Log in

Lemon · Cupcake

On hyponoia in Plato

Recent Entries · Archive · Friends · Profile

* * *

Noted an interesting ambiguity in Plato's use of the term hyponoia. On the one hand, there's its use in the Republic (378d) to refer to an "underlying meaning" of the myths. But a passage from the Laws (679c) refers again to myths, at least in part, but here the verb form is used. The Athenian is speaking of the more simple-minded, but also more righteous, people of antiquity. They did not "suspect" (hyponoein) falsehood in the things said about the Gods or other humans, "and ordered their lives by them". From what Plato says in the Republic, one would think this would have turned out badly for them, but not from what he says in the Laws. Is this because the ancients didn't have the sort of myths Plato finds problematic in the passage from the Republic? Unlikely, as the whole point of mentioning their lack of suspicion seems to be to allude to such matters. Rather, it seems that whereas *we* must be mindful of deeper or esoteric meanings in the myths, *they* did not have to. Perhaps this is because the ancients did not, like Euthyphro, try to infer general principles from the myths based on a surface reading. The ancients did not posit analogies between Gods and humans, as when Euthyphro says that he's just treating his father as Zeus did his. The ancients believed the myths, but also knew the Gods to be good. They didn't resolve the tension, but at least they didn't resolve it wrongly. The "ancients" of the Laws are therefore much like the citizens of the healthy "City of Pigs" in the Republic. The ancients did not "read under" the myths, but then they did not try to justify their actions with reference to them, either. This whole matter is a good example of how much more complex Plato's attitude toward myth is than generally recognized.

So, then, let's say that there are three positions relative to myth and hyponoia, according to Plato. First, there is the position of the Ancients. They don't "do" hyponoia or mythical exegesis; they accept the myths, but don't trouble themselves too much about what they mean, letting their approach to the Gods and to their fellow mortals be governed by their largely-accurate intuitions concerning virtue and right conduct. Their "acceptance" of the myths is presumably manifest primarily in ritual action.

Then there are the "moderns" of Plato's day, and ours. We can't really avoid doing hyponoia, and so we need to work on getting it right. It's basically the same story with virtue; we likely can't trust our intuitions very far, and even if we could, because we happened to live in a well-governed polis, this would secure our conduct, but not our souls.

Finally, there are the Guardians of the "fevered" city. They don't do hyponoia, but they aren't exposed to the myths. The inhabitants of the City of Pigs sing about the Gods around their campfires, but they know to experience the myths like music. That doesn't work in the Fevered City, because it's strung too tight. So the Guardians probably aren't exposed to any narrative about the Gods at all, just who They are and their supra-essential excellence. This fits as well the Proclean interpretation of the Guardians as a class of intellective daimons: the Guardians, in effect, know the Gods by acquaintance and do not need therefore to know Them by description.

* * *