The Myth of Er

Can argument be presented in the form of myth? What more does myth offer that simple argument is unable to provide? What lies between the simple spoken words of myth that is conveyed as a whole through its telling? And what might be lost in using such a form of argument? Plato ends the ten books of the Republic with what has been referred to as the Myth of Er. After much dialogue in Book X around the ills of poetic imitation, Socrates nonetheless concludes the long dialogue with a narrative of such poetic grace that it seems almost to upset the very balance of the entire dialogue. Only six pages in length, the Myth of Er somehow tips the scales of the Republic, as much of the dialogue must now be reinterpreted through the multifaceted lens of Er’s tale.

Socrates implies that he knew this myth even before the dialogue began. Yet it is only through the unfolding of the dialogue that the myth becomes an appropriate ending. How differently the Republic would read if it were to begin, rather than end, with the Myth of Er. Socrates also does not present this myth as a likely story, begun with such a disclaimer as “This is what I’ve heard” as he does in the Phaedrus, or other dialogues.[1] Throughout the myth Socrates emphasizes that Er was chosen to be the messenger to humanity about what he sees take place between death and new birth. This intentionality gives the impression that this knowledge is not given by accident, or abducted by the cleverness of humanity, but rather is a gift from the gods, an account meant to be shared and known.[2] Is Er’s tale really then a myth, or is it being presented as an empirical report? Or is Socrates creating this story in the moment, a narrative weaving of all the threads of argument that have come forward in some way or other in the previous ten books?

Spindle of Necessity

The theme of the Republic is justice, and until this final book the focus has been on how to know justice in the world of the living. The Myth of Er shows the other side of that coin, which perhaps explains why it carries so much weight in the balance of the dialogue. What roles do justice and injustice play once a life has ended? Socrates presents an account of this in which fate is intermingled with free choice, and seems to conclude that it is only the philosopher who truly remains free.

On his journey beyond the bounds of death, Er first encounters the judges seated at the entrances and exits of heaven and hell. Once a life has ended these judges determine whether a soul has led a just or unjust life, and send the soul accordingly towards its punishments or rewards. Socrates says that

For each in turn of the unjust things they had done and for each in turn of the people they had wronged, they paid the penalty ten times over, once in every century of their journey. . . But if they had done good deeds and had become just and pious, they were rewarded according to the same scale.[3]

In this judgment of the just from the unjust, it is interesting to note that there is no intermediate place for a soul to go; one’s life is either deemed to fall under one or another category, even though most lives would all seem to contain a mixture of just and unjust actions. The quality of life determines the nature of the rewards or punishments, but the location in which these are bestowed is limited.

Most unjust souls it seems are cleansed by their punishments and sufferings below the Earth, but when Socrates comes to speak of the tyrant Ardiaeus, it is said, “He hasn’t arrived here yet and never will.”[4] Is it possible, within this mythology, that there are “incurably wicked people,”[5] those who will never be given the opportunity to redeem themselves or to end their suffering? When we arrive at the part of the narrative in which their next lives are chosen by souls, I cannot help but wonder what the choosing may have been like for those who never again resurface from the tortures of hell.

The theme of fate and free will is carried strongly by the images of the spindle of Necessity that holds together the whorls of the planetary spheres. Sirens sing the harmony of the spheres, while the three Fates interweave their own melodies with those of the Sirens.[6] As the Fates help spin the planets along their various orbits we are shown how Past, Present, and Future guide the motions of the planets. That the choice of lives takes place within this setting gives a strong indication of the role astrology played in the ancient Greek world view although, as can be seen by the manner in which the lives are chosen, free choice is still an integral part of how one’s fate is woven. The order in which the souls choose a new life is cast by lot—randomly assigned—but the lives chosen are picked by the souls’ own discernment, using the wisdom they gained not only from their previous lives but from their time spent in heaven or hell as well.[7] Lachesis, the Fate of the Past, gives this message to the souls, “Your daemon or guardian spirit will not be assigned to you by lot; you will choose him.”[8] Justice then is not something dispensed by the gods, but rather something cultivated within the individual.

Celestial Spheres

Lachesis’ message continues, “Virtue knows no master; each will possess it to a greater or less degree, depending on whether he values or disdains it. The responsibility lies with the one who makes the choice; the god has none.”[9] Virtue both has no master and yet is also in service to each person should she or he choose to take on that role of master. If this is the case—that the quality of one’s virtue is determined by each individual person—then it seems no matter how carefully constructed a city might be, how could it be guaranteed that justice will reign within the city? Is this the reason Plato ends his dialogue with this myth? To show the role free choice plays in the possession of virtue by souls?

By giving an image of the soul’s journey after death, a certain level of clarity is brought to the difficulty of trying to control reproduction within the ideal city. Even if the parents are all chosen according to standards of high virtue, the souls incarnating ultimately determine the kinds of people they will become. It is interesting to note that Socrates chooses not to recount in the Myth of Er what happens to those souls who are stillborn or short-lived—those who, in the ideal city, might be taken from their mothers and left to die if they seemed unfit to live.[10] If they are deemed in life not to be virtuous and not to deserve life, was that fate also determined before they were born? Why has Plato chosen not to elaborate on this key point? What kind of soul might choose a life which would end so quickly based on their seeming lack of merit in life?

The Myth of Er concludes with Socrates declaring that the most important task one can undertake in life is studying how to determine a virtuous life when the time comes to choose a new one. This is the task of the philosopher, and it here seems as though he deems a life of philosophy to be best for all souls. By studying philosophy, Socrates says,

he will be able, by considering the nature of the soul, to reason out which life is better and which worse and to choose accordingly, calling a life worse if it leads the soul to become more unjust, better if it leads the soul to become more just, and ignoring everything else: We have seen that this is the best way to choose, whether in life or death.[11]

Socrates notes that most of the souls who came from heaven chose less virtuous lives due to their ignorance, while those souls ascending from their time below the Earth were able to choose more wisely because of the suffering they had witnessed and experienced.[12] Only the philosopher was able to choose a virtuous life and also enjoy the rewards of heaven. Socrates is indicating that cultivating the knowledge of justice and injustice, as was demonstrated in practice throughout the ten books of the Republic, will lead to a better soul life than merely being virtuous by habit or constraint. If this is the case then not only must the ruler of the ideal city be a philosopher but each individual citizen must also be, otherwise the city will not be just. Perhaps the ideal city is not one in which control is imposed from without, as has been postulated in many forms throughout the Republic, but rather one in which that compass toward virtue and justice is cultivated within each individual.

The cultivation of inner justice is also perhaps the reason the finale of the Republic is given in the form of a narrative myth: one must cultivate one’s own wisdom in discerning the meaning of the myth. Understanding must come from within. It cannot, as in more direct arguments, be imposed from without. Only then is the soul able to learn the kind of life it wishes to lead.

Works Cited

Plato. Plato: Complete Works. Edited by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997.

[1]Plato, Phaedrus, trans. A. Nehamas and P. Woodruff, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 551, 274c.

[2] Plato, Republic, trans. G.M.A Grube, in Plato: Complete Works, ed. John M. Cooper (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 1997), 1218, 614d.

[3] Plato, Republic, 1218, 615a-b.

[4] Plato, Republic, 1219, 615d.

[5] Plato, Republic, 1219, 615e.

[6] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617c.

[7] Plato, Republic, 1222, 620a.

[8] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617d.

[9] Plato, Republic, 1220, 617e.

[10] Plato, Republic, 1218, 615c.

[11] Plato, Republic, 1221, 618d-e.

[12] Plato, Republic, 1222, 619d.

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