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Plato’s Republic closes not with an argument but a myth. While this choice may seem odd, it serves to bring a balance and unity to the dialogue as it reflects back to the interaction with Cephalus in Book I along with other myths and images throughout the dialogue. The connection to Cephalus is particularly noteworthy because of similarities between the first soul to choose his next life and Cephalus. The link between the two could serve as a warning that even seemingly just souls are in danger of choosing too hastily. Instead, in order to identify and select a good and just life, a soul must use seek and scrutinize and, above all, know what it is that makes a just life, a discovery that is made through philosophy during the course of discussion between Book I and X. Effectively, by calling to mind Cephalus, the Myth of Er compels us reevaluate his account of the afterlife, and consider the possible consequences of a life without philosophy.

The souls in the Myth of Er seem familiar in their apparently human appearance and their activities of greeting and talking with each other. This familiarity is heightened by descriptions of their conversations which correlate closely with scenes in Book I. Er describes the conversations between the souls returning from their “long journey” through the afterlife (614e). The souls are described as “[greeting] one another, “lamenting” their misfortunes, “[recollecting]” their experiences (614e-615a). These phrases call to mind the initial conversation between Socrates and Cephalus. Upon Socrates’ arrival, Cephalus “greeted [him] right away” and they begin to converse just like the souls recognizing each other in the field (328d). Also, just as the souls ask each other about their respective journeys, Socrates asks Cephalus about old age and refers to it as going “down a certain road” (328e). In Cephalus’ response to Socrates he talks about conversations he has had with his friends. Those conversations include “[complaining]”, “[singing] a lament” and “reminiscing” about their youth, all of which closely parallel the lamenting and recollecting Er describes (329a-b).

Moreover, the two scenes are connected by the idea of blaming the wrong causes for their misfortune. In Cephalus’ account of his talks with his friends he claims that they “seem to” not “be blaming what is responsible” when they blame old age for their troubles (329b). He believes it is rather “the dispositions of the people” that cause their experience of old age to be difficult for them (329d). This comment about their misallocation of blame is echoed in the myth; however, it is not during the conversation between the souls but later when the souls choose their next lives. The first soul who chooses a life that includes “eating his own children”, blamed “luck and divine beings” rather than himself (619c). In both cases external causes outside of the individual’s control are originally blamed, when it is the individual themselves who is responsible. This similarity seems distinctly important as philosophy is concerned with understanding the true causes of things. Moreover, the soul who assigned blame to the incorrect cause is also described as “[beating] his breast and [lamenting],” which exactly mirrors Socrates’ description of the state that poets create (619c, 605d). Poetry, then, is interconnected in this inability to determine cause and choose a good life. As poetry is accused of causing an individual to feel more “pity” for their “own sufferings”, it changes their disposition to one less likely to view themselves as the cause of their sufferings, much like Cephalus’ friends who blame their old age instead of themselves. Curiously, the episode with Cephalus explicitly mentions a poet, Sophocles, but but the poet is singled out as one who does not blame old age for suffering.

Taking all these similarities into consideration, one effect is that they compel us to reevaluate Cephalus’ previous account of the afterlife in comparison to the account that Socrates lays out. Cephalus says that “fear and care [came] into him” once he found himself close to death, and that the “stories… told about… Hades” now “twist his soul with a fear they are true” (330d-e). This fear is noteworthy because it ultimately disallows him from hearing or participating in philosophy as he must leave to “take care of the sacrifices” when the discussion is beginning. His fear is based mostly in ignorance. Given that he, and everyone else, are ignorant of the underworld it is easy to jump to frightening conclusions. However, instead of seeking knowledge, learning, or philosophy to assuage his ignorance, he seeks only to assuage his fears by using his money to offer sacrifices to the gods in hopes of a reward or lessening of punishment.  Sacrifices, however, have no effect in the view of the afterlife presented in the Myth of Er. It is only the actions taken in life, either just or not, that determine if the soul is sent to below the earth or up to the heavens (614d). Following that the fate of the soul is determined by their own judgement, not a judgement cast upon them. In other words, after the soul is judged they are then asked to judge, and this second judgement requires a soul to be able to discern for itself between many varied lives.

From there, the connections between the scenes asks us to wonder what life Cephalus, and perhaps even his friends, would choose as they are the ones who would face the decision the soonest. The first soul is connected to Cephalus and his friends due his blaming external forces for his failure in judgement, but he also displays other similarities. Socrates describes him as “participating in virtue by habit, without philosophy” (619c). This description resonates with Cephalus since he, too, is explicitly shown to be without philosophy as the dialogue intentionally begins with him opting not to partake in philosophy. Another parallel can be drawn from the fact that the first soul chooses the life of a tyrant (619b). Previously in Book IX of the Republic, the tyrannical man is characterized as being ruled by his desires. This sentiment was preceded by Cephalus’ description of both himself and of his friends when he appreciatively comments that old age is when “desires stop straining and slacken” (329d) A comment indicating that earlier in life they were in the thrall of their desires to some extent (329d). This same sentiment was shared with Sophocles who escaped sexual desires “most happily indeed” as if “from some raging monster” (329c). In effect, it is easy to imagine Cephalus making the same mistake of the first soul in choosing too quickly, and while Cephalus does not make the mistake of blaming external causes as the reason for his difficulties, he does make the mistake of judging that sacrifices can cause him to be saved from punishment in the afterlife. This oversight may be even more detrimental because this is the fear that has prevented him from practicing philosophy, and he will be ill-prepared to recognize a good life from among the lots set out to choose from.

Ultimately, the all important task laid out in the Myth of Er is to determine what is and what is not a good life. Such determination requires seeking, scrutiny, and knowing what it is that constitutes a good and just life. This is portrayed in the myth by Odysseus who is described as  going “around for a long time looking” for the right life to choose (620c). This sounds similar to another interaction from Book I in which Thrasymachus describes Socrates as someone who “goes around learning” (338b). Thus, Odysseus’ method of selection seems to be philosophical, or at least Socratic, to some degree. This idea is furthered by the life that Odysseus selects. He searches specifically for “a quiet life of a private man”, a description that matches Socrates’ depiction of the model philosopher living in the city who “keeps quiet and minds his own business” (620c, 496d). The life Odysseus chooses also, of course, matches the earlier characterization of the just life as “doing what’s properly one’s own and not meddling in other people’s business” (433a). This latter connection is particularly important because it is identified as the just life through philosophy. As such, philosophy is a method through which the meaning of a just life can be discovered, and thus allow a soul to correctly identify and choose one when the time arises. For it is not enough to carefully investigate the lives and read them closely, one must know what a good life is in order to select it.

One last parallel between Odysseus in the Myth of Er and Socrates’ conversation with Cephalus is the idea of release. Before explaining Odysseus’ choice of life, Socrates’ specifically includes the information that the soul of Odysseus’ had found “relief from it’s love of honor” (620c). This phrase again calls to mind the words of Cephalus and Sophocles who are also grateful for their “release” from sexual desires (329d). The difference, however, is that the release of the latter was caused by aging rather than intentional mastery and moderation. On the other hand, Odysseus’ was released due to his “earlier labors” (620c). It is this distinction that ultimately seems to make all the difference when choosing a good and just life.

The Republic both begins and ends with ideas of justice in the afterlife. Not only does this provide a balance and unity to the work as a whole, but the connection between the Myth of Er and Cephalus is also a connection between the afterlife and our own lives. By relating the two the myth relates back to the world of the living and the choices that we make. Cephalus leads a relatively just life, but it more out of fear and habit than virtue. Additionally, it is a life devoid of philosophy, as Plato intentionally emphasizes by Cephalus’ exit from the conversation. As such, Cephalus may be prepared for his judgement in the afterlife and be sent on the thousand year journey through the heavens, The second judgement, however, the one he must make by himself for himself, is one he is unprepared for. He does not know, and has not asked, what a just life is, and so he is not prepared for the all important task of determining one from among the many and varied lives available.

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