Platonic myths: The Origins of Virtue

Prometheus

Once upon a time, the gods moulded the animals in the earth by blending together earth and fire. They then asked Prometheus and Epimetheus to equip them each with their proper qualities. Taking care to prevent the extinction of any of the animals, Epimetheus assigned strength to some, quickness to others, wings, claws, hoofs, pelts and hides. By the time he got round to human beings, he had nothing left to give them.

Finding human beings naked and unarmed, Prometheus gave them fire and the mechanical arts, which he stole for them from Athena and Hephaestus. Unfortunately, Prometheus did not give them political wisdom, for which reason they lived in scattered isolation and at the mercy of wild animals. They tried to come together for safety, but treated each other so badly that they once again dispersed. As they shared in the divine, they gave worship to the gods, and Zeus took pity on them and asked Hermes to send them reverence and justice.

Hermes asked Zeus how he should distribute these virtues: should he give them, as for the arts, to a favoured few only, or should he give them to all?

‘To all,’ said Zeus; I should like them all to have a share; for cities cannot exist, if a few only share in the virtues, as in the arts. And further, make a law by my order, that he who has no part in reverence and justice shall be put to death, for he is a plague of the state.

Adapted from Plato’s Shadow

Fighting suicidal thoughts

Suicide was defined by the sociologist Emile Durkheim as applying to ‘all cases of death resulting directly or indirectly from a positive or negative act of the victim himself, which he knows will produce this result’. In the UK there are around 5500 recorded suicides every year, and suicide is one of the leading causes of death among young adults. While deliberate self-harm is more common in women, completed suicide is three times more common in men. This may be because men are more likely to use violent and effective methods of suicide, or because men with suicidal thoughts find it more difficult to obtain and engage with the help and support that they need. According to the Office for National Statistics, the population group with the highest suicide rate is men aged from 25 to 44 years old, with a suicide rate of about 18 per 100,000 per year. One major problem with figures such as this one is that they reflect reported suicides, which in turn reflect verdicts reached in coroners’ courts. Actual suicide rates may be considerably higher.

Demographic risk factors for suicide
At the individual level, a person’s risk of committing suicide can be increased by a number of demographic and social risk factors. Demographic risk factors for suicide include being male; being relatively young; and being single, widowed, or separated or divorced. Certain occupational groups such as veterinary surgeons, farmers, pharmacists, and doctors have been found to be at a higher risk of suicide. This is probably to do with their training and skills, and with their easy access to effective means of committing suicide, such as prescription-only drugs and firearms. Social risk factors for suicide include being unemployed, insecurely employed, or retired; having a poor level of social support as is often the case for the elderly, prisoners, immigrants, refugees, and the bereaved; and having been through a recent life crisis such as losing a close friend or relative or being the victim of physical or sexual abuse.

Clinical risk factors for suicide
As well as demographic and social risk factors, a person’s risk of committing suicide can also be increased by a number of clinical risk factors. The most important predictor of suicide is a previous act of deliberate self-harm, and a person’s risk of completing suicide in the year following an act of deliberate self-harm is approximately 100 times greater than that of the average person. Conversely, up to half of all people who complete suicide have a history of deliberate self-harm. Suicidal behavior tends to cluster in families, so a family history of deliberate self-harm also increases a person’s risk of suicide. This is perhaps because suicide is a learned behaviour or, more likely, because family members share a generic predisposition to psychiatric disorders that increase suicidal risk, such as schizophrenia, depression, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, and alcohol dependence. Some of these psychiatric disorders, for example, personality disorder and alcohol dependence or schizophrenia and depression may, and often do, coexist. People with a psychiatric disorder who are resistant to their prescribed medication or non-compliant with it are also at a higher risk of suicide, as are people experiencing certain specific symptoms such as delusions of persecution, delusions of control, delusions of jealousy, delusions of guilt, commanding second person auditory hallucinations (for example, a voice saying ‘Take that knife and kill yourself’), and passivity which is the feeling that one’s feelings, desires, and actions are under the control of an external agency. Physical illness can also increase the risk of suicide, and this is particularly the case for physical illnesses that are terminal, that involve chronic pain or disability, or that affect the brain. Examples of such physical illnesses include cancer, early-onset diabetes, stroke, epilepsy, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS.

Fighting suicidal thoughts
If you are assailed by suicidal thoughts, the first thing to remember is that many people who have attempted suicide and survived ultimately feel relieved that they did not end their lives. At the time of attempting suicide they experienced intense feelings of despair and hopelessness, because it seemed to them that they had lost control over their lives, and that things could never get better. The only thing that they still had some control over was whether they lived or died, and so committing suicide seemed like the only option left. This is never true.

Some of the thoughts that may accompany suicidal thoughts include:
– I want to escape my suffering.
– I have no other options.
– I am a horrible person and do not deserve to live.
– I have betrayed my loved ones.
– My loved ones would be better off without me.
– I want my loved ones to know how bad I am feeling.
– I want my loved ones to know how bad they have made me feel.

Whatever thoughts you are having, and however bad you are feeling, remember that you have not always felt this way, and that you will not always feel this way.

The risk of someone committing suicide is highest in the combined presence of (1) suicidal thoughts, (2) the means to commit suicide, and (3) the opportunity to commit suicide. If you are prone to suicidal thoughts, ensure that the means to commit suicide have been removed. For example, give tablets and sharp objects to someone for safekeeping, or put them in a locked or otherwise inaccessible place. At the same time, ensure that the opportunity to commit suicide is lacking. The surest way of doing this is by remaining in close contact with one or more people, for example, by inviting them to stay with you. Share your thoughts and feelings with these people, and don’t be reluctant to let them help you. If no one is available or no one seems suitable, there are a number of emergency telephone lines that you can ring at any time. You can even ring 999 for an ambulance or take yourself to an Accident and Emergency department. Do not use alcohol or drugs as these can make your behavior more impulsive, and significantly increase your likelihood of attempting suicide. In particular, do not drink or take drugs alone, or end up alone after drinking or taking drugs.

Make a list of all the positive things about yourself and a list of all the positive things about your life, including the things that have so far prevented you from committing suicide (you may need to get help with this). Keep the lists on you, and read them to yourself each time you are assailed by suicidal thoughts. On a separate sheet of paper, write a safety plan for the times when you feel like acting on your suicidal thoughts. Your safety plan could involve delaying any suicidal attempt by at least 48 hours, and then talking to someone about your thoughts and feelings as soon as possible. Discuss your safety plan with your GP, psychiatrist, or key worker and commit yourself to it. See Figure 19.1 for an example of a safety plan. Sometimes even a single good night’s sleep can significantly alter your outlook, and it is important not to underestimate the importance of sleep. If you are having trouble sleeping, speak to a doctor.

Example of a safety plan
1. Read through the list of positive things about myself.
2. Read through the list of positive things about my life and remind myself of the things that have so far prevented me from committing suicide.
3. Distract myself from suicidal thoughts by reading a book, listening to classical music, or watching my favourite film or comedy.
4. Get a good night’s sleep. Take a sleeping tablet if necessary.
5. Delay any suicidal attempt by at least 48 hours.
6. Call Stan on (phone number). If he is unreachable, call Julia on (phone number). Alternatively, call my key worker on (phone number), or the crisis line on (phone number).
7. Go to a place where I feel safe such as the community centre or the sports centre.
8. Go to the Accident and Emergency Department.
9. Dial 999 for an ambulance.

Once things are a bit more settled, it is important that you address the cause or causes of your suicidal thoughts in as far as possible, for example, a mental disorder such as depression or alcohol dependence, a difficult life situation, or painful memories. Discuss this with your GP or another healthcare professional, who will help you to identify the most appropriate form of help available.

Adapted from

Curing insomnia in 10 simple steps

Insomnia, – difficulty in falling asleep or staying asleep – affects 30 per cent of people. It is usually a problem if it occurs on most nights and causes distress or daytime effects such as fatigue, poor concentration, poor memory, and irritability. These symptoms may predispose you to accidents, to depression and anxiety, and to medical disorders such as infections, high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes.

Insomnia can be caused or aggravated by poor sleep habits, depression, anxiety, stress, physical problems such as pain or shortness of breath, certain medications, and alcohol or drug use. Short-term insomnia specifically is often caused by a stressful life event, a poor sleep environment, or an irregular routine.

If you are suffering from insomnia, there are a number of simple measures that you can take to resolve or at least lessen the problem:

1. Have a strict routine involving regular and adequate sleeping times (most adults need about seven or eight hours of sleep every night). Allocate a time for sleeping, for example, 11pm to 7am, and do not use this for any other activities. Avoid daytime naps, or make them short and regular. If you have a bad night, avoid ‘sleeping in’ because this makes it more difficult to fall asleep the following night.

2. Have a relaxing bedtime routine that enables you to relax and ‘wind down’ before bedtime. This may involve doing breathing exercises or meditation or simply reading a book, listening to music, or watching TV.

3. Many people find it helpful to have a hot drink: if this is the case for you, prefer a herbal or malted or chocolaty drink to stimulant drinks such as tea or coffee.

4. Sleep in a familiar, dark and quiet room that is adequately ventilated and neither too hot nor too cold. Try to use this room for sleeping only, so that you come to associate with sleep.

5. If you can’t sleep, don’t become anxious and try to force yourself to sleep. The more anxious you become, the less likely you are to fall asleep, and this is only likely to make you more anxious! Instead, get up and do something relaxing and enjoyable for about half an hour, and then try again.

6. Take regular exercise during the daytime, but do not exercise in the evening or just before bedtime because the short-term alerting effects of exercise may make it more difficult for you to fall asleep.

7. Try to reduce your overall levels of stress by implementing some simple lifestyle changes.

8. Eat an adequate evening meal containing a good balance of complex carbohydrates and protein. Eating too much can make it difficult to fall asleep; eating too little can disturb your sleep and decrease its quality.

9. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, and tobacco, particularly in the evening. Also avoid stimulant drugs such as cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy. Alcohol may make you fall asleep more easily, but it decreases the quality of your sleep.

10. If insomnia persists despite these measures, seek advice from your doctor. In some cases, insomnia may have a clear and definite cause that needs to be addressed in itself – for example, a physical problem or a side-effect of medication.

Other interventions
Behavioural interventions such as sleep restriction therapy or cognitive-behavioural therapy can be helpful in some cases and are preferable to sleeping tablets in the long-term. Sleeping tablets can be effective in the short-term, but are best avoided in the longer term because of their side-effects and their high potential for tolerance (meaning that you need progressively higher doses to achieve the same effect) and dependence. Sleeping remedies that are available without a prescription often contain an antihistamine that can leave you feeling drowsy the following morning. If you decide to use such remedies, it is important that you do not drive or operate heavy machinery the next day. Herbal alternatives are usually based on the herb valerian, a hardy perennial flowing plant with heads of sweetly scented pink or white flowers. If you are thinking about using a herbal remedy, speak to your doctor first, particularly if you have a medical condition or allergy, if you are already on medication, or if you are pregnant or breast-feeding.

Adapted from

Plato’s metaphors: The Chariot Allegory

Le Char d'Apollon, Odilon Redon

In the Phaedrus Socrates compares the soul to a chariot with a charioteer and a pair of winged horses. Whereas the chariot of a god has two good horses, that of a human being has one good horse and one bad, unruly horse that is the cause of much hardship for the charioteer. The soul, he says,

…has the care of inanimate being everywhere, and traverses the whole heaven in divers forms appearing – when perfect and fully winged she soars upward, and orders the whole world; whereas the imperfect soul, losing her wings and drooping in her flight at last settles on the solid ground – there, finding a home, she receives an earthly frame which appears to be self-moved, but is really moved by her power; and this composition of soul and body is called a living and mortal creature.

The chariot of a god is able to soar to the top of the vault of heaven, such that the god is able to step outside the rim of heaven and contemplate the colourless, formless, intangible essence of reality. The revolution of the spheres carries the god round and back again to the same place, and in the space of this circle he feasts his mind upon justice, temperance, and knowledge, not in the form of generation or relation, which men call existence, but in their absolute, universal form.

Despite their bad, unruly horse, the chariots of the imperfect souls that are most alike to the gods are able to ascend high enough for their charioteers to lift their heads above the rim of heaven and catch a fleeting glimpse of the universals. However, the rest are not strong enough to ascend so high, and are left to feed their mind on nothing more than opinion.

In time, all imperfect souls fall back to earth, but only those that have seen something of the universals can take on a human form; human beings are by their nature able to recollect universals, and so must once have seen them. The imperfect souls that have gazed longest upon the universals are incarnated as philosophers, artists, and true lovers. As they are still able to remember the universals, they are completely absorbed in ideas about them and forget all about earthly interests. Common people think that they are mad, but the truth is that they are divinely inspired and in love with goodness and beauty.

Adapted from

Plato’s metaphors: The Sun, Line, and Cave

1. The Metaphor of the Sun

1. Just as it is by the light of the sun that the visible is made apparent to the eye, so it is by the light of truth and being – in contrast to the twilight of becoming and perishing – that the nature of reality is made apprehensible to the soul. 2. Just as light and sight may be said to be like the sun, and yet not to be the sun, so science and truth may be said to be like the Good, and yet not to be the Good; it is by the sun that there is light and sight, and it is by the Good that there is science and truth. 3. Just as the sun is the author of nourishment and generation, so the Good is the author of being and essence. Thus, the Good is beyond being, and the cause of all existence.

2. The Metaphor of the Line

A line is cut into two unequal parts, and each of them is divided again in the same proportion. The two main divisions correspond to the intelligible world and to the visible world. One section in the visible division consists of images, that is,
shadows and reflections, and is accessed through imagination. The other, higher section in the visible division consists of sensible particulars and is accessed through belief. One section in the intelligible division consists of Forms and is accessed through thought, but via sensible particulars and hypotheses, as when geometers use a picture of a triangle to help reason about triangularity, or make appeal to axioms to prove theorems. The other, higher section in the intelligible division also consists of Forms but is accessed by understanding, a purely abstract science which requires neither sensible particulars nor hypotheses, but only an unhypothetical first principle, namely, the Form of the Good. The purpose of education is to move the philosopher through the various sections of the line until he reaches the Form of the Good.

3. The Metaphor or Allegory of the Cave

Human beings have spent all their lives in an underground cave or den which has a mouth open towards the light. They have their legs and their necks chained so that they cannot move, and can see only in front of them, towards the back of the cave. Above and behind them a fire is blazing, and between them and the fire there is a raised way along which there is a low wall. Men pass along the wall carrying all sorts of statues, and the fire throws the shadows of these statues onto the back of the cave. All the prisoners ever see are the shadows, and so they suppose that they are the objects in themselves.

Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

If a prisoner is unshackled and turned towards the light, he suffers sharp pains, but in time he begins to see the statues themselves and thereby moves from the cognitive stage of imagination to that of belief. The prisoner is then dragged out of the cave, where the light is so bright that he can only look at the shadows, and then at the reflections, and then finally at the objects themselves: not statues this time, but real objects. In time, he looks up at the sun, and understands that the sun is the cause of everything that he sees around him, of light, of vision, and of the objects of vision. In so doing, he passes from the cognitive stage of thought to that of understanding.

The purpose of education is to drag the prisoner as far out of the cave as possible; not to instil knowledge into his soul, but to turn his whole soul towards the sun, which is the Form of the Good. Once out of the cave, the prisoner is reluctant to descend back into the cave and get involved in human affairs. When he does, his vision is no longer accustomed to the dark, and he appears ridiculous to his fellow men. However, he must be made to descend back into the cave and partake of human labours and honours, whether they are worth having or not. This is because the State aims not at the happiness of a single person or single class, but at the happiness of all its citizens. In any case, the prisoner has a duty to give service to the State, since it is by the State that he was educated to see the light of the sun.

The State in which the rulers are most reluctant to govern is always the best and most quietly governed, and the State in which they are most eager, the worst… You must contrive for your future rulers another and a better life than that of a ruler, and then you may have a well-ordered State; for only in the State which offers this, will they rule who are truly rich, not in silver and gold, but in virtue and wisdom, which are the true blessings of life… And the only life which looks down upon the life of political ambition is that of true philosophy. Do you know of any other?

Adapted from

Platonic myths: The Myth of Aristophanes

Picture by Dr Tom Stockmann

In Plato’s Symposium, Aristophanes delivers his speech in the form of a myth.

A long time ago, there were three kinds of human beings: male, descended from the sun; female, descended from the earth; and androgynous, with both male and female elements, descended from the moon. Each human being was completely round, with four arms and fours legs, two identical faces on opposite sides of a head with four ears, and all else to match. They walked both forwards and backwards and ran by turning cartwheels on their eight limbs, moving in circles like their parents the planets.

As they were powerful and unruly and threatening to scale the heavens, Zeus devised to cut them into two ‘like a sorb-apple which is halved for pickling,’ and even threatened to cut them into two again, so that they might hop on one leg. Apollo then turned their heads to make them face towards their wound, pulled their skin around to cover up the wound, and tied it together at the navel like a purse. He made sure to leave a few wrinkles on what became known as the abdomen so that they might be reminded of their punishment.

After that, human beings longed for their other half so much that they searched for it all over and, when they found it, wrapped themselves around it very tightly and did not let go. As a result, they started dying from hunger and self-neglect, and Zeus took pity on them, and moved their genitals to the front so that those who were previously androgynous could procreate, and those who were previously male could obtain satisfaction and move on to higher things.

This is the origin of our desire for other human beings; those of us who desire members of the opposite sex were previously androgynous, whereas men who desire men and women who desire women were previously male or female. When we find our other half, we are ‘lost in an amazement of love and friendship and intimacy’ that cannot be accounted for by a simple desire for sex, but rather by a desire to be whole again, and restored to our original nature. Our greatest wish, if we could have it, would then be for Hephaestus to melt us into one another so that our souls could be at one, and share in a common fate.

Adapted from

Platonic myths: The Myth of Er

Wily Odysseus

At the end of the Republic, Plato relates an eschatological myth (a myth of death), the so-called ‘myth or Er’.

Er was slain in battle but came back to life twelve days later to tell the living of what he had saw during the time that he was dead. During this time, his soul went on a journey to a meadow with four openings, two into the heavens above and two into the earth below. Judges sat in this meadow and ordered the good souls up through one of the openings into the heavens and the bad ones down through one of the openings into the earth. Meanwhile, clean and bright souls floated down to the meadow from the other opening into the heavens, and dusty and worn out souls rose up to the meadow from the other opening into the earth. Each soul had returned from a thousand year journey, but whereas the clean and bright souls spoke merrily of that which they enjoyed in the heavens, the dusty and worn out souls wept at that which they had endured in the underground. Souls that had committed heinous crimes, such as those of tyrants or murderers, were not permitted to rise up into the meadow, and were condemned to an eternity in the underground.

After seven days in the meadow, the souls travelled for five more days to the spindle of Necessity, a shaft of intensely bright light that extends into the heavens and that holds together the universe. The souls were then asked to come forth one by one and to choose their next life from a scattered jigsaw of human and animal lives. Not having known the terrors of the underworld, the first soul hastily chose the life of a powerful dictator, only to discover that he was fated, among many other evils, to devour his own children. Although he had been virtuous in his previous life, his virtue had arisen out of habit rather than out of philosophy, and so his judgement was poor. In contrast, the souls that had known the terrors of the underworld often chose a better, more virtuous life, but this they did on no other basis than harsh experience. Thus, many of the souls exchanged a good destiny for an evil or an evil for a good. The soul of the wily Odysseus, which was the last to come forth, sought out the life of a private man with no cares. This he found easily, lying about and neglected by everybody else.

After having chosen their next life, the souls travelled through the scorching Plain of Oblivion and encamped by the River of Forgetfulness. Each soul was required to drink from the river’s water so as to forget all things, but the souls which had not been saved by wisdom drank more than was strictly necessary. In the night, as they slept, the souls shot up like stars to be reborn into their chosen lives. As they did so, Er opened his eyes to find himself lying on his funeral pyre.

Adapted from

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