Plato is justly famous as one of the world’s greatest philosophers. Indeed, 20th-century philosopher A.N. Whitehead once commented that all Western philosophy is but “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
At the end of his book “Republic,” Plato recounts the curious myth of Er. “Myth” here has its ancient Greek meaning of “account” rather than our contemporary understanding of it as something false or of its being a traditional story involving supernatural beings, heroes, gods, quests, and the like.
As it happens, this myth—account—of Er does involve supernatural beings! But this is not an ancient Greek myth as story; it is a philosopher’s account of how reality might be structured.
For these reasons, that it is not a traditional myth (and so does not feature in most compendiums of Greek myths) and that it has been written by a philosopher (remember, Plato wanted to ban the poets as too subversive), I am wary of according it too much status or credibility. But then again, it comes from one of the profound ancients, and I, for one, respect that deeply.
What is the myth of Er and how is it helpful today?
The Myth of Er
Er was a man who died in battle, and with others who had also died, he was led to the afterlife. There, he came to a wonderful place where there were judges who decided where one was to go in the afterlife. There were two doors (one entrance, one exit) to heaven, and two doors (again, entrance and exit) into the earth. Good souls were directed into the heavens, and bad ones were sent down into the earth. The hero, Er, was not sent to either place but was told to remain where he was so that he could see the whole process and report back to the living what occurred after death.
What did occur? Those who went to heaven came back all clean and happy, reporting indescribable sights of beauty; those coming back from the earth were dirty and miserable. In fact, the latter had had to spend a thousand years atoning 10 times over for every sin they’d done.
Furthermore, there were some individuals—tyrants, murderers, and those guilty of other grossest of sins—who were not allowed back at all; their souls were continually flayed.
But for those who could return, their journey at that point had only been stage one. After seven more days, they all gathered in a meadow with Necessity, her daughters (the Fates), and the Sirens.
Here, a lottery takes place where it is clear that what is chosen by each individual is their own responsibility. In essence (quite a philosophical point from a philosopher), the choice they make needs to show that they have learned from their experiences, both in their physical life and what has happened to them so far in the afterlife.
At this point, they can choose to be reincarnated as another human or even as an animal. Before doing so, they drink the waters of forgetfulness and so start their new life with a clean slate. However, the fact is, the soul goes back to life because the soul is immortal.
Er does not drink these waters, and so he is able (on the 10th day and in dramatic fashion) to wake up on the funeral pyre that is about to dispatch his remains and to return to life to explain what really happens after death.
So why is this relevant or important today? Isn’t it just idle speculation, albeit of a philosophic bent?
Our Souls Are Immortal
I think there are four reasons why this story is important. The first and, possibly, the most important of all is that the great philosopher Plato seems to agree with the wisdom of the ages, namely that there is an immortal soul.
The soul is something that all cultures of the past knew and reverenced, be it the Sumerian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Norse, and Celtic cultures, not to mention the big religions of today, including Islam, Hinduism, Christianity, Judaism, and even Buddhism. I mention Buddhism last because of its own notions of reincarnation that partially tally with Plato’s version.
Keep in mind that reincarnation can be, in its way, a form of experiencing hell, for as Er observes, not all those who choose their new life choose wisely.
In the materialist world we live in now, this can seem antiquated and irrelevant, but the weight of this testimony is huge. To ignore it, we’d have to dismiss all ancient as well as current religious peoples as primitive ignoramuses, and exude an arrogance of such staggering proportions that only the Greek word “hubris” really gets to the root of the sin.
And that leads us to the second point.
We Will Be Judged
Conceding the immortality of the soul, there is also its judgment in the afterlife. If belief in the immortality of the soul is an unpopular notion in the West, then “judgment”—accountability—is even more unpopular and to be shunned.
We simply don’t like to think that we are accountable for our actions, despite the fact that we all have a conscience. Until we bury or cauterize our conscience, it warns us of wrongdoing through the emotions of guilt, shame, remorse, and other such feelings.
Rather, in the West, we seek to undermine judgment. This we do firstly and foremost by corrupting language. As New York Times columnist and author David Brooks puts it in his book “The Road to Character”:
“When modern culture tries to replace sin with ideas like error or insensitivity, or tries to banish words like “virtue,” “character,” “evil,” and “vice” altogether, that doesn’t make life any less moral; it just means we have obscured the inescapable moral core of life with shallow language. … Furthermore, the concept of sin is necessary because it is radically true.”
The Basic Vocabulary of Morality
This leads to our third point about the importance of Er’s myth: The story stresses the need for personal responsibility. Of course, if we no longer have the basic vocabulary of morality—words like “good” and “evil,” for example—then taking responsibility becomes much more difficult for us. Writing long ago in the 1950s, Christian humanist Dorothy L. Sayers said: “Our confidence in such faculties as will and judgment has been undermined, and in collapsing has taken with it a good deal of our interest in ourselves as responsible individuals.”
Choosing Our Fate
Finally, the fourth point is a consequence of the third point: the importance of the choices that we make. These choices will determine everything, as in “everything” being our destiny, or our fate.
It is interesting that in the myth, the three Fates (daughters of Necessity personified here) are present at the drawing of the lots. As we say in the modern world, choices have consequences, but increasingly more and more people seem to want to ignore this fact. Writer and philosopher Ayn Rand had a wonderful aphorism that perfectly encapsulates the issue: “We can ignore reality, but we cannot ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.”
Another way of expressing this truth is to say that life has meaning because life is moral. There is right and there is wrong, and the “Spindle of Necessity” (the universe) upholds this structure. This leads us straight back to point number two: There is a judgment.
This, surely, is a big antidote to much of our contemporary thinking and beliefs, irrespective of our specific religious denomination: The soul is immortal. There is a judgment after death. (Although often in life too, for as the Buddhists say, “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.”)
We are responsible for our actions, and therefore the choices we make have eternal consequences. Believing these propositions elevates human life, for as Dante scholar Prue Shaw observed, “To act instinctively on desire is to be an animal.” Morality is an antidote to that.