Rationalizing myth

At the beginning of the Phaedrus Socrates mentions a rationalist account of a Greek myth – the sort of thing that now gets done by historical-critical accounts of old stories – and then claims to have no interest in giving such accounts of things:

Now I quite acknowledge that these allegories are very nice, but he is not to be envied who has to invent them; much labour and ingenuity will be required of him; and when he has once begun, he must go on and rehabilitate Hippocentaurs and chimeras, then the gorgons and winged steeds, and numberless other inconceivable and portentous natures. And if he is sceptical about them, and would fain reduce them one after another to the rules of probability, this sort of crude philosophy will take up a great deal of time.

But what kind of argument is this? Why can’t someone just pick and choose where he will apply criticism? Why think that to rationalize one religious story requires you to rationalize them all?

As always in Plato the example is working on many different levels, but the basic point is that rationalizing religious stories comes from a conviction that the world exists in a certain way. Any one rational account simply fills in a few details in a far more significant belief about the totality of things. There is, however, a massive disproportion between the few details we can actually rationalize and the totality of the claim that motivates us to rationalize them in the first place.


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