Plato was a prominent philosopher in Classical Greece and author of The Republic. In the conclusion to The Republic we encounter the “Myth of Er” and are provided with a vivid depiction of the soul’s journey through the underworld.
Er was a hero who died in battle. Ten days after his death as he lay on the funeral pyre, he came back to life and told of his journey through the underworld. Upon entry into the underworld, Er tells us that he saw two openings in the earth and two openings in heaven. Judges send the just to the right where they ascend to heaven and the unjust are sent to the left where they descend into the earth. From the other two holes, souls ascend from the earth and descend from heaven into the meadow. These souls have just finished receiving their punishments or rewards and share their experiences with each other. From the meadow the dead continue on their journey. On the fourth day of their journey from the meadow they see a “line of light…belt of heaven that holds together the circle of the universe.” Soon after passing this incredible cosmic scene, they are given a choice of lots for their next life and are instructed to choose one. A prophet offers them advice in picking their lots, urging them to learn how to discern between good and evil. After having chosen their lots and having them ratified, they journey to and drink from the River of Forgetfulness whereupon their memories are erased. As they lay down to sleep at the end of the night their souls are carried back to Earth and they are reborn into their new lots.
What can this myth can tell us about afterlife-beliefs in the Classical Period? One approach we can take is to try to determine which elements of this story are taken from earlier afterlife stories and which elements are new and original. Looking at the similarities and differences can provide clues to changes in beliefs. In his book The Rise and Fall of the Afterlife, Jan Bremmer traces elements of the “Myth of Er” to Hesiodic, Orphic, and Pythagorean depictions of the afterlife.
The abyss below where the wicked are tormented is drawn from Hesiod’s depiction of Tartarus. The Orphic Influence can be seen in the presence of judges, the meadow and the River of Forgetfulness. Interestingly, Bremmer notes that the presence judges in the underworld is originally derived from Egyptian beliefs (another similarity I observed is the emphasis on the celestial/cosmic sphere and, depending on whether you take Plato’s transmigration literally, the cycle of rebirth). From the Pythagorean tradition, Plato draws upon the ideas of transmigration, the right/left road distinction, and some of the astronomical speculations. Bremmer argues that Plato draws from these older sources in producing his unique vision of the afterlife in the “Myth of Er.”
In making his argument Bremmer assumes that Plato must have had access to these other stories and deliberately assimilated only specific elements of each. If we accept Bremmer’s arguments, how do we understand Plato’s unique depiction of the afterlife?
Stephen Halliwell employs a functionalist approach in assessing Plato’s the “Myth of Er.” He points out that Plato was writing The Republic at a time when there was much uncertainty about the afterlife. During the Classical Period there was a range of beliefs about the afterlife, including the subscribers to the mystery cults and agnostics. Plato’s emphasis on the individual capacity to discern and choose between good and evil serves as a direct contrast to the initiation rites of the mystery cults. Plato thus introduces the notion that developing one’s philosophy is the ultimate factor in determining one’s fate in the afterlife.
One may see Plato’s depiction of the afterlife as representing a movement towards the democratization of the afterlife (similar to what we saw in Ancient Egypt). In the depiction of the underworld in the Odyssey from the Archaic Period we only encounter the “shades” of heroes (individuals with divine ancestry). Similarly, according to the mystery cults, the afterlife is reserved only for the initiates. However, in the “Myth of Er” philosophy and virtuosity are valued above class or status creating an equal-opportunity afterlife.
Halliwell, Stephen. The Cambridge Companion to Plato’s Republic. Chapter 16: The Life and Death Journey of the Soul: Interpreting the Myth of Er. 2007. Cambridge University Press.
Plato Bust: http://www.departments.bucknell.edu/history/carnegie/plato/bust.html
Belt of Heaven: philcoppens.com
Funny Judgment: wlassetter.blogspot.com