May 14, 2011

Naturalizing myths

On the last day she was seen alive, Oreithya, the daughter of the ancient Athenian king Erechtheus, was playing with her friends by the river Illissos; not suspecting any danger here, she was taken by surprise and carried away in a violent gust of wind from the north. Stories and legends have grown ever since about what might have happened to her.

Ages on, two philosophers stroll along those same banks of the Illissos, minding that it's more refreshing to walk along country roads than city streets,[1] but nonetheless, of course, intending to put their leisure to good use— and what better use could there be than a deep and pleasant conversation on the art of love, the craft of rhetorics, and the philosophic life?

On their way, they pass a spot that looks just as it might have been the very site where Boreas, the north wind, once did snatch the innocently playing girl; it seems so fitting, as Phaedrus observes: "The stream is lovely, pure and clear: just right for girls to be playing nearby."[2] Of the two philosophers, he's the one who really has an eye for that sort of thing; he's got imagination enough to see how nicely the scenery would invite people to dream up a mythical story, unfolding here in ancient times: of the wild and passionate wind god, Boreas, who'd fallen in love with the king's daughter and, having been rejected by her before, decides to take her by force, seizes the opportunity, grabs and carries her away to a cliff where he covers her in a cloud and rapes her.[3]

Giovanni Battista Cipriani, The Rape of Oreithya
But even though Phaedrus might welcome stories such as this one as occasions for testing his talent of spotting locations that look like just the right setting for them, he also is aware that it is only a myth, something an educated person wouldn't believe in. Socrates, his companion, seems to have a more nuanced stance on this, however:
Actually, it would not be out of place for me to reject it, as our intellectuals do. I could then tell a clever story: I could claim that a gust of the North Wind blew her over the rocks where she was playing [...]; and once she was killed that way people said she had been carried off by Boreas [...]

Now, Phaedrus, such stories are amusing enough, but they are a job for a man I cannot envy at all. [...] Anyone who does not believe in them, who wants to explain them away and make them plausible by means of some sort of rough ingenuity, will need a great deal of time.

But I have no time for such things; and the reason, my friend, is this. I am still unable, as the Delphic inscription orders, to know myself; and it really seems to me ridiculous to look into other things before I have understood that.[4]
I think is important to note that Socrates says two things here: first, he recognizes the possibility to give a naturalized account of the events.[5] It is possible to explain it without recourse to gods or supernatural powers; what happened can be accounted for by giving a perfectly ordinary explanation. But, secondly, he also says that there are more important things to do, that it is not of the highest importance to do so; at least that is so for him, but by quoting the Delphic prescription, "know thyself", it seems clear that he thinks it would be a good idea for others as well to strive for self-knowledge rather than think up sophisticated naturalized versions of complicated ancient myths.[6] Thus, although Socrates might not really believe that gods and the like are necessary for explaining what's going on, he still seems to acknowledge that stories such as this can tell us something about ourselves—something we might also formulate differently (in a naturalized way, perhaps), but which would then also take more time and effort to formulate, time and effort that could be spent more wisely otherwise.

Not only does Socrates express tolerance for mythological accounts here, but later on he uses myths himself to make some of his ideas intelligible. And what applies to Socrates, the character in the Phaedrus, holds also more generally for Plato; he's built mythical stories into many of his dialogues. (Think, for instance, of the myth of the ancestry and birth of Eros in the Symposium, 203b–c.) Myths, as a form of unreality, are a vehicle of the imagination just as novels or movies are in our time, and as such they can convey insights, enhance our self-knowledge, make the world more intelligible for us, and propel us forward in our actions and projects.

(Next, I'll look into the corresponding need to restrict myth, by what I call reflection, in Plato.)

[1] Phdr. 227a–b. All quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the Phaedrus.

[2] 229b; The general theme of fittingness of the sites they encounter, the 'impressario' role of Phaedrus in choosing them, and the dramatic and philosophical significance of all this for what follows (after all, the Phaedrus is the only dialogue where Plato makes substantial use of a landscape setting, and one outside the city for that) is carefully analyzed by G.R.F. Ferrari, in his Listening to the Cicadas. A study of Plato's Phaedrus, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press 1987, ch. 1. Thus, that Socrates responds with a correction of fact at this point shows that "appropriateness is not a sufficient condition for truth" (ibd. 10). And then he launches into what is also the topic of this post, namely that "in a certain sense of truth, truth is not what matters". (Or, in the terminology of this blog: there is a role for unreality, just as for reality, in all our thinking and acting.)

[3] See the Wikipedia entry about Oreithya for more details on the myth, and references.

[4] 229c–230a

[5] Note that the term 'naturalized' is a modern word that I simply use for convenience; of course, the ancient Greek concept of nature was very different from the one that we have in mind when we talk of 'naturalizing' ideas.

An alternative might have been the term 'rationalizing' (which is what Ferrari uses in his analysis of the passage in Listening to the Cicadas). Insofar as rationalizing would mean to find reasons or reasonable explanations (ratio roughly means reason, after all), this doesn't seem to be a helpful term to me, though. Both the myth and the naturalized explanation aim at coming to terms (and thus to emotionally cope) with what is a disturbing event: the vanishing and probable violent death of a young girl. Both the mythical story and the naturalized story provide an account of what happened, and in both cases the account is given in a coherent, intelligible way. Their difference lies in that the former includes forces (such as gods and the extraordinary powers ascribed to them) which the latter wouldn't allow, restricting itself to natural forces. These stories differ only in the ingredients of the world view from which they come, but not in the rationalizing function (which both fulfill).

[6] By quoting the Delphic oracle, Socrates indirectly brings the authority of Apollo into play; which looks a little tendentious if you're on the side of the naturalizers. If you strive for naturalized explanations of the events in old myths, surely you wouldn't stop at oracles and this god either. Of course, the natural reply here would be that Apollo stands for rational discourse, truth and insight, and finally self-knowledge; there's nothing really mythical about that, and Socrates claim about priorities is made precisely as a rational argument (there are more important things than old stories, and time is limited).

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