Episode 35: The Myth of Er

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At the end of The Republic,  Plato again uses a hero quest form to make points about the immortality of the soul, and the need for the philosopher to live always in virtue and justice.  As he says also in Meno

And they say–mark now and see whether their words are true–they say that the soul of man is immortal, and at one time has an end, which is termed dying, and at another time is born again, but is never destroyed.  And the moral is that a man ought to live always in perfect holiness.”

To support this assertion, Plato tells the story of “a hero, Er the son of Armenius, a Pamphylian by birth.”¹ He had been killed in a battle, and when the bodies were collected some ten days later (ugh!), his was found to be in a state of preservation, “unaffected by decay.”  Nonetheless, two days later it was placed on a funeral pyre to be burned, but “he returned to life and told them what he had seen in the other world.”

He said that when his soul left the body he went on a journey with a great company, and that they came to a mysterious place at which there were two openings in the earth; they were near together, and over against them were two other openings in the heaven above. In the intermediate space there were judges seated, who commanded the just, after they had given judgment on them and had bound their sentences in front of them, to ascend by the heavenly way on the right hand; and in like manner the unjust were bidden by them to descend by the lower way on the left hand; these also bore the symbols of their deeds, but fastened on their backs. He drew near, and they told him that he was to be the messenger who would carry the report of the other world to men, and they bade him hear and see all that was to be heard and seen in that place. Then he beheld and saw on one side the souls departing at either opening of heaven and earth when sentence had been given on them; and at the two other openings other souls, some ascending out of the earth dusty and worn with travel, some descending out of heaven clean and bright. And arriving ever and anon they seemed to have come from a long journey, and they went forth with gladness into the meadow, where they encamped as at a festival; and those who knew one another embraced and conversed, the souls which came from earth curiously enquiring about the things above, and the souls which came from heaven about the things beneath. And they told one another of what had happened by the way, those from below weeping and sorrowing at the remembrance of the things which they had endured and seen in their journey beneath the earth (now the journey lasted a thousand years), while those from above were describing heavenly delights and visions of inconceivable beauty. The story, Glaucon, would take too long to tell; but the sum was this: –He said that for every wrong which they had done to any one they suffered tenfold; or once in a hundred years –such being reckoned to be the length of man’s life, and the penalty being thus paid ten times in a thousand years. If, for example, there were any who had been the cause of many deaths, or had betrayed or enslaved cities or armies, or been guilty of any other evil behaviour, for each and all of their offences they received punishment ten times over, and the rewards of beneficence and justice and holiness were in the same proportion.

Plato goes on to describe some of the punishments, especially those of tyrants, in rather vivid detail.  I’ve previously compared (Episode 23) this recounting with the traditional judgment stories of Christianity and their depictions in art.  A key difference is that in Christian doctrine, humans have one life and are assigned to heaven or hell (or purgatory) based on their actions in it.  Plato goes on to describe a system of reincarnation in which the souls choose their own lives and destinies.²

A prophet or interpreter of the Fate Lachesis addresses the assembled souls and says, “Hear the word of Lachesis, the daughter of Necessity. Mortal souls, behold a new cycle of life and mortality. Your genius³ will not be allotted to you, but you choose your genius; and let him who draws the first lot have the first choice, and the life which he chooses shall be his destiny. Virtue is free, and as a man honours or dishonours her he will have more or less of her; the responsibility is with the chooser –God is justified.”  So again, we are responsible for making our own choice of life, but from Er’s description, we don’t seem any more likely to choose well before we are born than we do after.  “Most curious, he said, was the spectacle –sad and laughable and strange; for the choice of the souls was in most cases based on their experience of a previous life.”

Of course one may well ask if we can see the course and circumstances of our lives before we live them, why would anyone choose a life of hardship and limitation as so many seem to do?  Well, for Plato, our lives are not about being enjoyed for their own sake: they are opportunities to learn the distinction between the evil of selfishness and the limitless Good, and only knowledge of the Good can bring permanent happiness.

And here, my dear Glaucon, is the supreme peril of our human state; and therefore the utmost care should be taken. Let each one of us leave every other kind of knowledge and seek and follow one thing only, if peradventure he may be able to learn and may find some one who will make him able to learn and discern between good and evil, and so to choose always and everywhere the better life as he has opportunity. He should consider the bearing of all these things which have been mentioned severally and collectively upon virtue; he should know what the effect of beauty is when combined with poverty or wealth in a particular soul, and what are the good and evil consequences of noble and humble birth, of private and public station, of strength and weakness, of cleverness and dullness, and of all the soul, and the operation of them when conjoined; he will then look at the nature of the soul, and from the consideration of all these qualities he will be able to determine which is the better and which is the worse; and so he will choose, giving the name of evil to the life which will make his soul more unjust, and good to the life which will make his soul more just; all else he will disregard.  For we have seen and know that this is the best choice both in life and after death. A man must take with him into the world below an adamantine faith in truth and right, that there too he may be undazzled by the desire of wealth or the other allurements of evil, lest, coming upon tyrannies and similar villainies, he do irremediable wrongs to others and suffer yet worse himself; but let him know how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible, not only in this life but in all that which is to come. For this is the way of happiness.

So after the souls have chosen they are tied to their new lives and genii by the Fates and sent off through the plain of Forgetfulness and to drink the water of the river of Unmindfulness, “and those that were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and as each one as he drank forgot all things.”

Each one except Er, who completes his hero’s quest by returning to life and giving mankind this boon of his knowledge.  We do not choose our lives in this afterworld once every thousand years; we choose them at each moment.  The reality of The Good is available to us at each moment.  So now you know.

And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness and our soul will not be defiled.  Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. Translation of Plato by Benjamin Jowett.  Graphics are not copyrighted, and are believed to be in the public domain.  Music courtesy of Stefan Hagel, and used by permission.

¹Pamphylia is a region in southern modern Turkey, whose name in Greek, Παμφυλία, means “of mingled tribes or races.”  This story does not appear anywhere else in Greek mythology, so it is possible that Plato made it up.

²Before this though, Plato interjects an extended passage describing “the Spindle of Necessity,” a representation of the solar system in which there are eight concentric orbiting shafts of different colors rotating in different directions.  I will admit that the significance of this description eludes me, except insofar as Plato says that “the eight together form one harmony,” and imply an orderly and lawful method for the events that follow.

³This is “genius” in the original sense of “something born with,” which Plato later describes as “”the guardian of their lives and the fulfiller of the choice….”  This idea persisted through millennia of Western culture–Emerson speaks of Wordsworth’s obeying “the inward promptings of his heavenly genius,” (The Natural History of the Intellect) but he also refers to it in the past tense: “The ancients believed that a genius or demon took possession at birth of each mortal, to guide him; that these genii were sometimes seen as a flame of fire partly immersed in the bodies which they governed; — on an evil man, resting on his head; in a good man, mixed with his substance.” (The Conduct of Life–Beauty).  Few today have the older sense of it.