Myth and Philosophy: From a Problem in Phaedo

Rui Zhu
June 2005
Journal of the American Academy of Religion;Jun2005, Vol. 73 Issue 2, p453
Academic Journal
This article investigates the relation between myth and philosophy in Greek philosophy in general and in Plato in particular. Although philosophical thinking and mythical thinking are in general mutually opposed, Greek reason is yet to be separated from its fantastic temperament. The mythic atmosphere of Phaedo is striking, given the well known hostility on the part of Plato against mythopoeic poets such as Homer. By putting the relation between myth and philosophy in a proper perspective, this article argues that myth is not only the source of wisdom for philosophy but also the sole guide for a philosophical person when his or her reason fails. There is an apparent tension between mythologein (mythology, telling stories) and apology (for philosophy) in Phaedo. The two themes stand side by side throughout the dialogue but contradict each other because of the well-known rivalry between myth and philosophy in Socratic philosophy. In order to solve the puzzle, this article will conduct a general inquiry into the nature of myth and philosophy and argue that their true rivalry is not on the issue of wisdom but on that of temperance. Although philosophical thinking and mythical thinking represent, as Gassier writes, the exact opposite of each other, Greek reason is yet to be separated from its fantastic temperament (section 3). In Greek arts of discourse, poetry (myth), philosophy, and rhetoric form a triangular opposition.' In order to gain a clear sight of the dynamics between philosophy and poetry, we will use the opposition of philosophy and rhetoric as a contrasting mirror image and claim that 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, establish the contradiction between mythologein and apology by dismissing in the first two sections the alternative readings of Phaedo, and conclude 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.


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