McLuhan and Plato 13: epyllion

In his unpublished notes on ‘little epic’ from the middle or late 1950s, McLuhan makes these interesting points regarding Plato:

  • “There is nothing that was later known as idyll and epyllion in Alexandria that was not familiar to Plato and Aristotle.”
  • “There was nothing new about little epic to Plato and Aristotle — the Platonic dialogues can be read as epiphanies of truth obtained in the ritual tracing of the labyrinths of dialectic.”

A decade or so later, in ‘Toward an Inclusive Consciousness’, 1967:

Plato and Aristotle, the representatives of the new literate culture of Greece in philosophy, had this same doubleness. They straddled the written and oral traditions. They translated the tribal encyclopedia of the preceding culture into the written, classified form.1 

The same point is made regarding Aristotle in Laws of Media:

Aristotle and others were working with one foot in each world, as it were, using the new forms of [literate] awareness but trying to retain or update the ideas of the old oral culture. (33)

Doubleness’ was the central characteristic of the little epic (epyllion) for McLuhan. In his view its labyrinthine character amounted to a resonance between distinct plots, styles and lessons. ‘Dialectic’ in Plato could be seen as the attempt to instill acquaintance with this resonance — via this resonance.

  1. McLuhan seems to have taken this point from G.R. Levy. His ‘Maritain on Art’ (1953) quotes Levy’s Gate of Horn (1948) on what she saw “Plato and Aristotle as having been consciously engaged in doing”, namely: “Plato’s theory of Ideas constitutes a gigantic effort to establish the mystic doctrine upon an intellectual basis. The relation of created things to the ‘pattern laid up in heaven’ is, as we saw, that methexis, or participation, which Aristotle equated with mimesis, the ‘imitation’ by which the living world was built upon the Pythagorean numbers.” The same passage from Levy is cited in McLuhan’s Wyndham Lewis essay later that year of 1953.