St. Augustine’s Press of South Bend, Ind., has just published a fascinating little book by the great Thomist scholar Josef Pieper called The Platonic Myths. In its small compass — only 62 pages of text — it addresses some huge ideas, in a remarkably thought-provoking way. Everyone remembers from Western Civ 101 that Plato “banished the poets from the Republic” — but what is less well-known, and even less well understood, is that his goal was not to abolish myth outright but to purify it of falsehoods and improper accretions: to distinguish, that is, what is true in the myth from what is false. And Pieper’s interest in this question is not pure-classicist or antiquarian, but existential: because, to us in the late-modern West, just as to Plato, the most important truths about man’s nature and destiny are available more fundamentally as stories that are heard, not as logical conclusions that are deduced. Pieper writes: “We are expressly not — to use Lessing’s words — dealing with ‘absolute truths of reason,’ which could be deduced from abstract principles, but with events and actions which derive from the freedom of God and of men. In this regard there is no distinction between the statements that Christians believe and the myths recounted by Plato. Both have in common that their subject is not intellectual content but a story played out between the realm of the gods and the realm of men.”
The eschatological myths Plato recounted in his dialogues, writes Fr. James V. Schall in his introduction, point to something real and important about man — something which, Christians believe, is made more explicit in Christian Revelation. Because man’s nature has an eschatological dimension, writes Schall, a just politics must not try to abolish eschatology: “It has tried to replace it and has made itself a self-creator with a paltry destiny.” I would stress (I speak for myself here, not necessarily for Father Schall) that this is not a matter of trivial church-state skirmishings, but of politics in the deeper cultural sense: the question of the right way for people to live together in community. Institutions of government can (and, in my opinion, should) be “neutral” or “secular” on religious questions; but the society as a whole ignores or marginalizes these basic religious and philosophical questions only at a great cost.
This small book is written for the general reader, and is well worth his or her attention.