Plato's "Myth of Er" - A Story of the Afterlife - Excerpt from Plato's "Republic"


As we have seen in some of my others posts on Plato, he considered the most unchanging identity in things to be the result of an eternal idea or "form" which that thing shares in to a degree. Thus the material things of the world are dim reflections of the true and perfect idea of those things. Since this is the case, Plato also believed that the soul/mind of the human being which is drawn to know ideas is also eternal like the ideas are. The soul must be that which is most real, more real than the body, and older than the body. The soul must have pre-existed the body and will survive the death of the body. Now, since there is little experience of this (as ensoulment caused the soul to forget everything when it gets a new body) Plato resorts to the use of mythology to make his point. Plato is also one of the first philosophers to bring in the discussion of morality, and not just the discussion of nature. Here in this ending passage of the Republic, The "Myth of Er," Plato makes it clear that not only will the soul survive death but that the soul go through a continual process of judgment regarding its actions on earth. One's actions will either bring one closer to union with the eternal forms or bring one further away into destruction. Those in between those extremes will be sent back. 

The Myth of Er

Plato begins by telling a story of a soldier named "Er." Er was killed in battle and laid on the battleground with the other rotting corpses, only Er did not decay. On the tenth day, when the bodies were picked up, they brought him to a funeral pyre to be burned. Before he was burned, though, on the twelfth day he came back to life. Er then shared his experience in the afterlife. He said that he was brought there and returned to witness what happened in the afterlife and to then share this information with those on earth. When he died he saw two holes in the sky and two in the ground. There were judges who were assigning the deeds of each person by giving them a sign to wear on their bodies, and then sending them up into the Heavens or down into the earth. Er also witnessed souls coming out from the second holes in both places. The ones from the earth were dusty and worn, while the ones coming from Heaven were refreshed. They met together in a meadow and talked with one another. 

There the souls expressed how they had been on their journey for a thousand years. The souls in the earth in torment and the souls in heaven in peace. The souls in the earth were punished 10x the length of a human life for each person they hurt, and 10x the pain they caused. Likewise the just were blessed according to their deeds. "And he told of even greater wages for impiety or piety toward gods or parents, and for murder." In fact for the souls that had committed very serious injustices, as they came up to the mouth of the hole there were fiery looking men who grabbed them and brought them back down to Tartarus, or the underworld, where they were tortured continually. 

"But in the case of Ardiaius and others, they bound their feet, hands, and neck and threw them down and flayed them. They dragged them along the road outside, lacerating them on thorn bushes. They explained to those who were passing by at the time why they were being dragged away, and said that they were to be thrown into Tartarus." 

Those who did make it to meadow continued their journey and after several days of travel encountered
a beam of light from the Heavens through the earth, binding them together. On top of the beam was a spindle which controls the rotation of the heavens. On eight concentric rings stood eight Sirens who sung each of their individual notes. Among them were three women, the Fates, who sat on thrones and joined in the harmony. They were the daughters of Necessity and represented the past, present, and future. Then the souls were lined up where they were going to receive their new lives on earth by their choice. 

"'The beginning of another death-bringing cycle for mortal-kind! Your daimon will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him' ... After saying that, the spokesman threw the lots out among them all, and each picked up the one that fell next to him..."

The different types of lives were thrown out on the ground for them to see, including all different kinds from animals, to tyrants, to famous people, to beggars, athletes, noblemen, the virtuous, and the infamous. Not only that but each included a mixture of "...wealth or poverty, sickness or health, or the states in between." The first one which is chosen will be that which the soul is bound to and bound to make the best of in that life. Thus it is important that the soul know how to distinguish which combination of status and qualities will give it the best shot at being virtuous and just, and not unjust. Hopefully those who had been through Hades would be guided not to choose those temptations and evils which would bring them there again, or worse, keep them there. 

Now the souls are told that regardless of when they are allowed to pick, there will always be an opportunity to choose and live a good life if he strives for it. Now when the first soul chose, he chose a great tyrant in his haste and ignorance, not having examined his choice closely enough. It similarly followed for those who had been in Heaven and lived previously good lives because they had not been tested enough or made to understand clearly the evils that were possible. Er reported that those who had lived a life dedicated to philosophy mostly ended up choosing the best choices and continued to live good lives. 

"He said it was a sight worth seeing how the various souls chose their lives, since seeing it caused pity, ridicule, and surprise. For the most part, their choice reflected the character of their former life."

Here Er also mentions several famous figures from Greek history rejecting human lives on account of what they had to suffer given the intensity of their previous fate. Odysseus wisely just choosing a simple man who would be unknown and left alone. Each soul was then assigned a "daimon" or spirit to watch over them and ratify the choice of life they had made. The three fates confirmed the choices and the souls were transferred to a barren plain next to the "River of Forgetfulness." There everyone was made to drink, though the unwise drank more than their share. At midnight there was thunder and an earthquake and everyone was sent to their new births back on earth. 

Er, on the other hand, was sent back to his body and he awoke on the pyre from death. Clearly then the life and role of philosophy is indispensable, as it will provide us a good life here and in the journey to come in death. 

"But if we are persuaded by me, we will believe that the soul is immortal and able to endure every evil and also every good, and always hold to the upward path, practicing justice with wisdom every way we can, so that we will be friends to ourselves and to the gods, both while we remain here on Earth and when we receive the rewards of justice, and go around like victors in the games collecting prizes; and so both in this life and on the thousand-year journey we have described, we will fare well."


- Plato, The Republic. Trans. C.D.C. Reeve. Hackett Publishing Company Inc (Indianapolis, IN) 2004.