Robert Harrison on Plato and the Transition from Mythos to Logos

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Robert Pogue Harrison is a professor of Italian literature at Stanford University, and for the last six years he's hosted an epic radio-podcast called Entitled Opinions (About Life and Literature). Juma and I wrote anho_gardensxx_088_el article about him and his show near the beginnings of the site, and my love for Harrison and his program has only grown since then. The riches to be found in that podcast are beyond measure, and I really hope Harrison continues his run.

For this post I've transcribed Harrison's opening monologue for his show on Plato, where he speaks to the transition from mythos to logos in Plato's corpus. It's a beautiful passage in and of itself, but I thought it also holds important content for folks trying to think integrally, particularly via those models/thinkers that include structure-stages of consciousness (such as Gebser, Wilber, Spiral Dynamics). These structures (or "noetic regimes" in Coombs, "lifeworld" in Habermas) are said to evolve over time as necessitated by both the evolving life conditions human beings are facing, and in dialectical relation to the "problem generating events" or adaptive limitations of the previous structure/worldview. (1)

I personally think these structures are real and important, but I've also become increasingly uncomfortable with a certain simplistic, linear way that these structures are often used when some folks are trying to interpret phenomena (esp. a quick shorthand use of the color-coded scheme employed in SDi and AQAL models. "that person is blue"; "that institution is orange"). I think the truth is more complex, more of an admixture and commingling of structures. Here's but one example: on the surface it would make sense to label Rome and Roman society as traditional (or blue-meme). But according to historians, the family unit- and blood lineage- (ie. purple-meme) was the core organizing rock upon which the Roman mythic-agricultural society was built. ConfluenceFurthermore, warrior-culture (red-meme) was central to the society and to the success of the Empire, and rational-principles and thought (orange-meme), inherited from Greece, were operative within its art, architecture, administration and so on. So what 'color' is Rome then? I think it would be fair to say that mythic-traditional principles were dominant in the overall organization of Roman society, but it's clear that many structures were intricately at play in the overall makeup of the social system.

I thought Harrison's dicussion of Plato's relation to mythos and logos was also a great example of the intertwining confluence of structures as they comingle and entangle to create multifaceted new worlds. Here now is that monologue (you can also listen to it here, Episode 45):

These days we tend to think of classical philosophy as a venerable old man possessed of a wisdom hoary with age, yet when Plato set out to claim for philosophy the authority that traditionally belonged to myth, one of the biggest problems he faced was philosophy’s youth. I mean its relatively new status as a discourse; the Greeks may have been children compared to the Egyptians, as a priest remarks in Plato’s Timaeus, butplato_cave even they were not naïve enough to bow to the authority of something as neoteric, or recent in origin, as critical reason.

So how did Plato overcome this resistance? How did he give reason a credibility he knew he could not achieve on the basis of his reasoning powers alone? Quite simply, he enlisted the primordial powers of mythos on behalf of the logos, so that the novelty of the later might repose on, while overturning, the authority of the former. In calling on the powers of myth, Plato gave the logos what it lacked, namely a lofty antiquity. Only myth has the means to invent antiquities. While reason projects its legacies into the future and invests its aspirations in things to come, myth takes the past, the ancient, and the aboriginal into its safekeeping. Plato knew that if philosophy was to have a future it had to appropriate, and not merely repudiate, the foundational force of myth. That’s the main reason that Plato’s corpus contains a prodigious archive of myths, some of them traditional, some of them esoteric, others of his own invention. But it was not simply his deployment of myths that allowed Plato to secure the authority of philosophy over against the authority of myth, it was the way he linked his philosophical doctrines to antediluvian origins. The plato_myth_of_lethepreincarnate soul, the pre-existing forms, the pre-cosmic demiurge, the pre-flood city of Athens, these are only some of the unforgettable myths by which Plato affiliated philosophy with a realm of absolute antecedents. From the matrix of such antecedents come all the fables, allegories and analogies that still today define the Platonic corpus- the winged soul, the virtuous charioteer, the ascent from the cave, the great ladder of love- in short, all that is most inspired and divine in that corpus. The sum total of all these myths add up to one super myth of reason’s genetic participation in the aboriginal transcendence in and through which the world and its universal soul first came into being.

Plato made of philosophy his most sublime myth of all; philosophy alone proceeds to the realm of primal origins, in so far at its logos belongs to, or derives from, the sparks of creation itself. This logos is in touch with first things, with prior things, things so prior or apriori that the traditional myths of Hellas have no effective recollection of them. True knowledge is anamnesis or recollection, it is not acquired but repossessed. Philosophy is the sole legitimate heir of, the only means of repossessing the lost antediluvian antiquity of the preincarnate soul. Such is the noble pursuit of philosophy to move backward, against the grain of time, against time itself, to the source from which time first sprang into being. All this is another way of saying that Plato did not simply affect a transition from mythos to logos; in his ingenious wisdom he made a mythos of the logos, and thereby gave philosophy what it needed the most if it was to found a tradition full of future, an age as old as the world itself”.




(1) "The lifeworld encompasses the normative structures, worldviews and shared meanings through which members of society make sense of themselves and their social and physical environments". Edgar, Andrew. The Philosophy of Habermas. McGill-Queen's University Press, Canada, 2005. p.108.

"The emergence of new structures of consciousness [or 'lifeworlds'] can be explained with reference to the developmental pattern of previous structures and to an impulse given by problem generating events". [italics original] Habermas, Jurgen. "History and Evolution". Telos 39 (1979): p.31.

(*) An excellent paper worth reviewing on the topic of the use or misuse of developmental theory, is Zak Stein's in which he asks, "Is the integral community underdeveloped in its thinking about development".

About the crude use of structures of consciousness to which I refer above, he says this- "If we look at college-educated adults, the first level is abstract mappings on our metric (roughly Orange in Wilber's colors). At this level, developmental levels are treated like simple stereotypes. Whole persons are classed as being at a level, which is typically understood in terms of a single developmental model (e.g. Spiral Dynamics). Development is understood as a kind of simple "growth to goodness", with ignorance at the bottom, science in the middle, and spirituality at the top. Particular levels gain more attention than others and function as more or less entrenched stereotypes, expressing preferences that are not necessarily developmental (e.g. "you are so green")".

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  • Comment Link Trevor Malkinson Friday, 20 January 2012 23:27 posted by Trevor Malkinson

    Here's a couple of additional examples. They would've made the post too long, but for anyone interested in further material, here's a couple more points.

    The first is from the philosopher Charles Taylor's book 'Sources of the Self: The Making of the Modern Identity'. He's writing about the relationship between Plato's revolution and the warrior ethos (ie. red meme). He writes:

    "Plato can be seen as the key figure in the establishment of this dominant moral philosophy [based on reason]. In the process, other moralities, other maps of our moral sources, had to be discredited or annexed and subordinated. There is, for instance, a warrior (and later warrior-citizen) morality, where what is valued is strength, courage, and the ability to conceive and execute great deeds, and where life is aimed at fame and glory, and the immortality when one's name live for ever on men's lips.

    Plato's work should probably be seen as an important contribution to a long developing process whereby the ethic of reason and reflection gains dominance over one of action and glory. That latter is never set aside altogether...What has emerged in Western society [is] a sort of containment of the ethic of action and glory, uneasily held in the hegemony of a higher morality of reason and purity. The post-Crusade model of the Christian knight is a well know example". (p.117)

    It was "never set aside altogether" indeed. The commingling and admixture shown here disables (imo) any simplistic/cut-and-dry ladder like use of these structures when analyzing (social) phenomena. The reality is far more complex, and really, far more interesting too.

    And lastly, from a different angle but a related front, here's John David Ebert's summary of the important 20th century text 'The Dialectic of Enlightenment' by Horkheimer and Adorno:

    "In their book the founders of Critical Theory describe how, in chasing away the terrors and irrationalism of mythology, the Enlightenment itself established yet another myth in its place: that namely, of the almightiness of Reason (Vernunft) as a principle for determining and completing all systems of partial thought. Reason, especially of the Kantian sort, grasps and confers synthetic unity on the manifold of the phenomena given to the senses in empirical experience by conferring upon these sensory phenomena a final set of nonsensory terms to complete and unify it: hence, God, Freedom and Immortality.

    Among other things, Horkheimer and Adorno show how the "Enlightenment reverts to mythology", how 'modern rational' societies are rife with the use of mythology. For instance, it wouldn't be controversial to call America a modern (orange) nation, but this modernity is also supported by a layer of mythos (the American Dream, the self-made man, Manifest Destiny, and so on). Again, the major point for me in regards to the piece above, is that any given society (or person) is much more kaleidoscopic in its makeup than the as-of-yet common unidimensional analysis allows for.

  • Comment Link Bruce Sanguin Monday, 23 January 2012 21:40 posted by Bruce Sanguin

    Hey Trevor,
    Great connections, man.

    I thought immediately of the prologue of John's gospel, written for a Greek audience. "In the beginning was the Word/Logos, and the Logos was with God and the Logos was God, and everything that came into being came into being through the Logos...and the Logos became flesh and dwelled among us.

    Talk about an incorporation of mythos into Logos as an evolutionary strategy! All that the Mystery implicit in the myths becoming flesh—in other words, the modernist impulse to internalize/appropriate the great and sacred that could only be known and understood abstractly. That Great and Distant Power was in the process of showing up as the deepest dimension of humanity itself.

    Unwittingly, it may have set the stage for the rejection of The Mystery altogether in modernity. Today, what was ascribed by the church belonging to Jesus alone - his fully human/fully divine status—is imaginable for all human ones.

    Need to think on it some more.

  • Comment Link Chris Dierkes Monday, 23 January 2012 23:18 posted by Chris Dierkes

    interesting negation/preservation example. I always think of Plato expelling the gods and the poets, so I never really thought of him preserving mythos--though in the process is Plato then the father of allegorizing? When mythos is put in function of logos is that when we get allegory? e.g. The Cave or the Souls forgetting themselves in Timaeus.

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