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How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology, and: Plato the Myth Maker

Margaret D. Zulick
Philosophy and Rhetoric, Volume 41, Number 3, 2008, pp. 300-304 (Review)

Published by Penn State University Press DOI: 10.1353/par.0.0005

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How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation and Classical Mythology. Luc Brisson. Trans. C. Tihanyi. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. 224. $30.00, cloth. Plato the Myth Maker. Luc Brisson. Trans. G. Naddaf. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998. Pp. lv + 244. $20.00, cloth.
In the ancient contest over philosophy and rhetoric, myth plays a key role, since the essence of myth is story and since, like rhetoric, myth cannot be reduced either to truth on the one hand or to falsehood on the other. Therefore an erudite treatment of the reception history of myth by philosophy should interest both philosophers and rhetoricians. Luc Brissons recent book on the recovery of myth in the tradition of Western philosophy demonstrates both the profound depth of current scholarship in classical philosophy and its persistent insularity. Brisson (2002) rst came to our attention with his detailed textual investigation of sexual ambivalence in Greece and Rome. He concludes that, while hermaphroditism was viewed as a monstrous sign of divine anger, sexual duality and homosexuality might be assimilated as long as the subject also adopted the social role, dress, and manner associated with the opposite sex. Most of Brissons work, however, has focused on Plato, beginning with Inventing the Universe (Brisson and Meyerstein 1995) and continuing with Plato the Myth Maker. In both these works Brisson is primarily concerned with the status of knowledge, in the rst place in relation to scientic or cosmological discourse and in the second place in relation to myth. It is this second interest that is extended in How Philosophers Saved Myths.
Philosophy and Rhetoric, Vol. 41, No. 3, 2008 Copyright 2008 The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA

how philosophers saved myths

The two books really should be read together. Plato the Myth Maker, along with the chapter on Plato in How Philosophers Saved Myths, seeks to show to what degree Plato is conscious of the fact that reason . . . cannot be liberated from the myth (3). Brisson with painstaking precision demonstrates the contradictions in Platos stance against myth. His argument rests in many ways on the profound divergences between oral and written culture in Greece. He makes certain key assumptions about oral transmission that seem more than somewhat arguable: Whereas writing permits a storage of messages which isin theory, at leastinnite, the accumulation of orally transmitted messages can only be individual, and therefore limited by the capacity of an individual memory (Plato the Myth Maker, 19). Does collective memory always presuppose written communication? Part 1 of Plato the Myth Maker is preoccupied with questions of the denition and transmission of myth in the transition from oral to literate culture and with Platos characterization of myth as an unfalsiable discourse, a serious game that inuences the soul (83). In the second part, however, Brisson depicts the Plato for whom myth must be a discourse that is either true or false and as a narrative stands in opposition to logos. The contradiction thus elicited in Platos thought is drawn much more sharply in How Philosophers Saved Myths. How Philosophers Saved Myths focuses on the trajectory of allegory as a method of recovering myth in literate culture and takes us from the rise of literacy in Greece through Plato, Aristotle, and the later philosophical schools including Stoicism and neo-Platonism to the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. In his chapter on Plato, Brisson shows once again that Plato treats myth sometimes as unveriable but at other times as subject to truth and error. This is because for Plato, the correspondence of myth as discourse to an external referent is supplanted by its correspondence to another discourse held up as norm. Thus, epistemology . . . gives way to censorship (How Philosophers Saved Myth, 25). Brisson goes on to make one key original point about Platos attitude toward allegory. Why not resolve the contradiction over mythic thought through embracing the practice of allegorical interpretation? Brisson suggests that Plato realizes how adopting allegory would restore ultimate authority to the narrative frame of myth, thus reducing philosophy to the status of a mere instrument of the interpretation of myths, which in turn would be the genuine locus of truth (How Philosophers Saved Myth, 27). Later philosophers did not share this reservation. Brisson traces the development of allegory as a means of interpretation of myth from its
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attested beginnings in the sixth century B.C.E. to the Renaissance. It seems that the contest between mythic and philosophical authority was resolved by the invention of theology. Surely Augustine, with his instructions in De doctrina Christiana for when to apply symbolic meanings to dicult texts, would be pivotal to this transition. Yet Augustinian hermeneutics gets a single mention in a long footnote to Byzantine allegory (How Philosophers Saved Myth, 114n24). The depth and scope of Brissons grasp of Plato and many other classical texts are impressive. He is able to read across texts without harmonizing the logical and historical conicts that inevitably arise. But if the omission of Augustine is an understandable disciplinary choice, Brissons treatment of the question of literacy raises more questions about the insularity of this treatment. In Plato the Myth Maker, it is not Brisson but his translator, Gerald Naddaf, who lays out the discussion over the Greek adaptation of the alphabet (xivxviii). In the later book, Brinson relies entirely on Eric Havelocks classic misconstrual of the history of the alphabet to set the ground for the transition from oral to literate culture that is crucial to his understanding of the literate reception of myth. Following Havelock, he terms the West Semitic alphabet a syllabary and more importantly sees no further explanation necessary to account for the explosion of critical thinking and argumentation in Greece (How Philosophers Saved Myth, 79). I cannot go into detail on this one point in a short review. Havelocks argument is well known. In Preface to Plato (1963), he accepts the received wisdom that the Greek alphabet was borrowed from the Phoenicians as ancient traditions attest. But in The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences (1982) he has changed his position. Here and in The Muse Learns to Write (1986), he argues that the Phoenician consonantal alphabet is in eect a shorthand syllabary, an intermediary writing system in which each syllable has a separate sign. Most syllabaries have many more signs than the alphabet. But Havelock argues that with twenty-two consonants, the Phoenician alphabet is economical but still dicult to read because of its vocalic ambiguity. Thus the Greek invention of the vowel marked the technical achievement that then caused a massive advance in cognitive development. This line of argument ignores two crucial historic and linguistic facts. First, there is evidence that the Phoenician alphabet could and did use consonants to represent vowels on occasion. Second, Northwest Semitic dialects did not need the signs to express the language legibly (Cross 1989). One could examine the trilateral consonantal roots that structure Semitic languages or simply pick up a modern Israeli newspaper to
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verify this fact. Only non-native speakers nd reading easier with certain consonants standing in for vowels. The most important eect of Brissons exclusive reliance on Havelocks argument is that it leaves unexplored what should be a signicant question for the transmission of Greek myth from oral imitation to written interpretation: What indeed was the proximate cause for this transition, which spread both literacy and argument rapidly across the Greek world, centuries after the alphabet was rst introduced? Finally, Brisson further shows the insularity of his approach to the subject by omitting all mention of rhetoric from his examination of Platos treatment of myth. In Plato the Myth Maker, he takes us from the medium through the fabrication, narration, reception, imitation and persuasion of myth without reference to Platos opposition to rhetoric. Yet the issues over truth and falsehood in myth and rhetoric appear to run exactly parallel in the context of the controversy over opposite arguments. Ultimately, How Philosophers Saved Myths is about the authority of discursive knowledge. It is one more take on the struggle between wisdom and appearance, tradition and critical dialectic, that is enacted in Platos dialogues and is only partially resolved in the late classical and Christian appropriation of myth as allegory. All forms of knowledge must account for their sources to be accepted as knowledge, and thus knowledge entails authorization. Brisson makes the case that philosophy as well might be forced to acknowledge the limits of dialectic and that philosophical knowledge abuts on material existence and nonreferential discourse, both of which give it its ground and its limits. Mythical poesis might form one such boundary, but surely the contingent domain of rhetoric forms another. Margaret D. Zulick Department of Communication Wake Forest University

works cited
Brisson, Luc. 2002. Sexual Ambivalence: Androgyny and Hermaphroditism in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Trans. J. Lloyd. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. Brisson, Luc, and F. Walter Meyerstein. 1995. Inventing the Universe: Platos Timaeus, the Big Bang, and the Problem of Scientic Knowledge. Albany: State University of New York Press. Cross, Frank Moore. 1989. The Invention and Development of the Alphabet. In The Origins of Writing, ed. W. M. Senner, 7790. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

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Havelock, Eric A. 1963. Preface to Plato. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. . 1982. The Literate Revolution in Greece and Its Cultural Consequences. Princeton: Princeton University Press. . 1986. The Muse Learns to Write: Reections on Orality and Literacy from Antiquity to the Present. New Haven: Yale University Press

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