Can Stories Kill?
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato certainly thought so. That’s why Plato – who, ironically, flourished under Athenian democracy – was all for censorship.
In his book The Republic, Plato’s mouthpiece Socrates has this to say about educating the young:
“So our first task, it seems, is to supervise the storytellers: if they make up a good story, we must accept it; if not, we must reject it. We will persuade nurses and mothers to tell the acceptable ones to their children, and to spend far more time shaping their souls with these stories than they do shaping their bodies by handling them. Many of the stories they tell now, however, must be thrown out.” (Lines 377c5, C.D.C Reeve translation.)
Clearly, Plato/Socrates knew the power of a story – that’s why this “spiritual” education outweighed the physical.
Now what stories does Socrates want to censor?
Well, at the top of the list is The Iliad, Homer’s masterwork and the chief text or “bible” of the ancient Greek world.
(In fact, when I took a philosophy class about The Republic in college, The Illiad was our other textbook, so we could understand the Greek culture.)
Why is Plato hating on Homer?
Well, Homer has the gods do a lot of nasty things. And it just doesn’t do to have the “good guys” do bad things. (I’m guessing Plato wouldn’t have much truck with antiheroes like Walter White, either. And he might have a few choice words for video games like GTA.)
Appalling, right? Censorship?
But maybe those Greeks should have listened to Plato.
Because the next generation produced a human who conquered most of the civilized world, spilling acres of blood and decimating entire armies.
I’m talking about Alexander the Great.
Alexander was the Iliad’s Number One Fan.
(It’s said he kept his beloved copy of the book under his pillow every night.)
Alexander was inspired by the enduring glory of Achilles: badass numero uno in The Iliad.
In fact, Achille’s prowess is so staggering that the entire plot line of the story is concerned with how to get him back on the battlefield and save the rest of the Greeks’ bacon.
And when he does get back in the saddle, we see Achilles do masterful deeds, like when he slays the “god-like” Hector (himself no slouch in a war chariot).
So Achilles was a shining example of the glorious warrior, and Alexander sought this glory for himself.
But it wasn’t just Achille’s prowess that inspired Alexander.
No — The Iliad also taught Alexander how life works; specifically, the “rules for success.”
In the story, we learn that Achilles has a choice over his fate, as his mother, the goddess Thetis, foretells to him. He can choose Door Number One or Door Number Two.
Door Number One means staying at home and living a long, comfortable life … but no glory.
Door Number Two means soldiering off to Troy and winning immortal glory …. but dying young.
Achilles chooses Door Number Two … and so did Alexander.
The Iliad presents the world as operating under certain rules – like the tradeoff between comfort and glory. (I call these kinds of statments “Interpretation” in storytelling … those statements in the story when the narrator explains what events mean and why they occurred. “Interpretation” statements create a sense of an orderly universe.)
Readers like Alexander — who were absorbed into the story — accepted those rules. (It certainly helped that those rules conformed to the Greek culture still present in Alexander’s time.)
The crucial tradeoff posed by Thetis was the enduring lesson that lived and breathed and grew and whispered in the young Alexander’s mind.
This is exactly why the “crossroads close” can be so powerful in a sales letter.
This way of closing out the pitch arrives near the end and goes like this: “Look, you have two paths before you right now. On one path, you keep doing what you’re doing now” – and suffer the consequences (no money, no weight loss, etc.) “But the other path …” holds the key to your success.
(You can also throw in a third option for variety.)
This kind of closing technique is meant to frame the world in such a way that there are only two valid alternatives: heaven and hell.
When that view of the world is presented in the context of a story, it feels more convincing.
And that’s what we see in The Iliad. The entire story supports Thetis’ prophecy to her son. Achilles chooses to go out in a blaze of glory, and his name is remembered long after he dies.
(And it’s still true. After all, here we are … throwing around the name of a man who may well have lived and slaughtered 3,200 years ago.)
The irony is that Alexander’s teacher was the philosopher Aristotle … who was himself the student of Plato.
So maybe Aristotle was asleep the day Plato taught his censorship lesson. (And maybe if he hadn’t been there wouldn’t be so many cities named “Alexandria” today.)
Stories can whisper “Interpretation” statements — a way of understanding the world — that are accepted as truth, especially when the events in the story set up and reinforce this view.
What truths have you learned from the stories you love?
Let me know in the comments below.
Stay Tuned For Next Week …
In which I turn to the pages of a best-selling fantasy writer to sample some writing that’s good enough to lick.