Review of Ernst Cassirer: The Myth of the State

Review of The Myth of the State, by Ernst Cassirer, Social Research, Vol. 14, No. 1 (March 1947).  Reprinted in What Is Political Philosophy?


However one may have to judge this view of myth, Cassirer is certainly right in negatively characterizing philosophy proper by its “struggle against myth.” In Greek philosophy, he holds, that struggle found its culminating expression in the doctrines of Socrates and Plato. Socrates attacked “the mythical world in [its] center” by raising the “fundamental and essential” “question of good and evil” and by realizing that “myth has no answer to that question” (pp. 55, 60). But only Plato attacked myth at its root; since myth originates in man’s “social experience,” the only adequate alternative to myth is a “rational theory of the state” (pp. 38 ff., 61 if., 76). It is true: “Plato did not entirely forbid mythical tales; he even admitted that, in the education of a young child, they are indispensable; but they must be brought under a strict discipline” (p. 67). It is also true that “we cannot think of Platonic philosophy without thinking of the Platonic myths,” but Plato, Cassirer asserts, admitted myths only “into his metaphysics and natural philosophy,” while in the field of “his political theories” he was “the professed enemy of myth”; he excluded myths “from his Republic, that is to say, from his system of education” (pp. 71 if., 77).