81. Plato on the Immortality of the Soul in Republic X, Part 3: The Myth of Er

In the last two posts I considered Plato’s argument for the immortality of the soul that appears in book X of his dialogue Republic. Now I would like to say a few words about how the theme of immortality can be connected to the astonishing myth that follows the argument, namely, the myth of Er. Let me begin by noting that the act of presenting a myth after rational argumentation is not unique to the Republic. We see it occur in his dialogue Phaedrus where Socrates, after arguing that the soul is immortal, goes on to present a myth that describes, in powerful poetic language, various activities of disembodied souls. And in the dialogues Gorgias and Phaedo, Socrates presents post-argument myths that depict the fate of souls in the afterlife. Why this interplay of myth and reason? Scholars have been wrestling with this question for a long time and I am not going to offer anything novel (for a helpful overivew of this scholarship go here). But I do want to present a view that is often overlooked, one which makes the myths profoundly relevant to our lives. This interpretation sees the myths as guiding allegories for our present life. In other words, when we read about fantastic events in the afterlife we should think: how are these events symbolizing events in my life? By asking this question we can often grasp the existential relevance of the abstract arguments that preceded the myth.

This strategy is well-articulated with reference to Plato’s Phaedrus by G. R. F. Ferrari in his book Listening to the Cicadas: A Study of Plato’s Phaedrus (Cambridge: 1990). Ferrari discusses how Socrates’ general and impersonal inquiry into the immortality of the soul in Phaedrus has the effect of altering the particular soul of the inquirer in a personal way.  And this alteration is expressed by the myth that follows the argument. He writes:

“A special characteristic of any investigation into the nature of the soul is this: that the understanding gained about the soul in general has the potential to change the soul of the investigator in particular. By looking into your soul as one among others, you can make it truly yours: mould your character, fashion a life for yourself….In accordance with this phenomenon, Socrates in his mythic hymn examines not only the nature of the soul but also the nature of the phenomenon itself: what happens to philosophers when they look into the soul; for he wants to stress the subjective effects of the investigation on the investigators, as well as the objective results….For in order to change his soul, and the souls of his audience (or beloved), it would not be sufficient to describe the soul as it is, even if he were capable of doing so; he must in addition paint a picture – say what the soul is like – in which he and his audience can recognise themselves: only so can the enquiry be meaningful for them.” (121-122)

Charles L. Griswold, Jr. argued for a similar point in his book Self-Knowledge in Plato’s Phaedrus (Yale: 1986). He writes:

“Only in the myth [in the Phaedrus] do we get a description of what “immortality” means for souls, and we hear only of souls that are individuated (capable of making choices, at any rate), never about nonpersonal bits of soul (whatever that may mean).” (144)

So how does this vision of myth as a means to make an abstract inquiry personal relate to the myth of Er and the theme of immortality?  Let’s approach an answer by way of a helpful summary from Nickolas Pappas (see his book Plato and the Republic, Routledge: 1995):

“Er the Armenian, Socrates says on this occasion, died in battle. Rather than stay dead, he roused up on his own funeral pyre and told of the afterlife. According to Er’s story, all freshly dead souls travel to an unearthly junction, where they are judged and sent either up to the heavens for a thousand years or down into earth for at least as long, depending on how incorrigible they are (614c-d). Meanwhile, other souls return from their millennial stays in the earth and in heaven and tell of the rewards and punishments they received (614d-616a). These souls travel to a second place, located so that they can see the stars and planets from a point outside the visible universe (616b-617b). Here they cast lots and choose which human or animal life they want for their next trip into existence (617d-618b). Some choose well and others badly, but all must live with their choices (619b-620d). Socrates enjoins Glaucon to heed the moral of the story, that a person ought to practice justice informed by practical wisdom (621c).” (184-185)

It is crucial to understand that this wisdom is not gained by the habitual and thus thoughtless practice of virtuous deeds. After all, one of the characters in the myth makes one of the worst possible choices despite having been a good citizen who was in the habit of acting virtuously. As Allan Bloom notes in his book The Republic of Plato (Basic: 1968), “He has learned nothing in the afterlife; there is apparently no philosophy in the afterlife for those who did not practice it on earth; the soul is not perfected by the separation from the body. For all men other than the philosopher, there is a constant change of fortune from happiness to misery and back. The myth attributes full responsibility to men for what happens to them and thus teaches that there is no sin but ignorance.” (436)

The key here is that critical inquiry into the meaning, implications, and fundamental grounds of our decisions is what may save us from making a terrible decision when confronted with the drawing of lots in the afterlife…or might this mean when confronted with the drawing of lots in this life? After all, we can recall situations where we had to face a battle and were subsequently sent to an unearthly junction, a suspended realm in which people around us may indeed have thought we were “dead”. To be sure, our bodies, like Er’s, were not rotting (“his body alone was found undecayed”). But we, as living souls, were “gone”. In that suspended place, that uncanny realm where everything familiar suddenly becomes unfamiliar, we must face a choice: pick a new life or die. But what if we are unprepared to think our choice through? What if we haven’t practiced philosophy or, as Socrates puts it in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo, what if we haven’t “practiced death”? We will, most likely, pick a life not worth living or at least a life that is disappointing. John Peterman elaborates on this interpretation in his phenomenal book On Plato (Wadsworth: 2000):

“There are the dangers of living a rational life for which we have to prepare by practicing dying and being dead. We need to become more sensitive to the experience of how our ideas work: bringing our ideas to criticism, finding that an idea cannot explain what it pretends to, accepting the death of this idea and the subsequent hole in our understanding, passing through the dark night of the soul when no replacement ideas appear, and finally finding a new candidate. Then our soul has a better chance, not only of surviving, but of becoming stronger. It sounds like falling in and out of love: elation, suspicion, confusion, depression, reorganization, elation. In a significant sense, philosophy is the preparation for being depressed. When our world has crashed, when our career, lover, parenting, friends, etc. has failed us or we failed it, then we need to be prepared or face being crushed.” (42)

This “dark night of the soul” refers to a type of death; a death best prepared for by practicing the death of our beliefs through philosophical inquiry. By preparing adequately we can live through those deaths-in-life and experience a form of immortality. Peterman makes this clear when he reads the journey of the souls in Plato’s Phaedrus as a journey in one life as well: “At the end of their life all will be judged, punished or rewarded, and then reincarnated again. In the story one can progress up the scale of occupations at 1000-year intervals or, in our reality, within one’s present life” (44). And does it not seem like a bad decision about a career, a marriage, a home, etc. can seem like a 1000 year sentence?  Isn’t it true that in most cases we, like the souls Er saw, have to live out the ramifications of our decisions until the next death? And isn’t it the case that wisdom can help us come back to life without regret and, indeed, with more strength than before?

If all this makes sense, then we can say that the argument for the immortality of the soul in Republic X is made profoundly personal by a myth that shows us what immortality means for us, in this life. And this will have to do with how much knowledge we have gained from philosophical inquiry. Griswold elaborates on the connection between immortality and knowledge:

“Immortality expresses, at this level, the thesis that a person can in principle transcend the obstacles posed by the dimensions of time and space to which a soul is, to borrow a phrase from the pailnode, bound as an oyster is to its shell. The transcendence, again, occurs not by the soul literally leaving this life via the gates of death but by means of knowledge. “Immortality” is a way of expressing the primordial connection between the soul and Being. It expresses, if you like, the capacity of a mind that exists in time to think what is eternal” (145).

Eva Brann, in her book The Music of the Republic (Paul Dry Books: 2011) says something similar with reference to Plato’s Phaedo and Socrates’ play on the word ‘Hades’ which closely resembles the Greek word for ‘unseen’:

“The play on “Hades” suggests that the philosopher, while alive in a mortal body, nevertheless “goes to” a deathless “place” whenever he engages in philosophy. It suggests the here-unexplored possibility that the true Hades is not really an afterlife at all, that it is not “where you go next” but where you have the power to go now.” (15)

If we just act on habit, intuitions, and opinions we may find very little to rely on when those very habits, intuitions, and opinions are thrown into profound doubt. Faced with a wasteland of our former beliefs, relations, and practices, we may forget the lessons of the past, act impulsively, and be determined by forces beyond our control. But some knowledge of true Being in the true Hades, along with the ability to seek and love it, may help us remember and reconfigure our lives when we feel like dying. So it seems like the more we seek and encounter deathless truth the more we will enjoy a degree of deathlessness within this life (go here for my posts on Plato’s Forms). This lesson about wisely choosing lives is one that, as Simon Blackburn rightly notes in his book Plato’s Republic, “survives skepticism about the literal truth of the myth, or about the actual immortality of the soul” (159). It is up to you whether you think it can or should be aligned with a more literal reading of the soul and its pilgrimage of a 1000 years. I will conclude with Socrates’ final words from the Republic that make reference to Er’s wisdom and his ability to make it through the wasteland by not losing his mind in forgetfulness:

“All the souls had now chosen their lives, and they went in the order of their choice to Lachesis, who sent with them the genius whom they had severally chosen, to be the guardian of their lives and the fulfiller of the choice: this genius led the souls first to Clotho, and drew them within the revolution of the spindle impelled by her hand, thus ratifying the destiny of each; and then, when they were fastened to this, carried them to Atropos, who spun the threads and made them irreversible, whence without turning round they passed beneath the throne of Necessity; and when they had all passed, they marched on in a scorching heat to the plain of Forgetfulness, which was a barren waste destitute of trees and verdure; and then towards evening they encamped by the river of Unmindfulness, whose water no vessel can hold; of this they were all obliged to drink a certain quantity, and those who were not saved by wisdom drank more than was necessary; and each one as he drank forgot all things. Now after they had gone to rest, about the middle of the night there was a thunderstorm and earthquake, and then in an instant they were driven upwards in all manner of ways to their birth, like stars shooting. He himself was hindered from drinking the water. But in what manner or by what means he returned to the body he could not say; only, in the morning, awaking suddenly, he found himself lying on the pyre. And thus, Glaucon, the tale has been saved and has not perished, and will save us if we are obedient to the word spoken; and we shall pass safely over the river of Forgetfulness and our soul will not be defiled. Wherefore my counsel is that we hold fast ever to the heavenly way and follow after justice and virtue always, considering that the soul is immortal and able to endure every sort of good and every sort of evil. Thus shall we live dear to one another and to the gods, both while remaining here and when, like conquerors in the games who go round to gather gifts, we receive our reward. And it shall be well with us both in this life and in the pilgrimage of a thousand years which we have been describing” (translated by Benjamin Jowett). To read the whole myth of Er, go here to Book X of Plato’s Republic; the Myth comes near the end.

In the next post (go here) I will consider how Soren Kierkegaard develops an argument similar to Plato’s argument from indestructibility but within a Christian context.

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