Does The Power of Stories Make Them Dangerous?
Scheherazade volunteers to marry Shahryar, the monarch who gets married every day and beheads his brides in the morning, leaving them no room for betrayal. Well, you can imagine the great king humiliated and hurt by his first wife, who had been unfaithful to him. This is his way of not letting history repeat. The blood of countless young women is shed every day. But then Scheherazade comes on stage, she steps out and makes her own choice to marry the foolish king. However, she knows something no one else before her knew. She knows how to tell stories! The biggest power in the world, more powerful than the king himself! She manages to tame him, calm him, and awaken the kind feelings that the enraged king once had. She ignites the love he had given up from and helps him overcome the fear of being betrayed.
Stories! “They are dangerous,” Plato says. But because they are so powerful to affect human behavior and character, they are dangerous and should be prohibited. Homer should also be banned, Plato cried out, because all art is a false representation of the truth, and the child’s mind should be imbued only with the truth and nothing else.
But Aristotle, unlike his teacher, believes that art should exist since its purpose is not to represent the outward appearance of things but their inward significance.
Is this argument between Plato and Aristotle even relevant? Will stories cease to exist if we take sides or decide whether they should be censored or not? If we all agree that lying is not good and should not exist, will it really disappear the next day? Just to make it clear, I’m not drawing a parallel between storytelling and lying.
Today, when we all are well aware of natural phenomena and we do not need stories to explain them, when we know how social connections are formed, and our lives are not endangered by natural forces, do we still need to tell stories and build myths, and legends?
Here is how science can help us explain why and how king Shahryar transformed. While he was listening to Scheherazade, continual oxytocin synthesis was triggered. It’s a hormone that makes us more trustworthy, charitable, generous, compassionate, empathetic, gazing, with positive memories, processing bonding cues and positive communication. With one word, oxytocin ignites feelings of love and protection. That is how the frightening monarch found his peace and safe harbor in Scheherazade’s embrace, through her stories, of course. From today’s perspective, many would say he was manipulated.
Probably that was Plato’s fear: Those who tell stories rule society! That is, stories are used as a tool to gain power! Storytelling creates cults of personalities, history gets manipulated, new lies are designed, placed as truths, and a story becomes a marketing tool. Nowadays, we even know scientifically that a good story is more convincing than anything else.
Just to illustrate how powerful myths can be, we can look at the constructed story of the Spanish conquistador Francisco Pizarro. The last excavations in Peru shed new light on the so-called historical facts. Pizarro really made his way to the Inca empire, which was entirely torn by civil wars. From this perspective, there’s not much heroism and glory to his victory over them since he only used their weakened position to subjugate them.
To be a master storyteller is to wield great power.
Stories are an essential part of our being. They are like a kind of special organ. We cannot just cut it off and continue with our lives. According to health.org.uk: “Everyone has stories to tell, but storytelling is a skill that can be developed, and as a tool, it can be used to powerful effect. Developed and used purposefully, storytelling can contribute to inclusion and connection, build confidence, and bring about change”.
Well then, who’s right: Plato or Aristotle?
Maybe this question should be placed more in the context of morality. With what goal are stories created for?