Myth and the recovery of truth

Inviolable Truth

Josef Pieper, in Platonic Myths, argues that Plato (Socrates) treats certain of the myths as containing truths essential to the quest for wisdom, to philosophy and philosophers. “Plato held that the meaning contained in the myths is inviolable truth.”  He explains and defends this thesis quite admirably. He also reminds us of “the chaotic diversity of interpretation” of Plato on myth.  Some suggest, for example, that he is, as usual, ironic concerning these statements or any avowals of faith; or others say he is being prudential so as not to upset the orthodoxy of the city; and some even say that his words express a mockery of the ancient myths. 

As I reflect upon my education over the years I must admit  that I usually learned such accounts of Platonic myth. From Straussians, of course, the prudential option is often adopted, but they also will show an appreciation of the deeper symbolic meaning of the myth; usually in way that the philosopher assumes the role of the hero of the myth in enacting or performing the deed of the myth. Alan Bloom thus explains the Republic this way — “I went down to the Piraeus yesterday” is an enactment of the descent into Hades. But most of the professors I have heard prefer the rationalist Plato, the Plato who purportedly criticizes the myths and replaces them with true knowledge.

  Pieper realizes that a reader of Platonic dialogue must sort through the stories, parables and myths. And thus he finds that certain myths about human origins and end, and cosmic origin, are affirmed for their deeper truth, often in contrast to the Homeric and Olympian stories. The Timaeus provides a case in point: the cosmos is produced by the activity of god; there is a “maker and father of all” — “a procreating Father.” The truth is that the world is a reproduction or image of the higher being;  “we want to state why the founder did found all that has come into being and the totality of the world: because he is good. But the good person knows no kind of malevolence because of anything or against anyone. So, free from any kind of jealousy, he wanted everything to be as like him as possible. This, above all, is the highest origin of the world and its becoming – just as wise men also call him the most understanding. Therefore, because God wanted everything, so far as possible, to be good and nothing to be bad, he brought everything out of disorder into order.”

Pieper explains that Socrates does not “revoke” the myths or “shatter the certainty of myth.” He does test them and clarify them. And he will say that “Battle prize is glorious and there is hope; not exactly as I described; but this or something like this is the way it will be with our souls.”  He affirms the truth of symbolic speech; it is true such that “one can dare to live or die by it.” Pieper charges that it is “rationalistic narrowness to say it is fantasy.” The myths need constant interpretation to arrive at a more exact or deeper understanding.

Pieper’s grand conclusion is this — the inclusion of the sacred tradition of myth as an element of philosophizing is perhaps the most critical act of the philosopher. (55) In Leisure: the Basis of Culture, he states: “philosophy gets its life and inward stimulus from its counterpoint relationship with theology. That is where it gets its spice, its ‘existential’ salt.”
Pieper concludes the book by stating that there are “the Christian of today is no ‘further on’ than Plato.” We still depend upon hearing the story; it is not through an “absolute truth of reason,” or through experience, thinking or verification, but through the narration of events and actions that we receive our orientation to the first things and we must return to what we have heard.
In Fides et ratio Pope John Paul II made a statement remarkably similar to what Pieper argues concerning Plato on myth. Here is JP2’s remark:

Human beings are not made to live alone. They are born into a family and in a family they grow, eventually entering society through their activity. From birth, therefore, they are immersed in traditions which give them not only a language and a cultural formation but also a range of truths in which they believe almost instinctively. Yet personal growth and maturity imply that these same truths can be cast into doubt and evaluated through a process of critical enquiry. It may be that, after this time of transition, these truths are “recovered” as a result of the experience of life or by dint of further reasoning. Nonetheless, there are in the life of a human being many more truths which are simply believed than truths which are acquired by way of personal verification. Who, for instance, could assess critically the countless scientific findings upon which modern life is based? Who could personally examine the flow of information which comes day after day from all parts of the world and which is generally accepted as true? Who in the end could forge anew the paths of experience and thought which have yielded the treasures of human wisdom and religion? This means that the human being—the one who seeks the truth—is also the one who lives by belief. Fides et ratio §31


  1. I urge your readers to visit Dan McInerny's recent post on the first anniversary of his father Ralph McInerny's death.
    The subject matter is philosophy, creativity, and good story telling all being necessary to our belief, i.e to our work of salvation- like Dr. Hittinger's and JPII and Pieper's insights.

  2. one of the most salient themes (for me) in Karol Wojtyla's "Radiation of Fatherhood", is the picture of Adam as the man who stands alone, who can stand alone and be lonely by choice, and is an everyman in that sense.

    The play begins with Adam probing himself, trying to find his identity, his personhood, apart from the accident of the history and images around him.

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