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An Imaginary Conversation on Myth, Reason and Religion between Plato and Joseph Campbell at an Athens Cafe An Imaginary Conversation on Myth, Reason and Religion between Plato and Joseph Campbell at an Athens Cafe
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2016-06-05 09:43:42
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“According to Greek mythology, humans were originally created with four arms, four legs and a head with two faces. Fearing their power, Zeus split them into two separate parts, condemning them to spend their lives in search of their other halves.”
Plato, The Symposium

“Life is like arriving late for a movie, having to figure out what was going on without bothering everybody with a lot of questions, and then being unexpectedly called away before you find out how it ends.”
Joseph Campbell, Creative Mythology


Plato                                            Joseph Campbell   

Author’s Preface: What follows is a spirited, imaginary, rather mundane conversation across time, between a well-known ancient philosopher and a well-known modern mythologist at a café in Athens overlooking the acropolis. While the conversation is purely imaginary, not overly academic, and rather colloquial at that, the integrity of the  thought of its interlocutors on myth, reason and religion within the existential historical circumstances of both men has been scrupulously adhered to, and respected, for not to do so would be to fall into sophistry of the worst kind.


A cafè in Athens overlooking the Acropolis

Plato: Good morning Professor Campbell!

Campbell: Good morning Professor Plato! I trust you don’t mind such a title, even though you are so famous that your nick name is enough to identify you. After all, you were the founder- director, the first professor so to speak, of the ancient Greek Academy; an intellectual achievement which thrived for a thousand years.

Plato. Oh, yes, yes, why don’t we simply dispense with formal titles? May I just call you Joe and you call me Plato? After all, we are not at a formal symposium or at an academic conference; we’re just sipping cognac and chatting at a café in modern Athens in view of the acropolis.

Campbell. By all means, Plato. In America, in fact, we prefer to dispense with too many formalities and pomposity. Perhaps later we may even engage in a chess game and a pipe smoke, should you have the time. Those are pastimes suitable to reflective minds. I can teach you, if you are unfamiliar with them.  

Plato. Sounds like a good idea, Joe. That way, while we may be discussing transcendent ideas beyond time and space, we shall not give the false impression to passerby that we are two of those unpractical philosophers with a beard, with their heads in the clouds of Mount Olympus, exchanging recondite abstract reveries; rather, that we are practical men of the world, clever enough to put theory ahead of practice.

Campbell. Indeed, Plato, indeed. Human nature being what it is, it cannot have been a piece of cake for you to manage the logistics of the administration of a great academy and keep discipline among rowdy students and competing professors and their contemptuous ad hominem antics and juvenile slanderous attacks on each other. I know something about that. I am an insider in the academic where I have sojourned all my life, but in reality, intellectually and spiritually that is, I have always felt like an outsider, a non-conventional academic who did not even bother to finish his Ph.D. dissertation, albeit I am presently widely known as the foremost mythology expert and scholar of the Western world.

Plato. Ah yes, “the Ph.D. octopus”! I have read the essay on the subject by our colleague, your fellow countryman, William James. Excellent insightful essay; an exposé of sorts, it almost made me ashamed of having given rise to the term “academic.”

Campbell: Plato, you are justifiably recognized as the one who brought to a head the philosophical conundrums of myth/history, reason/myth, religion/myth; all the more since you yourself repeatedly utilizes mythology and concocted myths in your dialogues and treatises, the best known of course being the myth of the cave as found in your Republic.


Plato’s Myth of the Cave in the Republic

Plato: Quite right Joe, quite right. The Cave, the narrative that occurs in the Republic is a fantastical story, but it does not deal explicitly with the beyond, and is thus different from the traditional myths I used and those I invented. Strictly speaking, the Cave is an analogy, not a myth. Also in the Republic, Socrates says that until philosophers take control of a city “the politeia whose story we are telling in words (muthologein) will not achieve its fulfillment in practice”. The construction of the ideal city itself may be called a “myth” in the sense that it depicts an imaginary polis where we imagine the happy state. In the Phaedrus I use the word muthos to name the rhetorical exercise which Socrates carries out, but this seems to be a loose usage of the word. In any case, when I inveighed against the bad poets I certainly did not have the likes of Homer or his Odyssey or Iliad in mind. I respect and revere the likes of Homer, or Shakespeare or Dante. What I was critiquing was the mind-set of those inferior mediocre poets, the poets who write poems for wedding receptions and then claim to be great poets; those with no poetical vision who couldn’t even write a decent novel, never mind an epic poem. Did you know that in my youth I had aspired to be a poet?

Campbell: Yes I know, Plato, and it doesn’t surprise me a bit judging from the complex beauty of your ancient Greek prose which depicts your myths so well. But what I am particularly interested in is in finding out why you included myths such as “the myth of the cave” in the Republic? How did that help your rational philosophical discourse about good governance, democracy, justice? You seem to conceive of myth as a clue to the search for life’s meaning. I, on the other hand, see them as a clue to the spiritual potentialities of human life. For me myths are the ongoing search for “the experience of life”. They seem to tell us is that the meaning of life is the experience of life, that eternity isn’t some later time, or a long time; that in fact it has nothing to do with time! It is that dimension of here and now which thinking and time cuts out, but it seems to me that if you don’t get it here, you won’t get it anywhere; that the experience of eternity right here and now is the function of life.

Plato: Oh well. Frankly, I am a bit surprised that you should even ask such a question as the eminent mythologist that you are. As you well know, mythology as well as drama sprang directly from the realm of the religious and the symbolical as stories about the gods and their interactions with humans and the universe and nature, stories which at first sight resemble children’s fairy tales, but when looked at closely reveal certain universal truths which later on a psychologist like Jung dubbed “archetypes of the human condition”; the journey archetype, for instance, being one of those.

This origin from the religious and the symbolical is often overlooked in modern theories on mythology. Dante’s journey in the Divine Comedy is one concrete example of a mythological journey which remains tied to its religious origins, so is Homer’s in the Odyssey, so is Captain Picard journey on the Enterprise space ship; the journey is always a journey into the self looking for its origins and its final destination. They are certainly not historically documented journeys; they are more in the realm of the subjective, the imaginative and even that of the prophetic, more in the way of a myth, but a myth that repeats itself in many forms and among many people, even those who have no cultural contacts with each other, revealing a hidden deeper truth, a truth that goes beyond a mere empirical positivistic explanation of the visible material phenomena. We call them archetypes of the human condition. They may not be historically or empirically verifiable but they are certainly real since they exist in the realm of the intelligible just as logic, or mathematics, or astronomy are imbedded in the concrete materialistic positivistic realm of what is empirically verifiable; akin to religious faith of which one remains sure even when unable to prove it empirically.


The Journey of Ulysses in the Odyssey              The Journey of Captain Picard on the Enterprise


Campbell: Well put Plato. I couldn’t agree with you more. I see that you have caught up and even surpassed us moderns in the understanding of the essence or nature of myth: it is not to be considered a lie, or the sugaring of the bitter pill of truth, as you put it when critiquing the bad poets, but a deeper truth to be decoded and reflected upon. That’s basically what I try to do in my various books on mythology, especially the one titled “The Hero with a thousand Faces.”

Plato: I have read all your books and they are illuminating on the subject of mythology. They invariably expand one’s intellectual-spiritual horizon on the relationship of myth religion and reason.


Campbell: thank you for your kind words Plato, but could you indulge me a while more by explaining to me your summation of ancient Greek mythology mentioned by you, of Zeus splitting the human being in half so that from then on one half has been searching for the other half? Most scholars, including Jung, interpret that statement of yours via a biological metaphor as the masculine in search of the feminine looking for wholeness, but I suspect that there is much more to it.

Plato: your suspicion is well founded, Joe. The Janus face represents the split which occurred when rationality overpowered the poetical and the mythological so that the poetical began to be defined as the deceptive which lies and puts sugar on the bitter truth of rationality to make it more bearable. Your modern philosopher Pascal points to this error with his statement that “the heart has reasons that reason knows not.” Also there is another rather obscure but highly insightful philosopher of history, Giambattista Vico, from the 18th century, who identified the mistake of much of Western philosophy beginning with me, not only in its totalizing tendencies but in the attempt to subside the imaginative and the poetical under the rational and the empirical. The two belong together and have been searching for each other since they were split asunder by Positivism. He expresses all this in his masterpiece The New Science (1725). When myth is split from the rational it becomes harmful, it ends up in myths such as that of “the master race.” When reason is split from myth and the poetical it begins to rationalize and justify what ought never be rationalized. Indeed Pascal’s and Vico’s corrections, the corrections of two Christian humanists were very much needed for the ethical Western tradition as Emmanuel Levinas has also pointed out in the 20th century.


The Myth of Atlantis as described by Plato

In the Protagoras I make a distinction between muthos and logos, where muthos appears to refer to a story and logos to an argument. This distinction is also echoed in the Theaetetus and the Sophist. In the Theaetetus Socrates discusses Protagoras' main doctrine and refers to it as “the muthos of Protagoras”  Socrates there calls a muthos the teaching according to which active and passive motions generate perception and perceived objects. In the Sophist, the Visitor from Elea tells his interlocutors that Xenophanes, Parmenides and other Eleatic, Ionian (Heraclitus included) and Sicilian philosophers “appear to me to tell us a myth, as if we were children”. By calling all those philosophical doctrines muthoi I do not claim that they are myths proper, but that they are, or appear to be, non-argumentative. In the Republic I may come across as fairly hostile to particular traditional myths. And in many dialogues I condemn the use of images in knowing things and claim that true philosophical knowledge should avoid images. But I ask you: does Book X of the Republic offer a siingle repudiation of the best poets of the Hellenic world? Try as you may, you will not find one. What you will find is a complicated counterpoint in which resistance and attraction to their work are intertwined, a counterpoint which (among other things) explores the problem of whether, and in what sense, it might be possible to be a ‘philosophical lover’ of poetry”

I wanted to persuade a wider audience, so I had to make a compromise. Sometime I use myth as a supplement to philosophical discourse Most importantly, in the Timaeus, I actually attempt to overcome the opposition between muthos and logos: human reason has limits, and when it reaches them it has to rely on myth. That is to say, the telling of stories is a necessary adjunct to, or extension of, philosophical argument, one which recognizes our human limitations, and—perhaps—the fact that our natures combine irrational elements with the rational”

Consider the fact that I chose to express my thoughts through a narrative form, namely that of the dialogue. So you may say that the use of a fictional narrative form (the dialogue, such as the one we are having right now) will mean that any conclusions reached, by whatever method (including that of ‘rational argument’), may themselves be treated as having the status of a kind of myth. So, a sense of the fictionality of human utterance, as provisional, inadequate, and at best approximating to the truth, pervade my writing at its deepest level. It is not that myth fills in the gaps that reason leaves, but that human reason itself ineradicably displays some of the features we characteristically associate with story-telling.

Campbell: Wow! This is interesting stuff! It partly explains, to me at least, what a Catholic  theologian expressed to me in a dispute we had once on “religion as myth.” He told me that it may be true that religions are based on certain archetypes of human nature and myths of the human condition but to say that Christianity is just another myth to be disposed as all the other myths as lies and falsehoods to put a point across as we do with children’s fairy tales, to be superseded by the scientific mind-set, is to have misunderstood the very nature of mythology which is there to help us better understand transcendental-revealed truths. That is to say, to use mythology as an excuse to dump religion as retrograde, obscurantist, and unenlightened, is to run the risk of throwing the baby with the bathwater out the window.

He also pointed out that Zeus or Atlas are impersonal ideas personified which when worshipped renders us idolaters or narcissists, but the concept of a benevolent providential creator God who takes on human nature to experience the human condition and enters physical reality historically and materially to redeem it is not a philosophical abstract idea to be found in any mythology; not even very intelligent philosophers like yourself ever thought of it; it is however the stuff of reality and historical events for which 12 ignorant fishermen from Palestine (no experts in Platonic or Socratic philosophy for which they’d be willing to die) were in fact willing to die because their allegiance was not  to an idea but to a person who spiritually won the whole continent of Europe in a couple of centuries and gave it its ultimate identity as Judeo-Greco-Roman civilization; a religion this which makes a synthesis between the human and the divine and not only at an abstract theoretical level but at an existential level,  and therefore it is humanistic to the core; that at its best advocates tolerance of other traditions, mythology itself, freedom of speech and democratic governance, given that we are all children of the same benevolent father and are commanded to love each other as brothers and sisters. I must admit that I am still chewing on what that theologian gave me to think about that day. I felt as if he had been check-mated in a chess game, but I don’t think he was playing chess with me, out to win some kind of debate or diatribe. To the contrary, he simply challenged some of the common assumptions of “enlightened” positivistic modernity which were also mine.

Plato: well you should Joe, well you should. I am already ruminating on this whole conversation myself. While I do so, why don’t we order another cognac and light up a pipe and start a game of chess? Perhaps take in a soccer game in the afternoon, since it happens to be Sunday?

Campbell: Indeed Plato, soccer games are now the new religion of the brave new world in which we live and have our being. Some call it the world of globalization. Some, perhaps more wisely, call it “reinventing the wheel,” which come to think of it, can itself be a myth (the myth of Sisyphus?) and an archetype of the human condition. Have you ever noticed that the world of dreams has no Kantian rational categories of the understanding; it is not linear, nor strictly logical and rational and it needs plenty of interpretation once it is recollected? Could the Hindus, who are not even Westerners, have it on track when they say that we are all dreaming and when we die we will wake up to Reality, to the point of it all (the Word)?

Plato: I understand the concept of logos, but there are other things such as revealed truth and the need for forgiveness and the theological virtue of charity which I find difficult to grasp as an ancient; plenty of food for thought here; but it’s only the antipasto announcing the main course. Let the debate go on.

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Bob Nelson2016-06-06 21:17:55
Reminds me of the TV program "Meeting of Minds" I enjoyed a long time ago.

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