If someone who is unconvinced by these [mythological accounts], and tries to reduce each to what is likely, with some rustic wisdom, he will need a great deal of leisure. But I have no leisure for these [mythological accounts] at all; and the reason for it, my friend, is this: I am not yet capable of, in accordance with the Delphic inscription, knowing myself; it therefore seems ridiculous to me, while I am still ignorant of this subject, that I inquire into things that are alien. So then saying goodbye to these things, and believing what is commonly thought about them, I inquire, as I was saying just now, not into these things, but into myself.--Socrates in Plato's Phaedrus, 229E-30A
The passage is quoted from the translation and discussion in section 4.4 of René Brouwer's (2014) The Stoic Sage, a little book that is worth the attention of any seeker of wisdom. Brouwer argues that the early Stoics "fashioned themselves" (176), and modeled their image of the sage, on Socrates (as presented in Plato, Xenophon, and perhaps other Socrates literature).
I ignore, temporarily, Brouwer's purposes. In context of the Phaedrus passage, three attitudes toward myths (muthologema) are articulated: (i) one can believe what is commonly said about them (230A); (ii) one can "play the sophist" (sophizomenos) (229C) and naturalize the hidden, kernel in myths, that is, reduce them to what is likely; (iii) one can follow Socrates and ignore most of the myths because they detract from more important tasks (say, knowledge of self). It turns out that for Socrates (i) and (iii) are not mutually exclusive; one can accept what is commonly said about most myths and then go on to ignore them. Socrates's criticism of the Sophistical approach is not that it is a waste of time because there is almost never any kernel of truth in myths. That is, Socrates tacitly rejects (iv) denialist approaches, which insist, say, that what is commonly said about myths should be systematically criticized because most myths cannot partake in the true.*
Rather, Socrates' reported criticism of the Sophistical approach is that it involves intolerable opportunity costs that prevent focus on more important topics. That is, Socrates comes very close to saying explicitly that knowledge of self is far more important than knowledge of what is said about the divine (at least what is reported in myth). Oddly enough, in this way, Plato's presentation effectively distances of Socrates from some of the charges against him (i.e., -- pace Aristophanes -- Socrates is really different from the Sophists). More subtly, Plato also implies that Socrates could not be guilty of religious innovation because he prefers to leave well enough alone.**
Now, Brouwer points out that what is crucial in the Phaedrus passage is not so much the rejection of the naturalizing enterprise, but rather that Socrates rejects the reduction to rustic wisdom here. That is, the Sophistical enterprise tames myth not merely by articulating the hidden kernel, but by assimilating myth to rustic wisdom, that is, knowledge of "local geography" (Brouwer: 150) and other non-urbane concerns. And such alien (ἀλλότρια) concerns are a hindrance to knowledge of self. As Socrates puts it a few lines below "country places and the trees won't teach me anything, and the people in the city do." (230D)
Now, one need not be a friend of intellectuals that try to reconcile what is said about the divine and what is likely according to country-folk, to see that Socrates is activating some potentially pernicious oppositions in which philosophy and self-knowledge are associated with city-life. To see where this leads, it is worth quoting some evidence that Brouwer uses in his argument that the passage from Phaedrus played a crucial role in the Stoic understanding of sagehood:
They also say that every inferior person is rustic. For rusticity is inexperience of the practices and laws in a city; of which every inferior person is guilty. He is also wild, being hostile to that lifestyle which is in accord with the law, bestial and a harmful human being. And he is uncultivated and tyrannical, inclined to do despotic acts, and even to cruel, violent, and lawless acts when he is given the opportunities.--quoted in Stobaeus 188.8.131.52.5
Here we see that rusticity stands outside the law; it stands for bestial lack of cultivation. To be outside the city (and its laws) is to stand outside of civilization, that is, to be barbarous. By contrast to be philosophical is to be oriented toward and governed by the law, which, in turn, is perfected by philosophical inquiry, that is, knowledge of city-dwellers; that is, philosophy and (political) civilization are co-constituted projects (recall this post on where this can lead if civilization and philosophy are racialized).
Now, according to the Stoics all of us are inferior persons. So, in keeping with their egalitarian tendencies, they resist the imperial temptation to favor a privileged group. Even so, following Socrates' example, the Stoics orient philosophy toward political civilization; to be rational, that is to be perfectly virtuous, is to be law-governed properly (in the way that is in accord with immanent divinity, Brouwer: 90).
Socrates and the Stoics legislate an understanding of philosophy by way of an act of exclusion: some forms of life and some forms of knowing are not philosophical. I am not suggesting that the Sophists were more broadminded. Even so, by not excluding the rustic as alien, and by actively engaging with it, the Sophists show the way toward a more inclusive philosophy one, perhaps, more receptive and more capable of wisdom than the traditions we have inherited.
*Socrates could reject (iv) on grounds of prudence (it is dangerous to unmask what is commonly believed) or elitism (folk are not capable of Enlightenment).
**The situation is more complicated, of course. For as Brouwer notes (151) the quoted passage goes on with Socrates willingly exploring and using a myth about Typhon. It seems Socrates distinguishes between myths that present the gods actively interfering in human affairs (to be left alone) and the allegorical use of myth that provide insight into human nature (worth mining for insight).
Acknowledgments are due to Saar Frieling, with whom I am leisurely reading and discussing Plato's Phaedrus in Amsterdam's most lovely spots for over a decade now, as well as Michael Fixler, who got me first interested in this dialogue.