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Myth and Dialectic in Plato’s Phaedo

  •  Submitted: 4.04.06 


When I read Plato’s Phaedo I cannot help but be struck by the grand concluding myth, in which we are given the elaborate description of the many layered earth, its “plumbing,” and how we must tunnel our way out from the depths of the earth to the more pure part of the cosmos. This conclusion is fascinating in part because of its difference from the rest of the dialogue, in which Socrates retraces four logical, but seemingly unbelievable, dialectical arguments for the immortality of the soul. The stark contrast between the myth and the dialectical arguments sparks many questions, the most pressing of which seems to be: What is the role of the myth in Plato’s Phaedo?

            Before I can even begin to focus on the question of why the grand myth is in the Phaedo, I need to address the questions of what myth and dialectic are in general and how and what they each communicate. By understanding myth and dialectic by themselves, we can better understand the way in which they relate to each other.

 I. Myth

            First, I think it is important to say that in my treatment of what makes up a myth and how it communicates, I will be concentrating with great effort not to speak metaphorically. I will try to present my ideas as literally and with as much clarity as they have presented themselves to me.

             In order to understand what a myth is and how it communicates, we may find it helpful to examine myth’s relationship to things of similarity, i.e., simile and metaphor. First, there is an important difference between a simile and a metaphor. A simile, such as “this boat is like another boat,” communicates something different from a metaphor, such as “my absence from you is a winter.” Our simile, “this boat is like another boat,” has the reader observing two sensible objects, two boats, and states that there are qualities possessed by both the objects that are the same. The simile only involves the two sensible objects and merely points out that there is a sameness that is easily seen by simply looking at the objects. I use the word “like” to signify the sameness of qualities possessed by the two boats, and I do not call the reader to do anything but observe the two objects and recognize their sameness.

Our metaphor, “my absence from you is a winter” does not call us to look only at two sensible and external objects, as our simile did, but instead it is relating “a winter”, something that we experience through touch, sight etc., to something we do not completely experience through touch or sight such as “absence.” The way that metaphor connects absence, something internally sensed, to a winter, something externally sensed, is through the reader’s personal experience with both things. The metaphor calls for the reader to examine or recognize things about their internal state when they are affected by the feeling “absence” and their internal state when externally experiencing a winter in order to draw a comparison between absence and winter. Thus the metaphor makes the reader’s experience the standard for comparison in hopes of trying to provide a specific understanding of absence. Therefore, the effect of a metaphor is not literal, but relies on the reader’s experience related to the words. The word “winter,” after its initial use, is no longer what is critical to the metaphor. What is critical for the metaphor are the personal experiences incited by the words.

Myth seems to offer a similar experience to that of metaphor to the extent that it also calls upon the reader’s personal experience as the medium to relate things, but the difference is a myth’s ability to relate many different things instead of just a few. By relating many different things, a myth is able to create an entire context or perspective in which all the objects can be viewed.

But this is a bold claim. In order to accept it, we should first look at an example to understand how a myth, as a metaphor, makes the reader a medium for comparison, and creates an entire perspective.

The large Platonic myths are good examples because they address issues which are applicable to all humanity. The myth at the end of the Phaedo, by addressing a topic as universal as the structure of the cosmos, is a perfect example for the claim that myth links many large and universal things to the reader’s personal experience in order to create a unique perspective.

By laying out such a global and multifaceted topic, the myth in the Phaedo is provided with a variety of material to relate and understand. But exactly how the myth links this varied material using the reader seems important and thus we should look at a specific example within the myth.

A good example is when Plato writes about the physical makeup of the earth; he states “A third river discharges between these two; and near the discharge-point it rushes out into a large region that burns with a great fire and so makes a lake, seething with water and mud, and bigger than our sea.”(113A4-8) In this passage, Socrates uses words such as “mud,” “fire,” “sea,” “seething,” that relate to personal sensory experiences such as the texture and smell of mud through our hands, the feeling of heat from a fire on our face, the sight of a sea’s vastness, and the sound of water under the constant agitation of heat. At each of these times, being influenced by a different inimitable experience, we are in a unique state of mind. At each time we experience or think something, which affects our understanding of ourselves and the world, and consequently creates a unique perspective.

For example, experiencing the vastness of the sea affects our view of ourselves and the world. When we observe the sea, we begin to see the world as an impossibly large place of which we are an unfathomably small and possibly insignificant part. At other times, such as when we are in a room with a few people, we view ourselves as a large and important part of the world.  Consequently, we can understand that our state of being in each of the aforementioned examples is, to a certain extent, relative to a particular sensory experience.

            The myth draws upon these personal experiences and our unique perspectives, putting the reader into another unique state of being. By calling upon the many and varied past sensory experiences and the perspectives that result from them, the myth links the past perspectives in such a way to offer a new unique perspective on the cosmos—a perspective which was induced by the words of the myth, but not limited by them. And thus this state is manifested and sensed in us, but in a different way than when we sensed the objects such as “mud,” “fire,” and “sea” with our hands, eyes and ears; rather, our internal state has changed, affecting our perspective and the way that we continue to sense other objects and ideas.

Another particularly good example of the myth offering a unique perspective relative to our past experience is found in the following passage:

“The water, mist and air are the sediment of the ether and are forever flowing together into the hollows of the Earth. Now we are unaware that we dwell in its hollows and we think we dwell up top on the Earth. It’s just as if somebody who dwells in the midst of the bottom of the deep should think he dwells on top of the sea, and, because he sees the sun and the other stars through the water, should consider the sea to be the heaven…because of slowness and weakness, should neither have seen…into our region…nor should have heard from another who has seen it.”(109C2-109D5)

We see this passage again calling upon our past sensory experience, specifically that of looking at something through water as compared to looking at something through air. At both of these times, we literally viewed the same things in two different ways, but the myth in this instance is not calling upon the way we actually saw the objects but rather how at each time of viewing we had a unique perspective. The myth calls upon the difference of perspective that we had when looking through water and air in order to offer a new perspective in which to view the world. The new perspective, however, is not the same as either of our original perspectives related to viewing things through air and water specifically, despite the myth espousing their similarity. The perspectives somehow must be different because the objects now in view, the whole cosmos, are different from the objects from our experience when we viewed something through water. We have also said our perspective is at least partially relative to our sensory interactions with specific objects, and since the myth does not ask us to look at the entire cosmos through water, it seems clear that perspective offered by the myth in relation to the cosmos is different and unique from our original perspective of looking at things through water. At the same time as being different and unique, the communication of the new perspective on the cosmos offered by the myth is dependent upon the reader’s original perspectives called upon by the myth originally.

            Through these examples we have shown that myth, by referencing specific sensory experiences, calls upon specific perspectives or internal states of the reader in order to communicate a new perspective reliant upon but unique to the reader’s past perspectives. Thus the reader and their experiences and internal states are the medium for the communication of the new unique perspective offered by the myth.

Yet from what we have said about the processes by which a myth communicates, and about its ability to communicate a new and unique perspective to its reader, we are still left with the question as to the specific role of myth in dialectic. In order to get closer to answering this question we must look at what constitutes dialectic and how it communicates.


  II. Dialectic

The most basic and preliminary observation concerning dialectic is that it centers on specific words and their meanings. It seems to me that before someone can examine words in a dialectical approach, they must first accept certain properties of them and language in general. The necessary principles for dialectic, which Plato espouses continually in his dialogues, seem to come from a tripartite understanding of every word. First, that everyone when using a word somehow aims at/intends/reaches toward a specific stable object or concept. Secondly, that every time we recognize a specific object we naturally use the same word to intend that object, such as whenever we see a courageous act we always use the word courage. And thirdly, that we are ignorant of the actual meaning of the words—or, rather, what the object we are intending is, even though we naturally recognize objects and consistently use the same word to intend a specific object.

From what has been stated concerning the three principles of dialectic it seems necessary to clarify what I mean by the terms ‘aim at/intend/reach toward,’ with regard to first principles especially.

The language for the first principle of dialectic is best understood by looking at the beginning of each dialectical argument, where someone must posit some type of account or definition of a word. For example in the Phaedo at the beginning of the first argument they say:

“‘Do we consider that there’s such a thing as death?’

‘Of Course,’ said Simmias breaking in.

‘And is it anything but the freeing of the soul from the body? And is this what it means to have died: for the body to have become separate, once it’s freed from the soul and is itself all by itself, and for the soul to be separate, once she’s freed from the body and is herself all by herself? Death couldn’t be anything other than this—could it?’ ” (64C2-9)

The affirmation of death having a meaning and the laying out of an account concerning death that we see in this example is proof that the participants believe that it is in fact possible to give an account for death. More importantly, it seems apparent that if they believe there is a possible account for the word death, they must assume that there is something definite and stable in relation to the word death to define for it seems impossible to give a definition for something indefinite and unstable. Furthermore, they assume that the word death is in a relation to a stable object and is not the stable object itself. For if the word death were the stable object that the participants assume to exist, then there would be no need to give an account, but simply to say the word death. The word, therefore, is thought to be in relation to a stable object and to describe the relation of a word to its specific object I use the phrase language ‘a word aims at/intends/ reaches toward a specific object.’ I use this language because the relation between a word and its specific object is not one of encompassment, but one of reference for intended communication, or when I say a specific word I am intending to communicate the specific stable object that the word labels but the word itself is not.

            Similarly from what we have shown concerning the first assumed principle of dialectic, the second, that we consistently use the same word to intend the same object, is requisite. For if it were not the case that we used the same word to intend the same specific object, then our use of words would not be determined by the objects that they intend, but rather by something else. Thus, without the second assumed principle there would in fact be no stability to language because no one word would reliably intend any one specific object. Without the stability of language, dialectic would not be able to begin the process of understanding the specific object intended by a word through positing accounts.

The third principle of dialectic, that we are ignorant of the meaning or the specific objects intended by words, is understood from the next component of dialectic, refutation. Following each posited account of the specific object intended by a word, comes the process of refutation, in which some one begins with a stable sense of language to rationally disprove the posited account of the intended object. The process of positing, refuting and re-positing is constantly occurring throughout the dialogue until the participants feel that an account they have posited has in fact purified their understanding of the specific object they set out to find. From the process of positing and refuting, we see that in fact the participants are involving themselves in a search for the complete understanding of a specific object, and it is this search that highlights the third assumed principle of dialectic. If the participants are constantly searching for the meaning or specific object of a word, then they must on some level think themselves or others ignorant of what the specific object is.

Believing in the stable nature of language, that words aim at stable objects and do not simply relate to our personal experience with them, dialectic attempts to purify language through a constant process of positing and refuting accounts in order to communicate and understand the specific objects consistently aimed at by a word.


III. Comparison of Myth and Dialectic

            From our examinations of both myth and dialectic we have found some specific differences between the two. We have found that myth communicates a specific perspective in which to view material, and that it communicates it by using the reader and their personal experience as the medium. We now understand dialectic as a process of purification to communicate the specific stable object that a word aims at/intends. We also understand dialectic to communicate by first accepting a tripartite understanding of language and then through a constant process of positing and refuting accounts of the stable objects.

With this understanding of myth and dialectic, we now must begin to address the question of how myth and dialectic relate and, specifically, what the role of a myth is in dialectic.

            First, I think it is important to say why I think that myth has some specific role in dialectic. Besides the repetitive inclusion of myth in the Platonic dialogues there is a specific quote that compels me to think that there is a specific relation between myth and dialectic. In the Phaedo, after the four dialectical arguments and directly following the large concluding myth, Socrates says the following:

“Now to insist that all this holds in just the way I’ve described it, is not fitting for a man with any mind. Nevertheless, that this or something like it is the case regarding our souls and their dwellings, since it is apparent that the soul is in fact something deathless, does seem to me both fitting to insist on and worth the risk for one who thinks it is so—for a noble risk it is!” (114D2-6)

The insistence upon the perspective offered by the myth and its relation to the point derived by the Phaedo’s four dialectical arguments, “that the soul is in fact something deathless,” confirms that Socrates is sure of a definite role of myth in dialectic. Socrates belief of a specific role of myth in dialectic is what I would like to understand.

            An explanation for Socrates’ insistence on the validity of the myth and its relation to dialectic is found in a fundamental problem with dialectic. Dialectic, starting from its three principles concerning language, creates rational accounts in which we compare a specific object that a word intendeds to other words and their intended objects in order to purify language. The problem that we find with dialectic is that in order to understand the specific object that a word reaches toward, we must first know where to look; we must previously have either a partial or a complete context in which that object lies and relates to other things before we can begin speaking about it dialectically. For example, if we assume the three principles of dialectic, then we must not only have to assume that the stable object exists, but that there is a stable place in which the object exists. There must be a place where that specific stable object makes sense in relation to all the other unique objects that we assume are intended by words. Therefore, we must first have a conception of this stable realm in which these objects exist and consequently how they relate. Thus, there must be a conception of the whole in order for us to find a specific part or object; in order to undertake dialectic, there must be a context in which the argument for the object aimed at by a word is in stable relation to the entire realm of objects intended by words.

Because dialectic is unable to pinpoint every object intended by words without an assumed context, it is consequently not a whole in itself. Dialectic requires either a believed or assumed context in which the arguments actually succeed in coming closer to the actual objects themselves. Socrates, therefore, in order to present the dialectic concerning the immortality of the soul or of any words intention must have a view of the whole already given, which he reveals at the end of the dialogue in a grandiose myth. The grand myth at the end of the Phaedo gives a context, if believed, which allows for the arguments regarding the immortality of the soul to make sense or to successfully purify the language in order to come closer to understanding the object that the words intend.

In our examination of myth, we determined that it communicated a specific perspective or context in which to view certain objects. Thus the claim that in dialectic myth is used to give a perspective or context, in which the specific parts of language identified by dialectic are understood, seems to be concordant with our prior understanding of myth. However, in our examination of myth we also concluded that the perspective offered by the myth is in fact completely related to the reader’s personal experience. If this is true, then it seems that the perspective offered by the myth can be unique to each reader and consequently seems to pose a problem for our understanding of the dialectical arguments. If the perspective with which to view dialectical arguments is unique to the reader and thus constantly different, then the dialectical arguments that are viewed must too be different. Consequently, there would also be a constant variation in relation to language that would pose a contradiction to dialectic’s first principle of a stable nature of language.

            As a result of this possible contradiction of the basic principle of dialectic, I think we must look to a specific example of varying perspectives communicated by myth and their effect on the understanding of dialectic.

IV. Application to Plato’s Myth in the Phaedo

If we can accept the four arguments for the deathlessness of the soul presented in the Phaedo to be rationally sound, it seems necessary to examine what we have said about myth and its role as supplying context for dialectical arguments and the conflict of changing perspective specifically in regard to the myth in the Phaedo. We can examine the conflict by looking at two opposed perspectives which are communicated by the myth, such as  my own ,that of a young man, and Socrates, that of an older man.

One of the greatest assets to the myth in the Phaedo also seems to propose an inescapable problem. The problem is that everyone in dealing with a myth such as the one presented in the Phaedo has already created a context of the world based on their own personal experience. The myth, as we said, tries to build off of that personal experience in order to create a context or perspective for viewing the dialectic; however, for someone like me whose context of the world is far more literal and simple, the context provided by the myth is off putting. The myth attempts to convince the reader of a certain context or perspective through its global appeal and grandiose style, but it is the latter that is its downfall with respect to myself, a young man.

The myth seems assured to succeed in connecting with its reader, including myself, at least at some point by dealing with such a universal topic as the cosmos; yet, the style in which it is presented strikes me as inconsistent with how I want to view the world. Based on my experience and stage as a young man I feel that all the things in the world, whether they be external or internal, are some how available for me to understand. I feel that if I spend enough time and thought on any difficult concept, even the workings of the world that I can obtain a rational understanding that can be consistent and logical and without any need of self imposed grandeur. Though not necessarily based on constant success or possibly even pure rational, my perspective or context continues to persist due to my current stage of life and state of mind.  Thus the myth’s seemingly crafted grandness and attempts at an awe inspiring effect create for me distrust for the myth’s sincerity in addressing and providing logical answers for the questions which in my current perspective seem attainable. Therefore, the perspective communicated to me by the myth was one of apprehension and distrust and accordingly I also looked at the four dialectical arguments with distrust and apprehension.

The myth, however, seems capable of having the reverse effect on someone at a different stage, such as an older man.  The myth in the Phaedo, seen from the perspective of an older man, could be thought of, as it often is, as a myth of encouragement. Socrates himself is a good example for as quoted previously he states: “Nevertheless, that this or something like it is the case regarding our souls and their dwellings…does seem to me both fitting to insist on and worth the risk for one who thinks it so-for a noble risk it is!“ (114D2-6) Socrates appears to have a similar and in fact possibly the same perspective as offered by the myth, but understanding what about his state and older men in general that allows the perspective of the myth to be so persuasive for him is what is important.

To begin with, Socrates, being an older man, has had more experience with the material the myth is trying to relate. Given his personal experience with the sensible realm he has encountered on earth he has drawn the conclusion that the things he has experienced are somehow incomplete or abstracted. Furthermore, Socrates proximity to death offers him a new experience in which he is looking to reconcile his past perspective with his current situation. As a result, when the myth, as seen in the second quoted passage in section I. Myth, offers the perspective that death might be a purifying process in which we go from living in a state where everything is abstracted to one where everything is presented clearly, Socrates adopts the myth’s perspective. Both Socrates’ experience and current stage are successfully called upon by the myth to create a medium by which Socrates can relate both his past experience of the world and current stage to the non-sensible nature of the cosmos. Thus the myth gives Socrates a perspective of encouragement with which he then views the four dialectical arguments, and is accordingly convinced of their success in purifying his understanding of the soul.

But does the failure of the myth to persuade me of a certain context and success with an older man such as Socrates mean that the myth is at fault? Keeping in mind that if the myth is required to provide a context into which the dialectic and its conclusions can be understood, the real question we seem left with is: what is the role of dialectic? How can we begin to speak precisely about a part with out a subjective view of the whole? How can we begin without first positing the end? These questions, however, must be left to the continuous inquiry into ourselves and how we communicate.

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