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Fw: BMCR 2005.10.43, Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths

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  • Edward Moore
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      Subject: BMCR 2005.10.43, Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths


      > Luc Brisson, How Philosophers Saved Myths: Allegorical Interpretation
      > and Classical Mythology. Translated by Catherine Tihanyi. Chicago:
      > The University of Chicago Press, 2004. Pp. xiv, 206. ISBN
      > 0-226-07535-4. $30.00.
      >
      > Reviewed by G. McGonagill, Dalhousie University (G.McGonagill@...)
      > Word count: 2883 words
      > -------------------------------
      > To read a print-formatted version of this review, see
      > http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/bmcr/2005/2005-10-43.html
      > -------------------------------
      >
      > Few scholars are in a position to write a book of this scope: it is
      > essentially a history of religion, philosophy, theology, and
      > hermeneutics from archaic Greece to the discovery of America. It is at
      > the same time a short book: it accomplishes all of these things in one
      > hundred sixty-five lucidly written pages and thirty-two pages of end
      > notes. It is to be highly recommended as propaedeutic to the deeper
      > study of any of the important developments in the history of thinking
      > about gods and how they are represented.
      >
      > The title, How Philosophers Saved Myths, immediately invites the
      > question, "From whom or what?" The answer, given in the first chapter,
      > "Muthos and Philosophia," is the usual one: the development of prose
      > genres with their emphasis on argumentation; the development of
      > conceptual, rather than concrete, thought; and the development of
      > writing that leads to the deracination of traditional narratives so
      > that they become subject to criticism apart from the traditional
      > performative contexts. The names attached to these developments are
      > familiar: Xenophanes and Plato, and historians such as Herodotus. These
      > trends and influential thinkers altered the expectations of an audience
      > that under their tutelage became intolerant of the contradictions and
      > paradoxes inherent in myth. Allegory and tragedy, in both of which the
      > applicability of myths to new cultural realities is fundamental, were
      > the means by which the traditional ethical ro^le of myth was preserved.
      >
      > Chapter two, "Plato's Attitude toward Myth," is a useful pre/cis of
      > Brisson's book, Plato the Myth Maker. Brisson's view is that Plato
      > fixed the meaning of the word "myth" to describe (and make problematic)
      > traditional mimetic narratives through which a culture transmits its
      > understanding of its past so as to provide, in the performance of the
      > poetry in which the myths are conveyed, models of physical and moral
      > behavior. Plato did so in the context described in the first chapter,
      > when an oral culture was becoming one which privileged writing and
      > myth's traditional role in shaping a culture seemed to be challenged by
      > other forms of discourse. Since myths are about the distant past, they
      > constitute unverifiable discourse. In terms of three corresponding
      > oppositions, muthos/logos, unverifiable discourse/verifiable discourse,
      > and narrative discourse/argumentative discourse, the latter term of
      > each contrary is the realm of the philosopher. This does not mean that
      > all mythical discourse is to be rejected out of hand; it means that the
      > traditional privileging of muthos over logos must be inverted, as logos
      > establishes the measure by which the truth value of any particular myth
      > is to be judged.
      >
      > In the third chapter, "Aristotle and the Beginnings of Allegorical
      > Exegesis," Brisson rehearses the standard history which assumes that
      > allegory was a hermeneutical innovation of the sixth century in
      > response to criticism of Homer and Hesiod. What one finds in this
      > chapter that has not yet made it into other histories is four pages on
      > the Derveni Papyrus, in which lines of an Orphic theogony are cited and
      > commented on allegorically, in part by recourse to etymology and
      > pre-Socratic physics. By the middle of the fifth century, both physical
      > allegories and moral allegories were well established ways of
      > interpreting traditional myths. Brisson argues that Aristotle was not
      > troubled by myth and allegory to quite the same degree as Plato, since
      > he believed that myths conveyed the earliest perceptions by men of the
      > gods and thus contained metaphysical truths that just had to be
      > disentangled from its narrative decoration. For Aristotle, myth did not
      > present as great a threat to rational discourse and the philosophical
      > ascent as it did for Plato.
      >
      > The fourth chapter, "Stoics, Epicureans, and the New Academy," is
      > essentially a reading of Cicero's De natura deorum. Brisson's summary
      > of the Stoic position as represented there is that the unitary divine
      > reason manifests itself in the elements and natural forces of the
      > physical world and can be named in its various manifestations with the
      > names of the traditional gods through careful study of the meanings of
      > the gods' names, i.e. through etymology. The Stoics found Stoic
      > cosmology in Homer and Hesiod, and interpretation of the traditional
      > poets was synonymous for them with allegory: through careful, mostly
      > etymological study, teasing out the Stoic cosmology that was hidden
      > beneath the surface of the poetic narrative. Euhemerists similarly took
      > Homer to be "a historian, a naturalist, and a geographer (48)," and so
      > found realist history hidden beneath the poetry. Velleius, the
      > spokesman for Epicureanism in Cicero's dialogue, attacks Stoic physical
      > allegory and Euhemerism as impious and disparages the plausibility of
      > finding in Homer doctrines that only occurred to people hundreds of
      > years after he lived. On behalf of the New Academy, Cotta ridicules the
      > Stoics' tendency to multiply the number of gods in order to find their
      > theories adequately imaged in them, and attacks the practice of
      > etymology as an interpretative tool. By relying almost solely on De
      > natura deorum and not looking to Lucretius, he gives the contribution
      > of the Epicureans shorter shrift than would be useful for the larger
      > argument he is making.
      >
      > The heart of the book really lies in the fifth and sixth chapters.
      > Chapter Five, "Pythagoreanism and Platonism," announces a new beginning
      > in the history of allegory, concomitant with a transformation in the
      > history of philosophy during the first century B.C. For Plutarch,
      > secrecy is an essential element of both philosophy and religion. He
      > sees this ultimately as the heritage of the Egyptians, which was taken
      > into Greek culture by Pythagoras. The right sort of philosophical
      > understanding is necessary in order to decipher the gods'
      > self-revelation in ciphered forms in myth. Plutarch argues that
      > Euhemerist or Stoic allegory leads to atheism and superstition. The
      > true way of interpreting myth was to assimilate myth to the mysteries.
      > Brisson notes that Plutarch prefers words based on the root ainos, such
      > as ainigma, for allegory and argues that after Plato these words refer
      > to the mysteries. As a result of an illustrative discussion of
      > Plutarch's syncretistic treatment of the Egyptian mythology of the
      > death, dismemberment, and resurrection of Osiris, Brisson enumerates
      > Plutarch's modes of exegesis of myth. The demonological method is
      > endorsed by Plutarch as incorporating the philosophical and theological
      > developments that are of importance to him, including the
      > reconciliation of polytheism and monotheism and the reconciliation of
      > the existence of apparently physical passions attributed to gods in
      > myth with the gods' true spiritual nature. More generally, myth,
      > particularly when it is troubling, is symbolic. To the philosopher,
      > that is to say the neo-Pythagorean, middle Platonic philosopher, the
      > paradoxes of myth lead one back to the mysteries, to one's death in the
      > realm of opinion and rebirth in the spiritual realm of truth, and
      > philosophy is the mystagogue.
      >
      > Brisson traces a history based on the position implied in Plutarch.
      > Middle-Platonists assume that in Homer and Plato is to be found the
      > selfsame revelation of the truth from the gods, transmitted also by
      > Pythagoras, as well as by certain Egyptians, Persians, and Jews. For
      > Plotinus, on this basis, myth reflects the enigmatic character of the
      > world in relation to its principle. Myth is a didactic tool through
      > which the nature of the eternal can be expressed in time-bound
      > language: "myth translates the synchrony of a system into the diachrony
      > of a narrative (74)." Brisson takes the reader through Plotinus's
      > exposition of the myths of Ouranos, Kronos, and Zeus as parallel
      > expressions of the three main hypostases of his philosophy, as well as
      > Cybele as an image of matter and the nature of soul as expressed in the
      > Platonic myths of Eros. (Here one regrets that Brisson's treatment of
      > Epicureanism fails to take account of Lucretius's response to Plato and
      > Aristotle's metaphysics and myth criticism.) Brisson makes clear the
      > extent to which for Plotinus, as for Plutarch, once the philosopher has
      > ascended to a grasp of true reality, the world of myth is a rich source
      > of images of that truth in narrative language that is suitable for
      > discursive human reason.
      >
      > In the sixth chapter, Brisson takes up the Neoplatonic school of
      > Athens. The neo-Platonists develop a tactic already seen in Plotinus,
      > when he treats Plato's myths of Eros alongside the myths of Hesiod and
      > Homer. For these philosophers, the second part of Plato's Parmenides is
      > a systematic theology of the One, and all of the Platonic dialogues are
      > interpreted as reflecting this theology in various forms of narrative
      > and imagery. One of the projects implied in their understanding of
      > Plato as theologian is to show how the Platonic theology agrees with
      > other authoritative theologies, including Orpheus, Hesiod, Homer,
      > Pythagoras, and the Chaldean Oracles. The Chaldean Oracles, a second
      > century A.D. amalgam of traditional religious form and Platonic
      > content, loom particularly large in this account as, in a sense, the
      > religious aspect of Platonism: oracular utterances of Plato himself
      > through which the soul might attain union with the divine. Alongside
      > the Chaldean Oracles in importance as mythical expressions of the
      > mysteries in which the neo-Platonic philosopher was an initiate were
      > the Orphic Rhapsodies, theogonic and cosmogonic poetry in a form
      > developed and influenced up until the second century A.D. by Mithraism
      > and middle- and neo-Platonism and attributed to Orpheus. Homer and
      > Hesiod, as well, remain for the neo-Platonists inspired poets who have
      > transmitted enigmas, particularly in the troubling aspects of their
      > poems, which exclude those who are not initiated into the philosophical
      > mysteries but instruct those who are.
      >
      > Though Justinian closed the School of Athens in A.D. 529, Christians
      > continued to be educated mainly in the pagan Greek tradition, and in
      > particular the ancient form of primary education, memorizing Homer,
      > persisted. Brisson's seventh chapter, "Byzantium and the Pagan Myths,"
      > takes up the career of mythology and its interpretation in the context
      > of state-sanctioned Christianity. This chapter is one of the most
      > useful in the book, since it describes a branch of the history that is
      > often overlooked. That the importance of Homer was undiminished in the
      > Christian Byzantine empire is attested, among many other illustrations,
      > by the career of Eustathius (died ca. 1195-1199), who produced 1,555
      > pages of commentary on the Iliad and nearly 800 pages of commentary on
      > the Odyssey (187-8, n. 23). Brisson adduces Eustathius, John Tzetzes,
      > and Michael Psellus as paradigms of Byzantine allegorical
      > interpretation. Psellus, the earliest of the three, continues the
      > history that Brisson had outlined in chapters five and six: he attempts
      > a synthesis of Plato, whom he reads theologically through the lens of
      > Plotinus and Proclus, with Pythagoras, the Chaldean Oracles, the Orphic
      > Rhapsodies, the "barbarian" wisdom of the Egyptians, Chaldeans, and
      > Palestine, and all of these with orthodox Christianity. All three
      > Byzantine interpreters are willing to use any kind of allegory--the
      > physical allegory of the Stoics, etymology, the symbolic interpretation
      > favored in the neo-Platonic tradition--in order to bring pagan myths
      > into the service of Christian orthodoxy. Accommodating pagan myths to
      > Christian theology was not a particular concern of the last Platonist
      > allegorist Brisson discusses in this chapter, Georgius Gemistus Pletho
      > (died May 26, 1452). As a member of the eastern delegation to the
      > Council of Florence, Pletho may have done more than the Council
      > succeeded in doing to unite east and west philosophically and
      > spiritually, if not ecclesiastically, through the veneration he
      > inspired among Italian scholars.
      >
      > For the most part, according to Brisson, the neo-Platonic
      > interpretative tradition of pagan myths lay dormant in the west through
      > the Middle Ages until the Renaissance, as his treatment of Pletho in
      > chapter seven foreshadows. The myths themselves, however, were by no
      > means dormant in the popular imagination: the chapter begins with the
      > arresting image of Jupiter in the Campanile in Florence "wearing a
      > monk's robe, holding a chalice in one hand and a cross in the other"
      > (126). In his eighth chapter, "The Western Middle Ages," Brisson gives
      > an extremely brief overview of allegorical interpretation during the
      > Middle Ages in the west; perhaps its brevity is owing to the
      > familiarity of the history to many readers. This chapter is perhaps the
      > least satisfying in the book because it is so cursory. He brings before
      > the reader works such as Isidore of Seville's Etymologies, commentaries
      > on Plato's Timaeus, and the fourteenth-century Ovide Moralise/e, in
      > order to show that the Stoic interpretative strategies that Plutarch
      > rejected, Euhemerism and physical and moral allegory, were dominant. It
      > becomes apparent that Brisson finds lamentable what the gods of Greece
      > and Rome suffered in literature and art during the Middle Ages in the
      > west: "Poor copies, substitutions, disguises, and naive
      > reconstitutions: we don't know which of these procedures mistreated
      > them the most, not to mention reading and translation errors that
      > aggravated the corruption ... (136)."
      >
      > In the final chapter before the conclusion, "The Renaissance," Brisson
      > does a fine job of conveying in twenty-four lively pages the riotous
      > profusion of interpretations of pagan myths that followed the return of
      > the texts of the Greek tradition from the east and the south into
      > western Europe. All of the well-known names are treated in this chapter
      > -- Boccaccio, Rabelais, Martin Luther, Francis Bacon, Peter Lombard,
      > Marsilio Ficino -- all seen in their relation in some aspect or another
      > to the history of interpretation. These names are complemented by a
      > host of less generally well-known names of theologians, philosophers,
      > clerics, numismatists, iconographers, art historians, epigraphers,
      > gemologists, and mythographers (making their reappearance in Europe for
      > the first time since the Hellenistic era). Except by offering such a
      > list of the breadth of specialties covered in this chapter it is
      > impossible to convey the wealth of information Brisson manages to
      > include. What he seeks to make clear through all of the specific
      > instances is that, while the Euhemerism and physical and moral
      > allegories favored by the western medieval tradition continue unabated
      > during the Renaissance, they are joined by the appearance of the
      > Platonic tradition described in chapters five through seven.
      >
      > Many of the interpreters of the Renaissance offered what may now, in
      > the light of our ability to read the Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts,
      > seem to be prescient syncretistic accounts of the essential agreement
      > of pagan, not just Greek and Roman but also Near Eastern and Egyptian,
      > and Christian theology. But as Brisson notes, what strikes one is how
      > eager the interpreters are to find their own positions expressed
      > enigmatically in the ancient texts and how ingenious they are about
      > drawing them out. Pierre Halloix, for example, a seventeenth century
      > inheriter of the Renaissance Platonic tradition, "subscribed to the
      > idea that Moses was Plato's teacher, and he showed how Socrates' last
      > works [sic -- "words" is more likely what was intended] in Phaedo
      > announced Christ's coming (161)." The chapter concludes with a rather
      > perfunctory assertion that allegory's death warrant was not any
      > philosophical or religious insight but the discovery of America and, in
      > particular, the scandalous discovery that the Greeks' myths, whose
      > essential rationality had been a foundational assumption, converged
      > with the myths of new world "savages," and thus that there might be
      > something irreducibly irrational at the core of Greek culture.
      >
      > Brisson's book amounts to an elegant intellectual history of European
      > culture and the Greek tradition seen through the lens of a history of a
      > particular interpretative method. Its great virtue, its brevity, is
      > also at times its greatest flaw: it is the nature of short books that
      > give an overview of an immense span of very complicated history that
      > they fail to satisfy as histories of any one period or phenomenon or
      > school in particular. Specialists in every one of the topics that
      > Brisson includes in the book (one clue to the amount of scholarship
      > that is synthesized in this book is that the twenty-four pages of the
      > ninth chapter include one hundred seventy-two footnotes) will find that
      > Brisson fails to take account of this or that refinement or new
      > discovery. Nevertheless, a book that gave a full account of everything
      > that Brisson treats here would be a huge book, maybe not a bad thing,
      > but a thing that would be less useful for the people who are likely to
      > read this book.
      >
      > One of the things that is most useful about this book is that it points
      > the reader to a great wealth of scholarship in French for more detailed
      > treatment of certain topics in which English scholarship has taken
      > somewhat less interest over the past decades. Unfortunately, much of
      > this material has not been translated into English, and a reader who
      > could read French would not be reading this translation in the first
      > place. For those who can read French, this book is above all a brief
      > invitation to take up two bigger books for full accounts of what
      > Brisson adumbrates here: Mythe et alle/gorie by Jean Pe/pin, to whom
      > this book is fittingly dedicated, and Les mythes d'Home\re et la
      > pense/e grecque by Fe/lix Buffie\re.
      >
      > Finally, a reviewer is compelled to take note of a few signs of haste
      > in the production of this volume. Typographical errors and moments of
      > confusion (for example, Brisson announces that there are five modes of
      > interpretation in Plutarch, but only four are enumerated) are frequent
      > enough to suggest that the book should have been proofread at least
      > once more. Likewise there are lapses in the index: for example,
      > Parmenides is not one of the dialogues one finds under Plato in spite
      > of the important discussion of this dialogue as grounding the
      > neo-Platonic view of Plato as a theologian.
      >
      >
      >
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