The relationship between mythology and philosophy is long and involved, extending from the archaic period down to late antiquity. But it is best understood by plunging into the middle and engaging with (perhaps) the most famous philosopher of classical antiquity, someone who is both extremely suspicious of myths and at the same time one of the most successful mythic storytellers that ever lived -- namely, the fourth-century B.C. teacher and philosopher Plato of Athens.
Whatever he may have done as a teacher, Plato the writer never presented his philosophy as a complete system. Instead, over the course of sevreal decades he wrote a series of dialogues in which various individuals, including friends and acquaintances of Plato's as well as other philosophers and sophists, would discuss individual philosophical questions. The main character in most of these dialogues is Socrates, whose intellectual importance and influence on Plato is thought to have been so great that we are not entirely sure to what extent these dialogues represent the thinking of the historical Socrates and to what extent the ideas they present are original to Plato.
At any rate, Plato thinks of the ideal world as eternal and unchanging, and therefore perfect. He therefore regards it as the highest level of reality. The world of appearances, in which we live, is a mere imitation of this ideal world, and so is less real. But within the world of appearences, there are things such as the products of the representational arts that are even farther away from the ideal world: just as Plato would regard a chair, for instance, as less real than the ideal form of chair, of which it is a mere imitation, so he would regard a painting of the chair as even less real than the object itself -- an imitation of an imitation. This view of reality can be illutrated by a divided line that corresponds to the various levels of reality in Plato's philosophy:
|highest level of reality||Ideal Forms|
|lowest level||Representations of Objects|
(the following quotation is available in hypertext format from Perseus)Plato, then, advocated censorship of the poems that he felt would hinder the education of good citizens; nor did he shrink from indicting those poets whom Greek culture traditionally regarded as among its most important sources:
"What, then, is our education? Or is it hard to find a better than that which long time has discovered? Which is, I suppose, gymnastics for the body and for the soul music." "It is." "And shall we not begin education in music earlier than in gymnastics?" "Of course." "And under music you include tales, do you not?" "I do." "And tales are of two species, the one true and the other false?" "Yes." "And education must make use [377a] of both, but first of the false?" "I don't understand your meaning." "Don't you understand," I said, "that we begin by telling children fables, and the fable is, taken as a whole, false, but there is truth in it also? And we make use of fable with children before gymnastics." "That is so." "That, then, is what I meant by saying that we must take up music before gymnastics." "You were right," he said. "Do you not know, then, that the beginning in every task is the chief thing, especially for any creature that is young and tender? [377b] For it is then that it is best molded and takes the impression that one wishes to stamp upon it." "Quite so." "Shall we, then, thus lightly suffer our children to listen to any chance stories fashioned by any chance teachers and so to take into their minds opinions for the most part contrary to those that we shall think it desirable for them to hold when they are grown up?" "By no manner of means will we allow it." "We must begin, then, it seems, by a censorship [377c] over our storymakers, and what they do well we must pass and what not, reject. And the stories on the accepted list we will induce nurses and mothers to tell to the children and so shape their souls by these stories far rather than their bodies by their hands. But most of the stories they now tell we must reject."
"What sort of stories?" he said. "The example of the greater stories," I said, "will show us the lesser also. For surely the pattern must be the same and the greater and the less [377d] must have a like tendency. Don't you think so?" "I do," he said; "but I don't apprehend which you mean by the greater, either." "Those," I said, "that Hesiod and Homer and the other poets related. These, methinks, composed false stories which they told and still tell to mankind." "Of what sort?" he said; "and what in them do you find fault?" "With that," I said, "which one ought first and chiefly to blame, especially if the lie is not a pretty one." [377e] "What is that?" "When anyone images badly in his speech the true nature of gods and heroes, like a painter whose portraits bear no resemblance to his models." "It is certainly right to condemn things like that," he said; "but just what do we mean and what particular things?" "There is, first of all," I said, "the greatest lie about the things of greatest concernment, which was no pretty invention of him who told how Uranus did what Hesiod says he did to Cronos, and how Cronos in turn took his revenge; [378a] and then there are the doings and sufferings of Cronos at the hands of his son. Even if they were true I should not think that they ought to be thus lightly told to thoughtless young persons. But the best way would be to bury them in silence, and if there were some necessity for relating them, that only a very small audience should be admitted under pledge of secrecy and after sacrificing, not a pig, but some huge and unprocurable victim, to the end that as few as possible should have heard these tales." "Why, yes," said he, "such stories are hard sayings." "Yes, and they are not to be told, [378b] Adeimantus, in our city, nor is it to be said in the hearing of a young man, that in doing the utmost wrong he would do nothing to surprise anybody, nor again in punishing his father's wrong-doings to the limit, but would only be following the example of the first and greatest of the gods." "No, by heaven," said he, "I do not myself think that they are fit to be told."Hesiod's Theogony, in other words, is a morally damaging poem because it ascribes to the gods deeds and emotions that Plato felt gods ought not to do or feel.
"Neither must we admit at all," said I, "that gods war with gods and plot against one another and contend -- for it is not true either -- [378c] if we wish our future guardians to deem nothing more shameful than lightly to fall out with one another; still less must we make battles of gods and giants the subject for them of stories and embroideries, and other enmities many and manifold of gods and heroes toward their kith and kin. But if there is any likelihood of our persuading them that no citizen ever quarrelled with his fellow-citizen and that the very idea of it is an impiety, [378d] that is the sort of thing that ought rather to be said by their elders, men and women, to children from the beginning and as they grow older, and we must compel the poets to keep close to this in their compositions.Plato's attitude towards traditional mythology is both censorious and quite radical. He advocates a wholesale revision of traditional mythology to suport his own ideas about the education of a good citizen. He does not advocate dispensing with poetry and mythology altogether, although he has more to say about what is wrong with traditional poetry than about what the poetry he advocates would look like. We can, however, perhaps infer something about this topic from the way in which Plato uses mythology in his own writing.