Saturday, March 20, 2010
In the footsteps of James Hillman 5
The Paradigm of the Myth of Er
As those familiar with Western philosophy will know, responsibility and right action, personal choice and conscience - that is all ethical questions - loom large within the remit of its intellectual territory. We in Ireland are well aware of the currect moral/ethical questions with which we are faced as a nation. These last few days have witnessed the arrest of Seán Fitzpatrick the erstwhile chief executive of the ill-fated Anglo-Irish Bank for suspected fraud and the not quite abject, but quite contrite, apology of Cardinal Seán Brady for not reporting sexual abuse to the Gardaí, but rather solely to his religious superiors 35 years ago. Professor Gerard Casey of the UCD Department of Philosophy rightly pointed out in a TV programme on RTE 1 recently - all human organizations and systems have an in-built force to preserve themselves at all costs, and that this is a quality shared by all human organizations. There is more to be added to that erudite and wise reflection, namely, that those who embrace any organization in all its rules and indeed actions, are often those who seek to get to the top within it. Hence, these "system climbers" will be more than likely anything but "whistle-blowers." They will be consciously or unconsciously system defenders, colluders and those who cover up. And so power, self-aggrandisement and sheer egomania are often rather ignobly interwoven with downright avoidance and sheer lies to protect the besmirched institution.
The early Greeks were concerned with right action and Socrates wielded his wise method of argumentation in its pursuit. Like the Christians would years later in the theologies of St Augustine, St Irenaeus, St Ambrose and many other theologians, Greek philosophers like Plato sought to explain how evil people often seemed to prosper while often the innocent suffered. How could this happen at all? And so Plato offered his readers the myth of Er to explain that if the good did not get justice in this life, they would in the next life. Likewise if the wicked prospered and indeed lived long and comfortable lives this side of the grave, then rebirth at the far side in a lesser form of life would be the punishment. Here we can see why later Christen theologians siezed on the philosophies of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle (the last mentioned to the grreatest extent) to back up their formulations and defences of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory. Whether such "places" or "states" as Heaven or Hell or Purgatory or reincarnation actually exist is beyond the scope of these thoughts here. I merely mention this myth as myth, that is myth qua myth. For this writer, myth is a different form of truth, but a truth nonetheless - call it an imaginative truth if you will, which is a meaning-maker and a meaning-carrier. Hence, a literal understanding is far from my intentions. I deal with metaphor, the world of metaphor where meaning is so wont to live.
In short, then, we may say that in order to explain his theory that the morally benevolent are rewarded after death, and that the opposite is true of immoral people, Socrates tells Glaucon the "Myth of Er". This section of The Republic is one of the first extant texts to deal with the issue of responsibility and choice in personal action, which has become a central questions of Western ethics. Be this as it may what interests me here is the use the archetypal psychologist James Hillman uses of this myth to boulster his own myth or theory of the acorn. Somewhere in the middle of his telling of the myth of Er, Plato tells us that as the souls of the dead are reincarnated in various higher or lower forms of life. Then each reincarnated soul was assigned a deity to help them through their life. (Hillman's acorn or daimon or genius). They then passed under the throne of Lady Necessity, and continued on to the Plain of Oblivion, where the River of Forgetfulness (River Lethe) flowed. There each soul was required to drink some of the water, in varying quantities, apart from Er. As they drank, each soul forgot everything that had ever happened in any previous life. Hence archetypal psychology is about helping the soul to identify and become aware of its unique destiny, its unique daimon, its unique genius, its unique self or vocation or calling in this world.
Now, lest all this appear very esoteric, or more like the visions the likes of a Timothy Leary or other similar or even dissimilar pot-head would have aften smoking a joint, I hasten to remind the reader that we are here dealing with myth, with the very nature of mythology, with truth of a different order, but truth nonetheless. We are dealing here with the truth of the imagination, the truth of the soul, the truth of the identity of the self, with psychological truth which is of a different order entirely. When the rather tiresome debates of religion versus science or science versus religion rehash themselves again and again rather boringly, one can only lament that a lack of understanding of the psychology of religion must surely be a great cause of this sad intellectual irritant.
A picture from the map room in the Vatican Museum. Sardinia, I think. I took this photo in February 2010.