Publications. (Originally pub- lished in German as number VI of the Studien der Bibliothek Warbug, ed. Fritz Saxl). Hesiod Works and Days. In Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic 1914 Cycle, Homerica. Trans. by Hugh G. Evelyn- White, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. Homer The Odyssey. Trans. by A. T. Murray. Cambridge, 1924 MA: Harvard University Press. 1974 Iliad. Trans. by Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Anchor Books. Jung, C. G. The Portable Jung. Ed. by Joseph Campbell. New 1971 York: Penguin Books. Plato Apology in Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, 1914 Phaedo, Phaedrus. Trans. by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Zhu: Myth and Philosophy 473 1914 Euthydemus in Plato: Laches, Protagoras, Meno, Euthydemus. Trans. by W. Lamb. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1959 Gorgias: A Revised Text with Introduction and Com- mentary. Ed. by E. R. Dodds. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1997 Ion. In Plato: Complete Works. Ed. by John Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. 1997 Laws. In Plato: Complete Works. Ed. by John Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. 1997 Meno. In Plato: Complete Works. Ed. by John Cooper. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing. 1914 Phaedo. In Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus. Trans. by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1914 Phaedrus. In Plato: Euthyphro, Apology, Crito, Phaedo, Phaedrus. Trans. by H. N. Fowler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1935 The Republic. Trans. by Paul Shorey. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 1997 Symposium. In Plato: Complete Works. Indianapo- lis: Hackett Publishing. 1997 Theaeteus. In Plato: Complete Works. Indianapo- lis: Hackett Publishing.Schiller, F. On The Aesthetic Education of Man. Trans. by 1954 R. Snell. New York: Friedrick Ungar Publishing.Sophocles Oedipus at Colonus. In Sophocles: Antigone, The 1994 Women of Trachis, Philoctetes, Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. by Hugh Lloyd-Jones. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.