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The Myth of Er

In the final paragraphs of The Republic, Socrates concludes with a religious and philosophical picture of the afterlife. The myth is about a “stalwart man,” Er, who was killed in a war (but doesn’t really die) and taken out of this world to witness the journey of departed souls. He watches an eschatological system which rewards just souls for their good deeds in heaven for one thousand years, while unjust souls pay the penalty for all their misdeeds in hell for the same amount of time. Those who displayed impiety towards the gods and parents, tyrants, or murderers suffered even greater punishments (615a). Each soul must then choose its next life, which is based on a lottery. Only those who were philosophical know how to choose just lives when they are reincarnated. After Er’s vision, he returns to his uncorrupted earthly body and acts as a messenger to describe all he had seen.

Socrates concludes his dialogue in surprising fashion. After defining justice and declaring it the greatest good, he exiles poets from his best city. “Imitative poets introduce a bad polity in the soul of each person in private” by encouraging us to sympathize with the characters and indulge in ignoble emotions (605c). Poetry reflects unjust inclinations, and is strong enough to corrupt even decent people, because they follow along in empathy and take it seriously (605d). Socrates offers both his most profound criticism of poetry, and yet becomes expressly “poetic,” a few lines later by telling tales of the afterlife in the Myth of Er. In particular, Book X is the most consolidated example of the ambiguity and difficulty of Socrates’ attempt to look at questions that turn back on themselves and answers that cancel each other out.

The Myth of Er occurs at the end of a section that condemns poetry and imitation, so what role does this story play in the larger framework of The Republic? In one sense, Socrates is trying to teach that the choices we make and the character we develop in this life will ultimately have consequences after we die. The genuine habituation of the pursuit of the philosophical life and appreciation for the worth of wisdom will work to one’s advantage no matter how successful or powerful in this life. In this tale, Socrates pits an education based on philosophy against a traditional education based on epic poetry. He displays the philosophic life by relating to its rivals, the poets, thought to be knowledgeable and wise, and gives them a dose of their own medicine, so to speak. Socrates’ manifesto of life and death could be a type of revamped poetry, aimed at radically opposing traditional Greek tales.

Additionally, this type of poem allows Glaucon and Adeimantus to hear the praises of justice without canceling itself out. Adeimantus says that “of all those who claim to be praisers of justice…there is not one who has ever praised justice other than for the reputation and honors…But as to what [justice] itself does with its own power…no one has ever, in poetry or prose” adequately praised it (366c). Glaucon and Adeimantus want both poetry (praise of justice) and criticism, in addition to both poetry and philosophy. Before telling the tale of Er, Socrates asks Glaucon if he will “put up with it if [he] says the very things about [the just people] that [Glaucon] said about unjust people.” (613d). As such, the argument will return to the praise that justice is due, with the ability to “tell the truth and give back what one takes” (331D) and by “doing good to one’s friends and harm to one’s enemies” (332d).

Socrates’ use of the myth could be to illustrate that the rewards of the pursuit of justice in life continue with us to the afterlife. In order to show the importance of being just or unjust, he must argue for the immortality of the soul. If the soul ended in death, then punishment or reward in this life would be the only consequence. This shows some personal responsibility for one’s own fate. While the lottery of lives is left up to chance, no one can blame the gods for their fate (617e). With this myth, Socrates also reasons out the possibility that chance, rather than knowledge and understanding, might determine one’s condition in life.

The argument in favor of justice and the pursuit of philosophy appeals to rewards, which the just will receive in the next life. This argument, however, was previously discarded in the beginning of The Republic when Glaucon and Adeimantus specifically asked Socrates to define justice without using reward and punishment as factors. Why does this seemingly contradictory tale appear? One reason could be, since Glaucon and Adeimantus are incapable of philosophic virtue, Socrates gives them an incentive to pursue their own unique sense of virtue. Those who are not philosophers by nature will fluctuate between choosing good lives and miserable lives in the after life, because they don’t understand what makes a good or bad life. While civic virtue is desirable because it brings harmony and order to the soul, philosophical virtue seems to be more important because it imitates the Forms and consorts with them. Socrates again illustrates the necessity of a philosophic life, since a person must take responsibility for their choices, whether in this life or the next. The myth illustrates that people can willingly choose to be unjust because of their ignorance, so a philosophic life is the only cure.

Plato may also use the myth as a way to provide some sort of balance and symmetry to the work, by reflecting back to Cephalus and Socrates’ conversation in the beginning of the book on the nature of old age and the approach of death. In Book I, we meet Cephalus and learn that he is not interested in philosophy, but deems pleasing the gods through sacrifices important. As a counterpoint to Cephalus’ story, the myth tells of the future tyrant who “came from the heavens, after he’d lived in an orderly polity in his previous life, participating in virtue by habit, without philosophy” (619c). In a similar manner, Cephalus’ soul has been ruled by his appetite and love of wealth, instead of being ruled by rationality and order. According to Socrates’ myth, although Cephalus is a good and just man, he will probably not choose his next life wisely because he lacks philosophical reasoning. As such, one reason for the inclusion of the myth may be to focus on the harmony and order in the city/soul, ending a rhythm created earlier and reflecting back to the beginning of the story.

Another instance of harmony and rhythm are shown in scenes of descent, and the myth contributes to the continuity of the rest of the book by recollecting certain themes from the text. The Republic begins and ends with the image of descent. The Greek word kateben, “went down”, appears in the opening line as Socrates “went down…to Piraeus with Glaucon,” and again when Er descends into the underworld, as the myth is a tale of  “going down.” Eva Brann argues that the omission of the article the before Piraeus is unusual, and thus suggests a journey to the Land Beyond, a place of the dead (or at least shades and shadows), an image that fits in with the descent conjured up by the dialogue’s beginning.

Preceding the final myth, Socrates defines his philosophic view of the immortality of the soul as the central impulse that might determine one’s destiny. In brief, “what is innately bad for each thing and is its particular badness is what destroys each thing, or if that doesn’t destroy it, there’s no other thing that could still corrupt it” (609b). Injustice, intemperance, cowardice and ignorance are vices that are bad for the soul. However, badness doesn’t destroy the body (609e) and injustice and other evils aren’t enough to “kill and destroy a soul” (610e) or else tyrants, murderers, and such types of people would not live for very long. Therefore, Socrates comes to the conclusion that the soul is immortal, but has to be seen in truth, not “deformed by its association with the body and other evils” (611c). In connecting immortality and philosophy, the myth emphasizes the soul and its choices. But on a deeper level, the soul also is at faction and holds opposite opinions, and man is “divided…and at war himself with himself in his actions” (603d). The soul has the unnatural capacity to survive injustice and evil, unlike most other things that are destroyed by their own badness (610e). Here we see the soul in a purgatory of sorts,  given a democratic choice between a time of mortality, and a time of immortality. It is a choice that must be made without the help of teachers, philosophers, or mentors: the individual soul alone must choose.

The first man chooses from thoughtlessness and gluttony, rather than philosophy, and becomes a tyrant who eats his own children (619c). However, he didn’t blame himself, but blames luck, divine beings, and everything else but himself. Odysseus is the last to choose, and chose a quiet life of a private man, since his soul had found relief from its love of honor (620c). Perhaps there is a deeper nature besides choice, in that the soul may contain deep-seated lawlessness or attraction to virtue that no amount of knowledge or philosophy could change. Everyday we face ordinary choices, of who we want to become or what mark we will leave in this life, and Socrates warns that repetitive practice of making these choices may become clouded over by habit or honor. Ordinary choices are imitations or reflections of the important choice presented in the Myth of Er: the choice of the next life is extremely serious and determines all subsequent choices. The fist man to decide in the myth had once chosen a life of virtue, but neglected to include philosophy. The possibility is not necessarily that we would make the wrong choice, but that we would choose superficially.

Lastly, after the souls have chosen their lots, they drink from the river Lethe and forget everything (621a-b). The serious choices that the souls had to make are overcome by forgetfulness and ordinariness, and here the myth offers another lesson. Philosophy in its pursuit of knowledge and greatness can make our souls capable of choosing wisely in the end, and can save us from shallowness. “The tale was saved and didn’t die; it could save us too, if we’re persuaded by it, and we’ll get past the river Lethe in good shape without a stain on our soul” Socrates says (621c).

In Socrates’ manifesto; divinity somehow governs the universe, including us mortals; we are responsible for our choices we make in this life; and luck plays a certain role in the determination of human destiny, but it is far from being decisive and has a limited effect on humans. “If we…believe the soul is immortal and able to keep itself in the face of every evil” Socrates concludes, “we’ll always keep to the higher road and pursue justice with good sense in every way, so that we might be friends to ourselves and to the gods, both while we remain here in this place and when we carry off the rewards for it like athletes on their victory laps” (621d). The implication of the myth shows that at least some of our troubles, which may seem to happen by bad luck, are really a result of our choice and prevents us from being captivated by the power of chance.

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