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Plato’s Myths

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  • Read and discuss some of the most famous myths found in Plato’s dialogues.
  • Six weekly small-group sessions for beginners and continuing students
  • $180/$90, or less if you become a member

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Access to Texts

All readings are available in Plato – Selected Myths, (Oxford, 2004).
Otherwise, access the individual myths within the dialogues (see page references under each session below.)

Course Outline

Plato is famous for his philosophical dialogues, but embedded in the discussions are these marvelous stories. In this course we will read some of Plato’s most famous myths, and discuss their meaning, purpose, beauty and influence. Plato weaves myths into his dialogues to emphasis a point, or to persuade his readers towards new ways of thinking. They are full of powerful symbolism and wisdom. They describe creation, the turnings of time, the journey of the soul, love, virtue, relationships and much more. According to Plato, his “new mythology” is more suitable for education and should be preferred to the old Homeric myths with their ill-behaved Gods.

Weekly readings are given by reference to Chapter’s of Plato – Selected Myths, and by standard pagination in the selected dialogue.

Session 1 | Introducing Myths | The Origin of Virtue

Reading | Protagoras 320c–323a or Chapter 1

Through myths, we allow our imagination to travel to the eternal, and to provide a story for the undiscovered and unexplainable. Myths are used to communicate and convince, to comfort and educate. What is the difference between muthos and logos? What’s the difference between a meaningful discourse (or discursive meaning) and a rational assessment (or accessible Reason)?

The myth of the Origin of Virtue in Protagoras takes us to a discussion between Socrates and Protagoras about whether virtue can be taught. What is virtue? Is it a natural gift from the Gods, or is it something that is taught? Do we need virtue?

Session 2 | The Birth of Love

Reading | Symposium 189c–193e or Chapter 3 | 201d–212c or Chapter 4

At a drinking party, there are six enthusiastic (but mostly sober) speeches in praise of Love.  First we read the comic Aristophanes’ charming folktale explaining why we are attacted one to the other for lifelong love. Then we read Agathon’s story of how Poverty (Penia) entrapped the drunken but rich and beautiful Plenty (Poros) into sleeping with her, an event that resulted in the birth of Love.

Session 3 | The Judgement of Souls | The Winged-Horse Chariot

Reading | Gorgias 523a-527a or Chapter 2 | Phaedrus 246a–257a or Chapter 8

In the Gorgias we hear that back in Cronus’ time the judgement of man took into account the garb of wealth and status. But then Zeus decreed that men should stand naked before their judges so that the true state of their souls is laid bare. Most will be judged as having scarred souls, and medicine (in the form of punishment) is prescribed accordingly.

In the Phaedrus, after a shameful speech about love, Socrates presents a second speech with reference to madness, love, reincarnation and the soul. Socrates depicts the struggles of human desire and love by describing the soul as a charioteer with two winged horses – one virtuous, the other unruly.

Session 4 | The Cave | The Myth of Er

Reading | Republic 514a-517a or Chapter 6 | Republic 614b-621d or Chapter 7

What if everything you have ever been told by anyone is a lie? What if everything you have ever perceived or felt is an illusion? Who and what can you trust? Socrates explains how the objects of the senses are not real, but only the reality of prisoners. Once we free ourselves, we can turn to the real source and see how things really are.

Plato’s’ Republic ends with the myth of a soldier left for dead on a battlefield. Er’s near-death experience is a visit to the underworld from where he is give permission to return and report what he saw. We delve into the wonders of the cosmos and the souls who inhabit it, discussing how these souls choose to return to earth and why.

Session 5 | The Other World | The Cosmic Eras

Reading| Phaedo 107c – 115a or Chapter 5 | Statesman 268d-274e or Chapter 9

Following our discussion in the previous session about how and why souls return to earth, in the Phaedo we learn of Socrates’ last day and his argument with visiting friends that the soul is immortal, and death is simply the departure of the soul from the body.

In the Statesman we hear of the Golden Age under the rule of Cronus, an age of no toil and youthfulness before the cosmos turn to an era without ruler. This ends with the rule of Zeus, an age of toil and human politics.
What kind of leaders are needed in each cosmic era?

Session 6 | Atlantis and the Ancient City of Athens

Reading| Timaeus 20d – 25d & Critias 108 e-121c or Chapter 10

Atlantis has captures our imagination. We have movies, children’s books, computer games, academic and pseudo-academic explorations, and expeditions from all ends of the world to all ends of the world. But where did it all begin? It is in Plato that we first hear of Atlantis, of its war with prehistoric Athens, of it infamy, of its explorations in great ships across the oceans and around the world. Only in Plato do we read of this advanced civilization, of its vast stores of knowledge and of how it suddenly disappeared without a trace.