Josef Pieper on Myth and Mystery

Josef Pieper

A  translation of a wonderful book by Josef Pieper is due out very soon from St. Augustine Press. It is entitled The Platonic Myths. (Visit St Augustine press here)

Mr. Fingerhut of the St. Augustine Press graciously allowed me to get an advanced copy for use with students as we await its impending publication. It is vintage Pieper, with another great vintage writer providing the introduction, namely Fr. James Schall. Fr. Schall writes that the book is “something that I have been looking for all my life, but did not know what I was looking for.” Shades of Meno and the Socratic refutation of the sophists — we are already searching for the whole in any part that we touch. And Socrates/Plato would rely upon a “true” myth at critical junctures of his dialogues. The modern “myth” about myth is that myths are flat out false or but mere fabrication. Pieper explains how in the dialogues of Plato, there is a range of story that is held as true, in some way. Usually they pertain to “eschatology” or last things, the judgment of the soul after death.

Here are the elements of the strict definition of “myth” as Pieper identifies them in Plato: the story or narration is (1)  a report of an event occurring between the divine and human spheres; (2) it uses symbolic speech; (3) the narrator is not the author, it is rather reported as “heard” from another and believed in some manner appropriate to symbolic speech or parable.

As for the first he says “stories which are in the proper sense mythical are played out between ‘here’ and ‘beyond,’ between the realms of the divine and the human. They deal with the activity of the gods insofar as it affects human beings, and with the activity of human beings insofar as it engages with the gods. Is there nothing beyond death or prior to “big bang”? Yes it is true that philosophical reasoning can infer propositions into the realm of what is unseen and immaterial. But the attention to such things are primed by the mythic accounts that ready us to consider them. It would be apriori and dogmatic to dismiss such things.

So symbolic speech must be used. Pieper puts it this way: “You are right, he says, symbolic speech is a
makeshift. It is not the real way to express the truth. But what if the real way is not available to us? This is the situation we find ourselves in.” For Socrates himself said  “It is difficult, my friend, to express higher things without recourse to sense images. In this we are like the person who knows everything in a dream and in waking no longer knows anything.” Statesman 277d

And finally, the narrator is not author, i.e., not Socrates or Plato. They report what they have heard. No doubt we find Socrates often probing the stories and engaging them on a philosophical level. Pieper says that the myths or stories are encrusted with layers of fabrication and elaboration. Some of the stories Socrates clearly rejects (Olympian gods committing outrage), But he seriously considers and says he believes particularly what Pieper calls the eschatological narrations at the end of the dialogues Gorgias, Phaedo, and Republic. Socrates said to Callicles “This, Callicles, is what I have heard and what I believe to be the truth.” Gorgias 524a8 f.

So who first told them? I will read on and finish the book soon. But it did lead me to recall reading about Aristotle’s attitude toward the pagan myths about the gods and found in Metaphysics 12.8:

Our forefathers in the most remote ages have handed down to us their posterity a tradition, in the form of a myth, that these substances are gods and that the divine encloses the whole of nature. The rest of the tradition has been added later in mythical form with a view to the persuasion of the multitude and to its legal and utilitarian expediency; they say these gods are in the form of men or like some of the other animals, and they say other things consequent on and similar to these which we have mentioned. But if we were to separate the first point from these additions and take it alone–that they thought the first substances to be gods–we must regard this as an inspired utterance, and reflect that, while probably each art and science has often been developed as far as possible and has again perished, these opinions have been preserved like relics until the present. Only thus far, then, is the opinion of our ancestors and our earliest predecessors clear to us.

Aristotle also respects the tradition — what is handed down through the ages — although he thinks it has been encrusted by others for political reasons. But rejection of the fabulous stories and questioning the political use of theology does not erase the original truth. And such truth is “inspired.” The narrations contain a precious relic that endured from the shrouded mystery of old. Philosophy, according to its great founders, is not a purely “autonomous” endeavor born out of pure reason — it begins and ends in wonder, in great measure because it begins and ends in myth, properly understood — symbolic speech about the first things somehow always beyond our strict reason and creative manipulation..

2 Comments
  1. Pieper! Is there any commentator on philosophy any more interesting? And what a fantastic subject for this great mind and writer – the real meaning of myth and its importance. I can't wait for the publication. Thanks so much for informing your readers. I would not have known about this.
    I am reminded, of course, of that famous conversation between Tolkein and Lewis. . .which your readers will remember or seek out for themselves.

  2. Very interesting.

    I wonder if there was any contact between Pieper and Dom Odo Casel? Casel was big on 'the mystery'. This idea was founded on Platonism, some passages form St. Paul, and a few patristic sources.

    The Mystery became part of Casel's theology, mainly with regard to liturgy.

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