Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought

Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought

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Winner of the Gustave O. Arlt Award in the Humanities
Winner of the Istvan Hont Book Prize

An ambitious reinterpretation and defense of Plato's basic enterprise and influence, arguing that the power of his myths was central to the founding of philosophical rationalism.

Plato's use of myths-the Myth of Metals, the Myth of Er-sits uneasily with his canonical reputation as the inventor of rational philosophy. Since the Enlightenment, interpreters like Hegel have sought to resolve this tension by treating Plato's myths as mere regrettable embellishments, irrelevant to his main enterprise. Others, such as Karl Popper, have railed against the deceptive power of myth, concluding that a tradition built on Platonic foundations can be neither rational nor desirable.

Tae-Yeoun Keum challenges the premise underlying both of these positions. She argues that myth is neither irrelevant nor inimical to the ideal of rational progress. She tracks the influence of Plato's dialogues through the early modern period and on to the twentieth century, showing how pivotal figures in the history of political thought-More, Bacon, Leibniz, the German Idealists, Cassirer, and others-have been inspired by Plato's mythmaking. She finds that Plato's followers perennially raised the possibility that there is a vital role for myth in rational political thinking.
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Product details

  • Hardback | 336 pages
  • 156 x 235 x 27.94mm | 576.06g
  • The Belknap Press
  • Cambridge, Mass., United States
  • English
  • 3 tables; 3 tables
  • 0674984641
  • 9780674984646
  • 1,400,416

Review quote

Well suited to the moment. The convergence of pandemic conspiracy theories with populist narratives of globalist malfeasance shows that the desire for stories that give meaning to our collective experience is alive and kicking (if not exactly well)...Keum's study is an exercise in demystification, showing the Platonist approach to myth to be more complex-and relevant-than we thought...Subtle and enriching. -- Knox Peden * Australian Book Review * Keum establishes both that narrative myth is a persistent tool for political theorists in modernity and antiquity, and that its use has given rise to continuing debates on the proper content and form of political theorizing. Those debates have sharpened as the dangers and power of political myth have become more apparent, but as she ably shows, the ambiguous role of myth in political theorizing has a long history and is inescapably bound into the texture of the canon of Western political thought. -- Carol Atack * Bryn Mawr Classical Review * Tak[es] up in a refreshingly original way the problem of political myth...[Keum's] subtle and careful text suggests that myth and work on myth are both the cause of and the possible solution to the polarization of political life as it manifests itself in, and depends upon, culture. -- Isaac Ariail Reed * Hedgehog Review * A splendid achievement. -- Teresa Bejan * Mind * The breadth of Keum's erudition with regard to the history of philosophy is impressive, as is the depth of her knowledge of the texts and thinkers treated throughout. -- Joseph Forte * Review of Metaphysics * Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought provides a fine, original, and persuasive case for a reconsideration of Plato's myths and their bearing on political thought. Tae-Yeoun Keum's reading of Plato as a political philosopher who sees the value of myth-making deserves a wide audience. -- Tushar Irani, author of Plato on the Value of Philosophy Tae-Yeoun Keum traces a rich tradition reflecting on Plato's use of myth, revealing how attention to myth as a literary artifact can modulate its relationship to unchallenged social verities and serve in philosophical self-examination and social improvement. Her readings of More, Bacon, Leibniz, the German Idealists, and Cassirer are subtle and original in drawing out these themes. -- Melissa Lane, Princeton University An important book for our troubled times. Beginning with Plato and extending into Plato's reception amongst modern theorists of myth, Keum's guiding question is whether myth, in its ability to captivate the mind in what might be described as a non-rational way, can achieve forms of communication that strictly rational thought cannot, and whether there may be a normative role for myth to play in political discourse today. -- Angus Nicholls, Queen Mary University of London Myths do more than entertain. They direct our attention, structure our psyches, and regulate our societies. By taking the philosophical significance of myth seriously, Tae-Yeoun Keum rediscovers the depth of Plato's writings and offers a remarkable new account of his legacy. Following in the rich tradition of Ernst Cassirer and Hans Blumenberg, Keum suggests that myth and reason are not opposites, but instead complementary parts of the human effort to understand. -- Bryan Garsten, Yale University In the history of political thought it is a well-worn conceit that politics must be founded on reason alone, while the last burning embers of myth must be extinguished. In this thoughtful and nuanced exploration of Plato's legacy, Tae-Yeoun Keum seeks to qualify this prejudice, and she directs our attention to a more generous understanding of myth as an enduring-and perhaps even necessary-thread in the fabric of our collective life. -- Peter E. Gordon, Harvard University
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About Tae-Yeoun Keum

Tae-Yeoun Keum is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was previously the Christopher Tower Junior Research Fellow at Christ Church, University of Oxford.
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