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Plato’s Mythoi: The Political Soul’s Drama Beyond

Plato’s Mythoi: The Political Soul’s Drama Beyond

Logos and Mythos in Plato’s Dialogues

Metaphor and analogy are a preparation for examining the status and function of mythos in Plato. What does it mean that philosophy is the love of wisdom?[1] If philosophy is primarily and essentially logos, then what is its relationship to mythos? The following series of questions bear upon the status of mythos vis-à-vis Plato’s philosophical enterprise: What is the rudimentary meaning of logos? What does it mean to say that Socrates and Plato spent their life pursuing the logos of things? Is logos the goal of the quest, equitable with the object of knowledge, the forms or essences, which are the utmost precision humans can attain? Or does giving a logos signify finding only a means or a way (methodos) from ignorance or uncritical opinion to knowledge and wisdom? If logos is the goal or end rather than the means of achieving wisdom, then mythos is at best subordinate to logos. However, if logos is a means, then mythos also might be a complementary, but different, means to a common end for both. Finally, is there a connection between what is expressed in words and what is achieved in deeds? Specifically, does logos represent speech and mythos represent deeds and action? Would not the relativity, contingency, and precariousness of deeds and actions make mythos subordinate to logos being the certainty and perfection of reason? With these questions in mind, the aim of this chapter is to determine whether the full meaning of the philosopher’s endeavor (zetema) includes or excludes mythos, i.e., whether the differentiation of logos and mythos is complementary and harmonious or disconnected and diversionary, even antithetical, since such seemingly is the case for philosophy against poetry.

Participation in the Trial of Logos

Logos can be rudimentarily defined as word, speech, story, conversation, or discussion. In earlier Greek usage, mythos is a tale or story used interchangeably with logos meaning “that which is or was said” or narrated.[2] This was the ordinary and traditional Greek understanding of logos, which Plato did not refrain from frequently employing. Gradually, however, logos came to mean more specifically giving a statement, argument, proposition, rational account, ground or basis, principle, and reason. Both the rudimentary definition and the later development of logos can be found in Plato’s dialogues with the added understanding that the ubiquitous use of logos almost always revolves around a problem or aporia, whether logos is discourse or logos is presenting a rational account or grounding. Thus, there remains the question regarding what giving a logos will amount to and where, if anywhere, it can eventually take us. There is no question that Socrates and Plato call to account all the various kinds of speaking regarding their possibilities on the journey towards wisdom.

Since there is practically no Platonic dialogue that is not a witness to the difficulties of giving a logos, only the major examples will be given of this abiding aporia. Frequently, this aporia will be experienced unexpectedly. The term logos will have already been used unproblematically a number of times early into a dialogue to mean no more than word, discussion, conversation, or speech.[3] But this quiet before the storm does not endure for long. For example, in the Laches (193e-198a) the discussion about courage reaches the point where our words (logoi) about courage can no longer make sense. Our words about courage do not agree with the way we would act courageously. Laches and Socrates are unable to lay hold of and stabilize in speech what courage is fundamentally in of itself.

Furthermore, Socrates refuses to let Laches abandon the discussion, as if it were enough for a military man like Laches to practice courage without knowing and saying what it is. Knowing through saying and realizing through doing are closely interrelated. Consequently, Socrates demands here (as well as elsewhere) that a man like Laches have the courage to continue (i.e., to overcome the shame of his ignorance) in the process of questioning and answering, all of which occurs via communion or participating in the discussion (logos). Otherwise the conversation in fact ends, since at this point no exchange or dialogue (as opposed to some monologue) mutually and resolutely continues. Likewise, in the Charmides (166d-e), in order to keep the discussion alive Socrates counsels Critias to relinquish the attitude that two persons, Socrates and Critias, are debating and trying to refute one another. Give your attention to the argument (logos) for its own sake and for its relation to the common good. On these terms, we decide whether our statements can withstand the test of refutation. Thus, Socrates paradoxically personalizes the argument (logos) in order to depersonalize the conflict between the interlocuters. In this way, there can be a continuing participation in the direction and examination of the logos.

If logos means a dialogic participation in conversation, then there will be a further difficulty (likewise especially prominent given the sophistic practice of eristic and rhetoric) concerning the type of discourse that permits such a continuous interchange or cross-examination. In the Protagoras, this comes to a head over the issue of long and short speeches. Protagoras asks and gets permission from his audience to start off giving a long speech or fable (mythos). Following the fable, a regular exposition (logos) is appended (Protagoras 320c). Neither type of speech is amenable to short questions and answers, since they are more like rhetorical lectures found in books. Socrates ironically announces that he is spellbound by Protagoras’ lengthy performance, albeit there is one “little” question that preoccupies Socrates. Consequently, Protagoras is asked to engage in a more pointed exposition (logos) of brief questions and answers. Protagoras acquiesces, although it is only a brief time before the problem arises regarding whether the argument (logos) is to be tested or just the personal skill of the two debaters (Protagoras 331c, 333c). It is Socrates’ contention that to test the truth of an argument is necessarily to test one’s soul with another soul. But to engage in a personal battle over who is superior is to avoid examining the truth of an argument. This accounts for Socrates’ frequent ironic practice in this dialogue and in others of praising the wisdom or cleverness (sophos) of his interlocuters, i.e., conceding the irrelevance of their supposed superiority, thereby conciliating their egos so that the discussion may go onward.

Protagoras prefers not to undergo any self-examination and would rather espouse whatever the populace applauds, given what they conventionally do and say. The moral inconstancy and relativism of the demos allows Protagoras the kind of sophistic flexibility that evades  providing a serious basis for calling anything to account. Consequently, Protagoras skillfully resorts to a lengthy tirade against Socrates (Protagoras 334aff). Again, Socrates necessarily responds that lengthy discourse is a dodge causing forgetfulness among its listeners and making it difficult to follow. But in order for Socrates eventually to succeed in returning to the dialogic mode of inquiry, he has to be physically forced to remain and to converse with Protagoras for an interval on Protagoras’ own terms. In that interval Socrates ironically delivers the longest speech of the dialogue (praising the Spartans and Cretans for their brevity), which is a commentary on an excerpt from one of Simonides’ poems. Of course, this is not acceptable as a standard of discourse. Rather it is an attempt to assuage Protagoras and to appease the crowd of listeners at this gathering. And more important, Socrates does enact through self-dramatization for all to experience the unrewarding and futile consequences of that mode of discourse that pursues a lengthy interpretation of a poetical text without anyone questioning what is really meant. For Socrates, the best mode of discussion (logos) for gentlemen[4] (and this is obvious if there are any gentlemen present) is to converse directly with one another, without the intervention of poets who are absent and cannot be self-examined (Protagoras 348a).

Political or group force, shame, compromise, and Socratic coaxing dictate the character of discourse in the remainder of the Protagoras (see Protagoras 335d, 338b, 347b, 348c-e). When Protagoras is reluctant to answer the leading questions of Socrates, then Socrates carries on the dialogue with what most people, the demos or world at large, would likely say if they were to participate in questioning and answering (Protagoras 352d-238a). In this fashion of impersonating the logos, Socrates can attend to common opinions and conventional beliefs, as well as sophistic positions regarding virtue and vice, pleasure and pain. It is not so much the result of this dialogue, which is a dramatic, ironic reversal whereby Socrates and Protagoras interchange their original positions about the teachability of virtue, but rather the interchange itself that marks the nature of logos as a participation, a giving and a taking, a common inquiry. If we become too eager for answers, results, conclusions and dogma, we are more likely to dismiss such aporetic or elenchic dialogues, such as the Protagoras, on the grounds that they are some earlier and less mature stage in Plato’s development. Or worse, we could become distrustful and hateful of the logos (misology, Phaedo 88c-89a) that bears no consumable fruit. (Let us also be reminded of the city of pigs in the Republic, and all those who remain deep in the cave.)

Yet, to return to specifics, if we cannot define once and for all what can be known about the relationship between the virtues and how they comprise a whole, at least we know what does not count (as an account, logos), i.e., we know our own ignorance. Also, if becoming virtuous and acting virtuously require having knowledge about pleasure and pain and require an art of measurement, then virtue can be taught through this knowledge. At least, we would now know how we have to proceed and what we have to examine further. The whole conflict between Protagoras and Socrates is rightly grounded on the problem of what discourse or logos will be educative of virtue. At the center of the dialogue (namely, Simonides’ text), the question of the easy or difficult attainability of virtue or goodness for persons is contingent upon whether god or man is the measure. With Protagoras, the case by which one acquires virtue is dependent on the majority (demos) and thus is dependent on conventions (nomoi) being the measure. This makes logos relatively the path of least resistance.

Logos is a means seeking an end (in this case virtue as a whole and goodness is sought), and the end functions as a measure of logos as a means. Interestingly, Socrates resorts to three different analogies in the process of seeking a logos to account for the interrelationship of the virtues, their distinctness, and their oneness (Protagoras 329dff). The three analogies are: the complete identity of the virtues differing only by name; the organic unity of the virtues like the parts of a face; and the substantial unity of parts such as in the case of pieces of gold. Protagoras chooses the second analogy but does not consistently abide by its consequences. Socrates argues strictly in terms of the first analogy. Friedlander[5] believes that Socrates purposefully uses this as a technique of “egregious fallacies,” in order to expose to the careful listener (reader) the difficulties of finding a quick solution to the problem at hand. Both analogies emphasizing identity and functional differentiation are required, if it is the case that virtue as a whole is analogically related, i.e., the virtues are different in themselves, but also identical given their common end and realization.

Formally, we can conclude that analogies (ana logos) may occur in the logos process just at that point where the greatest difficulties arise. (Precisely, the difficulty is that X seems to be both X and not-X at the same time, or the same as itself and yet different.) Certainly, the famous analogies in the Theaetetus (e.g., the wax block and aviary) and in the Statesman (e.g., the shepherd) exemplify this. Also, Plato explicitly asserts that an impasse in the logos leads to the use of images or comparisons (see Republic 487e) such as the sun image, the divided line, and cave image. Some analogies may carry the logos only as far as they can go. Analogies may prove utterly unsatisfactory given the examination of their consequences or implications, including their inconsistency with what we already know to be true. Disanalogies may be more salient in order to serve the paideutic, midwifing elenchus of Socrates. In any case, we realize that analogies are involved with the undertaking of the logos, which seeks an account or grounding that is rationally consistent and fully examined regarding consequences and implications.

A number of important questions remain. In the Protagoras a formal distinction between logos and mythos is maintained. Do not the negative remarks of Socrates regarding Protagoras’ use of mythos and logos, as well as the interlude when Simonides’ text is discussed, indicate that the philosopher’s most serious concern is for a logos free of mythos and poetry? Also, should not a ban on all long speeches (of the kind that a Protagoras would deliver) mean the exclusion of mythos from philosophical inquiry? Can we accept Protagoras’ mythos as a Platonic mythos, or is it fundamentally anti-Platonic? Does it reveal anything to us about the way Plato’s mythoi function in other dialogues? Except for the last two questions, which primarily and substantively will be considered in the next chapter, these questions need to be dealt with now.

Regarding the Protagoras, only partial answers can be given to these questions that bear on the relation of mythos and logos, since this is only one context in which the mythos/logos problem arises. More important, this is a situation in which Protagoras, not Socrates, promotes the mythos/logos distinction (Protagoras 320c, 324d-e). In other words, we would at least want to know what Socrates explicitly states and does in other situations where he himself acknowledges this differentiation. Only in this way could the Protagoras be judged according to its representativeness. It may be that there is a time and place for mythos within the philosophic enterprise, but Protagoras may have improperly proceeded in this regard. Actually, there is a significant amount of evidence that Protagoras considered mythos and logos to be differentiated only in terms of their respective indirectness and directness. Poetry, mystical rites, soothsaying, music, and all the other ancient, sophistic arts, according to Protagoras, were only outer coverings or disguises enabling great men to avoid the hostility of the multitude (Protagoras 316c-317c). Protagoras believes that he can proceed by directly and publicly admitting that he is a sophist and educator. Therefore, the mythos that Protagoras delivers is an apparatus[6] (or Zeus ex machina) that is uncovered for what it is by the logos or exposition that Protagoras delivers following his mythos. Either way, mythos or logos, Protagoras can easily say the same thing. As Friedlander argues,[7] the use of mythos or logos is arbitrary for Protagoras. It would seem that Protagoras’ understanding of mythos is reductionist or merely utilitarian regarding any principles of interpretation. Outside of possible stylistic advantages for persuasion and for political caution, Protagoras does not differentiate mythos and logos in regard to any proper functions they may distinctly have.

As for Socrates’ response to Protagoras’ arbitrary distinction between mythos and logos, notice that Socrates is critical of both speeches, since they do not meet the standards of a careful and precise logos proceeding via short questions and answers (Protagoras 329b). In fact, throughout the dialogue Protagoras is hard pressed to succeed in making distinctions or differentiations (see especially 331c-d and 349ff) concerning the resemblances or likenesses (as opposed to the identity) between the various virtues. Protagoras’ relativism inhibits, if not prohibits, an awareness of the oneness or unity of the diverse virtues, besides their obvious distinctiveness. Finally, one wonders whether Protagoras knows the basic difference between a mythos and a logos, as well as how they might be united in a common end.

Since Socrates’ ironically long-winded speech is forced from him by circumstances, it is difficult to decide whether it contains some substantive content relative to the dialogue, or whether it is only a reductio ad absurdum of poetic interpretation. It may be both simultaneously. Certainly, long speeches tend to impress upon their listeners an appearance of completeness; no further questions need be asked, if you can remember any.[8] Yet, Socrates’ commentary on his own long speech denies any such resolution. At best Socrates’ speech substantively indicates (irrespective of what Simonides may have intended, since this is an unanswerable and vain quest) that to become good or virtuous is difficult, whereas to be good is as impossible for humans as it is to be divine. Mythos is a long speech and may indeed have as one of its functions the interrelation of the human and the divine, and the consequent drawing of boundaries or limits in regard to ends that humans strive for. Within these limits, the logos can be reconsidered and can properly run its course[9] to completion (i.e., with all the consequences, one hopes, considered) in regard to the difficult problem of the teachability of virtue, which is a means of becoming good. Socrates’ objection to poetry is in terms of its use by sophists to argue at length and arbitrarily about the undeterminable. Gentlemen do not discourse in a fashion that prevents thorough examination of an argument (logos), since, in effect, this distracts from the caring for one’s soul. Is it in the nature of poetry to cancel itself out and thwart the process of the logos, because of the multiple interpretations that flow from it. But can poetry (and mythos likewise[10]) be more carefully, logistically used in conjunction with the strictures of logos?

The following negative conclusions are possible given the Protagoras. Certainly, long poetic speeches cannot stand alone, unexamined or unexaminable. Nor should they be used at the beginning of a discussion, since this would tend to camouflage difficult questions and problems. Yet, even Socrates’ long speech serves as more than a mere negative reminder to the listener. In content (but not in form, since it does not clearly provoke specific questions for consideration) a number of significant points (realistically speaking they are paradoxical) are put before us: no man willingly does evil; all persons strive to become good; deprivation of knowledge makes for evil; and the polis is founded on right (dike) and friendship (philia). These statements are like truisms, but are more vital than truisms, when your partners in discussion do not acknowledge and reflect on them. If this is the case, the possibilities of discourse are radically endangered. Nevertheless, all of these generic statements need to undergo critical clarification, exploration, and possible defense, i.e., logos. That they do not in this situation only proves Socrates’ point that long speeches tend to make people forgetful and uncritical. The consequences of acting out such understandings is severely modified in this dialogue; Socrates says he has a pressing engagement elsewhere.

Oddly enough, the correct form of discourse that follows in the Protagoras is accompanied by a content, namely hedonism, which only in a qualified manner can be attributed to Socrates/Plato. (Previously we had an apparently unSocratic form with a Socratic content; now we have a Socratic form with an apparently unSocratic content. The ironic and paradoxical reversals in the Protagoras are legion.) The Protagoras is not an argument or logos in favor of hedonism, rather it is a challenge to those who would reduce their activities to a quantified calculus of pleasure and pain. (This reminds us of the supposedly contented city of pigs in the Republic.) Socrates wants his audience and the demos to realize that even their art of measurement of pleasure and pain does not rest on pleasure and pain, but rather on a knowledge of what is beneficial or good given the consequences of human’s natural urge to seek pleasure and to avoid pain. In other words, there will be all kinds of pleasures and pains that are not simply or equally good or bad. Some pains, such as the aporia of Socratic logos, will be conducive to greater, lasting pleasure, if one can come-to-know through such suffering. And not all pleasures are equally rewarding. Consequently, one is led to consider that there is some norm or standard of knowledge beyond mere animal pleasure and pain that human beings naturally seek to establish (even if unaware of it) according to their way of life. Certainly, this “art of measurement” is analogous to another art, mathematics, and requires much more critical elaboration regarding what kind of precision or knowledge can be had in ethical matters.

To take a form of argument that failed Protagoras given its content (the courageous are bold, but the bold are not necessarily courageous), Socrates may have been suggesting that the good is pleasurable, but the pleasurable is not necessarily good. (Thus, another ironic reversal.) Although this helps clarify the relationship between pleasure and good, it does not help us to know the Good; rather we only know a consequential, concomitant aspect of it. In conclusion, in the Protagoras (as well as in the Apology and the Symposium) we encounter the problem of long speeches directly antithetical to the logos process of questioning and answering. At present, we are concerned only with logos in the form of a trial (agon), both in terms of the argument before us and the persons involved.

In other dialogues, there are further examples of a primitive meaning of logos expanding into serious predicaments (aporias). Although a common rudimentary meaning of logoi is words and names, in the Phaedo (76d-e) and the Sophist (218c), logoi are not restricted to words that are merely accepted on conventional grounds. Nor is giving logoi an act simply of giving names. In Socrates’ attempted proof of the immortality of the soul in the Phaedo, an affinity is drawn between the soul and the eternal essences – beauty, goodness, and so on. Without such essences (ousiai), the logos would have to be abandoned as desolate. The frequent allusion (Meno 98a-b; Gorgias 508e-509a; Laches 194c) to tying down and stabilizing opinions or beliefs via logos (argument) reveals that the logos does have its ground and is grounded in immovable ideas or essences. However, it would be grossly misleading if it were thought that one needs only posit a theory of forms to solve all our “logos” problems. It is true that logos seeks its ground in the forms, but we still have to partake in logos to discover its grounding in the forms. One’s conclusions should not preclude one’s way of reaching them. If there is a divine logos, our human logos has such an end, that being the object of our striving, not some immediate, final possession (dogma).

In the Euthydemus (286aff) giving a logos at first is equatable with giving a description of a thing. The question thus becomes: how would it be possible to deliver a false logos, if this were to mean that we were describing nothing? Either one speaks the truth or one speaks not at all. Although the origins of this argument are sophistic, nevertheless there is a serious philosophical difficulty here, namely, to clarify how it is possible to speak falsely. The Theaetetus and the Sophist respectively address this problem on the level of perception and on the level of reasoning (logos). All of this occurs within the larger problem of logos that distinguishes knowledge from opinion. Furthermore, the knowledge sought not only is not just a matter of naming or describing characteristics or attributes, but also is not a positing of neat, formulaic definitions. The Meno stands as the best witness against these inadequate possibilities.

All of this is summed up in the difficulty behind asking “what is?” Meno typifies the kind of respondent who thinks this query is meant to be productive of either a swarm of descriptive examples[11], or the enunciating of pithy, take-away, capsule-like definitions. Neither alternative, logos as enumeration or logos as formula, are discursively open to ongoing argumentation. As in the Protagoras, the aporia centers around the problem of the one (eidos) that runs through the many or various virtues (Meno 72b-c, 74a). If the logos is to be complete, knowledge of the whole is required. One could not truly know a part without knowing the whole (Meno 79c-d). Yet, paradoxically, can we humans ever know the whole in order to know the parts?

The crucial problem (involving many of Socrates’ interlocuters) is whether there is in actuality enough desire or inner urging to keep the inquiry (zetema) going after a number of false starts and possibly ego-bruising exposures of personal ignorance. For Socrates, dialectical logos requires truthful answering and making use of whatever the respondent personally has to offer. Thus, from the beginning Socrates asks Meno to recollect what he has learned (either from Gorgias or otherwise). It is doubtful that Meno seriously wants to take up the endeavor of inquiry. And why should Meno try to find out what he does not know, if such an effort is in vain? How would one recognize what one does not know, if one does not know from the beginning what one is looking for? The paradox of the learner or the inquirer presents us with a formidable impasse regarding beginnings. But Meno personally has failed to abide by the strictures of dialectical logos. He asks questions when he should be answering. He tries to dumbfound Socrates, when he should be trying to recollect (anamnesis) in order to overcome his own dumbfoundedness.

If there is any hope for any conversation or logos to continue, something (perhaps something different) will have to be said or done to break the impasse. What follows has been frequently called the mythos of recollection, although Plato never uses the term mythos here. Instead, Plato calls this passage about anamnesis, a logos (Meno 81a). Yet, Socrates introduces this account (logos) as if a mythos, namely, something heard long ago from priests and priestesses, who told of divine truth and beauty. Does this logos indicate a “personal narrative” of some kind, or is there a logos in some other sense that moves persons from opinion to knowledge? In other words, what criterion or criteria will be used to judge the significance of this anamnesis account? At this point, it seems that mythos and logos blend (intentionally?) and move in and out of one another.

Logos Proper: Fruition or Intellectual Derailment?

The stage is now set for an examination of those dialogues that go beyond attention to the rudimentary problems (aporias) of logos, giving an account. From the Meno and Phaedo on through the Republic and Theaetetus to the Sophist, an understanding of what can be called “logos proper” comes into view. “Logos proper” means the power or process of reasoning (especially but not only logically) according to the forms or essences. The defining characteristics of logos proper are consistency, clarity, precision, and exactness, in effect, a stable, rational grounding. Such a logos proper survives the tests of argumentation. In sum, logos proper confronts the problems of epistemological grounds (the possibility of knowledge) by giving the necessary and sufficient grounds for knowledge. Professor Kenneth Sayre in his book Plato’s Analytic Method and in an unpublished paper, “Logos, False Judgment, and the Grounds of Knowledge” has single-mindedly pursued in the Platonic corpus such a logos proper in terms of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge. Within the light of his significant achievements, the question remains whether this forebodes a complete rupture of logos from mythos. Or is it the case that only analytically and abstractly (but not actually or ontologically) logos is separated from mythos?[12] An analytical distinction of logos proper from the wider understanding of logos (although quite valuable in itself, demonstrating that Plato is quite the logical master) may have serious deficiencies and drawbacks if taken in isolation and to extremes. There is no reason as of yet to contend (as Sayre does) that there is a development in the Platonic dialogues that analytically rends logos apart from its rudimentary meaning, namely tale and speech, which would break the linking of logos with mythos at least concerning a common point of origination and at best in terms of its dynamis and telos.

For Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the starting point of philosophy (and this includes political philosophy as well) is common opinions and rudimentary understandings expressed by the citizens of a polis sharing the same language. This is the starting point of anyone’s active participation in the political domain or in the world (see Aristotle’s Politics 1253a9ff). Philosophy and politics are conjoined on the grounds that the logos or speech of the philosopher is to, with, and among others. Logos is public and at least potentially open to others for examination. Thus, in the Meno 86c Socrates offers a joint inquiry (koine zetein) with the recalcitrant sophist Meno. Politics is used here in the broad sense of that which is public and involves others, a community of friends you would wish. The argument is that even the most subtle and profound analyses of the philosopher will have public, political consequences, especially if they involve something as basic as what counts as proper and improper speech (logos).

From this beginning of political philosophy, there follows the movement of logos in the direction of reasoning, formulating concepts, and establishing arguments. Where does mythos stand in this activity of logos? Might not mythos, besides sharing a common origin with logos, also have a common (if not higher) end and a complementary function in striving towards that end? More specifically, the function of logos is to bridge the gap between opinion and knowledge. Does mythos have a similar function, or does mythos remain only at the level of belief and opinion? Finally, would it be a derailment of philosophy to pursue a purely analytical logos proper, if that were exclusively devoted to a method of logic?

An assessment of five major dialogues, the Meno, Phaedo, Republic, Theaetetus and Sophist is required in order to consider logos proper and the problem of passing from opinion (either true or false) to knowledge. Therefore, beginning with the Meno, let us examine whether anamnesis is an “apparently unsuccessful” and “unworkable”[13] sense of logos in Plato’s development of an epistemology, i.e., Plato’s treatment of logos as a ground for acquiring knowledge beyond mere opinion. Another way of expressing the matter is to ask: does the recollecting logos only have a developmental linkage, later abandoned because abortive, with regard to Plato’s increasingly refined understanding of logos in the Phaedo, Theaetetus and Sophist? Or is the recollecting logos such that it never can ultimately be abandoned, if logos or argumentation is to remain alive? Is the recollecting logos just a persuasive story really only relevant when dealing with sophistic types like Meno? One can (up to a point) agree with Sayre’s commentary that the recollecting logos leaves much to be desired. The question before us is whether it is proper to examine the recollecting logos in terms of a logos proper, or in terms of a logos account broadly including an enlivening story of the philosophical drama of a person’s soul. Sayre chooses the former alternative. In doing so, can these arguments against the consistency or coherence of the recollecting logos be entirely accepted, or are they really limited or even misplaced?

The Meno

In Sayre’s case, what is demanded of the recollecting logos is beyond the limited purpose of the Meno dialogue. You could say (at the least) that Sayre looks back (recollects) from the Theaetetus and Sophist in retrospective anticipation. It is presupposed by Sayre that one can look at the Platonic dialogues developmentally in terms of stages in Plato’s attempt to solve basic epistemological problems. Thus, the recollection logos is “unsuccessful, unworkable, and incoherent, and eventually rejected for more promising approaches” by Plato.[14] Since, from the very beginning, Sayre searches for “a sense of logos that will distinguish knowledge from true belief or judgement,”[15] the question is whether recollection can at all “convert true opinion into knowledge.”[16] Yet this places unwarranted demands on the recollecting logos, as if some final, ultimate, and univocal knowledge is required. Sayre is more correct when he speaks of the problem of accounting for the possibility of knowledge, or how inquiry is possible. One could assert that Plato resorts to the recollecting logos to keep the possibility of searching and inquiring alive, not finalized.

Recollecting, in the case of the slave boy demonstration, is based on opinions that are stirred as if in a dream (Meno 85c-d). The slave boy is found to have true opinions about that which, namely mathematics, he knows nothing. When one visualizes what Socrates has the slave boy see via the use of diagrams in the sand, then it is possible to share with the slave boy the act of recognition and of discovery that occurs invisibly within the slave boy. A joint inquiry occurs between Socrates and the slave boy (also we are asked to join and to participate) such that nothing is taught, instilled, or contrived by Socrates. One of the problems of the vision metaphor used by Plato is that it can make learning appear identical to an act of vision that stresses immediate, direct awareness of something external. In point of fact, anamnesis in the Meno stresses an inward act of vision or recognition, which is in this case stimulated by the visible object of the diagram.[17] The slave boy has within him the insight or intuition to recognize not directly or immediately but gradually, through a process of trial and error examination, what can be truly held to be right opinion. Of course, the act of recognition once achieved is instantaneously immediate and direct. The knowledge that we come to discover, unlike our isolated acts of vision, is not of particular, specific discrete things that have no relation to anything else.[18]

Meno’s paradox begins to dissolve once we understand that what we already know is linked in some way to what is unknown to us.[19] We pursue this “unknown” whenever confronted with a gap or lack of connection in what we already know. There is a continuum of knowledge, and we commonly participate with others in the affinity (Meno 81d, suggenous) that our souls have with the forms or essences. In this way, the recollecting logos helps remove the futility of striving for knowledge we do not know. Of course, Meno can still persist in asking: how did we already know anything? How did we get knowledge in the first place? An answer to such ultimate questions regarding origins goes beyond any recollecting logos as a process of reasoning, and thus engenders recollecting in the sense of a mythical story about our preexistence. This mythical dimension of recollecting (for the sake of convenience and continuity only) will be considered in chapter four.

Socrates bluntly and plainly asserts the function of the recollecting logos: searching and learning are wholly recollection (Meno 81d). There can be no inquiring without the ground or logos of recollection. The emphasis is on desiring, striving, endeavoring to recollect or to recover knowledge (Meno 85d-86b). Recollecting is verbal not a noun; an action not a state. To a great extent reflective and discursive thinking depend upon remembering or recollecting again what we are trying to know, as well as depending on analytical and logical skill. Herein lies our duty to inquire because the possibility of knowing remains open. Meno exemplifies the failure, the lack of courage, to continue the logos. The recollecting logos is a spur towards taking up logos proper, as well as the ground for the possibility of logos proper. But we must be careful not to overestimate the recollecting logos.

There is a key passage (Meno 98a) that has encouraged commentators like Sayre to overestimate recollection. The passage reads: .” . . [true opinions] do not care to stay for long and run away from the human soul and thus are of no great value until one makes them fast with causal reasoning (aitias logismoi). And this process, friend Meno, is recollecting, as in our previous talk we agreed.” Are we to conclude that recollecting by itself is the causal reasoning that converts true or right opinion into knowledge? Only if the process of recollecting is identical to the kind of lengthy cross-examining that occurs between Socrates and the slave boy. But no one act of recollecting in itself would be sufficient and final, although it may be a necessary condition of the way to knowledge, insofar as recollecting for Plato is connected with the possibility of some original noetic apprehension of the eternal forms. There is no reason to suspect that recollecting for Socrates/Plato serves as a kind of immediate insight into reality equitable with some kind of self-evident substantive knowledge attainable by humans. One can distinguish, but not separate, recollecting as an act of recognition (immediate awareness) from recollecting as a searching and learning process to render a rational account (logos). Oddly enough, Sayre[20] recognizes both aspects of recollecting, but dismisses recollecting only in the first respect. Consequently, recollection for Sayre is only unidirectional (upward to first principles or the forms) and not bidirectional (downward to the determination of necessary and sufficient conditions). Would it be possible to carry out logos (as a rational, discursive process) without the recollecting process as a way leading to and from the apprehension and affirmation of the forms? Is not recollection (anamnesis) a depth meditation one often has within one’s own soul?

In the Meno we have only the insufficient example of the slave boy (not Meno) to clarify how we arrive at true opinions. What precisely would count as finally securing and fastening down true opinions so that they amount to knowledge is a further question not precluded, but only implicit, in the slave boy demonstration. (In the Phaedo, as we shall see, anamnesis and the forms are more explicitly related.) There is no reason to reject or abandon anamnesis. It is part of the continuum or flow of learning and inquiring leading to the whole, the completed activity of knowledge itself. It is of added support to note that the understanding of anamnesis in the Phaedrus (249c) likewise indicates its preparatory basis. Anamnesis will be the activity of gathering together and discerning a unity from out of a multiplicity of perceptions. Without anamnesis, there is no reason to suppose that we can move forward recollecting and recovering a sense of the whole (or, mythically, what was once or always known to us deep in our divining psyche, namely, the whole). In no way does this synthetic learning endeavor negate its opposite movement, analytical diaresis. Unfortunately, logos too frequently (by Sayre, Cross, and Bluck)[21] is understood only in terms of analytical divisions, abstractions, and definitions.

In summation, it should be clear that recollecting as an act means recognizing, discovering, intuiting, or finding insight in regard to the forms which bring oneness and intelligibility to multiplicity. For Voegelin, this is the “flow of presence”[22] that characterizes what Plato is philosophically experiencing. As a process or flow, recollecting means inquiring, searching, learning, and dialectical questioning and answering (not teaching in the sense of instilling). It will be carefully noted that the mythical dimensions of recollection, although not considered in this chapter, have not been reduced to the discursive process of logos, nor precluded. Since Sayre does not avoid this, he can charge that recollection is “ultimately incoherent.” This needs to be questioned on the alternative grounds that recollecting is really ultimately mythical. Sayre’s specific charge is that:

“the doctrine [of anamnesis] is ultimately incoherent, purporting as it does to account for knowledge with reference to prior awareness of the atemporal Forms. To employ immediate access to the eternal Forms would at least seem to require that the soul itself partake of atemporal existence, since the Forms presumably are apprehended immediately only in their atemporal realm. But if the soul’s state of immediate awareness is prior to the time of recollection, it must be a state existing in time. And the soul cannot be atemporal in a state of time.[23]

Jacob Klein’s commentary on the Meno also makes significant mention of the problem of the time dimension, which is characteristic of the temporal process of our learning through recollecting and the atemporal timeless target or goal of all learning and recollection, the eternal forms.[24]

Perhaps the first thing that has to be established is Plato’s own presentation of the recovery of knowledge through recollecting. The slave boy must have either “once acquired or always had” the knowledge he now has been shown to have (Meno 85c-86b). Thus, Plato is aware of the difference between the time bound and the timeless. The slave boy arrived at this knowledge (insofar as it is timeless, and not really timebound true opinion) not from outside himself, i.e., from any teacher. It must have always been in his soul throughout all time, or it was acquired some previous time before this life. In both cases, there is reference to some eternal time that the mortal, temporal human soul has an affinity towards and with. The difficulty or ambiguity here may be a matter of language. How does one speak within time of the eternal when referring to that which could only have been comprehended at all times or some timeless time not in this temporal life? Socrates does say immediately after this passage (Meno 86b-c) that, “Most of the points I have made in support of my argument (logou) are not such as I can confidently assert, but the belief in the duty of inquiring after what we do not know will make us better, braver and less hapless than the notion that there is not even a possibility of discovering what we do not know.”

To make sense of this recollecting logos, it is necessary to attend to the dilemma (in this case, the temporal and eternal) that makes a resort to recollection unavoidable and indispensable. Does not the recollecting logos require us to relate it to those (literal or figurative?) after-life or pre-existence mythical images of the Symposium, Phaedrus, and Republic? Is not the recollection logos based on an experience of the eternal without which there is no ground for knowledge, but only a groundless flux? To what extent, if any, is Plato’s theory of forms dependent on a mythical context? The answer is the purpose of chapter four. For now, it is important to stress that logos and mythos move into and out of one another, i.e., anamnesis has a grounding and mediating status and role in the clarification of the logos that leads from ignorance through true or false opinion on to knowledge. Time and again mythos and logos do not ignore or forget one another.[25]

In at least two respects mythos and logos are intertwined. First, as Klein[26] has perspicuously distinguished, logos can mean argumentative seriousness (thus Sayre’s treatment), or it can mean mimetic playfulness. It is the latter that directly connects with mythos as it portrays for us what should or should not be the guide or model of imitation in our own actions. We are called to act (praxis) and there are bearings, an order or whole, within which our actions have meaning. This leads to the second way in which mythos and logos interact. There is a life or sphere of activity beyond the immediate and the ordinary. In terms of images, this mythically takes us up into the heavens, or down into the depths (Hades), to the preexistent or to the afterlife. This involves speaking paradoxically about the immaterial through material images and treating the atemporal in time dimensions. In this respect, we can understand how deficient and misplaced Sayre’s criticism is of the recollecting mythos. This whole time dimension problem boils down to whether as temporal humans we discover the atemporal and divine within us. Not to acknowledge this has different consequences than acknowledging this.

The Meno has two examples of logos proper that address the difficulty of turning opinion into knowledge. Already logos as reason was shown to bind true opinions fast to make them stable and lasting. The binding of reasons to support something results in learning and understanding.[27] Those who can give a rational account (logos) have knowledge; those who cannot do this have potentially unstable opinions, be they true or false. In terms of action, true or right opinion and knowledge amount to the same thing. In other words, the same action may have true opinion or knowledge as its basis. However, as revealed in the mythos of Er, citizens who habitually and conventionally are doers of good deeds do not necessarily return to this life as good persons. For some reason, this fate depicted by Er of individual souls failing to progress, even though well-disposed and experiencing the order of the heavens in their afterlife disturbs some commentators, even though it is quite realistic regarding the human condition. They are like the great Athenians who failed to be statesmen in the Socratic sense of succeeding in improving the present and future generations in their care. And they usually failed to pass their “knowledge” and character on to their offspring! Insofar as it is humanly possible, we strive to have rulers who are persons of practical knowledge (phronesis), while persons of opinion are to be ruled. This is to say that rulers in particular are always held to account. Logos is the ground and justification for ruling.

The other example of a logos proper is that of proceeding by hypothesis or supposition. Socrates supposes or suspects[28] that excellence is knowledge. In other words, there is no good that is outside the domain of knowledge. This hypothesis requires testing, because virtue and knowledge may not be coextensive, may only overlap, or could even be radically separate. The argument or logos reveals that any virtue or good, beneficial thing depends on the exercise of wise judgement or prudence (phronesis). However, phronesis is not the same as episteme (or even sophia). We are left wondering whether human excellence or virtue (arête) has been wholly comprehended, or as Klein asks,[29] can logos or speech tell the whole truth, which means knowing the whole? Phronesis applies more to the dimension of action and deed, whereas knowledge (episteme) and wisdom (sophia) reach for the whole of goodness. In the Meno, the Socratic logos operates on the level of deed (see Meno 97b, 98b, 99c) and prudence (except for the already considered passage 98a, which alludes to causal reasoning). Accordingly, we need to go on to the Phaedo in order to continue our search for logos proper.

The Phaedo

The Phaedo has been characterized as a thoroughly mythological mime.[30] This means that a more complete treatment of the Phaedo will have to wait until a later chapter when mythos is directly approached. Nevertheless, it is within this mythical framework and in relation to the mythical subject matter of the dialogue (i.e., the fate of the human soul) that logos proper appears as the rational deduction of consequences given an agreed upon hypothesis. But this argumentative notion of logos in the Phaedo, which is the result of the challenge of Cebes and Simmias, is a developed, not a rudimentary, understanding of logos. To begin with, Socrates associates logos with the reasoning function of dianoia (Phaedo 79a) that rules the soul of humans by grasping the invisible and the unchanging from out of the visible and changing array of sense perceptions. (Can we not say, contra Sayre, that likewise Socrates tries to discern the eternal from out of the temporal?) In this respect, the logos engages in a separation and self-purification of the soul in regard to its bodily needs, emotions, and pleasures. This is only possible because the soul through its inner logos has an affinity to essences or forms. In fact, the soul has its own striving or desire to recollect and to discover things in themselves (e.g., absolute equality, Phaedo 75a-b). The dialectical process of questioning and answering leads to such knowledge (Phaedo 75d). This dialectical reasoning (Phaedo 65c) is a kind of contemplation in which the soul collects itself and concentrates and reaches out toward the reality (tou ontos) itself as much as possible. Such philosophic self-possession, a dialogic meditation going on within one’s soul, achieves purification from the body and engages in the practice of dying (Phaedo 80e-83c). To take up and follow such reasoning is gradually and eventually to behold the true and the divine (Phaedo 84a). Thus, logos is the natural activity of the soul in contemplation, the art of gathering into oneself and being most akin (suggenes) to the invisible and divine, the wise and immortal. After such an exposition, Socrates mimetically and fittingly becomes absorbed in himself for a long period of silence (Phaedo 84c).

The two challenges to Socrates’ argument regarding the immortality of the soul in its preexistence and postexistence succeed or fail depending on two hypotheses. The first hypothesis is that all learning is recollecting (Phaedo 92d); the second hypothesis is that there are things in themselves, such as beauty, goodness, etc. (Phaedo 100b). The acceptance or rejection of these hypotheses is the outcome of reasoning out to their consequences. Reasoning makes them either sufficient or sound arguments. Simmias, who wants to consider the soul as a bodily dependent harmony, contradicts his original acceptance of the first hypothesis, which rests on a differentiation of body and soul such that the soul rules the body. Treating the soul as a harmony degrades the soul to the level of admixture with the body, and moreover prevents us from distinguishing good and evil souls. If body and soul are simply harmonious, then how account for wickedness and disharmony? Simmias’ analogy of the soul to the harmony of the lyre and its strings fails to differentiate and superordinate the soul to the body. Such consequences Simmias will not accept. Thus, Simmias’ analogy is shown rationally (via logos) to lead to unacceptable consequences.

Socrates’ treatment of Cebes’ analogy of the soul to the weaver and his woven cloak also is preceded by a period of silence in which Socrates is absorbed in thought. Cebes has proposed that the soul is like the weaver who outlasts the many cloaks (bodies) that he makes (inhabits) only in the end to perish. Again, we note that the soul has not been sharply differentiated from bodily attributes, especially the attributes of genesis and decay (phthoras). Socrates’ first remarks autobiographically addresses the problem of causation. Those (pre-Socratics) who investigated nature in the past failed to explain the ultimate causes of generation and decay. Even Anaxagoras, who stated that nous is the cause of order among all things, explained causation materially, as if the bones and sinews of persons account for (are the cause or reason of) their movement from place to place. Instead of material or natural causation which belongs to the domain of necessity, Socrates finds the real causes or reasons for human action to be a matter of choosing or deciding what is best (efficient causation). No wonder the natural philosophers gave no thought to perfection or the Good. The Socratic distinction between human nature and physical nature parallels that of the soul and the body. It is in the soul that persons have recourse to arguments or conceptions (logous, Phaedo 99e), which then are examined in light of reality.

Henceforward, Socrates will assume or hypothesize a logos that seems most indispensable (e.g., that there exists beauty in itself, the Good in itself, greatness in itself, etc.) and to accept what agrees with this and to reject what does not agree with or follow from this. In order for the discussion to proceed Socrates has to have Cebes’ agreement that such an assumption (hypothemenos) regarding the forms and essences (ousias) is granted. The Phaedo does not directly consider alternative arguments that would proceed as if there were no such forms or essences. (The Theaetetus provides such an alternative.) Nevertheless, Socrates’ method does not prohibit such considerations. To say that beautiful things are beautiful because of the presence of or communion/affinity/participation (methexei) with beauty in itself is for Socrates the safest, plainest, simplest answer. To examine the consequences of such a hypothesis is to give a logos (Phaedo 101d). To proceed without such a hypothesis will mean different consequences. Socrates warns that one should never confuse consequences that follow from and agree with a hypothesis and the hypothesis itself that remains unproven. Only by assuming a higher hypothesis can one judge the sufficiency and adequacy of an untested hypothesis. This hypothetical method should not be abstracted from the Socratic concern for what is best (Phaedo 101d-e), including one’s daimonic power and the Good (Phaedo 99c) and, in sum, a comprehensive intelligible order.[31] We do realize that without such assumptions the other possible consequences are being subject to chance, necessity or human, Titanic contrivance, etc. (e.g., not to leave out Atlas in Phaedo 99c).

On the basis of the soul’s affinity with the forms or essences which are indestructible (they do not admit their opposites) and because the mortal body is the opposite of the soul, it can then be argued that the soul is immortal and indestructible. But the primary Socratic mode of argument is to carry out the consequences of assuming (1) if the soul is immortal, then . . .; (b) if the soul is mortal, then . . . . The drawing out of such consequences (a) or (b) bear so heavily on human action (i.e., if death is the final, then why need I care about my soul, and in no way can I be held accountable for my actions, given my mortal condition), that mythos is unavoidable once we assume that the soul is immortal. Mythos addresses that “something more” that we, in our humanness, cannot fully comprehended via logos. Our souls long for this fulfilling realization. An afterlife, a judgement of souls, and a cosmic order (which are the typical subject matter of mythoi), all follow as consequences of our logos. Thus, logos leads into mythos as well as out of mythos (e.g., anamnesis and deep contemplation) in terms of consequences involving aporetic and euporetic logos.

The Phaedo does portray a logos crisis. In fact, it is a crisis which if not overcome would prevent the burgeoning of mythos (or, at least, would result in false mythos such as in the case of the sophists who use mythos as a device for saying and legitimating anything expedient). This crisis occurs immediately after Simmias’ and Cebes’ challenge regarding the post-existence immortality of the soul. Passages 68c-69d and 90d-91c in the Phaedo mention logos seventeen and fourteen times respectively. The primary difficulty and fear at this juncture is whether Socrates can supply a logos to meet the apparently overwhelming challenges of Simmias and Cebes. Can Socrates turn the tide of disbelief, distrust, loss of confidence, and confusion (Phaedo 89a)? Socrates’ first response is to personalize the argument (logos). Do not let the argument escape and die; bring it to life (Phaedo 89b-c). The great danger is that we will be misologists, haters of argument, in the same way that persons become misanthropists. Both have similar causes, the lack of art or skill (techne, Phaedo 89d). This is to say that persons lack that art or skill to judge the worth of others and after being misled by their apparent truthfulness and trustworthiness, they become haters of all persons and their logoi.

When one does possess the craft of judging persons, the conclusion reached is that few persons are simply good or simply bad, since most persons are somewhere in-between, an admixture of both. Likewise, in regard to logoi, most arguments are based on opinions that fluctuate between the good and the bad. Thus, Socrates introduces the hypothetical method as a techne that can test the soundness of any logoi in the sense of opinion. Do not despair regarding arguments; and do not become disputatious for its own sake. Rather turn the question of soundness towards oneself and strive courageously to be sound in one’s own soul for the sake of death (Phaedo 90e-91a). If you are looking for some air-tight, logical demonstration and proof that the human soul is immortal, then you are looking outward in the wrong place. Look within (anamnesis) and consult the dynamic flow of your own experience (pathos). Does it register in your consciousness that there could be eternal life, since our striving for such fulfillment is intelligible and complete, if there is such an end which we have some sort of affinity for. Let the argument speak the truth irrespective of those who refuse to believe anything. This is one reason why Socrates personifies logos, to make it more believable, thus making it mythical. Socrates accordingly avoids both extremes: an impersonal objectivism (e.g., naturalistic philosophy) irrelevant to one’s soul; and a subjectivism solely grounded on self-interest. Through such a teaching (techne), persons will attain self-knowledge or soul-knowledge, depending on who they truly are.

The Republic

In the Republic the logos proper of the philosopher that we were seeking all along shines forth. In the context of characterizing the education that leads to the comprehension of justice in itself, and thus defending the philosopher who would be king, Plato distinguishes the function of the mathematician from that of the philosopher. In the explanation of the divided line, it is asserted that the mathematician or geometrician uses hypotheses as starting points that are assumed without further justification in carrying out his downward, deductive reasoning (Republic 510b, 511e). Furthermore, they necessarily make use of visible forms, likenesses, or images (diagrams) in their logoi, which they adopt from the lower half (eikasia and pistis) of the divided line. They fail to rise above their own assumptions, although they really do seek intelligible realities seen only by the understanding (dianoia, Republic 510e-511a). The mathematician’s function according to this understanding (dianoia) is situated between opinion and belief, which is the second section of the lower half of the divided line, and reason (nous), which is the fourth and highest section of the divided line. The philosopher on the other hand does not accept the mathematician’s hypotheses as unquestioned, absolute starting points. S/he advances upward towards those first principles that are anhypotheton (unhypothetical, Republic 510b), and in this way, does not make use of any images. All assumptions are rationally accounted for (given a logos) by proceeding through the ideas alone (Republic 510bc, 511c). This is the dialectical power of reason (logos) itself rising to the arche of everything, comprehensively beginning and ending with the eide (Republic 511b-c) in traversing the knowledge of reality.[32]

There is a major paradox and irony throughout this part of the Republic 500c-517c, which covers the four related images: the sun, the divided line, the cave and the philosopher qua artist par excellence. All of these images, symbols, hypotheses, and analogies are employed by Socrates in an attempt to enable Glaucon to comprehend the philosophical logos proper, which by definition is beyond images, symbols, hypotheses, and analogies, i.e., translogos. This kind of irony and paradox should evoke great caution and care. And if we identify that anhypotheton with the Idea of the Good, which is beyond essence and being in dignity and power (Republic 509b), and which is the cause and ground of all knowledge and truth, should we not join Glaucon in loud laughter because of these hyperbolic superlatives uttered by a Socrates, who is unaccustomed to speaking by way of comparisons? In this instance involving the Idea of the Good, Plato not only uses visible images (the vision metaphor and the sun), but also seems to go beyond the dialectician’s activity of arriving at the essence of things by logos (Republic 532a, 534b). Perhaps this is because the Idea of the Good is the ultimate to be apprehended, and the most superhumanly difficult to be contemplated, thus god theos and daimonion are called upon (Republic 517b, 531c), all of which suggests that the dialectician will not desist from giving logoi until s/he reaches the Good in itself. Yet, on the other hand, the Good is the cause of all reason and truth and the author of the intelligible world such that none of the forms known by the giving of logoi attains the Idea of the Good. The Good itself, as a transcendent ground for all the forms, cannot be dependent on them; therefore, the Good must be distinguished by a logos (Republic 534b) different from all other logoi. This does not mean that the Good cannot be approached by the dialectician’s upward path. But is this the only route for the philosopher? Socrates resorts to images and symbols to explain the meaning of his vision (Republic 533a), since he cannot do otherwise in the presence of Glaucon, as well as in the presence of the ineffable (arreton or alogon).

Accordingly, the goal (telos) of a philosophical logos proper must be understood in the light of what can be said in approaching this final end, the Idea of the Good. Is it not the case logically, that the Idea of the Good resolves the problem of the “Third Man” in the Parmenides? A logos or discourse on the level of the forms themselves as well as the noetic apprehension of the Good is less an attainment or accomplishment than the required, intelligible end of all our striving. It would amount to a divine (i.e., an ineffable) logos. Yet, could we even begin to strive to know without some recognition or recollection of the Good and the other forms (especially the just and the beautiful) as the proper perfecting end of our human striving nature? The Idea of the Good as an ordering principle[33] affirms the harmony of the whole. Our own attempts to give a rational account (logos) reveal an affinity to this ordered whole as it is good, beautiful, and just. Giving a logos of the Idea of the Good presupposes that we already fully know of the whole, and the end of all our pursuits. Oh, to be divine! Nevertheless, the Idea of the Good as the principle (arche) of order (kosmos) makes possible any logos, since our intellect would by nature only acquire its perfection by actively participating (prolepsis) in this order of the Good. Our deepest strivings have appropriate bearings, because we are but a part in the whole, thus we must have recourse to images, analogies, models, mythoi, and symbols that are constitutive of our experiences. The mathematician is particularly skillful within the in-between (metaxy, Republic 511d), using images, analogies, models, mythoi, and symbols. Later, the extent to which this is relevant to the philosopher’s art of using philosophical mythos will be explored.

The Theaetetus

In the Theaetetus, the logos or conversation that is begun between Socrates and Theaetetus (with Theodorus, the mathematician, an observer for the most part) concerns the problem of gathering all the various kinds of knowledge under one logos or account. As was true for the Phaedo, there is the indissoluble connection of logoi with the forms: in the Theaetetus the search is for a logos embracing all knowledge in one super form (ousas eni eidei Theaetetus 148d). An example or model from mathematics is given, reminiscent of the definition of color in the Meno. However, in this case it is Theaetetus (not Socrates) who defines the roots (dynameis; Theaetetus 148b) of non-square, oblong numbers (surds) according to their necessary and sufficient conditions.[34] Obviously, Theaetetus’ mathematical training (as well as the presence of his mathematics teacher, Theodorus) provides a promising setting. Not that a necessary and sufficient definition of knowledge will be immediately discovered. Rather, all the participants of this dialogue are capable of distinguishing between a wind egg and a healthy offspring, given the Socratic art of midwifery. This philosophic techne of Socrates, midwifery, is just as important as, and is not to be separated from, the hypothetical method used by Socrates. In other words, a midwife’s function is to bring to fruition whatever already has been impregnated. All of us are impregnated (a metaphorical variation on recollection). In this respect, Socrates can argue that by himself he is ignorant and does not by himself bring about knowledge. With the help of others who are wise Socrates can extract logoi (Theaetetus 161a-b). Socrates here acknowledges a special kind of educational polis or community of lovers of wisdom. Furthermore, the midwife analogy (alluded to throughout the Theaetetus) is consistent with the recollecting logos that affirms a preexistent knowledge that paradoxically we need to recover and discover. The experience of recollecting is a strange duality of recovering something we must have known previously, since we have an affinity (suggenous) for it. Clearly, Plato rejects anything such as Locke’s tabula rasa, based on the nominalism of constructivism.

Yet, we also have discovered that which we hitherto did not know and could not have previously elaborated. The origins of knowledge through recollecting remain a mystery, and this is what provokes mythos. Recollection itself (Theaetetus 209c-e) accounts for true opinions, but it remains unclear how they would qualify as knowledge, i.e., whether there is a logos that would transform true opinion into knowledge. Socrates in the end remains confident only about his art of midwifery, which he declares was received from a god. It is a god, not Socrates, that is the cause and measure of fair things being delivered from within persons (Theaetetus 150d-151d). It remains Socrates’ responsibility not to allow the imposters to flourish, not to destroy the truth, and to take care concerning who is worthy of association. His daimon warns him regarding with whom he should have discussions. For Socrates, there is quite an array of factors such as aporia, questioning, recollecting and recovering (not teaching a doctrine), causal reasoning (Meno 98a), the gods and the divine, and among friends in a common, enabling discovery process.

Of course, the midwife analogy literally breaks down at certain points. Socrates deals with the souls of young men, not the bodies of young women, and the ordinary midwife does not attempt to distinguish between real children and monstrosities, that is, between true and false offspring. However, it was an old Greek custom to carry the newborn around the family hearth as an initiation ceremony to determine whether or not the child will be accepted into the home or will be exposed. It is part of Socrates’ hypothetical method to examine an argument or logos on every side (Theatetus 160e, 191c), to test its consistency regarding what we already know and its acceptability regarding implications flowing from it. Therefore, in this light we shall examine the two major hypotheses in the Theaetetus: (1) knowledge is perception according to the logos (description and account)  (Theatetus 151eff); and (2) knowledge is true opinion accompanied by a logos (Theaetetus 201cff).

The Theaetetus is not known or commonly recognized to be a dialogue in which any mythoi occur. Nevertheless, a considerable portion of the first part of the treatment of knowledge as perception involves the telling of a tale (mythos, Theaetetus 156c). The tale involves the whole of the Greek tradition, especially Protagoras and Heraclitus, as far back as Homer, but excluding Parmenides. The tradition holds that nothing ever is but is always becoming or in motion. Not only does this characterize our sense perception, but we ourselves are not always the same person. Heraclitus was wrong about not being able to step into the same river twice; one cannot even step into the same river once. Rest is the cause of non-existence and death; only motion (kinesis), as in the case of the sun and its rays that form the golden chain, keeps everything going round (Theaetetus 153c-d). (In the Republic, the sun will be the potent image of the Idea of the Good.) The active and passive forces of this motion are infinite in number. The basic assumption of this tale is that nothing exists in itself, nothing is invariably one (including ourselves; see Theaetetus 157a-b), since everything constantly is becoming in relation to everything else that is becoming. Accordingly, being itself does not exist (thus, Parmenides’ absence).

Why does Socrates call this a mythos or tale? Is it a true or false mythos? Primarily, these traditional arguments about becoming and the flux lead to bewilderment or aporias. We need to examine within ourselves the nature of appearances, avoiding if possible the sophistic, eristic battering of logoi against logoi. Theaetetus’ response is one of wonderment and amazement. And Socrates knows that wonder in the form of aporia is the beginning of philosophy. Consequently, this mythos is told in order to produce and to excite this wonder (thaumazo) at the very juncture where some kind of rational treatment can deal with all its perplexity. The mythos itself is meant to evoke a logos, as well as being a somewhat reasonable account itself (Theaetetus 157c-158e).

There are two defining characteristics of mythos that explain its appearance in the Theaetetus. First of all, Plato usually speaks of a mythos as something heard from another or others,[35] something passed down by tradition, something referencing a special kind of inner hearing, be it daimonic or divine inspiration.[36] (This does not exclude the fact that Plato is quite critical of tradition, hearsay, and those who uncritically depend on supposedly divine, external inspiration.) In this respect, mythos is quite distinct from logos that involves a questioning and answering among interlocuters who are present and active participants. The expositors of the “all is becoming in flux” tradition from Homer to Protagoras cannot be present in the Theaetetus, and thus Socrates has to reconstruct in some consistent and persuasive manner their logos or argument via a mythos. Socrates even wonders in the Theaetetus (152c-e, 161c-e), just as he wondered about Protagoras in the Protagoras, whether these persons have an esoteric truth or knowledge not revealed in their public speeches. There is a serious problem regarding how truth, knowledge, and even speech (logos) would be at all possible and meaningful in the midst of a flux that makes us all our own quite fallible judges (assuming that knowledge is nothing but variable sense perception). Consequently, Plato puts the logos of the ancients in a mythos, which signals to us the tension between what might be uncritically repeated in a mythos and the critical, analytical dimension of logos proper. (In addition, what characterizes noesis is a seeing, not a hearing. The Greek terms for knowing are “seeing” terms.)

The second characteristic of mythos is that it acts out mimetically the consequences of certain positions that are held. Given the reluctance of Theodorus (who has been influenced by Protagoras and others) to enter into a dialogue with Socrates, Socrates has no choice but to set the stage in a dramatic fashion regarding the whole traditional background underlying Theaetetus’ blunt statement, namely, that knowledge is perception. It may also be true that the best characterization of Protagoras’ position would amount to a persuasive, mimetic tale that Protagoras himself would have been likely to have delivered to the demotic galleries (Theaetetus 161e). This especially is true if Protagoras was famous for saying publicly (could he really have believed it himself?) that any one (whether god or dog-faced baboon) is the measure of his own perceptions and opinions. This would make Socrates’ art of midwifery and dialectic utter folly and futility.

The primary issue between Protagoras and Socrates depends on whether a distinction can be made between appearances (infinitely multitudinous) and being (self-sameness). Socrates makes this clear by asking if we can distinguish between what happens to us when dreaming compared to our experiences while awake. A parallel case is that of deciding whether two different sets of opinion are both true. Some measure for truth and falsity seems obligatory, since it is common for persons to admit that an opinion is either true or false. In one respect of having had a sense perception, only the perceiver can know what s/he has perceived. S/he certainly has truly perceived, if by “truly” we mean actually. In other words, a false perception, and likewise a false opinion, depend on the original perception, which is still really a perception of opinion. We are led from sense perception to opinions, judgements, memories, and some measure, all of which qualify the nature of sense perception regarding its true or false status. Common opinion affirms this (Theaetetus 170a-172b). But this is to assume that there is some constant, invariable measure beyond perception and opinions. Socrates, acting out Protagoras’ position, contends that since all is fluctuating appearance the crucial question is not the truth or falsity of such appearances, but whether they are relatively worse or better for the person perceiving. This is the function of education enabling the wise, sophistic Protagoras to go from the worse to the better condition. In this fashion, Protagoras utters logoi (speeches) like a physician who uses drugs (Theaetetus 167a).

The whole momentum of Socrates’ defense of sophistic logoi by telling a mythos is to engender in Theaetetus some account (logos) of himself (Theaetetus 169a-c). In other dialogues (we previously have mentioned the Meno and Phaedo), to examine oneself is tantamount to testing an argument (a logos which in this case is whether “man is the measure of all things”). Such an argument as this will have certain necessary consequences or deductions (Theaetetus 170e). Therefore, if truth is whatever is true to anyone, then nobody shares any truth in common (except accidentally). Furthermore, how can “man is the measure of all things” be true in itself? It may be true for Protagoras, but not necessarily for any other person. It would be difficult or incommunicable to defend the manner in which persons as individuals could be self-sufficient in wisdom. If wisdom implies truth, and if we want to know who is wise or why someone is wise, then there must be some common, communicable measure (metron) that can be agreed upon so that persons speaking with one another can decide who is truly wise. On analogy with politics, each polis enacts into law what it holds to be just, honorable, and pious in truth. Poleis differ from one another, which is to say that no one of them exists by nature according to the essence of justice, honor, and piety (Theaetetus 172b). What is true for them depends on the aptness of the measure behind their enactment and observance of their laws. But, as the advantages of laws consist of making for a better or worse quality of life, it cannot be the case that any and all laws will be profitable and beneficial. This requires some standards (kriterion) in which to make judgements (Theaetetus 178b-c). Protagoras never clarifies by what measure he can be the phronimos (Theaetetus 183b-c), who perhaps unlike most other people can judge the advantageous, the Good, and the just. If everyone is their own self-determining user of phronesis, then there is in all likelihood no common, speakable meaning to being a phronesis user. It is very helpful here to follow Gadamer who states that Socrates’ “know thy self” really means “know thy logoi.”[37]

The philosophers and the citizens of the polis tend to part ways, insofar as the lawcourts and their kind of logoi and judgements represent the polis. In the lawcourts citizens become the servants of political, popular logoi, and no freedom or leisure is possible for the philosophic pursuit of what justice (dike) is (Theatetetus 172d-173c). As a result, Socrates responds to the Protagorean position with what we might call a lengthy countertale (Theaetetus 172d-177c). The term mythos is not used at all here, but Socrates does say that when we proceed from logos to logos a greater logos overtakes us (Theaetetus 172bc). This section is labelled a digression, and it threatens to flood the original logos regarding knowledge as perception.

The reason why this section amounts to a tale (and partly a countertale) is that it sets up two patterns, two ways of life, which have determinate consequences for who a person is and will be. The philosophic way of life is steadfastly upright and free, insofar as leisure time away from the concrete political pursuits of the agora can permit the investigation of the universal nature of all things including human nature (Theaetetus 173e-174b). Nevertheless, such a philosopher may ordinarily cut a ridiculous figure, because he lives in perplexity (aporia) and disdains ordinary pursuits that are bent towards the gaining of reputation and honor. The pseudo-philosophical way of life (that of the philodoxer) results in a man of bent soul, since his full-time occupation is in the slave-like service of doing and saying what conventionally and politically have been pre-established. The two patterns of life, in sum, are the divine and blessed versus the godless and wretched (Theatetus 176e-177a). Men will pay the penalty of pursuing the life that resembles one pattern or the other. The godless life is the result of believing that individual persons are self-sufficient such that they can autonomously devise their own measures of good and bad, true and false. Thus, Socrates delivers this greater logos that on the one hand borders on a mythos of judgement concerning the final end and on the other hand has consequences that result when a logos (account) is elaborated of the doctrine that knowledge is perception. A pattern of life, an understanding of the nature of reality, and an ethic of acting and speaking are the points upon which logos and mythos converge.

The crucial refutation that knowledge is identical to sense perception depends on an important distinction, which reveals the active judgmental function of the soul as opposed to its passive reception of sense impressions. Socrates asks of our sense organs (our eyes and ears), are they that by which or through which we sense? It is the former by which our bodily sense organs see and hear. We still need to clarify the “through which” whereby we do have the power to think and make common judgements and comparisons regarding likeness and unlikeness, being and not-being, unity and plurality, and identity and difference (Theaetetus 184c-185e). Theaetetus supplies the answer (which elicits a bravo and a praise of his beauty from Socrates): the soul investigates what all things have in common, sometimes alone through its own faculties (dynamis), other times in conjunction with bodily faculties. Regarding likeness and unlikeness, being and not-being, unity and plurality, and identity and difference, the soul also examines these in relation to each other as they are analogously (analogismata) reflected upon within our soul in regard to the past and the present in relation to the future (Theaetetus 186a-c). It is not the reception of sensations through healthy bodily organs that causes the soul difficulties (i.e., if knowledge were no more than perception). The active, analogical reflection by the soul considering the being and worth of such sense perceptions is what requires considerable experience and education. Knowledge consists not in sensations alone, but in reasoning about them, which then leads to the apprehension of being and truth (Theaetetus 186d).[38]              

Knowledge then consists of some sort of judgemental function of the soul, which encourages Theaetetus to identify all true opinion with knowledge. However, if we operate on the assumption that we either know or do not know (leaving aside for the moment the matter of learning and forgetting [39]), then it is incumbent upon Theaetetus to explain how false opinion occurs. This aporia regarding the origination of false opinion involves its ontological reference and not the ways in which we know or do not know (epistemology) (Theaetetus 188c-d). Therefore, can anyone hold an opinion of what is not in relation to what is, or independent of all reality? Since it is impossible to hold anything of what is not, false opinion seemingly involves a relation to what is when we mistakenly identify one thing with another. But we can still ask how false opinion arises in the mind, because it is going against the nature of things, by saying that the right is the wrong and the beautiful is the ugly, and this must remain impossible, if not extremely unusual and perplexing. The soul when it converses with itself (Theaetetus 189e-190a) apprehends and knows, or does not apprehend and know, the objects before it. In some way or another the soul must think it knows what it really does not know, if false opinion is to be possible. Paradoxically, Socrates has been trying all along to get the truth about false opinion by disposing of false opinions regarding the possibility of false opinion. It is when the soul reflects upon itself, or with another soul, that the soul then can give an account (logos) of itself and its experiences and objects.

Knowledge in some way involves opinions of the soul accompanied by a logos that justifies (makes true) the soul’s opinions. The truth of this definition of knowledge, as well as whether the soul will arrive at knowledge, depends entirely on logos (giving a rational account). Socrates resorts to two analogical models, the wax block and the aviary, in order to clarify what this logos might be. For the sake of the argument (logos), assume that our souls are wax blocks of different sizes, textures, and qualities on which images or our perceptions are imprinted. False opinion then is a mistake of recognition, i.e., when we wrongly assign or match an imprint with what we now are perceiving. The source of error may be in our present perception, or in the poor quality of our wax (our memory imprints in our mind). Depending on the nature of our memory implants and our perceptions, our thoughts or judgements may or may not be correctly interchanged with our sense perceptions. Nevertheless, there is a serious limitation with the wax block analogy; it applies as a true or false logos only in cases of identity with our memory imprints.

Another model is needed, namely the aviary (Theatetus 197dff), if one is going to explain how false opinion arises in cases where sense experience is absent, such as in cases of mathematical judgements. This is turn raises the problem of how someone cannot know that which (e.g., numbers) he does know in his mind. In other words, we have to know what knowledge constitutes in the first place (our original object of inquiry) as a ground or measure. The aviary model is meant to supply an example analogous to the distinction between possessing knowledge potentially (dynamis) and having knowledge actually. Thus, our mind as an aviary may be filled with all kinds of birds (knowledge we possess potentially) that we can acquire or collect. Such is our knowledge in holding. (Reminiscences of the Meno here.) But we have knowledge in actuality only when we take up what we possess and separate it in our mind, gaining control over it, even so far as to teach it to someone else (Theaetetus 198a-d). Given a potential and an actual differentiation of knowledge, we can explain how a man does not know actually what he knows potentially. We also recollect what Socrates means when he says he is only a midwife who knows that he does not know (yet).[40]

The aviary model breaks down when it is extended and understood more concretely by Theaetetus to contain birds representing kinds of ignorance as well as kinds of knowledge. This response is engendered when Socrates remarks how absurd it is for someone to possess knowledge potentially and yet to be ignorant through this very knowledge. It appears, paradoxically, as if our potential knowledge is the source of our ignorance (Theaetetus 199d). This is Socrates’ way of wondering out loud about the extent to which men do not make actual what is potential in them. Why do people fail to recollect that which would make knowledge possible? It is logos that bridges the gap, and we know from comparing sophistic and philosophic logos, there may be true and false logoi. Eventually (Theaetetus 201c-d), Theaetetus remembers (i.e., recollects) having heard someone once say that true opinion joined by reasoning (logos) leads to knowledge.

In the meantime, both the aviary and the wax block are negated as analogies falling prey to circularity and infinite regress: they themselves require another level of knowledge to account for the knowledge and ignorance contained within them and to account for the existence of true and false opinion (Theaetetus 200b-c). As long as we stay within the confines of these two models we cannot distinguish the basis (namely logos) for true and false opinion. One could add here, if an anamnesis of the forms is possible, which is to say that the forms exist and we can come to know them via recollection and giving logoi, then a condition of knowledge preexists as the ground for our philosophic striving. The Theaetetus in the end focuses on what kind and process of logos would make true opinion into knowledge.

There are three candidates for a logos that might transform opinion into knowledge (Theaetetus 206d-210b). First, logos might mean giving voice to one’s thoughts, speaking or explaining by nouns and verbs. The problem with this definition of logos is that it fails to distinguish right opinion from knowledge. The second definition of logos is that of accounting for something in terms of its elements. Such an orderly description of the parts of a wagon, for example, would amount to technical knowledge. Nevertheless, this kind of logos added to right opinion does not achieve knowledge, because there is no guarantee that an enumeration of parts goes to the sum or essence of a thing beyond a mere description of constituent parts. Would just knowing the parts of one thing be sufficient to say what this one thing has in common with other things of the same kind?

Lastly, the third and most common sense of logos is that of the characteristics of an object that distinguishes it from other objects. However, this notion of logos amounts to nothing more than what we originally have with right opinion. To have right opinion about an object is to be able to distinguish it from other objects. Logos in this sense adds nothing. Even though none of these senses of logos along with right opinion add up to knowledge, we still need not reject the possibility of some different sense of logos that would meet the requirements of the necessary and sufficient conditions for knowledge.[41] In fact, the third sense of logos is most promising, if we think of logos in terms of Platonic forms and essences, which would specify both what a given object has in common with other objects as well as its differentiations. But Socrates has no intention of making a connection at this point between logos and the forms, although it should be a very prominent alternative (if we engage in recollection) for Plato’s readers. The Sophist and its understanding of logos in terms of the method of collection and division will terminate the consideration of Plato’s understanding of logos proper as a bridge between opinion and knowledge.

The Sophist

In the Sophist, the pattern or paradigm put before us is the method of collection and division according to a method of logos that endeavors to understand affinities and non-affinities. This will be the basis for making comparisons (Sophist 227a-228a), i.e., for collecting various activities and functions under one division or kind (eidos, genos). An example of this procedure, demonstrated by the Eleatic Stranger, is the division of art (techne) into production (or imitation), as opposed to acquisition or possession. The basis for this division of kinds is that producers work upon something not preexistingly formed (e.g., the work of the demiurgos), whereas those who possess the acquisitive art deal with something preexisting (e.g., the acquisition of knowledge, money-making, fighting and hunting). The point of this division (which will be even further developed by a downward division) is to locate the angler, and by the example of such division according to kinds (which ends in classifying the angler as an acquisitive artist engaged in water hunting with barbs) we will then have before us a paradigm or model for hunting the sophist. Ironically, the sophist is a hunter like the angler, only the sophist hunts by rhetorical persuasion (not force), on land, after young men, and for the sake of wealth.

In Plato’s Seventh Letter (342a-344d), there are four rungs on the ladder that lead to the truly knowable. First, there is the name of that under inquiry; second the logos or definition; third, the image portraying the truly knowable reality; and fourth, knowledge, intelligence (nous), or true opinion, regarding that which is known. The latter exists in the soul and is closest in kinship to the truly knowable reality of the whole which is fifth, at a remove, verily the silent, unspeakable “truth of the whole of existence” (alethes tes holes ousias). If mythos can be located on the third rung, then logos and mythos are both means towards the knowledge of the real, but are not identical with that end. What should strike us as foremostly characteristic of logos and mythos (and at the same time identical with the human condition) is that they both mediate between an experience of becoming and temporality on one hand and the vision that yields knowledge of true being and reality on the other hand.

Even though this may be the crowning point of logos proper, namely, the method of collection and division according to kinds, the very beginning of the Sophist still exemplifies the problem of what kind of logos (form of speech) the Stranger will choose. There are two possible logoi or forms of conversation first mentioned by Socrates (who otherwise will have no active part in the Sophist): (1) a long, uninterrupted logos in which the Stranger will expound whatever he wishes; and (2) the method of questioning and answering as employed splendidly by Parmenides. The Stranger’s choice is not unSocratic; he will prefer a continuous speech by one person, if there is no interlocutor who is uncontrollable, inoffensive, and unwilling to dialogue (Sophist 217c-e). Consequently, Socrates produces Theaetetus as an interlocuter, and the Stranger immediately consents to a discussion via short questions and answers. Nevertheless, the discussion (logos) itself will be very long because nothing less that the manifold appearances of the sophist are to be investigated and captured in definition. The sophist will be known in the end by an agreement in argument (logos) and not just by name (Sophist 218b-249d).

Perhaps it now should be noted that Sayre does not at all believe the goal of the Sophist is the catching and defining of the clever, elusive sophist.[42] According to Sayre, Plato really is exhibiting through dissimulation that mode of argument (logos) that proceeds by way of logical analysis of necessary and sufficient conditions.[43] Thus, the Sophist is the crowning achievement of logos proper in the sense of the utmost precision that can be had through formal reasoning. If this is solely and fundamentally Plato’s project, then it is understandable why Sayre strongly devalues the political significance of the dialogue. There is no concern for the interrelationship of the philosopher with the statesman and the sophist. The problem of the philosopher(s) as the one or the few versus the demos or the many is excluded along with any mode of discourse that is characterized by metaphor and mythos, especially if allied to intuition and insight (nous).[44] The question before us is whether logos proper (admittedly a sense of logos that does reveal itself most emphatically in Plato’s Sophist) has these exclusively abstract, logical properties and consequences, which would obliterate logos as an acted-out, political dialogue revealing who it is (be it philosopher or sophist or statesman) that seeks or does not seek to participate in the truth of being (ousia, Sophist 248a-e).

Collection and division, being the logos practiced by the Eleatic Stranger, result in six preliminary definitions of the sophist. This manifoldness in appearance and in affinity to other preoccupations (e.g., the hunter, the merchant, the retailer, the seller, the athlete, and the purger) reveals half of the problem in defining the sophist. The other half of the problem involves the sophists’ affinity to non-being. (In a moment we shall consider: can non-being be defined or given a logos?) In reality, the sophist parasitically adopts all these manifestations or images. The sophist is a jack-of-all trades, a busybody, and a man for any and all seasons. Nevertheless, the goal of our method of argument (Sophist 227a-c) is to go beyond external appearances, even though there is some significance in understanding the affinity the sophist has to various arts. The method of collection and division proceeds according to a division of arts on the basis of their collected affinities and their natural differentiations. The many affinities of the sophist do not amount to a single logos or a single definition. What is worse, the sixth definition of the sophist (the sophist of noble lineage, Sophist 231b), who is said to purify souls by removing opinions that obstruct learning, seemingly characterizes the elenchic practice of Socrates. Of course, Socrates in his own day was confused with the sophists, and he did engage young men in ways superficially and deceptively resembling the sophists. Furthermore, it was the tactic of some sophists to attack conventional opinions in a manner similar to Socrates. The real issue involves the kind of purification practiced: does it really make men better (thus implying some standard or measure of the right and the Good)? Does such purification use the method of questioning and answering to bring about modesty (sophrosyne) among young men, insofar as these young men will now know what they did not know? Or does it produce “the empty conceit of wisdom” (Sophist 231b)?

If a logos in the sense of logos proper were only a method of logical discrimination via questioning and answering, it would become extremely dangerous in the hands of the sophist who would have the ability and power to use this art and power of logos proper on any object for any purpose. Throughout the Sophist, Theaetetus and the Eleatic Stranger share a common end, which allows for logos in terms of short questions and answers; both men seek the way things really are, i.e., truth and reality are understood to be interchangeable (Sophist 240b, 246b, 263b). The nature of this truth/reality is contrary to the indifferent, if not deceptive, false art of the sophist. The six definitions of the sophist reveal that the sophist presumes to have an overblown knowledge about everything and anything (Sophist 232c-233a). The magical power of the sophist enables him to dispute all things, as if any person could know all things (Sophist 233a-c). This disputatious manner indiscriminately calls into question divine, invisible things, as well as contingent, earthly matters, such as law and public affairs (Sophist 232c-d). The sophist does not admit any knowledge s/he does not know.

Accordingly, the sophist is now compared to another kind of artist, the painter. Both have the power to juggle and imitate all of reality (Sophist 234b-235a). The painter paints pictures, whereas the sophist uses words or spoken images to persuade his/her listeners. If we are to capture the sophist by the orders of our king, logos or reason (Sophist 235b-c), we need to divide the imitative art. There are two kinds of imitation: (1) by likeness according to proper proportions as they truly are; (2) by appearances (fantasmata) which are so out of proportion that they seem fantastical. Although the sophist seems to be cornered within the “fantastic art,” it is a perplexing problem to distinguish appearing and seeming from being. How can the falsehood of appearing and seeming be at all, if it amounts to not-being? It is here that the sophist finds a home within which to hide. Is it at all possible to explore non-being, to catch and define the sophist at least, if non-being is inconceivable (alogon, Sophist 238c)? Is not non-being shifty, in the shadows, mostly hidden, just like the wily sophist? If we say that the sophist’s art is to produce deceptive images, appearances, and opinions about what is not, how can we say that such images, appearances, and opinions, as well as the sophist him/herself, exist? In some way, non-being must consort with thinking and with logos to result in false speech.

The passage that follows in the Sophist (242c) is the only time in the entire dialogue that mythos is explicitly mentioned, and mythical figures, the gods and the giants, are represented (Sophist 246a). The matter at hand is the nature of existence or reality. The Eleatic Stranger complains that Parmenides (previously referred to as the “father”) and others spoke about the nature of reality in its oneness and/or manifoldness, as if telling a story to children. Besides their conflicting accounts, none of them even cared whether their arguments could be followed (Sophist 243a-b). Their accounts are mythical in themselves, because we cannot question them, since they are not here to defend themselves. The only proper method to use is to make believe that they are present and confront them with questions about the perplexity of being and not-being.[45] It would seem that all mythos needs a critical logos. Does this subordinate and reduce mythos to logos as such?

In this way, Parmenides is questioned (as if present) concerning how being can be designated. Is being one? Is being a whole with or without parts, and if the former then what is the relationship of the parts to being? Does being come to exist? These kinds of questions and difficulties are raised to show that being is as much a problem as not-being. Likewise, the definition of the philosopher is as much a quandary as that of the sophist. In sum, Plato is asking whether a logos can be given of being as well as of not-being. In terms of mythical images, the battle rages between the gods (friends of the forms) and the giants (the materialists or atomistic, natural philosophers) revealing a polarization regarding the nature of being (in traditional mythos we are reminded of another battle between Zeus and Chronos). The giants, the rebels, drag down everything that pertains to the heavenly and the invisible, and they forcefully declare that all existence to be no more than tangible body and matter. They violently refuse to admit that there is anything more than the corporeal. The gods, on the other hand, cautiously defend themselves by turning towards real or true existence, which consists of invisible ideas or forms known by the intelligence or mind (nous). A tremendous battle is fought between these two rivals (is not such a battle ongoing today between some philosophers and modern natural science?). The consequences of the giants’ claims would mean the fragmentation and reduction of all logoi to inconstancy (evolution); all would be generation, flux, and motion (Sophist 246a-c).

Both the giants and the gods acknowledge that bodies and souls (minds) exist, and consequently, both of them have to be accounted for in logoi. However, it is very difficult to conduct a logos according to the rules of dialectic (questioning and answering) with warring, rebellious giants. It is even doubtful that such giants can be made better in deed, although the main task is to seek the truth and to follow the path of logos irrespective of enemies.[46] Nevertheless, it is hoped that the giants will admit that the existence of the virtues and of wisdom in the soul is something incorporeal. At the least the Eleatic Stranger hopes that they will concede that the nature of being or existence can be defined as power (dynamis), i.e., the power to act or to be acted upon (Sophist 248c). More specifically, humans are capable (dynaton) of becoming just or unjust; in most cases, they exist in-between (metaxy), in potentiality to justice or injustice and also have a body that participates in generation via perception betwixt a soul that participates in real being (ontos ousian, Sophist 248a). We start with becoming (the flux) on our way to being (ousia). The idea of justice is not in potentiality, but our own existence is in potentiality to it. This is the crux of the argument that the Eleatic Stranger presents; both motion (knowing, living, acting, and all those other verbal participles and gerunds, not nouns) and rest (self-sameness, unity) characterize real being finally. If one or the other is emphasized exclusively, then knowledge, reason, and mind are endangered. How could we be alive, to act, and to have all this eros to know being, if real being itself is devoid of life and thought, and is totally other, fixed and immovable (Sophist 248e-249b)? And if all is only in flux, then this would mean a fruitless and vain bearing or direction for the mind seeking knowledge thorough reason (logos). Consequently, we are enjoined to resist by every logos possible this either-or polarization: represented by the mythical war of gods versus giants (Sophist 249c-d). Yet these poles truly exist in a dynamic relation to one another.

The question remains whether a definition (logos) of being itself has been attained or is even attainable. To say that being includes or embraces motion and rest is not to say what being itself is, since we are only saying that both motion and rest exist, while in themselves they are opposed. Is not being some third thing? Yet how could there be anything that was not either at rest or in motion? We have to conclude that being cannot be given a logos separate from other forms and their possibility of combining or not combining. Everyone applies being as an attribute either of motion or of rest or of both. Discourse (logos) is impossible without such attribution, although we still can query whether a given thing has fulfilled its potential, or its completion/true being by nature. Also, being in itself is other than and beyond all things, since it is the source or arche of all things. In this respect, true being is the ground as well as the end for all discourse.

Does not the pursuit of true being not only culminate in knowledge, but also have consequences for the agent or actor who strives to participate and commune (koinonion) in wisdom? There is a powerful tendency among contemporary philosophers to ignore the action dimensions of the Platonic logos that have as one of its ends knowledge. Is not Plato constantly considering the consequences of human activities and pursuits regarding the souls and political being of persons? Is not the recognition of communion and participation in dialectic and noesis fundamental? It is questions like these that invite the study of the relationship of word and deed in Plato’s dialogues.

Before doing this, we need to understand the notion of logos as the interweaving of forms reached via the method of collection and division in the Sophist. Logos (reasoning) is the dialectical art of joining and combining forms themselves, as well as explaining the basis for the commingling and participation of individual things in the forms (Sophist 253b-d). It is extremely important to note (given the previous mythical analogy of the battle of the gods and the giants), that logos is not solely that act of reasoning between the forms alone (being, motion, rest, sameness, and otherness or difference), but also involves the participation of individual things (represented by giants and humans) with the ideas represented by the gods. It is characteristic of the papers on logos by Sayre, Cross, and Bluck to ignore this later dimension and the possibilities of a harmony or complementary relationship between symbolically mythical participation or human action and the rational (logos proper) activity of the philosopher involved with the forms or ideas alone. In any case, the philosopher (somewhere betwixt giants and gods) has been discovered while searching for the sophist: the philosopher devotes himself to the activity of reasoning (logismos, Sophist 254a) about the most important forms – being, rest, motion, sameness, and otherness. Only if we first know (qua philosopher) can we discern the non-knower (sophist).

To discover the sophist, we need to explain how not-being can be. It is through an understanding of the form or nature of otherness that we can say non-being exists. The nature of otherness is entirely relative or relational. While otherness participates in all things as they are interrelated and also participates in being, otherness is not that in which it participates (Sophist 259a-b), but other than being, namely, not-being. Otherness or not-being is different than being (one is inclined to say it is a privation or deficiency of being) and not opposite to being. If otherness or not-being were opposite to being, then it would be totally separate. Accordingly, it would be impossible to speak of the reality of injustice, ugliness, falsehood, etc. Falsehood is possible if not-being is not completely divorced from all the forms that combine and intermingle. In this way, Plato argues that “the complete separation of each thing from all is the utterly final obliteration of all discourse (logon). For our power of discourse (logos) is derived from the interweaving of the ideas with one another” (Sophist 259e).

If not-being did not mingle with opinion and logos (i.e., if it is totally opposite and separate), then all logoi would be necessarily true. Since we have discovered that not-being partakes of being, we have at the same time discovered the sophist who no longer can deny the participation of falsehood in being in the form of logos. The sophist is the via negativa embodiment of this. We truly have a false logos when what is said is other than what is. Such falsity may exist in our speech, in our thoughts, or in our opinions. Opinions whether true or false are the result of our thought (dianoia). Speech and thought may become the same, except that thought is a silent dialogue within ourselves. To judge truth or falsity the Eleatic Stranger asks us to recollect the previous division of mimesis into likeness making and fantasy. Only insofar as we are the works of god can our likenesses be images of that divine reason and knowledge. Otherwise, we engage in fantasy-making that is without knowledge and is based on simple human opinion or some kind of intentional human dissembling that one knows what one really does not know.[47]

Words and Deeds

This treatment of logos (including logos proper) could continue covering, at the least, important passages in the Statesman, Philebus, Laws, Timaeus, and Parmenides. In fact, a separate publication on logos in Plato would be in order, although one great danger such a project would entail is the threat of an unwarranted (i.e., not based on the Platonic corpus) separation of logos from mythos. The foregoing examination of logos unavoidably includes mythos, and the conclusion was reached that logos and mythos move in and out of one another.[48] Additional evidence can be given for this argument by looking at the often-mentioned combination of “in words (en logoi) and in deeds (en ergoi)” in the Platonic corpus.    This intimate connection of words and deeds has a long Greek tradition. For instance, we observe it in the Homeric depiction of the arête of men, which shines forth in words and deeds. Thus, words and deeds are mutually coordinated, since to speak is to act, and action is memorialized over time by speech. (Of course, there will always be some kind of actions that do not befit words, as well as some kinds of speech that do not befit enactment.) This unity of speech and action can help explain the unity of logos meaning both story and speech. With Plato and the development and differentiation of logos to the point of logos proper, we need to recognize the rational drawing of consequences for action given the speech or words of an interlocuter in the dialogues. Speech becomes a mime for action as it is part of the political philosopher’s function to make visible the consequences of serious argumentation (in itself only one side of logos) in the world in which we necessarily live and act (lebenswelt). Speaking and acting (no matter how differentiated logos or speaking becomes) still constitute a unity, but no longer a unity to be taken for granted in the manner that traditions and commonplace understandings become uncritically accepted. With the differentiation of logos into narration or story on one hand and rational account or grounding on the other hand, there still remains a common core. The unity of “word and deed” perseveres because the refining of logos proper by the philosopher’s dialectical inquiry does not exclude consequential action or different kinds of agents (e.g., the demos, sophist, poet, statesman, et al.).

The problem of the consequences of speech (logos) for political action is severe and unmitigating. Do we mean what is possible in deed given any existing political order, or do we mean the possibilities of action in the best political regime? Does the imagination of the best political order in speech allow for unlimited possibilities of action, or are we always to imagine that our words and deeds must be carefully circumscribed even in the best political regime? There is plenty of evidence that Plato addressed both kinds of politics, the political actuality and the political best (aristos). Resorting to a mythical logos may as much be the result of not-being politically able to speak directly as not being able to enact for listeners in concrete reality what they are seeking. This may be the end (telos) of political order or the best regime and the highest perfection that humans can reach. It is not surprising, as we shall see, that mythos (like metaphor and analogy) appears in the Platonic dialogues when an impasse has been reached. It is as much an impasse requiring political and educational caution, as it is an epistemological and ontological aporia that requires indirect expression and reflective imagination. In addition, all political regimes have mythoi in the sense of common beliefs that people adhere to in a community (polis).

To conclude this chapter, we need to examine Plato’s understanding of the interrelationship of “words and deeds” in regard to their status and their political and educational consequences in two senses: (1) the explicit and implicit references to “words and deeds”; and (2) two impasses, namely, the public or political favoring of visible deeds over invisible words, and the private and conversational favoring of invisible words over visible deeds. In both instances, there is political (polis) responsibility at stake. In our educational community (a micro polis) everything is openly in common.

The implicit situations in which Socrates acts out in speech and has a public role through serious argumentation (logos) are just as significant (if they are not more powerfully poignant) as Plato’s explicit references to the educational standard or paradigm, “words and deeds.” Regarding the latter, on four different occasions Plato makes it clear that young men will look to their elders and judge them or improve upon them according to their “words and deeds” (Protagoras 325d, Gorgias 461c-d, Republic 563a, Laws 765e, 717d). Explicitly and publicly, openly and visibly, words and deeds are representative of a learning process that habituates a young person. Naturally, the poets have a significant part in the process, since they imitate speeches and actions that are worthy or unworthy of emulation (Timaeus 19c-e). Sophrosyne as regards the pleasures (Philebus 45d, Laws 647d), piety towards the gods (Laws 885b, 935a), military courage (Laches 193c), friendship (Menexenus 244a), even the duty to inquire (Meno 86bc), and to test people’s arguments in conversation (Theaetetus 160e) characterize the persons who would aspire to be fully virtuous in word and in deed (Republic 498e-499a). Consequently, one can conclude that Plato’s explicit references to “words and deeds” exemplifies the educational and political concern for the virtuous model of life. Nevertheless, Plato is not unaware that the standard of what is intended to be imitated in “words and deeds” may be false, i.e., may not rest on knowledge (Sophist 267c). Thus, we are advised to look for the persons of wisdom (be they persons of practical and/or theoretical wisdom)[49], who would be the fitting model for speech and action (see Laches 201a). Plato is also aware of a potential splitting of logos and ergon in the cases where later in life, when we have learned much through experience (action, ergon), we come to realize that what we previously held to be true in argument (logos) really was false and damaging to our character (Sophist 234e). Before considering such impasses or conflicts between logos and ergon, we need to examine some implicit examples of the interacting relationship of logos and ergon.

Frequently in Platonic dialogues a major interlocutor is brought to shame just at that point where his speech or argument (logos) has action (ergon) and character revealing consequences. There is the blush of Charmides who is boldly and immoderately encouraged to explain what modesty (sophrosyne) is. Likewise, the threatening and even speech-defying consequences of Thrasymachus’ and Callicles’ defense of “might is right” become shameful (aidos), when acted out before others, because there is no basis in knowledge that would be revealed in logos, which would truly benefit the users of such unwarranted, unlimited power. Also, Socrates first speech on eros in the Phaedrus defending the non-lover shamefully reveals, as it is acted out in speech or logos, the calculating manipulation of those who take advantage of erotic drives. Related to this is Alcibiades’ speech in the Symposium that exposes Socrates in deed as a man of eros who follows rigorously and consistently his own speech or words regarding eros in its bodily manifestations. Note that Alcibiades was not present for Socrates’ speech on eros in the Symposium. Thus, he can reaffirm indirectly Socrates’ logos through Socrates’ deeds without having been erotically persuaded previously by Socrates’ own eros speech.

All of these examples indicate that deed and speech follow upon one another. We speak as we act, and we act as we speak. There is this abiding interaction between speech and action that in the end reveals and constitutes who we are by nature. In this respect, we can understand how Socrates’ daimon (his identity or guardian spirit) prevented certain doings or sayings (Apology 40b). All of the Platonic dialogues (for us in their written capacity) are meant to be revelatory witnesses to different kinds of persons discernible explicitly by their different kinds of deeds and implicitly by their different kinds of speeches.

Although there is such a unity of “word and deed,” this does not exclude the possibility of a conflict or impasse occurring between them. This can happen on two levels. First, publicly and politically, given the character of the way things are, there may be little room for noble and exemplary words and deeds. There is a significant digression in the Theaetetus when Socrates outlines the public and political problems of acting given the slavish, wheeling-and-dealing speeches and actions that occur in the Athenian lawcourts. In these deformed lawcourts, there is little possibility of a consideration of justice, truth, and happiness in themselves. There is only an acceptance of what convention dictates. Thus, there is the serious failure to know what one does not know.

The lawcourts characterized the Athenian polis, and of course Socrates’ words and deeds were brought before such a court that was foreign to the manner in which Socrates chose to act and to speak. In Athenian courts a time limit was imposed on what one can say and the extent to which one could cross-examine accusers. Also, direct contact with the judges in order to cross-examine them regarding their opinions was not possible. In this respect, the words (logoi) of Socrates were more befitting private (not in the agora or the lawcourts before large assemblies of citizens) conversations (logoi). In fact, the Athenian polis honored actions and deeds in preference to words (Apology 32a). Thus, a potential area of conflict and rupture was opened between words and deeds (Crito 52d).

In the Laches (193e) the dilemma is that no one can define what courage is. Yet, many seem capable of recognizing it in deed. Without a knowledge of what courage is, how would we be able to habituate young people to be courageous, instead of rash or cowardous? The political problem (Laches 195a-198a) is that while many think they know more than they actually do, at least they can recognize what is good and noble. Yet they become quite angry and unruly when they are found to be confused in words about what they presumably know. Laches represents the many, and Socrates has to soothe Laches’ anger in order to continue the inquiry or logos regarding courage and whoever is best able to teach it. In such a public and political setting, it is difficult directly to pursue logoi that are grounded in knowledge without offending those who at best only represent in deed (semblance) what you are seeking to ground.

There are limits to what Socrates can openly say given the political upheavals in Athens. Socrates recommended that persons who wished to become philosophers (not sophists) had best avoid active participation in political affairs (Theaetetus 173d-e). Was this only contingent on the present character of Athenian politics, or was this a final judgement concerning all political involvement? Socrates realizes the danger of putting one’s words or speeches into writing (Phaedrus 276c-e). Would it be possible for those who read such words to understand precisely what is intended without being able to confront the writer directly? Might not dogmatization or false conclusions pervert the original thoughts and intentions of the writer? Finally, does not an indirect form of speech, which implies more than it says, befit the situation of speaking to an unknown audience? Especially if a dialogue of speeches results in a paralysis of the possibilities of immediate and direct action, then either we will be advised to give up the inquiry (thus avoiding unwarranted consequences), or we will be encouraged to go back and reconsider the crucial deeds and arguments, and to rethink their significance and possibilities.

The second level of conflict occurs within the so-called private conversations[50] (logoi) that Socrates has with various sophists and young men. In this instance, primacy is given to words or kinds of logoi, be they long or short speeches, contentious eristic, or purifying elenchus. The danger is (as was previously discussed) misology or hatred of arguments (Phaedo 89c) once words come to mean anything and are manipulated solely for personal advantage. This stifles and negates our duty to inquire about what we do not know, if we always find ourselves in the company of the kind of sophists who want to win verbal battles irrespective of their consequences for action and truth. There can be a healthy and an unhealthy reaction to aporias. The philosopher resorts to an art of rhetoric or persuasion in an attempt to draw out the consequences of speech for action in a healthy manner, i.e., healthy in the sense of not surrendering the inquiry. At least, in part, this would mean preserving the integral relationship of words and deeds, if we are not to forsake the possibility of realizing goodness and knowledge within ourselves. Although it is true that in deed it is not important whether we have true opinion or knowledge, since the outcome in deed is the same (so argues the polis and demos), the philosopher nevertheless is concerned with that which will provide stability and guidance (psychagoge) over time (Laches 194c-e). At times (Phaedo 87a-c, Theaetetus 160e, 191a-c, 200b-c), Socrates will personify the logos when an interlocuter fails to know what to say. In this way, the logos can be acted out, i.e., when an impasse in the dialogue threatening a rupture between logos and ergon can be healed by dramatic impersonation (mythos).


The perfection or completion of a person as philosopher cannot be achieved through only the epistemological pursuit of logos (logos proper as Sayre sees it), as if this were the end of knowledge leading to wisdom. First of all, we have shown that logos is a means. Secondly, logos is not only of epistemological significance. Even if there does not exist a common (communal-political) place for action and speaking in justification of one’s being and one’s deeds, the philosopher will speak as if s/he were acting and act as if s/he were speaking in such a place. If the philosopher were to choose only to act (the condition of Nicias and Laches regarding military courage), s/he would no longer be the philosopher in search of the ground (logos) and justification for her/his actions. If the philosopher chose only to speak, i.e., to attain only the sophist’s mental prowess of rhetorical knowledge that disposes of one’s opponents, s/he would be soul corrupting as well as dead to the world of action and an irrelevant figure regarding her/his benefit to fellow citizens and friends. Part of the problem is that the philosopher would then be ignored as “all talk and no action,” or worse as a word manipulator. Some commentators have either chosen to understand Plato to be completely apolitical (Sayre), or others have charged that Plato is completely anti-political (Arendt)[51]. Do not the events of the Apology and the Phaedo encourage the philosopher to withdraw from the world, or is the Phaedo only representative of the imminent approach of Socrates’ death, which is, in fact, a withdrawal from the world?

Questions such as this become important regarding mythos, because the Phaedo is very much a mythical dialogue and because a fundamental problem in understanding Plato’s mythoi will be the question of whether they are primarily political and public, or speculative and private. Perhaps mythos is a combination of both. However, the greater part of the problem is that speaking and acting entail one another, if the philosopher is to be the philosopher. What a person says (especially chosen metaphors and analogies) defines who that person is. Who a person is is visible or examinable primarily by his/her action or activity. Speaking separated from action makes for unaccountability. Speaking and acting are peculiarly human, in-between the bestial and the divine. Even though a despotic regime might narrow the space for speaking and acting or might reduce drastically the possibilities of common interaction (in speech and in deed) among friends, we still have to acknowledge that some kind of public action is required to be accountable to ourselves and towards others. In effect, the private conversations of the philosopher do not become by definition or by intention purely private and isolated from the political (i.e., Plato is neither apolitical nor antipolitical). Instead, they become a mimesis in word and in deed of our greatest hope, namely, that the public visible world of the polis (deeds) will more and more participate in the hidden, invisible longings (words) of the seekers after wisdom. However, there is no realistic hope that by human action the deeply disturbing tension between the philosopher and the polis will ever entirely abate and be resolved in this world.

Perhaps it is relevant at this point to mention that Plato on a few occasions spoke of a divine logos. In one sense, a divine logos is a tale told about the righteous and good works (erga) of a god (Republic 380aff). We speak about a god or the gods in a logos or tale, which comprehends the kind of actions that alone can be attributed to a god. It is further understood that such a tale of the gods as causes of good things will be a pattern or paradigm for action in any well-governed polis. However, this is not to suggest that a god or the gods serve only some instrumental or utilitarian, political function. Plato acknowledges that logos (speech or tale) is bestowed by the gods in order that we might understand through our own power of reasoning (dianoia and nous) the harmonious revolutions of the cosmos (Timaeus 46c-47e). Insofar as we have an affinity (suggenos) to the divine reason in the cosmos (Epinomis 986c), there is a divine origin to our logoi or statements. Through our speech (logos) the gods are born, although in deed (ergoi) they have been from long ago (Critias 106a). In other words, from divine deeds of long ago we can give an account (logos as mythos) of the divinely made cosmos.

There is no question but that such logoi make for only a likely story, a mythos. We cannot clearly know with certainty such divine cosmic matters, yet we can speak through likenesses (analogies) and images. Even when Socrates affirms that virtue may have its origins in divine dispensation (Meno 99e-100b), or that we may have to journey through life on the vessel of some divine reason (Phaedo 85d), this does not preclude the asking of questions and the continual testing of the divine through inquiry. Our logos stands as a witness before Zeus (Philebus 66d). And even if we ascend to that heavenly vision of beauty, which is beyond logos and episteme (Symposium 210eff), this does not prescind from the path of logos that takes us there, be it logos proper or logos in the form of mythos. Our end, completion, or perfection and the whole cosmos of our existence should not be confused with the path or means of our striving.

Somewhat oddly, not very many contemporary commentators (see the many commentators in the Collobert and Partenie volumes) speak in depth about what Plato intends by the gods, god, and the divine. (See Appendix C.) If you start from a professional, philosophical secularism, then the divine cannot be taken seriously in the sense of theo logos, a theology. Eric Voegelin assuredly discerns Plato to be a theologian.[52] Plato is the first known person to write of a theo logos. Plato is as much a critic of traditional Geek religion as he is a critic of Greek poets. Yet Plato, of course, is no debunking, iconoclastic Voltaire. Religion, theology, and divine inspiration need to be purged, purified, and made consonant with the moral order leading to eudaimonia. To demythologize and discard religion and the gods is self-destructive of the Platonic “love of wisdom.”

Demythologizing can take at least four wrong paths. First, religion and the gods serve only a utilitarian purpose, such as a civil religion for the non-philosophical demos (as some Straussians contend[53]). Clearly in the Euthyphro the gods are holy in service to that beyond being and the Good, not the reverse. Second, the gods are no more than human projections and constructions (anthropomorphism) constituting a compendium of goods and perfections that we humans alone need to claim as our own (Feuerbach). Reductionist interpretations including allegorizing advocate this and turn Socrates’ concentration on the soul into modern self-possession. Third, the daimones are an inventive and desperate way of escaping the forces of fortune, chance, contingent opportunities, fate, and disorder in the cosmos. This would reduce Socrates/Plato to a Euthyphro or Cephalus. Fourth, the gods are just objects of worship that cannot be bribed and offer no rewards or punishments, since you actually are on your own from birth to death.

This last demythologization comes close to the gods and the divine considered to be objects that represent the eternal, the vision of which the just soul may have in theoria and once disembodied. For Plato, there are daimones from the gods that are assigned to each soul and function like guardian angels who offer restraints and negatives, similar to what a bad conscience may do. There are Muses and messengers (Er, a soldier and Diotima, a priestess) who may direct eros and inspiration. There are ladders, chords, and pulls between the philosophically driven souls and the divine, because there is some divine, immortal part of our souls that participates in the divine by way of analogical affinity. Therefore, in the Timaeus a demiurgos (master craftsman) constructs the universe in accord with the divine paradigm and archetype. The demiurgos is a maker, a weaver, an orderer. Thus, we human souls can consult the heavens for the likenesses of the divine, albeit we are at a further remove than the demiurgos. The divine is a telos, a perfection, the measure, the self-same, unchanging crown king of dike. By way of anamnesis or recollecting, we can know what we do not know, we can return to original first principles (arche), and we can transcend from praxis to theoria, from dianoia to noesis. Such would be Plato’s theological philosophy.

The purpose of this lengthy chapter had been to examine the ways in which mythos and logos intersect as regards the rudimentary definition of logos, the pursuit of logos proper, and the harmony and the disharmony of words and deeds. It is not surprising that in Plato’s dialogues mythos follows upon logos or argumentation between interlocutors, or that mythos is the context within which logos proceeds to reveal the (at least potential) deeds of those who speak. Logos as speech or intercourse between souls reveals who the speaker is (see Alcibiades I 105d-e, 118b, 129b, 130d). Logos or speech becomes a kind of doing or acting that is preserved in the memory (via anamnesis) when comprehended or concluded by mythos.

This chapter has attempted to make clear the harmonious and integral unity of logos and mythos.[54] It has been found that the conditions for having logos or discussion is an agreement on fundamentals (e.g., in the Phaedo, Cebes and Simmias acknowledge the existence of the forms and accept the theory of recollection; in the Theaetetus and Sophist, Theaetetus mathematically understands what a definition amounts to). This at least includes an agreement regarding the way in which one will proceed (preferably the give-and-take of short questions and answers) once an aporia of the soul has been encountered. Also, most important of all, a commitment to the truth wherever it may take us keeps the logos alive. None of this precludes or excludes the resort to mythos when appropriate. Nevertheless, there has been no attempt as of yet to approach mythos directly, to consider its function and its place within the context of the dialogues as a whole, although a number of important defining characteristics (mimetic playfulness; the quality of having been inexplicably heard sometime before; the finding of mythos in the midst of impasses) have been unavoidably encountered.

There has been no suggestion whatsoever that logos as word should be subordinated to mythos as a combination of word and deed. At least one major argument reveals that mythos is related to the representation of things in word and in deed. Therefore, it has been argued (if we can take the Sophist as a decisive example) that despite the highest development of logos qua logos proper, emphasizing rules of logical consistency, strict differentiation of necessary and sufficient conditions in giving definitions and as much rational, analytical accountability as is possible (viz., the analysis of Sayre), still we cannot separate those remarkable intellectual achievements from the philosopher in the midst of the polis, vis-à-vis the demos, the sophists, and the statesmen. This context is not just an external dramatic setting that can be shucked aside. Nor do we discontinue doing philosophy in the Platonic sense and in the real comprehensive sense of pursuing wisdom, as if our intellectual achievements are somehow necessarily or actually cut off from who we are and what we do when we politically address this-worldly existence. Accordingly, we can only strive to examine this whole context and in the following pages to place mythos within this context.

Mythos and logos are distinguishable and necessitate distinction even if they are not to be separated without separating intellection and action (praxis). Any mythos can be called a logos in its general sense, but not every logos is a mythos (e.g., logos proper). Specifically, logos involves an exacting, consistent inquiry regarding reality as somehow fixed and ever the same, while mythos is a probable account regarding events, happenings, in sum the domain of reality that we call becoming and not-being (see Timaeus 59c-d). It has been commonplace to assume that a rationalistic philosopher like Plato propounding the so-called theory of ideas would dismiss and separate himself as much as is possible from the domain of becoming. Plato’s mythoi would have significance only when they raise persons from the world of becoming into the world of eternal truths, the divine ideas. Unquestionably, this is one of the most important functions of Plato’s mythoi. However, this does not necessarily argue for the negation of the world of becoming, nor does it easily make logos (as a rational account) of the ideas our only worthy philosophical preoccupation. Mythos and logos need each other. Logos is there to critique mythos on the basis of its dialectical process and mythos is there to reveal the human limits of logos regarding the analogical drama of the human soul into the beyond. Both occur within the context of a polis of friendship and a cosmos of intelligibility. It is all about open, on-going discourse. For our sake, it is the dramatic tragedy of Plato that he is a political philosopher and not just a philosopher.



[1] It is odd that a book with a lot of insight such as Kathryn Morgan. Myth and Philosophy: From the Pre-Socratics to Plato (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000) fails to define philosophy in Platonic terms. Instead, there is the contemporary characterization of professional, academic philosophy, assumed to be consistent with Plato. This is what Voegelin calls being beholden to contemporary “school philosophy.” See Hans-Georg Gadamer, “In Reply to Nicholas P. White” in Charles Griswold, ed., Platonic Writings Platonic Readings (New York: Routledge, 1988) where Gadamer is confounded and at a loss for words given White’s contemporary-oriented, philosophical questioning of Plato.

[2] J.A.K. Thomson, The Art of the Logos (London: Allen and Unwin, 1935), 1 –9.

[3] See Laches 179c, Protagoras 317c, Phaedo 58e, Symposium 177d, Phaedrus 227b-d, Republic 328d, Theaetetus 143c-e, Sophist 216b, Timaeus 17c.

[4] This reference to “gentlemen” (kaloi kagathoi) at this point in the conversation (Protagoras 347d, 348e, 312b) is meant to remind those present that there are rules for conversation among decent persons. Even at a wine party, gentlemen can conduct their conversation without extraneous noises, music, or foolery. Socrates describes Protagoras as more the gentleman who is sensible and good himself, but cannot make others good. Since Protagoras claims to have this gift of teaching, then he is potentially a philosopher who can know and teach the real basis for moral virtue. Socrates is almost always in the presence of potential gentlemen, insofar as a gentleman is one who has been well-taught the non-vocational arts (Protagoras 312b). But the gentleman himself is, at best, a teacher of moral virtue only by example in deed, whereas the philosopher in addition pursues the logos of virtue.

[5] Paul Friedlander, Plato, The Dialogues of the First Period (New York: Pantheon Books, 1964), II, 19.

[6] Gregory Vlastos, ed., The Protagoras of Plato (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1956), Introduction, 1x.

[7] Friedlander, The Dialogues, II, 16.

[8] For Plato, much remains to be learned via recollecting (anamnesis) and via that internal dialogue one has with oneself, in contradistinction to forgetting when overwhelmed by long speeches.

[9] Friedlander, The Dialogues, II, 7, 18. Also see Gorgias 505d and Protagoras 347c-348a.

[10] Both mythos and poetry have the nature of being long, unexamined (but not necessarily unexaminable) speeches. Their length and numerous unquestioned assumptions raise the question of when they can be appropriately used. Also, both mythos and poetry are in this instance based on tradition, convention, and popular approval. Greek poets resorted to mythical tradition as a repository of experience culturally constituting the Greek people. This is overwhelming. One wonders whether Plato wanted fundamentally to displace this Greek tradition in favor of his own critically-expounded tradition, combining mythos and logos.

[11] A long speech by its very longevity convinces the uncritical. See, for example, Agathon’s breathless, descriptive splurge regarding eros in the Symposium 194e-198a.

[12] To distinguish analytically and to abstract out of context is not to separate apart ontologically. The ontological reference is important, if we want to know the way logos and mythos function to the fullest (the whole). The part-whole aporia is discussed by Gadamer, The Idea of the Good, 12–13. For a delightful adventure, consider comparing two divergent approaches to mythos and logos (Anglo-American philosophy versus continental German philosophy): Richard Buxton, ed., From Mythos to Reason? Studies in the Development of Greek Thought (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) and Hans Blumenberg, Work on Myth (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1985). The strongest, single-minded contention that philosophy has successfully moved from mythos to logos, the irrational to the rational, an Aryan achievement, is: W. Nestle, Vom Mythos Zum Logos (Stutgart: Alfred Kroner, 1940).

[13] Kenneth Sayre, “Logos, False Judgment and the Grounds of Knowledge,” an unpublished paper, 1. See also William Cobb, “Anamnesis: Platonic Doctrine or Sophistic Absurdity,” Dialogue XII (1973), 604-28.

[14] Sayre, “Logos,” 1, 3-5.

[15] Frequently, Sayre translates doxa as judgement. This can be misleading because it is a secondary meaning of doxa as given in Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon, 8th revised edition (New York: American Book Company, 1897), p. 383. Krisis is the Greek term for decision, choice, and judgement. This indicates that a judgement more commonly is understood to be the deciding result in the consideration of opinions or evidence such as in law courts. Judgements would not necessarily be identical to opinions. It may be that Sayre’s translation of doxa as judgement has more to do with contemporary epistemological problems. Sayre, “Logos,” 1.

[16] Sayre, “Logos,” 3.


[17] See David Burrell, Analogy and Philosophical Language (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1973), 45-67. In these pages, Burrell argues that Plato’s vision metaphor encourages a kind of direct, immediate insight that amounts to knowledge, which would be contradictory to the long, hard road of the dialectical process. See also R.C. Cross, “Logos and Forms in Plato,” MIND 63 (1957), 443-44 for the same argument.

[18] Sayre, Logos, p. 3 comes very close to conceding this, which is to concede the very dilemma of Meno’s paradox. Sayre throughout ignores questions of ontology which are decisive for what we are trying to know (epistemology). Note, however, the Freudian or Voegelinian slip in this unpublished article when “ground of being” is used instead of the perhaps the intended “ground of knowledge.”

[19] See Jacob Klein, A Commentary on Plato’s Meno (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965), 92.

[20] Sayre, “Logos,” p. 4.

[21] See Kenneth Sayre, Plato’s Analytic Method (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969), 132ff and Cross, Logos, 433ff and R.S. Bluck, “Logos and Forms in Plato: A Reply to Cross,” MIND 65 (1956), 522-29.

[22] See Eric Voegelin, Collected Works, vol. 33, “The Drama of Humanity,” 181, 213-14 and his In Search of Order (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987) 29-31. Also see Stephen Costello, The Flow of Presence (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2013).

[23] Sayre, “Logos,” 5.

[24] Klein, A Commentary, 95, 109-11, 130-31, 149ff, 157, 166.

[25] Does Socratic aporia lead Plato and us to some nominalistic, constructivist position regarding all human knowledge, or does it instead lead us from experience (pathos) to think beyond, to transcend?

[26] Klein, A Commentary, 18-19.

[27] Klein, A Commentary, 247-48.

[28] Klein, A Commentary, 205-22.

[29] Klein, A Commentary, 216-18, 168-69.

[30] Klein, A Commentary, 147, 207.

[31] This is contrary to Sayre who thinks the hypothetical method only concerns formal causes and not also final causes (Sayre, Plato’s Analytic Method, 4-5). This is important even though Sayre admits that Socrates is searching for and trying to discover the truth of things. Sayre’s point of emphasis will be explanations according to formal causes, which involves logical relations of truth and falsity between propositions and statements (Sayre, Plato’s Analytic Method, 15, footnote). Sayre is ever the modern professional philosopher rejecting final causes (teloi).

[32] Sayre, Plato’s Analytic Method, 42-56 overemphasizes this philosophical logos, and thus Sayre is perplexed enough to say that Plato is unclear about the upward path leading to the nonhypothetical.

[33] Burrell, Analogy, 39, 47-48, 53-56, 60-64. See also Gadamer, The Idea of the Good, 27, 81-82, 111-12, 115-18, 123-25, 164-70. Gadamer recognizes that the Good is always referred to as an “idea,” not an “eidos” or form. It is something we may have a view of, not an object of knowledge. The Good is experienced and known via luminosity not intentionality.

[34] Sayre, “Logos,” 13.

[35] Josef Pieper, Platons Mythen (Munchen: Kosel-Verlag, 1965), 31-5 emphasizes the ek akoues nature of mythos, but at the same time he very sharply delimits what can be actually considered mythos in the Platonic corpus. In other words, Pieper does not look at mythos and logos in their broadest manifestations, and thus is not encouraged to go in the direction I am taking as the example of the Theaetetus indicates. More will be said in the next chapter about Pieper’s delimitation of mythos.

[36] See some representative examples in the Platonic corpus: Phaedo 63c, 62b; Meno 86b, Phaedrus 245b-c, 249d-e, 253a, 262d; Crito 54e; Theaetetus 151a-b; Euthydemus 289c.

[37] Leibniz made an important distinction between mere perception and apperception. The later involves reflection upon our sense perception

[38] This explain why anamnesis is only implicitly present in the Theaetetus.

[39] Aristotle’s definition of nature (physis) not as some fixed material thing but rather as potentiality (dynamis) towards act (energeia) comes to mind here. See Steven A. Long. Analogia Entis, (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2011), who contends that Plato did not subject analogy to the potential-act distinction that Aristotle originated.

[40] Sayre, Plato’s Analytic Method, 120-1, 132-37.

[41] Sayre, Plato’s, 215.

[42] Sayre, “Logos,” 21.

[43] Sayre, Plato’s, 204.

[44] Sayre, Plato’s, 204, 238.

[45] Recollect that in the Theaetetus Parmenides was left out of the mythical account of the forebearers to philosophy.

[46] More will be said later in this chapter about the important interrelationship of word (logos) and deed (ergon).

[47] For some reason C. Partenie claims (see “Plato’s Myths” in Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy on-line) that fantasy and the fantastical are characteristic of Plato’s myths, without giving any examples to show that Plato contradicts himself and thus becomes a sophist.

[48] While Voegelin clearly distinguishes mythos from logos (as noetic and dialectic reason), there is also his recognition that mythos and logos interpenetrate each other. See Voegelin, Collected Works vol. 28, 74, 106-10, 229 and Collected Works, vol. 12, 93, 126, 130, 337, 365. Also see Jerry Day, Voegelin, Schelling, and the Philosophy of Historical Existence. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2003, 233-34. Before reading Voegelin’s later writings, I discerned in Plato a crafted balance between poetic mythos and philosophical logos, which includes of course Plato’s critique of traditional Greek poetry. In Voegelin’s later writings, The Ecumenic Age, 228, 230, 259, Anamnesis, 90, and The Search for Order, 14ff, 44, 90, 116, he develops the symbol “balance of consciousness,” which among other things relates to the need to balance mythos and logos, the soul’s primordial experiences and noesis versus luminosity and intentionality. Voegelin actually moves in his writings from equivalence to balance to paradox. (In Voegelin’s last work, In Search for Order, he resorts to the term “paradox” 87 times in 107 pages.) One might have thought that Gadamer, who takes Platonic mythos seriously, would not subordinate mythos to logos. Unfortunately, Gadamer represents the philosopher who will “conceptualize” Platonic mythoi, not recognizing the difference between the dramatic play of symbols versus the literalizing and hardening of conceptual analysis. Likewise, Gadamer tends to dismiss the metaphorical in Plato’s dialogues. See his The Idea of the Good, 34, 124-25, 178.

[49] My understanding of theoria and praxis (contemplation and practice/action) is not simply equitable with logos and ergon respectively. Ergon meaning work, function or activity applies equally to contemplation and to practice. An ergon is that function (be it proper or not) that is characterized by a person’s theoria or praxis. Likewise, both theoria and praxis require a logos, if they are to be publicly examinable. Plato’s multivalent flow of discourse is provocative for the experience of wonder and reflection.

[50] By private, I mean any place outside the agora or assembly. These conversations still are fundamentally public, beyond the fact that private or subjective or partisan interests and inclinations are not being expressed. These conversations are open to public criteria or inquiry, examination and judgement; hence the conversations are truly philosophical and not just contentious and polemical.

[51] Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition (New York: Doubleday, 1959), 164-65, 198-203. Eric Voegelin also registers Plato’s deep dismay about the Athenian polis and claims as well (in retrospect) that historically the Greek polis is finished (See Order and History, vol. 3, 8ff, 39, 88ff, 162ff, 219, and chapter 9). However, it is valuable to reconceive Plato’s Republic as the constitution, for the most part, of the Academy Plato was then establishing. Other mini poleis are realistic among friends and believers. In this albeit limited sense the polis is not really dead.

[52] Voegelin, Order and History, 101ff, 216ff, 313.

[53] For a sample of Straussians who demythologize see Joseph Cropsey, Plato’s World. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995); Mark Blitz, Plato’s Political Philosophy. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010); Catherine Zuckert, Plato’s Philosophers: The Coherence of the Dialogues. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009). In Voegelin’s terms, there is “no leap in being” to possess a spiritually transcendent source. But does not the eros of the dark horse (in the Phaedrus) try to take a leap after the charioteer grows wings to ascend to the procession of the Olympian gods encircling a divine banquet? The charioteer, however, controls the dark horse who would leap grossly to possess the beloved beyond in order to become divine. In this regard see John Sallis, Logos and Being, (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1973), 143-49. Sallis declares that the Phaedrus is indeed a step up from the human banquet in the Symposium.

[54] Also, this conclusion has been reached by G.D. Stormer, “Plato’s Theory of Myth,” Personalist 55 (1974), 220 and Eric Voegelin, Anamnesis (Munchen: R. Piper and Company, 1966), 291-92.


This excerpt is from Plato’s Mythoi: The Political Soul’s Drama Beyond (Lexington Books, 2017) with our book review here.

Donald H. RoyDonald H. Roy

Donald H. Roy

Donald H. Roy is Professor Emeritus at Ferris State University. He is author of Plato's Mythoi: The Political Soul's Drama Beyond (Lexington Books, 2018).

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