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Plato’s Self-Moving Myth: Tracking the migration of Plato’s Myth in late antique text networks

Sara Rappe

In this paper I investigate the reception of Plato’s Phaedrus, and especially the famous myth of the soul ( Phaedrus 246-249)from the 1st to 6th centuries CE. I analyze the phenomenon of  this text’s migration into exegetical or speculative traditions or even languages far removed from the original site of Plato’s dialogue in terms of the theory of textual networking.

Subject Matter

Allusions to the myth of the psychic chariot, the incarnation of the soul after the molting of its wings, and its pre-carnate life in the super celestial world, are ubiquitous in the religious and philosophical texts of the Roman Empire.  With it, Apuleius of Madaurus , Philo of Alexandria, Origen of Caesarea, the anonymous authors of the Nag Hammadi library, Numenius and Iamblichus of Syria, the Chaldean Oracles, and the 4th Century hermit, Evagrius Ponticus, fund their cosmological and soteriological speculations.

  What work did the Phaedrus perform in the project of self-articulation for these traditions, Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Pythagorean, and Polytheist, during the first through sixth centuries, CE? The text implies answers to a host of doctrinal and ideological issues, fueling speculations on the status of both mind and body. To what extent is soul a bona fide member of the divine order and to what extent is it a finite creature? The story of the charioteer, originating in the super celestial realm but after a violent cataclysm, crashing in the terrestrial realm and embarking on a series of endless transmigrations, helps these authors to negotiate the problem of how ultimate the separation of the human and the divine proves to be. Christian and Jewish authors track the Biblical account of the Fall in Genesis via the myth of the charioteer, strangely fusing their exegetical targets.

Sometimes, elements of the myth split off and colonize infra sectarian debates concerning e.g. the shape or existence of an astral body or the extent to which the soul changes its very essence during the process of descent. Some philosophers or religious traditions emphasize the moment of the “crash” itself-suggesting that we are here only by default, as a result of poor travel directions, the psychic equivalent of a malfunctioning gps.


Classicist Daniel Selden has used the term “text network” to describe texts whose very composition facilitates migration into a series of narratives at ever further chronological, linguistic, and geographical remove from their site of origin (e.g. The Alexander Romance). [1]Scholars of other periods [2] have used the term more broadly in an effort to think about the circulation of texts while keeping to Selden’s original insight, that text networks “explicitly thematize their own dissemination.” I extend this work in a consideration of how a particular myth circulated through texts in a variety of languages in the first through sixth centuries. I shift the location of agency from writers to texts: how might we understand the text itself as an agent of its own migration? Such a question cannot entirely neglect the human writer, but it allows me to resituate relationships among texts by valorizing the work done by the narrative itself, and understand how the spread of Platonism may be explained not just by philosophers’ engagement with a useful myth, but how the myth itself may motivate philosophical questions as it circulates among religions.

[1] Selden, D. “Text networks,” Ancient Narrative. 8 (Annual 2010).

[2] Kurke, The Life of Aesop, in Aesopic Conversations: Popular Tradition, Cultural Dialogue, and the Invention of Greek Prose. Martin Classical Lectures. Princeton, 2011.  McCracken, most recently, Barlaam and Josephat in (forthcoming), Barlaam and Josaphat: A Christian Tale of the Buddha McCracken, translator, Introduction by Donald Lopez. Penguin, 2013.

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The Commentary and the Making of Philosophy

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