Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Book Reviews

Myths Have Their Reasons…

Exploring myth as background and subject matter for politics.

Isaac Ariail Reed

Plato’s Cave (detail), sixteenth century, attributed to Michiel Coxie (1499–1592); Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai, France; Peter Horree/Alamy Stock Photo.

We presume we know what we are talking about when we cite the First Amendment. When pressed, we may defer to the expert interpretations of a lawyer who specializes in First Amendment cases, or a judge whose perspicacity we respect. Nonetheless, when imagining life together under the Constitution, we have a set of understandings about what the First Amendment has to say about the relationship of government and religion, or about what it means to have a free press, or about the right to “assemble.” Indeed, even when we disagree on its application, certain background meanings obtain. Typified stories of famous cases, “classic” legal defenses, or sayings first communicated to us by a teacher are brought to mind; memories of movies in which characters dramatically invoke the amendment, play in our mind’s eye. In other words, the cultural background of the First Amendment is made up of stories and images: of students wearing unpopular religious symbols (or offensive T-shirts) to school, of churches contesting the regulation of their employment practices by the federal government, of open speech in the street and newspaper editors leaned on by politicos in back rooms, of Forrest Gump being swept into an antiwar rally.

Is it possible to work on, and in some way ameliorate, those understandings—the images and stories around the First Amendment being just one example—which are not only regarded as axiomatic but whose very status as such is essential to getting on with life and, indeed, to “doing politics” together? Specifically, are certain tacit rules and intuitions about fairness necessary to the public process of democratic deliberation? How can a world-in-common be cultivated among citizens in a way that prevents politics in a pluralistic society from descending into a cycle of violent revenge?

Tae-Yeoun Keum’s new book, Plato and the Mythic Tradition in Political Thought, does not offer direct answers to these and related questions. The overt intellectual work of her text concerns Plato’s Republic and its reception by early modern and modern political philosophers. Nonetheless, in taking up in a refreshingly original way the problem of political myth, Keum, an assistant professor of political science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, provides an entrée into the discussion of the meaningful background for democratic deliberation. Her subtle and careful text suggests that myth and work on myth are both the cause of and the possible solution to the polarization of political life as it manifests itself in, and depends upon, culture.

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